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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Teaching, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. Cute Class at RISD

Recently, I taught a class at my alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design. It was a class on character design, focusing on THE CUTE ONES. Suffice it to say, this was right up my alley!

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2. Author-Teacher Interview: Esther Hershenhorn

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Esther, welcome back to Cynsations! What’s new in your writing-teacher life?

I’m happy to report: the teaching part of my teaching-author life is taking off in all sorts of new directions this year, literally and figuratively. I continue to teach writing for children workshops at both the University of Chicago’s Graham School’s Writer’s Studio and Chicago’s Newberry Library, where I’ve taught since 2001 in alternating seasons.

However, this April and May I’ll be facilitating a Writers Group at the Writer’s Studio for middle grade and young adult novelists. This June I’m introducing a new hands-on workshop in which writers use common marketing tools to create a GPS to guide their final submission-worthy revisions.

Both institutions bring me stellar students from all walks of life, so committed to telling their stories to children they wring me out like a sponge.

I love it and remain “Jewish-Mama proud” as they fully immerse themselves in learning and honing their craft.

Come July, I’ll be flying northeast to Landgrove, Vermont, where I’m honored to continue Barbara Seuling’s venerable Manuscript Workshop from July 10 to July 15 at the Landgrove Inn.

I’m back in Chicago July 23 through Aug. 3, again honored, this time to facilitate a writing for children workshop, along with Joan Bauer and Sara Holbrook, in Judson University’s Doctoral program.

We’ll spend time on campus grounding the soon-to-graduate Doctorate in Literacy candidates in the Children’s Book World’s story-telling opportunities and possibilities; we’ll then retreat to a northern Michigan resort where we’ll work one-one-one with our writers to help each ready his or her manuscript.

How exciting that you’ll be leading the Manuscript Workshop at the Landgrove Inn in Landgrove, Vermont! Would you please tell us about the history of the program?

The one-and-only Barbara Seuling - children’s book author of more than 60 titles, illustrator, former children’s book editor and esteemed children’s book writing teacher, founded The Manuscript Workshop in New York City in 1982, moving it to Vermont in 1992 and then to the Landgrove Inn these last few years.

That’s Barbara Seuling, the expert author, as in How To Write A Children's Book and Get It Published (Wiley, 2004), Barbara Seuling, whose dedication to craft and children’s literature as well as to her students and fellow children’s book creators is known to all in the children’s book world.

I’m mindful I’m stepping into some mighty huge shoes.

An early brochure’s cover quote underscored Barbara’s heart and the workshop’s intent: “Spread your writer’s wings…and discover how high you can soar.”

Countless working writers who attended the workshop and retreat have indeed flown high, connecting with fellow writers, learning new skills and polishing their work.

The good news is: my heart lies with Barbara’s; the workshop’s intent remains the same.

The small (up to eight writers) week-long workshop continues its tradition of offering insightful, informative and inspiring one-to-one student-teacher connections.

Morning sessions include hands-on writing exercises and instruction on craft – story and its structure, format and genre considerations, the young reader’s needs.

Afternoons are set aside for individual writing and/or re-visioning of manuscripts, optional special interest sessions or free time.

Evening sessions focus on readings of the day’s work and guided critiques.

Throughout the week, focused food-for-thought conversations at meals highlight the writing process, paths to publications, writer’s tips and sustaining the creative spirit.

Appropriately enough, manuscript workshop founder Barbara Seuling ices the week’s cake with a guest speaker visit.

How about your personal philosophy of teaching? What should your students expect from you?

As corny as it sounds, like Barbara I do things “the old-fashioned way” – up close and personal, eyeball to eyeball, heart to heart.

In my humble opinion: each of us has a story and the right to tell that story. It’s my job, as well as a privilege, to help the writer do just that if children are his or her audience. I do indeed invest in that story – in its construct, its telling, its place within the body of children’s literature.

But as important, I also invest in the writer. Knowing what our characters want/need/wish for and why isn’t enough; we need to know our own what's and why's. As Marion Dane Bauer taught me, the writer needs to be somewhere in his story if it’s to re-sound in the reader’s heart.

This was a truth that came late to me in my own path to publication, a career that – proudly - earned me the title “The Susan Lucci of Children’s Books.”

Again, it might sound corny, but I do my best to give my students and the writers I coach what I needed while out and about on my own writer’s plotline: I needed someone seeding me, feeding me, cheering me on, believing in my story, believing in me.

Like the earlier-mentioned Jewish Mama, I’m tough – because children deserve the very best, I nurture and I take enormous pride in the strides my students and coached writers – my “storied treasures” - continue to make.

One of the great lures of any workshop is the location. How would you describe it?

I cannot tell a lie: I’ve yet to visit the Green Mountains in person!

However, I’m counting the days ‘til I arrive.

Paging through Vermont travel guides and scrolling down the pages of online Vermont websites, I know what awaits me: majestic mountain peaks, rolling hills, picturesque valleys and verdant forests, scenic roads, hiking trails and quaint charming towns. “Idyllic” is the word most travel writers choose to describe the Green Mountain State.

Tom and Maureen Checchia, proprietors of the historic Landgrove Inn, known, incidentally, for its award-winning meals, describe their country inn and town as “authentically Vermont.”

The truth is: a whole lot of magic can happen when we leave our known and familiar writing rooms, when we take ourselves and our stories to new places and spaces and surround ourselves with like-minded, like-hearted folks who share our passion.

Tell us more what you’re doing in your writing life.

Ah! The author part of teaching-author.

Alas, when I do claim writing time between my teaching and coaching, my work, like my teaching, has taken off in new directions, literally and figuratively. Now, when I do write, I’m usually writing nonfiction.

I found this funny at first, since I was somewhat reluctant to join my fellow TeachingAuthors bloggers, certain the writing would not fulfill me as my fiction did. (How wrong I was!)

I also found my reluctance ironic. I minored in journalism at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication and cut my writer’s teeth working for a local newspaper, then educational text book publishers.

Researching and writing S is for Story, illustrated by Zachary Pullen (Sleeping Bear, 2009) turned me around 360°. The writing itself, straightforward and concrete, came so naturally, lost as I was in that creative flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi advocates.

Recently I began blogging for the American Writer’s Museum, scheduled to open in Chicago in late 2016/early 2017.

Given my love of Chicago and All Things Children’s Book, my posts have featured Shel Silverstein (“A Chicago Gift Named Shel”), L. Frank Baum (“Somewhere, Over Lake Michigan!”) and The Center for the Book’s Letters About Literature project (“Dear Author”). Future posts will feature Gene Luen Yang (the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature), the Walter Dean Meyers Award and a favorite author’s upcoming 100th Birthday.

Currently, I’m working with a graphic designer to create a new alphabet book concept.

And that one middle grade fictional character whose story grabbed my heart a life-time ago?

Fortunately, she’s making herself known on a daily basis.

How would you say your journey has evolved over time?

Leo the Late Bloomer and I have much in common.

For starters, like most beginning children’s book writers, I had no idea I was embarking on a journey, and a Hero’s Journey, to boot.

I was simply writing a picture book to be published in time for my son’s third birthday. It would be easy. It would be fun. And how nice that while doing so I could realize my childhood dream of seeing my name on the cover of a children’s book. I mean, I did teach fifth grade, right? I did write for newspapers, yes? I did write text books.

Fast forward lots of years dotted with lots of rejections and “oh, no!” Moments, past lots of twists and turns, not to mention lots of mentors and allies. To my amazement, as story helps the reader discover/uncover/recover his story, writing – and revising - my never-published picture books and middle grade fiction helped me discover/uncover/recover my story. I’d finally found my voice. I could speak from the heart. Published picture books soon indeed followed.

But wait! Just as the hero surprisingly returns with something so much better than what he first sought, I did too.

Once published, I went on to become a teacher and coach of children’s book writers.

In Elizabeth Strout’s new novel My Name is Lucy Barton (Random House, 2016), the title character and narrator shares remembered advice from a famous author whose writing workshop she’d attended. “You will have only one story,” Sarah Payne told the class. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

I agree.

I’ve come to see that all of my books, whether fiction or nonfiction, picture book or novel, and all of my characters from Lowell Piggott to the referenced and cited children’s book creators in S is for Story, tell the reader: you matter!

Which is just what I tell my students and writers.

In so many inevitable yet surprising ways, I now understand my story may well be helping other writers tell their stories.

I look forward to doing just that July 10 to July 15 at the Landgrove Inn in Landgrove, Vermont.

Through February, The Inn offers a discount for accommodations. You can email Tom Chechhia at vtinn@sover.net.

Interested writers can also email me their questions at esthersh@aol.com.

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3. Straight from the Source: Cheryl Blackford on Writing Historical Fiction

Cheryl Blackford was born in Yorkshire, England but now lives in a house in the woods in Minnesota where she is entertained by a wide assortment of wildlife, including coyotes. Lizzie and the Lost Baby is Cheryl’s first middle-grade novel. She has written three non-fiction books for young readers, and her picture book Hungry Coyote (inspired by a coyote she saw one winter morning) won the 2015 Moonbeam Award in the category of picture books for ages 4-8.

What typically comes first for you?

Setting is often the first thing I think about with a new story. In LIZZIE AND THE LOST BABY I wanted to set a story in England and I modeled fictional Swainedale on Rosedale in the North York Moors, where my parents owned a cottage for many years. Rosedale is beautiful: wild in some places and pastoral in others. I love hiking across its purple-covered moorland on a sunny day and I worked hard to get the feel of the place into the story. I didn’t set out to write this book as historical fiction, but when Lizzie appeared she seemed to belong to a very specific time and place.

Rosedale_2006

How do you conduct your research?

I usually begin on the web and then migrate to other resources such as the library or a primary source. In LIZZIE AND THE LOST BABY I needed information about English World War II evacuees and about the Gypsy/Traveller culture. I found fascinating BBC online archives of ordinary people’s wartime experiences and my primary source was my parents. My father was an evacuee whereas my mother stayed in her home in Hull and suffered through the bombing blitz. To learn about the Gypsy/Roma/Traveller culture, I began with memoirs, including Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two: A Gypsy Family’s Hard and Happy Times on the Road in the 1950s by Maggie Smith Bendell. Much of what is written about Gypsies was written by outsiders but this was information from a primary source. Maggie and I have since become friends and she was an early reader of my book. She gave it the thumbs up – which makes me very happy.

What is your favorite thing about research?

Everything! I love falling down the “research rabbit hole.” I always learn far more facts than I ever use! And actually, I shouldn’t have said “everything” because keeping accurate detailed records of my sources isn’t my favorite thing to do.

What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?

For LIZZIE AND THE LOST BABY, the most astonishing thing was that my father and uncle were evacuees — I had not known that before I began writing. The other fascinating things I discovered were all related to the Gypsy/Traveller culture in England . For example, I knew that Gypsies were avid horse traders but I didn’t know that they preferred a specific type of horse (grys in their language) that is sturdy and steady and has a beautiful long tail and feathery hair dangling over its hooves.

Why is historical fiction important?

Modern problems often have historical equivalents and we can all learn from the lessons of the past. Fiction can help readers develop empathy with people or problems they otherwise know little about, such as the Gypsies in LIZZIE AND THE LOST BABY. The prejudice towards the travelling people that Lizzie encountered is nothing new; it has existed for centuries and continues to this day. During World War II, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime murdered tens of thousands of Roma in an effort to exterminate a people they deemed inferior. Genocide is an ugly difficult subject and narrative fiction can help us find a way to discuss it with students.

More fabulous books about this time period:

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Dial Books, 2015

A Frost in the Night by Edith Baer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, reissued 2011.

The Klipfish Code by Mary Casanova, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, 2007.

Click here to download your own Blue Birds printable. Enjoy!

The post Straight from the Source: Cheryl Blackford on Writing Historical Fiction originally appeared on Caroline Starr Rose

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4. Activists of the Imagination: On English as a Department, Division, Discipline


Earlier this month, just back from a marvelous and productive MLA Convention in Austin, Texas, I started to write a post in response to an Inside Higher Ed article on "Selling the English Major", which discusses ways English departments are dealing with the national decline in enrollments in the major. I had ideas about the importance of senior faculty teaching intro courses (including First-Year Composition), the value of getting out of the department now and then, the pragmatic usefulness of making general education courses in the major more topical and appealing, etc.

After writing thousands of words, I realized none of my ideas, many of which are simply derived from things I've observed schools doing, would make much of a difference. There are deeper, systemic problems, problems of culture and history and administration, problems that simply can't be dealt with at the department level. Certainly, at the department level people can be experts at shooting themselves in the foot, but more commonly what I see are pretty good departments having their resources slashed and transferred to science and business departments, and then those pretty good departments are told to do better with less. (And often they do, which only increases the problem, because if they can do so well with half of what they had before, surely they could stand a few more cuts...) I got through thousands of words about all this and then just dissolved into despair.

Then I read a fascinating post from Roger Whitson: "English as a Division Rather than a Department". It's not really about the idea of increasing enrollment in English programs, though I think some of the suggestions would help with that, but rather with more fundamental questions of what, exactly, this whole discipline even is. Those are questions I find more exciting than dispiriting, so here are some thoughts on it all, offered with the proviso that these are quick reactions to Whitson's piece and likely have all sorts of holes in them...

The idea of creating a large division and separating it into departments is not one I support, because I think English departments ought to be more, not less, unified, but it nonetheless provides a template for thinking beyond where we are. (I don't think Whitson or Aaron Kashtan, whose proposal on Facebook Whitson built off of, desires a less unified discipline. But without clear mechanisms for encouraging, requiring, and funding interdisciplinarity, the divisions will divide, not multiply.)

The quoted Facebook post in Whitson's piece basically describes the English department at my university, and each of those pieces (literature, composition, linguistics, ESL, English education, creative writing) has some autonomy, more or less. I'm not actually convinced that that autonomy has been entirely healthy, because it's led to resource wars and has discouraged interdisciplinary work (with each little group stuck talking to each other and not talking enough beyond their own area because there's little administrative support for it and, indeed, quite the opposite: the balkanization has, if anything, increased the bureaucracy and given people more busy-work).

English departments need to seek out opportunities for unity and collaboration. I don't see how dividing things even more than they already are would achieve that, unless frequent collaboration were somehow mandated — for instance, one of the best things about the program I attended for my master's degree at Dartmouth was that it required us to take some team-taught courses, which allowed fascinating interdisciplinary conversations and work. They could do that because they were Dartmouth and had the money to let lots of faculty collaborate. Few schools are willing to budget that way; indeed, at many places the movement is in the other direction: more students taught by fewer faculty.

Nonetheless, though I am skeptical of separating English departments more than they already are, I like some of Whitson's proposals for ways to reconfigure the idea of what we do and who we are and could be. Even the simple act of using these ideas as jumping-off points for (utopian) conversation is useful.

Planetarity
Here's a key point from Whitson: "I propose asking for more diverse hires by illustrating how important marginalized discourses are to the fields we study, while also investing heavily in opportunities for new interdisciplinary collectives and collaborations." (Utopian, but we're here for utopian discussion, not the practicalities of convincing the Powers That Be of the value of such an iconoclastic, and likely expensive, approach...)

This connects to a lot of conversations I observed or was part of at MLA, particularly among people in the Global Anglophone Forum (where nobody seems to like the term "global anglophone"). Discussions of the difficulties for scholars of work outside the US/Britosphere were common. At least on the evidence of job ads, it seems departments are, overall, consolidating away from such areas as postcolonial studies and toward broader, more general, and often more US/UK-centric curriculums. The center is reasserting itself curricularly, defining margins as extensions, roping them into its self-conception and nationalistic self-justification. The effect of austerity on humanities departments has been devasting for diversity of any sort.

I like the idea of "Reading and Writing Planetary Englishes" as a replacement for English Lit, ESL, and parts of Rhet/Comp. Heck, I like it as a replacement for English departments generally. It's not perfect, but nothing is, and "English" is such a boring, imposing term for our discipline...

(Where Comparative Literature — "Reading and Writing Planetary Not-Englishes" — fits within that, I don't know, and it's a question mostly unaddressed in Whitson's post and will remain unaddressed here because questions of literature in translation and literature in languages other than English are too big for what I'm up to at the moment. They are necessary questions, however.)

Spivak's idea of "planetarity" ("rather," as she says, "than continental, global, or worldly" [Death of a Discipline 72]) is well worth debating, and may be especially appealing in these days of seemingly endless discussion of "the anthropocene" — but what exactly "planetarity" means to Spivak is not easy to pin down. (She can be an infuriatingly vague writer.) Here's one of the most concrete statements on it from Death of a Discipline:
If we imagine ourselves as planetary subjects rather than global agents, planetary creatures rather than global entities, alterity remains underived from us; it is not our dialectical negation, it contains us as much as it flings us away. And thus to think of it is already to transgress, for, in spite of our forays into what we metaphorize, differently, as outer and inner space, what is above and beyond our own reach is not continuous with us as it is not, indeed, specifically discontinuous. We must persistently educate ourselves into this peculiar mindset. (73)
A more comprehensible statement on planetarity appears in Chapter 21 of An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, "World Systems and the Creole":
The experimental musician Laurie Anderson, when asked why she chose to be artist-in-residence at the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, put it this way: "I like the scale of space. I like thinkng about human beings and what worms are. We are really worms and specks. I find a certain comfort in that."

She has put it rather aggressively. That is not my intellectual style, but my point is close to hers. You see how very different it is from a sense of being the custodians of our very own planet, for god or for nature, although I have no objection to such a sense of accountability, where our own home is our other, as in self and world. But that is not the planetarity I was talking about. (451)
On the next page, she makes a useful statement: "We cannot read if we do not make a serious linguistic effort to enter the epistemic structures presupposed by a text." (Technically, yes, we can read [decode dictionary meanings of words] without such effort, but whatever understanding we come to will be narcissistic, solipsistic.)

And then on p.453: "...I have learned the hard way how dangerous it is to confuse the limits of one's knowledge with the limits of what can be known, a common problem in the academy."

Spivak (here and elsewhere) exhorts us to give up on totalizing ideas. She quotes Édouard Glissant on the infinite knowledge necessary to understand cultural histories and interactions: "No matter," Glissant says, "how many studies and references we accumulate (though it is our profession to carry out such things properly), we will never reach the end of such a volume; knowing this in advance makes it possible for us to dwell there. Not knowing the totality does not constitute a weakness."

That could be another motto for our new approach: "Not knowing the totality does not constitute a weakness."

What can be known, then, if not a totality, a thing to be mastered? Our limitations.

What I personally like about transnational, global, planetary, etc. approaches is that their impossibility is obvious and any pretense toward totalized knowledge is going to be laughed at, as it should be.

One point Whitson makes that I disagree with, or at least disagree with the phrasing of, is: "Most undergraduate students in English do not have a good grasp of rhetorical devices (kairos, chaismus, prosopopoeia) and these would replace 'close reading' (a term that lacks the specificity of the more developed rhetorical tradition) in student learning outcomes and primary classes."

Reading is more than rhetorical analysis. "Close reading" may have a bad reputation, and in some of the ways it's used it deserves that bad reputation, but it remains a useful term for a necessary skill. Especially as we think about ways of communicating what we do to audiences skeptical of the humanities generally, a term like "close reading", which can be understood by people who aren't specialists, seems to me less alienating, and less likely to produce misunderstandings, than "rhetoric". But that may just be my own dislike of the word "rhetoric" and my general feeling that rhetorical analysis is, frankly, dull. (There's a reason I'm not a rhet/comp PhD, despite being at a great school for it.) I wouldn't pull a Whitson and say "We must have no rhetorical analysis and only close reading!" That's silly. There are plenty of reasons to teach rhetorical analysis in introductory and advanced forms. There are also many good reasons to teach and encourage close reading. Making it into an opposition and a zero sum game is counterproductive. After all, rhetorical analysis requires close reading and some close reading requires rhetorical analysis.

In any case, instead of debating rhetorical analysis vs. close reading vs. whatever, what I think we ought to be looking at first is the seemingly simple activity of making meaning from what we read. That unites a lot of approaches with productive questions. (John Ciardi's title How Does a Poem Mean? has been a guiding, and fruitful, principle of my own reading for a long time.) From there, we can then begin to talk about interpretive communities, systems of textual analysis, etc: ways of reading, and ways of making sense of texts. Certainly, that includes methods of argument and persuasion. But also much more.

There's much to learn from the field of rhetoric and composition on all that. (In fact, a term from rhet/comp, discourse communities, can be quite useful here if applied both to the act of reading and the act of writing.) Reading should not — cannot — be the province only of literary scholars. A recent issue of Pedagogy offers some fascinating articles on teaching reading from a comp/rhet point of view. Further, coming back to Spivak, it seems to me that her work, for all its interdisciplinarity, frequently demonstrates ways that readers have been led astray by not reading closely enough, and her own best work is often in her close readings of texts.

Whitson proceeds to a utopian idea of planetarity (one inherent in Spivak) as a way of broadening ideas of literature beyond the human. This would certainly make room for eco-critics, anthropocene-ists, animal studies folks, etc. This isn't my own interest, and I will admit to quite a lot of skepticism about broadening the idea of "literature" so much that it becomes meaningless, but it's clear that we need such a space within English departments, even for people who think plants write lit. Our departments ought to contain multitudes.

Media
I've taught media courses, and obviously have an interest in, particularly, cinema. I don't think most such studies belong in English departments, so I am inclined to like the idea of it as a separate department within a general division. While there are plenty of English teachers who teach film and media well, and as an academic field it has some of its origins there, cinema especially seems to me to need people who have significant understanding of visual and dramatic arts. (Just as "new media" [now getting old] folks probably need some understanding of basic computer science.)

Media studies is inherently a site of interdisciplinary work, and that's a good thing. Working side-by-side, people who are trained in visual arts, theatre arts, technologies, etc. can produce new ways of knowing the world.

Something that media studies can do especially well is mix practitioners and analysts. Academia really likes to separate the "practical" people from the "theory" people. This is an unfortunate separation, one that has been detrimental to English departments especially, as literary scholars and writers are too often suspicious of each other. (I'll spare you my rant about how being both a literary scholar and a creative writer is unthinkable in conventional academic English department discourse. Another time.) You'll learn a lot about understanding cinema by taking a film editing class, just as you'll learn a lot about understanding literature by taking a creative writing class. Indeed, I often think the benefit of writing workshops (and their ilk) is not in how they produce better writers, but in how they may enable better readers.

On the other hand, and to argue in some ways against myself, writing and reading teachers ought to be well versed in media, because media mediates our lives and thoughts and reading and writing. To what extent should a department of reading and writing be focused on media, I don't know. Media tends to take over. It's flashy and attracts students. But one thing I fear losing is the refuge of the English department — the one place where we can escape the flash and fizz of techno-everything, where we can sit and think about a sentence written on an old piece of paper for a while.

Education
I'm less convinced by Whitson's arguments about a division of "Composition Pedagogy and English Education". Why put Composition with English Education and not put some literary study there? Is literary study inherent in "English Education"? Why separate Composition, though? Why not call it "Teaching Reading and Writing"? Perhaps I just misunderstand the goals with this one.

It seems to me that English Education should be some sort of meta-discipline. It doesn't make much sense as a department unto itself in the scheme Whitson sets up, or most schemes, for that matter. Any sort of educational field is very difficult to set up well because it requires students not only to learn the material of their area, but to learn then how to teach that material effectively.

To me, it makes more sense to spread discussion of pedagogy throughout all departments, because one way to learn things is to try to teach them. Ideas about education, and practice at teaching, shouldn't be limited only to people who plan to become teachers, though they may need more intensive training in it.

If we want to be radical about how we restructure the discipline, integrating English Education more fully into the discipline as a whole, rather than separating it out, would be the way to go.

Writing
Whitson proposes merging creative and professional writing as one department in the division. This is an interesting idea, but I'm not convinced. Again, my own prejudices are at play: in my heart of hearts, I don't think undergraduates should major in writing. I think there should be writing courses, and there should be lots of writers employed by English departments, but the separation of writing and reading is disastrous at the undergraduate level, leading to too many writers who haven't read nearly enough and don't know how to read anything outside of their narrow, personal comfort zone.

In the late '90s, Tony Kushner scandalized the Association of Theatre in Higher Education's annual conference with a keynote speech in which he (modestly) proposed that all undergraduate arts majors be abolished. (It was published in the January 1998 issue of American Theatre magazine.) It's one of my favorite things Kushner has ever written. The whole thing is worth reading, but here's a taste:
And even if your students can tell you what iambic pentameter is and can tell you why anyone who ever sets foot on any stage in the known universe should know the answer to that and should be able to scan a line of pentameter in their sleep, how many think that "materialism" means that you own too many clothes, and "idealism" means that you volunteer to work in a soup kitchen? And why should we care? When I first started teaching at NYU, I also did a class at Columbia College, and none of my students, graduate or undergraduate (and almost all the graduate students were undergraduate arts majors--and for the past 10 years Columbia has had undergraduate arts majors), none of them, at NYU or Columbia, knew what I might mean by the idealism/materialism split in Western thought. I was so alarmed that I called a philosophy teacher friend of mine to ask her if something had happened while I was off in rehearsal, if the idealism/materialism split had become passe. She responded that it had been deconstructed, of course, but it's still useful, especially for any sort of political philosophy. By not having even a nodding acquaintance with the tradition I refer to, I submit that my students are incapable of really understanding anything written for the stage in the West, and for that matter in much of the rest of the world, just as they are incapable of reading Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Kristeva, Judith Butler, and a huge amount of literature and poetry. They have, in essence, been excluded from some of the best their civilization has produced, and are terribly susceptible, I would submit, to the worst it has to offer.

What I would hope you might consider doing is tricking your undergraduate arts major students. Let them think they've arrived for vocational training and then pull a switcheroo. Instead of doing improv rehearsals, make them read The Death of Ivan Illych and find some reason why this was necessary in learning improv. They're gullible and adoring; they'll believe you. And then at least you'll know that when you die and go to the judgment seat you can say "But I made 20 kids read Tolstoy!" and this, I believe, will count much to your credit. And if you are anything like me, you'll need all the credits you can cadge together.
Call it the pedagogy of pulling a switcheroo. A good pedagogy, at least sometimes. It doesn't have to be, indeed should not be, limited to Western classics, as Kushner (inadvertently?) implies, and the program he calls for would not be so limited, because the kinds of conversations that he wants students to be able to recognize and join are ones that inevitably became (if they weren't already) transnational, global, even maybe a bit planetary.

So yes, if I were emperor of universities, I'd abolish undergraduate arts majors, but keep lots of artists as undergraduate teachers. I'd also let the artists teach whatever the heck they wanted. Plenty of writers would be better off teaching innovative classes that aren't the gazillionth writing workshop of their career. Boxing writers into teaching only writing classes is a pernicious practice, one that perpetuates the idea that the creation of literature and the study of literature are separate activities.

But let's come back to Whitson's first proposal: planetarity and the making of textual meaning.

My own inclination is not to separate so much, but to seek out more unities. What unites us? That we study and practice ways of reading and ways of writing. We should encourage more reading in writing classes and more varied types of writing in reading classes. We should toss out our inherited, traditional nationalisms and look at other ways that texts flow around us and around not-us. (Writers do. What good writer was only influenced by texts from one nation?) We should seek out the limits of our knowledge, admit them, challenge them, celebrate them.

Imagination
Perhaps what we should think about is imagination. We need more imagination, and we need to educate and promote imagination. So many of the problems of our world stem from failures of imagination — from the fear of imagination. If you want to be a radical educator, be an educator who inspires students to imagine in better, fuller, deeper ways. The conservative forces of culture and society promote exactly the opposite, because the desire of the status quo is to produce unimaginative (unquestioning, obedient) subjects.

English departments, like arts departments and philosophy departments, are marvelously positioned to encourage imagination. Any student who enters an English class should leave with an expanded imagination. Any student who studies to become an English teacher should be trained in the training of imaginations. We should all be advocates for imagination, activists for its value, its necessity.

One of the best classes I've ever taught was called Writing and the Creative Process. (You can find links to a couple of the syllabi on my teaching page, though they can't really give a sense of what made the courses work well.) It was a continuously successful course in spite of me. The stakes were low, because it was an introductory course, and yet the learning we all did was sometimes life-changing. This was not my fault, but the fault of having stumbled into a pedagogy that gave itself over entirely to the practice of creativity, which is to say the practice of imagination. Because it was a pre-Creative Writing class, the focus wasn't even on becoming better writers but rather on becoming more creative (imaginative) people. That was the key to the success. Becoming a better writer is a nice goal, but becoming a more creative/imaginative person is a vital goal. Were I titling it, I'd have called that course Writing and Creative Processes, because one of the things I seek to help the students understand is that there is no one process for either writing or for thinking creatively.  But no matter. Just by having to think about, talk about, and practice creativity a couple times a week, we made our lives better. I say we, because I learned as much by teaching that class as the students did; maybe more.

English departments should become departments of writing, reading, and thinking with creative processes.

I began with Spivak, so I'll come back to her, this time from her recent book Readings:
And today I am insisting that all teachers, including literary criticism teachers, are activists of the imagination. It is not a question of just producing correct descriptions, which should of course be produced, but which can always be disproved; otherwise nobody can write dissertations. There must be, at the same time, the sense of how to train the imagination, so that it can become something other than Narcissus waiting to see his own powerful image in the eyes of the other. (54)
Training — encouraging, energizing — the imagination means a training in aesthetics, in techniques of structure, in ways of valuing form, in how we find and recognize and respond to the beautiful and sublime.

I'm persuaded by Steve Shaviro's arguments in No Speed Limit about aesthetics as something at least unassimilable by neoliberalism (if not in direct resistance to it): "When I find something to be beautiful, I am 'indifferent' to any uses that thing might have; I am even indifferent to whether the thing in question actually exists or not. This is why aesthetic sensation is the one realm of existence that is not reducible to political economy." (That's just a little sample. See "Accelerationist Aesthetics" for more elaboration, and the book for the full argument.)

Because the realm of the aesthetic has some ability to sit outside neoliberalism, it is in many ways the most radical realm we can submit ourselves to in the contemporary world, where neoliberalism assimilates so much else.

But training the imagination is not only an aesthetic education, it's also epistemological. Spivak again:
An epistemological performance is how you construct yourself, or anything, as an object of knowledge. I have been consistently asking you to rethink literature as an object of knowledge, as an instrument of imaginative activism. In Capital, Volume 1 (1867), for example, Marx was asking the worker to rethink him/herself, not as a victim of capitalism but as an "agent of production". That is training the imagination in epistemological performance. This is why Gramsci calls Marx's project "epistemological". It is not only epistemological, of course. Epistemological performance is something without which nothing will happen. That does not mean you stop there. Yet, without a training for this kind of shift, nothing survives. (Readings 79-80)
If we're seeking, as Whitson calls us to, to create more diverse (and imaginative) departments of English, then perhaps we can do so by thinking about ways of approaching aesthetics and epistemology. We can be agents of imagination. We don't need nationalisms for that, and we don't need to strengthen divisive organizational structures that have riven many an English department.

We can — we must — imagine better.

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5. Classroom Connections: PAPER WISHES by Lois Sepahban

genre: historical fiction
setting: Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp, 1942
age range: 9-12
Lois Sepahban’s website

A superior story of survival and love.
— School Library Journal, starred review

This historical debut speaks volumes of love and longing.
— Kirkus, starred review

Engrossing and heartrending historical fiction.
— Publisher’s Weekly

Please tell us about your book.

Ten-year-old Manami did not realize how peaceful her family’s life on Bainbridge Island was until the day it all changed. It’s 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Manami and her family are Japanese Americans at a prison camp in the desert. Manami is sad to go, but even worse is that they are going to have to give her dog, Yujiin, to a neighbor to take care of. Manami decides to sneak Yujiin under her coat, but she is caught and forced to abandon him. She is devastated but clings to the hope that somehow Yujiin will find his way to the camp and make her family whole again. It isn’t until she finds a way to let go of her guilt that Manami can accept all that has happened to her family.

What inspired you to write this story?

My book takes place at Manzanar in 1942. From 1942-1945, it was an internment camp for Japanese-Americans, most of whom were children. I grew up in central California, and I had two classmates whose grandparents were Manzanar internees. My classmates’ mom spoke to us a few times about her parents’ experiences at Manzanar. So, by the time I was seven or eight years old, I was aware of Manzanar. I was too young to understand it, but having something of a personal connection to the camp made me curious to learn more. My research led me to so many heartbreaking and poignant stories, as well as some very strange ones. One strange story was in an newspaper article. The old man being interviewed said that at some point, dogs started showing up at the camp. No one knew where they were coming from or how they got there. When I read that article, I got goosebumps. Suddenly, I knew what my story would be. 

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?

Researching my book was a process that stretched over several years. It began, unintentionally, of course, in my childhood. Every time my parents drove past Manzanar on family trips or I listened to someone talk about Manzanar–these moments were layers of research that slowly built over time.

My curiosity really flamed to life in 2013 when I read Heather Lindquist’s book The Children of Manzanar. For the next few months, I devoured Manzanar true stories. I found an archive of oral history video interviews with former internees on Densho.org. My research at that time was deliberate. I knew that I wanted to write a story set at Manzanar. I knew I wanted it to have a love story between an internee and a camp worker. I knew I wanted the story to be from the perspective of a little sister. So I focused my research on the areas that were important to these storylines. I looked at old maps. I read supply lists and building reports from 1942. I drove along Highway 395 in California and tried to imagine how it must have looked to eyes that saw it for the first time. It is a landscape of scrub brush and red dirt. Very different from the lush rainforest of the Pacific Northwest. I continued to research as I wrote–looking for details and facts as I needed them for the story. And I was fortunate that a historian at the Manzanar National Historic Site was willing to read the manuscript to check for historical accuracy.

What are some special challenges associated with writing historical fiction?

The real challenge is that you can’t make certain things up in historical fiction. The characters, yes. The conversations, yes. Known historical events? Not so much. Writers do take liberties with history. I did. But I was careful to point out those liberties in the author’s note. When I speak to groups about my novel, it is not uncommon for me to hear from attendees that they had never before heard about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. So I feel a great responsibility to honestly portray this history.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

My book is a good fit for 4th grade social studies in California, Oregon, and Washington because these were the states affected by the Exclusion Zone rule. It is a good fit for 5th grade and 8th grade social studies because it discusses U.S. history. This history applies to Canada, too, which also had Japanese internment camps during World War II.

The post Classroom Connections: PAPER WISHES by Lois Sepahban appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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6. Christmas Presents!


Since I've already done a few posts to promote my Craftsy illustration master-class, I'm guessing that most people who are interested will have already enrolled, but, in case I've missed anyone, or you haven't quite got around to signing up, you might want to know that it is on sale again for Christmas - It's £15.97 until Dec 12th. 


The other bit of good news is that many of the other drawing classes are HALF PRICE! Here's a link to see them all.

If you are anything like me, you will have people to buy Christmas pressies for who are tricky, people you are leaving until last and who you will be panicking about in a few days. So, you might want to know that you can now send people a gift of a Craftsy class. They do all sorts, not just drawing and painting, there's cooking, dressmaking, gardening, wine, knitting... If you want to buy a lesson as a present for someone, you do it here.

All of the classes last forever. You can dip in and out of them or do them again and again, as many times as you like. And all of them give you access to the teacher: you can ask questions and show them your work for feedback at any point, as often as you like. 

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7. Using Over in the Wetlands in the Classoom

image1

The Classroom Bookshelf has just published an incredible post about Over in the Wetlands that I wanted to pass on. You can click through to read an overview of the book and ten Teaching Ideas and Invitations for readers K-8.

So much to love.

First, as a former upper elementary and middle school teacher, I am so pleased to see others actively using picture books with older children. Second, these lesson ideas cover a number of disciplines, from art to science to literature to geography. There are a couple of other picture book suggestions that parallel nicely with Wetlands as well as a number of website resources.

And don’t forget the Over in the Wetlands Discussion Guide and Activity Sheets Random House Children’s Books produced for the book.

Click through to read The Classroom Bookshelf’s post.

The post Using Over in the Wetlands in the Classoom appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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8. On Teaching Writing

Jan Steen, School Class with a Sleeping Schoolmaster

A writer recently wrote a blog post about how he's quitting teaching writing. I'm not going to link to it because though it made me want to write this post of my own, I'm not planning either to praise or disparage the post or its author, whom I don't know and whose work I haven't read (though I've heard good things about it). Reading the post, I was simply struck by how different his experience is from my own experience, and I wondered why, and I began to think about what I value in teaching writing, and why I've been doing it in one form or another — mostly to students without much background or interest in writing — for almost twenty years.

I don't know where the quitting teacher works or the circumstances, other than that he was working as an adjunct professor, as I did for five years, and was teaching introductory level classes, as I continue to do now that I'm a PhD student. (And in some ways did back when I was a high school teacher, if we want to consider high school classes as introductory to college.) So, again, this is not about him, because I know nothing about his students' backgrounds, his institution's expectations or requirements, his training, etc. If he doesn't like teaching writing where he's currently employed, he shouldn't do it, for his own sake and for that of his students. It's certainly nothing you're going to get rich from, so really, you're doing no-one any good by staying in a job like that, and you may be doing harm (to yourself and others).

Most of the quitting teacher's complaints boil down to, "I don't like teaching unmotivated students." So it goes. There are, though, lots of different levels of "unmotivated". Flat-out resistant and recalcitrant are the ultimate in unmotivated, and I also really find no joy in working with such students, because I'm not very good at it. I've done it, but have not stayed with jobs where that felt like all there was. One year at a particular high school felt like facing nothing but 100 resistant and recalcitrant students every single day, and though the job paid quite well (and, for reasons I can't fathom, the administration wanted me to stay), I fled quickly. I was useless to most of those students and they were sending me toward a nervous breakdown.  I've seen people who work miracles with such students. I wasn't the right person for that job.

But then there are the students who, for whatever reason, just haven't bought in to what you're up to. It's not their thing. I don't blame them. Put me in a math or science class, and that's me. Heck, put me in a Medieval lit class and that's me. But again and again, talented teachers have welcomed me into their world, and because of those teachers, I've been able to find a way to care and to learn about things I didn't initially care about in the least. That's the sort of teacher I aspire to be, and occasionally, for all my fumbling, seem to have succeeded at being.

It's nice to teach courses where everybody arrives on Day 1 with passion for the subject. I've taught such classes a few times. It can be fun. It's certainly more immediately fulfilling than the more common sort of classes where the students are a bit less instrinsically motivated to be there. But I honestly don't care about those advanced/magical classes as much. Such students are going to be fine with or without me. At a teaching seminar I attended 15 years ago, the instructor described such students as the ones for whom it doesn't matter if you're a person or a stalk of asparagus, because they'll do well no matter what. I don't aspire to be a stalk of asparagus.

There's another problem, too, and that's the problem of pedagogy. Many colleges and universities are terrible at providing training for teachers. There's an unspoken assumption that teaching is something anybody with an advanced degree can do. This despite the fact that anybody who's spent more than a few days in a college or university knows there are plenty of people with advanced degrees, people who may be brilliant at all sorts of other things, who can't teach at all.

Teaching writing is a particular skill, especially when teaching unmotivated students. I'm lucky to have spent some undergrad time and now some PhD time at the University of New Hampshire, where the teaching of writing is taken really seriously because writing teachers at UNH have long been interested not only in writing, but in the art of its teaching. The ghosts of Donald Murray, Donald Graves, and Robert Connors still haunt our halls. I continue to draw on things I learned in a Teaching Writing course in my last semester of undergrad. In my early years of teaching, I read every pedagogy book I could get my hands on. I still pick them up now and then, because I'm still learning to teach.

If you're struggling to teach writing, have no support from your institution, but don't want to quit, there are resources that can help you. (Though really, you should consider quitting, especially if they're not paying you well. Schools exploit people who they provide little support to because those people feel some sort of obligation to work for crappy wages and in crappy conditions. Say no! Or at least help organize a union.)

To begin, check out the National Writing Project, Teachers & Writers, and the NCTE.

Seek out books for ideas and inspiration. First, put everything aside and read Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary. Then maybe a practical book like The Elements of Teaching Writing, The Handbook of Creative Writing, or Being a Writer (which is overpriced; its predecessor, A Community of Writers, is easy enough to find used for much less money).

If you're determined that you must fix your students' grammar, then start with Teaching Grammar in Context and/or Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing by Constance Weaver. (But a caution: Make sure you're not promoting myths. Educate yourself. Read Stephen Pinker's A Sense of Style, Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars, and, if you're especially determined, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Or, better yet, make a study of grammar ranting part of your pedagogy — see Grammar Rants by Patricia Dunn and Ken Lindblom.) If most of your students seem to lack much preparation for college-level work, then investigate pedagogy for developmental writing.

Don't just be a writer who shows up in a classroom. You've been hired to be a teacher who also knows something about writing. You need to see yourself in that role, or else you're just grossly stroking your ego in public. Develop a vision of yourself as a teacher, and read the works of writing teachers who inspire — Peter Elbow is my go-to guy whenever I'm feeling bad about my teaching, with Everyone Can Write as the key text (though I'm fond, too, of Writing with Power and Writing Without Teachers). Read Lynda Barry. Read. Talk. Listen. Plenty of people have had all the challenges and disappointments and frustrations that you've had. Learn from them.

And yes, of course there are lots of frustrations along the way. Even the best classes will have bad days, and sometimes you'll have an entire bad term. That's the world of teaching. Analyze what isn't working and try to figure out ways to fix it; seek out other people's ideas when you're stuck. I hate the feeling of having been a bad teacher, but it also invigorates me, because it makes me determined to fix the problems the next time around. (It's when the problems seem utterly unfixable that you know you're the wrong person for the job. If nothing seems like it will get better and again and again you find yourself dreading the next class, the next term, then quit if you can. It's okay. You don't need to spend your entire life as a bad teacher. Create an exit plan before you kill yourself or one of your students. Seriously.)

I've been meaning to write about the most successful writing course I've taught, and so this gives me a bit of an excuse to do so. By "successful" I mean that the students' work and reflections on the course at the end of the term consistently met my goals for the course through multiple sets of students, both in face-to-face classes and online. The course is called Writing and the Creative Process, and I taught it at Plymouth State University. It's the lowest-level creative writing course the English department offers, and it fulfills a general education requirement, so typically it is taken by students will little background in writing and often not much interest in it. They arrive to the course because they need the credit, and many assume a creative writing class is an easy A or B.

My goals for the course are not for the students to become great writers. That's out of my control. Great writing is a mix of talent, practice, experience, circumstances. My goals are more about helping the students to overcome some assumptions about writing and creativity.

Most students arrive to my classes, whether writing classes or otherwise, with an idea that writing is about following rules and not making mistakes. They've lost all sense of play. I want them to be less afraid of playing with language. I want them to be less afraid of the unfamiliar. If I can do that, then a lot of what matters in writing will take care of itself. Of course, there are rules and conventions. Writing is (usually) a form of communication, and communication requires some rules and conventions. But they can be learned, and if learning them is still beyond you for whatever reason, you can probably find friends who will proofread your work for you. (Many excellent writers are rotten with commas. And plenty else. Proofreaders exist for a reason. Research the manuscripts of well-known writers and you'll be astonished.) I love the intricacies of grammar, usage, and style, so I pay a lot of attention to it myself, but for me it's part of the essential play that makes writing a worthwhile activity for me. I try to impart that to students, even in the Writing and the Creative Process class, but I also don't expect them all to be like me.

After teaching the class a few times in a way that didn't thrill me, I finally came upon this progression of material, which seems to work:
Unit 1: First Things
Unit 2: Shaping Raw Material
Unit 3: Images and Senses
Unit 4: Words
Unit 5: Sentences and lines
Unit 6: Paragraphs and stanzas
Unit 7: Revision
Final Exam week: Portfolio
Lots of people teach the course by going through major genres, but I don't care for that approach because in my experience it's highly superficial to write essays for a week or two, poems for a week or two, stories for a week or two, etc. I sprinkle different genres throughout the term, but we never stick with any particular one. Learning different genres is not the goal. I want the students to play around, and I want them to think about similarities in different ways of writing rather than differences.

The First Things unit is focused on introductions, starting out, and beginning to forget the "rules" you think you know about writing. I think of it as the deprogramming unit. Especially given the mania for standardized testing in schools over the last 15 years, students arrive to my classroom with great anxiety about "proper" writing. They mostly think they're bad at it, and they're terrified of losing points. So I make a point of getting them to pay attention to themselves, to do things like stare at an object for 10 or more minutes and then write about the experience, to write a list of rules for good writing and then violate them all, etc. The basic theme might be able to be boiled down to, "Who are you? What do you know? How do you perceive things? And how might we expand/broaden/explode all that?"

The Shaping Raw Material unit is exactly what it says. The exercises have the students write 5 versions of a short piece of writing, try out different points of view, rewrite a folktale, rewrite a partner's piece of writing, etc. Some of it is similar to Kenneth Goldsmith's "Uncreative Writing" ideas, some of it isn't. The goal is to look at the different ways writing can be shaped, and the effects of different shapes. Again, it's about breaking out of a narrow way of thinking about writing, because narrow ways of thinking only lead to anxiety about "getting it right". Again and again, I say: There are no right answers, so stop looking for them.

The other units are exactly what they sound like: close attention to senses and images, to words, to sentences and lines, etc. It's good to be deliberate about these building blocks. Too often, we take them for granted. They're all fun to play with.

The Portfolio requirement at the end is this:
What your portfolio must include, at a minimum:
  • Your own artist's statement / portfolio intro.  Length: 114-119 words.  (Yes, this number is arbitrary.  Most rules are.)
  • Examples of 3 different types/genres of writing, each with at least one revision included. (You will have done a lot of this work for previous units. Now you’re collecting it and polishing it.) Include all drafts along with a final, polished, proofread draft.
  • A reflection of at least 500 words.  This should be the last thing you write.  After you've put the portfolio together, read it, then write this reflection.
You are welcome and encouraged to include more than this in your portfolio, but this is the absolute minimum.
All grading before the portfolio is purely on whether the students follow the guidelines or not. For instance, here's an assignment:
1. Go to the index at the website Worldwidewords.org.
2. Read around on the page. Click on words that grab your attention. Look for weird words.
3. Once you are familiar with the site and how it works, write a piece and use as many unfamiliar/weird words from the Worldwidewords.org list as you can -- at least 20.
GRADING: 6 points = 600+ words; 5 points = 500-599 words; 4 points = 400-499 words; 3 points = 300-399 words; 2 points = 200-299 words; 1 point = under 200 words
(Each exercise is worth a certain amount of points, and I just add them up for their exercises grade, so 95 points = a 95 (A), 84 points = 84% (B), etc. They have a number of exercises to choose from in each unit. All of the exercises together add up to more than 100 points, but I've rarely had students try to go beyond 100 points because I don't count anything above 100 and, in any case, most of the exercises are more complex and take more work than the one above, so if you do them all at the highest level, it's quite a lot of work.)

I don't  evaluate their writing until the portfolio, and even then it's light evaluation of their progress more than anything. This has been crucial. The point of this course is discovery and play. That's what I want to encourage. I don't much care if their writing is great or terrible. I want them to improve, though, so we spend time at the end of the course working on revision, but only after we've spent the majority of the course playing around. I want the students to become more flexible thinkers and writers.

My paying no attention to whether they are writing well or badly is liberatory, and the effects are remarkable. The students discover skills and interests they never knew they had because they were so terrified of writing badly and getting low grades. They often struggle against the class in the first weeks because they think I'm going to trick them. They are conditioned to be graded and ranked and evaluated at every turn. They don't know what the freedom from grading, ranking, and evaluation feels like. It's terrifying at first. I must be a bad teacher, I must be a dishonest teacher, they must be doing something wrong. It isn't until a handful of exercises have been graded and they realize they really are just being graded on output that most students begin to really free themselves.

The exercises are not small or easy, and numerous students have told me they've written more for this class than for any other. If I were trying to grade evaluatively, it would be an awful paper burden on me, but I'm not grading evaluatively. I'm mostly just counting words.

The students don't need me to read their work in any depth until the revision stage, and even then mot of the work is on them, as the revision exercises are designed to get them to look at their work in new, different ways. It extends the freedom to experiment to the revision process. Then they sift through everything and begin to put order to it and show off the work they're most pleased with, most proud of. They write about how they got there, and that reflection is vital — students need to think about the processes that allowed them to write in ways they see as successful, and reflective writing is key to helping solidify what they've learned. They reflect on what they've done and what they would like to do in the future.

Their final grade is ultimately not about them being a good writer, but being a writer who has 1.) learned how to play around and experiment; 2.) learned how to look at their work with a new and critical eye toward revision; 3.) learned how to extend what they've discovered to other realms of thinking and writing. If they've been able to do that, they do well.

Grades for the course tend to average around a B, a bit higher than my usual B- average for courses. Sometimes, a group really takes to the material and I end up with an A- average. I don't feel bad about that. Because the grade is based on how much they've written, to get an A- average, the students have written an awful lot.

When teaching more advanced courses, I tend to add in a bit more evaluative grading, I tend to do fewer exercises based on playing around and more toward specific skills and goals, then finish the course with one complete and revised piece of writing. Sometimes this goes well, sometimes not.

I don't much like the traditional writing workshop. Maybe it's fine in grad school, but I really dislike it for undergrads, as I think it wastes a lot of time and doesn't give them the tools they need. I've never much liked traditional writing workshops, myself, so maybe it's just a matter of my personality. I'm sure there are people who are great teachers within that structure at whatever level. Personally, as both a student and teacher, I prefer exercises, discussions of a wide variety of published writing (and by wide variety, I mean as wide as possible — true variety, not just Lishian stuff), a focus on sentences and paragraphs, etc. There are plenty of ways to meld some of the virtues of the workshop approach with other structures. I haven't hit on a perfect solution yet, but I keep experimenting when I get the chance to teach an advanced course (which hasn't happened recently, as I'm only teaching one course per term as part of the PhD program, and mostly what I teach is first-year composition).

My goal is not to create professional writers. One or two of my former students have gone off to publish things, but they're really the outliers. I want to help students gain more confidence in their ability to use the language, and I want them to become more enthusiastic, informed readers. The reading part is important to me — I want more students to be delighted by the weirdness of Gertrude Stein, to be willing to try out complex and difficult and alienating texts, to not just seek out what feels most immediately "relevant" to them. Teaching writing is one path to that goal, because it lets students begin to think about how texts are constructed, and what writers think about. Reading like a writer is a good way to read. Experiencing writing as both and art and a craft helps, I hope, to overcome some of the prejudices that lead to writers and artists being seen as people who don't actually labor.

I also don't want to blame students for the failures of institutions. I'm skeptical of the recent discourse about whiny, overprotected students. I don't think teachers should be against students. I think we should be against the neoliberal university that sees nothing but economic indicators. As teachers of writing, we have a special place in that struggle, I think. I take hope from Steve Shaviro's ideas about aesthetics and political economy, e.g.:
I think that aesthetics exists in a special relationship to political economy, precisely because aesthetics is the one thing that cannot be reduced to political economy. Politics, ethics, epistemology, and even ontology are all subject to “determination in the last instance” by the forces and relations of production. Or rather, if ontology is not entirely so determined, this is precisely to the extent that ontology is itself fundamentally aesthetic. If aesthetics doesn’t reduce to political economy, but instead subsists in a curious way alongside it, this is because there is something spectral, and curiously insubstantial, about aesthetics.
As teachers of writing, we can wield aesthetics as a weapon against the all-consuming power of neoliberalism — we can help and encourage students to revel in the inefficacy of our aesthetic projects.

Or, at least, in my more utopian moments I think we can. Right now I just need to stop procrastinating and go grade a pile of research papers... Read the rest of this post

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9. Classroom Connections: THE LAURA LINE by Crystal Allen

age range: 8-12
genre: contemporary fiction with historical flashbacks
Crystal Allen’s website

Please tell us about your book. 

THE LAURA LINE is about Laura Dyson, a thirteen year old, overweight girl who has dreams of being a model…or a major league baseball pitcher.  Because of her weight issues, students make fun of her to the point that Laura begins to believe that she is all of the ugly things her classmates say she is.  It’s not until Laura ventures into an old shack on her grandmother’s farm and finds a ledger filled with documents from the female ancestors in her history, (all of them named Laura)  that she begins to stand up for herself.  Now, Laura Dyson not only knows who she is, but has evidence of all the wonderful things she can become.

What inspired you to write this story?

My mother raised my oldest brother and sister in an extremely small, one-room, family-built house on my grandmother’s farm.  I missed my opportunities to tour this family landmark, but I knew it held valuable history, along with proof of the strength and determination of my mother.  I wanted to honor her, and the house, in some way.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?

Talking with family members and memories of growing up on my grandmother’s farm in Indiana were the biggest tools I used when writing THE LAURA LINE.  However, while visiting Boston one summer, a replica of the Amistad was docked in the Naval shipyard, and people were encouraged to tour for free!  Since the Amistad was going to make a “cameo” appearance in THE LAURA LINE, I thought this was an excellent opportunity for some research, and the price was perfect!  With camera in hand and money for snacks, I took off to the shipyard, expecting a fun day in the sun.

But that’s not what happened.

Touring that schooner caused such an emotional stir in me, I was completely caught off guard by its affect from the moment I stepped onboard.  I had no personal ties to anyone aboard the Amistad, yet I wept right there at the shipyard as if I did.  To see pencil-drawn portraits of the captives, some as young as seven-years-old, took all of the fun out of my day. I knew the story of the Amistad, but standing downstairs, in the belly of that schooner, put the whole story in my face.  This was no longer a research project.  It was now personal.

Even though the THE LAURA LINE is based on fictional characters, I felt as if I met the first Laura that day. She was real, and she needed me to feel her pain, her fear, her frustration, her hunger, her tears, her anger. I rushed back to the place I was staying and began to empty out everything I had felt that day, whether it was in complete sentences or not.  I will never forget that experience.

What are some special challenges associated with writing historical fiction?

Making sure each Laura was given a talent that existed in her era, and the materials, left by each Laura, were believable.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

THE LAURA LINE teaches its readers:

Love yourself.  Love your “Line.”  Live your dreams.

The post Classroom Connections: THE LAURA LINE by Crystal Allen appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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10. Making Nonfiction From Scratch by Ralph Fletcher



Making Nonfiction From Scratch
by Ralph Fletcher
Stenhouse, available late November 2015

When I got the Stenhouse Publishers Newslink email last week (sign up now if you don't get them -- they always contain juicy tidbits) and saw that Ralph Fletcher has a new book coming out soon...AND Stenhouse is offering a free online preview of the entire text...AND we are just starting our unit of study on nonfiction writing...well, it felt like the universe was aligning.

There's so much to love about this new book. Of particular note:
Chapter One -- fun parable, then check out those headings -- minilessons, here we come!
Chapter Three -- interview with Louise Borden
Chapter Six -- NF read aloud
Chapter Eleven, page 94 -- what a final draft could look like
If you preorder this book by Wednesday of this week with the code NLDH, you'll get $10 off. What are you waiting for? I know you'll want your own copy to mark up and flag with stickies!

In honor of this book and our unit of study on nonfiction writing, tomorrow and Wednesday I'll have two more nonfiction posts.


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11. Classroom Connections: OPERATION PUCKER UP by Rachele Alpine

age range: 9-13
genre: contemporary fiction
Operation Pucker Up Discussion Guide
Rachele Alpine’s website

Please tell us about your book.

Operation Pucker Up is about a girl named Grace Shaw who is thrilled when she’s cast as Snow White in her middle school play. That is, until she realizes she’ll have to kiss Prince Charming. And not only is Prince Charming—a.k.a James Lowe—the most popular boy in school, but Grace has never, ever been kissed.  To help, Grace’s two best friends create Operation Pucker Up—a plan for Grace to score a kiss before opening night so she doesn’t make a total fool of herself in front of a live audience. If that weren’t enough to think about, Grace’s father, who left six months ago, suddenly walks back into her life. Grace, her mom and sister have bonded as the “Terrific Three” – and while two of the “Three” welcome Dad back with open arms, Grace isn’t sure she can forgive and forget. As Operation Pucker Up begins to spin out of control, and opening night is approaching, the question is whether Grace will manage to get her happily ever after—both on-stage and off.

What inspired you to write this story?

I did theater and dance classes at a place called The Beck Center for the Arts when I was young all the way into high school.  I called it my home away from home, because sometimes I was there more than I was at my real house!  I was in a lot of shows while I was there, including Cinderella, where I had to dance with a boy.  I remember being so nervous about it because I had never held hands with a boy before. I couldn’t imagine ever having to kiss someone on stage!  I began to brainstorm about that idea and what would happen if that kiss was your first kiss.  Operation Pucker Up was born from that!

Could you share with readers some behind-the-scenes glimpses into your book?

When I was writing this book, I wanted it to be a sort of homage to The Beck Center for the Arts.  Almost ever character is named after someone I acted with (either their first or last name). There are many local places mentioned in the story and one of the main character is even named Beck!  I wanted readers from Cleveland who knew the theater to pick up the book and feel connected to the story through the setting.  The coolest part was that they hosted my launch party in their studio theater!  We filled all 98 seats and had almost fifty more people standing and sitting in the aisles.  Some of my old friends came and acted out a scene from the book and a few of my old directors/teachers were there.  It was so amazing to celebrate my book in the location that inspired it.

What are some special challenges associated with writing middle grade?

I wanted to write a book that was both light hearted and serious, because I think that’s what life for a middle-schooler is like. They are trying to find where they fit within the world, their friends, and family, some of which is in their control and some of which they have no say in. I wanted to find a good balance between the two and make it sound authentic. Grace is trying to handle having her first kiss on stage and the return of her father after her parents’ separation.  Both of these events would be a big deal to a middle-schooler, so I wanted to make sure I treated both as such.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

The book includes a lot of topics for discussion such as being yourself vs. trying to be someone you aren’t, forgiveness, bullying, feeling like you don’t belong, the power of friendship, telling the truth instead of keeping your feelings inside, and what family means.  

The post Classroom Connections: OPERATION PUCKER UP by Rachele Alpine appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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12. My Craftsy Character-Illustration Class is Here!!


Today is the day!! My Craftsy master-class, teaching you how to draw children's book characters, just went live, slightly ahead of schedule! To celebrate, you can get the class half price for the rest of this week from this blog post. Yep - Craftsy allow me to discount the class if I want. So what better time?


Last week I got a sneak preview of how it looks and am absolutely delighted with the way it's turned out. The editing guys have done a smashing job, splicing all the material together. There's me talking (okay, nothing new there says John...), plus all the various drawing demos that we filmed, lots of illustrations from my books, as well as various extra drawing tips with bits and bobs of graphics. 


Plus, Craftsy's clever, techy guys have had to build the whole background platform, because the workshop is not just a series of films. Oh no...

After each lesson, I set my students a homework project to do. Then, when they're done, they can post their work onto a gallery, for me and the other students to see. Great eh? Plus students can even ask me questions, if there's anything they need more help with.


Huge CONGRATULATIONS to Tami T, who was the winner of my prize draw. Well done Tami! Have fun. I look forward to seeing your characters :-)

If you were unlucky, don't worry: all is not lost! C
raftsy classes are very reasonably priced but if you are on a tight budget, get in quick while mine is super-duper-brilliant-value with my launch-week deal... 


The other brilliant thing about the workshop is that it does not have an expiry date. You can watch it as many times as you like, for as long as you want - once you sign up, everything is yours for good. And because you only need a pencil and paper, once you have signed up, it's not going to cost you anything extra at all.

I have tried really hard to pack all 7 of the lessons with tons of tips which should really help your character drawings, both of animals and people, but I've also done my best to make it a fun workshop to do. 

Please do let me know what you think. As this is my first venture of this kind, I'd really like to hear your feedback.

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13. Off to a fresh start

Hello dear education community. I’m back! Last year I was quite silent. This was due in part to the fact that I had moved to a new school. But mainly it was because I was simply at a loss for what to say.

My previous school was strictly disciplined to the point where students were basically only extrinsically motivated. This allowed me to help students attain high scores and cover vast areas of content (it was a self-contained classroom, so I taught all core subjects). Yet, to be frank, it was miserable. Although I did my best, I couldn’t deny that even after two years together, my kids never felt emotionally or psychologically safe in this school.

Furthermore, when I moved to a school that promoted restorative justice techniques, targeted interventions, and differentiation, I had glaring holes in my instruction. The posts I had written as a teacher at my previous school rang hollow because I realized that I had never had to struggle with motivating students without external systems and consequences in place. Also, my students were known to be particularly difficult due to various factors. Truly, my first semester was such a battle. By winter break, I ended up crying to my assistant principal about whether or not I could even finish the school year.

Fear not, friends; it does not end this way. Long story short, I learned to apply the growth mindset that I claimed to teach, and there were mentors and colleagues available to guide and commiserate with me along the way. And thankfully, my students grew to learn that I truly cared.

Now I’m blessed to be at a school that serves a tough population, engages the community, and freely trusts me to teach. Most of all, I’m blessed to be at a school that values reflection — the perfect balance to my tendency to freak out or quit a strategy too fast.

In a new spin of events, I am actually joining the math team this year. We’re piloting a blended, shared teaching style, and although I’m apprehensive, I’m also super excited. Looking back on my teaching journey thus far, there are definitely rueful moments. I now have a bajillion teaching credentials, and I feel like I’ve been regularly taking exams for the past three years. But, as I embark on my fifth year as a teacher (4th year in Oakland), I know there’s no stopping now!

The post Off to a fresh start appeared first on The Horn Book.

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14. Classroom Connections: THE TOWN THAT DISAPPEARED by Sandy Carlson

age range: 8-12
genre: historical fiction
setting: 1871, Michigan
teacher’s guide
Sandy Carlson’s website

Please tell us about your book.

Just how many homes and friends does a kid have to lose in twelve years?

Driven from his neighborhood during the Chicago fire of 1871, Adrian and his parents move to the Michigan wilderness where his father lands a job at the sawmill. The town is called Singapore – as if a name could make a tiny spit of a town into a great seaport.

Back in Chicago, it was easy to keep his hobby a secret, even from his father. But in this small town, will people discover who the true knitter of the family is? Only his best friend, big R.T., keeps him level.

Adrian’s attempts to protect his new – and first – girlfriend, Elizabeth, from the school bully seem to backfire, especially when he hears Jake’s big brother, Otto the Monster, is heading to town.

Then, just as Adrian starts to feel that Singapore is his home, he discovers the moving sand dunes along the Lake Michigan shore are slowly burying his town. He tries to stop it, but how can he fight both man and nature?

What inspired you to write this story?

An elderly friend from church grew up in Saugatuck, Michigan. She remembers running down the sand dunes as a child and diving into the Kalamazoo River. Some days there would be a roof exposed from Singapore, an 1800’s buried town. Other days there might be a different roof. And still other days there was nothing but sand and the river. I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would have been like to have lived through that time – when my town was threatened to be buried by active sand dunes.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?

First of all, I need to walk the land where the story takes place, even if it’s 150 years after the time of the story. Each time I return and wander the streets or dune hills or beaches, I feel rather ghostly – imagining what it was like back then. The unceasing waves coming in would be the same. The wind blowing dry sand around the dune grass would be the same. The crying sea gulls would be the same, as well as the quiet stillness in the woods or just a little farther up river from the Lake.

My limit for doing library research (done in various Michigan towns) is about three hours. After that I find myself rereading a line several times. When I start rereading, I scoop up all my notes, pile the books and magazines and news clippings, put everything away, and wait for another day to do more research with a cleared mind.

I especially love staring at old photos of the area in which my book is set…imagining what it would be like to be there, and then I compartmentalize and focus on the photo, ignoring people around me; for I’m sure they think I’m crazy, on drugs, or have fallen asleep.

Sometimes research falls right into my lap. I went to a jeweler to re-clasp a necklace. I noticed a box of watch “guts” on the counter and asked about them. He was a watch man. I told him of my grandfather’s pocket watch. He informed me that real pocket watches weren’t very common because they cost as much as a buggy (or today’s SUV). (A nice historical fact which shoots down all the westerns I’ve ever seen.)

What are some special challenges associated with writing MG historical fiction?

How to get my book into the hands of kids. Actually, I know a lot of my readers are adults, because they are interested in local history.

If a kid is a reader, they’re likely to read anything, especially if they can relate to the characters or are interested in an area or a specific time. Libraries and booksellers often prefer the hottest and latest and most popular books. As long as I continue developing the craft of writing to make my characters, plot, and language golden, well, then, I’m golden, too.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

The book begins with a new kid moving to town. Nearly every kid today has either moved, or been in a classroom which received a new student. (Relevant.)

There are several true local stories in the book, as well as description of jobs kids would do, like chopping wood, working in the family store, or knitting. (History.)

There’s a bully in town, but there may or may not be a resolution. You’ll have to read it to find out. (Resolutions.)

Adrian is ahead of his time, trying to find a way to stop the dunes from burying his town. (Environmental Studies.)

The post Classroom Connections: THE TOWN THAT DISAPPEARED by Sandy Carlson appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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15. Classroom Connections: MY NEAR-DEATH ADVENTURES (99% True!)

age range: 8-12 years
setting: 1895; Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
teacher’s guide
Alison DeCamp’s website

Please tell us about your book. 

It’s the winter of 1895. Eleven-year-old Stanley Slater finds himself stuck in a lumber camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with his meddlesome cousin, Geri (who insists on diagnosing him with all sorts of 19th century diseases), his evil granny, his sweet mama and a variety of unsavory characters like Stinky Pete (who may or may not be a Cold-Blooded Killer).

What inspired you to write this story?

I grew up with family stories, as we all do. I have always been particularly fascinated by my Great-Grandmother Cora who made her daughter (my grandmother) get married at 15. My grandmother ended up having a baby, naming him Stan, and then raising him as a single mother, working in a variety of places, including a lumber camp.

I also always thought my great-grandmother was incredibly mean. She was the inspiration for my characters’s crabby granny. Obviously. Click through to see her.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching? 

I researched everything from 19th century outhouses to 19th century slang terms. Google, of course, is great for this, but I also contacted people who are experts in the history of lumbering. I read all sorts of books (many no longer in print) and my 86 y.o. father and I took a field trip to Hartwick Pines, a fascinating state park about 1-1/2 hours from my house.

One of the things that I found interesting is that the Paul Bunyan tales may have been oral history in some camps but that they weren’t universally well known until around 1916. For that reason, I chose not to include references to Paul Bunyan in the book. I was also surprised with the hours lumberjacks put in on a daily basis, the fact that alcohol was not permitted in most camps, and that talking wasn’t allowed during meals—too readily this would lead to fights. Also, cooks were paid really well because a good cook would often be a lure to get the best men. And, finally, lumberjacks didn’t really like being called that in the early history of the job—being a “jack” was somewhat derogatory in the 1850s – 1870s—which is why they are also called Shanty Boys. They did embrace the term more toward the end of the 19th century, however.

What are some special challenges associated with writing historical fiction?

I think it’s challenging to write historical fiction accurately with enough detail and authenticity without being too didactic (as in defining every term or historical event). I also found the little things difficult—how far would it take to get somewhere via wagon, for example. Or how much did 25 cents buy in the 1890s? Some homes had telephones, others didn’t; some streets had electric lights, some didn’t. How were homes heated? Where did water come from? Even if I never specifically used these details in the book, it’s important to at least know the answers since it’s the world where our characters are living.

What makes your book a perfect fit for the classroom? 

One of the things I’m excited about (and what I would have loved as a teacher) is the inclusion of all of the images. Many of them are accessible from the Library of Congress website (loc.gov) and would be a great start-off point for additional research and/or a non-fiction tie-in.

I’ve also included some actual songs and recipes from the time period, which could lend themselves to Common Core standards. And the historical fiction is based on true stories so the connection to CCSS in history/social studies in the middle grades is definitely an option.

The post Classroom Connections: MY NEAR-DEATH ADVENTURES (99% True!) appeared first on Caroline Starr Rose.

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16. Online Characterisation Workshop: Timing Myself



Things are moving on with my on-line workshop for Craftsy. I have now selected over 100 images from my archive of around 30 children's books, which I will be using to help explain various teaching points as we work our way through the 7 lessons. It's so incredibly useful to have that resource at my fingertips.


All the lessons are now planned in fine detail. The last thing I did was to time it all. I need to aim for each lesson to average out at 15 - 20 minutes. I can have some longer and some shorter: it's very flexible, but that's the target. 

I had no idea how long they'd last to be honest. When I was planning, I just wrote down everything I could think of that I know about character design, then organised it all into 7 categories, and then organised that into logical sequences (each lesson is broken down into 3 sections, which helps a lot with planning).



So, timing... I set the stopwatch on my phone and got started. It takes a bit of getting used to, teaching thin air, but I've done it before, when rehearsing lectures. This time though, I had to draw as I went along, because I have to know how long it takes me to demo everything. I filled sheets and sheets of scrap paper with little characters:


I ran through each section 2 or 3 times (it gets quicker as you improve). Lesson lengths vary from 14 minutes to 26.

As always with my workshops, I could easily fill more time. I can continue to talk all the time I am doing the drawings, which helps, plus I am pretty quick with the sketches. The more demos a class has though, the more time it takes. 



One way I can cut the time is to use pre-drawn sketches instead, though I much prefer to be scribbling away live. I think people like to see that too, watching the process and seeing things emerge. I have had the okay for the timings from my producer now though, so we are going to be fine. 



Most of the sketches I'll be doing are quickies to explain a point, rather than proper drawings, as you can see from the sketch-sheets I created. There is a sneaky trick I can use if I need it though: my producer says, when it comes to more complex drawings which take a bit longer, we can always put in 'jumps', rather than watch the entire process. Clever thinking...

There are going to be 2 cameras filming at all times and I'm told the technical team have all sorts of clever tricks up their sleeve too. It will be so interesting. Getting quite excited now!






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17. My Denver Trip: The Flights are Booked!


Yeh! I'm all set... 


Remember my on-line workshop on children's book illustration? well, I fly off to Denver to start my filming adventure on September 7th and will be away for a whole week. Craftsy have a travel agent who has sorted it all out for me. They have managed to get really good flights times, so no getting up at the crack of dawn, or arriving at midnight. 


It sounds like I will be looked after well when I get there too. I will be chauffeured between the airport, hotel and film studio, which will make things lovely and relaxed. There's nothing like relinquishing all responsibility for that part of things. I still get a thrill from flying and travelling alone is an even bigger adventure, but there's always a slight worry of things going awry, so I'm glad to be looked after.

An added bonus: I will be taken to the studio each morning by the hair and makeup artist, who will hopefully make me look at least 10 years younger. We'll see! 

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18. Of Purpose, Audience, and Language Guides


There are lots of reasons that the University of New Hampshire, where I'm currently working toward a Ph.D. in Literature, should be in the news. It's a great school, with oodles of marvelous faculty and students doing all sorts of interesting things. Like any large institution, it's got its problems (I personally think the English Department is underappreciated by the Powers That Be, and that the university as a whole is not paying nearly enough attention to the wonderful programs that don't fall under that godawful acronym-of-the-moment STEM, but of course I'm biased...) Whatever the problems, though, I've been very happy at the university, and I'm proud to be associated with it.

But Donald Trump and Fox News or somebody discovered a guide to inclusive language gathering dust in a corner of the UNH website and decided that this was worth denouncing as loudly as possible, and from there it spread all over the world. The UNH administration, of course, quickly distanced themselves from the web page and then today it was taken down. I expect they're being honest when they say they didn't know about the page. Most people didn't know about the page. The website has long been rhizomatic, and for a while just finding the academic calendar was a challenge because it was hidden in a forest of other stuff.

I, however, did know about the page. In fact, I used it with my students and until today had a link to it on my Proofreading Guidelines sheet. It led to some interesting conversations with students, so I found it a valuable teaching tool. I thought some of the recommendations in the guidelines were excellent and some were badly worded and some just seemed silly to me, like something more appropriate to an Onion article. ("People of advanced age" supposedly being way better than any other term for our elders reads like a banal parody of political correctness. Also, never ever ever ever call me a "person of advanced age" when I become old. Indeed, I would like to be known as an old fart. If I manage to achieve elderliness — and it is, seriously, a great accomplishment, as my amazing, 93-year-old grandmother [who calls herself "an old lady"] would, I hope, agree — if I somehow achieve that, then I will insist on being known as an old fart. But if you would rather be called a person of advanced age rather than a senior or an elder or an old fart, then I will respect your wishes.)



The extremity of the guide was actually why I found it useful pedagogically. Inevitably, the students would find some of the ideas ridiculous, alienating, and even angering. That makes for good class discussion. In at least one class, we actually talked about the section that got Donald Trump and Fox and apparently everybody else so upset — the recommendation to be careful with the term "American". Typically, students responded to that recommendation with the same incredulity and incomprehension that Trump et al. did. Understandably so. We're surrounded by the idea that the word "American" equals "United States", and in much usage it does. I sometimes use it that way myself. It's difficult not to. But I also remember a Canadian acquaintance when I was in college saying, in response to my usage, "You know, the U.S. isn't the whole of North America. You just think you are." Ouch. And then when I was in Mexico for a summer of language study, at least one of our teachers made fun of us for saying something like, "Oh, no, I'm not from Mexico, I'm from America!"

We don't have another good noun/adjective for the country (United Statesian is so cumbersome!), and the Canadians can say Canadian and the Mexicans can say Mexican and so we kind of just fall back on American. And have for centuries. So it goes. But it's worth being aware that some people don't like it, because then as a writer or speaker you can try to be sensitive to this dislike, if being sensitive to what people dislike is important to you.

This and other recommendations in the guidelines lead to valuable discussion with students because such discussion helps us think more clearly about words and language. The guide had some helpful guidance about other things that people might take offense to, whether the gentle, somewhat mocking offense of my Canadian acquaintance and Mexican teachers, or more serious, deeper offense over more serious, deeper issues.

It all comes down to the two things that govern so many writing tasks: purpose and audience. (When I'm teaching First-Year Composition, I always tell them on the first day that by the end of the course they'll be very tired of hearing the words purpose and audience.) If your purpose is to reach as wide an audience as possible, then it's best to try to avoid inadvertently offending that audience. Just ask anybody in PR or marketing who didn't realize their brilliant idea would alienate a big, or at least vocal, section of the audience for whatever they were supposed to sell. Ultimately, you can't avoid offending everybody — indeed, it's hardly desireable, as some people probably deserve to be offended — but what offends different people (and why) is useful knowledge, I think. In any case, it's much better to be offensive when you're trying to be offensive than when you're not trying to be and discover much to your surprise, embarrassment, and perhaps horror, that you actually are. (As we used to say [before we were people of advanced age]: been there, done that.)

Advice about inclusive language is similar to advice I give about grammar and spelling errors. All of my students should know by the time they've had me as a teacher that the prohibitions against such things as splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions or starting sentences with conjunctions or any number of other silly rules are just that: silly. They often lead to bad writing, and their usefulness is questionable at best. However, I think every writer should know and understand all the old and generally silly prohibitions. Why? Because you will, at some point in your life, encounter someone who really, deeply cares. And you should be able to explain yourself, because the person who really, deeply cares might be somebody you want to impress or convince about something.

In fact, that's why I give my students my long and probably very boring proofreading guide. I want them to impress me, and I don't want my pet peeves about language and usage to get in the way. (No matter how anti-hierarchical we all might want to be, ultimately I'm the guy responsible for my students' grades, and so it's in their best interests to know what my pet peeves are.) They can dismiss my pet peeves as silly or irrelevant if they want, but they can't say they don't know what they are. Indeed, if I say to a student, "Why did you use 'he/she' when my proofreading guidelines specifically say I would prefer for you not to use that construction in my class," and they respond with a thoughtful answer, I may not be convinced by their logic, but I will be impressed that they gave it thought; if, on the other hand, they respond, "Oh, I didn't read that, even though you said it was important and could affect our grade," then I will not be impressed, and my not being impressed may not be a good thing for their grade. Such is life.

But really my purpose here was just to say that despite all the horrible things said about that poor little language guide, I will miss it. True, it shouldn't have looked so official if it were not (I, too, thought it was pretty official, though clearly it was not binding and was little read). The UNH statement is wrong, though, when it says, "Speech guides or codes have no place at any American university." I don't like the idea of speech codes much, either, because speech codes sounds punitive and authoritarian, but guides — well, I like guides. Guides can be useful, especially if you're feeling lost. As a university, we're a big place full of people who come from all over the country and the world, people who have vastly different experiences, people who use language in all sorts of different ways and have all sorts of different feelings about the languages we use. It can be helpful to know that somebody might consider something offensive that I've never even given a second thought to, and helpful to know why that is, so that I can assess how much effort I want to put into rethinking my own language use. The guide to inclusive language had its flaws, certainly, but it was a useful jumping off point for conversation and education. I'll continue to have similar conversations with students (my own proofreading guide has plenty in it to talk about and debate), and will continue to think such conversations are not about somehow curtailing speech, but are in fact about freeing it by empowering speakers to be more aware of what they say and how the words they use affect other people.

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19. The Perils of Citation


In my review of John Clute's collection Stay, I had some fun at Clute's expense with his passionate hatred of certain types of academic citation, and I pointed out that often the problem is not with the official citation format, which usually has some sort of logic (one specific, perhaps, to its discipline), but rather that the problem is in the failure to follow the guidelines and/or to adjust for clarity — I agreed that some of the citations used in Andrew Milner’s Locating Science Fiction are less than helpful or elegant, but the fault seemed to me to lie at least as much with Milner and Liverpool University Press as with the MLA or APA or University of Chicago Press or anybody else. Just because there are guidelines does not mean that people follow them.

I now have an example from an MLA publication itself, and it's pretty egregious, though I may only feel that way because it involves me.

The citation is in the book Approaches to Teaching Coetzee's Disgrace and Other Works edited by Laura Wright, Jane Poyner, and Elleke Boehmer, published by the MLA as part of their Approaches to Teaching World Literature series. It's a good series generally and it's a good book overall.

But in Patricia Merivale's essay "Who's Appropriating Whose Voice in Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K", we see this passage on page 153:
Most Coetzee critics seem more committed to the "movements" [of the mind] than to the "form." Teachers of Coetzee should attempt to redress the balance, perhaps by following Michael Cheney's blogged example: "I realized that I was marking up my teaching copy of Michael K, as if I were marking up a poem ... lots of circled words, [and] 'cf.'s referring me to words and phrases in other parts of the book ... an overall tone-structure, a scaffold of utterance" (my emphasis).
The sentiment and some of the phrasing in that quotation seemed familiar to me, as did the writer's last name. Could there be a Michael Cheney out there writing about Coetzee? Sure. (I recently met Michael Chaney, a wonderful scholar at Dartmouth. We had fun trying to decide who's a doppelgänger of whom...) But I was suspicious. I looked at the Works Cited section of the book and found this:
Cheney, Michael. "Review of Life & Times of Michael K." J.M. Coetzee Watch #12. Matilda. Perry Middlemiss, 22 Oct 2008. Web. 21 Aug. 2009.
Apparently, there actually is a Michael Cheney out there writing about Coetzee. Good for him! But what is this J.M. Coetzee Watch? Sounds like something I'd be interested in. And Matilda? And Perry Middlemiss? Huh?




After a few Google searches, I found the source. It is this: A blog called Matilda run by Perry Middlemiss, with a series of linkdump posts titled "J.M. Coetzee Watch". In "J.M. Coetzee Watch #12", we find this paragraph:

Review of Life and Times of Michael K.
Michael Cheney, whose "The Mumpsimus" weblog is one of the best litblogs around, has been teaching Life and Times of Michael K. for his course on Outsiders, considers what appeals to him about Coetzee: "As I read Michael K. this time, I tried to think about what it is in Coetzee's work that so appeals to me. It's no individual quality, really, because there are people who have particular skills that exceed Coetzee's. There are many writers who are more eloquent, writers with more complex and evocative structures, writers of greater imagination...And then I realized that I was marking up my teaching copy of Michael K. as if I were marking up a poem. I looked, then, at my teaching copy of Disgrace, from when I used it in a class a few years ago. The same thing. Lots of circled words, lots of 'cf.'s referring me to words and phrases in other parts of the book. Lots of sounds building on sounds, rhythms on rhythms in a way that isn't particularly meaningful in itself, but that contributes to an overall tone-structure, a scaffold of utterance to hold up the shifting meanings of the story and characters."

Well, golly. Michael Cheney is me! Thank you, Perry Middlemiss, for the kind words. I don't even especially care that my name is wrong there, because at least the post includes a link so that readers can follow it back to my own post "Scattered Thoughts on Michael K. [sic] and Others". (I've added that [sic] there to point out my own mistake of adding a period to the title of Life and Times of Michael K, which I unthinkingly did back then. Merivale changed at least one of those periods to a comma when [mis]quoting me. Mistakes upon mistakes upon mistakes...) Michael K, Michael Cheney — easy to see how such a mistake could be made. People make mistakes in blog posts; it goes with the territory of writing quickly, sometimes haphazardly, without an editor.

But I'm less forgiving of Patricia Merivale's mistake, because hers is not in a blog post but rather a book — a book published by the major professional organization for our discipline — and it's a mistake that would have been at least ameliorated if she had taken the minor effort of actually following the link back to its source. Which is what you are supposed to do, especially if you are a scholar. ("Whenever you can, take material from the original source, not a secondhand one." MLA Guideline 6.4.7, both 6th and 7th editions of the MLA Handbook.) I make first-year undergraduates do this, and they whine and complain, but the value is clear. Trace the source back to its origin if at all possible, because if you don't, the chance of replicating somebody else's mistakes, or at least their assumptions, is much greater.

If Patricia Merivale had made the tiny effort of clicking on that link and tracing the source back to its origin, she would have discovered that 1.) my name is Matthew Cheney, not Michael Cheney; and 2.) it's not a book review, it's an informal, scattered blog post that I happened to write on my birthday in 2008.

Even though the MLA guidelines for citation of electronic sources changed a bit just as Merivale was writing her essay (the 7th edition of the MLA Handbook came out in 2009), Merivale's citation is wrong in multiple ways under any version of the MLA guidelines — she didn't go back to the original source, she mistakes a subheading for a title in Middlemiss's post, she italicizes the name of the post (should be in quotes, with the title of the site italicized), she throws in Middlemiss's name without indicating why (at the least it should be "Matilda. Ed. Perry Middlemiss." — though that would be nonstandard, it at least would be clearer). And though the current guidelines for MLA do not require that a URL be included, it's allowed (see 5.6.1 or the Purdue OWL), and in this case it would have been helpful — I tell students that if they're struggling to figure out what to do with a web citation, to include the URL just for good measure, since it may save a reader time in tracking down the source, even if the URL changes (because maybe the Wayback Machine got it).

Anyway, the point is: Merivale's citation is unambiguously, absolutely wrong.

And it got into an MLA publication. Mistakes happen, and in a book like this one with 20 pages of Works Cited, mistakes are almost inevitable. Merivale's original citation is a disaster, and more careful editors would have caught it because it is nonstandard and can't be parsed according to any MLA guidelines I know.

Does it matter? Not much. Sure, I'd like my name to be known correctly. I'd also like as many citations as I can get, since in academia, highly-cited writers have far more success than less-cited writers. But there's no way that one blog post being cited in one article in one book in a large series of books is going to have a big effect on my life or career.

But it's annoying. And it's disappointing. Scholars should be better than this. We should be especially careful with our citations, because we all know that we live and die by citation. Merivale's and the editors' failures here were easily preventable. That citation is flat-out wrong because nobody took the time to do it right, and doing it right would not have required a lot of effort or even special knowledge.

Trace your sources back to their origin if at all possible, double-check people's names, follow the basic guidelines in the MLA Handbook.

Here, for the record, is a better version of that citation:
Cheney, Matthew. “Scattered Thoughts on Michael K. and Others.” The Mumpsimus. 17 Oct. 2008. Web. 2 June 2015.

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20. Yard Sale – Perfect Picture Book Friday

Title: Yard Sale Written by: Eve Bunting Illustrated by: Lauren Castillo Published by: Candlewick Press, 2015 Themes/Topics: Downsizing, yard sales, change, moving Suitable for ages: 4-7 Opening: ALMOST EVERYTHING WE OWN is spread out in our front yard. It is all for sale. We are … Continue reading

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21. Q&A on Open Educational Resources with Robin DeRosa


My friend and colleague (when I was adjuncting at Plymouth State University) Robin DeRosa has been spending a lot of time recently thinking about and working with "open educational resources" (OER), which Wikipedia (today) defines as "freely accessible, openly licensed documents and media that are useful for teaching, learning, and assessing as well as for research purposes." 

I've been following Robin's ideas about OER, and at a certain point realized I didn't really understand the conversation. Partly, this was because most of what I was reading was Twitter feeds and Twitter can be confusing, but as an outsider to the OER world, I also didn't know what sorts of assumptions advocates were working from. I was especially concerned when thinking about academic labor — all the talk of giving things away and making things free sounded to me like a wonderful idea that would in practice just devalue academic work and lead to further exploitation within the highly exploitative world of academia. At the same time, I'm strongly attracted to open resources of various sorts (I'm writing this on a blog, after all!), and so, thinking about it all, I felt befuddled.

The easiest way to get answers to my befuddlements and to allay (or stoke) my fears was, of course, to ask Robin some questions. So that's what I did. Originally, I intended this to be more of an interview, with me adding more questions after she answered a few, but her answers to my first set of questions were so comprehensive that I thought adding to it all would be a bit much. Better to get the conversation rolling, and let it play out in the comments section here and/or on Twitter, other websites, etc.

I can't say I'm not still a little befuddled. But Robin's replies to my queries did help clear up some of my primary fears and misconceptions.

And now, before we begin, an official bio:

Robin DeRosa is professor of English and chair of Interdisciplinary Studies at Plymouth State University, and she is also a consultant for the OER Ambassador Pilot at the University of New Hampshire.  Recently named as an editor of Hybrid Pedagogy (a digital journal of learning, teaching, and technology), in August 2015 she'll be be a Hybrid Pedagogy Fellow at the Digital Pedagogy Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her essay "Selling the Story: From Salem Village to Witch City" was published by the open uneducational resource The Revelator in 2011.

You can find out more about Robin at her website or follow her on Twitter: @actualham.

Today, Tuesday 9 June, at 8pm EST, Robin will be moderating a Twitter discussion about OER via the hashtag #profchat.

Matthew Cheney: In the idea of open educational resources, what does open mean?

Robin DeRosa: Generally, OER practitioners tend to use the Hewlett Foundation definition of “Open Educational Resources:
OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.
Another way to think of “open” is to use the libre/gratis definitions of “free.”  For materials to be “open,” they need to be both free as in no-cost (gratis) and free as in free to repurpose and share (libre).  In addition, we generally think of open materials as allowing learners/teachers to do all of the 5 R’s with those materials: reuse, revise, remix, redistribute, and retain (these are David Wiley’s criteria; the fifth R was added more recently to contrast OER with “free” ebooks that disappear after a certain amount of time, or rental textbooks, etc.).  Key to all of this is the Creative Commons license, which is the general way that creators of OER make it easy to share materials.




MC: I’ve seen OER offered as a solution to high textbook prices, and that both gives me hope and gives me fear. On the one hand, I’m all for anything that reduces the cost of some of the ridiculous textbook prices out there — I didn’t assign a (pretty good) book on writing about film to my film classes because it was a little paperback that would sell for maybe $12 if it were a trade book but instead retails for almost $2/page. That’s just robbery. I would have loved a website like the Purdue OWL for writing about film. Instead, I made do with a melange of materials.

On the other hand, not all textbooks are the same. Some are actually a good deal for the buyer (The Craft of Research, which I use when I teach first-year composition, is full of great information and is pretty cheap), but more importantly, I think especially in English classes there’s a value to the book as material object, an extraordinary technology of its own, and I don’t want to lose that. (I came to this discipline because I like books! And now I have to get rid of my books?!) Further, I fear the message sent: books should be cheap or free, they shouldn’t have value, paying money for books is a bad thing. That message seems to me disastrous in a bunch of different ways. Schools require students to pay a lot of money in fees for all sorts of things that are not as central to education as books are. Why devalue books?

Before I really jump in on this, I will first state the obvious: much OER has little in common with “books.”  OER includes video lectures, podcasts, PPTs, problem sets, simulations, interactive games, quizzes, etc etc etc.  But let’s just stay focused on your question, which is about books.

There are so many tendrils that one could follow in responding to this, and I will pick out a few to chew on, but I don’t expect it all to add up to an answer that completes the conversation.  Obviously the importance of “the book” in culture is just a terrifically rich site for debate right now, particular amongst those who are interested in the future of the library (or, as we are fond of calling it at my own institution, “the learning commons.”  Hey!  We are not just about books anymore!).  So without touching too much of that, I might suggest a few things.  First, I think the end goal of a program without books is a misguided application of OER.  Some programs, like Tidewater Community College’s “Z Degree” (in which the “Z” stands for “zero”—hmmm), are garnering huge press over complete degree programs that have no costs for learning materials…which does most likely mean no conventional books.  While there may be certain kinds of programs that can thrive intellectually without books, I know that no program in which I currently teach could do that.  So I think with OER, it’s very important to really define what we mean by “book.”

I think the definition changes quite a lot from case to case.  If a book is just writing that is on paper and bound, then a technical manual on electrical wiring, a biology textbook, a poetry chapbook, and a phone book all qualify.  I love a good smelling Borzoi novel, and I don’t think I’d equate the pleasure of reading it to the experience of reading the Grainger industrial catalog (though my partner would actually totally counter me on this).  I just offer this to suggest that we might not always know what we mean—and we might not always agree with each other about what we mean—when we say that we “like books.”  I think, then, it falls to OER practitioners to determine what the purpose of the book is in the educational process.  For example, if the materials are created solely to help students learn (the project for most textbooks, I would imagine), then as a believer in public education, I think those materials should be free to students.  The growing availability of OER in most fields is clearly demonstrating that we do not need to pay 3rd-party vendors enormous sums of money to curate and distribute these materials; most open pedagogues actually believe that static, unchanging, single-author, non-collaborative textbooks are generally not as useful as the kinds of materials that generate over time when the materials can be revised by users.  So I think where textbooks are concerned, no-cost is a no-brainer, and openly-licensed is in the best interest of the community that textbooks intend to serve.

For other kinds of “books,” open might not make sense.  While the public domain license on Shakespeare plays allows for cool remixing, we also do want to read Hamlet in its original and protected form. I think if a book is functioning as an “artifact,” meaning that its stability in its physical form is part of where its value inheres, then that might be more like a commodity, and something to pay for; for this reason, my English courses still often require students to buy novels and other literary texts.  Basically, I think every adoption needs to be set into its pedagogical context, and then it should be easier for faculty to make decisions: always choose the text that works best for the learning that’s happening in your course.  For textbooks, I think the other benefits that “open” affords (customizing, remixing, collaborating, students shifting from consumers to producers, etc.) make the no-cost condition the least of what’s awesome about choosing OER.  In other cases, a book that we pay for may be absolutely perfect (if students can afford it).

I also want to add here that I think there is too much silence amongst OER practitioners about what it means to transfer from a reader of print to a reader of digital materials.  While students clearly spend many, many hours a day reading off screens, there is lots of research (please, don’t quote it to me) that suggests that we aren’t processing information the same way when we read digitally.  Leaving aside for a minute my own melancholia (manufactured for you, Matthew, since I don’t know if I really have it) about losing “books,” I certainly think that teachers should spend time thinking about what pedagogical work needs to be done if we move a course from print to digital.  Most OER has print-on-demand options that allow us to make digital materials look pretty much like conventional books (without the smell and feel and such…I know, I know).  But what do we lose when we reify these dynamic materials this way?

My colleague, Scott Robison, who directs my university’s Learning Technologies office, once remarked how interesting it was to browse the materials at a site like Open Stax and see that the OER is organized into what are called “books” (and they look like pictures of books…even though many of them will never exist in three-dimensional printed form).  Scott has also raised the question of whether we should talk about the “quality” of OER in the same way that we talk about the “quality” of a textbook (this is a rich debate in the field right now, stemming from a post by David Wiley); OER is only really OER (inasmuch as it depends on its openness) if it is a process, in movement, embedded in pedagogy, and deeply engaged in a reciprocal relationship with its users.  I would advocate that we not think about OER as a replacement for books, but think of it as a process, which should be theorized differently from the way that we theorize “books.”  The bottom line in terms of practicality here, though, is that I also believe that we need to do better to identify the challenges in digital reading and annotation, so we can begin to create better pedagogical tools to help work through those challenges; in this way, we can fully capitalize on the potential of open materials, a potential which does so often depend on their digital format.

MC: How can OER and an understanding of academic labor as labor work together? Since we don’t (yet) live in a utopian society, we’re stuck in a neoliberal/capitalist system of exploitation, and academia is at least as exploitative as every other institution. How can OER avoid further devaluing academic labor? And not just devalue academic labor, but avoid further expanding the huge divide between the academic haves and have-nots — it’s one thing for a tenured Ivy League professor to give their work away, but what about the adjunct who makes $20,000 a year and has no health insurance or retirement or anything, and who is vastly more typical of today’s professoriate than the tenured Ivy League prof is?

RD: If we think of OER as just free stuff, then we do see some of the same problems inherent in the production of OER as we see with the production of regular textbooks.  While it may seem that an adjunct could make out better by publishing a conventional textbook for which they could be paid royalties or even an advance, writing a textbook still takes “free” time, and getting it published still often takes the cred of having a full-time institutional affiliation.  For the last collection I published (before I figured out that I really have no interest in publishing this way anymore), I had to switch from one academic press to another because the first one would not take the collection unless I decreased the ratio of non-tenure-track folks (grad students, adjuncts, independent scholars, and non-academics) to tenure-track folks; they requested this after accepting the proposal but before reading any of the content, so this was not about the quality of the work.  Academic publishing is a mess right now, and I always want to make sure that when we critique the problems with open publishing, we do that in a way that sets those problems in conversation with the problems in conventional publishing, which are many (I am not enumerating them here).

So OER may be no worse than conventional publishing in terms of the ways that it can exclude contingent labor, but I know there are fears that OER can exploit contingent labor in a particular way.  For example, if an adjunct creates some kick-ass OER, is it possible that it might get co-opted by the institution for which she works, and used to dramatically increase revenues by contributing to the production of course shells that are pre-packaged, assigned to very low-cost labor (or maybe, ultimately, used in a course with virtually no teacher at all)?  Should an adjunct give away their intellectual property to an institution that doesn’t even pay them a living wage, thereby strengthening the institution and perhaps further devaluing their own importance within it?  I don’t want to pretend this isn’t a valid or real concern, but I might offer some other ways to think about OER that are more liberatory, ways that resist rhetoric like “co-opt,” “property,” and “production.”

First, I might suggest that OER is value-less without teachers and students.  In other words, you can’t “steal” someone’s OER, because it is not a product with a stable existence that can exist in a constant way outside of how it is situated into a course and engaged with by learners.  OER is just free stuff (there’s lots of that all over the internet) if it’s treated this way.  But for us to understand the true potential of “open,” we need to help faculty see OER in a more complicated and process-oriented way.  Joss Winn and Richard Hall are the two people I look to for help in thinking this through.  Winn argues that OER misses the mark by attending to the “freedom of things” rather than the “freedom of people.”  He suggests—after problematizing open ed philosophies that fail to critique the private and corporate qualities of university institutions that sustain most open ed work right now – that we should insist on open education as a transformative tool to help us build cooperative forms of higher education.  In “Open education and the emancipation of academic labour,” he envisions a post-capitalist model (wasn’t it Whitman who wrote, “Am I a Marxist? Very well, then I am a Marxist”), and he argues that CC licenses should be revised so that they work in concert with a public “commons”; openly licensed materials should be free for non-profits, but for-profit companies would have to contribute back to the commons or else pay a fee to use the materials (more about this proposal can be found in Michel Bauwens’ post on cooperativism in the peer-to-peer age).  Basically, the idea here is that education must be for the public good, and that OER is a step toward rethinking where the real value actually is in the educational system (with the people, not with the institutions).  This, ultimately, could open us up to a radical restructuring of higher ed, where those who teach and contribute are not exploited by institutions that do little but mediate and discipline academic labor.

Richard Hall really pushes these ideas into territory that excites me, and he’s also been nice enough to talk with me about where to start with some of the good questions you have asked.  Hall calls for open, participatory publics and co-ops that firmly situate the value of education within the community.  He thinks about MOOCs as spaces that could potentially resist neoliberal projects to control and commodify sites of learning.  The pitfalls here are many, as he points out.  I myself have given my fair share of OER-related pitches at the administrative level in which I have demonstrated (accurately, I believe) that most institutions stand to make significant financial gains by implementing OER initiatives, even as their students save money and faculty develop new and exciting pedagogies.  It sounds like a win-win-win.  Many schools use MOOCs to advertise and then sell their closed content and credentials.  Again it seems like a win-win: students can study for free, and the institution only gets stronger for it.  But if we use “open” as just another marketing tool, we strengthen an educational system that is deeply corrupt.  So personally, I have challenged myself to think of “open” as a tool for true transformation, in which we move away from a commodities-driven market and towards a community-oriented conversation.  This may not directly produce a living wage for adjunct faculty, or bring them economic gain from their intellectual property.  But by focusing on the public good, by shifting intellectual “property” to the intellectual commons, by thinking less about courses, credentials, and copyrights and more about communities, access, and sharing, I think we will ultimately build a higher education landscape that is less exploitive of both students and contingent faculty.  Hall notes that this would “abolish the present state of things.”  So I realize that lurking throughout this, there is a revolution that would deeply upset many careers and livelihoods, my own included.  It’s not a simple path to equity or security, for sure.  But for me, open education has some promising foundational philosophy for those of us who are disgusted by the current exploitation in higher ed.  I’m sick of being stuck with it, so I am heading this way, walking gingerly and trying to avoid the sly ways that institutional power can co-opt subversive movements and use them as a marketing advantage.

[The discussion continues this evening via the Twitter hashtag #profchat.]

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22. Gratis & Libre, or, Who Pays for Your Bandwidth?

via Philip Taylor, Flickr

In talking with Robin DeRosa about open educational resources (OER), a lot of my skepticism was focused on (and continues to be focused on) the question of who pays for it. If I'm not just skeptical but also cynical about a lot of the techno-utopian rhetoric that seems to fuel both the OER advocates and, even more so, people who associate themselves with the idea of Digital Humanities, it may be because I've been paying attention to what the internet has done to writers over the last couple decades. It's not all bad, by any means — this blog is one of example of that, I continue to try to write mainly for online venues so that my work can be relatively easily and broadly accessed, and I put most of my syllabi online. I can do that because I have other income and don't rely on this sort of writing to pay the bills. Thus, in my personal calculations, accessibility is more important than revenue.

But that freedom to choose accessibility over getting paid, or over doing work other than writing that would pay me, is a gigantic luxury. I can only make such a calculation because I have other revenue (the stipend from the PhD program I'm in and money saved from selling my father's business, which, though it's not enough to let me stop working, pays a bit over half of my basic expenses), and so the cost of my writing for free here on this blog, rather than doing remunerative work, is absorbed by that other revenue.

Further, aside from blog posts and some academic material, I usually won't write for free. Both because there are, in fact, people who will pay me, and also because I don't want to de-value the work of writing. Letting people have your work for free means they begin to expect that such work ought to be free. And while yes, in a post-capitalist utopia, I'd love for all work to be free ... we are, alas, not living in a post-capitalist utopia (as you might've noticed). Bills must still be paid. Printers and managers and bosses and technicians all get paid. And therefore writers should be paid.

In our Q&A, Robin said, "For materials to be 'open,' they need to be both free as in no-cost (gratis) and free as in free to repurpose and share (libre)."

It's that "no cost" that seems to me dangerous — the idea that there is no cost. Of course there's a cost. There's the cost of labor, first of all, with somebody working, either for free or not (and if for free then how are they paying their bills?). But then there are all the other things: the cost of bandwidth and of technological infrastructure, for instance.

Somebody is paying, even if it's not you.



OER is not no-cost, it's a movement of cost from one place to another. And that may be exactly what's necessary: to move costs from a place that is less fair or sustainable to one that is more fair and sustainable. That's in many ways a central idea of academic research: the institution pays the researcher a salary so that the researcher doesn't have to live off of the profits of research, thus keeping the research from being tainted by the scramble for money and the Faustian bargains such a scramble entails. (Of course, in reality, research — especially expensive technical research — is full of Faustian bargains. As public money gets more and more replaced by private money, those bargains will only get worse.) (And this, as OER advocates, among others, have pointed out, has also led to plenty of exploitation by some academic publishers, who enrich themselves while using the unfortunate reality of "publish or perish" as an excuse to not pay writers, to steal their copyright, etc.)

OER must highlight its costs, because hiding costs tends to further the idea that something not only is free, but should be free — and it's that idea that has destroyed wages for so many writers and artists over the last couple decades. To combat this, I think teachers should tell students the reality, for instance by saying something like: "Your tuition dollars fund 80% of this school's activities, including the salaries of the faculty who have worked countless hours to create these materials that we are not charging you for, because you have effectively paid for them through tuition." Or even: "I created this material myself and am releasing it to the world for no cost, but of course there was a cost to me in time and effort, and when I'm paid $2,500 minus taxes to teach this class, that basically means I'm giving this away, though I hope it doesn't mean it has no value."

Robin brought up Joss Winn's essay "Open Education: From the Freedom of Things to the Freedom of People", which is well worth reading for its critique of OER, but which stumbles when trying to offer a vision of another route — it ends up vague and, to my eyes, rather silly, because Winn has no practical way to prevent tools that are highly attractive to neoliberalism becoming tools for resistance to neoliberalism, and so concludes with little more than "and then a miracle occurs". (For the best commentary I've seen on the topic of resisting neoliberalism, see Steven Shaviro's No Speed Limit.)

Richard Hall asks huge, even overwhelming, but I think necessary questions about all this:
The issue is whether it is possible to use these forms of intellectual work as mass intellectuality, in order to reclaim the idea of the public, in the face of the crisis of value? Is it possible to reconsider pedagogically the relation between the concrete and the abstract as they are reproduced globally inside capitalism? Is it possible to liberate the democratic capability of academic labour, first as labour, and second as a transnational, collective activity inside open co-operatives, in order to reorient social production away from value and towards the possibility of governing and managing the production of everyday life in a participatory manner?
My immediate, perhaps knee-jerk answer to any of the "Is it possible?" questions here is: Not in American higher ed, at least as I've known it, and not without a massive transformation of labor relations within higher ed. The US government and US schools are too deeply entrenched in neoliberalism, and without radically reforming academic labor, reforming the products of that labor is likely to be exploitative. Cooperative governance, associational networks, open co-operatives, etc. are all nice ideas, ones I in fact generally support and want to be part of, but such support comes with the awareness that if you're getting paid $70,000 a year and I'm getting paid $16,000 a year, our participation in those networks and co-operatives cannot be equal no matter how much you and I might agree that co-operatives and associational networks are better than the alternative. Further, if you were hired 20 years ago under vastly different conditions of hiring, your position is not my position. It's all well and good for you, Tenured Prof, to tell people they should publish in open access journals, but from where I sit, I don't trust that any hiring committee, never mind tenure and promotion, is going to value that in the way they value those highly paywalled journals. Hierarchies gonna hierarch.

OER advocates know this. They may know it better than anybody, in fact, since they're actively trying to bring hiring and tenure practices into the current century. One of the first pieces Robin edited when she was brought on board by Hybrid Pedagogy was Lee Skallerup Bessette's important essay "Social Media, Service, and the Perils of Scholarly Affect", which includes the fact (among many others) that one can, through open publishing and social media, etc., actually become not only a highly-cited secondary source but an actual primary source ... and have no way to turn that into "scholarship" recognized by gatekeepers.

But again, even while knowing that OER advocates are some of the people most aware of these problems, I can't help but come back to the question of how OER work can prevent the immediate effect of devaluing academic labor — how can it avoid being co-opted by the forces of neoliberalism?

I also can't help thinking about what we might call the Dissolve problem. The Dissolve was a wonderful film website sponsored by Pitchfork. It published great material and paid its writers. It is recently dead, and its archives could soon be wiped away if Pitchfork decides it's too expensive to maintain (as happened with SciFiction, the great online magazine sponsored by the Sci Fi Channel). Here's Matt Zoller Seitz on the end of The Dissolve:
Anybody who's tried to make a go at supporting themselves through writing or editing or other journalism-related work—criticism especially — without a side gig that's actually the "real" job, or partner or parent who pays most of the bills, can read between the lines. Staring at a blank page every day, or several times a day, and trying to fill it with words you're proud of, on deadline, with few or no mistakes, and hopefully some wit and insight and humor, is hard enough when it's the only thing you do. The days when it was the only thing writers did seem to recede a bit more by the week. It's even harder to make a go at criticism in today's digital media era, now that audiences expect creative work (music, movies and TV as well as critical writing) to be free, and advertisers still tend to equate page views with success. These factors and others guarantee that writer and editor pay will continue to hover a step or two above "exposure," and that even the most widely read outlets won't pay all that much. Most veteran freelancers will tell you that they earn half to a quarter of what they made in the 1990s, when newspapers and magazines were king. I make the same money now, not adjusted for inflation, with two journalism jobs and various freelancing gigs as I made in 1995 with one staff writing job at a daily newspaper.
It's the trends that Matt highlights there that so concern me with OER, because I'm not sure how OER avoids perpetuating those trends. The ideals of no-cost are lovely. But the process of getting there can't be waved away with magic thinking. Free free free poof utopia!

More likely, poof nobody makes money except the administrative class.

Could it be that OER advocates are like John Lennon imagining there's no money ... when he's a gazillionaire? To which the necessary response is: "No money? Easy for you to imagine, buster!"

Let's do a thought experiment, though, and imagine that OER advocates somehow square the circle of doing non-exploitative work in neoliberal institutions. (And already I'm speaking in terms of miracles occurring!) What happens to students who then go out into the world and continue to expect every creative and intellectual product to be free? Heck, they already do. And such assumptions contribute to the de-valuing of writers' and artists' labor as well as the de-valuing of academic labor.

That's why I think our job as educators should be to push against such assumptions rather than to encourage them, because encouraging the idea that creative and intellectual work should be free and has no costs just leads to the impoverishment of creative and intellectual workers.

Pushing against such assumptions wouldn't mean the need to give up or disparage OER, but rather to make the processes of its creation, dissemination, and funding as transparent as possible. Answer even the basic questions such as "Who pays for the bandwidth?"

Without such transparency, OER, I fear, will perpetuate not only the trends that have led to the adjunctification of higher ed, and the trends that have brought on a catastrophic defunding of public education, but also the trends that destroyed The Dissolve. Without helping people see that, in our economy, "free" really means a displacement of cost (somebody else paying ... or somebody not getting paid), OER will perpetuate destructive illusions.

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23. Craftsy Illustration Workshop: Meeting my Producer


Remember the Craftsy online-workshop I was invited to run on How to Design Children's Book Characters? Well, last month, my outline got the go-ahead (yeh!), so I have now moved onto the next stage, fine-tuning the content.



The company are extremely professional and organised, which is great, as it fills me with confidence that they will get the best out of me (and help to make it look like I know what I am talking about!). They have a huge team of people working on all aspects of the process. First of all, I was commissioned by the Acquisitions Editor, who talked me through the framework of the workshops and advised me while I put together the outline and organised it into 7 similar length lessons of approx 15 - 20 minutes each. Now I have started to go through the lesson plans in detail with a Producer. 



My producer called me from Denver last week and we talked for about 45 minutes about what happens next. He asked me to devise 'homework' projects to follow each of the 7 lessons. I also have to make a list of all the materials I will need and all the materials my students will need. The biggest job though is to time myself, to make decisions about which teaching points I am going to demo live and which I am going to talk through, using existing examples of my book illustrations - I can't demo everything as there is so much to teach and so little time.




I did the homework last week and have started making preliminary decisions about what book illustrations I think I am going to need to show on-screen. Next job is to hunt them out of the archive to send to my producer. Luckily, I still have the original digital scans of pretty much everything I have ever had published.



I have also just had an email from another member of the team: the Talent Coach. they are responsible for making sure I coming across well on screen. All very interesting stuff. I am so enjoying the wild variety of my work at the moment, what with this film, the urban sketching book, the residency, the school visits and of course my next picture book with Julia Jarman, which I start in October. 



What a lucky bunny I am!

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24. Classroom Connections: SURVIVING BEAR ISLAND by Paul Greci

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age range: 9-14
setting: Prince William Sound, Alaska
genre: survival; coming of age

A Junior Library Guild selection

“…a terrific thrill on the page.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Greci has taken a popular if somewhat shopworn theme of juvenile literature — being marooned — and given it new vitality. You needn’t be a kid to stay up late reading this one.” – Alaska Dispatch

“Surviving Bear Island is a heart-pounding adventure that both kids and adults will enjoy…It follows its hero through a brilliant coming-of-age the likes of which are unlikely to be found anywhere outside Alaska.” — Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Please tell us about your book.

 Surviving Bear Island is a coming of age wilderness survival story set in Prince William Sound, Alaska. It’s about a boy’s quest for survival with only a small survival kit in his pocket after he becomes separated from his father on an unpopulated island far from civilization.

What inspired you to write this story?

The inspiration for this story was two-fold. First, I am a wilderness fanatic. I love spending time in remote places that I’ve gotten to under my own power by paddling a boat or walking. Prince William Sound is a place I’ve spent a lot of time exploring over the last twenty-five years, and I love it there and I know it intimately. Second, for much of my teaching career I worked with struggling readers and writers. As I both designed writing exercises and chose engaging books for them to read in attempts to engage my students I became focused on writing a book that both enthusiastic and reluctant readers could relate to.

How did you approach the research process for your story?

In 1991, I went on my first sea kayaking trip, which was a nine-week, 500-mile journey in Prince William Sound on the South Central Alaska Coastline where Surviving Bear Island is set. Since then I have returned almost every year to paddle part of the Sound, doing trips ranging from one week to one month both solo and with friends.

On my wilderness trips I have always kept journals. When I decided to try to write a story set in Prince William Sound, my journal entries became much more detailed regarding what I was experiencing at both the sensory and emotional levels. On one trip my wife and I spent several days circumnavigating an island, and that island became the template for the fictional Bear Island in my story. I took very detailed setting notes and was able to use them, sometimes word for word, in parts of the story.

Without creating spoilers for people who may read Surviving Bear Island, many of the experiences that the main character has are inspired by experiences that I have had. Basically, I used my experiences as springboards for some of the trials that Tom faces in the story.

As I started to add new incidents not inspired directly by my experiences, I tried to experience or replicate what I was writing. For example, Tom has an emergency blanket that in damaged in a fire. For research, I burned part of an emergency blanket to see how it would respond to fire and it turned out to be quite different than how I imagined it. Instead of bursting into flames, it melted and made crackling noises.

Paul Greci author photo

What roadblocks did you run into when writing Surviving Bear Island?

The main roadblock I ran into when writing Surviving Bear Island was how to write a story with primarily one character and have it have authentic emotional depth and complexity. Early drafts of my story were very plot heavy and episodic. As the years went by and I wrote other stories where characters were interacting with each other, I developed my skills for exploring emotional depth, and also for writing in first person. I think those other manuscripts I wrote gave me the tools I needed to transform a single-character third-person narrative into a single-character first-person narrative that was much more character-driven and emotionally authentic.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

Some topics my book touches on that could be utilized in the classroom include, self-sufficiency, courage, what it means to never give up, parent/child relationships, survival skills, emotional growth, coming to terms with things you can’t change, living life in the present moment, learning from observing animals, and learning about Alaska.

You can read more about Surviving Bear Island through the links below:

 

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25. Resilience and Restoration

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I moved to Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana in 2007, a few months short of Hurricane Katrina’s second anniversary. To see the marks of devastation New Orleans still carried, to hear the daily conversations, it was clear Katrina, “the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history,” had left a lasting impact on countless lives.

What was completely unknown to me was the plight of Louisiana’s wetlands. Louisiana, which contains approximately 40% of the nation’s wetlands, experiences 90% of the coastal wetland loss in the lower 48 states. The state loses 25 to 35 square miles of wetlands per year. If nothing is done to alter this, all of Terrebonne, along with other coastal parishes, will be underwater by 2050.

Follow me over to The Nerdy Book Club to read the rest.

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