Friday, April 27, 2007

"Make Me Sound Like Mark Twain"

See larger version.

The last couple of Dilbert comic strips have been about blogging. You can check them out here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

How Users Read on the Web

I found this article on writing on the web and thought it was relevant for two reasons:
  1. It deals with communication in a specific context
  2. It deals with how to structure your writing on the web (such as in blogs or wikibooks).
I've included a link, but here is an excerpt as well:

How Users Read on the Web

They don't.

People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word. (Update: a newer study found that users read email newsletters even more abruptly than they read websites.)

As a result, Web pages have to employ scannable text, using

  • highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)
  • meaningful sub-headings (not "clever" ones)
  • bulleted lists
  • one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
  • the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion
  • half the word count (or less) than conventional writing
More on this at


In response to Amy's comment about the rather "old-school" source for this post (circa 1997)), here are a few other links on reading on the web (much more current):

"F-Shaped Pattern..." From the same site, but from 2006.

"Eyetracking..." From a site maintained by USC (March 2007).

There's a video released March 2007 by Poynter Institute explaining the results of their study.

Feel free to leave additional links in the comments if you stumble across other new research.

Knock knock. Who's there? Basic Writing Teacher. Basic Writing Teacher Who?

Sorry, I don't have a punch line for my title. Feel free to leave on in the comments section. What I do have is a few thoughts on the article "Constructing Teacher Identity in the Basic Writing Classroom" by Jacqueline Jones Royster and Revecca Greenberg Taylor. The premise seems to be simple enough: “we are all racialized, gendered, and political subjects in classroom space” (213). The greater concern, however, seems to be that “while the issue of student identity permeated every facet of the scholarship, explorations of teacher identity seemed almost absent” (216). They argue that “basic writing scholars must cease to concentrate so intensely upon the act of defining these communicative ‘others,’ objectifying them and claiming all of the power that comes with the act of naming itself” (217). The article refers to Jerrie Cobb Scott’s challenge to “‘flip the marginalization coin’ in order to allow themselves to be described, discussed, defined, or named (217). At its best, the article could incite teachers and academics alike to reflect on their own approach to the field, but if nothing else, this process might make basic writing teachers and scholars slower to generalize, realizing that their basic writing students are bound to be just as diverse as the field of basic writing teachers and theorists.

I especially enjoyed the journal entries (allusive puns and all) and think they raise some very interesting questions, including the following:

“What experiences if any will my students and I share? Do we have to share experiences I order to work together successfully?” (219)

When students ask me to justify my grading “who will I turn to? Bartholomae’s work? Mike Rose’s books? How should I answer such a question?” (220).

“When should I speak, and when should I remain silent?” (222).

Even more interesting questions are posed within the material in the appendix, and the activities seem to provide a great starting place for reflecting on one’s own teaching practices (even though some of it applied only vaguely to my experience as a high school teacher). The fact that the majority of the questions are left unanswered is somehow refreshing as well (I certainly can’t imagine Bartholomae or Lu exercising such restraint), and I think this is a case where asking the right questions proved more effective than attempting to provide the right answers.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones and Rebecca Greenberg Taylor. “Constructing Teacher Identity in the Basic Writing Classroom.” Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 2001.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Redefining literacy and changing attitudes about Basic Writing

Jerrie Cobb Scott complains of “the recycling of deficit pedagogy in basic writing,” citing two key factors: “traditional, technocratic definitions of literacy” and “attitudes that pervasively but persistently resist change” (205).

According to Scott, diversifying our definition is imperative if we are to successfully improve basic writing pedagogy. For Scott, literacy is ultimately dependent on context, cultural or otherwise. In these terms, no basic writer enters the classroom wholly illiterate. Every individual is literate in their own way—even it if is only within one’s own family or perhaps revolves around a personal interest or hobby. This can be very important to remember when planning lessons and interacting with one’s class. I’m afraid teachers of writing suffer from an especial tendency to be naturally pretentious upon entering a classroom, imagining their position to be one of omnipotence and quite simply forgetting that the students might serve as authorities in other areas of which the teacher is his- or herself essentially illiterate. In other words, because one’s students have been labeled illiterate in the context of academic discourse, they are by no means ignorant in all fields. Scott encourages the reader to consider his definition of literacy: “ways of knowing, accessing, creating, and using information” (207). (Notice that ways is plural.)

As for fixed attitudes, I think Scott has helped the readers of this article take the first step toward confronting this issue in their own classrooms simply by making the readers conscious of their own attitudes and helping them begin to think about how and why changes in those attitudes need to be made. Scott seems to recognize that so much of what teachers think they believe about their subject area or how a class should be taught is less a matter of personal philosophy than tradition or habit. (I think this is one reason why so much time is spent in the College of Education working on the concept of one’s philosophy of education—a document that is written and revised numerous times over the course of attaining one’s degree.) Getting teachers to simply stop and ask themselves not only “what” they believe, but also “why” they believe it, will often cause significant changes to a teacher’s approach. In some sense, by merely reading the article the reader has begun the “deep restructuring…not only at the level of content, but also at the level of attitudes” (208).

Scott, Jerrie Cobb. “Literacies and Deficits Revisited.” Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 2001.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Personal vs. Academic Writing

It was a welcome break to read an article where the most difficult part was figuring out how to pronounce the author’s name.* However, that’s not an entirely fair characterization of Mlynarczyk’s treatment of the controversy between two schools of thought in the field of basic writing theory. Although her own rather limited observations seem somewhat insignificant when nestled between the two giants, Peter Elbow and David Bartholomae, her summation of the ongoing debate about personal and academic writing is concise, clear, and worthwhile—particularly for those who were not exactly on the basic writing scene in the 1990s. As she points out, “teachers are still facing the question Elbow and Bartholomae considered in the 1990s: What types of writing (and reading) [should one] assign in the first-year composition or basic writing course?” (5). Indeed, this is a question that must be answered by anyone who approaches the basic writing classroom. This article provides an opportunity for explicit reflection on the issue, and though she adds little to the conversation other than in her reflections on her own qualitative study, she does well by drawing on the work of Bruner, Britton, and others to present what seems to be a fairly sound overview of an issue that is still as relevant today as it was a decade ago.

For instance, Mlynarczyk highlights Bruner’s thoughts on the goals of each type of writing. According to Bruner, Elbow’s personal writing tries “to be evocative, to convince by being true to life, to achieve verisimilitude…[and] often takes the mode of stories” (6). In contrast, Bartholomae’s academic writing “seeks to transcend the particular in order to make valid generalizations...[and] often takes the form of arguments” (6).

Mlynarczyk also presents Britton’s perspective on the two schools of thought. For Britton, personal writing is concerned with producing “‘expressive language,’ exemplified by everyday speech,” while academic writing is concerned with producing “‘referential language,’ exemplified by scientific discourse” (6).

One contrast that I found particularly interesting was the difference in the way Elbow and Bartholomae thought about the role of authority in writing. Elbow focuses on setting up contexts in the classroom where student writers are truly experts on their topics. Usually this means assignments revolving around personal opinions and experiences. Bartholomae on the other hand, seems content to provide an assignment which requires the vantage point of an expert, expecting them to rise to the task by, first, researching the topic and, then, emulating the style, tone, and points-of-view used by true authorities in the field. Bartholomae seems to view Elbow’s approach as too much of a compromise whereas Elbow seems to think of it as meeting the students halfway, introducing them to writing in a way that, if not academic per se, is at least more liberating and less stressful. I, personally, tend to agree with Elbow when it comes to initially approaching the basic writer, but agree that students should also be helped to develop the academic persona in their writing that will eventually be required of them.

*Yes, I am actually nerdy enough to care. In fact, I googled it and at least one source suggests mi-NAR-chik.

“I don’t read anything from the 20th Century.”**

**FYI: That quote doesn't really have anything to do with the article. It's just something Chaz said before class. So don't hurt yourself trying to find the connection. Also, I could not find a picture of Chaz on the web, but I was able to find a picture of his hair and beard before they first met Chaz and became part of what is now known down certain dark alleys of the blogosphere as beardedfury. According to legend, Chaz found his beard in the personals section of The Standard: “Beard seeks head of poet. Likes knock-knock jokes, Chuck Norris movies, dogs, and long walks on the beach. Brunettes only please.” If you want to know more, you’ll have to wait for the E! True Hollywood Story.

(I had another version of this in mind where St. George rips the beard off a dragon and gives it to Chaz in appreciation of his verse, but there was a time machine involved, and I hate time machines. They're so darn implausible.)

Mlynarczyk, Rebecca Williams. "Personal and Academic Writing: Revisiting the Debate." Journal of Basic Writing 25:1 (2006): 4-25.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Lu: "Don't Throw Out Shaughnessy with the Bathwater!"

In her article “Redefining the Legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A Critique of the Politics of Linguistic Innocence,” Min-Zhan Lu sets out “to critique an essentialist assumption about language that is dominant in the teaching of basic writing,” specifically that “the essence of meaning precedes and is independent of language, which serves merely as a vehicle to communicate that essence” (57). Her approach is clever enough, if not entirely fair, claiming that: “According to [the aforementioned] assumption, differences in discourse conventions have no effect on the essential meaning communicated” (57). Words and punctuation are little more than symbols used to construct meaning, so it is only logical that the influence of discourse conventions on the writer’s choice of symbols and the way in which they are combined would change the meaning somewhat. By first taking the liberty of defining the essentialist position in her own words and then presenting her argument reductio ad absurdum, she presents the essentialist viewpoint as not merely inferior, but illogical.

She also spends a considerable amount of time discussing Mina Shaughnessy, playing a bit of tug o’ war with her legacy, wanting neither to condone Shaughnessy’s adherence to the essentialist view that language can be taught independent of meaning and politics, nor surrendering the legacy into the hands of Hirsh and his cronies.

Lu’s approach to Shaughnessy is revisionist, and she is ultimately interested in claiming her rightful portion of Shaughnessy’s legacy on her own terms. She seems to assert that Shaughnessy’s adherence to the essentialists assumptions were not fully conscious or entirely purposeful, stating: “If…some of [Shaughnessy’s] own pedagogical advice indicates that an essentialist view of language could impede rather than enhance one’ effort to fulfill these tasks, then the only way we can fully benefit from the legacy of Shaughnessy is to take the essentialist view of language itself task” (58).* And that’s just what Lu is attempting to do here. She is salvaging what she finds useful from Shaughnessy’s pedagogy, which when left in its original context, she believes “enacts a systematic denial of the political context of students’ linguistic decisions” (65). This is inexcusable to Lu who is not only interested in improving students’ writing but also wants to change “their thinking and their relationship with home an school” (63). So she spends a good deal of the article confronting, in her words, “issues that need to be addressed if we are to carry on [Shaughnessy’s] legacy: a fuller recognition of the social dimensions of students’ linguistic decisions” (66).

Overall, Lu reminds me a bit of the churches that synchronize their Bibles with their modern beliefs by literally cutting out or marking through certain passages.** Lu has the benefit of approximately four decades of additional research, yet she seems desperate to reconcile her own personal philosophy to partially outdated theory. Despite her own strides in the field of basic writing theory, Lu seems hesitant to surge ahead and forfeit her explicit communion with the ever-divine Mina Shaughnessy. However, I assume that this need to maintain this connection in order to feel validated says as much about the strength of Shaughnessy’s legacy as it does of Lu.

*Isn’t this an example of the logical fallacy of false dilemma? It is not a way or the best way, it is "the only way.”

**Disclaimer: I sincerely mean no disrespect to those congregations, nor to those who wish to view ancient religious texts as "living" documents, nor to any other religion for that matter. But I think the comparison is valid and illustrates my point about Lu quite well. Hopefully, I haven't offended anyone out there in cyberspace.

And now E.M. Forster provides the answer to that burning question:

Which came first, the meaning or the language?

"How can I know what I think till I see what I say?"
E.M. Forster

Stay tuned next week when Forster answers:
Who's the father of Anna Nicole's baby?

Lu, Min-zhan
. “Redefining the Legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A Critique of the Politics of Linguistic Innocence.” Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 2001.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Tips for Setting Up a H.S. Writing Center

I think I have convinced my fellow English teacher in my district to work with me to organize and set up a writing center for next year. Great, right? The only problem is we're not really sure where to begin. I thought if I posted this here some of you might have some great tips. (A particular concern is how to train tutors from among the student body and how to attract tutors. We could do the tutoring ourselves--it might be easier--but everything I've read so far suggests that this is sort of missing the whole point. What do you think?) I intend to read a few books on the subject over the summer and do a lot more digging around on the internet, but any feedback or advice in the meantime would be greatly appreciated.