Thursday, September 29, 2005

Outsourcing: A Spirited View , a Sunday Meander

Clancy asked us to respond to this article on outsourcing paper-grading, which concerns the pilot project at a Kentucky CC. There, papers written by DL students will be graded by SmartThinking graders rather than the instructor of record.

What do I think about such a service? I've not yet shaped my reaction into something easier on the brain, so stroll with me down this winding path of an answer.

Well, I used to be a paper grader/classroom assistant in the public schools, but I was always assigned to a particular class with whom I worked for the semester, so my comments, though different from the teacher's at times, came from something more than a disembodied voice marking up the page. The students knew me, the teacher knew me and vice-versa. Equally important, I knew how the instructor taught and where she or he was heading with a particular assignment. So, as an in-class composition assistant, I was part of the process, not off in seclusion somewhere, grading all day. (Unfortunately, given curricular changes and whatnot, the CA position has reverted to the seclusion model, from what I hear).

Now that I'm teaching, I can understand the appeal such a service offers. It appeals to my practical spirit, which is always wondering when I'll have time to grade all the many assignments that I create. It appeals to my compassionate spirit, which sees how overwhelming grading can be and wants to balm our fatigue with the finest unguent, in this case, having fewer papers to grade-- especially in a DL situation, where so much more writing seems to take place since there are no face-to-face discussions to rely on.

But darn my pedagogical spirit--it strides womanfully through the unguent- balmed field of papers and to-do lists, and in a sharp, no -nonsense voice much like Caroline Myss's, says "Now,wait a minute. This outsourcing sounds like teachers are being given all of the responsibility and none of the authority. Or very little. "

Well, as long as the teacher of record gets the last say on the grade, then is it really so bad? Are we helping writing teachers or is the next step or two to develop writing courses that are graded by committee? And who exactly, is grading the papers? Just because someone is qualified on paper does not mean that she or he will be any good at it, will the teachers have a choice or will they be assigned a grader? What if you're stuck with someone who creates more problems than solutions during the semester?

What bothers me the most is the idea of the outsider in the class. ( True, grad assistants have graded papers for years, but they are, if not part of the actual class, then part of the college at least!) It just strikes me as ludicrous that one would design and implement a lesson/paper/webproject and then send out for it to be graded. Part of the pleasure of grading is that one can see how the student has made choices and how those choices have worked with the assignment. That's part of the pleasure of teaching. I enjoy the dialogue I have with my students which extends to what I write on their papers and say in emails or in class. Very often, through working on a set of papers, I discover trends that I want to address with the whole class. The work becomes a grind when one has too many papers to grade, but in and of itself, paper grading is not the enemy.

It seems to me that a better idea is to hire more teachers. There, I've said it. Keep the numbers of comp students low. Hire more comp teachers. Give us time to grade student papers in a meaningful way. We don't need the intrusion of another party in the classroom, whether it be paper-graders or Turnitin (don't get me started on that!).

And what about the DL classes, which the original pilot in Kentucky is all about? Unless the community college wants to pay the grader more money to become more of a presence in the classroom, like an assistant, then I think that two problems will occur. One is that having a grader will reinforce the fragmentation of the class--perhaps "depersonalization," is a better word for it. If DL classes have to work harder at developing a community of scholars, then having to send one's papers out to be graded will undercut the effort.

The second problem is that I see a gradual move towards some universal rubric of writing that will be a spectacular flop though it appeals mightily to those who watch the dollar signs. I see the complexity of thought reduced to a national check-off sheet that forces conformity and unoriginal thinking. I see the teacher's role becoming like that of a factory worker, doing a piece and then moving it down the line, with no sense of what it will look like in the end, and no desire to find out, since his or her authority has been removed.

But you know, what I also see is that if we are arguing about paper grading and are defining papers as the linear construct of the twentieth century and not the web-based dynamic creation that the new century brings, then maybe we should be asking "What paper?"

Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Image of the English Teacher

"Robert Frost. Asshole!"

This, or something close to this, is what AJ, the son of New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano says in a well-earned moment of exasperation in season three of The Sopranos. In the scene, poor AJ is laboring over an essay due the next day on, what else, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." Soon, AJ's older sister Meadow walks in and offers her help. Meadow is in her first year at Columbia. (In a later episode, in response to her mother's complaint that she's getting a C average, she quips, "You try taking Intro to Semiotics.") Armed with a ready hermeneutic, Meadow quickly explains that the snow equals death. It's a death poem, she explains. With answer in hand, AJ goes on to write his essay.

I read the scene as a pretty accurate representation of what the public thinks about English courses. There is the idea that the poem can't simply be literal. Along with this assumption is the idea that it is then the critic's (or poor student's) job to unearth what the poem is "really" about, to fill in the other side of the equation. Snow=death. Most importantly, though, the scene dramatizes the student's subservience to the text. English courses are about the reading and interpretation of texts rather than getting students to produce writing.

Meadow is a sophisticated reader and writer, but she isn't really interested in thinking about the questions the poem invites readers to ask--questions that can't be met by plugging answers into some preset scheme. Nor is she interested in understanding how a poem (perhaps unlike any other genre) can embody a problem in language. Finally, she doesn't want to help AJ join a dialogue about Robert Frost, where there is something at stake beyond a narrow reading of the poem. But, hey, Meadow has got other stuff on her plate. I don't know that I could concentrate on Robert Frost if I had Tony Soprano for a father.

I'm not interested in offering an extended explication of "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." Rather, I want to think about how the public thinks about English. How do we do a better job of explaining what we do--both as scholars and teachers? The Sopranos scene led me to think about other popular representations of English instructors in film or television. I think they can be boiled down to two basic types: the anti-institutional Romantic (think Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society) or the severe, rule-governed teacher who stands as an obstacle to the student's true love of literature and writing. As English teachers we are hopelessly outmatched. How can we compete against film and television?

I am reminded of Kathleen Blake Yancey's argument in her book Teaching Literature as Reflective Practice. She draws a distinction between the delivered curriculum and the lived curriculum. A mistake instructors often make is to think that what they deliver corresponds with what students are hearing. I wonder to what degree popular images of the English teacher that circulate in our culture serve to obstruct our efforts. A colleague recently had a student drop her course because she claimed it ruined her love of literature. This fits perfectly with the second image of the English teacher I described: the teacher as institutional obstacle to the student's love of language.

So how do we do a better job of explaining what we do? How do we compete with The Sopranos and The Dead Poets Society? Do we need our own television show? (Math has one, the show Numbers.) Because the public often fails to understand what we do, it makes it very easy to misrepresent our efforts to move beyond a current-traditional paradigm of teaching literature and writing. The public can cry, "We need to get back to basics, back to standards" without any sense of what we've been talking about for the last thirty years.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Thing About Blogging Is. . .

I get lazy. I don't put links in. I don't engage in a discussion so much as I participate in a digital version of call and response. I'm still wondering why Blogger and Typepad don't have the word blogin their spellcheck programs.

Here's what I'd like to be able to do--

have an instalink to places that I link to often.

Here's where my ignorance comes into play: is that what permalink is for?

At any rate, I'd like to be able to type in the site name or the writer, say, Timna or Mike, highlight it, click an icon and be done with it.

If there is a way to do this already, let me know.

In the meantime, I'll work on being more of a blogversational participant and respond to more than what's listed in the post.

That's a promise.


Wednesday, September 21, 2005


We have two new contributors here at CCE, Jason and Timna. Can't wait to hear what they have to say!

Friday, September 16, 2005

I'm Writing A Text-Not- book

This summer I hemmed and hawed and wondered about this textbook project I had been announcing to everyone. I knew what I didn't want: when I circled the book displays at the 4 C's, I saw nothing but the same old, same old, even when it was accompanied by a disk of exercises. BW textbooks tend to be of two major ilk:
the first ilk being the Evergreen model, which is divided into two sections, writing and grammar. The other ilk is made up of books that combine grammar and writing into each chapter.

But it's still grammar and it's still a textbook, and I teach in a networked lab. I have a great deal to say about all of this, and I'll be posting my thoughts throughout the year.

Right now, though, I want to discuss what my project isn't. It isn't a textbook and it shouldn't cost much. I haven't talked with the college yet about publishing and copyrights in this technological age, but I will and soon.

Instead of a textbook, I want to create an interactive CD (memory stick, whatever) that would be connected to an online site. Or maybe I simply want a site which I can pack with things specific to my course and be interactive rather than static.

When I say that I want it to be specific to my course, I mean that I don't want to publish with the big boys. I don't care if I'm not the next big name in the Basic Writing publishing world. What I do want is to be able to create a space where all of my assignments, explanations, links, exercises and outside readings can exist, be revised and change all the time. I want these spaces to be far more interactive than I've seen (cursorily, I'll admit). I want it to be cheap. I want my students not to have to spend too much on a book-- especially since I've yet to ever teach an entire book in any class and subsequently feel there's a lot of wasted paper being lugged around. So I want to be efficiently economical, too.

One of my first steps is to really look at the platforms out there as they exist now and see if any don't already do what I want, or if a combination of things would work.

In the hazy land of brainstorming, I can start to see what I mean when I say that I want to use some of Elbow's ideas but bring them down to a BW level--that is, instead of taking BW student through a 5-paragraph template or a single process model, I want something that will help the students arrive at what their best writing processes are--something that would work intuitively with them or for them, and I can see concept mapping being of some use here ("here" as in right now, here, and "here" as in the kind of thing I want the students to use.)--and I want there to be links say, on that concept mapping page, so that the student who is finding mapping frustrating, can use a different kind of invention process.

So, another first step is to begin to outline (or map) what I want to see in terms of writing online--inventing online--moving through possibilities online--getting away from any lockstep procedure that dictates how a student must write.

As I do that, I think that what I want will be come clearer to me. But I suspect that I'm going to be taking a year to figure out what I want and how I want to express it or provide it, and then, I'll knock out a far more coherent plan than I am capable of articulating right now.

One of the places I'm heading to is, via Kairosnews, the Next\Text Project where I can investigate similar projects. here's how they explain it:

In this networked age, the printed textbook has likely reached the end of its useful life cycle, but a robust digital competitor has yet to emerge. The next\text project seeks to encourage the creation of born-digital learning materials that enhance, expand, and ultimately replace the printed textbook.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A New Year at CCE

CCE begins its second year around now, and I'm making my usual appeal to all of you to think about submitting something to this blog.

It's so easy. All you have to do is contact clc, and she'll set you up so that you can post your work here.

If you don't want to submit posts, perhaps you'd like to volunteer for our first annual "Clean The Links" event, in which you send me, via a response here, either new links to new sites or new links to sites that just aren't working from here.

And include yourself if we haven't linked to you. When Jocalo, Styles, clc and I began this blog last year, we weren't aware of the many community college blogs out there. Now it seems like a full and growing fuller collection. Please send us your links.

Finally, if you use a site that has pedagogical, technological, or theoretical use, and you think it should be displayed here, please let me know.


Sunday, September 11, 2005


I've just read a blog entry by Sharon Gerald, a fellow blogger at Composition Southeast who lives in the Katrina-affected part of Mississippi. Her college reopens tomorrow, and I've asked her to send me a list of anything that she, her colleagues and students need in order to teach and learn. I'll post the list here, along with an address, so that anyone interested in sending a care package can.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Essaying CCCC--A Chair's Blog

Right now is a good time to begin thinking about what we can do as a profession to help our colleagues in the NOLA area. In the months to come, will they need books, supplies, computers, lesson plans or a "buddy" to vent to or go to for concrete assistance?

Whether we develop a buddy list for individual instructors, create an "adopt a. . . (class? course? group)" approach, or donate money to a fund for college redevelopment, we need to start brainstorming.

Doug Hesse, 4C's Chair, has written a post over at the Chair's Blog, which I encourage you to read and respond to.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

How do we repond to Katrina?

Has anyone heard from folks in Mississippi, Lousiana and Alabama? I've seen a post from Sharon Gerald over at Composition Southeast, but that's all. I understand that there has been no communication at all from the schools along the big surprise, but has anyone heard from further north in Mississippi and Louisiana?