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Greetings from the floor of my living room, where I sit, surrounded by 38 printed-out pages of my most recent draft of an article about Wicked: The Musical that I’m revising. The draft is literally cut up, piled in thematic stacks, post-its labeling what those stacks are doing. To my right sits an artist’s pad of newsprint, on which I’ve been scrawling further observations about the opening number of Wicked and tracking my new organization as I reinvent the opening pages of my article. (I use the words “artist’s pad” purposefully, because I firmly believe that academic writing is an art.) I have scissors, a roll of tape, a sharpie, a stapler, a cup of (rapidly cooling) coffee, a can of Coke Zero (mother’s milk to me), a box of kleenex, my computer, and my charger. And here I sit, struggling to get my vision to translate to the page.
Which is when it hits me. At Sweetland, we’re constantly talking to all of our students (and in particular our Minors in Writing, whose coursework is so thoroughly rooted in revision) about the necessity of revision. About the fact that it’s sloppy:
About the recursiveness of it:
About the necessary mix of planning (which you must do) and inspiration (which you can’t plan) that it demands.
And at the same time, the work students usually see from professionals like us is polished, “post-war” work, so to speak. I’m compelled to snap a picture of my revision in-process so my students can see just how messy (and thus freeing, eventually!) revision can get.
And what if we ALL did that? What if, in the middle of any of our revision processes, we shot a pic of it and posted it to a Sweetland Blog series called “This is What Revision Looks Like?” How great would it be to share with our students the difficult bits?
So this is the first of what I hope is a long series of snapshots of the revision process at work in the writerly lives of Sweetland faculty.
Here’s how my cat saw fit to “help.”:
Sweetland is going to the WIDE-EMU’11 (un)conference on Saturday, October 15, 2011 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. As organizers Steve Krause (EMU), Derek Mueller (EMU), and Bill Hart-Davidson (MSU) wrote in their invitation to the event: “The idea was born during C&W this year, when we were once again reminded how lucky we are to have so many fantastic colleagues working in digital writing within a 3 hour drive of the Ypsi-Arbor area.” The (un)keynote speakers are the authors of Because Digital Writing Matters, Danielle DeVoss, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks. We’re thrilled that Computers and Writing 2011 played a role in generating this event. We had so much fun organizing and hosting it, and we’re excited to help keep the energy going at EMU!
The session we’ve proposed is titled Envisioning a new digital writing/rhetoric community web space. It’s a “do” session, which means we won’t just be sitting there talking at an audience; we’ll be asking those who attend the session to engage in some thinking and planning with us. Here’s what we have in mind:
As part of its move to a digital publishing model, the University of Michigan Press will inaugurate a new digital writing/rhetoric imprint. It has approached the Sweetland Center for Writing to spearhead this project, part of which would involve the creation of a digital writing/rhetoric web space for sharing scholarly and educational materials in our field.
The purpose of this session is to ask you to help us at Sweetland imagine and shape this space to best fit the needs of our community. How can this web space complement existing spaces and fora in our field, such as TechRhet or Kairosnews, and existing publications venues, such as Parlor Press and Computers and Composition Digital Press? What features or content would lead you to visit such a site and to participate in it?
Come prepared to brainstorm, question, and critique. Bring along the urls of model websites you visit when you want to learn and share. We look forward to thinking with you!
We’ll report the outcomes of the conversation in this space. In the meantime, if you’re local, think about joining us in Ypsi in a couple weeks!
Why My Best Friend’s Music
Sometimes Makes Me Cry
Am I crumpled in your wallet?
Am I in your picture frame?
Am I stashed with favorite poetry
In the bookshelf of your brain?
– ”Old Souls” by Tom Lester
And so it begins. Fall. Another new syllabus, another new tie. Another open heart eager to receive the thoughts and words of another set of wide-eyed freshmen. The air is crisp. I am ready to go.
Just two months ago I was teaching a course called The Rhetoric of Blogging, surfing through the thousands of blogs that have cropped up in the last decade, energized by my students’ own contributions to the blogosphere. They blogged about motorcycles. They blogged about Detroit. They blogged about Senate bills, sexuality, summer camp. We talked a lot about audience and purpose and why people blog. One answer (based on my students’ rapid rate of blog abandonment at the end of the term) seems to be: for a grade.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the time we had, those weeks when the blogs were buzzing, post after post, the tangible evidence that these writers were “figuring it out.” This is the feeling I get at the beginning of each new semester, the anticipatory glee that consumes me when I’m in a room of 20 young writers whose work I’ve never read. Surely (OK, hopefully), I’m going to be blown away.
Before teaching the blogging course, I suppose I was somewhat anti-blogging, somewhat put off by the avalanche of trivial, self-possessed information available on the countless blogs of the world, blogs which I snobbishly assumed were poorly-written. So why, then, did I enjoy reading my students’ blogs so much? What did I gain from those supposedly “ongoing” (though soon-to-be defunct) collections of student writing? Were they really trivial? Were they really self-possessed? And what did the writers themselves hope to gain by blogging?
I found some answers the other day while listening to a CD of songs written and performed by a college buddy. I love this music. It’s not “professional” by any means, but it’s as good as you can get with a couple guitars, a decent mic, and a MacBook stuffed with modern wonders like GarageBand. These are not songs you’ll hear on the radio. My friend’s music “career” consists of a few open mics, occasional performances at the local coffee house. He’s writing songs because it’s a creative outlet, an opportunity to say what he wants to say. He’s not sending his CD to record execs or cultivating any rock star dreams. He’s simply making music, strumming his guitar and finding just the right poetry to slap down on those chords. And, often, he nails it. The lyrics needle into my heart and, yes, sometimes I cry. I cry because that’s what art can do. Because I know the artist. Because this is precisely the music I can NOT find on the radio. Because I heard the early cuts, the drafts, the works in progress. Because, bless it all, this music is good.
Art doesn’t need to be packaged in plastic or hung in a gallery or bound in hard cover. Art, whether it comes in the form of a painting, an essay, or, even, a blog, needs no validation beyond what an individual listener or viewer or reader can provide. Whether it’s professional or amateurish or accidental, art can sneak up on us, jolt us awake when we’re falling into our sleepy routines. And that’s why I look forward to each new roster, each new room full of young people who will do me the honor of letting me read their words, their college-mandated art. I am waiting to be blown away.
And so it begins. The air is crisp. I am ready to go.
At one point or another, writing anxiety seems to plague writers of all skill levels. In a blog post for the UW-Madison Writing Center, David Aitchison made a truthful observation about the first-time student visitors: they’re usually anxious! Aitchison went on to empathize with students’ “daunting” feelings:
To answer this question: tutors, students — anyone who crafts a sentence on the web — becomes vulnerable to critique from The Meticulous Eye of a “complete stranger,” the eye that triggers anxiety in writers of all skill levels. Read the rest of this entry »
On November 4-7, a group of eight peer tutors and 2 Sweetland faculty attended and presented at the joint gathering of the International Writing Centers Association and the National Conference on Peer Tutoring and Writing held in Baltimore. Because of the port city location, the theme this year was elaborate — the notion of writing centers as “safe harbors”. From the IWCA sessions on Thursday, through the peer tutor led sessions on Friday and Saturday and concluding with the keynote by Andrea Lunsford, tutors and teachers gathered to discuss the ways students and centers navigate these often uneasy seas. Here’s the website: http://www.mawcaonline.org/iwca/index.html
Sweetland was well represented. Autumn Chapoff, Kristen Bialik, Stefanie Gibson and Colleen Cirocco presented their own films and discussion on the issues of multidisciplinarity in the writing center. Meghan Zingales presented on UM’s OWL and SyncOwl programs, their evolution here and their implications for effective writing help. Shauna Russell presented a scholar-to-scholar poster on Non-Native English writers and the issues of Higher and Lower Order Concerns. Naomi Silver, our Associate Director, collaborated with a group of Big Ten writing center directors to address “Issues Facing Writing Centers at Large Research Universities”. And finally a joint faculty/student panel consisting of George Cooper, Matt Kelley, Brad Estes, and Sarah Friedman addressed issues of directive and non-directive tutoring considering editions of the St. Martin’s Guide to Tutoring and our recent initiatives involving course assistants for SCW 100.
This was my 30th academic conference as a presenter and I can only say that as much as I enjoy sharing my own individual work, collaborating and presenting with these undergraduates made this an extremely rewarding conference. Most of these presentations began as a part of SWC 301 in winter of this year and it was a pleasure to watch these students go through the anxiety of writing the proposals, meeting the deadlines, making revisions, and finally working on and presenting their work. ALL the sessions were very well attended. Meghan’s Saturday session had some 30 people in the audience. It’s not easy to do an individual presentation before a group of academics/strangers and she really pulled it off. The group of 4 (Autumn, Stefanie, Kristen and Colleen) had a great audience and I should point out that these students did not know each other at all before they put this presentation together. That these students were able to come together in class and then transcend a class assignment and ultimately were able to have a terrific, useful presentation is incredible to me. Shauna Russell deserves special mention here for fulfilling a personal goal to present at NCPTW — one that began back in the summer of 2009. As their co-presenter, I can only say that Sarah, Brad and George were great people to present with and they all offered thoughtful, meditative and wise response to a central issue in peer tutoring. They were able to overcome technical issues, my own tendency to ham it up, and a lively Q&A including some assertive questioning by a mustachioed man. That I was able to witness 8 former students as they contributed so convincingly to the larger international discussions about tutoring and writing has really been the highlight of my time here at UM.
In her Saturday keynote, Andrea Lunsford, mentioned the Sweetland Writing Center by name as a center that’s “doing it right” — and by this, at least what I interpreted from her talk, means a center that’s dynamic, that embraces but transcends its service function and is truly the CENTER of writing and thinking on the campus. She said, there is literally “no ceiling to the work a good center can do” and after attending this conference I intend to recommit myself to making sure this continues.
I’ll close by thanking all my awesome Baltimore fellow travelers/colleagues (and dinner companions) for their most excellent (and fun) fellowship.
Very special thanks to our director, Anne Gere, for believing in our work here from the beginning and for funding this trip and to Laura Schuyler, the best trip planner/facilitator/contact person and colleague I could ever wish for. Thank you thank for helping us, as Andrea Lunsford said, to help us keeping “doing it right.”
Whenever I work with international students, I ask them about their home countries—what they miss, if they have brothers and sisters there, what the winters are like. I tell them I admire them, and I do—it is a brave act to leave your home thousands of miles behind and come to a new country. Most of them seem either amused or flattered that I think this is such a big deal, which is to say that most times, it does not seem such a big deal to them. But pretty regularly when I ask them about home, international students stop short and say things like, “I do miss it, but studying here has always been my dream,” and “I’m worried when I go home, I’ll have an accent!” Recently, a student looked up at me, surprised, and said, “I didn’t know anyone cared enough to ask.” I always ask, and this post explains why.
My father was born Sabatino Brandolino in the village of San Vittorino, in Italy. He immigrated to America—specifically, to my hometown of Joliet, Illinois, in 1954—when he was 7 years old, and he started going by Sam. He’s the little guy in the picture above, which is from his immigration papers, and that’s his father Fiore and brother Vince with him. My dad was the only child in his family young enough to attend school when his family immigrated to the US, and that meant that while his parents, sister, and brothers worked during the day and went to night school to learn English with other immigrants, my dad learned it by going to 1st grade with American kids.
He doesn’t remember a lot about what it was like for him when he started school in America, and I’m glad about that, because what he does remember sounds really awful. He remembers that the other kids were not nice to him, that no one would be his friend, that he was made fun of, that he got into a lot of fights. He remembers getting dropped off at school and not being able to understand anything, having to figure out everything. He didn’t last long in the first school in which he was enrolled.
Before my dad started in his second 1st grade, someone had the idea that he should meet another little boy, Billy, who was in 1st grade at my dad’s new school. Billy’s mom was Italian, though he was himself born in America, and the hope was that he might make things easier for my dad, show him the ropes of 1st grade. Billy’s mom sent him over to meet my dad, and Billy tried talking to him in English, which my dad didn’t speak yet, and my dad tried answering him in Italian, which Billy had never learned. I’m sure my poor grandmother, who was watching, must have been a wreck. Then Billy went to his bookbag, got out a banana, and gave it to my dad with a smile. It wasn’t much of a gift, but it didn’t need to be—it was a sign of kindness and generosity in a world that was not giving my dad much of either at the moment. There are few stories that evoke from me the amount of gratitude I feel for Billy when I hear this story.
When I meet international students, I always see in them a little bit of the 1st grade Sam that I imagine Billy saw. It’s not really accurate to equate them, and it makes the stakes of my working with international students crazily high for me, but I can’t help it. I am extraordinarily sensitive to if they are homesick, if they feel frustrated, if they feel welcome. I know that there are many differences separating international students here at the University of Michigan from the little Italian boy in 1st grade that my dad was: the students here at U of M are older—adults, really; they are almost certainly here by their own choice; with the size of the international community here, they may well have friends here from their home country; and even if not, this is college, a place where, at least in theory and pretty often in practice, diversity is embraced, different backgrounds welcomed. But if think it’s too easy to look at that list of differences and feel like making international students feel welcome and like a part of the university community will just happen naturally. It probably does happen naturally pretty often. But sometimes, it has to happen one banana at a time.
To the Luddite’s surprise, nary a single one of the first-years in his “Writing Detroit” course had ever heard of David Byrne or the Talking Heads. He shouldn’t really have been surprised as he’s found the generation gap usually manifests itself most blatantly in music. Why David Byrne had come up as a conversational topic was because the Luddite had forwarded his students a post from Mr. Byrne’s blog that Sweetland’s own Patrick Manning had forwarded him. (The careful reader of this Sweetland blog will already know of the Luddite’s paranoia concerning attribution, so this link to Mr. Byrne was found by Mr. Manning on the blog of one Mark Maynard—which makes for an awful lot of “M”s in this sentence.)
Among other things mentioned in Mr. Byrne’s blog, which is quite fine and smart and far more visually satisfying than any post the Luddite has yet to produce, is the Tour Detroit, a 30-mile bike jaunt through the city, and which, it so happens, the Luddite participated in last weekend with SCW colleague Gina Brandolino, her partner Ellen Muehlberger, and their cat Sweet Pea Brandolino.
During the drive to Detroit, Sweet Pea whined the majority of the time, especially during I-94 construction traffic. But, curiously enough, once he was set up in his carrier on the back of Ellen’s bike, the only sound he emitted the entire time was an unequivocally contented purr. Thus, the question alluded to in this post’s title: Do felines, or at least Sweet Pea, prefer to turn back the clock to a pre-mechanized stage when it comes to transportation?
Though the Luddite has a digital camera, unsurprisingly, he depends on others to schlep theirs along and then forward him the photos. In the slide show below are pics from the Tour Detroit courtesy of Gina Brandolino.
A curious phenomenon occurs whenever the Luddite visits a barber. He’s instructed to take off his glasses and within a few minutes of doing so, the Luddite is unable to hear. Or, rather, he can hear, but he can’t make out any distinct words. It’s as if in losing his sight—for the Luddite, true nerd that he is, is woefully myopic—his hearing has gone with it.
This same phenomenon, which the Luddite has always meant to investigate but has never actually bothered to investigate, also presents itself when some kind soul explains technical directions to him. At a recent parent’s night at his son’s school, for instance, the Luddite was drawn into conversation with a mother who worked at a software development firm. Within moments, however, of her explaining the basics of a foreign language acquisition program, a veil descended and there was our Luddite, nodding along to demonstrate his vigilant attention when, in fact, he understood not a word being said. During the remainder of the “conversation,” the Luddite found himself wondering whether his interlocutor were exceptionally generous in her assumption of his intelligence or if she was simply glad to have any audience whatsoever.
In a classroom foregrounding technology, this penchant of the Luddite’s to black-out when faced with the most minimal of technical-speak presents certain obvious problems. The solution the Luddite has worked out goes by the high-minded “democratizing the classroom” or “de-centering authority,” phrases which he blushingly remembers writing in his annual reports. And while the Luddite sincerely believes in these pedagogical stances—to him, the writing classroom is not about rights and wrongs but options and strategies—he is not above also believing in them for their pedagogical convenience.
How this operates in a non-technological classroom is that when faced with a peskily difficult question, he will likely turn to the class and say, “That’s interesting—What do you all think?” In the technological classroom, though, this approach is especially handy given the Luddite’s inability to retain, let alone impart, technical know-how.
Exhibit A: In reviewing his students’ blogs before class, the Luddite noticed how some text-heavy students—this is, the Luddite knows, a case of the pot and the kettle—might benefit from the “read more” tab, which will tuck a post onto another page and thereby require any interested reader to click on it to continue reading. The problem was the Luddite couldn’t recall ISS guru Lauren Atkins’ instructions about how to execute this action. The Luddite meant to email her before class, but his subconscious perhaps militated against advertising what inferior attention he had paid despite all the nodding he had done during their various tutorials.
This dilemma, fortunately, resolved itself during the class workshop. One student suggested a fellow student utilize this very “read more” tag for her posts. The Luddite then asked the seemingly spontaneous question: Does everyone know how to do this? A brief moment of panic ensued as most students looked at him as if he’d asked whether they all knew how to tie their shoes. But one brave student did not, and then another student pointed out the right button, and so now the Luddite can a) do this: Read the rest of this entry »
Monday, September 27, 2010 marks the release of the very first book to commemorate Excellence in First-Year Writing at this university. As chair of the Sweetland Writing Prize Committee, I am proud of the work here, not only as an example of a successful collaboration between SCW and the English Department Writing Program, but also as a way to make writing more visible on this campus.
The book features papers written in 2009 from Kathleen Telfer and Alexandra Park, from Great Books and Comp. Lit., as well as portfolio samples written by Thomas Yeh and Alex Liberman from our SCW 100 course. EDWP prizes are represented by English 124 papers written by Michael Flood, Erin Piell and Chong Guo. While these students and their nominating instructors were recognized at a ceremony in April of this year, there are many people to thank for making this award possible. The visions of Anne Gere and Anne Curzan, directors of SCW and EDWP, my co-editor/chair, Chris Gerben, and the guidance of Naomi Silver were invaluable in getting these first prizes off the ground.
Thanks should also go to the nominating faculty and the many judges from SCW and EDWP. Very special acknowledgment should go to Laura Schuyler from Sweetland and Barb Kehoe from ULitho (the local printer who saw this project through).
For my part, editing this book involved looking much more closely at student writing than I have done for many years, something much more intense than grading and responding to papers usually affords. In my own first-year writing courses, I often teach works by the great American writer Langston Hughes. Why? Not only because of his place in the canon. Because like our first-year writers, he wrote across genres and disciplines. His poetry speaks for itself, but he also wrote novels, short stories, plays, journalism, essays, letters and even musicals in a career that spanned nearly five decades. Plus, his first book, The Weary Blues, was written when he was roughly the same age as our UM students. Hughes begins the first volume of his autobiography, The Big Sea, with this epigraph: “Life is a big sea full of many fish. I let down my nets and pull.” And there’s nothing not to like about that line.
The first-year writing courses here at the university will be some of the smallest classes our students ever take. Not so very long ago, when I was a young freshman, it was sometime halfway through my first semester writing course that I really for the first time felt connected to my school, to my classmates and professor. I scarcely recall the specifics of the class, the readings or the assignments, but I can still feel the thrum of energies behind my eyes and in my hands as I wrote out and then pounded out my papers for that class, writing as though I really could belong to something. I like to think this is part of what Hughes is after when he says “let down my nets” because this class not only gave me the nets, but the boat and the sea to ride on.
What of it? Nothing except thank you to Kathleen, Alexandra, Thomas, Alex, Michael, Chong and Erin. Thanks to you first-year writers, already now second year writers, for helping me remember when I first let down my nets and pulled.
By the way, stay tuned for the 2011 Excellence in Writing call for nominations, with all new categories for upper-level writing, in late November.