case-study notebooks: google announcements page and iPad camera

In ENGL 329: Grammar, Style, and Writing, students conducted a case study in which they used rhetorical concepts to analyze the stylistic choices made by an entity or organization in print, web, and mobile composing environments. The bulk of their work was collected using Google sites Announcements pages as notebooks. I'm definitely not the first person to use this tool in this way, but it worked really well in my courses last year, so I thought I would share how we used it. I find a few advantages especially important for classroom use:

  • established account: All Boise State students already have a Google apps account through the university, and we're already using Google sites for other work during the course.
  • classroom writing: Since students' notebooks were part of a Google site for the course, this writing fit clearly within the class parameters.
  • privacy: During this course, we did public writing, but I prefer that clearly academic work remain within the walled garden of the course site. Posting reading responses or case study entries on a public blog feels to me a bit like passing out math worksheets on the sidewalk. When we do public writing in the course, I like for students to write with a particular audience (beyond the class) in mind.

case study notebook assignment

This assignment ran much of the semester and was completed in conjunction with a set of readings related to rhetorical style (Fahnestock's Rhetorical Style; Lanham's Economies of Attention), web writing (e.g., Barton, Kalmbach, and Lowe's "The Rhetorics of Web Pages" from Writing Spaces' style guide for the web), and convergence (Jenkins's Convergence Culture). Students selected an organization (e.g., Teach for America, Red Bull) or entity (e.g., Piers Morgan, Kim Kardashian) and studied rhetorical style employed in  web, print, and mobile spaces.

Each entry included a description of the artifact(s) examined, an artifact(s) analysis, and visuals (e.g., photograph, screenshot, video) of the artifact. They were evaluated based on quality, scope, and promptness.

notebooks & announcements pages

We used Google sites Announcements pages for this assignment. I created  an assignment landing page and individual notebook pages for each student.

For those unfamiliar with Google sites, there are five page types: Web page, Announcements, File cabinet, List page, and Start page.

assignment landing page

The assignment landing page is a standard Google Web page, and students' notebooks are Announcements subpages located under it. I include a general assignment description and deadline as well as instructions for posting new entries and commenting on others' entries.

landing page

This landing page uses the right sidebar layout, which is accessible from the Layout menu in Edit page mode. In the right sidebar, I added the Subpage listing gadget, which displays links to all pages under the current page.

case study notebooks

Students in this class had individual Announcements pages.

Much like a blog, announcement pages display posts you make to the page in chronological order, starting with the most recent. For example, an announcement page would be great for keeping a record of weekly meeting notes, while providing quick access to the most recent meeting info.

To write a new case study notebook entry, students simply click the New post button. From there, they could compose and save a draft until they were ready to publish the entry. Postings are always labeled with the the author's name and date and time.

case study notebook page


Users can also insert images into their posts or attach them (or other files) to the page. Each new entry creates a new site page, which is indexed in the Subpage listing gadget I discussed earlier.

screenshots with the iPad camera

One reason that case study notebooks worked so well in this course is that, thanks to Boise State's mLearning Scholars Program, all students in the course had iPads. One excellent but sometimes overlooked function of this tablet is the ability to take screenshots by holding down and releasing the home and sleep buttons at the same time. I use this feature all the time. Actually, I began using it by accidentally doing this. A lot. My first iPhone had tons of pictures of my home screen in the camera roll. Now I use it for all sorts of purposes--sharing an image with tech support when something isn't working, grabbing shots of web sites for cataloging and analyzing, clipping pages from the latest issue of Vogue to post on Pinterest, creating how-to documents for students or colleagues. Indeed, I gathered the images in this post using this technique.

csn with image

Students used this function to capture artifacts for their case studies. The example above includes both a screenshot of text and a thumbnail from a single blog post. Screen capture functionality is not new or unique, but the ease of use on the iPad made this assignment much easier to implement. Since taking a screenshot is much like taking a photograph with a mobile phone, and since it is stored and manipulated as a photograph would be, students could capture screens, crop the images, and insert them into web pages--all using skills they already had.

final thoughts

The case study notebook was a for-credit, rather than graded, assignment. I rarely commented on individual notebooks. Students were expected to provide feedback to their class colleagues, and they commented on one another's entries far more than they were required to. As a result, they were able to engage with challenging concepts from rhetorical style, and I was able to read their work and use their analyses as examples in class, all in a low-stakes assignment that required little grading. Although this project was designed for a highly specialized group (upper-division writing emphasis students) in a class capped at 20, the basics of the case study notebook are transferable to other levels and content areas and scalable for larger classes. 

How have you finessed Google apps to meet your course's needs?

managing and assessing student projects with Trello

To manage team projects in ENGL 329 (Grammar, Style, and Writing), we used the Trello app for iPad and agile development principles. I've been using Trello's web application for awhile now, primarily to manage large-scale projects for the First-Year Writing Program. It's flexible and easy to learn, so I thought it would be great for my students to test out on their iPads.

For the ENGL 329 final project, students work in teams to communicate with the Boise State community about an issue that is important to them for a purpose they determined. Teams were required to consider the appropriate composing environment/medium, and the accompanying rhetorical style, when designing their projects. The issues chosen by the groups included volunteering at an animal shelter, the Komen Race for the Cure, teaching and learning with technology, summer outdoor activity safety, and zombie preparedness.

project management with Trello

Trello screenshot

Trello uses cards, boards, and organizations to plan and manage projects. Each student team created a Trello organization and at least four boards: To Do (or Queue), Doing, Blocked, and Done. Some groups added other boards as holding spaces as well, such as a Contact Info board. Students then add cards to the boards with discrete tasks to be accomplished. Trello allows users to assign cards to one another within the organization, to link cards to Google Drive and/or Dropbox, and to attach documents. They may also comment on the cards. Once they have established their organization, boards, and cards, each team added me to their organization.

agile development & writing projects

I've been toying with the idea of using agile software development principles for team writing projects for some time. Since this not a guide for building new applications, I'll focus on the components that drew me to this set of practices: user stories, responsiveness, and frequent communication. If you'd like to learn more about this approach, I recommend Agile & Iterative Development: A Manager's Guide by Craig Larman. I combed through lots of sites as I prepared to do this, but then I remembered that I like books. So I bought one.

user stories

No doubt, the first thing that I noticed about agile is the reliance on narrative terms. I wanted my writing emphasis students to learn some concrete tools for working in teams. It's not that they couldn't work together. In my experience, writing and rhetoric students at Boise State are kind, energetic, risk-takers, and I had no doubt that they would be able to collaborate effectively. However, as these upper-division students neared graduation, I wanted them to have a set of strategies for working as part of (and managing) teams. Likewise, the idea of the writer is steeped in imagery of the solitary writer. We've already wondered what an author is and taught our first-year writers about metaphorical parlors, so I won't rehash all the ways we're already

I also held brief weekly (stand-up) meetings with each group for the duration of the project to receive updates on their progress on the project.

can't get there from here--or, distancing grading from writing

Most of my time preparing for and now working with mLearning this academic year has been focused on students' use of mobile devices in their learning, but one wonderful byproduct has been the impact on my teaching--and specifically on how I grade and respond to student writing. Today I'm going to talk about a grading app I've been using this year, Gradebook Pro.

my teaching situation

I teach rhetoric and/or writing courses. Many of these courses are workshops, which are capped at 15, and the largest classes I teach (ENGL 101 and 102) have a capacity of 25.

screenshot of course site home page

Naturally, responding to their writing is a central part of my work with students, and one of my goals when responding to writing is to have students engage in thoughtful revision of their work. As writers of all stripes know, this is hard to learn. It's also hard to teach, especially in a context that also includes anxiety brought on by grades.

One strategy that scholars in the field of composition studies recommend is separating the acts of responding to and grading writing, and this is something that I've never been especially good at. In the past, I've used one-on-one conferencing, especially in first-year writing, to provide comments to students during the version process and prior to grading. This is really rewarding and usually quite productive, but it's also time-consuming for me as an instructor, usually requires canceling a class meeting, and isn't really sustainable across multiple writing assignments in a single semester.

This semester I am teaching ENGL 329: Grammar, Style, and Writing. The course has 22 students, mostly junior and senior English majors in the writing emphasis.

table with course assignment structure

The notebook entries and reading responses are low-stakes assignments worth 10 points each. The reading responses are designed to check for understanding and to allow students to make connections between their projects and the course readings. The case study notebook entries work like field notes that are eventually synthesized into a style case study report. The guide is worth 100 points, requires a significant time commitment by each week's student team, and functions as a service, both to the course community and the public. The two former assignments are viewable only by members of the course; the latter is publicly available. This course is graded on a 1000-point scale.

separating student writing from grades

As the structure chart above shows, the assignments in weeks 2-9 are performed online and viewable by people beyond me and the individual student. Our entire class community can, and is expected to, read all reading responses and notebook entries. In fact, they are required to comment on five notebook entries each week. And the guides can be seen by anyone. This kind of visible, public writing is not unusual in writing classes, and some of colleagues even require submission for publication at the end of a writing course.

Having students perform their writing in such visible ways have a few benefits. First, and many have noted this, students can been to imagine an audience beyond me as the instructor. Likewise, students are engaging with genres and technologies that they may encounter later. This is really important to me, since the students in this course are almost exclusively English majors in the writing emphasis. Students are drawn to this emphasis by their love of writing, and many hope to write professionally. When we shared future ambitions at the beginning of this semester, students aspired to become fiction writers, poets, and teachers, to attend graduate or professional school, or--and a number of students mentioned this--to get paid to blog. Making a living as a writer requires skills and experiences beyond talent and drive, and I hope that the assignments I give my students both strengthen them as writers and increase the likelihood they'll be paid for their craft. (As I write this, I'm thinking that I should make this connection more explicitly when I'm teaching and working with students.) Finally, student writing that is visible and public cannot marked up and returned with a grade attached.

sharing grades with Gradebook Pro

This year I have been using Gradebook Pro to manage attendance and grading in my courses. Although I was hesitant to purchase this 9.99 app, it has been well worth the price. Indeed, the first year I simply used it for attendance and was not disappointed. When I began using the full functionality last semester, I accidentally discovered the opportunity to remove grading from student writing, and I am thinking about that intentionally this semester. Example Gradebook Pro Roster Screen (

I've attached student photographs to my class roster, which helps with learning names, and I can store all attendance and grading information in any easy-to-learn app that allows for grade reporting that's useful for me as an instructor and for my students. In the past, I've used a spreadsheet program to store grades, and I've found that handy for sorting and managing grading information but not great for sharing grades with individual students. More recently, I've used course management systems for grading. I find entering grades difficult and course navigation counterintuitive on the CMS we use here at Boise State. Thus far, Gradebook Pro has been a nice balance of ease of use with simple information sharing.

The greatest benefit to using Gradebook Pro in my writing class is that it supports my desire to separate writing and grading. This activity is powered by the app's student report generator.

screenshot of gradebook pro report generator

By simply selecting a course, student name(s), report type (e.g., grade), and destination (e.g., e-mail), I can send students an individual report that includes their grade on each assignment for the course to date and their cumulative course grade. I can also add text to the report (e.g., general performance comments) before I e-mail the report to the student.

screenshot of gradebook pro student report

Thus far I have been including comments on case study notebook entries, reading responses, and guides in this report. I review student work, keep a document with comments, and copy and paste the comments into the report. That does keep the writing distanced from the grading, but students are receiving comments alongside grades. I think this is less of a problem for low-stakes assignments and public writing. When students write their style case study reports in a few weeks, they will submit those to me separately, and I'll comment on those assignments when I return them.

like the weather, or, capitalizing on hybridity

My first year in Boise was on the mild side, save the 108+ week in July. Last winter, my colleagues kept telling that the not too cold, not at all snowy weather was unusual. It's not usually like this, they'd say. When I returned from a holiday trip to North Carolina in January, a large snowstorm hit the Northwest. That was Monday, January 7, a good two weeks before classes started. We would get hit twice more during the first two weeks of the spring semester. Boise State bronco statue with snow

The first storm brought with it freezing rain, a treacherous foe I know well. When the freezing rain hit on the Thursday of the first week of class, I couldn't walk to the corner, much less the bus stop or campus. Indeed, part of the interstate was closed, and one of my students could even try to make it to campus. Still others reported near misses with other motorists that sent them in the opposite direction of the destination and back to the comfort and safety of home. This is why, when I awoke to falling snow exactly one week later, I decided to take advantage of my hybrid course. I e-mailed my students in the morning with the option of coming to class or working from home. That way, students who could not travel to campus safely could remain in a space place, but those who were already on campus could work together in the classroom space reserved for us.

Before class, one of the students working from home even e-mailed me about options for working synchronously, and she and one other student joined us on a google hangout.

a hybrid class meeting

Let me begin by saying that Boise State's current definition of a hybrid course is flexible

A hybrid course replaces at least 50% of classroom instruction with such online activities as discussions, presentations, tutorials, and quizzes.  Students can expect to spend as much time participating as they would in a traditional course.  Students must be able to access the internet frequently and conveniently, and must be competent at using e-mail, managing files, and navigating web sites.

For my course, we typically replace one meeting day each week with online activities. During this portion of the semester, we meet in person on Tuesdays to discuss the week's readings and work through challenging concepts; on Thursdays, students post notebook entries related to a case study in which they analyze  rhetorical style in artifacts of their choosing using the concepts from that week's readings. All of these notebook entries relate to the print, web, and/or mobile communication of a single organization or entity and will eventually be aggregated into a formal report.

For the first two weeks of class, I had planned for us to meet f2f for both sessions each week and then move into the regular rhythm. However, with the snow in the second week, I decided to try a true hybrid class meeting. We held an optional in-person session alongside online activities. This had the added benefit of allowing students to try some new things in class (one assignment requires students to work in groups to create a guide for the week's reading using google sites) and then troubleshoot any issues that might arise.

Travel conditions were much better than anticipated, and most students were present in the room for these activities.

There were some things that went really well. First, at the recommendation of a remote student, I started a google hangout at the beginning of the class meeting and invited everyone enrolled in the course to join. A couple of people joined the hangout who weren't able to make it to class, and they watched as I gave instructions on how to create, format, and link guide pages on google sites. Once they had the instructions, students worked together in groups to define key terms from that week's readings and create guide pages for them. With the iPads, it was easy to circle up, have a couple of team members work on reading and selecting key terms, and have the third team member work on the site.

One thing that did not work well was having members who were working remotely "hang out" with the rest of their group. Most students had downloaded google+, but we hadn't added one another on the app or created a class circle. One group that was able to contact a remote team member couldn't hear her because of other groups working and talking, and they hadn't anticipated needing earbuds during the class. Some groups had trouble communicating with remote members, too, because what I had planned as an asynchronous activity turned into a synchronous one. I had not expected so many people to attend the f2f meeting, and I hope this unexpected situation didn't affect anyone's learning too much.

Another inconvenience was that a number of students had difficulty connecting to the university's wireless network. This is a major concern for me, and I've reported it to our technology office. Of course, the help desk hasn't been unable to replicate the issue, so I have started a log that tracks individual student connection issues. I think this is one of the biggest challenges for any hybrid course configuration that uses mobile devices or a BYOT/D/E model. My hope is that universities will divert some of the funds traditionally used for software and hardware investments under the computer-lab model to upgrading and maintaining wireless networks.

Although there were some glitches, for something we did on short notice, the hybrid meeting worked really well.

face-to-face meetings thus far

At this point in the semester, we've started to get accustomed to the hybrid schedule. So far we've had two weeks of the typical class rotation. During the first week, I

image of iPad and spiral-bound notebook

planned for students to work in small groups using google docs to define key terms from the week's readings and then to use the terms to analyze an artifact. However, this took much, much longer than I expected, and that was more a result of working with the technology than the difficulty of the task. Even students who were well acquainted with google docs found working with them on the mobile device a challenge. I think instructing them to use the desktop version, rather than the mobile view, helped a bit, but there is a steeper learning curve than I expected with the new devices.

During the second week, I tried to simplify device usage. We began by working together as a group to identify key terms and analyze an artifact. I think this helped to delineate the task of working with a new concept from the ongoing task of working with a new device. We broke into small groups and analyzed the same artifact using different terms and concepts in each group, and I was much less rigid with how they took notes in their groups. Some used their iPads to type notes, some wrote in spiral-bound paper notebooks, and at least one used a handwriting app for the best of both worlds. This seemed to expedite the group work and gave us time to discuss the groups' results as a class.

adjusting to devices

These past few weeks have been an adjustment for both me and the students. I usually have an idea of how long it will take students to complete a task, and I definitely require my students to use new applications in every class I teach, but I'm learning that things take a little longer with unfamiliar devices. I wonder whether things will go more quickly once they've gotten used to the iPads. In week 8, students will form groups for a final team project, a report in which they make recommendations to an organization for delivering a message to the Boise State community. Starting in week 11, work in the course will focus on that team project, and I hope the mobile device will shine as a tool to facilitate remote group communication and information/document sharing.

mobile learning in ENGL 329: grammar, style, & writing

The spring semester started this week at Boise State, and I'm really excited about a class I'm teaching as part of the university's mLearning Scholars program.

The mLearning Scholars Program is designed to facilitate the exploration of questions about teaching, learning, and collaboration in the information-rich, “connect anywhere and anytime” environment enabled by mobile technology such as tablet devices and smartphones.

Each year sees two cohorts of mLearning Scholars. The 1.0 cohort are faculty just beginning to experiment with mobile learning, while the 2.0 cohort consists of faculty who have already gained some experience teaching with mobile technologies.

I'm part of this year's 1.0 cohort, and I'll be implementing mobile learning into ENGL 329: Grammar, Style, and Writing, in a few ways.

rhetorical style & mobile learning

The first way I am implementing mobile learning this semester is by including mobile technologies into the artifacts we analyze and produce this semester. This approach fits well with the course's objectives. In ENGL 329, students are expected to

  • Develop an understanding of grammar and style as rhetorical choices
  • Learn grammatical and stylistic terminology
  • Analyze writing style in our own work and the work of others
  • Explain why grammar and style choices are effective
  • Experiment with form, style, and genre

This semester, we are expanding our work to include a consideration of medium, or composing environment. Mobile technology use will increase students' engagement with course objectives by fostering critical awareness of the relationship between medium, audience, and composing practices. In fact, this critical awareness is key to meeting all of the objectives.

Traditionally, discussions of grammar and style have privileged print literacies. Instruction in this area has focused on writing in print environments, and students practice writing traditional academic print genres, such as the seminar paper. More recently, both popular (e.g., Yahoo! Style Guide) and academic (e.g., Web Writing Style Guide developed collaboratively by Writing Spaces) resources have emerged for composing for digital/online environments, and students have begun practicing writing for the web through blogging, participating in social media projects, and developing web pages or wikis.

In this course, students think about the affordances and constraints of print, digital, and mobile composing environments.

analyzing style in diverse composing environments

Students will use concepts from course readings to analyze style rhetorically, and most of that work will happen in the style case study. In this project, students examine the print, web, and mobile presence of an organization or entity. This project offers students an opportunity to explore best (and perhaps worst) practices across platforms before experimenting with their own writing and design. The style case study includes two components: the notebook and the report. The former is a series of 7 online entries posted to the student's subpage on our course site. The latter is a formal "print" report that synthesizes findings shared in the notebook.

In addition to the style case study, students work collaboratively to create analysis & keywords guides for all course readings. In this project, students work as part of a 3-4 person team to develop the guide for one set of course readings that may be used by the entire class to analyze print/web/mobile artifacts. The project offers students the opportunity to work as a part of a team to "dig into" course readings and transition them from abstract concepts to practical tools for analyzing rhetorical style. By having a different group prepare the AKG each week, students share the work of operationalizing course concepts. These guides will be published as a public blog.

preparing to write in diverse composing environments

Students also work as part of a 5-person team to prepare a communication and style report in which they make recommendations for effective rhetorical choices when communicating with the Boise State campus community. In addition to a situation analysis, the report will include persuasive pieces written for the university community and mockups of print pages, web pages, and mobile screens.

mobile technology in teaching & learning

One advantage of Boise State's Mobile Learning Initiative is that the Academic Technologies unit provides students in the course with an iPad to use during the course. This has a number of advantages, of course. Chief among them is knowing that all students will have access to a wifi-enabled device during our class meetings. In addition to knowing that students can use cloud-based tools to collaborate on projects during the semester, I am looking forward to having students do impromptu presentations using the beautiful and simple Haiku Deck.

In addition to analyzing and experimenting with writing for/on mobile devices, we'll be using google hangouts to hold team meetings. This is a hybrid course that generally meets once a day in person and conducts course activities online for the equivalent of a class meeting. I've never required synchronous communication in a hybrid or online class before, so this will be a new experience for me as well.

software development & collaborative writing

This semester I am also experimenting with concepts from agile and iterative software development. We're using Trello boards to manage our projects, holding standing meetings, and thinking about the work that we're doing in terms of user stories. My hope is that re-seeing writing processes like drafting and revising will give students new entry points (new lines of flight, if you will) for their work.

documenting the journey

My plan is to blog about this class all semester. As a part of the mLearning Scholars program, all participants are required to maintain bi-weekly reflection logs on a private site. Since I'll be writing on this anyway, I thought I might share my experiences publicly as well.

murmur: a MOOC by any other name

So, I'm participating in this week's MOOC MOOC, a massive open online course about massive open online courses. As a part of Monday's exercises, participants were instructed to introduce themselves to other course participants on the course introduction space and to complete a reading and writing assignment. With some folks beginning to participate over the weekend, and since I am operating on Mountain Time, there were already around three hundred introductions--and they were flying in as I completed mine. Thinking about this from a student perspective, it's hard not to feel a little lost already. For the first reading/writing assignment, we were asked to contemplate a list of questions and to explore six "articles." The readings ranged from blog posts and articles to an online wiki-style guide to MOOCS.  The guiding questions were as follows:

The Questions at Hand

  1. What are MOOCs? What do we think they are? What do we fear they may be? What potential lies under their surface?
  2. How do we approach the MOOC? If MOOCs render our previous pedagogies dull and ineffective, how do we innovate? What do we innovate?
  3. If MOOCs aren’t a replacement for the classroom in higher education, how else might they be employed in our teaching and learning?
  4. Does connectivism make more sense than broadcast-, auditorium-style online learning? Why or why not? What do each offer --- to students, teachers, administrators, institutions?

The writing assignment is a collaboration. Participants were asked to ponder two questions--What is a MOOC? What does it do, and what does it not do?--and then contribute to a 1000-word essay as part of a google docs collaboration. Participants were also instructed to include a picture licensed through the Creative Commons and to reference the assigned research articles.

(If this sounds a bit like a course observation at this point, it's only because that's the best way I know to provide the context for this post.)

As both a writing instructor and writing studies researcher, I found this assignment intriguing. Unfortunately, because I didn't get underway until Monday, I am unable to participate in the activity. Still, I want to engage with this process as earnestly as possible, so I've chosen to share my response to the assignment on my blog.

a mooc by any other name

As far as I can tell at this stage, a MOOC is a way to deliver learning opportunities to the largest possible audience. Period. There doesn't appear to be a shared technological platform or instructional philosophy. Although, as Marc Bousquet (drawing on the work of George Siemens and Stephen Downes) points out the best MOOCs are rooted in "connectedness" and "the social character of learning":

Good MOOC’s, in [Siemen's and Downes's] view, foreground and sustain the social dimension of learning and active practices, i.e., knowledge production rather than knowledge consumption. To a limited extent, certain experiments in MOOC’s that foreground social media participation over “content mastery” realize some of the ideals of Siemen and Downes.

Since collaboration, active learning, and the production of knowledge lie at the heart of most contemporary writing classes--regardless of the environment in which they are delivered--I find this possibility heartening. For those of us who believe (because our experience and research show us) that writing courses are necessarily small in order to enable collaboration, community, and connection, it is great to see leaders in this movement highlighting the value of those ideals.

The challenge, however, is that some early MOOCs have privileged content mastery. As Sean Michael Morris notes, some MOOCs simply scale up old models of online teaching and learning for "massive" audiences. Morris participated in a University of Michigan course on Science Fiction and Fantasy offered through Coursera and found that it employed methods and mechanisms he and his colleagues had used a decade prior:

Granted, I’ve only gotten a glance at what Coursera is doing; nonetheless, they appear to be offering the same brand of content that CCCO offered a decade ago -- but without the innovations and interactivity available when I left the school. The one extra thing they’ve added are video-taped lectures by well-known professors -- professors who, it turns out, don’t actually teach the course (I received an e-mail from a course “staff member”).

This, along with access, is my primary concern. If the most visible MOOCs rely on class structures we've been trying to escape for decades, how are they an improvement? How long have we heard the complaint about higher ed--from students, parents, and pundits--that college students are reduced to numbers, herded into large lectures that allow for little interaction with senior faculty (or one another) and then corralled into breakout sessions or labs led by over-worked, under-paid teaching assistants? This argument was around when I was an undergraduate in the early 1990s, documented quite memorably in Reality Bites. Social Security Number? "It's the only thing I really learned in college." And as labor issues are a growing concern in a higher-education system that relies heavily on contingent faculty, I cannot imagine this MOOC model will allay them.

There is a glimmer of hope out there, I guess. Drawing on a piece by Jesse Stommel, one of the managing editors of Hybrid Pedagogy, Morris points out that this is not all set in stone.  Yet.

Jesse Stommel reminds us in his article, The March of the MOOCs: Monstrous Open Online Courses, that “MOOCs are all untapped potential” and “MOOCs are trainable.” In reality, the shapelessness of the MOOC approach, the vast chaos of it, can likely contribute much more to resurrecting that important connection between student and teacher than can any other form of online learning. Edmundson himself says that “Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.” And if there is any online educational approach that percusses the way jazz does, it’s the MOOC.

I love the hope and idealism expressed by both Stommel and Morris, but I am (as ever) skeptical. I wonder, for example, what happens if you're a shy participant. Or working through a technology anxiety. Or a slow typer.

And that's why "murmur." It's not just the predilection for REM-inspired blog titles. I was overwhelmed by the volume of activity on the introduction thread on this MOOC. And I've participated in and read plenty of online discussions. I felt like a murmur in a lively conversation. It's like not knowing anyone at a party. Like everyone knows everyone and is having a great time. Except you. It's usually an illusion, but that doesn't change the way it feels.  I wouldn't want my students to feel that, and I wouldn't want them overwhelmed by that first dip into interacting with their classmates.

So, I guess as a writing instructor, my skepticism thus far (beyond, you know, the usual level that comes with being a too-young curmudgeon) is a hesitancy associated with anything massive.

I look forward to learning more, of course, and I'm so very glad that we are having a large, public conversation about it. I don't want anyone--especially those of us who do the work of designing and teaching courses, research the teaching of subject areas, or administer (and/or research the administration of) academic programs--left out. I think our disciplinary differences need to be as much a part of this discussion as pedagogical best practices and the best interests of learners.

keywords of multimodality

As an inventional exercise in our workshop at Computers & Writing 2012, we all shared our definitions of multimodality. Here is the list of keywords that came out of that exercise: non-textual genre practices layers of meaning expansive/expanded view of composing spectrum of composers (amateur to expert) semiotic systems channels literacies multiple symbol system at/through mixing of old and new remediation digital & non-digital inventional information trans-systemic (platform to platform) rhetorical canons

multimodal assignment: internet phenomenon project

internet phenomenon project

For this assignment, students work collaboratively to create and disseminate a media object in the hopes of making it "go viral." It allows media-writing students to experiment with identity construction and popularity online; to gain experience with designing, recording, and editing audio/video; and to plan and manage a multimedia project. This semester-long project includes a concept paper with production schedule, a media object, a social media plan with implementation schedule and evaluation plan, a critique, a team postmort, and a presentation.

concept paper

The internet phenomenon is the actual media object (e.g., YouTube video, e-mail message, photograph, song) students produce and spread. For this assignment, groups submit a concept paper for the internet phenomenon. The concept paper is a short (approximately 500-word) document, akin to proposals for academic writing and treatments for film and television, in which groups present the concept they plan to develop. It includes the name/title of the phenomenon; drawings, images or storyboards; a rationale for the phenomenon; and the intended audience and the purpose of the phenomenon.

social media plan

The social media plan is approximately 500 words long and includes a situation analysis, a discussion of tactics for dissemination of the phenomenon, a schedule for implementation, and a plan for evaluating the success of the social media implementation.

project postmort

In the postmort, groups discuss what went well, what didn't go well, and what they would do differently for future media production and social media implementation projects.

internet phenomenon critique

Students complete the critique independently. This assignment serves as an opportunity for students to reflect on the project individually and to apply concepts discussed during the course to the larger phenomenon of virality/popularity online.


At the end of the semester, groups present their internet phenomena, evaluation plan, and results to the class.


multimodal assignment: the commonplace book

the commonplace book

For this assignment, students create a commonplace book in which they use Tumblr to collect images, words, sounds, or any scrap or snippet to aid with the process of invention. Tumblr allows users to post text, photographs, quotations, weblinks, dialogue, and audio and video clips easily. For the most part, this assignment asks students to curate and comment. They are expected to make a minimum of five Tumblr posts per week for twelve weeks. The baseline requirement for an entry is to post an artifact (e.g., a YouTube video) and to comment on it. However, many of my students have used this as an opportunity to respond at length to what they read/view/hear on- and offline and, in some instances, to share their photography, art, and audio/video compositions.

This assignment runs the bulk of the semester, and it is evaluated simply based on its completeness. In other words, posting sixty entries that include an artifact with commentary within the specified period will receive full credit.

multimodality & teaching writing, a brief statement

As a part of a workshop at CCCC 2012 on multimodality that I am facilitating with colleagues from North Carolina State and Florida State (go State U's!), I am going to provide additional information on a couple of multimodal assignments that I have used in writing classes. Before I do that, however, I thought I might provide a discussion of my philosophy on multimodality and teaching writing. While I strive for innovation in my scholarly work--I am, with colleagues, "presenting" an interactive installation at Computers & Writing 2012 that visualizes sex-related content from a popular online dating site, for example--I am far more conservative in the writing classroom. In part because of my WID/WAC training, and in part because I was an extremely practical undergraduate, I tend to focus on traditional academic writing and research, as well as rhetorical training, when I teach writing. I use multimodal assignments as a) a way to expand students' understanding of writing and composing in order to prepare them to communicate in a heavily mediated world and b) an opportunity for students to examine critically contemporary web phenomena (e.g., viral video). Sometimes simultaneously.

I accomplish my goal of practicality through two primary mechanisms. Either I position digital media as a new mechanism for doing (sometimes very, very) old work, or I package multimedia projects as a part of larger projects that involve a variety of composing, editing, and re/presenting in multiple modalities. I rely on my strengths and experiences (e.g., working in the technology sector in the late 90s and early 00s) when designing assignments. Don't consider myself especially creative, at least one it comes to audio-visual design, which is the primary challenge I face when attempting to develop innovative assignments. However, the collaborative nature of the fields of composition and writing studies offers opportunities to work with others to explore exciting new avenues.

endgame--or, out of time

Apologies for a second, tenuous REM song/album title connection to a post. If you know me and are familiar with my previous forays into blogging, then you know how I adore blog titles that are a) only tangentially related to the blog topic and b) song titles or lyrics. Anyway, on to the point of this blog. This week the CRDM program sponsored an excellent roundtable discussion on the academic job market. The discussion included fourth-year students who were on the market this year and faculty members who have served on search committees recently. This productive conversation allowed for students in the program to receive perceptions of the market, but it didn't include a practical component with strategies for a successful year on the market. The biggest piece of advice that I have on this topic is simple: Know what works for you. Having said that, I'll tell you what worked for me.

Hit the ground running

I started the semester with a strategy for searching for jobs.

  1. I generally determined the kinds of jobs I would be most interested in. For me, that meant jobs in rhet/comp or media and/or cultural studies with specializations in digital or social media in areas I wouldn't mind living in. Whenever possible, I tried to get information on whether I would be interested in working in the department. After a discussion with a colleague, I did choose not to apply to a job that fit my other criteria based on his/her knowledge of the program.
  2. For years now, I have subscribed to a number of listservs related to my fields, and I began monitoring them closely for job postings appropriate to my skills and experience.
  3. I determined additional sites that would be appropriate to my job search. It depends on the field, of course, but I checked jobs on higher education sites (e.g., The Chronicle) about once per week.
  4. Once the MLA Job Information List was published, I checked it fortnightly for updates.
In addition to this commonsense search strategy, I also began the semester with an updated CV, a basic cover letter, and a teaching philosophy. (I wish I had also started it with a dissertation abstract, multiple writing samples, and evidence of teaching effectiveness.) I made arrangements with the members of my dissertation committee to provide me with letters of recommendation. (I should also say at this point that I subscribed to Interfolio and was able to request confidential letters of recommendation through the site.)

Choose a system of organization that works for you

I had a multi-pronged system of organization that bordered on obsessive. It centered on three things

  • Things for Mac: I use Cultured Code's Things for Mac to manage all of my tasks, and job searching is no different. When I found a job I was interested in, I copied it into a Things to-do item. This program allows you to right-click from a page on the interwebs and create a new task. I would actually create two tasks in Things for all new jobs: 1) the deadline for sending information about it to my committee and 2) the deadline for the position.
  • A Google Spreadsheet: I used a google spreadsheet to I shared with my committee that included all of the jobs I planned to apply for, their deadlines, the departments they were in, and the materials they required. It is highly important to track the required materials and to share them with the committee. Every school wants something different, and both you and your committee need to know that. I added columns as schools requested additional information or scheduled conference/phone and campus interviews. I also used highlighting to indicate completed applications and, later in the process, whether I was still in the running for a position.
  • Folders on My Laptop: I created a folder on my laptop with the materials I sent to each school.
  • Physical Folders: I'm old, so I also had physical folders that included all the same materials that were in the folders on my laptop. These project pockets (hello, years in industry!) also included a coversheet with a checklist of items required for the application.

Determine how long you think each app will take--then triple that

In order to customize materials for each job, I researched the program, department, university, and city. I tailored my cover letter to the needs of each department and university community. Whenever I had an interview with a school, I went into it with a detailed table that included information on all of the people I would talk to, courses I could teach in the department, courses I could propose for the department, an understanding of the department's structure and its role in the college (and the college's role in the university), and the university's strategic plan. It took hours to prepare each application packet. It took many, many more hours to prepare for interviews.

Remember that it has nothing to do with you

Probably the biggest piece of advice I can offer related to the job search is just to prepare yourself as best you can, put yourself in the best possession to get a job, take the process seriously, and then let go. The job search is a lot like poker. You can get your money in the middle in the best position to win, but you can't control how the cards fall. There are so many things out of your control, so many things that have absolutely nothing to do with you, that you just can't take it personally. If graduate school is soul crushing, then the job search is soul eviscerating. In order to survive it, even if it results in a fantastic job that you're elated to have (which is the case with me), it's still pretty much impossible to come through without a few nicks.

good advices -- or, fables of the reconstruction

I am a reluctant advice-giver. This doesn't mean that I'm neither helpful nor opinionated. I like to think of myself as the former--and I know (and pretty much anyone who has ever met me knows) I am the latter. I generally don't like to give advice, though, because I always feel a little especially selfish while dispensing it, primarily because it takes attention away from the person I'm trying to help and focuses it on me. Lately, I've noticed more frequent instances of advice giving. This advice is usually related to the exam-taking and/or job-searching endeavors of Phd students, and it is almost always unsolicited. Recently a friend and second-year student in my program tweeted about her desire to throw in the towel. This is not unusual for Phd students, as anyone who has the "pleasure" of spending time with us can attest. I have threatened to quit on numerous occasions. More often than not, the threat level fell in the blue-green range. However, there were definitely a couple of red-level days. Of course, I'm glad that I never quit. I'm working on a project I'm absolutely committed to, and I have the great fortune to be joining the faculty of a wonderful department in the fall. My point here is, and I tend to take the winding road to my points, that I'm going to offer some advice here. I've decided to do it for two reasons. First, as I mentioned earlier, I have some things I'd like to share with my twittering friend, and I can't do it in 140 characters. I could send her an e-mail, but that gets me to my second reason for writing this post. Over the past couple of semesters, I have been requiring my students to blog about a topic/interest across the course of the semester. One concern that many have is their lack of authority as authors. I think it's a legitimate concern, but I encourage them to find a niche and join the conversation. (I will add that this is a media-writing class that is generally taken by students who hope to be professional writers and therefore must become accustomed to engaging in public writing. I'm not sure how I feel about these sorts of assignments in other kinds of writing classes, but that's a conversation for another time.) Truth be told, I suffer from those same authorial doubts. And if I, a burgeoning expert (oh, that still feels sooo uncomfortable) in my field, can't blog on a topic, how can I expect them to? So this is also a case of my doing some practicing to go along with all the preaching I do (and must do) as a writing instructor.

Now that i've sufficiently situated my advice-giving so as to distance myself from the act of choosing to give it, here goes.

One of the reasons graduate school is so completely ego ravaging is that it's a struggle to assume a new identity (Phd student) only to be forced out of it. The goal of being a graduate student is not being a graduate student anymore. Once you get comfortable as a successful seminar participant, you've finished your coursework. Once you figure out how to succeed with taking preliminary exams, you will (hopefully!) never take another exam. All the while, you're also trying on different scholarly identities, donning different cloaks of thought. If you're in an interdisciplinary program (like me), your academic closet is of the walk-in variety, the kind that gets special attention in real estate listings, perhaps even multiple photos in the virtual tour. Playing dress-up is fun, but when it comes to determining the uniform of your life's work, it can be anxiety inducing as well. I am not saying that it's necessary--or even a good idea--to pick a narrow specialty. (I am certainly not advocating teaching the pony to count to five and nothing more. Goodness knows I have worked very hard not to become the Buffy girl. By the way, since we're in a parenthetical aside here, I take full license to move between metaphors willy-nilly.) I think my work spans a pretty wide spectrum. From twenty-thousand feet, it probably looks more than a bit scattered. However, there are clear themes (identity construction, the problematic of a public-private binary, the study of cultural practices) that run through my research trajectory, regardless of the diversity of methods and the disciplines I choose to engage with.

Although I know I still have plenty to learn--and a lot of work to do--I have an increasingly clear idea of who I want to be as a scholar, and I am working every day (well, most days, anyway) to become that person. I think the most important thing, though, is owning it--taking responsibility, avoiding defensiveness, and (no matter what my TCM doctor tells me about my sodium intake) taking every single thing with a grain of salt. In the words of the venerable Chuck D, don't believe the hype--and that goes for your toughest criticism as well as your highest praise. Sycophants and naysayers rarely have your best interests at heart.

However, and this is a big one, voraciously consume (after seasoning it with the aforementioned salt grains) all feedback on your work. Whenever possible, ask for clarification and follow-up. If others take the time to comment on your writing, you owe it to them and you to take the time to take it in, reflect on it, incorporate it whenever possible (and understand when its not appropriate to do so). In graduate school, you have a captive audience of experts and peers--first in coursework and then on your committee--and that might not be the case in the future. Take full advantage of this situation.

Another ego-ravaging part of this process is that fact that we spend almost all of our time with really smart people--people we usually think are smarter than we are. That may or may not be true, but it doesn't matter. Comparing yourself to others is, at best, unproductive. More than likely, comparing yourself to classmates or scholars in your field or Charlie Sheen is going to make you feel like a fraud, a sham, a loser. How do I know this? Because we've all done it, and we tend to compare ourselves to others when we're feeling especially low. The only comparison you can make in which all variables are accounted for and all playing fields are equal is to yourself. Every now and then, revisit where you were when you started. Reread your thesis. I think you'll surprised, both by how good it was and by how much better you are now.

In my second year, I had an identity crisis of sorts. I was struggling with how to balance "friend" Dawn with "scholar" Dawn. My friends had always thought of me as a fun girl -- carefree, maybe a little too loud, first to the front of the stage at the rock show, last to leave the party -- but I felt that I couldn't be a fun girl and a serious scholar. It was tension in my self-conception that felt unresolvable. I felt that I couldn't both be the person my friends and family loved and be a serious and productive scholar. I'm not sure exactly where I go this idea, but I was wrong. Now I don't stay out as late as I used to, and I've pretty much traded in all rock shows for late-night rounds of BSG or Dominion (or, on one rare occasion, Talisman), but it is possible to be fun and serious. If you're fun and serious. If you're only fun or only serious, that's okay, too. If you're going to be only fun, however, you'd better be seriously good. My (academic) writing tends to be straightforward with the occasional splash of whimsy, so I'm not much of a pranker/playa.

I can feel myself losing the tenuous hold I have on this post, so I'm going to make one last point (and then I'm going to make dinner), but I think it might be the most important one. Never pretend to know more than you know. In fact, I tend to approach most every subject as if I know less than I probably do. I find that I learn more that way and that I'm more open to new ways of thinking. Plus, it's hard to come off as an ass that way. However, I think it's important to maintain an air of confidence and competence. Don't play dumb. It's can be an easy way out for women and girls, but it's a cheat. Be confident and competent, fun and serious. Be good and good at what you do. Don't be an ass. It's a tough game, and the rules aren't written down anywhere that I could find (not even on the internets!), but it's kind of a calling, if you believe in that sort of thing. So just accept that you've made this crazy life choice and own it.

playing by the (foursquare) rules

Some of my fellow CRDMers and I have been experimenting with Foursquare. I am a firm believer that academics should spend time using/playing/working with the technologies they study. Since some of the folks in our program study mobile locative media (and games), a group of us regularly experiments with applications or programs that either seem interesting or seem to be catching on. This time around it's Foursquare. I won't provide a review or detail our experience, but I will say that that we're having a good time. And unlike some of the other applications we've tried (I'm looking at you, loopt), I actually see (at least marginal) value in using it. It was with great interest, she said hyperbolically, that I read a recent LA Times blog post on Foursquare cheating. You see, we had just had a discussion about this last week, except for us it was pranking and not cheating. Users can create and check into locations willy-nilly, so what's to stop me from checking into a friend's home when he leaves a rousing game of Dominion to get in a little late-night studying. You know, just for example. The subject of the blog post took it even further, going so far as to create bots to grab mayorships in something like 120 Starbucks locations. In describing his antics, he bemoaned Foursquare's lax security. He seems concerned that the game has no rules.

Oddly, this reminds of the two projects I'm working on currently, two projects that send me in two lines of flight as I write. And that causes me to think that they're more closely related than I've realized. I won't touch on both here, but I will address one briefly, primarily because it's an idea that I've been working through lately, and the subject of my Carolina Rhetoric Conference presentation on Saturday. You see, there are rules that govern Foursquare, just as there are rules that govern all communication. Sure, you can do lots of things on Foursquare--create joke locations, become the mayor of the busstop--that aren't sanctioned by the game. But what makes it okay in my circle to check-in at home when we wake up in the morning, but makes us feel bad for checking in to a friend's house when he's not at home? I think it's because we've decided (somehow) on what is appropriate, and I think that appropriateness is determined by how we are choosing to use this game. Although it's fun to check the leaderboard to see who's winning that week, we actually seem to be more interested in keeping tabs on one another. Perhaps that terminology is a bit too sinister, but it allows us to know where people are. Whenever someone cheats (or pranks) the system by checking in where she's not, then that function's value is diminished for us. So, like so many (rhetorical) situations, what is at stake here is the question of appropriateness, or decorum.