Thursday, December 8, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Rubrics

image by artzsamui
At this point, most instructors are in the throes of evaluating student work, whether these are final exams, major projects, or simply the last assignment of the semester.  Many teachers across MCC-Longview use a rubric or some kind of scoring guide to facilitate the grading process.

Rubrics are wonderful tools when they are custom-made to fit an assignment because they can help ensure consistency and objectivity.  They are also an excellent way to communicate explicitly the most important aspects of an assignment and let students see exactly how their work is judged.

But a rubric loses value as an evaluation and communication device if it is generic and not designed to reflect the specific nature of the project or writing task at hand.  It also loses its luster if it's too packed with attributes.  Designing one is a really good exercise in prioritizing.

Chapter 14 in John Bean's newly revised Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (2011) is a great primer on the theory behind analytic and holistic rubrics and the rationale for using them: "Using Rubrics to Develop and Apply Grading Criteria."

For even more comprehensive info on how to create a rubric, you can't do better than Walvoord and Johnson's Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College (2010).  This 2nd edition is chock-full of sample rubric formats from across disciplines and offers up their savvy take on time management when it comes to teaching and grading. 

If you are not feeling too creative at this point of the semester and need a jump start to develop a rubric for a project, consult the free RubiStar website for an array of templates that permit you to input the assignment criteria and select a rubric format and specific features:

RubiStar was one of the first online tools of this sort and was developed at the University of Kansas School of Education in the mid-1990s.  Such teaching tools have since proliferated on the web and some are pretty pricey.

Just resist the temptation to grab a generic one and go.  You'll likely end up losing precious grading time to the frustration you'll feel at its crudeness and inability to capture the nuances of your well-designed assignment.

But if this semester has already pulled away from you entirely in its final moments, don't hesitate to contact me over break or at the beginning of next semester for assistance and support in tailor-making rubrics to match your assignments, great and small.  As always, I'd be more than happy to help, especially if you are looking to get a head start on next semester.

Wishing all a relaxing break,


Monday, November 14, 2011

WAC Teachers Talk: Melissa Eaton on her Cultural Anthropology Assignment

Today's post features an interview with Melissa Eaton, Anthropology instructor at MCC-Longview, about her interesting ethnography assignment in her Cultural Anthropology class.  The assignment is based on two scenes from Aldous Huxley's novel, Brave New World. 

Melissa originally conceived of the project when this book was selected as MCC-Longview's common reading last year.  She found it so effective in advancing student understanding of key anthropology concepts that she continues to use the book as the foundation of a semester-long project she describes in detail in this interview. 

To see her assignment, click here.  To find out how she designed it, click here.  To find out more about Melissa, read her WAC profile.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Next Stop: The Intersection of Plagiarism and Social Media

image by Master Isolated Images

There are signs all around us that things are changing: gas prices dropping, leaves falling from trees, new technologic accoutrements being released daily, and celebrities disappearing from reality TV shows as quickly as you can say, "Dancing With the Stars." 

Actually, we need look no further than our own use of language and ideas to see evidence of a few seismic and probably even more momentous shifts now underway.

Intersections of cultural phenomena have tugged on our academic universe in some fascinating ways.  Last week a group of WAC faculty gathered to discuss a few such intersections, including concepts of plagiarism and concepts of social media, both of which seem markedly in flux.

To wit:  memes have surfaced as the new backbone of popular culture, especially for those under 20 years of age.  What's a meme?  Well, if you are one of the 19 million people who have viewed or made reference to "keyboard cat" over the past several years, you have been privy to a meme.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, watch here:

This New York Times article offers a brief explanation of memes for those like me who hadn't a clue that the obsession with cats playing the piano belied far more than a collective eccentricity of folks who favor felines: "Internet Memes 101: A Guide to Online Wackiness" by David Pogue. He includes links to other memes, like "Dramatic Prairie Dog," the video for the song "Friday," and the real-world participatory practice called "planking."

But the most instructive information I found in regard to defining memes came from a PBS Arts video (Offbook: PBS video online), aptly titled, "How to Explain Memes to Your Parents."  The handful of people interviewed in this brief film offer some insight into how memes are constructed and, importantly, why.

So memes are now a main staple of social media and pop culture: at their best, irreverent commentaries on society, and at their worst, the social media version of chain letter emails.

What has this got to do with plagiarism?  Well, the social and cultural values promoted in the development and distribution of memes include levels of collaboration as well as the fundamental notion of imbuing images with a unique twist or spin.  Such twists or spins are essentially the embellishment of an existing image without any acknowledgment of the image's origins and without expectation of any attribution for the newly conceived image launched into a viral spiral via social media.

If such experiences are part and parcel of the experience of younger users of technology, then it follows that boundaries around what constitutes intellectual property and how to appropriately cull and cite information from sources could appear somewhat blurred for them.  It's highly likely that his blurring of boundaries could and does create some measure of confusion for students when it comes to documenting academic sources.

Susan Blum, Professor of Anthropology at Notre Dame and author of My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture, explains in one chapter of her book "how the practice of citation---the antidote to plagiarism---arose and how the norms ...on which it is based are being challenged.  It seems that rather than being entirely ignorant of the principles of citation, students are often aware of them but do not entirely accept them (29)."
Some instructors present at our discussion last week decided that memes and other examples from social media might serve as useful points of class discussion in helping students better distinguish the expectations of creditable and credible academic work and the importance of fully developing one's own ideas within a larger realm of thought.  Our students, after all, are just entering the conversations that have gone on in some discipline contexts for centuries.  We must imagine new ways to throw them the ropes. 

And however creative, innovative, irreverent, or just plain wacky popular culture ever is, the behaviors attached to using the latest, greatest techno tools might need adjusting when transferred to other complex environments, both professional and educational.  Such environments typically demand thoughtful deliberation and careful consideration of multiple perspectives in order to achieve the intellectual maturation that instant gratification, fleeting Internet notoriety, or sheer glibness rarely yields.

YOUR thoughts on these matters?

For more reading on these topics, see the Further Reading section of the blog.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Timing is Everything or The Readiness is All

image by winond
Welcome back to The Lake Effect!  Though the blog blog has been on hiatus for the past two months, MCC-Longview's WAC Program has certainly kept busy, offering the first WAC Institute for Community Colleges in June, visiting with new students at the Resource Fair last week, preparing for the upcoming Introductory WAC Workshop and subsequent mini-workshop on issues related to plagiarism and social media, and helping instructors launch their assignments this semester through individual consultations and classroom visits.

WAC table at Resource Fair
photo by Liz Harmon, courtesy of the Longview Current

The WAC Institute went off without a hitch, thanks to the support of nearly every area of this campus.  All of the feedback from participants, who were community college WAC program directors from across the country, indicated that the experience was extremely beneficial and valuable, which was quite heartening given the time and energy that had been devoted to planning it.  Participants departed with new ideas and practical strategies for how to create or sustain a WAC Program at their own college.  As this was precisely the aim, the facilitators deemed the event a success.

Cultural Arts Center-MCC Longview
image courtesy of MCC

I would assert, however, that something else happened almost instantaneously: From the moment the participants and facilitators took their seats in the Cultural Arts Center, a community formed.  The speed and ease with which participants jumped into activities and discussions led by the facilitators and presenters who guided them suggested that the time was ripe for these conversations to occur. 

That is, participants came hungry for the very information facilitators and presenters by their experience and expertise were poised to offer.  Or, as Shakespeare's Hamlet has occasion to say in Act V, scene ii, "The readiness is all."

photo by Matt Banks

There was palpable synergy evident throughout the three days despite the acute fatigue noted by all at the end of the final session.  Working in such ways is exhausting, but, importantly, also exhilirating and rewarding.  When people meet face to face over mutual concerns and accord each other a healthy respect, great things are bound to happen. 

We've already heard some terrific reports of participants incorporating ideas from the WAC Institute into their home programs: Some are diligently working on developing programs based on design principles and best practices learned here.  Others are recasting existing programs by shifting emphases and adding features to strengthen their impact.

From the perspective of the facilitators and presenters, the institute offered a chance to give back to WAC.  As noted throughout the 25th anniversary celebrated last year, MCC-Longview's WAC Program has certainly enjoyed tremendous support from all corners of our campus---faculty, staff, administrators, students. 

But we have also benefited greatly though far less obviously from collegial sharing by WAC mentors, colleagues, and programs at other colleges via postings on listservs, phone conversations, college visits, conference sessions, websites, etc.  Scholarship on college writing and WAC produced by scholars and researchers in the fields of rhetoric and composition as well as other disciplines has also powerfully influenced the trajectory of this program.

Frankly, very recent reports produced by by two and four-year college researchers identifying some of the difficulties inherent in sustaining WAC in the community college setting were part of the impetus for us to create the WAC Institute.

And so 25 years' worth of growing a program serendipitously crystallized into a moment of academic philanthropy.

The upshot of all of this?  Keep learning and be ever at the ready for just the right time.  For the readiness, indeed, is all.

Just a few of the folks responsible for MCC-Longview's WAC Program over the years:
from Chancellors to Writing Fellows and everyone inbetween.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Imagination Longview 2011: What Really Happens When You Write to Learn

This year's Imagination Longview was by far the best one yet: high attendance, committed WAC faculty sponsors, keen interest of attendees, and a room full of fascinating and inspiring student projects which fueled enough conversations to keep the Education Center abuzz with voices for two solid hours.  To say students were passionate about their ideas seems like a gross understatement.

To wit, here's some of what I learned:

  • about the place of comic books in World War II among troops and at home and the depiction of Hitler as the obvious villain
  • why physician-assisted suicide may not not be compatible with an American vision of democracy and health care
  • how a service learning project to collect purses for abused women served by an agency called Veronica's Voice led to an ongoing connection with Longview students who intend to continue their project beyond this semester
  • how Longview students created an onsite vegetable garden with kindergarteners at a local to have a direct impact on promoting a healthy diet for children
  • about what happens when you read between the lines of Hemingway's short story "The Hills are Like Elephants"  
  • about how a student discovered the lives and stories of her family members, long ago separated by slavery, through a chance introduction to a local artist when she was completing an assignment
  • how much Aldous Huxley's Brave New World has to say about issues like privacy and choice
  • that a popular video game directly reflects the influence of the character James Bond and includes numerous visual allusions to Alfred Hitchcock
  • the powerfeul connections between an Intercultural Communications class and an ESL class
  • how you can accurately estimate costs of a complicated construction project by graphing the salient variables
  • why a student chose to spend the semester analyzing Ella Fitzgerald's version of the Cole Porter song I Concentrate on You
  • what happened when a whole new world was created in the collaborative novel written by students in an Anthropology-Creative Writing learning community
  • what it feels like to set a goal of running a marathon and then reflect on achieving that goal
There were even serendipitous moments like the one where a student who'd just won an impressive $30,000 scholarship to the school of his choice disclosed to me that he'd presented at Imagination Longview a few years back and here met the woman who became instrumental in his academic success as his teacher and mentor. She happened to visit his table and they struck up a conversation about his project.

And that is perhaps what Imagination Longview is really all about: learning through writing and, in the telling of the learning, connecting people to ideas as well as to other people.  I don't know of a better reason to write!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Old School, New School, No School

In my time working with students, I have always found it interesting to note what to them constitutes writing.  They often equate writing with school writing exclusively, and, even at that, believe that only formal research papers rise to the level of real writing.  It often never occurs to them to consider the plethora of activity that goes on throughout a course or via texting and Facebook outside of school as, well, writing.  And yet it is. 

Collapsing those arbitrary perceptual boundaries can open up a broader understanding of writing for students.  Let me explain how.

Email did not exist when I attended college nor did it exist at Longview when I began working here.  I received no formal instruction in how to write an email and yet I spend hours each day producing them since emails are currently the salient communication tool of the workplace.  How did I learn to write in this new genre? In part, by applying what I had learned in graduate school about analyzing rhetorical situations. 

That is, I considered the audience to whom I was writing and what they needed to know and crafted the message from there.  Emails follow a pretty distinct pattern, so much so that the template was eventually built into the software.  The writer, of course, controls what gets plugged into that template, so reading emails was a good way to see which features were promoted and tolerated in an academic workplace.  Another important part of my learning was observing others and imitating their rhetorical moves.

Our students will similarly learn some of the writing nuances of their particular work setting while on the job.  At a four-year school, most will have opportunities to rehearse the kinds of professional writing they will be called to do post graduation.  For future health professionals, that means care plans and charting.  For would-be engineers, it means technical reports and proposals.  For those going into business, it means memos and reports that reflect brevity and clarity.  In that world, after all, time is money, so no one wants to waste it reading unnecessarily lengthy or arcane communiques.

Will email still be the communication tool of choice by the time current students graduate and enter the workforce?  Quite possibly.  Or email could be supplanted by a later, greater technological advance that sends it the way of the telegram.  What's important is not that we teach students to write emails or texts, but that we give them ample opportunity to learn through writing and, in doing so, help them develop enormous depth and breadth as communicators so they can accurately decipher any writing situation they find themselves in.

Our students are navigating different writing arenas throughout each day.  They slip between these much the way all of us do when we adjust our manner of speaking when with friends as opposed to a room full of strangers.  Linguists refer to this phenomenon as "shifting registers."

We typically dress and speak differently in the context of a job interview than we would in the context of talking to neighbors while doing yardwork. We recognize that these two situations make strikingly different demands of us as communicators.  Our ability to see these differences hinges on our understanding of the expectations of job interviews and our understanding of the expectations of informal chatting. The more you know about those expectations, the more likely you are to get your message across efficiently and effectively.

Helping students understand that academic writing requires a clarity and explicitness they are not necessarily obligated to when texting or posting on Facebook is a first step in helping them understand the expectations of the academic audience.
Art Young, a WAC pioneer who hailed from a disciplinary background of Engineering and English literature, distinguishes in Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum between personal writing for learning which privileges the language and values of the writer and public writing for communicating which privileges the language and values of a broader discourse community (Prentice Hall Resources for Writing, third edition).

Dr. Art Young, Clemson Professor, holding his book Teaching and Learning Creatively, which is used by a number of WAC faculty at MCC-Longview and available for borrowing through the WAC Program.

Whether in school or out of school, whether for close associates or for publication, it all qualifies as writing. So the question becomes: How effective is any message?  Clearly, that depends a lot on who is reading it.  The sooner students grasp the concept of audience, the sooner they will become discerning writers. 

And since technologies associated with reading and writing are bound to change more than a few times in their lifetimes, our best bet is to prepare students to analyze every writing situation they encounter, including the ones we create.

So when and where did you learn to write an email?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Putting the Social in Social Media

Image by Salvatore Vuono

I recently read a set of student responses to an article on social media, part of a Computer Science assignment designed by instructor Cindy Herbert requiring students to read a relevant article, develop a thoughtful response using one of the instructor-posed questions as a guide, and then post an insightful response to another student's post.

I was struck that several students in their article responses registered shock at having witnessed instructors overtly tell classes NOT to write in textspeak: no "u" for "you," etc. They simply couldn't imagine their peers producing written coursework that would include such seemingly inappropriate language choices.

In WAC workshops in recent years, instructors have reported texting terms creeping into student papers and emails with increasing frequency and a few teachers have described entire papers rendered as a text message. 

Is technology impairing our ability to write?  Probably not, even though communication boundaries have clearly shifted.  Language, after all, is a socially constructed and continually negotiated aspect of culture.

People have long wanted to believe that computers have had a significant impact on writing skills, almost since the first pc came online, although there has been no evidence to support such a claim.

Scholars at the forefront of computer instruction in composition, like Gail Hawisher and Cindy Selfe, suggested early on that perhaps we were asking the wrong questions. After all, no one assumed that the typewriter had altered the process of composing written text. The pc did allow the production of perhaps more readable prose---literally-- in a technical sense, but it did not instigate more intelligent or well-written prose.

However, in landmark scholarship, both women studied what computer-mediated instruction did permit: notably, ease of revision as well as thoughtful selection and purposeful integration of rhetorically appropriate images.

That is not to say that technology might not be having some profound neurological effects.  The Blizzard of Oz last month afforded me the chance to view a Frontline program on PBS titled, Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier, which explored some new territory in regard to the impact of technology on the brain. Despite the difficulties inherent in testing a phenomenon which changes unpredictably and incessantly, some discernible patterns have emerged as new questions continue to arise.

So far, all of it makes the landscape and future of higher ed at once fascinating and uncertain. This Frontline program (see trailer here) is well worth a view as it probes several distinct dimensions to show how recent technology advances have fundamentally reshaped some human endeavors.   

It features interviews with teachers and students from MIT and Stanford as well as from a middle school and high school who talk about the place of technology in their lives and debunk the myth of multi-tasking but tout the value of multi-player online games like World of Warcraft, and the avatar-driven Second Life which the program shows is now used by corporations and colleges alike.

Most striking to me was a comment by a researcher at Stanford University who directs the lab studying the impact of virtual immersions via online personas or avatars on people's perceptions of reality: "Digital stuff is such a new phenomenon that if it looks real and feels real, the brain tells us it is real," says Dr. Bailenson. "We've done studies with children where they see themselves swimming around with whales in virtual reality. ... About 50 percent of them will believe that in physical space, they actually went to SeaWorld and swam with whales."  Is this a tipping point where perception begins to trump reality?

The show also served to remind me of other current studies researching technology's impact on learning and writing.  Some of these show that shifting gears constantly causes the brain to lose time on task and forces it to refocus, which actually interferes with both learning and writing.

With newer iterations of technology coming to the fore at breakneck speed and picking up larger pools of younger users, scholars are now specifically probing the impact of social media experiences like gaming and Facebook on writing.

Composition scholar and teacher Andrea Lunsford conducted a webinar late last semester through which she shared her most recent research on student writing at Stanford where she has led a large study of 14,000 writing samples over the past decade. She eloquently noted that student texts still exhibit the kinds of issues and concerns they did before the advent of iPods and iPads.

She was also quick to point out that her research has shown a marked jump in frequency of student writing---mainly outside of school.  Unquestionably, such social writing makes different demands of writers, but her research finds an overall adeptness of student writers at shifting between these different writing situations.

Lunsford suggests that in a world of new and emerging literacies, the role and responsibility of college teachers is to determine which features of the old literacies must be maintained in order to produce sustained and coherent writing.

And this is part of what makes the assignment issued by Cindy Herbert even more salient. It emanates from her desire to have students grapple with the implications of technology beyond its basic applications which are the focus of this introductory course. 

As a teacher long committed to WAC, she wants them to do the analytic and reflective writing that makes that level of critical thinking possible.  By configuring it as a blog exercise and by coaching students on how to construct appropriate messages for this purpose, she guides students to the expectations of writing in social contexts within and beyond her class.

Have you seen much evidence of texting behaviors in your students' work? How have you responded?
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