Response to Kress and Van Leeuwen’s _Multimodal Discourse_.

December 5, 2011

Kress, Gunther R., and Leeuwen Theo Van. Multimodal Discourse: the Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London: Arnold, 2001. Print.

In Multimodal Discourse, Kress and Van Leeuwen focus on four main concepts: discourse, design, production, and distribution. In doing so, they make the case that a multiomodal discourse is a reality, whether society recognizes it or not. As they explain in the preface “People make use of semiotic resources to make signs in concrete social contexts” and communicate through nearly everything we do, all of which can be considered a composition of some sort, all of which carries the ability to make meaning, whether it is purposeful or not. The dominance of monomodal communication is shifting, and most likely, ten years after the publication of this text, the shift must be even more significant. Because of technological advancements, a single person can do what used to take multiple experts to accomplish, in the development of a multimodal text. So a single person is most likely making decisions about discourse (socially situated knowledge) (20), design (means to realize discourse within a specific rhetorical situation) (5),  production (the actual material articulation of the semiotic event) (6), and distribution (facilitating the preservation and distribution of the artifact) (7). Because multimodality is all around us, the awareness of this form of discourse is necessary for society to recognize the impact of everything they develop (or even consume) — everything is communicating a message to a known, or unknown, audience. Multimodal Discourse offers an avenue to better understanding the shift from monomodality to multimodality in the both the commonplace and in discourse-community-specific communications.

A significant concern that I have about the way writing is taught by many at my current institution is that the teaching methods make writing, or composition, seem irrelevant to college students’ lives. There is a massive separation between the kinds of writing that students compose for their FYC courses (often unimaginative, formulaic, and disconnected from what students are interested in) and the writing that they do outside of their school lives (and yes, students write a lot — and they compose even more). The relevance of the writing they do, and how students are taught to think about writing (as template – one size fits all) makes the disconnect between school-writing, or more specifically FYC writing, and their outside-world writing even starker. But that’s where Kress and Van Leeuwen come to the rescue. The ideas of rhetoric, rhetorical situation and even communication, more broadly, have never been more intwined with students’ “real-world” lives. Students are exposed to multimodal compositions EVERYWHERE.

So there is no sort of composition that is more relevant than multimodal composition, which carries the same concepts as ‘writing,’ within a FYC course, but connects even more directly with students’ lives. These sorts of projects can be the link between what students view as ‘artificial’ writing done for FYC, as opposed to the communicating they do outside of class, that they don’t even recognize as actual writing.

Kress and Van Leeuwen stress four concepts throughout Multimodal Composition: discourse, design, production and distribution. Most interesting to me, regarding these four concepts, is how these terms are not really key considerations in a FYC course. These concepts do show up in these classes, but these concepts are not core components, directly identified in the outcomes of such courses. Again, the monomodal focus of FYC pops up here, with design not really being a component of a ‘writing’ class – for really, what is there to design? A writer develops paragraphs, and MLA style dictates the ‘look’ of the essay. The idea of ‘production’ has certainly changed over the years, but mainly just by technology — pencil gave way to pen which gave way to typewriter which gave way to word processor which gave way to computer (which is giving way to smaller computer-like devices). These technologies allow a writer to produce writing, which is then distributed to a teacher — or maybe some sort of outside audience, but rarely is writing that is developed within a classroom distributed to outside readers. But even though ‘production’ technology has changed, what instructors are asking students to produce hasn’t changed much at all, in nearly 100 years. How can this be?

Kress and Van Leeuwen allow the reader to make a significant leap in understanding what ‘composition’ can be, how it can look, and exactly how intwined it is in our everyday lives. Whether it be the discussion of furniture catalogs, and how those catalogs impact the actions that people take in designing their own homes to the development of video, and how the act of producing video once involved many experts, but can now be accomplished by just one person — the fact is that composing has changed, a lot. And our view of what we see as composition has to change as well. Van Leeuwen and Kress explain that “Multimodal composition is moving to the centre of practical communicative action” (45). For educators, this is great. We can look everywhere and see composition — no longer can students think that the composing they do in school has no relation to what they do/will do in the outside world. In fact, the composing they will do in school will directly impact the work they will create and the work(s) they will consume. If we are able to help students to understand the concepts they are exposed to in a FYC course and the principles of composition, students will leave the university as wiser, more critical consumers of the various “texts” they will be exposed to in all that they do. The importance of this is HUGE – for if monomodality was once dominant, its dominance is waning. Multimodality will be something that our students need to understand how to create and how to evaluate.

This shift can be witnessed, easily, in something that all students and teachers are familiar with. Kress and Van Leeuwen point out the changes in textbooks that has occurred over the past 30-50 years. Whereas in the 1960s, all textbooks would have been primarily text-based, with few, if any visual aids, almost all textbooks today are full of graphics, images, maps, etc, allowing the image to do the work that text once tried to do. Including a few images can allow an author to make a specific point more directly, and easily, for text is limited to the reader’s ability to see what the author explains. However, with an image, the reader is visualizing exactly what the author is — the image will have far greater impact than the paragraph or two that the author would have developed to try to get the same point across. Composition is routinely blending modes, allowing composers more leeway in terms of what modalities they choose to utilize, which truly reflects a solid understanding of the rhetorical situation. These textbooks that we use in our classes reflect the shift that should be happening within composition classrooms themselves. Not only are these textbooks including more visual within their covers, but they are also moving beyond their covers to creating online, multimedia components that allow their texts to exist beyond words and pictures alone. These components involve multimedia, audio, video, text and image, too. Textbook publishers are adapting to a changing world, where consumers expect a variety of ways into the message of the text. If FYC instruction truly functioned to inform students of the complexity of writing and the methods that compositionists meet the needs of their rhetorical situations, Kress and Van Leeuwen, through Multimodal Discourse, just strengthened my belief in the importance of multimodal projects within the first-year composition curriculum.


Response to Cargile Cook and Grant-Davie’s _Online Education: Global Questions, Local Answers_

November 1, 2011

Cargile, Cook Kelli, and Keith Grant-Davie. Online Education: Global Questions, Local Answers. Amityville, NY: Baywood Pub., 2005. Print.

Online Education: Global Questions, Local Answers explores online education from a variety of viewpoints, with one commonality — all chapters refer to teaching online in a technical communication program. However, few chapters within this text are so exclusively focused on technical communication that the material is irrelevant to those who do not teach in a technical communication program. In fact, this book is less about teaching technical communication online than it is about developing an online program, nurturing that program, developing courses within the program and understanding who takes online courses and what their needs and wants are for the online courses they take. For anyone involved with teaching online, or running an online program, this text is an informative read. Even though it is six years old, the information is still relevant for it does not focus on any specific technology; instead, each chapter within the book is grounded in theory and application of general principles related to online education.

I did not read each chapter of this text. Instead, I read the intro and decided upon the chapters that seemed most relevant to my own research interests/needs and came up with the following chapters: 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 11.

Chapter 2 proved to be quite useful for me in that it explores, in detail, who took a particular online course. If I develop a survey of my own online students, this chapter will provide a template of types of information I might want to gather, including such things as student age, gender, workload, degree pursued, # of OL classes taken, why online?, likes of online ed, dislikes and advice for current online instructors (me – about the class I am teaching, or specifically about the MM project I will require them to complete). This chapter was pretty factual, about students likes/dislikes and thoughts about online coursework.

Chapter 3 gets relevant to actual online writing instruction quite quickly. Cargile-Cook encourages writing instructors to move beyond ‘objectivist’ instruction, claiming that teaching done through objectivist measures in insufficient for writing instruction (53). I entirely agree with this and cannot fathom of any sort of writing class where actual activities would involve much from an objectivist instructional slant. For a writing class to be effective, the class needs to be active. Students need to accomplish things. They need to actively participate in developing their own texts, assessing others’ writing and working with others in the development/revision of their own writing projects. On page 56, Cargile-Cook explains that a change in technology necessitates a shift in what was taught and how it is taught, which has always made me wonder about teaching writing and directly leads into multimodal composition. Since the act of composing can be so much more complex than simply typing text onto a page, shouldn’t a composition course expand its offerings of what composition means? How much purely textual writing do we read these days? A quick scan of the various windows open on my desktop show quite a variety of modes, including audio, visual, textual – and combinations of them all. Can’t the ideas behind a composition course also encompass other aspects of ‘composing?’ I believe a shift is in the near future, for without it, as technology continues to change what it means to write, the composition class will become further removed from relevance.

In chapter 6, Helen M Grady and Marjorie T. Davis provide guidance for teaching online, and, in particular, emphasize the idea of scaffolding. While this is an important concept in any writing class – the idea of building upon already existing skills and knowledge. In an online class, the importance is multiplied, for an instructor needs to develop scaffolding for students to simply understand the layout/organization of the online class, as well as how to navigate through the course and act within it. But my question here is about MM composition projects, as scaffolding for the concepts focused on within a composition course. If scaffolding, as defined, is “strategies a teacher uses to help learner span a cognitive gap,” (103) might not a multimodal project be a way to help writing students to better understand the concepts that a writing course focuses on? For example, if a student struggles with organizing a piece of writing, might not developing a story board for a movie version of the essay help with this? The concept of organization is the same — but the actual task is different, a scaffold of sorts, to help the learner make the leap with this one concept from one mode to another. Hmmm. In my mind, this works and makes great sense.

In chapter 7, Locke Carter and Rebecca Rickly encourage the online instructor to consider the various ‘gaps’ that occur within an online educational setting. This chapter really sums up nicely, my own concerns about developing a mm composition project for my online writing students. As Carter and Rickly explain, there can be issues related to physical space, virtual space and cognitive space, that all can negatively impact a student’s experience within a writing class. And when that writing class asks students to develop something that is far different than anything they probably have developed for a writing class — and encourages them to think of writing differently than just letters and words on a page — those ‘spaces’ can really become chasms. Any difficulty a student might have with a project will be amplified in an online learning environment. This is especially alarming for me if my students might be of the at-risk variety. These students are especially vulnerable, and I worry about that. The attention that I might need to provide my students as they work through a MM might become much greater than it otherwise would be, which could be concerning if a lot of students desire extra feedback or assistance, made worse by the multitude of ‘gaps’ that occur in an online course.

In chapter 11, by Phillip Rubens and Sherry Southard, many of the ideas of the book came together for me. The emphasis of the chapter was on students’ technological difficulties and their impact on an online course. During their research and course development, Rubens and Southard found that both the digitally rich and poor exhibited similar behaviors when they encountered technical difficulties (194). Obviously, I envision the worst and fear students having many technical difficulties when developing a MM project. From my own experience, I envision this behavior to include frustration, despair, uncertainty and anger about a project that they might feel uncertain about developing. But I am pleased to see that the digital divide did not cause different reactions from the two groups of users. The idea of scaffolding came up here once again, but more specifically in terms of scaffolding the course so that students get an opportunity to practice specific technologies within the first few weeks of a class so that they can practice those technologies that they will be utilizing later on in the semester. This thought has occurred to me in terms of exposing students to a few possibilities of ways they might develop a text multimodally. But I don’t want to encourage technological compositions, when a student might prefer a non-technological approach. So the idea of scaffolding possible compositional technologies might have to wait; I can see the value, but I can also see that this might encourage others to work in a mode that they are not comfortable with — which could be a good thing, but due to the ‘gaps,’ mentioned earlier, this could also cause undue stress for the students.


Response to Scott Warnock’s _Teaching Writing Online_

October 7, 2011

Warnock, Scott. Teaching Writing Online: How and Why. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2009. Print.

Warnock’s Teaching Writing Online: How and Why is a fantastic resource for those considering teaching their writing courses online. Warnock approaches the text as tough his reader knows next-to-nothing about online instruction, which results in an effective guide that stretches through the development of a plan for online instruction to effective online teaching strategies. Each chapter offers a focus on a specific aspect of online writing instruction, allowing Warnock to connect online writing instruction both to traditional composition pedagogy and to traditional face-to-face instructional practices, easing the new online instructor into less familiar territory by making many sound connections to what the reader is most likely quite comfortable and familiar with.

This book is a tremendous resource — particularly for those who are thinking about teaching online. In a very general praising of this text, I think it should be required reading for almost anyone who plans to teach online, whether that person is going to teach writing, or not. There is far more to the text that is just plan old good online pedagogy recommendations, as opposed to strictly focusing on teaching writing online. Yes, there are areas that focus on teaching writing, but really, this is a book about teaching online – period. I have nothing to argue with relating to what he suggests. It’s all right on.

Warnock’s strongest recommendation for future online faculty, as I see it, is to really think about who you will be in the online environment. As teachers of writing, we encourage our students to think about the tone they establish within their writing, but I’ve noticed a lot of us don’t take our own recommendations for this as it applies to online education. It is easy to be absent in an online class, seeming, to students, that we don’t care or aren’t involved. It’s easy to get caught in a bad moment of a day and respond to an innocent student email with a harsh tone, even if we really didn’t mean anything by it. EVERYTHING we do in an online class is public, and it all has repercussions, even if they are minimal. I have worked with online faculty who are mean – and their students experience a very negative learning environment. Yes, it can be frustrating to answer questions related to information you feel has already been covered in the course. But isn’t that the job of the teacher — to teach? And maybe the instructor didn’t mean to be mean, but that will most likely keep a student from approaching this instructor again, resulting in an isolated student and an instructor who wonders whether his/her students are engaged. Consider who you want to be, how you want to come across, when teaching online. Working extra hard to be kind can keep students coming back to you when they really need help.

Another key point that Warnock raises is the idea of organization within an online course. The ideas of repetition, pattern-building and consistency are critically important for helping students to succeed within any online course. In an environment where students are alone, exploring the course, trying to make sense of the lay of the land, helping students to see a consistent progression through the work will enable students to get a firmer foothold from which they can proceed through the class. Developing consistent terminology (such as using ‘module 1,’ ‘module 2,’ etc) can help students recognize how they need to progress through the class. Similarly, developing recognized patterns for when assignments are due is beneficial to students as well.  This clearly relates to what Warnock discusses in the chapters where he focuses on ‘Organization’ and ‘Pacing and Predictability.’ The less students have to think about how to navigate a course, the more time and energy they can focus on the course content and their learning within that course. Faculty don’t do students any favors by having a class that is a struggle to navigate, having materials that are not easily located (or incomplete) and having a great variety within the scheduling of the course.

 

Perhaps Warnock’s greatest success in this text is in how he develops logical connections between what is done within a classroom and how these things might be done in an online course. Each chapter focuses on an aspect of teaching — something that is done in a f2f class and something that will also be done in an online course. These are great similarities. A quick glance through the table of contents shows chapters dedicated to course lessons/content, syllabus, readings, conversation, assignments, peer review, grading, feedback, collaboration and assessment. No matter the venue for instruction, all of these things occur in a class. The point that Warnock is making is two-fold: there are commonalities between f2f education and online education; but these commonalities need to be reconsidered in online education. The landscape is the same — course concerns are similar in the varying environments. But the instructor must make necessary changes to adapt what and how one taught in a f2f class to ensure that a similar  aspect of the course will work in the online environment. For example, take ‘conversation’ — discussion in class, conversations amongst peers and even conversation in a one-on-one situation between instructor and student will all happen in a f2f class. Many will say that these kinds of situations cannot happen online. But they can; they do. To ensure that these kinds of interactions can occur, the instructor has to develop the right ‘space’ for them to happen. If this is done, in preparing for the class, ‘conversations,’ both formal and impromptu between classmates and instructor can happen. And as a perk, in the online course, these conversations will be recorded, in writing, for a student to revisit time and time again if he/she desires. The valuable conversations that happen in class can be revisited, thought about again and can have a stronger impact upon the student than can similar conversations that occur within the f2f environment.

There are about two brief moments in the text where Warnock references ‘multimodal composition.’ The idea of offering students multiple modalities for developing texts is explored, but briefly. Warnock suggests that possibly, because of the technology associated with teaching online, that this might open the doors for an instructor to offer multimodal options for students (62-63). But he mentions, that offering these assignments can lead to growing pains for the instructor due to the different thinking required for these types of assignments (63). Of course, this idea of pain has been in my mind when I consider offering multimodal projects to students. So as I progress into offering those assignments, I will be recording the struggles that are associated with the inclusion of such projects (if there are any — hey, maybe it will be smooth!).

Warnock offers numerous suggestions for current and future online faculty alike. As a veteran online instructor, much of what he suggested was readily apparent to me, but had I read this book even a few years earlier, it would have impacted my teaching greatly. But still, I did take away a lot from this text, which reinforced a lot of what I do in my online classes and also reinforced my theories on why I do such things.


Response to Paul Sawyer’s “Evaluating the Design and Delivery of an Online Tech Writing Course”

September 23, 2011

Sawyer, Paul R. “Evaluating the Design and Delivery of an Online Technical Writing Course.” Diss. Illinois State University, 1997. Print.

In this dissertation, Sawyer applies four criteria established by David Leonard, in “Using the Web for Graduate Courses in Technical Communication with Distant Learners,” to his own newly-developed online technical writing course. Sawyer’s aim is to verify whether these criteria would be applicable to undergraduate students taking an online course that has inferior equipment and support. But, unlike Leonard, whose article contains no quotations from students themselves, and is based entirely on his own observations, Sawyer wants the students to have a voice in his own study. He wants their voice to be heard. He wants students’ experience in his course to determine whether Leonard’s criteria can apply to his own online course, and thus, be applicable to others teaching online.

Interestingly, in 1997, online education was beginning to gain steam. But Sawyer’s research seems to look at a course that would be considered a hybrid course, in my estimation, by today’s assumptions about online education. So everything that I read, I had to try to apply to my own teaching of courses that are entirely based online. Sawyer makes frequent mentions of his own students, their computing habits, their use of a computer lab and their printing habits within that computer lab, which lead me to believe this class met periodically in a classroom (lab) where students completed work online, with the instructor present. While this is certainly a predecessor to online coursework, it’s not actually online learning. Technically, work is done online, so yes, it is an online course. But if teaching happens in a classroom, and students have to attend class, is it not a traditional class? I think so. But again, this was 1997, so I can’t tell what online education was like then. I wasn’t exposed to online learning until about 1999/2000. I was signed up to teach an online literature course as an adjunct at a local community college. Fortunately, for me and my students, the class had low enrollment and was cancelled – that class woulda been ugly. But the development of that class was very similar to what Sawyer explains his own development of this technical writing class to be; the big difference is that my class was all online.

Even though the concept of online education has grown since this dissertation, much of what Sawyer brings to the table still holds true. So this dissertation was very valuable to me as a way to read some of the earlier writings relating to online instruction and pedagogy. I believe Sawyer includes much foundational research in this field within his own work. So the dissertation was very educational for me and allowed me to get a historical perspective of online education/teaching. And, accordingly, I read with my own agenda in mind and found that many of the concerns I have related to incorporating multimodal composition projects into an online course are similar to reservations that many had about online education as a whole. Sawyer explores a lot of these throughout this text.

One of my primary concerns is the ability of students to make use of technology (if they choose to — this will not be a requirement, but I suspect that many students will prefer to use technology in development of their MM texts). I fear that those students who don’t have the technology they would like to use, or are unsure of how to use it, even if they do have it, will get left behind. Sawyer cites Richard Ohmann, who explained that a class that uses technology can wide the gaps between the haves and have-nots. This is a huge concern of mine, for I envision MM composition projects as something that would improve access to the concepts of writing that are the emphasis in  FYC. But, as Ohmann explains, this might not be the case. Simply offering a technological possibility might cause some students to have an even harder time gaining access to these concepts. I have always been afraid of this.

I am also concerned with the distance between myself and my students. Sawyer taught his students in person, at least periodically. He was able to work with them through any situations they encountered or any difficulties they developed. But I won’t be able to do this unless a student comes to me for assistance. I don’t want students who need more help to fall behind because I am not accessible (even though I am on campus, my students might be hours away). I have taught students in California, Wisconsin, not to mention students who were abroad, in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. I cannot meet with them. In a way, these students are on their own–but if they need help, I want to be there to help them. Sawyer cautions that with technology, less-mature students will require more time and effort to assist/guide/direct with technological issues. I worry about this for my students.

Sawyer focused on one technological issue that he faced, that caused his students a lot of headache – email. EMAIL! Granted email is entirely commonplace today, but in 1997 many of us were getting our first email accounts. I remember getting my first email address then, as a student as EIU — Eudora! I hadn’t heard that term in years. And it was complex. But the technologies that I envision some of my students wanting to use, such as iMovie or Garageband, to make movies or podcasts, are far more complex. So his discussion of the challenges of integrating email really caused me to pause.

Perhaps most importantly, though, Sawyer’s use of student responses to questionnaires and interviews gave me food for thought. Do I want to try to develop similar tools in my own research? I really found the student voices that I heard throughout his text compelling. I want to hear what students have to say about the experience. If Sawyer had said positive things about the experience, but no students actually found value in the online work, the entire results of his experiment would haven been tarnished. In my own research, I am starting to think it might be really helpful to hear from students about how developing multimodal works actually went, and more importantly, to hear how they connect the work they did for those compositions with the more traditional writings they will complete in the course. Did one reinforce the other? Were similarities visible to students? Can they articulate these thoughts?

My mind is spinning, thinking about my own future project and what direction I want it to take. A lot of planning needs to be done to best capture the experience of first teaching multimodal composition in my FYC online course. I really recognize that now.


Response to Hewett’s _The Online Writing Conference: A Guide for Teachers and Tutors_

September 16, 2011

Hewett, Beth L. The Online Writing Conference: a Guide for Teachers and Tutors. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2010. Print.

In The Online Writing Conference, Hewett’s main goal is to offer a guide for faculty teaching online writing. As the text proceeds from beginning with a general exploration of the benefits of online education to strategies for doing everything from commenting on student work to conferencing with them (in both synchronous and asynchronous ways), Hewett’s intention is to educate her readers on what it means to teach / tutor online, and also to offer suggestions for offering the best online course possible. As a whole, the text moves from the general to the specific, from basic OWI information to specific strategies to use with students to gain specific results. Hewett blends theory with practice for a book that extends the conversation that she and Ehmann established in Preparing Educators for Online Writing Instruction.

Hewett makes many great points throughout this book, but perhaps the most important is that just as online courses are not appropriate for all students, online teaching is not for all faculty. Just as students have varied comfort with technology, faculty do as well (5). Comfort with technology is a must — for if the faculty member struggles with any aspect of the delivery, then the technology becomes a burden, something that holds back the content of the course. Instead of being able to focus on what is taught, the instructor will have to focus too much on how it is taught. Hewett stressed knowing what one talks about (82)– but I think this could be extended to knowing what it takes to function in an online education setting.

Additionally, concerning to me is the figure that Hewett raises about the number of faculty who teach online but who question its effectiveness (can’t find page #! argh). This is hugely concerning for me. If the faculty member doesn’t fully believe in the possibilities of online education, I worry about that faculty member delivering online writing instruction. If the course already has one strike against it, simply by it being an online course, will the course be as effective for students? Might feedback from the instructor be given with a nagging suspicion that it is not worthy of his/her time? If we expect students to fully invest in their coursework, faculty have to as well. This goes back to the previous point that I raised — online instruction is not for everyone.

As I read this text, Marie Moeller’s dissertation kept popping up in my mind. Hewett offers a text that might be truly helpful to someone in Moeller’s position, at that time. Hewett still encourages a pedagogy of care (10, 59), but she goes beyond that and proposed an ‘Eclectic Approach’ to online writing instruction. But more importantly, I think, Hewett gets that the personal aspect of teaching online. She specifically focuses on some of the practical aspects of her own online teaching, directing discussion directly at such things as developing. As I reflect further on Moeller’s experience, I can’t help but think she got a raw deal, and her students did as well, from the institution. So much of what she experienced her impacted her in a raw, violent manner, which I think happens to all online faculty, to some degree. Hewett’s discussion of the practical aspects, the real aspects, of her own online teaching offer solace to all online faculty who wonder if what they are experiencing is isolated to themselves. Is this something that only I struggle with? How do others juggle their time to give students what they need without giving away all of my time and energy? Throughout pages 133-136, specifically, Hewett offers advice on issues that will help an online instructor find balance in their working lives. I can recall specific instances of Moeller discussing her struggles with this balance, and the harm it inflicted upon her. For reasons like this, I find this text far more effective than Hewett’s previous one, which makes sense, as it is an extension of that text.

The practical, the real, is really a strength of this text. Hewett offers discussion on many aspects of online writing instruction that really can shape the effectiveness of a course. To start, her suggestions of how to develop relationships with students in an online course are solid. Sure, it’s a pedagogy of care, but it goes beyond that. She advocates allowing online students to see their instructors as real people (64), which means online faculty need to open up to their online students just as they might in a f2f class. She offers suggestions on how to do this. Whether Hewett is exploring options for how to offer feedback to student writing or exploring how to best phrase such feedback, so much of this text is hands-on, the type of guidance that new online faculty and old alike benefit from.

She offers suggestions for how to blend the best of traditional writing pedagogy to the online environment, resulting in a pedagogy of eclecticism (78). No matter how one approaches teaching writing online, there is a truth to the idea of ‘eclecticism.’ Not everything will work for every instructor, so the best online classes will offer a blending of instructional methods, writing pedagogy, and modalities. Just as not all students learn the same way, not all faculty should teach their online writing courses the same way. And it’s okay to pick and choose what works and what doesn’t. Hewett, throughout the text, offers suggestions, but ultimately reinforces the notion that instructors need to develop their own methods for teaching, and that it’s okay if these choices aren’t always what everyone else is doing. The goal is to develop a course that the instructor is comfortable and confident teaching, for then, and only then, can the instructor move his/her focus to developing relationships with students and direct his/her attention to things such as better pedagogy, improved feedback, and effectively balancing time so that both the students and the instructor get the best effort from that faculty member.


Response to Marie E. Moeller’s “Sites of Normalcy”

September 13, 2011

Moeller, Marie E. “Sites of Normalcy: Online Writing Education, Prosthetic Technology, and Pedagogic Violence.” Diss. Illinois State University, 2009. Print.

 

As a contingent faculty member who teaches online writing courses, hundreds of miles away from the campus and her students, Marie Moeller experienced many challenges while teaching her students. These challenges stem from a multitude of things: being a contingent faculty member; teaching online; working with under-prepared students; working with marginalized student populations; and trying to develop a pedagogy that works for her (as opposed to the pedagogy of care that Hewett and Ehmann establish in Preparing Educators). Although online education proposes to be a solution for those who are unable to gain an education through traditional means, Moeller proposes that more often than not, online education can cause more problems for certain students than it offers solutions. It exacerbates the issues that many marginalized student populations deal with, making these very complex issues worse when a false sense of hope is given. Ultimately, Moeller decides upon a pedagogy of discomfort to allow what she sees as online educations shortcomings to become actual components of her online courses.

Immediately after reading this, I was not sure what I really thought about this. I certainly see the problems Moeller points out about online education for students, especially those who are already marginalized and by the ‘problem-to-be-solved’ mindset that online education seems to pin on those students who are not traditional college students, who come to campus, sit in classrooms, and readily participate in their education. Colleges, including my own, will market online education as a positive technological advancement that allows many student populations, including marginalized ones, to pursue a higher education (14). Technology is then savior — solving the problem of students who cannot attend class on campus due to responsibilities, schedules, distance, etc. However, as Moeller points out, technology can just as easily further marginalize students who struggle with technology or are without the necessary technology to stay current in online courses (i.e. high speed Internet, powerful enough computing power, suitable software, etc). What can be viewed as a solution, can just as easily be seen as a problem.

But what of the good that online education offers? Especially the good that it offers in a writing program, where the medium demands writing as the prominent mode of communication. I worry that Moeller too easily, and too quickly, moves beyond the high number of students who do gain an education by way of online coursework. Of course, there are those in education who doubt the quality, the rigor, and the effectiveness within an online course — but that’s not what this debate is about. Similar things could be argued about with f2f coursework as well. But here, in this dissertation, Moeller doesn’t ever bring up the numbers regarding the online students who succeed. She’s very good at pointing out problems with the system — and there are problems, particularly in the program that she taught in, and particularly in their treatment of a relatively new online instructor. As an adjunct, and especially as one who lives at least four hours away from the campus that her course operates through, she should have been treated better, with greater attention and far better care. But simply because she had this experience, I don’t think the problems she faced should be generalized onto the entire online education system. This is just me guessing, based on numbers that I know, but at my institution, we offer online courses to nearly 2500 students. Will they all succeed? No. But all have an opportunity that many of them would not otherwise have to continue with their own education.

Moeller also challenges the idea of ‘a pedagogy of care,’ one that is supported by Beth Hewett and Christa Ehmann. While Moeller states that viewing students and their education in a problem/solution construct ultimately marginalizes students further, she disagrees with much of how Hewett and Ehmann encourage online instructors to interact with their online students. Providing too much ‘care’ for students does harm to the instructor, causes violence to the instructor based on the inability to be everything to everyone in the online class. I agree that setting unrealistic expectations of online faculty can do damage to a faculty member, causing undo stress, fatigue, irritability, and a sincere doubt of one’s own ability to teach. Moeller experienced much of this herself in her quest to be the best online teacher she could be (74-77).

And while I agree that a pedagogy of care might not always be best for faculty or for student, there are aspects of it that online students need much more than traditional f2f students do. Being more available for advice/feedback, offering encouragement throughout the course, and providing specific, helpful feedback, all aspects of a caring pedagogy, are quite necessary for online student success. But to offer that at the expense of one’s own health is not worth it. And that is where I think the real issue is here – Moeller was not nurtured in the ways that a new online faculty member should be (and really, needs to be, if the school for which that person teaches at wants to see the faculty member to succeed in this endeavor). Instead, she was put in a situation that displaced her from the faculty, the school, and made her a marginalized person, too. In fact, she might have become more marginalized than her own students.

Her college failed her by not developing a support system that should have begun the moment she expressed interest in teaching online. Perhaps the school is a very small one that lacks the necessary resources to develop a successful online education program. And by successful, I do not mean by the sheer number of students that work through the program. By successful, I mean a program that trains instructors in online pedagogy prior to signing them up to instruct in an online course. This program should then require the development of a potential course, and review that course with a qualified representative of the college (someone with a background in distance education/online course design). And if that course is then determined to be effective from a course design standpoint, then the instructor should teach the class, with the knowledge that there is a full support system from the college, there to help if necessary. Moeller did not have any of this, it appears. And because of this, she was alienated, stressed out, and victimized by the institution.

As I read this dissertation, I felt pulled in multiple directions. I felt bad for Moeller in that her experiences teaching in an online program led to these feelings of violence against herself. I am sure her courses were better than she might have thought, and I can see many flaws from the institution in how they worked with their contingent faculty. That said, I believe Moeller’s argument and believe that care needs to be given to how institutions view technology and incorporate online courses into their programs. Harm can come from these programs to some students. But I also cannot just look the other way and forget about the many, many people who have gained an education because of online courses. There are plenty of schools that do online education well, and there are thousands of students who benefit from this. I won’t look away and ignore the possibility that online education can further marginalize students who are already facing an uphill battle to gain an education. I won’t ignore that these students might view online education as a cure for all of their ailments. As I continue to teach online, I will always keep these students in mind and truly approach them with a bit more pedagogy of care.


Response to Hewett and Ehmann’s _Preparing Educators for Online Writing Instruction_.

September 8, 2011
Works Cited
Hewett, Beth L., and Christa Ehmann. Preparing Educators for Online Writing Instruction: Principles and Processes. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2004. Print.

The premise behind Preparing Educators is to help prepare future online writing educators to work with students in a way that brings many of the established theories of teaching writing into the virtual class. Hewett and Ehmann clearly explain that this book is aimed at developing a training program for online tutoring of writing. (but I can easily see how many of the recommendations go beyond that and work as suggestions for developing effective online writing courses). The book is divided into two sections, with the first focusing on the development of an online writing instruction program and the second focusing on online training in both asynchronous and synchronous environments. By no means is this an exhaustive look at online education or the teaching of writing or the blending of the two. But Hewett and Ehmann do establish a solid training plan to help future online educators think about the online environment and how to help students learn to write within that environment, similarly to how Writing Center theorists think of their role in teaching students about writing.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this book, but as the title suggested to me, I thought the book would be focused more on preparing teachers for teaching online courses. Instead, the book focuses more on training educators for online writing tutoring. This absolutely is online writing instruction (OWI), but it is very different from developing and teaching an entire online course on writing. Much of what Hewett and Ehmann develop is very similar to basic Writing Center theory on effectively tutoring students in writing. Obviously, with an online writing tutoring program, it essentially is a type of online writing lab (OWL). Students come to a tutoring session with work from a class, that may or may not be taught by the tutor (most likely not), and the tutor is to meet the student where he/she is at with a particular writing assignment. The trick is to be helpful without providing too much assistance where the tutor actually takes over the writing project. This is hard in a f2f environment, but even more challenging to do in a virtual environment where expressions, vocal tone, and gestures are non-existent. Communication between tutor and tutee is often a challenge in a traditional writing center setting, but even more so when this session takes place virtually. But by following the principles of effective tutoring, and utilizing suggestions from this training program, it can be done well.

Although many disagree with the effectiveness of OWI, I enjoyed seeing the theoretical perspectives for writing instruction that Hewett and Ehmann see OWI incorporating, at a very base level. Of course, with an individual online course, the theory behind the writing instruction will change, but at the very least, no matter the focus, OWI will incorporate the aspects of the following theories for writing instruction:

  • Social Constructivist
  • Expressivist
  • Neoclassical
  • Current Traditional

Depending upon the course and instructor, a particular theoretical framework will be followed/emphasized, or perhaps a blending of a few, but these four will pop up within any online learning environment, as Hewett and Ehman explain, throughout pages 53 to 58. For dissenters to say that students cannot learn to write in an online environment, I disagree, simply based on this list of pedagogical theories presented above: OWI includes many forms of composition pedagogy. While each pedagogy has its own flaws, OWI allows an instructor to more easily blend multiple theories into the class structure, often inadvertently, simply due to the format of the online course.

For example, although I do not consider myself to be a follower of ‘current traditional’ pedagogy much at all, there are elements of that which do pop up in the writing my students do within my online writing course. Students’ writing which is not a good ‘product,’ which is easy to read and clear causes me to stumble. So in the written communication that I have with students, a certain degree of grammatical correctness and easy readability is necessary and is expected. Even something as simple as an email, which I get regularly from students, reinforces many components of ‘Current Traditional’ writing pedagogy. Even though I really don’t buy into Current Trad too much in essay writing, where I am much more concerned with process than with product, the importance of an easy-to-read and purposeful product is omnipresent in an online writing course.

Whether online writing instruction is believed to be a positive avenue for teaching writing or not, the fact that it is grounded in multiple pedagogies for teaching writing adds much credibility to the effectiveness of such instruction. And the benefits of offering online tutoring are just as numerous as the benefits of offering f2f tutoring in a writing center, especially if the training method is grounded in writing center theory, which the program developed within this book clearly is. As Hewett and Ehmann explain, there are many benefits to online tutoring, along with many difficulties, but one of the clearest advantages to online tutoring is that such a session can result in a record of the tutoring session, allowing the student to take the conversation with him/her and return to it later for review — the teaching can happen at any time beyond the initial session (chapter 3 and 5). Unless a student tape records a f2f tutoring session, this is clearly an advantage of online tutoring.

Although much of this book is positive, and reaffirms much of the good that occurs in online education (and realistically acknowledges that it’s not all positive — there are flaws), one aspect stuck out to me and seemed to detract from a lot of the good that the authors had previously completed, creating a positive view of OWI. I take issue with the description of how a writing instructor offers ‘critiques’ of student writing (71). This one word – ‘critiques’ – really ate away at me. After hearing about how OWI is most connected with ‘Social Constructivist’ pedagogy, starting on page 33, the term ‘critiques’ really contrasts with the idea of mutually developed education, such as what happens in a ‘social constructive’ space. Even the description which follows the use of the term ‘critique’ offers much more palatable discussion of how an instructor might work with a student text. The term ‘critique’ screams out “power” issues to me. For such a progressive text to offer this one instance of regressive teacher-student interaction really hit me hard.

While that was one area of concern for me, I was very happy with the realistic views the authors had of online writing instruction, openly admitting that there was much research that still needs to be done, and offering up specific areas where they viewed research might continue in the conclusion to the text (beginning on 157). Of particular interest to me is where they call for more investigation of non-traditional forms of writing assignments within OWI. While the incorporation of multimodal composition within f2f FYC courses has been steadily occurring for years, with instructors becoming increasingly familiar with technological problems they might experience, online education offers an entirely extra set of hurdles to prepare for, to expect, and to navigate. For me, this is a calling for what I hope to explore with my own research — so I loved seeing this affirmation that what I want to explore needs to be explored!