PHP Exam Rationale

For one of my two language requirements, I completed an exam in the computational language of PHP.

The purpose of this, in part, was to learn more about server management and the manipulation of the aesthetic and functional features of WordPress templates so that I might give myself some experience in managing a WordPress installation, just in case I’m ever working in a context that doesn’t already have one set up for teachers and students to use.

Additionally, over the last few years working as a Hybrid Coordinator at Baruch and as a result of reading for my orals exam, I’ve learned a lot about critical educational technology from the scholarship of people like Audrey Watters (web link), Sean Michael Morris (web link and presentation), Lisa Nakamura (web link), Carmen Kynard (journal database link), Mary Lynn Chambers (link to article abstract), Jesse Stommel (web link), Elizabeth Losh (link to book description), the FemTechNet community (web link), and several others.

So, part of the objective of completing this exam was also to gain an opportunity to foster my own critical transliteracy consciousness and to build a skill that I could one day teach to others.

I wrote about this process here, in a viewable Google Doc. I’m putting this on my site because I think that this was an enormously useful process, and I hope to encourage other PhD students in the humanities to consider gaining some basic fluency in a computational language in order to satisfy or partially satisfy a language requirement. I learned a lot, even though the end result looks pretty basic . 

I also benefited greatly from looking at the model that Erin Glass shared with me of her own rationale for learning Java Script. Here’s Erin’s website.  Thanks Erin!

“Fake News” is a symptom. Not a disease.

In this #alternativefacts landscape, it feels almost heretical to take any side other than STRONGLY OPPOSE when it comes to the discussion surrounding fake news. As in, “fake news” bad, “real news” good.

To be clear, fake news and alternative facts pose real problems. We should address them in our classrooms. And yet, the entire debate around the issue feels like a symptom of a larger problem.

As a rhetoric teacher, some of my job revolves around getting students to consider the validity of information that they’re planning to incorporate in their work and the effect of that information on their intended audience. Students need to consider the provenance of a source, the agenda that the maker of that information had when crafting it (assuming, as I do, that none of us can be truly agenda-less, or even fully aware of what our agendas are), the source’s timeliness, and the likely audience that the source is trying to reach.

There are millions of resources that can help with this work: videos, library guides, textbook chapters, articles, classroom activities, professional development workshops, clever heuristics that use funny acronyms. I feel fully supported in helping students to choose between what my own discourse community would consider “valid” or “fake” sources. That has also been an important practice in my own life: being able to sort through and evaluate truth claims in an information-dense world makes me feel a little less anxious.

And yet, I think there’s much less of an emphasis on helping students to navigate the embedded logics of institutions like colleges and universities. For me, the salient questions are “How does knowledge get produced and certified?” and “Who certifies it?” and “What gets to ‘count’ as knowledge? What doesn’t? Why not?” rather than “What is ‘fake’ or ‘real’?”

Or, even trickier questions: who has historically benefited, and who has historically not, from the institutional logics that govern knowledge production? What kinds of information gets excised from the record for appearing unserious or inadequately rigorous? Tricia M. Kress’s chapter, “Can’t You Just Know? Critical Research as Praxis” points to this dilemma. In it, she compares the articulated lived experience of a young student of color to the critical work of a university-certified “expert.” They’re identical conclusions with a notable exception: one has clout, and the other doesn’t.

I’ll admit that my own pedagogical practice currently skews toward teaching students how to find and incorporate “valid” research. But in the past few semesters, I’ve had interesting and generative conversations in my classroom that have caused me to want to reconsider this.

The most enriching conversations have generally involved student push back. Why can’t the Bible be used as a “credible” source to determine when life begins, asked a Catholic student. How can we be sure, in conducting an ethnography, that we’re ethically representing a community with which we have only a limited experience, asked a white first-year investigating a subreddit for a WAC class that I taught last spring. Why doesn’t our lived experience count as research, but someone else’s lived experience of us can count, asked a student of color.

These are important questions. But the tools that I’ve mentioned above don’t really help students to grapple with them. Telling the first student that the source of authority cannot be verified rings hollow to her experience, but inviting her into a conversation about how authority is determined seems like a much more generative avenue. In the case of the second and third student, I’ve grappled with some of these very questions, but mostly in graduate school — once I’ve shown sufficient deference to institutional logics. Not as a first-year.

My question is this: why should students have to wait until then?  Why shouldn’t we interrogate our own knowledge production / certification with students, and be honest about the fact that our institutions are flawed, complex social constructs made up of human beings with histories of discrimination and exclusion based on race, gender, sexuality, religion, colonialism and empire building (not an exhaustive list). We need to communicate that our institutions have been slow to change (or to even recognize problems), and that we remain adamant that they do so while we also remain surrounded by evidence to the contrary that they can or will. If we do this, rather than presenting institutions as perfectly reliable and seamlessly objective Fact Factories, wouldn’t we stand a better chance at gaining the trust of the public?

I want students to develop a greater appreciation for the processes that we use, as well as a healthy and critical skepticism of some of those processes. Maybe then, they wouldn’t feel like we’re demanding their fidelity so much as we’re inviting them to help us shape even better processes. Maybe this will encourage students to look at the way that other institutions produce and certify knowledge.

Is this an unrealistically optimistic hope to have in our post-fact reality?

Post-Watson thoughts: translingual pedagogies and reciprocal recognitions

At the beginning of my Orals process, one of my sub-lists focused on the divide between L2 and translingualism. I started with the L2 letter. I read Canagarajah’s reply. I read some of the “defining translingualism” texts in our field (like the Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur piece and the Lu and Horner piece). I read outside of our field (like Jenkins’ work on English as a Lingua Franca, and Garcia and Seltzer’s work on translanguaging, and Flores’ and Rosa’s work on appropriacy).

And I tried to wrap my head around some of the push back. I’m going to paint in very broad strokes here, but just to distill some of it: (1) translingualism ignores students’ interest in learning the English of power; (2) translingualism isn’t practical; (3) translingualism (in Comp Rhet) doesn’t have any, or enough, “concrete” strategies aside from code-meshing; (4) translingualism encourages linguistic tourism and reifies linguistic fixedness.**

After reading, and after attending this year’s Watson conference on mobility work in composition, I think I’m starting to figure out my own place in this debate — at least, my position right now. I want to reflect on that here.

Translingualism has been described as an orientation to language rather than a set of prescriptive methods for teaching it. As a former language teacher, a current teacher educator, and a current Comp teacher, this orientation feels so urgent. But so do strategies. Especially strategies that involve more than just our students.

I’ve been thinking about that inescapable paradox that Eli Goldblatt raised in his keynote address on the last day of the conference: how can we acknowledge the undeniable social fact of difference and its very real and life-threatening material effects while exposing the lies that carefully crafted those social facts in the first place? And I keep coming back to the complication — the violence, really — of placing disproportionate individual “responsibility” for navigating these social facts of difference back on the students whose “difference” is marked without asking for a complementary effort from faculty.

But at Watson, I thought a lot about the contradiction of selling some of the proffered translingual strategies to students in class (i.e. code-meshing, translanguaging, research projects in cross-cultural comp sections) while, in our very own professional spaces, rooms full of people (including myself!) used what I think a lot of people might recognize as the academic discourses of power to communicate with one another. This discourse is, of course, shifting and imaginary. We were, of course, code-meshing: we do all the time. And yet, I don’t know that other people reading our work would recognize our code meshing as such. At least, not in the way that we point out the code-meshing our students are doing in our own paper presentations.

I believe Nelson Flores’ idea that students’ actual practices are, in part, what an audience hears them say or reads them write. A few weeks ago at the Graduate Center, Flores used the bilingualism of Tim Kaine and Julian Castro to illustrate this point. They both speak Spanish. Kaine’s bilingualism is lauded and Castro’s criticized because Castro is “expected” to speak “perfect” Spanish while Kaine can get by with much less because he is white. What actually matters is how much power an audience has to make determinations about whether a speech act failed or succeeded. What the gatekeepers are able to hear and read often has much more to do with the gatekeepers than it does the speaker/writer. What are we doing to help those gatekeepers (whether they’re faculty or students who will eventually be faculty) to listen and to understand their own situatedness and what they think that they’re hearing and reading?

The strategies that Victor Villanueva outlines in his description of a Basic Writing Across the Curriculum program get closer to addressing the issues that I’ve had with pedagogies that primarily pivot around individual student language practices: so, code-meshing, or literacy / linguistic narratives, or cross-cultural composition sections, especially when the numbers of “marked” and “unmarked” students are disparate.

Villanueva describes the tension between what we’re called to do as instructors of writing (assimilate and enculturate) and what we (and many disciplines, of course — not just ours) believe that we should be doing: fostering critical consciousness. A program at his institution called CLASP (Critical Literacies Achievement Success Program) addresses this problem by “[operating] from Fanon’s ‘reciprocal recognitions,” that whatever the students don’t know about how professors operate, the professors are equally ignorant of how these ‘New Students’ operate” (105). The program mandates (and prepares students for) office hour visits. It trains tutors at the Writing Center in “grammars of the dominant dialects of the students who participate in CLASP,” and shows them “the workings of contrastive rhetoric” (105). The program also trains faculty in how to read and engage with student writing in a way that helps them to become “conscious of the conventions-as-conventions” — conventions as ideologically constructed, as motivated, rather than as hard evidence of “good” or “poor” writing (106).

I like this practice because it’s really about mutual listening. It asks both students and professors to consider how “deficient” or “proficient” subjects and codified linguistic codes are constructed (and emphasizes their constructedness). It assumes that professors and writing center consultants need to learn things, too. So, instead of putting the burden back on (already marginalized) students, the burden of inventing the university and of laying bare its institutional logics is distributed.

To add to this idea, I’m wondering if a curriculum that uses critical cosmopolitanism or critical race theory to interrogate the university and its knowledge-making practices themselves (rather than any one student’s individual practices) in order to investigate who gets labeled as a “language learner” or a “remedial writer” or “deficient” or “proficient” — and who does not — could make for an interesting object of investigation across multiple disciplines.

Could rhetoric classes teach students how to do rhetorical analyses of university spaces, of university marketing materials, of strategic plans, of policies, while professors also learn (in a practicum? a pilot?) about contrastive rhetorics, about rhetorical listening, about reading and responding to student writing? Could anthropology classes consider models of schools and schooling comparatively across cultures and places? Could historians consider histories of remediation, histories of honors colleges, histories of austerity and public funding? Could business classes think about the organization of university management structures, tenure and promotion processes, ethics? Can we teach each other, and learn what we don’t know?

If I think back to some of my most productive moments as a Comp teacher, they revolved around pulling back the curtain and letting students in on how the university works. They often don’t know. I didn’t, and still don’t know, so much about these things. I look at them directly a lot more than the average graduate student does, and I still find them mystifying. And yet, if we don’t know what we don’t know, then how can we know how institutions work on us, or how we work on or in them? Are we continuing to obscure institutional practices by focusing so exclusively on individual ones?
**Here’s my extremely brief reply to these critiques:
(1) The uncritical reproduction of the English of power doesn’t empower anyone: it just upholds the legacy and effects of white supremacy.
(2) Dismantling systemic oppression is hard. We often confuse “hard” and “not practical.”
(3) Yeah, that’s a good point. I want more strategies too.
(4) Yes, in some cases. Translingual pedagogy, like all pedagogy, is context-dependent.

As If Teaching Mattered: On “Quick” Fixes and Slow Professional Development

In my work for the Center for Teaching and Learning, my colleague and I have lately been on what she’s called our “active learning junket.”

We’ve been designing a lot of workshops with this edu-buzzword in the title. And people tend to show up for them in a way that they might not show up for something called “Student-Centered Learning,” or “Constructivist Teaching.”

That makes sense. Active learning has gotten a lot of media attention lately, and think pieces that decry or defend the lecture model have been everywhere in the last few years (including on this podcast, for which I was briefly a research intern). Some people want to learn more about the practice. And many of our attendees are already active learning experts interested in picking up some more tips or meeting like-minded faculty.

We do get occasional push-back, though, and that’s to be expected. Some instructors (and students, for that matter) find the techniques that we demonstrate to be too “game-like.” Some instructors worry that departments or students will think that they’re not doing their jobs if they set the conditions for collaborative learning (with significant guidance) instead of explicitly lecturing. Many instructors have been burned by shoddily executed group work when they were students, or experienced life-changing lectures that inspired them to go into the field in the first place. Many worry, also, that adopting more active strategies will prevent them from covering all of the material that they’re supposed to cover on a department-mandated syllabus.

I could write separate blog posts elaborating on what the research (and my own teaching experiences) have to say about all of these things (and more!). But the concern that I don’t have a good answer for — or, a satisfying answer, I should say — has to do with the time and commitment that it takes to employ more active strategies.

Last week, near the middle of a demonstration of Guided Discovery, an instructor raised her hand.

“This is great and all,” she said, signaling that it wasn’t actually. “But how am I supposed to actually do this in my own class? This will take forever!”

I gave her an inadequate answer.

I walked her through my planning process, told her that there are lot of resources available online (which there are) if you have access to the right keywords, and assured her that we could help at the Center for Teaching and Learning.

But I didn’t answer the actual question she was asking. Or acknowledge how right she was in her assertion. And that’s because I’m still figuring out how to give that answer.

This will take forever.

She’s right, it will.

And she’ll be undercompensated if she decides to try it. And she might be told by a (male) colleague — someone who has never formally studied teaching or learning — that she really could be “more like a stand-up comedian” than a facilitator. And it’s likely that it won’t matter very much for her career advancement, that pursing additional certification will be a dead end. Some students might resent it, finding it less “rigorous” than their other classes because they’ve come to equate learning with incomprehensibility. It might even make it harder to get a job or to finish a dissertation.

Learning more strategies for teaching and learning will not only be unrecognized: it will be actively discouraged.

Learning takes forever, and teachers are forever learning how to teach. Teaching and learning (and measuring efficacy) are intensely complicated processes that deserve much, much more time, energy, respect, resources, and thought than institutions give to them. I say this with no shade to my own institution, which is, in some small way, trying to make some of this space and time and respect and energy by offering some resources like this workshop.

But it takes time. It just does. Teaching and learning isn’t quick or easy. It can be fun, immensely rewarding, even life-affirming. But it takes forever.

As of this year, I’ve been tutoring, or teaching, or facilitating teacher development, or writing material or curriculum, or a mixture of these things for nearly a decade. I’ve put in a lot of time researching, talking, attending workshops and trainings and conferences, designing stuff, reading stuff, teaching and revising lesson plans, and observing other teachers — both new and experienced. It’s not like I started thinking about constructivism last week. And I still think it’s hard. I still get nervous before I teach a teaching workshop or a class. I still rework my sessions, and stuff still comes up that stumps me or makes me think about something differently than I did last week. I still spend too much time lesson planning only to throw out the plan when an interesting question or discussion topic or distressed face pops up.

That’s why teaching is fun. But that’s also why it’s not fast.