Monday, April 08, 2013

Prompt: Looking Back / Looking Forward

Now that we're getting to the end of the term, I'd like to see you all both reflect back on the semester and offer up a little advice for the TAs coming in next year.

So. How was the experience? What have you learned? What advice do you have?

Saturday, October 29, 2005


Well, due to a general lack of activity, consider us moved.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005


I took part in the Utah Campus Compact "Civic Engagement Retreat" meeting yesterday at Snowbird, and I have to say that there's a tremendous amount of interesting stuff going on around the state. I thought I'd use this space to document a few of my thoughts on the subject.

First: it's amazing to see so many people from all over the state convene to talk about the various aspects of service learning in Utah. All of the colleges and universities were represented, which means that unlike in other places, we have a bit of a head start on getting a statewide initiative going.

Second: as we all sat down with our school-groups (many of which included Chief Academic Officers [CAOs]), many of us came to the same conclusion(s). Our university Presidents are generally very supportive of civic engagement/service learning/community-based research. Our faculty are also generally very interested in this. Our Deans and Department Chairs, however, are our biggest stumbling block. I suggested to our group that we work toward installing some kind of "Community Centered Research" office—to move away from words like "service" and "civic"—to operate as a clearinghouse. Community leaders could approach this center, which could then disseminate information out into the university. I also suggested that this center be headed by a full-time faculty member who is an absolute <i>evangelist</i> for the cause.

Third: there is a tremendous amount of community based/civic engagement/service learning going on all over the various universities in the state.

A few cards on the table, first.

I should say that "service learning" frightens me a little, mostly because in disciplines like Composition the problem is connection: "let's build houses for Habitat and then go back to our classroom and write modal essays" isn't going to cut it. I am also deeply troubled by the tendency among faculty to bring their hobbies into the classroom (this, of course, is not limited to Utah). This is not to say that I don't like service learning; it's just that I think it can be done very, very badly. And in a political climate like Utah's, doing it badly could have devastating consequences.

I am also frightened a little by the degree to which many are involved in service projects that are unabashedly liberal/progressive in nature but which do not seem to recognize this fact—or which shy away from their progressiveness. I suspect that this is easily rectified simply by spinning civic engagement as being ecological in nature. That is, when Hispanics/Latinos, who make up 35% of the population of Ogden, drop out of high school at a rate of 40+% (among males), the problem is hardly isolated to that one community.

With that said, I'm interested in the slippage in terminology. What began as "service learning," which insisted that students learn more and better when what they learn in the classroom is reflected in some kind of activity outside the classroom. But "service" doesn't really play well. Then came "civic engagement," which is a much more blatantly political animal. As I understand it, the idea is that the university is to be the site of a rejuvenation of civic engagement among students, who of course vote in appallingly low numbers.

The amazing Barbara Holland led us through all of this, and at one point used the term "Community Connected Learning," which I like a great deal. Interestingly, when I asked her if that had been intentional, she said that it wasn't, but was willing to admit that she'd had an epiphany.

I suspect that there's about to be a large push for this community connected learning at each of the schools in the state. It'll be interesting to see what comes of it.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

In Lieu...

In lieu of a longer post I'm writing about dialect and region and general habits of writing and speech (e.g. in Utah, people say "Oh my heck!"), I'll just ask a simple question:

Is it just my imagination, or is there a nationwide problem with students and prepositions? Some of my students seem to use some kind of "random preposition generator" device to decide which ones to use in their essays.

I'll do my best to get the other post up before I head to Lafayette for another conference.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Make It Public; Make It Matter

Over at Composition Southeast, Sharon is on fire. One of the things that I've been chewing on lately about blogs and composition and teaching and regionalism and "service" is this, and this is something I said to my colleagues in the 4Cs blogging SIG:

Blogs are designed to make it easy for people to publish content online. When we use blogs in our classes, very often we use them to replace journals or in-class writing or, as I have done, to "farm out" elements of the class that might take time away from writing or teaching writing. In doing this, even if we are gleefully watching our students form blogging communities or consider audience when they write, we ignore the larger implications of placing content online.

The blogosphere is, in the end, a kind of million monkeys at a million typewriters hammering out not Hamlet, but instead rapidly discovering and filling in every imaginable niche and crevice. That is, if you're interested in, say, the history of fire hydrant design, someone else out there is, too, and blogs make it easy for those people to make their information public.

The question I rolled around in my mind for a few days way this: why, then, when we have this amazing mechanism for publishing ideas online, do we seemingly ignore the degree to which it might be used as a kind of service learning? Why do we not use blogs in the classroom as a means of making public the intellectual work that goes on in our classrooms. And even more, why do we not focus on making that intellectual work a resource for both the university and the larger community?

I started thinking about this because we have a large service initiative here where I teach, and so teachers across the university very often experiment with various kinds of service learning. As might be expected, this form this service learning takes varies—some people work with Habitat, some people work with homeless shelters. But last semester, one of our professors attempted a service project in which her students interviewed some of the last remaining survivors of the Japanese internment camps who were living in Salt Lake City. The project was an interesting one, I thought, and when I asked what was to be done with the material when it was all over, I was told that the interviews would be bound and given to those they had interviewed.

This is what I am talking about. A project such as this, as Sharon rightly notes both on the blog and in email with me, is a golden opportunity to consider the publishing of blogs as a kind of service learning that does not ignore the intellectual work that goes on in the university and, instead, makes that work a public resource for the community.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Utah Bubble/Utah Culture: Politics is Religion is Personal is Politics

The question at the heart of this is simple enough: are there concerns about teaching composition that are region-specific? Culture? Student demographics? Local and state-level politics? Curricular issues? If so, can we make a place here to discuss them?

Shortly before I left Oklahoma for Utah, I decided to use Signs of Life in the U. S. A. as my reader for composition II. It’s a popular culture reader—and a very good one, at that—and I imagined that the students would find it accessible.

What I found, however, was that many of the students had no frame of reference whatsoever for many of the essays in the book. They didn’t watch The Simpsons. They didn’t watch Sex and the City. They didn’t watch Friends. They didn’t watch television much at all, frankly. The majority had never seen an R-rated movie, which meant that many of the films referenced in the text might as well have been Bulgarian cinema for them.

This is not to say that the book was a flop. It wasn’t. In fact, I think the students liked it quite a lot. But the added pressure upon me to contextualize what I had previously assumed would be bits of universal knowledge (Ross and Rachel; Bart and Lisa) left me sometimes wondering where on earth I had landed.

My students referred to this as the “Utah Bubble.” As I taught the readings in the textbook, I found myself sometimes wondering whether these things that I believed would be interesting were, in fact, an assault upon some of the students’ beliefs, politics and sensibilities. I mean, considering I could teach this course in any number of ways, was it imperative that I use these texts? Could I find something more accessible for them? Less potentially offensive?

I am, of course, accustomed to being warned about teaching in a conservative community. I am originally from Mississippi and I lived for 8 years in Oklahoma. I know my red state values. But there is a difference, I think, in teaching a film like Pulp Fiction to a group of students of whom one or two might object and teaching that same film to a student demographic such as ours, where 40-60% of the class might object. Can we force them to watch such things? Ought we?

One of the essays in Signs of Life, Tad Friend’s “You Can’t Say That,” is concerned with television networks’ standards and practices in the wake of cable television creating award-winning original programming. One of the key questions, Friend explains, is that when a show on HBO can do whatever it wants with regard to sex and language, how is a show such as The West Wing to compete?

It’s a wonderful essay, even if the students had never seen any of the shows it discusses.

The problem, I found, was with the language. I had warned the students for a week or so prior to the reading being due that the essay used what they would consider “foul language,” but that it was always in context and was never, ever used gratuitously. I asked students to come to me if they had significant problems with this, but encouraged them to trust me in the matter. Could I have put my foot down? It wasn’t as if I were forcing them to read Fanny Hill, after all. The recent lawsuit at the U of U, however, changes this. Forcing a student to read a text to which they are opposed, or punishing them for not taking part in something to which they are opposed, could result in a lawsuit which the university would most likely lose.

And so I’m back to that question: do I have to teach this particular text? Couldn’t I use another text and accomplish the same goal? In a place where politics and religion and personal conviction are so closely intertwined, should I be more concerned than usual about what I choose to teach? Is the conviction that “this is an idea you ought to be exposed to” enough to justify potential offense? Is the conviction that “the Utah bubble needs to be burst” justifiable? Is that enough?

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Initial Post

I've been inspired by Sharon's recent interest in blogging to try to use blogs as a way of regionalizing concerns in teaching composition. As I've been saying for a while now, I'm less interested in students blogging than I am in using blogs to centralize the distribution of information for instructors, and so this seems like a logical step. I'm in the process of using WordPress to distribute information to my composition instructors where I teach, but this seems a much less insular approach.

More to come. Anyone interested in joining up can email me at srogers at weber dot edu.