Themes in My Work in the Graduate Rhetoric and Composition Program at Texas State University 2011 – 2013

In the introduction to this ePortfolio, I discussed my mindset when I entered the program: I wanted it to provide a structure for my own reflective transition from 20th century journalist and print-based writing teacher to 21st century new media writer and writing teacher. When possible, instead of writing a research paper I created a new media version of the project — even though I often wasn’t fluent with the technology. I wanted to learn by doing. Take risks. Be uncomfortable. As such, several projects I created while I was in the program did not make it into this ePortfolio — the best that can be said about some of them is that they were experiments — that remained experiments. But in many cases, those failures led to more successful endeavors and “lessons learned.”

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Experiments with Combining Visuals with Digital Writing Tools and Texts

A perennial concern for the writing teacher, regardless of the ubiquitous proliferation of new media texts, is how best to facilitate student critical thinking, a necessary precursor to crafting organized, cogent, effective texts in any medium. In my work as an adjunct instructor of developmental writing and as a tutor working with adult learners, I’ve acquired a deeper appreciation of the importance of understanding how different learning styles affect cognition — in reading and writing, and in processing knowledge and making meaning. With that in mind, I enrolled in the summer of 2011 in “Teaching Critical Thinking and Learning Strategies,” a graduate Developmental Education course, in which I looked at research that suggested strategies for helping students teach themselves complex concepts using technologies that build-upon visual intelligence or literacies. I produced two projects in that course that utilize technologies that I will add to my teacher toolbox: mind maps and PowerPoint presentations.

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Mind Maps Using webspiration.com

Mind maps are a promising tool to use with writing students because they facilitate and harness the user’s capability to think visually, which is important to just about everybody in this media-saturated era. Rather than asking students to study material by reading it and maybe using a yellow highlighter to mark sections of the text or extensive annotations on index cards, students can use mind-mapping technologies to visually express a process or a line of thinking, as they teach it to themselves. For example, in its simplest application, mind maps can illustrate relationships between ideas — arrows can signify if the relationship is directional and Venn diagram-shapes signify overlap. Images from the student’s own digital library and just about any place on the web can be uploaded for use on the site, which allows for a range of creative options that can be fun as well as somewhat overwhelming. Nonetheless, the same principles of finding order in chaos crucial to writing a paper were applicable to creating a “reader-center” mind map such as traditional demarcations — introductory elements, transitions between sections, a “point of view” and “persona” crafted. I used that same site a couple of years later when in a Composition Theory course I was asked to visually illustrate the trajectory and historical of various schools of thought in the field.

Lessons learned: This is a practice I will use with students. But I will choose a different program and site. There were technical problems. No matter how well the picture evokes a thousand words it’s useless if it can’t be seen in the final product. When I sent my professor a link to the project, she had difficulty viewing it because of password protections, etc. The same problem happened the second time I used the program — which is why those projects are not included in this ePortfolio.

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PowerPoint Presentations

One my most successful experiments was this PowerPoint, which helped me to later write this academic paper-based version on the same topic, the emerging convergence of developmental writing and Web 2.0 literacies. Creating the PowerPoint first gave me a sense of being grounded more in the material as I was engaged with it in a way that I wouldn’t have been working on a traditional paper, moving paragraphs, thumbing through a textbook, redoing outlines, “thinking” in a way that wasn’t visible.

Lessons learned: This is a “keeper” in my toolbox for a myriad of reasons. First, the technology is simple and the skill set — uploading and download images, inserting text into templates — transfers to other programs and contributes to student fluency with digital writing technologies. I’ve used it with success working as a writing tutor with adult learners struggling with not only how to structure their papers, but with where to start. Moreover, working with PowerPoint templates requires students distill long passages into pithy paragraphs, get to the bare-bones point of what they want to say.

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Blogs

The sense that this practice we commonly call “writing” has forever been altered is acutely visceral when composing text that will appear on — be published nearly instantaneously — on a blog. For one thing, the surface, the “page,” is gone. Everything has to be rethought. Does anyone indent paragraphs anymore? The end of the page doesn’t mean “the end” of the work.

For my purposes, I wanted to know if a blog could be a viable alternative to the traditional academic essay, which was the challenge I undertook when I created Madeleine de Scudery’s Conversational Salon with Ladies of the 1980s for credit in a graduate “Rhetoric” course. Instead of pages, there are tabs. I had to think about whether the tabs should go across the top of the screen or should navigation be situated in a sidebar and why? Since the options are nearly endless, the choices can be maddening. I spent an inordinate amount of time discovering how to create what I could “see” in my mind onto that blog.

Lesson learned: I was somewhat successful in matching the technology to the task. The irreverent tone would not have been appropriate in an academic version of the paper. Ditto for the “magical thinking” element: situating a conversation between women who lived from the time of Sappho to Madonna in the 1980s. One regret: not being able to make “real” my aural imagery — I wasn’t able to figure out how to embed Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot” so that it would play nonstop while viewers visit the site.

Although Blogger is easier to use, WordPress is a better platform for more complicated, textured works, which I realized when I used the latter application to create for an “Issues in New Media” course, Sixties-era “underground” newspapers live on in new media websites and blogs, a research proposal/memoir/social history. Hyperlinks were the most useful element when comparing the difference between my approach to a print-based version of the project and the digital rendition. Without hyperlinks, it would have taken me considerably longer than a week to come up with this project — produced during a one-month summer school course. Hyperlinks meant I didn’t have to spend as much time paraphrasing and summarizing and “situating” all the pieces; links provided necessary explication and back-ground material so that I could go forth and make my point.

Lesson learned: Use WordPress for more “serious” projects or weebly.com.

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Websites

The new media piece in my ePortfolio that I am most proud of is Writing Centers: A Bridge for Technological Changes in Composition Theory, created in collaboration with William J. Barry and Caroline Richardson, using weebly.com, and for a graduate course in Composition Theory. I think of the project as the pièce de résistance, the culmination of my work in the program. First, its premise is that digital literacies and digital writing are part of composition studies, and any text that purports to include all relevant theory should cover the issue thoroughly. Second, it situates writing centers as the “space” and institutional place for working with students who need to develop fluency and competency in creating digital writing projects, which also provided answers to many of the issues I was grappling with in my papers that I wrote while in the program. Finally, it drove home the point that digital writing projects almost by definition should be created collaboratively. Not everyone needs to have mastered all the technology, all of the material. Each of us brought different strengths to the process. Moreover the process was indicative of what I had been studying and thinking about the last two years — enacting collaborative pedagogy and the social construction of knowledge.

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More Traditional Academic Papers

The issues I explore in the Papers section of this ePortfolio have to with whether it is appropriate to assign new media writing projects when working with nontraditional students who enroll in an English Composition at a community college. I wanted to explore the issue because of past experience teaching gateway developmental writing courses at a community college. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the discourse over digital literacies in rhetoric and composition was relevant to what those students needed to know to be “literate” in the current academic culture.

It was a topic I couldn’t help thinking about because while I was a student in the program at Texas State, I worked as a professional tutor with students at Austin Community College in Round Rock. The majority of the students I worked with were returning veterans, laid-off workers starting a second career, and English Language Learners from Mexico, Korea, Vietnam, Africa, even the Middle East. From conversations with these students I know that most of them are determined to transfer to major universities in the area — the University of Texas at Austin and Texas State University. Their work at ACC is intended to provide them what they need to know so they can be “mainstreamed” after they leave community college.

In Emerging Convergence and Web 2.0 Literacies, I look at the literature — or lack thereof — on incorporating new media writing into developmental writing course work. In No Easy Rubric for Assessing Writing in the Digital Era, I look at a nuts and bolts issue, how writing teachers can constructively critique new media writing projects with the kind of certainty and specificity they apply to more traditional academic papers. In Comp 4.0: Fast-tracking developmental writers into FYC, I write about my observations of a program at ACC meant to stem the rising drop out rate among developmental writing students by “mainstreaming” them into English Comp I using an alternative learning community approach. As for my Review of YouTube Participation Culture, I include that piece of writing because I thought it was important that I understand that today’s writing student is not only more visual than those I worked with in the past, he or she is also likely to have learned to “compose” texts using animation and video and as part of an online community and participatory culture.

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Teaching Philosophy Section Documents

After reading, thinking, and writing about incorporating digital literacies into gateway developmental writing courses as well as into English Comp I, I wanted to see what that might “look like” in reality — so I created my own course, including the Justification, Teaching Philosophy, Sample Writing Prompts, and Sample Syllabus & Calendar. The idea was to see how well I might integrate theory with practice, and the materials were also assignments completed for credit for “Composition Pedagogy” course. It was a challenging exercise, one that I look forward to “test-driving” with students someday soon.

Finally, assembling this ePortfolio has required using rhetorical as well as digital composition strategies developed while a student in the program. Unlike a final print-based project, one long document with a works cited page, an ePortfolio is composed of a series of stand-alone bits and hyperlinked sections. Creating this ePortfolio has been the capstone to my re-education as teacher of writing while enrolled in the Rhetoric and Composition program at Texas State University.