May 2015


I just read Rob Jenkins piece, “Retention in the Trenches,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education,

I remember the first time I left (was forced out of?) school; the first time school failed to retain me.

I was disinterested in school. Like many newly-graduated-from-high-school teenagers, I was burnt out from barely passing my classes at my private, Jesuit, prep school. I purposely did poorly in my entrance exams so that I would get put in “easy” classes. I know… I was young.

I was left bored in my composition classes, and I was told, in so many words, that my writing was poor by my disinterested instructors. (Of course, now I realize what they must have been going through). My instructor, however, gave me no direction in how to improve my writing. I ended up barely passing my enc 1101. In 1102, I hated all the assignments, hated the group work, and hated every thing we were assigned to read. Again, I was bored and doing enough to get by. I did, however, attempt to put more effort in to my writing to pass the class with a higher grade. For my efforts, I was accused of cheating (nothing came of the accusation, except my resentment), and I received a point penalty for missing too many classes.

I did much more poorly in my other classes.

After failing a couple of classes and taking a semester off, I was ready to come back to school, but school did not care for my return. I remember talking to counselors, who led me to deans, who told me my poor record indicated to them that I was not ready for school. I pleaded my case: I was bored in class, didn’t see the point, hated the “pointless” classes, I had learned from my mistakes, and I wanted to return.

I ended up at the local community college. Again, counselors were quick to dismiss my interest and were unhelpful. Finally, when I declared myself as an English major and was sent to the head of the English department, did I finally connect to someone who listened to me and helped me pick classes. And more than just pick classes, he would register me for the class right in his office. That extra step helped immensely. I can’t say how many times–and how much time wasted–I would attempt to register for a class that was full and then have to find an alternative. With Dr. Blanco, if I couldn’t get into a class, he would recommend another one. He would tell me what the classes would cover so that I could decide if it interested me. I owe that man so much.

The teachers at that school–once I finally started taking classes in my major–were amazing, and they and my experience, bring me to Jenkins piece. He states:

Obviously, we haven’t yet discovered the magic formula, or else we wouldn’t still be talking about this problem, much less potentially losing money because of it. 

He does give excellent advice.

Be a teacher, not a gatekeeper.”

As professors, sometimes, and I have this problem, we think our job is to let students lacking in ability know that they might not make it in college. I was told repeatedly by a girlfriend’s mother, by managers, and by my own high school counselor, that maybe college was not for me. As I’ve mentioned, I was told I could not get past the gate by writing instructors, and here I am, ABD, about to get my Ph.D.. I think Jenkins is correct in saying that students, especially at risk or academically under-prepared students, are “much more likely to stick it out if they see their professors as partners in the learning process.” I see my job as helping students realize that with hard work and effort they can learn the material and pass their classes. 

Next, Jenkins states that we should “be flexible” and reminds us “But don’t be a pushover”

Life happens, so we should help students through those moments, but we can’t let students walk all over us.

The next step is the hardest one for me, (and I don’t know why): Be accessible — and approachable.”

Students need to know that they can come talk to us. If they have a problem, they need to tell us so that we can be flexible without being a pushover. As Jenkins reminds us “For many students, professors represent imposing and sometimes intimidating figures.” I have had vastly wonderful literature classes, where my students come talk to me during office hours, chat with me before and after class about the movie, t.v. show, or other book they read that reminds them about something we covered in class. One class started a book club and asked me to be the faculty advisor. 

In my composition classes, however, I am arrogant and mean. I try to be open. I send out constant announcements reminding my students of office hours, of e-mailing me, of my openness to read pre-drafts before they turn anything in for a grade. I try to be tough so that students don’t think I’m a push over, but I am flexible when things come up. Sometimes I wonder if my accessibility isn’t influenced by my appearance as a 6’2 tall man. I know my sarcasm gets me in trouble.

I am working on this accessibility part, and have seen improvements from when I first started–improvements that have come at realizing precisely that I am an ally not a gatekeeper.

“Make Material Relevant”

I have armed myself with the following articles that show that liberal arts majors (specifically in humanities and social sciences) earn more than professional and pre-professional majors by mid-career:

Here

Here

Here

Here

Here

Here

Of course, the importance of clear communication, proper writing (in e-mails, cover letters, job inquiries, resumes, etc.) cannot be stressed enough. In a competitive market, the resume without typos wins.

Finally, Take some personal responsibility”

I think I should, as Jenkins suggest, step outside the comfort zone. As he puts it:

You can’t force students to do something they absolutely don’t want to do. And yet, over the last few years, I’ve begun to step outside my comfort zone and reach out to students who have multiple absences, who haven’t turned in an assignment, or who clearly seem distracted in class (and not just by their cell phones)” 

This article makes me realize the student focused approach I would like to take at a community college or liberal arts college. A place where students come first.

Brooks, Kevin. “Reading, Writing, and Teaching Creative Hypertext: A Genre-Baed Pedagogy.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 2.3 (2002): 337-356

Kevin Brooks explores the use of hypertext. He says students read on-line and engage in digital text, including as Micheal Joyce states, television. Students are engaged in these mediums and know them, so we should teach web-writing and hypertext, a pedagogy of “electronic rhetoric.” We need to teach students to go beyond consuming “screen culture” and become producers of it.

Brooks’ essay wants to put forth strategies for teachers to teach genre-based web-writing. This writing requires students to make rhetorical choices about form, composition, and traditional story elements.

Brooks looks at the history of genre-based and hypertext theories. Earlier work opened up pedagogy but provided no models for enactment. Brooks states that “The structure of a hypertext has been deemed more central to its function or success than its generic affiliations, but it seems to me that separating structure from generic affiliation is a formalist, arhetorical pedagogical move” (341).

Many theorist have argued that genre-theory applied to reading text, including internet text, is useful but none have provided clear models. Genres are familiar starting points to use with students. Brooks claims that his students equate “creative hypertext” with the choose-your-own-adventure and build from there. Some students might not be familiar with the computer technology or programs but will be familiar with genre conventions. Brooks goes on to outline his model:

  • Students should understand all texts are rooted in genre, and they need to read hypertext and print examples to familiarize themselves with the genre. Students should understand the print sources that hypertext emerge from.
  • Students should “choose genres that will meet their communicative needs” (344). Brooks picks a flexible genre (autobiography) and broad categories (popular culture).
  • Students should be encouraged to challenge and play and reinvent these genres.

Brooks notes how writing pedagogy has already used these strategies—now, we need to apply them to hypertext and genres.

He looks at Activity Theory that states we learn new things by using old knowledge. In writing, writers must respond to other text and choose their medium (pen and paper, computer, etc.). Brooks has rethought the hypertext to include non-electronic forms. [[These strategies speak to Roland Barthes’ autobiography, as well as fiction text by Jonathan Safran Foer, and The Principles of Uncertainty.

Brooks uses the autobiography and popular culture genre; the latter includes working in collaboration. Assignments ask students to keep in mind their print predecessors in order to understand the genre but should challenge and play with those genres. (Good examples: Shelly Jackson’s My Body

Brooks proscribes four aspects to keep in mind to tighten up hypertext pedagogy:

1-This technique is good for teaching literature

2-Over the research, we should allow students to make their own rhetorical choices and not limit them because of what the research says

3-Assign familiar genres

4-The door is open for more research.

 

These are some great ideas; I am lucky that USF has taught me to implement many of these ideas in composition already. The idea of remediating a text helps students contemplate their rhetorical choices, and once they begin to think about their own rhetorical choices, they begin to think critically about the rhetorical choices made in the work they are reading. For every major project our students complete, they have to remediate their argument into an alternative (hypertext), whether a web-page, a yoututbe video, or a blog. I would like to take this idea a step further and have the final project be a multiple genre assignment.

I would love to use these techniques and ideas to teach a theory course. Brooks idea to have students create an autobiography, I think, will translate well into teaching Roland Barthes in the same manner as in composition class. Once students begin to think about the techniques and are forced to articulate their choices, they begin to learn the material better. I would also like to teach the postmodern novel again– this time, I would have less text and have the final revolve around the students creating their own “postmodern novel.”