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Category: Outside the Library

Reading Sophomore Portfolios

This morning was the first of three that I’ll spend sitting in a room with 35 or so faculty members reading portfolio after portfolio.* Or rather, the faculty read through portfolio after portfolio while I gave up on ever reading that quickly and just got through as many as I could. And now my legs are sore from being tense all morning…. nerves and all. It’s rather intimidating to join a group of faculty and participate as a novice in an activity they do all the time, and to know that every portfolio you read will be read again by one of them, and to wonder how you can possibly say something constructive to a student in a couple of sentences especially when you’re struggling to come up with a cohesive sense of why you think they should pass or not, and to sit there wishing you’d brought a dictionary because spelling just isn’t your thing and there’s no spell-check built into these pens and sheets of paper and you’re critiquing writing, for goodness sake, so the students are likely to be really ticked off if the person evaluating their writing can’t even spell…

And so, my legs are sore.

So why did I volunteer for this? I mean, I’d done it once before. I knew I’d sit there with pen poised over the blue evaluation form and dread having to write to the student who’s academic career will be shaped in some small part by what I write. I knew I’d read at half the speed of my fellow portfolio readers. I knew all these things, but I also knew that if I chickened out, I’d kick myself. This is, after all, one of the only times I get to see the results of the work I do with students. Even more than that, it’s one of the only ways I’d ever get to read enough of my students’ work to get a sense of the patterns of successes and failures in underclassmen’s writing, use of outside sources, and argument structure. It’s also a rare opportunity to learn about faculty standards as they’re applying those standards. And you know, it’s a beautiful thing to watch experts glance over a random sample of writing and pull out patterns of writing indicative of the student’s writing ability over all.

So, as we all sat there norming our reading by evaluating some sample portfolios as a group, I also began the process of recalibrating my expectations for student work at the Sophomore level and listening for clues about what might be expected at the Junior level. For example, I learned again what a difficult project it is for college students to learn what a conclusion really is in a paper, and how to manage it effectively. I saw students learning to negotiate tone and voice and just how, exactly, to manage other people’s words in with your own.

And so I’ll be going back tomorrow and the next day as we plow through another 400 or so portfolios together. I’m not looking forward to the aching legs by the end of the week, but I am looking forward to coming through the experience with a better sense of what students can do by their second year in college. As I said to one of my co-workers, I hate reading the portfolios, but once I’m finished I love having done it.

* More info on the portfolio.


Let the Pilot Begin!

I spent a good portion of today working out the logistics of a new pilot program we’re trying. I’m so excited to see if it works, it’s not even funny!

But first, the background. Our writing center contacts professors who will be teaching WR (“writing rich”) courses across the curriculum to see if these professors would like a writing assistant assigned specifically to their classes. So, for example, a bunch of English courses and a handful of sociology/anthropology, PoliSci, and History classes promise to provide their students with a portion of the intensive writing experience that’s required for graduation. And professors teaching these courses have the option of working closely with a single writing assistant who will shepherd enrolled students through all the writing assignments.

Well, last year the director of the our writing center and I began scheming ways to make our two operations work together more closely. I attended a writing professionals’ mini-conference with her. She invited me to start training new writing assistants. And this winter we’re taking it a step further.

She provided me with a list of courses that have a writing assistant assigned to them. Each week at our departmental meeting, I’ll check with the other librarians to see if they’ve been asked to work with any of these WR courses. If they have, they will contact the writing assistant for those courses in invite the assistants to the library session. That way the writing assistant will understand the research process and options when working with each of the enrolled students. They’ll also be encouraged to send students our way when they read drafts.

I’m going to choose one course to take this set-up one step further, just to see how it goes. I’m going to have one writing assistant take down the names of student that could use a librarian’s help and (with the students’ permission, of course) hand that list over to me. I’ll then initiate the contact with the students. I’m curious to see if overcoming that initial shyness of approaching a librarian for help makes a significant difference. On the other hand, I’m a little worried that this might be more of a workload than we can handle. Hence the pilot within a pilot… and zero publicity. It’ll just be between me and my writing assistant (and a few thousand of my closest internet buddies).

So today I got the list of courses and their corresponding assistants and spent some time creating a new section of the Moodle space we use to collaborate within my department. Hopefully with courses listed, contact information easily at hand, and spaces for noting our impressions of the process we can keep this thing moving forward smoothly and effectively. Goodness knows that if the process isn’t as easy as falling off a log by the time classes start (tomorrow, by the way), the scheme will never fly.

Wish us luck!

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Working with our Writing Center

I’ve written before about working with writing centers. About a year and a half ago the director of our writing center invited me to a joint meeting of writing center professionals and librarians. As is usual with such things, the meeting was great, but the conversations that our campus’ writing center professionals and I had on the way to and from the meeting was even better. In fact, it resulted in my being invited to make a 10 minute appearance in the writing consultant orientation the next fall, and for our two services to exchange publicity materials and generally start talking to each other in a new way.

Well, this fall things progressed much further. Rather than repeat my 10-minute appearance at the tutor orientation, the WC director generously handed over a full week of their fall mentor group sessions. (Writing consultants here don’t take a course prior to working in our writing center. Instead, they gather for one Saturday early in the term, and then for the rest of the term they meet in small “mentor groups” each week for an hour, during which time they discuss a reading with their writing center mentor. One week may be “Working with ESL students,” and another may take on plagiarism. This year, one of the weeks was library week.)

Preparing for these sessions proved to be challenging for several reasons. First, there were logistics. 5 sections of a class in the space of a week puts quite a dent in my calendar, and this year there were some scheduling snafus which will hopefully be ironed out next time we do this. Then there was the challenge of finding a reading that would be appropriate for students, that would give them some touchstone issues to discuss that would be relevant to their work, and that would encapsulated the practical and epistemological worth of the library on an academic campus. Turns out, our profession doesn’t really write such thought-pieces in a way that is appropriate for students. Either that or I just couldn’t find what was out there. So I assigned a piece James Elmborg had written about writing centers and libraries and how we’re a good match.* And finally, I realized that I’ve become completely dependent on preparing library sessions with an assignment in mind. Not having an assignment stymied my efforts to put this thing together for quite some time. I hadn’t realized how dependent I am on using the assignment as a way to prioritize what gets included in a session.

Anyway, at the advice of a co-worker, I finally decided to build the session around a theme of “how we are similar.” I hoped that this would give them something to latch onto (since they lacked the grounding force of an assignment, too), and that it would give me a way to work out my own uncertainties about turf.

Yes, I said “turf.” Here I am, going around believing that if we librarians feel the need to “own” Information Literacy, we lock ourselves into an unsustainable, less-than-perfectly effective, and ultimately untenable position. Not only are we insufficiently staffed to be the sole purveyors of Information Literacy to our population of undergraduates, but our students need to learn these skills in the context of their other learning if they’re to develop any kind of facility or nuanced understanding of the research process. What’s more, how can we make the claim that IL is an essential part of a liberal arts education, that it is inherently intertwined with learning on many levels, and then sequester it in the safe confines of the library? And yet, here was I, worried about turning these writing consultants into mini-librarians.

Luckily, my co-workers have wise heads on their shoulders and pointed out that I was worrying for very little reason. The best outcome possible would be to equip these consultants to help their peers think through research problems at point of need, and that they would know enough about what we do to feel comfortable making the decision to refer writers to us when needed.

So these sessions stressed our similarities. Just as consultants “work with to develop writers, not writings,” so librarians work to develop good researchers rather than hand over the perfect research. We both deal with citation, so we talked about resources for that and when consultants could, perhaps, want to steer students our way. We both deal with “it’s due tomorrow” issues, so we talked through strategies for dealing with these students. Of course, we also covered a few library basics, the “how do I know if this counts as a print source” conundrum (they loved the idea of Ulrich’s as a giant cheat sheet of “print” resources), and where to find the research guides that we create for most classes we support.

All of this seemed to go over well, so next term we’re stepping it up a notch. The writing center director and I are coordinating support for the “writing rich” courses on campus so that each librarian can know if classes they’ve been asked to support also have a dedicated writing assistant. If there is a WA, we’ll invite them to the course’s instruction session so that the WA will have the same understanding of the research involved as do the students we’ll all be serving.

Meanwhile, I’m going to try my own little pilot project. I’m going to arm one of my WAs with a reverse sign-up sheet. This way, the WA can identify students would could benefit from an individual session with me, provide me with the students’ names, and I can follow up and schedule one-on-one appointments. We’ll see how that goes.

*Elmborg, James K. “Locating the Center: Libraries, Writing Centers, and Information Literacy.” Writing Lab Newsletter. March, 2006. (Available Online)

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Responding to Student Writing and the Power of the Line

This past week I participated in a faculty workshop entitled “Responding to Student Writing.” In preparation for this workshop, each participant was asked to email the coordinator with the most vexing problems they have when responding to student writing. Most faculty members wrote about the problems of balancing the time it takes to write good comments on papers with their other duties, figuring out how to respond constructively, wondering if students ever read the comments, and wondering whether or not to write extensive comments on end-of-term papers.

I had to “interpret” the assignment since I don’t ever read or grade student papers. Here’s what I wrote:

I’m in the odd position of responding to writing without ever seeing the entire picture or reading the entire paper. I’m most often responding to the student’s interpretation of the assignment and the initial phases of topic selection. In the instances where students come back with a semi-finished product, I generally respond to the bibliography or the student’s summation of the argument and the types of evidence he or she has found to support that argument. In some ways, it’s much easier to respond to students about their thought processes and progress towards their goals when I only get these verbal summaries since it frees me from all the minute details that might overwhelm me if I saw the project in it entirety. But it’s also difficult to give feedback that will support the project as a whole when I only see distilled sections and versions of the project.

I also have to respond on the spot without the benefit of time to compose my thoughts and write something down. I’m often more comfortable writing than speaking, so I usually feel like I’m floundering to put my thoughts in order, communicate clearly, and keep the student’s ultimate needs firmly in mind all at the same time. I often wonder if my tone is appropriate, if they’re hearing what I think I’m saying, and if what I’m saying is effective. (When I’m really worried about this, I’ll often send a follow-up email that reiterates my main points, but then I run into the problem of time, especially when I have days that are packed full of back-to-back appointments with students.)

Like the first assignment, much of the workshop didn’t directly relate to me and my job, but it was nevertheless an incredibly beneficial and enjoyable workshop. I met some wonderful professors and had stimulating conversations about everything from art to assignments.

One of the most interesting conversations was with a studio art professor who, like me, had to interpret many of the activities to fit his teaching activities. He talked with such passion about the history of the line: how The Line started with the urge to represent and communicate and how it has diversified over time to include everything from representation art to writing. He talked about how creating art is always a way to possess, whether it be to capture an image you don’t want to forget or to articulate and keep hold of an idea, and that there is always an element of transaction involved, either literally or via communication.

What a beautiful thought. When we teach students to do research, we give them the keys to this act of possession and transaction. We help them to allow the originators of the work they study to complete this timeless transaction, this fulfillment of the original act of creation, of setting down representations of things and ideas via the eternal Line. And then the students, in turn, set down their ideas, using the same Line, waiting with eager anticipation for their readers to complete this new transaction.

And when readers comment on student writing, they grant that writing weight by taking partial ownership of the work via new instances of the Line, because the Line gains rather than loses power when more people own it, use it, and proffer it to others.

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