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Category: Outside the Library

Of Socks and Writing

For the past three days I’ve been attending one of the many December workshops offered by faculty for faculty on our campus. This particular workshop was put on by our Writing Across the Curriculum program and was a fabulous opportunity to learn more about what good pedagogy looks like, think carefully about what we want our students to get out of their college experience, and get to know faculty from all over the curriculum. I don’t directly teach writing, but I do support those who do, and I almost never get three days in which to talk over the underlying goals of writing assignments with my faculty. What fun!

But everyone always looks forward to the last day of the workshop because on that day the Dean of the College presides over the annual outrageous sock contest. And this year… I WON! Last year I was deemed “almost tasteful” and was therefore disqualified. This year my fur-lined santa socks earned me a Sock Monkey grand prize.

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Unfortunately, I Seem To Have Misplaced My Brain

I somewhat miraculously made it through this entire day without the benefit of my brain. I’m not quite sure what happened to it, but there you have it. It was rather an unfortunate day to be without my brain because we were discussing database renewals this morning, I was trying to prep for a class this afternoon (with no apparent progress), and I participated in the first meeting of a reading group on campus sponsored by the Writing Across the Curriculum program.

That’s right. After inviting myself into this reading group, which will be meeting throughout the term to discuss books themed around “writing from sources,” I found myself sitting in a room full of teaching faculty, book in hand, and no capacity for rational thought. So sad.

But the faculty had a lively discussion about whether or not the book at hand (Rewriting by Joseph Harris) was useful or not. Personally, I appreciate Harris’ attitude toward writing. He places emphasis on being generous to other writers and coming to terms with their projects and approaches rather than on critiquing their work to shreds. The way he talks about entering the scholarly conversation has rekindled my interest in writing, and I’m not the only one to feel re-inspired by the book. Two separate professors in the room talked of suddenly feeling ready and able to go back to projects they’d shelved for years.

At the same time, the book is not perfect. I was never quite sure if it had actually been written for students or teachers (and the number of times Harris comes back to clarify this point lead me to believe that he wasn’t clear either). Several of the faculty members present were also annoyed by his lack of attention to the actual teaching of writing. Many complained that while the book helped them to think about teaching about intellectual thinking, it didn’t help them to think about “teaching writing.” I must confess that I was unclear about the distinction some were making between teaching about writing and teaching writing, but please remember that I was listening to all of this without the benefit of my brain.

One particularly interesting point in the conversation centered around citation, of all things. An art professor pointed out that in ceramics, students can “rewrite” past work by using a specific glaze, shape, or firing technique to comment on or invoke past moments in the history of ceramics. But unlike other disciplines, ceramics does not require students to “cite” these influences. So on the one hand, detailed and specific information about ceramics history isn’t required to be apparent, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not important. This professor says her heart bleeds every time a freshman “dunks” a pot into the celedon glaze without knowing or appreciating the history of the glaze, how it was meant to imitate jade, the position that jade had in the culture at the time, etc., etc., etc.

If my brain were present, I would observe something or other about how this relates to the importance of making use of prior knowledge when creating new works. I’d also comment on how it matters that people be able to understand when and why you make use of the past in this way. But alas, I can’t wrap my head around the phrasing at the moment. All I know is that I had a grand old time sitting there listening to these professors. (And it doubled as a perfect occasion to meet a few of my faculty, including two that I’ve only barely met before, in a social setting.)

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Obvious?

This morning was the second of three mornings spent reading portfolios. I have to say, this could grow on me. We sat there at round tables reading paper after paper after paper. Every once in a while someone would giggle at a particularly humorous turn of phrase (some of these were even intended to be humorous). Every once in a while someone would ask those sitting nearby to help decide what grade would be appropriate, or what comments would be most helpful.

Two moments stand out for me. I read one portfolio by a student who was a very good writer… but he knew it a little too well. I couldn’t figure out how to write a comment that basically said “You’re a great writer, but try to humor your readers and pretend you’re not a god.” My favorite word of the entire day, though, came when I was reading the most incomprehensible piece of writing I’ve ever read. I was literally just looking to see if the sentences were complete because I couldn’t understand a thing that was going on. And then, in the midst of this, the writer started yet another incomprehensible sentence with the least perfect word possible: the word “obviously.” I burst out laughing, and (when I’d shown it to the other readers at my table) pretty soon my half of the room was laughing. Nothing was less obvious than the points the writer was using to support the argument, except perhaps for the conclusions the writer was drawing based on those points. (I’m still giggling as I write this…)

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What Writing Can Teach Us

This morning was the first of three consecutive mornings that I’ll be spending reading the sophomore writing portfolios at my college. This is my first time reading such things, and I must say that it’s kind of daunting.

You see, each year, all the sophomores turn in three to five examples of their writing from their first two years of college. Each year, some time soon after school gets out, a whole bunch of faculty and some staff (all volunteers) gather to read hundreds and hundreds of portfolios over the course of three mornings. And this year, I’m included in this bunch of readers.

Readers volunteer for a number of reasons. They want to see examples of assignments from other professors. They want to re-calibrate their own grading by reading masses and masses of writing. They want to intervene with students who need help. And the list goes on. It’s really fun to see a bunch of people taking on a task that just has to get done, but rather than just do it they reinvent it as a powerful professional development tool.

I’m there because my college is thinking of coming up with information literacy benchmarks for first- and second-year students. So another librarian and I are helping to read the portfolios not only to help make it through the boxes and boxes of papers, but also to find examples of information literacy at work and see if we can generalize our observations to help us develop an assessment matrix or a first-year info-lit initiative.

So far, after reading only a couple of portfolios, I’ve learned that:

  • underclassmen don’t understand citation, but that they can do it if guided
  • they are happy to use outside sources, but the sources control the writer rather than the other way around
  • that they think of “fact” and “interpretation” as much more distinct categories than they really are
  • and that I’m a very slow portfolio reader (I’ll really have to pick up the pace tomorrow… it’s been a long time since I was a regular writing tutor and could do this in my sleep.)

On a somewhat separate note, I’m quite happy that I can walk into a room full of faculty members and not only greet and be greeted by name, but also carry on conversations with them about everything from libraries to pedagogy to gardening and not feel out of place. I’ve worked hard this past year to build this kind of relationship, and it’s finally feeling less I’m “just staff.” In fact, all the librarians have been working at getting involved in all sorts of things across campus, and now we’re beginning to be invited to meetings as less of an afterthought. Slowly but surely…

(The Pinky and the Brain song comes to mind…) Tee hee hee.

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