Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Interview Project

For this Interview project I asked some questions both of Kate Kiefer and Mike Palmquist who are at Colorado State University.

I started by asking Kate about whether or not she fits into any types of pedagogical categories. She responded, “I actually think of myself as somewhat eclectic” and continued:

I find some cognitive explanations compelling – particularly the ways in which memory comes into play – but over-extensions of cognitive theory make me downright uncomfortable (e.g., I do not think of all our behavior as problem-solving processes). The model of cognitive apprenticeship more typically aligned with socio-cognitive perspectives also works well for me as a teacher and researcher, but I don’t follow it slavishly. Social construction theory provides some other useful elements in my grab-bag theory, but I’m also willing to draw on gender theory and other (limited) cultural theories. Lately I’ve been looking closely into complexity theory (the study of complex adaptive systems) because that seems to account for a good part of what we do as learners.

Had I more time to continue the discussion, I would ask her more about how exactly she is using complexity theory and how this works with our own learning processes. I have my own ideas about this in terms of how we actually think and write before we organize and structure our thinking and writing, so I am curious how one might translate this into the writing classroom. Ultimately, though she uses various strategies within her own “rhetorical approach.” She says, “so far, I’ve been able to use rhetorical theory as the umbrella that pulls together theoretical insights and pedagogical concerns.

I wanted also to get into discussion of technology and writing instruction, and so, while I was waiting for the responses from Kate, I did a little more research.

In their book Transitions, Palmquist, Kiefer, and others at Colorado State University write about issues concerning the teaching of writing in both traditional and computer-supported classrooms. In the Foreword they discuss the “technological transition” that includes access to, general use of, and reliance on computers which may change “the way we think about what it means to write and to be a writer” (xiii). The question then is how might we redefine our roles as teachers? As we recognize and utilize technology in their classes, some teachers may give students more autonomy and responsibility in assignments and writing, and others may see technology as a way to have more control over the classroom and the students. The authors write, “our experience suggests that traditional and computer-supported classrooms challenge teachers in different ways, leading teachers to develop specialized techniques to reach the same curricular goals” (xiii). But the authors also assert also that technology itself does not make good writers. They write “that it is not access to a particular technology that matters…but rather how that technology is used to meet curricular goals” (xv). The focus then, naturally, is on instruction. In light of the variety of technological tools, in addition to all of the other concerns and issues surrounding the teaching of writing, how do we form our pedagogies and practices to best create classroom atmospheres that support students and help them to develop as writers?

“Our beliefs start with an understanding that writing competency develops not through accretion of small chunks of knowledge, but rather through immersion in the experience of inquiring, reflecting, and writing about issues and ideas” (Palmquist et al., Transitions xv). The general goals of the writing program at CSU at the time of this writing focus on helping students to create “meaningful texts” and “receive feedback from careful readers.” The specific goals include focus on writing process, audience and purpose, supporting students at their particular writing levels “as they move toward writing more effective academic prose,” recognizing “connections between reading, writing, and thinking,” and stressing the importance of “writing as a fundamental act of critical thinking and learning” (xvi). In sum, the authors assert, “we focus on exploring the personal and rhetorical aspects of writing within a curriculum that moves from personal essays to academic argument to rhetorical analysis of the discourse conventions in our students” major areas of study” (xvi).

And so, to incorporate computer and internet technology, for example, into the writing class, or to move entirely to a use of these technologies for instruction, requires first a firm grounding in one’s philosophy and goals for the teaching of writing. And according to the above philosophy, the teaching of writing is focused on the writer; the instruction is writer-centered in terms of helping student writers to use and develop tools that they can begin to think about and use on their own.

In response to my question: How does your teaching philosophy extend to the use of technology in writing instruction, using computers in classrooms, etc.? And what are some (theoretical or practical) benefits and disadvantages to using various types of technologies to teach writing? Kiefer responded:

As you may know, I was one of the founding editors of Computer and Composition, so I’ve been involved in looking at computers for writing instruction since the early 1980s. Although the specific questions about which technologies to use still come into play, my over-riding sense is that our classrooms need to capture as much of what students have in other settings as possible. So if students are drafting on computers in their dorm rooms, then we need to have them drafting on computers in classrooms. If students are likely to need to use other computer technologies on their jobs, then we have a responsibility to make sure they know how to use them wisely for classroom projects. College writing, especially upper-division writing, should approximate what students see themselves doing as professionals in their careers and as life-long learners as closely as possible.

That said, I’m not a technology junkie. I don’t believe we have to have every bell and whistle in the classroom. Students need to understand how to use the tools, but some of that can be accomplished by looking at a specific tools and interrogating what its existence and use demands of us. And writing classes are still about writing, even though source material for the writing may be accessed through the Web, drafts may be word-processed, and final format may involve advanced layout software. I don’t have to teach the software – just what it means to think about textual and visual rhetoric.

And in a short email I asked Mike Palmquist the following:

How do you think theory/ideas/use of technology in writing curricula has changed over the last 10 or 15 years in both positive and negative ways? What are your hopes/predictions for the future of technology integration (what do you see as important for those in the field of composition to consider in terms of using technology, what may be important for students, etc.)?

He responded: My general sense is that the fundamental concerns for writing instructors haven’t changed all that much over the past few decades. There are certainly new technologies to address-- the Web and Blogs being the biggest, I think, in terms of impact on writers and teachers. And perhaps IM and related technologies might have an impact. I continue to think that voice interfaces will be a big deal, but they’re taking a long time to get here. I’ve attached two articles…[the second] might provide the best insights into the direction I think we should be heading as a field – that is, a focus on what the writer needs (i.e., the resources that might best support the student writer in the act of composing) as opposed to replicating existing educational structures. Here is the abstract for Palmquist’s article, “Rethinking Instructional Metaphors for Web-Based Writing Environments”:
Abstract: Since the early 1980s, writing theorists and instructional designers have envisioned digital “writing environments” that would support writing processes. This work has informed the development of word-processing tools now used routinely by writers. Conspicuously missing from the design of these environments, however – at least from a teacher’s perspective – is attention to instruction. Their designers seem to have assumed that writers would bring sufficient knowledge and experience to the composing process to write their documents. In this essay, I argue that an ideal writing environment would provide student writers with immediate access during composing to relevant instructional materials and feedback tools. I review the design of earlier digital writing environments, develop a theoretical framework that supports the integration of instruction into writing environments, describe Colorado State University’s Web-based instructional writing environment, discuss current and planned research on the environment, and consider implications for future development of such environments (1). The “Web-based instructional writing environment” or Writing@CSU, can be found at http://writing.colostate.edu/ which is also the site of one of the largest online writing centers in the country. The site includes resources for writing teachers, students, and GTAs of composition courses. Colorado State students and teachers can use Syllabase—a program similar to Wayne’s Blackboard—and has tools like discussion forums, calendars, and chat rooms. Unlike Blackboard, you retain the right to your own work when you post to Syllabase. Another program that is a little newer in development is open for anyone to use on the Web; The Writing Studio is a place where you (or your students) can keep the work that you do doing your writing process. There are places for notes and drafts of papers, as well as a space for a bibliography. One idea is that students can post work and share it with each other and the teacher, so the process becomes a project (and it could incorporate more collaborative work as well), and the focus is less on the final product. In Transitions, and from listening to Mike and Kate and others at CSU I have learned about some of the advantages to using a program like Syllabase both in a computer classroom, or as a supplement to a class taught in a traditional classroom. Students often take “computer work” more seriously than simply writing in their notebook when prompted by a teacher. In a computer classroom, you can have students spend time during class responding to a prompt or question by writing and posting to the discussion forum. Students can then read and respond to each other. Often they spend more time thinking and writing quality responses (quality compared to having them write a response in their notebook during class, which they often know you are not going to collect or read again and hence may not write much, or they just list sparse notes). Using the computer makes the work seem more professional, and they know the rest of the class and the teacher is going to read their work. Additionally, these posted entries, like entries on a blog or in an email listserve, can be copied (and attributed!) and used in papers or other writing; initial responses can be used in later drafts and work on topics discussed.

In the conclusion section of “Rethinking Instructional Metaphors” Palmquist says of the Writing@CSU site, “we have developed an instructional writing environment that provides writers with support for the full range of composing, communication, and information-management processes they face as they engage in a writing task.” The pedagogy involved focuses on the writer and presents resources and support for writers at any stage and at any level of writing. I have attached the “Conclusions” section at the end of this paper because it gives more detail about the philosophy and “potential advantages for teachers of writing and writing-intensive courses” and the integration of technology (22).

The composition program at CSU is an example of how folks are recognizing the ever-changing role of technology in all aspects of life and work. As teachers of writing, it is important to recognize the changes and to keep up with the technology both to keep students involved and interested, and to place more responsibility on them to take charge of their writing, to be more invested in writing and thinking as combined and real-world activities. To recognize that writing comes in all forms, is created in a variety of contexts, and involves many processes of recording and organizing based on the particular contexts at hand is an important point to stress to students. It is necessary to give writers tools for developing their skills and aptitude with writing. But the goal is not to perfect the writing, the goal is not to make students who can mechanically produce “excellent” writing, but to help students to develop as writers, to “make better writers” as some would say. And the goal is also not to simply get them to use more technology. The focus has to be on the instruction and the development of writers and writing. The idea is to get students to think about their roles as writers, to take on the responsibility to determine writing context, who their audience is, and what the purpose of their writing is for each individual situation that arises. Something as simple as having students meet in a computer classroom and doing in class-writing on the computer can help students to feel more invested in their work. One downfall I have noticed is that sometimes discussion can be more difficult in a computer classroom b/c the students quickly get used to sitting at computers and writing, doing their own thing, and to get them to take those ideas and discuss them openly in the class sometimes causes a sort of a shift in the tone of the class. It’s hard to get a good balance of both computer work and discussion in a computer classroom. The set-up at Wayne though is nice b/c the computers move around, the tables and chairs all move around, the room is more easily re-structured to better lend itself to discussion and community activity, as well as quiet personal time with the computers, a setting that can potentially lend itself to quality writing instruction with the use of technology.


from Palmquist, “Rethinking Instructional Metaphors for Web-Based Writing Environments”
The Writing@CSU Web site offers an example of an instructional writing environment based on a pedagogical metaphor that differs from that commonly used in writing classrooms. The articulation of an ideal learning situation – in this case, that of a student writer who has access to relevant composing and researching tools, relevant instructional materials, and feedback and advice from classmates and a teacher – has informed our development of the site. Working from this metaphor, we have developed an instructional writing environment that provides writers with support for the full range of composing, communication, and information-management processes they face as they engage in a writing task. Work by a wide range of scholars over more than two decades has laid the foundation for such an environment, but shifts in technological capabilities and changes in the kinds of documents writers are asked to create continue to redefine the ideal.
The instructional approach that led to the creation of the Writing Studio and the Writing@CSU Web site has potential for enhancing students” writing skills. It also has potential advantages for teachers of writing and writing-intensive courses. By providing access to instructional materials and composing tools that support students as they learn to write – whether that writing be general activities such as summaries and reviews of literature or more discipline-specific activities such as engineering design reports, chemistry lab reports, and business letters and memos – we can significantly reduce the effort faculty might otherwise make to develop materials of their own. By developing communication and document management tools that support feedback on student writing, we can support out-of-class peer review and increase teachers” options for providing response. By creating support materials for faculty – including Web-based guides on integrating writing activities into courses, guides that provide direction on reducing the time needed to provide substantive responses to student work, and model course curricula and materials – we can further reduce the effort disciplinary faculty need to expend to use writing activities and assignments in their courses.
Our observations of instructors working with students in computer-based classrooms suggested an alternative approach to writing instruction, one that departs in significant ways from that used in most writing courses. When student writers compose in isolation, their instructional resources are typically limited to information obtained through a textbook or course notes. When student writers compose in an instructional learning environment such as the Writing@CSU Web site, they have access to a far wider range of instructional materials. In addition, through network communication and commenting tools, they have the possibility of obtaining feedback on their writer in far less time than would be the case if they had to wait for the next class or an instructor’s office hours. The development of instructional writing environments based on pedagogical approaches that differ from the dominant approach of class discussion followed by students writing in isolation offers an intriguing alternative to computer-based instructional materials that maintain the pedagogical status quo.

Works cited:

Kiefer, Kate. E-mail Interview. October 2005.

Palmquist, Mike. E-mail to the author. 3 October 2005.

Palmquist, Mike. “Rethinking Instructional Metaphors for Web-based Writing Environments.” Writing and Digital Media. Ed. Luuk Van Waes, Marielle Leijten, and Chris Neuwirth. Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004.

Palmquist, Mike et al. Transitions: teaching writing in computer-supported and traditional classrooms. Greenwich, Conn.: Ablex Pub. Corp., 1998.

Writing@CSU. 1993-2005.

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