Archive for April, 2008

April 21st 2008

4Cs NOLA Saturday — Neighborhood Story Project

Easily the most powerful presentation I saw in New Orleans was a tour put on by the non-profit Neighborhood Story Project. Saturday afternoon my wife and I met up with Jane and her daughter to take the tour and I’ll try to do justice to the tour in the pictures and information posted here. But really, nothing can convey the sense of dismay and anger mixed with hope and courage that the tour fostered.


Led by Abram Shalom Himelstein and Rachel Breunlin, co-directors of the non-profit group, we piled into two vans that took us through New Orleans and out toward the site of one of the levee breaks (the 17th Street Canal) and from there into the Lower Ninth Ward, the scenes of the worst of the destruction following Hurricane Katrina nearly three years ago.


Rachel was the guide for the van I was in and she was a wealth of information about the context of Katrina in terms of the history of New Orleans and the aftermath politics of the situation. As we departed the Hilton, she explained that, contrary to expectations, the high ground in New Orleans is along the Mississippi (where the Hilton sits and the French Quarter) since whenever the Mississippi of yore flooded, it deposited silt next to it, effectively raising that ground. The rest of New Orleans slopes away toward lake Ponchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the city is below sea level, a fact painfully apparent in the aftermath of Katrina. Since the storm itself mostly missed New Orleans (there was wind damage, but the exact landfall was away from the city), initially it was assumed the city would be okay. However, the sea swell from the storm overwhelmed the city’s flood walls and the rest is a painful history of death, destruction, political ineptitude, and profiteering–a history not fully written yet.

On our way to the levees, we passed the first evidence of the bureaucratic nightmare New Orleans has had to face in just about every aspect of recovery. The city has no money to rebuild with–and the federal government will only give money to tear down, not rebuild. As a result, historic neighborhoods and housing projects are being demolished rather than rehabilitated. The housing projects are many blocks long, three-stories high, and were home to hundreds of low-income families–all of whom are displaced and, in all likelihood, will never return.

Lafitte Housing Project Lafitte Housing Project 02 Rubble

The fate of these housing projects, though fiercely contested, is pretty much decided, as the rubble in the picture above attests. Among the candidates for the wrecking ball is William Frantz Public School, one of the first desegregated schools in the deep south. In 1960, little Ruby Nell walked up the steps of that school alone amid a daily torrent of angry white vitriol. Surely there is something in that edifice worth saving as one reminder of the worst ignorance and racism can bring about.

William Frantz Public School

Our first stop at a levee break was along the 17th Street Canal. The site of the worst of the levee disasters, we were able to get out of the van to view the situation first-hand. Because New Orleans is below sea level, it is constantly pumping ground water into a canal system that takes the water out to Lake Ponchartrain. The sea swell from Katrina traveled up these canals from the lake creating a backpressure that eventually overwhelmed the system.

Levee Break Orleans Parish Rachel at 17th St Levee

The first picture above shows the new concrete in place at the site of the levee break. The water in this spot did not top the levee’s concrete floodwall–instead the earth beneath the wall gave way, since the Army Corps of Engineers used peat and sand as part of the levee base which allowed water to percolate through to create an unstable situation. A satellite image of the flooding that followed can help with the visualization of the result. What we saw was a loose collection of rebuilt homes amid empty lots and abandoned buildings.

Rachel explained that the levees have not, as one might expect, been fixed. Instead, the Army Corps has installed a sea wall in each canal where they drain into Lake Ponchartrain that is designed to close in the event of another sea swell. Then, great pumps the size of houses are supposed to pump the canal water over the sea wall so the levee is not strained. National Geographic has a page about this work and you can decide for yourself how much you would trust the Army Corps if you were a New Orleans resident. The pictures below are of the pumps.

Pump System Pump

From this area, the tour took us across the Industrial Canal and into the Lower Ninth Ward where the scenes of devastation were the most poignant. This area, traditionally poor and predominantly Black, a remnant of urban segregation policies, was overwhelmed immediately by the sea swell that traveled up the canal unabated. In the pictures below, you can see the older flood wall on the near side of the bridge and the new concrete of the repaired flood wall across the canal. Note the distance traversed by the new concrete wall–miles of the wall were eradicated in an instant.

Industrial Canal 01 Industrial Canal 02 Ninth Ward 01

The two or three houses here and there are separated by vacant lots of weeds and cracking concrete foundations–an urban wasteland where a community once stood.

Ninth Ward 03 Ninth Ward 02 Ninth Ward 04

We visited the community of Desire.

Desire 01 Desire 02 Desire 03

In these communities, nearly three years after the storm, the most graphic descriptions of failure and despair come not from the abandoned houses and buildings (which are bad enough), but from the marks painted on the houses from the National Guard search teams who had to look through the buildings for the dead. They painted red Xs on the sides of buildings to indicate they had been searched. On the left of the X is the troop number that did the search, the top of the X lists the date and time of the search, the right side of the X lists whether any dead animals were found. The bottom, of course, is for any human bodies they found. Imagine that you are trying to rebuild in a neighborhood, every day reminded by these Xs of the losses suffered.

Guard Crosses 01 Guard Crosses 02 Guard Crosses 03

In one image, you can see the water line where the flooding came up to (about 6 feet from the ground). In another image, you can see a hole in a roof where residents broke through to climb out above the flood waters. The rest of these neighborhoods is weeds and crumbling structures.

Flood Line Roof Ninth Ward 05

Ninth Ward 06 Ninth Ward 07 Ninth Ward 08

Some homes show the remnants of blue tarps stretched across their roofs. The Blue Tarp program is one of the more visible examples of government-sponsored mis-allocation of funds in the wake of Katrina, along with the FEMA-trailer boondoggle. It is little wonder that the people most affected by Katrina have no trust at all in the government.

Blue Tarps 01 Blue Tarps 02

As the tour was ending, Abram and Rachel talked about some of the bright spots amid the disaster. We visited a small museum in the middle of the Ninth Ward that had managed to rebuild and had salvaged some of the history of New Orleans from the wreckage. Because his neighbors still had intermittent power, thick temporary power cords stretched off from the museum in all directions–the community still exists and neighbors are helping neighbors.

And the Neighborhood Story Project itself works in neighborhoods and local high schools, helping people cope with their lives by writing. The Project publishes books of students writing about what their neighborhoods were like before and after Katrina. The stories are heartbreaking and hopeful all at the same time. If you want to help–purchase a book or two from their web site. All proceeds fund more such projects–and there is so much need. The images below are of just a few of the books available.

Dorgenois Piety and Desire Palmyra Women Ninth Ward

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April 20th 2008

4Cs NOLA Friday–J Session

Oh man, after the great session on revision, I had to hustle it back to the main hotel to see Peter Elbow. I met up with Jane and her daughter and we managed to secure three seats together way at the back. Way at the back of a very crowded hall. Alas. But I’ve never seen Elbow as a god, really, so I didn’t need to fawn at his feet–I’ve always thought of him as more of a demi-god. I fawned from further back.

Elbow’s presentation was “Why Critical Thinking Needs the Believing Game.” The Believing Game, if you haven’t read Elbow recently (or ever), addresses a problem with skepticism in critical thinking. He says we teach ourselves and other critical thinkers to constantly play a “doubting game” with everything we see and hear in order to protect ourselves from being scammed. It’s an analytical tool that looks for the “bad parts” in good things. Science uses methodological doubting to police itself and it’s generally a good thing to doubt, since human naivety can lead to astonishing consequences.

The problem is that while that game and good logic can help us identify what is wrong with someone’s argument, it can’t identify what’s wrong with someone’s position. In a chapter on the subject, Elbow notes

If we could have proven that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, that wouldn’t have proven that it was wrong to invade Iraq. “We should invade Iraq” is a claim that is impossible to prove or disprove. We can use logic to strengthen arguments for or against the claim, but we cannot prove or disprove it. Over and over we see illogical arguments for good ideas and logical arguments for bad ideas. We can never prove that an opinion or position is wrong—or right.

In order to assess someone’s position, Elbow says we should turn to a “believing game” wherein we could scrutinize something beyond our worldview for its hidden virtues.

Elbow points out that the Believing Game comes easiest for us–it’s the Doubting Game that we learn. We hear constantly of people being taken in by confidence schemes that prey on the naive and their beliefs.

Elbow argues that we need a richer culture of rationality in which we engage in understanding others by putting ourselves into their worldview first, and addressing what we share as the dialog that leads to real problem-solving.

This concept isn’t new to me–just before I got my bachelor’s degree I was one class short of a certificate in Peace and Conflict Studies at Fresno State. Essentially, the program developed strategies for cross-cultural and inter-personal collaboration and problem-solving by consensus. The main tenets of such an approach to problems revolve around resisting judgment and respecting the values of all parties–and trying to see through another’s lens. It requires that we set aside, for the moment, the tendency to look for the worst (the doubting game) and replace it with an embrace of what each of us agree is the best we each bring to the table. The more we look past anger, frustration and past slights, however large, the more we are able to create a situation beneficial to all.

There were several other speakers in this forum, all of them quite good, but all of them long-winded. I am constantly amazed at how academics, who (in theory) teach people how to present ideas apply few of the basics of time-management and good presentation strategy to themselves. Still, it was enjoyable. But after Elbow, I’m afraid my mind wandered…

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April 16th 2008

4Cs NOLA Friday — I Session

“What Students Really Do With Feedback” was one of the better sessions I attended. These researchers, like the ones Thursday morning, designed their study based on Nancy Sommers’ work at Harvard assessing what students really do with instructor comments. They had two assumptions as they started out:

  • That students have poor (or lax) attitudes toward writing, which contributed to a lack of attention to revision, and
  • That past experiences (i.e., poor experiences) with writing functioned to discourage them from taking revision seriously

Dodie Forrest and Carolyn Calhoun-Dillahunt teach at Yakima Valley Community College in Washington State, a Hispanic-Serving Institution very similar to COS in both ethnic make-up and local economic situation. Three years ago, they began asking research questions to see what they could ascertain about student decision-making in response to instructor comments. They were initially interested primarily in students’ attitudes toward teacher comments. Their findings indicated:

  • students appreciated praise, but praise comments didn’t help them improve–they didn’t know what to do with it
  • compared to questionnaire responses at the beginning of the course, fewer students at course end wanted directive (edit-centered) comments and more students preferred end-comments
  • jargon comments were unhelpful (words such as “tweak” and “analyze”)
  • symbols and abbreviations were unhelpful
  • students had difficulty understanding teachers’ questions (when open-ended or rhetorical questions were part of the comments)

In the next year’s study, the research question was why students made the revision changes they made. They compared the actual changes students made to the comments teachers left. They found:

  • most students really do attend to instructor comments, though the moves they made did not necessarily improve the work
  • students were often confused by comments
  • some (at least) personal decisions go into the changes students make

The research they reported on this year was based on in-depth case studies of students in the same English classes–our English 1 level courses. I won’t go into their methodology, though it was in-depth, but they came up with a number of important implications that, combined with their previous results, say interesting things about students and about educators’ assumptions of students. They found:

  • Students, in spite of what we might think, generally have a positive attitude about writing and about their abilities.
  • Students do attend to teacher comments and/or genuinely believe they did address teacher comments in their revisions.
  • Even when an instructor comment led to subsequent text revision, students tended to see the revision as coming from the student rather than the teacher–in other words, no matter what sparked the revision, students felt they owned the revision decisions they made.
  • Students intend to make content changes, not just editing changes, in revision.
  • Students generally attend to marginal comments and prefer comments that allow they to make choices about their writing (as opposed to directive comments).
  • Students do not rely solely on their instructor for revision decisions.
  • Students feel that their ideas are important–sometimes this leads them to make revision decisions that instructors feel are not productive. The point is that some student revision decisions should be viewed through a lens of resisting instructor authority, rather than laziness or inattention.
  • Students are not sure how to use praise, although they like it. In interviews, students demurred from responding to praise comments.
  • Students ignore comments they don’t understand or don’t want to address.

Many of these findings were quite interesting and suggested that we don’t know enough about what students think about when we say “revise.” The researchers’ initial assumptions of students were all debunked–and who among us doesn’t share some of these assumptions? It is likely that we are approaching our students as if we understand them, when we don’t.

For future reference, I will be emailing Dodie and Carolyn to get copies of some of the research tools they used, which were well-developed and could help us a lot in our own work at COS. Their presentation was exceptional and I just wondered how they managed to have lives, too, while they did this work!

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April 7th 2008

4Cs NOLA Friday — F Session

Somehow, I started fresh Friday morning after blogging late and trying to adjust to New Orleans time. A session on Fully On-Line Instruction began at 8:00, which is 6am CA time, and I was starting to feel it.

This particular session focused on a pilot project from UCSB comparing a series of face-to-face FYC courses with totally on-line instruction. The courses were taught by three different teachers, each taking one of the on-line and one of the face-to-face courses so that assessment of pros and cons could be relatively evaluated across pedagogies. One speaker identified herself as a “not-so-tech-savvy” person who engaged the project with more skepticism than her colleagues. The others were rather more knowledgeable, but in the end, I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know.

The problem is that, if an instructor has read the latest research or spoken in depth with anyone working on-line, the problems and benefits are consistently in the same areas:

The positives are that

  • The responsibility for collaboration and group work is on the students
  • The technology allows more useful (timely?) feedback and more efficient distribution of course materials
  • The quantity and quality of communication increases
  • Asynchronous activities allow students to proceed with work on their own schedules
  • There are opportunities for multi-modal presentations that a classroom setting does not facilitate

The negatives include

  • Limited immediate follow-up and spontaneity in conversation and it can be difficult to provide individualized instruction
  • If you use portfolios, collecting and assessing such is difficult
  • There are inevitable technology glitches and access considerations (dial-up, etc.) that complicate things
  • Prep time is dramatically increased
  • Because the primary medium of communication is written text (rather than spoken words as in a classroom), students who read slowly and/or write slowly (or poorly) fair less well than in a regular classroom environment

So, the consensus was that on-line instruction was a mixed bag–a different mode with different advantages and weaknesses that we just need to be aware of. The panel had some recommendations on creating better on-line learning courses based on their experiences as well as their assessments of student learning outcomes.

  1. Maintain clarity of purpose in the course–be slow to introduce “new” features and instead try to maintain a stable environment around an “institutional” context, rather than a “technology” context
  2. Keep the basics of good practice in mind–peer review, drafts, etc.
  3. Be prepared to do more prep work (nearly 3 times as much at first) than in a conventional classroom

It was, in the end, an interesting enough presentation–they’d brought slides of the research and bibliographical information that situated them in the field, but I had been hoping for more practical tips for esubmissions, responding to students, maintaining real-time discussions and the like.

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April 4th 2008

4Cs NOLA Thursday — D Session

This session was tough to decide between options. My three friends from Fresno State were presenting along with Rick Hansen and Ginny Crisco about their program of Directed Self-Placement (so students can insert themselves in a 2-semester Comp class if they feel the need or an accelerated 1-semester course for more advanced students). At the same time, Steve Parks, with whom I’ve been corresponding since I adopted his press’s book Espejos y Ventanas was presenting about service-worker writing projects (writings by the “invisible” people who clean hotel rooms, serve us food, etc).

I chose neither of these and went to see my old friend and mentor Tony Michel, who was part of a panel on “Picturing Democracy: Multi-Modal Rhetoric in the Public Sphere.” Tony taught me most of what I know about Composition Theory and rhetorical analysis and without his mentoring, I don’t know where I’d be. He is at Avila University, now, in Kansas. He specializes in alternative rhetorics, including cyber-rhetoric and especially multi-modal (combinations of media, such as text and visuals/music/etc.) rhetoric.

The panel itself focused on different approaches to and questions that arise from multi-modal rhetoric. Primarily, the researchers have been examining the institutional and cultural practices of such rhetoric as well as the cultural context by which we navigate the rhetoric.

The first speaker addressed the question of what we, as teachers, should teach in terms of this rhetoric. If, for example, you want to teach a course on Game-Based Rhetoric, what institutional, pedagogical and cultural landscapes have to be navigated? In making that assessment, he says we should “open up for critical reflection at least four distinct areas: 1) the division of labor of rhetorical production, 2) the division of rhetorical work into disciplines and institutional-organizational schemes, 3) the function assigned to modes, media, and technologies by various and overlapping cultural logics, 4) the efficacies of modes and media, and 5) the infrastructural investment required to engage in a particular rhetorical practice.”

The second speaker noted that teaching multi-modal literacy is a key critical thinking element of his pedagogy. He expanded on the notion of “rhetorical velocity,” which is the concept that a particular rhetorical moment may create unforeseen futures. He illustrated his speech with an example of a young woman involved in a protest on the MSU campus who had her picture taken during the protest. A year later her picture reappeared on the MSU banner photoshopped into a montage of students–so the rhetorical moment was appropriated, reframed and decontextualized into another rhetorical incident beyond the expectations of (or the consent of) the woman involved. The image was further utilized by the institution in pamphlets and other promotional material, again, all without her consent. We can see other instances of this unforeseen rhetorical velocity in such odd convergences as the Hillary Clinton ad that featured a 3-year-old sleeping when one of Clinton’s 3am calls comes through. That image was stock footage that the campaign purchased, but the real person is now 18 and an outspoken Obama supporter–a consequence the campaign surely never envisioned. As our students move further into a future increasingly populated by rhetorics of new media and technology (such as Photoshop) it is important that they be able to assess what they are experiencing critically.

Tony spoke about a group of women in Kansas who, quite by accident, discovered each other after the 2004 election. Upset by the co-opting of such terms as “family values” by GW and others–and watching debates over the teaching of evolution in Kansas that they felt made Kansans seem like bumpkins, they formed a small group called True Blue Women to advocate for change. As the grass-roots organization has grown, Tony has been able to watch how they negotiate the rhetoric of news, the internet, and radio interviews which inevitably reframe some portion of the message these women want to get out.

The final speaker essentially spoke to the skeptic:

  1. How does a shift to teaching multi-modal rhetorics value certain media over others and/or certain populations over others? This is still expensive technology–who has access?
  2. Will it help students identify embedded power structures?
  3. What will be the new hierarchies of distinction (will “academic” text still be the assessment standard)?
  4. Is the internet and new media truly more open?

There were no clear answers–these were exploratory talks and there was considerable discussion, which I declined to note. It was a great panel that helped me think about ways of exploring critical thinking of pop culture, which I haven’t actually tried in a class, yet, but am thinking about.

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April 4th 2008

4Cs NOLA Thursday — B Session

I’m switching from session numbering to lettering because, as I have discovered, I have to skip some sessions in order to eat, process and be human. So, I’ll use the session label to identify what I went to.

Session B09 was about publishing in 3Cs, the publication for teachers of writing (like PLMA for literature). I’m not thinking of publishing anything soon, but I was interested and I got to meet the editor. Networking is a good thing.

The current editor is Deborah Holdstein from Columbia College in Chicago. She gave us some background about her and mentioned her tenure as editor is up in the fall of 2009. She was straightforward and funny and had an easy way with the people who gathered, some of whom were grad students and untenured faculty who were anxious to hear what she had to say as it impacts their careers significantly. She answered questions as fully as possible and made the process of article submission and consideration transparent.

She handed out a brief set of guidelines, “How to Get Your Article Accepted for Publication in CCC (Or Improve Your Chances).” The first thing was to read the submission guidelines (duh!)–but, how many of our students really read our prompts? We are like them, as hard as that may be to face. In fact, I was struck, as I read through the handout, how much her advice was like what we ask of our students:

  • DO write to a specific audience, actual people in the field who have been talking about the issue and whose ideas you want to effect.
  • DO clarify your purpose early in the article. What’s the one thing you want your readers to take from your article?
  • DO provide readers with a “payoff,” an insight, or conclusion, that makes the reading of your ideas worthwhile.
  • DON’T affect an impressive style: unusual syntax and semantics that serve only the purpose of being impressive are rarely impressive.

The list has many more entries–and Deborah herself said she didn’t want us to take offense at her advice, but she wonders sometimes at the kinds of problematic papers submitted from people whose focus is (presumably) the teaching of good writing. I thought it might be interesting to show this list to students. Perhaps it would help them contextualize academic writing as a sphere of knowledge production/dissemination that is not imposed just upon them, but upon everyone in the field, instructor and student alike.

I won’t go into much more–if publication in such a journal is important, I have a handout and Deborah’s email to distribute. She welcomes queries. She publishes book reviews, although she prefers article-like reviews that situate several texts in academic conversation. She encourages her editorial readers not to use “Revise and Resubmit” as a cop-out, so if you were to get such a response on an article, it really means she wants it, but it needs work (and the specific needs accompany the response)–and she rarely fails to publish such resubmissions. Finally, it is important to note that NCTE retains copyright of all published work, so if it has been published to a blog or some such, it should be removed from that venue prior to submission.

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