Encouraging Garbage

In our cMOOC planning meeting yesterday, we spent a bit of time discussing the frequency and nature of the blogging that our students will do during the course.  Although the full syllabus isn’t camera-ready, we are all committed to the idea that students will write a lot and read each others’ work a lot.  Furthermore, the expectation is that the writing will primarily be generative given the student’s particular inquiry projects.   Although, the expectation of writing frequency isn’t precisely pinned down for the course.  While it is true that we will ask students to write and comment on others’ work during punctuated moments of the course, the understanding is that students will go beyond these posts to reflect and write.  A lot. This sparked two (perhaps obvious) questions: How do we get students to write more than mere responses to prompts?  What do we do if they get stuck in the doldrums?

An idea we played around with is to give students optional Daily (or Weekly) Thought Vector prompts, where students would be tasked with a loose assignment–something like, look at the thing we selected on the web for the particular exercise and provide a meaningful interpretation of it.  I like this activity for several reasons.  In particular, it helps enhance the shared experience of the course for students: they would be writing on these if they elect to do so.  Moreover, they can elect to do so–a sort of side bar for students to have when on pause (or not) with their burgeoning inquiry projects.  This would help keep both student work and class engagement fluid, even when students feel blocked, buried, or however else they may feel while researching and writing.

Though, I also agree with Gardner about this kind of assignment when he wrote to us after the meeting: “If our students find they have nothing to write about without a prompt, we’re likely not communicating the spirit of the course as well as we could.”  We are looking for “robust and relevant” work, so the idea is to guide students in such a way that writing will be obvious and inevitable.

It seems best here to pause on “robust and relevant.”  Sophisticated, focused work is the end goal with student projects.  Though, getting there through individual and collaborate inquiry processes will be messy.  And that’s a good thing.  The course will require students to blog and tweet, as well as to comment on blogs and reply/retweet often: to look at their own work in light of others and frequently make connections as they continue.  In order to get ideas out in writing to cohere with other ideas, students should be encouraged to write errata–what they may think of as garbage.  I’m kind of a hippie when it comes to talking about the writing process.  I’m not a big fan of deadlines (although I understand their importance), and, like many of my colleagues, I privilege revision and reflective writing in the classroom.  In the same hippie ballpark, I side with Peter Elbow on the importance of error and freewriting.  What we may think of as garbage writing–the unpolished stuff that we would never submit out into the world–is important to do in order to further one’s process of making meaningful, polished work.  As he writes in Writing Without Teachers,

There is garbage in your head; if you don’t let it out onto paper, it really will infect everything else up there.  Garbage in your head poisons you.  Garbage on paper can safely be put in the wastepaper basket.

Encouraging students to write out the garbage in their heads and sift through it can provide a way for them to have a paper trail of their thinking that they are always creating themselves.  Moreover, it provides us as instructors material to sift through to make associations and connections:  material that can help inform the guidance we wouldn’t be able to give otherwise.  It provides students a way to do the same connecting for each other, as well.  If students get stuck, they could write a garbage dump to help figure out what is worth preserving and what other students may find worth salvaging from the bin for themselves.

Including “garbage posts” in the course may help students formulate their own thoughts and categorize/conceptualize what has been done.  They may also help students understand that it’s fine to make messes, so long as they’re not always messes.   Garbage writing doesn’t have to be bad writing, unless if it was all that one did.  Or, as Elbow writes, “If you gave up all efforts at care, discrimination, and precision.”  By encouraging dumping garbage at times, it may help students get at more of the robust and relevant work we expect they will produce.

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Making Magic Magical

Three days ago, while serving on a VCU Online Summit panel discussing the summer cMOOC alongside Gardner Campbell, Jon Becker, and Bonnie Boaz, an audience member asked (I’m paraphrasing…with a poor memory) whether students not taking the course for VCU credit–the outside observers–would be able to “place out” of a similar, standard writing course like UNIV-200  after successfully finishing our course this summer.  It is an important question, especially given the nature of UNIV-200 itself: a process-based writing course where students pose a focused question, discover what’s been said/done regarding the question, analyze their findings, and produce their own argument based on what they gather.  Such a class is based on teaching skills rather than direct content, and thus raises interesting considerations regarding how students who are not being directly assessed by instructors of the cMOOC (only the VCU students enrolled will be) can measure their success within it.  There won’t be instructors giving feedback on the progress and products of non-VCU students, and there won’t be any exams to take to see correct answers. What would it take, then, for students who are not being assessed by instructors to “place out” of such a writing course given what they will experience and learn over the summer?  What would “placing out” even look like?

After the panel, we stuck around and talked a bit about the discussion and general things that have been happening with course development.  When talking about associative trails and #thoughvectors,  Gardner brought up a video I shared with Tom Woodward.  During one of our cMOOC meetings last week, I mentioned a gaffe I made in class once where I showed a different TED Talk by techno-illusionist Marco Tempest than the one originally planned.   When getting home later that evening and seeing Tom’s tweet with a link to the video, I quickly tweeted back the final segment of Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants called “The History Lesson,” which led to a wonderful back-and-forth between Tom, Mariana Funes, and myself regarding the connections between magic, language, and reality.

I loved this for many reasons (and love talking about magic and showing anyone/everyone Ricky Jay videos), but particularly because it made me reflect on why I enjoy watching this specific performance so much.  I first saw it when it aired on HBO in 1996 and have watched it, without shame, easily over eighty times since.  And it’s not because I’m still trying to figure out how does he do it!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!   At this point, I’m fairly confident in my understanding of the moves he makes.  If curious about how the cups and balls trick is performed, one can watch Penn and Teller do it with transparent cups and explain how a similar sequence can go.  Though, even after watching the Penn and Teller explanation and seeing “The History Lesson” so many times on film, I’m still blown away by the performance.  What makes it so amazing is how Ricky Jay makes the trick his own: how he uses narrative to make the performance something beyond disappearing and reappearing balls under cups.  Though a performer his whole life, Jay has devoted much time in the past two decades to scholarship.  Steve Martin once said:

I sort of think of Ricky as the intellectual élite of magicians. I’ve had experience with magicians my whole life. He’s expertly able to perform and yet he knows the theory, history, literature of the field. Ricky’s a master of his craft. You know how there are those teachers of creative writing who can’t necessarily write but can teach? Well, Ricky can actually do everything.  (qtd. in Singer, “Secrets of the Magus“).

As Jay mentions in the performance, versions of game have been played over hundreds of years and in various genres.  Many people can do versions of the game, but no one else can “do” “The History Lesson” because of its life beyond being a mere cups and balls game: one that includes Jay’s experiences, practice, and affinity for scholarship and storytelling.

In certain ways, I see Jay’s version of the game connecting back to the question from the panel discussion when applied to outside student performance.  If we think of “placing out” of the course as students demonstrating that they can complete specific tasks like finding sources and using them to make arguments in writing, then surely they should be able to place out of such a class upon completion of the course.  Though, if merely demonstrating these qualities meant getting out of such a writing course, then most students would place out: it’s not hard for most students to do some research and write a passing argumentative essay.  However, the goal of the course, both in its regular iteration and in the cMOOC, isn’t just to help students make acceptable work–it’s to help them make exceptional work. The goal is to help students engage in a sustained process of inquiry and development to create new interpretations of phenomena, both organic and unique given their experiences.

Like “The History Lesson,” there are always ways to make something more amazing.  Getting students to understand this and apply it to their own work may not be the only requirement for successful completion of the course this summer, but it seem like a good place to start.