Blurred Boundaries: Some recent moments on blog and off

Hands Writing in Class

This is the most challenging course I have ever taught because I’m asking my students–right from their first days as undergraduates– in large part to unlearn how they have been taught to read, to write, to connect with the measure of their own work. (Of course I say that–I hope I can say that–every time I teach.) I am asking them to dare move beyond anything they have ever written–to reconnect with deep creativity as they put every word they write on trial for its life. It is one hard course. But man oh man, their writing is beginning to sing with voice and passion and urgency. They have something to say. Yes, their creative nonfiction essays are by no means finished or polished, but they represent something far more important than respectable college writing–they signal authentic attempts at communicating something they are trying to understand for themselves.


And now they will explore multimedia creative nonfiction writing. I can’t wait to travel this part of the course with them and see how leaving language, or pushing language up against image and sound, will affect their text-based writing when they return to it at the end of the semester. I am sure they are apprehensive, excited and hopeful in almost equal measure.


One interesting observation–We’ve wrestled over blogging, and they haven’t yet broken through to a place where blogging helps them develop voice and perspective and interest–in fact, they really haven’t been blogging much at all (they will try their hands at frequent blogging in the next unit). But the blogs have served an invaluable purpose of bringing them together to read one another’s work, to be inspired by it, and to find community with one another. They are one tight group. We’ll see what blogging itself does to their sense of writing, community and collaboration.

So yes, a hard course, but–at least for me–an intensely rewarding one.

I set out this morning, actually, to write a detailed blogpost about grading, a post that has been simmering for weeks, but I find myself so resenting the entire notion of grading and what it so often does to learning and growth, to learners taking risks and daring to go beyond the safe, known routes they’ve been treading for years upon years–

–that the whole topic puts me into an ugly mood and makes me do anything but talk about it here. In fact it has kept me off blog for three weeks. Which is too bad. Both because being off blog as much as I have recently is bad for the flow of my blogging, and because I can deal with grades in my classes, having with my students transformed course grading into a collaborative process that works. So here’s a preview of that post:

Over the course of several in-class conversations, some looks at student writing and other people’s rubrics, the class pulls together a grading rubric for individual class projects and then the full course; each student carries on an ongoing narrative reflection of the course (posted to the blog), converses with workshop groups about the writing, grades him/herself on writing projects according to the rubrics (handed to me), and at the end of the course, proposes and defends a grade in a one-on-one conference with me, in which I have an equal say in the grade, as their outside evaluator. It works. Yes, it takes more time than conventional forms of grading, but the grades mean something quite valuable to the students at the end. And more importantly, the students gain real understanding of and take responsibility for their own writing journey.


And so I am inching my way through a grading post in which I discuss the book The Theory and Practice of Grading Writing (eds. Frances Zak and Christopher C. Weaver) as well as link to the rubrics from my course. I will say for now that my class is making good progress creating a grading rubric for a specific writing project (next we move to creating a rubric for the entire course), and it has proven an excellent exercise for them to define and then weigh the elements of a writing project and how to describe the relative effectiveness of the finished results.

What has them rightfully perplexed and concerned and divided is the whole notion of progress, growth and risk-taking. Should they count in the grade at all? And if so, how? Indeed. Good questions.

gradingelements grading (from our recent class discussion)

How many times do we really grapple with these questions alongside our students, reading the course as contributors, learning–from the inside– about how we evaluate learning outcomes? How many teachers actually show and discuss models of student writing in their classes? Have the students hold up their own work alongside those models, learning to read their results within a continuum of scholars and writers engaging with these very questions–but at the level of first-year or senior rather than professional expert? Instead we often play games with our students, inadvertently perhaps, keeping them guessing as to what will be on exams and why, as to how we will read their papers, and as to why a teacher counts numbers of posts and assignments rather than looking at the depth of those entries, how they represent creative thinking and active collaboration? Students actually prefer teachers to do the grading. They like grades–they’re something measurable, something they understand—but then ask students what they measure exactly, why, and how fairly, and to what effect?


Instead of requiring a certain number of posts, for example, I show my students exemplary comments and thoughtful posts and creative thinking in action. I show them how every writing situation has its own demands, its own forms and conventions and needs and opportunities and rewards–dependent in part on the writer’s background, personality, perspective, etc etc. Students want me to prescribe–this is how you do it. This is how many posts you need to make to get an “A”; this is how many sources you must include in your creative nonfiction essays, and so on. And I tell them that I have no idea–they are the only ones who know what they need to do to work with the elements of writing to make something sing, to make it grab us by the scruff of the neck and say, “Think about this….think about it deeply.”

Going to college is complex and complicated, but life outside these walls is ever so much more so. I aim to blur the boundaries, help them become comfortable and then excited about putting their own voices out into the world, and in entering contact zones, in active citizenship based on collaborating and communicating and doing rather than passively waiting for instructions or feeling powerless in the face of the world’s problems. Right now the students are bumping up against the challenges of writing in the world, in this world–how do they write authentically and yet respectfully, mindfully and yet boldly? How do they recognize and confront their own biases, their “little darlings” and retain a sense of humor? Ah, it’s not easy, but six weeks into it, we’re beginning, really beginning to break out into some work they want to stand for them well beyond any course, any semester, any teacher.


And that’s pretty exciting. And far far more meaningful than any grade will ever be.

Image Stories and Essays

My students have just completed image-only responses to Bill McKibben’s Wandering Home, a book chronicling his walk from his home in Ripton, Vermont to his other home across Lake Champlain in New York’s Adirondacks. Last week I asked the class to take their own photos, if possible, and assemble them as a response to something in the book, some point McKibben makes about Middlebury, that they felt they had something to say about. The process was, as I expected, fun, frustrating, challenging, and enlightening. I wanted them to think about the arc of an argument, about making a point moment by moment, element by element. I wanted them to think about visual arguments and about how images work, and about transitions and ordering and structure–all by playing around with between 5 and 15 images. I wanted them to start thinking about how they might use images when we turn to multimedia writing in a couple of weeks. And I wanted them to learn from one another. None of them had ever done anything quite like this before. Some of them are still struggling to get their results embedded on their blogs. Soon we’ll talk about ways to evaluate multimedia writing and so we have to start looking at more than text. (I have a post brewing all about the unfolding of our class-built grading rubrics, so more on assessment soon.)

I find these early attempts interesting as responses and revealing about how they are reading the book and how they work with images before we have discussed the grammar of an image in class. You are welcome to look at their stories on their blogs linked from the Motherblog.

In the spirit of learning alongside them, I took my camera out on a walk this weekend and then made my own little image story-essay (thanks to cogdog (Alan Levine) and his magnificent resource, 50 Ways to Tell a Web 2.0 Story, for the link to FlickrSlide):