Category Archives: Pedagogy

the double-edged hobson’s choice janus-faced statement of learning objectives

We’re closing in on getting classes started for spring, so I’ve been updating syllabi and course statements.  I’m really trying to cut – heavily cut – what I provide in the current Weblogs and Wikis statement. Not condense, not rework, but just cut.  One problem is that in explaining objectives and criteria for evaluation has to take two forms: one needs to be student-readable, the other is for the administration.  For students to learn with, I state these as guides rather than promises/outcomes/objectives/goals:

This course gives you the opportunity to

– Become skilled in navigating, reading, and creating written content in social media.
– Develop an understanding of how social media systems work technically; develop a critical understanding of the rhetorical affordances in social media systems; develop a critical understanding of how people interact socially in these systems; and develop a sense of potentials and pitfalls in the systems and their use.
– Become familiar enough with the concepts of social media communication able to be able to review and articulate social issues and implications.
– Critically consider how social media has and continues to re-shape learning, social, and communicative practices.
– Publish your work with these issues and topics, and comment on your work as it unfolds. aka: Become a cartographer
– Participate in a semester-long conversation about these issues and topics with others in this class and outside the class,
– Synthesize ideas of social media to develop critically-aware, media-specific responses in a number of media.

For the students, they are guides, hopes, things to aspire to. For me, they are what I have to give opportunities for the students to try. But I also evaluate students using these objectives as the course progresses: They are holistic, heuristic, aimed at pedagogical ends of understaning and comprehension, familiarity with new ideas, increasing confidence and expertise. I leave  how the student demonstrates each of these unstated, in part because the how wouldn’t make much sense to students until the end of the course, and in part because I don’t wish to close off possibilities for their demonstration by over-defining them, and in great part because this is a class where people learn across time rather than just show at the end.  So, how do I know if, for instance, a student is “critically considering how social media has and continues to re-shape learning, social, and communicative practices?” By her way of her writing, among other means. But to specify the criteria by number of words, posts, or something we’ll call engagement is less than useful to the student. I suspect I will see it in her writing, in her use of tags, in her comments on the work of others … I know I have to provide plenty of opportunities for her to practice it, watch for it as she does, and let her know when and where I see it.

But in counterpoint, here are the goals/objectives/criteria/indices I have listed for the non-pediagogical administrative view of the course.

Students will

== demonstrate technical proficiency by ==
– setting up and maintaining a weblog for the course, and using it for course purposes
– ditto wiki pages
– ditto Twitter
– demonstrate a growing independence in technical matters over the semester
– demonstrate a broadening of media attempted over the semester

== demonstrate knowledge by==
– engaging with the work of others in the class by commenting and responding
– posting regular work with readings and topics on your blog
– engaging (meaning //annotating, sharing, remixing, repurposing//) materials both assigned and what you find
– searching for and engaging other materials
– engaging in a continuing refactoring of ideas during the course
– a developing depth and quality in your reflections over the semester

== demonstrate responsibility and academic integrity by ==
– attending face to face classes and maintaining a presence on line
– submitting materials on time
– informally documenting sources in the manners appropriate for the web. Linking, obviously, but look at some weblogs and you’ll see how it’s done.)
– not cheating

What are these really? Because they aren’t goals. They are more like statements of necessary conditions for learning to potentially occur. They are purportedly visible and measurable outcomes – not for my use, not for the use by students, but for administration. But there are problems: Since the administration won’t tell faculty what wants to use these statements for, I can’t be more specific and I can’t be sure that I’m specifying anything meaningful to them.  If they measurable (or worth measuring), they aren’t calibrated, nor can they be in a useful way. I can say with a degree of certainty that they are pedagogically meaningless in a classroom of any significance, and they don’t provide a measure for evaluating learning. They look like they might, but they don’t.

So, in the statement for students, I add a couple of paragraphs to help make the Borges List perhaps useful to students as learner-readable criteria:

That’s the evidence I’ll look at during the progress of the course. Here are the criteria I’ll use for a final evaluation of your work:

– The complexity of what you take on and how you address it. That is, To what extent have you challenged yourself and the medium?
– The sophistication of ideas with which you address the tasks you set for yourself.

In short, the more challenging the tasks you set for yourself, and the more sophisticated the work you take on, the higher the final grade. These features and criteria emphasize //exploring//, //experimenting//, //developing self-reliance//, as well as traditional academic qualities of //complexity//, //insight//, //tenacity//, and //risk//.

So, horns of a dilemma avoided at the almost-certain risk of confusing students. Maybe next semester, I’ll try color coding things: things students need to know in blue, and administrative text in yellow.

the high summer turn, books, and a consideration of method

I don’t look forward to it, but the week of the 4th of July strikes high summer – the turning point of summer towards autumn. The green starts to fade, the wildflowers start to seed, and I have to get my fall book orders in and start some serious work on syllabi.

The bookstore asks faculty to get book orders for fall in to them by April – five months early. Lately, the request has become a demand as they try to set deadlines for book orders. If I know the course is ready, I try to get an order in during spring. But for upper-division clases, and classes that need revision, I use the first month of summer to re-think the books. If a book didn’t work in the last offering, I want to change it – and that means reviewing student feedback on the course that comes in after the course is over.

I changed books in three of four classes this semester. Tech Writing remains the same: Graves and Graves, A Strategic Guide to Technical Communication. For A&E, I’m staying with OUP’s So What? but have changed the target text – the text we’re all reading to see how scholarly argument proceeds. This year it’s Jenkin’s, Ford, and Green, Spreadable Media. It’s written in the scholary register that students in Argumentation are expected to use.

For the Comp Theory grad seminar, I updated to Villanueva and Arola, Cross-Talk, 3rd edition – not because it’s a better edition but because the 2nd is no longer in print. And I dropped Wysocki, et al, Writing New Media for a broader source book, Lutkewitte, Multimodal Composition. That was a sacrifice, but new media has moved on and a sourcebook provides a better starting point for grad students in theory.

I made the biggest change in E-Rhetoric. For the second time, I’ve dropped Stoner and Perkins, Making Sense of Messages for Longaker and Walker, Rhetororical Analysis. Stoner and Perkins is far stronger on method, but Longaker brings in more focus on rhetorical concepts. Cheaper, too.

I keep finding that undergrad students are not enamored by a focus on method. They want to get to the rhetorical concepts and use the ad hoc methods they have developed informally in high school and their first couple of years at college. It’s frustrating. I say, “Look, there’s a method to this madness, a set of practices your professors use to figure out what a text means and how it works. We don’t work by intuition. You can learn the method. It takes some practice, but it will hold you in good stead.”

“Nah. Let’s just start and you can tell us when we’re right. We learn video games by trial and error. Let’s try that here, ok?”

A focus on method lets us develop far more insightful and significant analyses, but the process is intially tedious, requring repeated close observations and close description before bringing in rhetorical concepts. So I’ve toned down the emphasis on method for the looser hit-or-miss approaches students are in the habit of using. I’ll sneak in method by way of exercises and illustrations of how to proceed. It’s back to correcting student making instant conclusions and moving away from the analytical terms of rhetoric to informal terms, but those corrections are how we tend to learn: by closer and close approximation. Anyway, I’ll remix a lite version of method from Stoner and Perkins and bring that in as How to Proceed. Scaffolding.

getting a start on rethinking composing in fedwiki

The cat, her chair, and her greenhouse.

I finally made a start on Composing in FedWiki, with Rethinking Composing in FedWiki. The premise: FedWiki presents a rhetorical context unlike that of traditional, commons-based wikis. So it’s an opportunity to rethink some of the compositional moves developed for the traditional wiki.

I have two ends here. One is to make wiki writing more substantive than it has been in the past:

Years of watching thread mode discussions go on at Weblogs and Wikis and the advent of FedWiki as a distributed system has encouraged me to re-think the old ThreadMode into DocumentMode pattern of composing. ThreadMode is an inventional technique – a way of locating and trying out the ways that an idea might be constructed and a document composed. But documents don’t get composed; contributors stay in thread mode. The reasons are complex, I’m sure, but little moves forward in thread mode.

And a second is to explore what federated composing can bring us:

Because each contributor owns her own iteration of the fedwiki, she – each of us – is responsible for her own refactoring – her own development of the argument, her own dissertation, which lives with her. A set of notes won’t do in this case. For a page to become part of the linked federation, the [[Chorus of Voices]] (an idea forwarded by Ward and now picked up by the community), it will need to be discursive. Or, put better, those pages that become part of the community will be discursive rather than threads.

What I’m doing in Rethinking Composing in FedWiki is looking at both street-level techniques and rhetorical strategies.

I’m setting aside some of the patterns from traditional wiki writing (ThreadMode, DocumentMode, the WikiWord, the fallback use of bullet lists) for patterns more aligned with the distributed nature of FedWiki. Even the pattern of moving from ThreadMode to DocumentMode goes away for a move from Dissertation to Discourse.

That is, we move [[From Dissertation to Discourse]] rather than from thread mode to document mode. In Radical Discourse, we place partially- or wholly-formed arguments in meaningful orders. This can be done as a set of paragraphs on a page, or as a set of links and stubs.

A few things are lost: WikiWords as topics, for instance, is a loss because it serves as such a quick way of creating a linked page, a quickness and facility that the wiki was named for. But that quickness is a feature of the new rhetorical context I’m addressing in Rethinking. Yeah, being able to create and link nodes with little effort is good. But what goes in the nodes needs some refinement to be valuable to one’s federation. We were taking the quick-to-create-a-node idea into quick and easy to create content. Rather than outside research and serious drafting, we would go onto ThreadMode-like freewriting. Even formatting is implicated in the drive for speed: bullet lists instead of formed paragraphs. We worked with the idea that someone else would come along and tidy things up.

The aspect of the commons also gets in the way of creating commonality. We were trying to negotiate all aspects and points of view on one shared page – a rhetorically difficult and sophisticated task. That difficulty is really worth working thorough, but the wiki, with its emphatic speed and shared commonality works against the task. Contributors leave pages in pre-draft states – pages of notes rather that of arguments and propositions that can be further built on. We never really get to enacting or presenting the multiple points of view.

I’m thinking about a different way of thinking about software tools. A move from valuing them for their Ease of Use to valuing them for their Augmentation. Using a tool for the augmentation of intellect is not easy to do, and it’s not easy to learn how to do it. In augmentation, at the very least the tool doesn’t get in the way of doing something new. At best, the tool changes understanding. I’m not looking at FedWiki as a typewriter-like tool, where work is selecting from a finite set of signifiers, so much as a painter’s brush and pallet, where work involves conceptualization and reconceptualization. Yeah, it’s an art rather than a transcription (which a lot of ThreadMode tends to be: a transcription of commonplaces).

The significant change in the rhetorical situation of writing with FedWiki is a move from a shared commons to a locally-owned federation. This move changes how we handle multiple arguments and points of view. It doesn’t eliminate them, but it seems they have to be more fully formed than a set of notes in order to work with them in a federation. The federated model is, perhaps, a more accurate – er, useful? – model of how knowledge is distributed in both its commonality and difference than the commons-based model. It could be more fragmented than the commons-based wiki seems to suggest, but it could also be that the commons is pretty fragmented already but tarred over to conceal the differences. The matter that interests me is the dynamic of local construction and public distribution. Each contributor architects her own iteration drawn from publicly shared elements – right down to the paragraphs! – and places that iteration in public circulation. There are rhetorical possibilities in these circumstances that are worth exploring.

Finally, to consider is the wiki not as an end but a space of creation and composition. A few weeks of The Teaching Machines Happening, and the articles, ideas, and posts that are emerging from that Happening (Hello, Audrey) made it clear that FedWiki needs supplementing by way of a blog, email list, twitter, or some other commons. The FedWiki might become a working space, where material is re-mixed and repurposed, until it is brought out of the shop and distributed.

So: Augmentation, Federation, Distribution. We’ll see where this goes.

course guarantee syllabus boilerplate


In keeping with the commodification of the teacher-learner relationship, I’m providing students in my classes with this guarantee.

I can guarantee that what we are studying in this course, both subject and method, is applicable outside the classroom in your daily and your professional life. This course is designed so that what you learn during the course you can use in other situations and other courses, both at the university and elsewhere, now and later in life. However, there is no guarantee that you will actually make use of what you learn in this class outside of it, any more than buying a toothbrush guarantees you will use it to keep your teeth and gums healthy. That use now and later is solely up to you. Don’t squander what you learn.

Maybe the last sentence is too much, but I’m hoping it will stick with students. Free to share and adapt.

notes on designing a future of academic programs

Note to: BSU Future Academic Programs Workgroup
Re: Reframing the brief

Think of the charge of coming up with ideas for future programs as a design problem. It’s not a matter of refining already established traditions and practices, but of inventing new conventions. We are being asked to invent new conventions.

We can think of new approaches to academic programs by reframing familiar learning and teaching activities, such as rethinking the context in which they can be performed  – Eg: Not in a classroom. Not in a 2 or 3 day a week set of meetings. Not even necessarily replacing face to face interaction with a video link or Skype.

Reframing practices teaching means rethinking assessment. This means setting aside current best practices which are based on traditional conventions that need reframing. This means not assessing course design and course practices using criteria tailored for traditional courses – Eg: quality management; the quality management rubric presumes that e-course proceed by digital analogues of traditional f2f course practices.

Our response to Pres Hanson’s brief to think about where we are going oughtn’t be a response to customer demand. Consider the apocryphal story of Henry Ford inventing the automobile. If he had asked customers what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse. According to MnSCU and the dominant local ideology, our customers want cheaper and more convenient access to what already exists: faster horses, rather than re-conceptualizimg what we’re doing. MnSCU isn’t focused on what else might be possible. Cheaper access is not a matter of closing off buildings but a matter of getting the state to fund education properly. Our role as a workgroup is to develop a response grounded in pedagogy and new ways and means of learning, not just addressing new situations but creating new situations for learning.

By reframing and inventing new conventions, we set the stage for a new market.

A few examples, with a focus on what it can mean for students and faculty and support.

Reframing at a technical level
For example, open source.

Open source reframes the LMS to something like Moodle, wikis, weblogs, developing personal learning environments. Open sources not a matter of being less expensive but a matter of reframing and redefining the student-teacher-knowledge relationships.

Open source reframes the role of tech support – but that creates opportunities for internships working along side an expanded IT-faculty-design group. Current tech support is modeled on Appliance Repair silos rather than a model of collaborative or collective work.

Open source enacts a fundamental design principle: keep designs platform-agnostic to keep delivery flexible. That flexibility can be used in teaching.

Open source reframes the role of the teacher towards the curator. It reframes the role of the teaching intern and student TA. We will have to and can set up a new support system for those TAs: They have to be more savvy to support teaching in this framework.

Open source changes the context (social, rhetorical, pedagogical) in which students learn, and the practices they take on in that context. The space learning becomes more public if not completely open. That’s going to require some changes in FERPA or permissions from students.

Open source can change what BSU will be valued for.

Reframe at a social level
For example, English Dept curriculum.

MnSCU et al are asking us to connect curriculum with work and employment – a social connection.

To reframe the social level means, for instance, re-creating curriculum not strictly along lines of disciplines but other lines. Creative and Professional Writing can be reframed as Creativity running across contexts and disciplines. Creativity in lit crit, teaching, poetry, tech writing all together. Couple this with Lib Ed courses (Lib Ed as a grounding) from psychology, philosophy, and others focused on creativity.

Reframing on the social level changes how we position the vocational-technical. We can reframe a study of creative arts (writing, professional writing, lit crit, teaching) as a social vocation rather than a personal mission.

The BA and MA in English can be reframed as vocational scholarship (BA) and professional scholarship (MA). Courses would connect theory with extra-scholarly practices: vocational practices based on scholarly principles.  One model is Weblogs and Wikis. But others are massive open online courses, personal learning environments.

This is to bracket the desire of students for a bigger, faster horse of their own. To address that, reframe marketing.

Reframing marketing

Reframing at social level can drive how BSU and the curriculum are marketed. The marketing tail is wagging the curricular dog, and marketing has been taking its signal from focus groups: customers who want a faster horse in new packaging.

Reframing on the social level means marketing BSU not as The Lake but designing a physical campus infused with sites to study, read, talk, work. Coffee shops, street cafes. This requires actually creating these spaces. BSU and Bemidji doesn’t have them yet.

Reframing at a social level means getting off campus to public spaces, creating a distributed campus (town and gown): Cantabria study space, Lake side visual art space, Pine Ridge welding space, Harmony Co-Op digital hub and editing space, BCAC Skype space. These spaces would not be refinements of existing spaces but re-framed spaces, unlike those we’re familiar with. They wouldn’t be teaching spaces but spaces where students meet and work – with occasional guidance of faculty-tutor. MnSCU is not thinking this way when they talk about moving the classroom to the mall. They are still thinking about a cheaper horse.

Reframe learning
Reframing learning recasts the role of the teacher and student, the practices of learning, student success and support, teaching assistantships and student internships.

Reframed learning practices draw on both scholarly and vocational practices that can be connected tightly to curriculum. For both, the reframe heuristic can be aggregate, annotate, remix, repurpose. The practices of Picasso and Henry Ford, Agassize and Plato fit this frame. It’s what the scholar does. It’s what the artist does. It’s what the technical specialist does.

Reframing learning means that students will need a new kind of support for a new set of skills and competencies in the university classroom, and before they get to the university classroom. We would need to define what’s expected of them, and they would need to be aware of what’s demanded of them and willing to prepare for it. Advising and support services would need reframing that places them less as a customer service agency and more of an innovator-in-waiting.

Reframing learning means faculty take on a role as curators. They guide consumption and practices: “This content can be read in short bursts, but this other project is going to require a three hour uninterrupted session.” “This project means you’ll need to live in your studio for the next two weeks…” Access to texts, videos, scholarly vocational tools (the OED, lathes, 3D printers, Google Scholar) and spaces (studios, theater spaces, gallery spaces, libraries, labs) is partly there but mostly not. Some of curatorial practices are already in the curriculum and practiced on campus: labs, shops, student studios, student offices. But many reframed practices are yet to be realized in tight connection with curriculum.

Changing the academic ground is going to demand as much or more of students than it does of faculty. Again, this is where reframing departs from MnSCU’s notion of education. Reform doesn’t mean more convenient access to the same but a change in what’s being accessed.

On reading Janet Murray, Inventing the Medium, Benjamin, The Arcades Project, and Alexander et al, A Pattern Language.

updating for weblogs and wikis, spring 2012

Success with a MOOC/PLE approach in Weblogs and Wikis last spring was mixed – ok, lackluster. It created some management problems for me that prevented the kind of rss aggregation and re-distribution that I was hoping for. But more significantly, the approach as I implemented it didn’t provide enough scaffolding and guidance. Students had too many options and so took few of them. The materials they produced were interesting, really interesting, but that production was so diverse that it made synthesizing generalizations difficult. We never really reached a critical mass. I still like the weekly set of readings and tasks, but need to help students get on to them more quickly and posting more frequently. Better six short posts that build than one long post that wraps up what never got started. It’s a workflow thing.

So, this semester, the same idea of PLE and even MOOC principles – but more guided in reading, viewing, listening, and more guided activities. Two texts: Jill Rettberg, and not a wiki text this time but Paul Levinson, New New Media. Levinson’s book is very much in the bloggy X-Factor realm: It’s all about Paul in the center of the social media sphere. Makes reading it annoying, but blog-like. Levinson sets aside the typical scholarly distancing (good) but does so less by getting in close to the subject (Shirky does that) so much as focusing on his position. The up side is that he touches on topics I’m trusting I can help students sink their teeth into: Facebook, the Dark Side, Twitter, Digg, and maybe SL.

Readings and tasks: I will set these pretty firmly so we can compare notes on Monday and Wednesdays, then taper off on meetings to just Mondays as online interaction picks up or as students start taking on their own 5 – 7 week projects. Yes: Still including a self-designed project, this time to explore a social media phenomenon as suggested by Rettberg, Levinson, or me.

What else? Removing the requirement for social bookmarking, but may have students join Digg. Lots of posting – and requiring the use of the #en3177 tag. Students are on their own for setting up their blog, Twitter account, Digg account, etc. I’ll introduce these in class, but simply assign getting signed up and started. Make it an activity, with the assignment to post about X, Y, and Z to kick everything off.


Three lessons on reading Geoffrey Sirc’s “Box-Logic“ for the 4th or 5th time in preparation for a graduate seminar in Composition Theory.

Lesson One

I attended the local Times Talk lunch on Wednesday, and I appreciated the salad of iceburg lettuce and sliced chicken with oil and vinegar dressing over spaghetti, but  I discovered, when I asked the students attending the lunch about their reading habits, something less appetizing. I asked them, when it comes to news, do they pick up a paper and read what they find interesting or do they, maybe, go to google and search on a topic that interests them, like eurozone, f’rinstance, and read around what they find there? I guess I could have predicted the answer of mass comm students and student senators at a Mass Comm department and NY Times sponsored lunch about reading the NY Times: We read the paper. If you read blogs (I didn’t mention blogs, just “read around,”) you have to figure out if the source is credible. We don’t have the time to do that. What’s the eurozone? How are we supposed to know what’s important? The NY Times rep wasn’t helpful, remarking that a story in the Huffington Post was “a rumor,” while The NY Times wouldn’t report it until it was “news.” These students, it seems, like their news pre-packaged and branded to guarantee quality. The newspaper spoon in the Naked Lunch. The market share.

Then, today, I’m reading Sirc, “Box-Logic” (pdf), and I stop at this:

I really don’t think it’s up to me to teach students how to process that ‘serious writing […] the long and complicated texts’ (B and P) of the academy; if certain disciplines feel the need to use those texts, they are certainly free to teach students their intricacies themselves. 143.

Which got me thinking about that lunch again in this way:

A professor from the psych department who attended the Times Talk made it clear she did want to teach students how to process that serious writing when she commented to the group at large that she taught her students how to distinguish between a news story and an academic journal article. Why? Well, she said that her students have difficulty telling a news story from an advertisement from an academic journal article. That sounds like hyperbole, but given the reading habits the students mentioned … well, when you eat from the newspaper spoon, you don’t need to make distinctions. If her students have difficulty reading a psychology journal article, that’s her lookout, not mine, and it sounds like she has it all well in hand.

But doesn’t that make me part of the problem? Shouldn’t I, as a professor of composition, teach students how to distinguish between a news article and an article in a psych journal? Isn’t that my role in the academy?

Well, no. I needn’t teach the distinction. That is the psych department’s job. I would argue, in fact, that to make the distinction meaningful to the students it is meant for, the distinction has to be taught in the psych department.

In fact, given the reading habits of those students above, it’s clear that Sirc’s box-logic pedagogy does address the concerns of the psychology professor – and more fundamentally than simply discussing differences between two genres.

And suddenly I’m not part of the problem anymore. I may not be the solution, but I’m not part of the problem. I feel better now. I feel good. I feel better than James Brown.

Lesson Two: Vocabulary for this Chapter

Cut them out. Paste them on cards. Collect them all.

– a convolute – box logic – hip hop – rap – Fluxus – engagement – paratactic assemblage – association – implication – poetic concretism – expressionism – passion – constellated – constellation – trace-capturing – pulsion – academic curator – daybook – Abercrombie & Fitch lives – aggregate – juxtaposition – annotate – re-mix – re-purpose – share – docent-guided tour – self-guided tour

Lesson Three: Two Reasoned Responses to Sirc

Reasoned response #1. Sirc is advocating nothing more than throwing shit at the wall to see if it sticks. He might use 20th century modernist artists as a base for his ideas, but he relies on worn-out notions of romantic expressionism and the trendy, self-help ideas of engaging your Passion to defend his so-called pedagogy. The truly difficult – and highly valued – mental work of analysis goes by the board in this plan, as does any criteria for evaluation of the work or of students. There’s no critical thinking going on here – not even the possibility of it occurring. This is Creative Writing 101 Lite. You don’t even need a teacher to do this!

Reasoned response #2. Sirc is re-defining the comp teacher as curator, and the processes of composition as it unfolds in the classroom as a physical, material engagement with those practices, ‘from l’etat brut inquiry” to the logic of being engaged scholars 138. The influx of new media may be the occasion for this re-definition but the box logic Sirc sketches places students in a valuable pedagogical relationship with that new media and new media practices – practices that go on around us all both inside and outside the academy: within and without the walls. You can’t write this off by calling it creative writing, mere expressionism. The approach, the method, might be novel to humanists, but it’s how Agassiz or any good science teacher teaches the next wave of scientists. The approach patently requires a teacher, but one that acts as a curator rather than a docent.


web content writing being reloaded

Preface: This is a proof of concept post. I’m goofing around with some markdown editors and some new ideas to see how they might work into a revision of Web Content Writing. What follows here is unedited html – warts and all – created from markdown using MarkdownNote. MarkdownNote is a good editor, best I’ve found so far, but the conversion of line breaks adds a full para break rather than a / br. It’s always the little things, innit.


This is a first trial at working with a markdown editor as a possible app and approach for Web Writing for Content Writers. Now that I’ve redesigned the course, and since the web has changed, it might be time for a change in what to teach and how.

What has changed?

Web design and web writing have become more and more specialized, which has effectively split the tasks to specialists. Not that they were ever really united, but 10 years ago a writer could be expected to know her way around a web design kit. Not any more. Web design software (i.e. Dreamweaver) has become so arcane that even designers need assistants and cubicle jockeys to get things done.

A second change has been the development of content management software. The design has been templated, and the content writer now works in (or pastes into) a browser window.

As a result, the writer’s position has been moved to the side,

  • doing supplementary IA work
  • providing advice on nomenclature
  • helping with personas and scenarios
  • doing the odd card sort.

And content writing. Sure.

So that changes the focus of the course?

Yes, because the demands have changed, and the position of the writer has changed. Content writers now need to work to spec – number of words, including keywords in the text to please tracking and SEO editors, and the like. What gets a little lost in that are how to use affordances, and how to compose with light punctuation, how to use links effectively, how to negotiate and work with new relationships with audiences, how to work with images, how to work in various contexts (blog v business v educational v wiki v twitter v etc).

A good content writer will know

  • how to write effective permanent pages. that is, content that is fundamental to the local enterprise rather than topical.
  • how to write effective blog posts
  • how to write effective tweets
  • how to handle tags and categories effectively
  • how to draft, revise, and edit wiki pages

What a good content editor will need for tools

One way to run the course is as a mock publishing shop. We would have a WP set up that
* maintains pages as permanent content
* posts that are made as weblog posts, placed in categories and tagged
* posts that also can be integrated with images
* the whole thing intertwingled with Twitter.

I’ll want students to be able to post to a blog written for the class, a wiki for the class, and a twitter account for the class.

To teach workflow and to get a sense of code, I would have students work with a markdown editor – preferably (?) something that lets them manage drafts in progress, although that’s not a big issue.


Scenario 1

Set up a space where the texts will be published. Writers can work in the space directly or in a markdown editor. I give them a brief; they produce, revise, and submit the near ready to preview. When ready, publish, and tweet.

Writers may have to find or create images. Find a place to put them, set the formatting, etc. That will require moving back and forth in the weblog editor.

This requires a WP and / or wiki backend. Some assignments will be to revise pages, others to post a timely work in a specified category.

Scenario 2

Live tweeting an event.

Requires a twitter account set up in parallel to the weblog and wiki. Might be done by two or more writers, one handling images.

Scenario 3

Revising a wiki page. This is interesting as it demands moving into refactoring.

Scenario 4

Publishing on or elsewhere. Hey, and why not?

Set Up

To roll in an internship, we might set up a departmental publishing frame – 0r make it a staging server kind of affair. This requires some discussion with The Man.

Which editor?


While it ultimately doesn’t matter too much, the appearance of the editor, especially the preview, will likely make a difference in how pleasent it is to use.

Cheap, simple, access to markdown cheat sheet. Good preview. Minimal options. Some coding on a pop-up list. Copy HTML command under the gear (wrong place for it!) Has iPad version that is better designed. ****

Mark My Words
Ugly preview. One-click coding, but that’s poorly designed. Can mark texts as draft / revision / done, but that’s poorly designed. Templates, but poorly designed. All the workflow accessories are poorly designed. **

Not fundmentally a markdown editor, even though it handles markdown. Preview is a separate command, using escape to return to code. Will copy or export HTML. Pretty.

Very convenient. Holds a list of files. Preview in a separate window. Free. ***

a $4.00 app that monitors another app for markdown.

MultiMarkdown Composer
Support for tables. $8.00 ****

MarkDown Pro
Has an express Save As HTML command.

pay no more than £2.99, or, let the faculty set the pricing of textbooks


Back  when I was a student in London and Bristol (c 1979) I found The Specials’s first album at Virgin records with a sticker on it that read

Pay No More Than £2.99

£2.99 was a chunk of change back in the day, but not outlandish. Singles were 70p. A pint of bog-standard IPA was 35p. A loaf of bread 27p. I made £4 for a 7-11 pm work session at the pub. Plus tips – usually half-pints. Plus a three-hour lock-in on Saturday night if the governor’s mates dropped by.  So for an evening’s work, I could buy a ska album, a loaf of bread, and two pints at my local. Life was good. YMMV.

I saw the Pay No More Than stickers on a lot of albums, mainly independent labels for reggae, ska, punk, and new wave. The stickers were a way of keeping distributers (chains, high street shops, street markets, touts outside The Venue and The Music Machine) from putting their own value on works they were distributing. (Billy Bragg kept the gesture alive for some years, apparently.) With the sticker, the band and label was proclaiming that the album is worth £2.99- three hours’s work. An evening’s piss-up. Don’t let the next geezer up the chain say otherwise.

We need stickers like that for textbooks – stickers that the author authorizes, or faculty, who know the value of a textbook, can intervene with. That’s what OER is all about, sure, but there are other texts out there.

I’ve been holding off selecting texts for ENGL 3179: Elements of Electronic Rhetoric, hoping for something earthshattering. The course deals with subject matter that is just coming into being, so there are no texts designed for it yet. I have to piece things together. I’ve been using Making Sense of Messages, Stoner and Perkins, for the past four or five years, but the publisher (Houghton Mifflin – not worth linking to) is charging $90.00 for it – way over the top for students. Used copies are showing up online for $20, but our university bookstore won’t let put up a sign in place of the text reading,

The publisher is charging too much for this book. Buy it used online and pay no more than $25.00. Even better, borrow it from a friend.

Making Sense is a pretty good text, not great, but good, published in 2005, showing its age a little – but easily worth $45. The $20 – $30 used price is a good deal. The rental option, in which students pay the publisher  $45 for a semester’s use is bitter tasting. This is to acknowledge that the book worth only $45, but that the publisher and bookstore are going to take a 100% profit  just for distributing the text. I’m putting publisher rentals in the same category as loan-sharking, which is one notch below pirating software.

The publisher’s price prompts me to rethink content and classroom practice. Making Sense is good in detailing method, but always struck me as pretentious and condescending, and thin in its coverage of classical rhetoric. At $45 I would be willing to overlook the faults. For $90, who needs it? Instead, we can take a little step back in time: I’ll teach the framework of method drawing on my copy of the text (a five year old exam copy), distribute my notes to students electronically, and have students make notes and engage the method in class. A little more work for me, a little more work for students outside of class, but we all become less dependent on the text and the publisher. Pity the authors loose on this one.

But, to continue my story, because I’ll be teaching from the over-priced text rather than have students buy it, I can supplement the class with other texts at more reasonable prices. That’s a cost I can ask students to take on. Here they are for fall, 2011:

Rhetorical Analysis, Longaker and Walker. A little thin on method, example papers simply fill space, but good for introducing rhetorical concepts. Student can work with chapters focused on kairos, style, etc, using the method I’ll provide to apply those concepts to digital target texts. $21.00 Amazon. There’s a Cengage version available, too, but their reader is absolute rubbish.

For a text that bridges from print rhetoric to digital and multimodal texts, I’m using The Discourse of Blogs and Wikis, Greg Myers. This has enough method (What I Did) in later chapters for students to emulate…. $45 Anazon, paper; $36 Kindle.

And as a recommended text, Lanham, Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 2nd ed. $23 Amazon, $10 Kindle, used for about $10.

Total, about $90.00, but for a far broader range and deeper set of texts. Texts that students can reuse, resell, pass on. It could be done for $45.00.

Last word goes to The Specials. A message to you, publishers.

learning esperanto – or not

Photo from

One of the arguments for standardizing on a CMS such as D2L for DE teaching is this: “Using the same interface for all courses means the student has to learn the interface only once.”  The argument I always used against the CMS has been, “A good interface will be designed to suit the content and task, and the task of D2L is to manage students, not enable students to read, listen, or produce. Get a blog, or a wiki.”

But here’s a better one, from Stephen Downes, in Emergent Learning: Social Networks and Learning Networks.

I understand why someone would say this: “To increase the sustainability of portal projects there is a need to ‘work towards establishing common frameworks that will enable applications and services, from different sources, to work together.'” After all, it is precisely that failure that accounts for the indifferent success of community portals, the ‘field of dreams’ scenario, where you build it, and they do not come. But such an enterprise is perhaps best compared with constructing an artificial language: sure, it would make communication easier if evereyone used the standard – but who speaks Esperanto? The growth of community – and hence, community frameworks – is much more organic than that, a product of multiple simultaneous negotiations to create a network of compatible systems rather than a centralized planning department to create a structure.

This argument is similar to the critiques of the formulaic 5-Paragraph Theme, taught in too many US high schools and even university courses. The problem with the 5-Paragraph Theme is this: It’s an artificial genre, created for high-school classrooms, which no one reads (teachers don’t read 5-paragraph themes; they grade them); the form and the exercise aren’t designed to communicate anything other than “I did your assignment.” I have never assigned these little monsters, but I have read hundreds of them. Even when the form is not assigned, even when students are warned against using it, Good Students drag it out as a default. One-size-fits-all-rhetorical-situations – except it doesn’t. Students have to unlearn this artificial language before they can make any progress in writing.

But here’s what I find a puzzle: Institutions are using D2L – a paragon of walled garden, ivory tower teaching – to deliver “real world” – that is, situated – education. Courses that are pitched as bridging a (purported) gap between classroom and workplace are placed firmly behind the walls of the garden, using the same accoutrements, practices, and channels: see here, and here.

Seriously? Situated teaching and learning using generic CMS tools? Some of my colleagues teach some of these courses – well-meaning people who would argue that they are giving learners choices, providing opportunities – and I suppose they are, kind of. Learners will have the opportunity to learn Esperanto. Or not learn Esperanto. We can do better than this.

Assignment: Carefully re-read Prof Morgan’s argument above. What is Morgan’s thesis? How does he support it? Why? What kind silly, trivial argument is he passing off as thoughtful consideration? What is he really trying to say? Now, write a 5-Paragraph Theme in which you make clear just how mis-guided Morgan is by considering the benefits of standardized interfaces in education today. Pose. Posture. Beg the Question. 500 words. Typed. Double-Spaced.