Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cursive handwriting (again)

Figure 1. This signature of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew
looks a lot like that of many job applicants.
The Huffington Post reports that some schools are doing away with cursive handwriting. Now, as Sisyphus reminded me a couple of years ago, "no cursive" doesn't mean "no writing"; it just means that students are being taught to print and schools are leaving it at that (I think that's the case; the vagueness of the teachers on this point is annoying).

On one level they have a point. If the students are going to be tested to death--unless Michelle Rhee is in the picture, in which case the teachers cheat or get fired if their students don't get the right test scores*--maybe that half hour a day isn't best spent on practicing writing. I have a couple of observations and questions, as always:
  • Students are still going to have to write (as in "not type") essays in classroom situations for a while, so as long as I can read what they write and they can read what I write in response, I don't care whether they print or not.
  • Will they be able to read handwriting? The article treats this as some kind of ridiculously trivial skill, like knowing the best way to powder a wig.
  • It's faster for me to write in cursive, but maybe that's because I was taught cursive (and retrained myself through calligraphy later on). That makes me a dinosaur, and I accept my scaliness with pride. Maybe instead of "digital natives" we should be talking about "print-writing natives" as the real generational divide.
  • Some have said that cursive is needed so that people can sign documents and isn't used otherwise, sort of like that kind of literacy in the 19th century when people knew enough to sign their names but were otherwise illiterate. I don't whether cursive is necessary there, though. In reading job letters over the past few years, I've noticed that a lot of the candidates sign their names with just a squiggle like a sine curve or a couple of loops rather than with a name that you can read. I'm not sure why this is so, or whether it's a trend, but I thought it was interesting.
  • I'm puzzled by why we keep wanting students to know less and less. Don't bother memorizing multiplication tables or learning how to make change--who needs it? Don't bother learning another language or having language departments, because Real Americans are proudly ignorant of any language but their own. (Remember the flack John Kerry took because he could speak French?) Don't bother learning to write in cursive, because unless you're going into a profession where people must read handwriting (such as being an academic), it's a useless skill.
  • Or it might end up being a kind of class-based skill, the way knowing Latin and Greek were once the marks of a gentleman. The rich need to know how to write in cursive; we worker drones don't have to know it. It sounds silly, but it may be part of that larger trend now toward cutting out "useless" knowledge that doesn't prepare students to get a job, when employers actually want good writing and thinking skills.
  • The thing that handwriting of any kind (not just cursive) does best is to allow the brain to make marks on paper through the fingers and thus help the retention of knowledge, as some of us have written about. It's not the same as typing, even on a manual typewriter, which seems to be making a comeback.
  • Here's what I don't understand: aren't all the Edumacrats screaming about "hands on! hands on! Learning must be hands on!"? Here is a hands-on type of learning that, let's face it, forces a kind of attention and focus as well as training the brain. Even if they're not in favor of cursive, wouldn't you think they'd like its hands-on qualities?
*Edited because I forgot to credit Historiann for pointing out the scamming outrage of falsified tests that Michelle Rhee instigated.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Grading papers with the iPad

Read the updated post with some technical advice here:

Around the web, there've been some posts lately about grading with the iPad, including a couple of good ones by Caleb McDaniel and Michael J. Faris. I was curious about this, so I thought I'd try grading on the iPad and see how it went.

[Update: There's a new post up about this by Janet Johnson at; she talks about iAnnotate, which she finds easier to use than Word. She also uses some other grading apps, including GradebookPro and EssayGrader, which is sort of like Markin for the iPad.]

My initial thought was to do a whole set the usual way (comments in Word) and a whole set using iAnnotate on the iPad, but I ended up doing just a few on the iPad. It was pretty clear what the strengths and weaknesses were after that. Here's the process:

1. To use iAnnotate for grading, you first need to download the papers (if your students use Word), convert them to .pdf files, and save them to Dropbox. That took about a minute apiece. You don't have to save them to Dropbox if you don't have it; you can transfer them through iTunes, which is the official way to transfer files on the iPad, or through a transfer feature of iAnnotate.

2. Open iAnnotate on the iPad and read the paper. iAnnotate lets you insert comments in little pop-up boxes, use a pencil tool to circle items, underline phrases, and so on.
  • You can use your fingers to indicate the text you want highlighted by swiping the text or pressing and holding until the program asks you whether you want to make a note or not.
  • If you have a stylus, you can also write on the paper, although even my best efforts at writing letters looked like those of a 4-year-old.
  • For each comment, you need to click on the appropriate icon on the sidebar (underline, make a note), click in the right spot in the text, type the note, close the note, and close the annotation menu.
3. Typing on the iPad isn't as straightforward or as fast as typing on a physical keyboard, although it does work. For one thing, if you want to use an apostrophe, you have to go to a different keyboard, although some of the usual contractions (it's, I'll, etc.) will insert themselves automatically.

4. At the end, you can upload the file back to Dropbox or mail it directly to the student. There's no "save" or "save as" feature (or at least I haven't been able to find one), but iAnnotate saves the annotated file automatically. If you like to save the graded papers with a different filename, as I do, you'll have to change the filename on your regular computer.

Note: If your students email you their papers in .pdf format and you mark them up in iAnnotate, you won't be able to save that version to Dropbox. Dropbox only accepts the annotated version if it originated in Dropbox, apparently a known issue with the two programs.

5. I used the Typewriter comment feature to write the final comment. [Note: See the updated post (above) about using Note instead.]

6. If you email the file, there are two options: one "flattens" the annotations, which means that the student sees a little yellow comment box with a number and the comments are down below, and one that the student should be able to see using the pop-ups.

Advantages and Disadvantages:

1. Draw. Most of the information I've seen lists "not carrying around a stack of papers," "no messy writing in the margins," etc. as an advantage, but since I'm collecting and returning papers electronically, that's not an issue.

2. Advantage: It's kind of cool to grade on the iPad. If I have the iPad with me anyway, I might as well carry some grading to do.

3. Disadvantage: No Word autotext on the iPad. No magic keystrokes that insert text (Alt-I-A-X). That makes a huge difference, since I use it to explain common problems and can then spend a lot more time on substantive issues.

4. Advantage: No computer to lug around. On the other hand, I have an old-ish netbook that, like the iPad, fits in my pocketbook, so it's really kind of a draw if portability is the issue.

5. Disadvantage: Grading takes longer. Total average time: if N = the amount of time that it takes to grade a paper in Word or on paper, the iPad version took me N + 9 minutes, on average. I did the math: 9 extra minutes apiece x 30 papers = time I could spend doing something else.

6. Disadvantage: Typing is less intuitive, and I noticed that my shoulders were getting all hunched up with the effort to type and not make mistakes.

7. Draw: The CMS my university uses does not play well at all with the iPad; there's no way to scroll down or upload the papers to the dropbox space in the CMS. On the other hand, if you're emailing papers back anyway, this may not be a problem.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Professor Angriette from Angryville

The important things I want to say aren't things that I can be articulate about, such as Bob Herbert's great final column about what's wrong with this country (does GE making $5.1 billion in profits and paying no taxes ring a bell?) and the attack on William Cronon, about which you can read good posts at Tenured Radical, Historiann, Bardiac, Roxie's World, Dean Dad, Anthony Grafton at The New Yorker, and Paul Krugman at The New York Times (h/t Historiann for the links). I would have to change the name of this blog to Professor Angriette from Angryville and buy a megaphone to yell at all the idiocy mendacity, since even quivering like Lionel Barrymore can't cut it as a statement of rage anymore.
Anyway. Later on I'll write a nice, quiet post about writing or pouring rain, both of which are constants here right now.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Big Love finale: my heck, yes!

I know this is off-topic, but I can't help writing about it as a way of getting it out of my head. If you either don't care about Big Love or haven't seen the finale yet and don't want spoilers, you don't want to read this.

Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer have already discussed why they ended the series as they did, so this is just a few random bullets of reaction.
  • How early in this episode did you realize that something dire was going to happen to Bill? The Godfather-style smile with oranges was a big tip-off, of course, but really, every time Bill starts to get out from under his problems, he goes and invites another peck of trouble by angering the civil authorities, the church, his wives, the D.A., Juniper Creek, or someone else who's unimpressed with his pronouncements. See under "hubris": Bill Henrickson.
  • Bill is an Everyman with a vision, and although a lot of people disliked his character, it seemed to me that Bill Paxton did well at portraying an everyman who's misguided but has a strong set of beliefs, however wrongheaded we think those are. Also, he's handy with tools, and it was one of the many nice touches in the show that he'd head for something he could handle and fix in the material world when his spiritual world was going awry. Barb wants the priesthood? Salt the patio. Barb is pulling away? Put a towbar on Lois's car. (By the way, this season had far too little of Nicki's Handy Home Repairs and Appliance Hauling compared with previous years.)
  • Speaking of hubris, Spouse commented that he thought the whole series had been about hubris, which if you think about it, would make Bill a tragic hero of sorts. Does he achieve tragic status? With his vision of Emma Smith and family, Bill does achieve a kind of anagnorisis and is able to act on it just before he dies, explaining his revelation to Ben and Don and asking Barb for her blessing. Spouse pointed out that, like Joseph Smith, Bill never does get to the promised land but is murdered before he can get there.
  • The Emma Smith figure puzzled me last season and in the finale at first, since she was vehemently opposed to polygamy and was vocal about it, too. Olsen and Scheffer said somewhere that that was her function--to draw attention to the flaws and give voice to the dissent about it.
  • I didn't miss the characters who weren't brought back--not Joey, Wanda, and their baby (who creepily never grew to toddlerhood in 2-3 years) but were sent to the Big Mexican Compound in the Sky nor Teeny nor any of the multitude of Juniper Creekers. It was a finale, not a family reunion.
  • Speaking of children, all of the Henrickson brood was seen from time to time, but with the exception of Our Spokesman Wayne, they were pretty much seen and not heard (except for singing) and never seemed to need a babysitter. Think about it, though: if the show still focused on minor domestic dramas like who's going to drive the kids to school or who's going to pick up a costume for Teeny, which was the material of the early seasons, we wouldn't be watching it because the show is done with those logistical points--and so are we.
  • Nor did I think that some kind of dramatic justice demanded that Alby be the one to kill Bill. Having Carl do it--and after Bill had performed one of his rare unselfless acts and fulfilled one of his promises, for a change--made sense in that Bill was a repudiation of all that Carl stood for. Also, Bill doesn't lose to Juniper Creek, but he does lose to randomness, and for someone who mistakenly thinks he has life under control as much as Bill does, it's a perfect undercutting of his control one last time.
  • Lois and Frank. Frank's recollections about their early life together--living in the trailer--didn't mention one thing: he was already married to someone else at the time, and Lois was his second wife. Is there a setting-up-housekeeping period in polygamy when the husband and new wife go off together, or was Frank being tactful (Frank! tactful!), or did the writers forget that Lois wasn't the first wife?

Your thoughts?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Teaching writing: FSP's "Can't, Don't, or Won't?"

Female Science Professor has a post up called "Can't, Don't, or Won't?" in which she relates something that she heard from a "Writing Expert":
She said that she understands that many professors get frustrated when their students keep making the same mistakes in their writing, but that most people can't learn from their own writing mistakes, even after having the mistakes corrected and explained. It is essentially a learning disability. . . .

Are they lazy or careless? Do they just expect others to fix their writing problems? It is not difficult to find laments such as this in professor-blogs.

But the Writing Expert said that most people can't fix these problems. She said that some can, but most can't. She said "can't", not "won't" or "don't", indicating a lack of ability, not a lack of willingness or attention.
Have any of you heard this? I know that patterns of errors can be difficult for students to detect (thank you, Mina Shaughnessy, for your work all those years ago about this!), but "can't" seems like a tricky term to use unless the student is diagnosed as learning disabled.

It's hard to spot errors in your own work, and it's even harder for students to do so, although they can often see the problems in someone else's paper, as one of the commenters at FSP's place says.

I know that despite the claims of minimal marking enthusiasts, sometimes students just don't get the point of those mysterious little check marks in the margins. They get just as frustrated and hopeless with that kind of "I know the answer and I'm not going to tell you" marking as they do with papers that are "overmarked" with every little item pounced on and killed in a pool of red ink.

Grading is a balancing act between encouraging the students to take responsibility for their writing by letting them figure out the problem, as in minimal marking, and helping them out by explaining what's amiss so that they can do better next time, as in traditional marking with marginal comments. We ought to know that they don't make those mistakes to spite us, but because they don't (can't?) see them.

But doesn't "can't" sounds a little defeatist, as though the students can't learn and we can't help them to learn? If a student "can't" learn to correct an error, does that mean it's incumbent on us to ignore it? Or does it mean that the student shouldn't be in that particular class in the first place?

I have more faith in students than that. I'm crossing "can't" off my list of reasons not to learn to write better.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Writing procrastination makes the news

In The New York Times:

Is there a cure for writer’s block? (And no, “get a real job” doesn’t count.) A recent article in The New Yorker profiles a therapist who treats struggling screenwriters for hundreds of dollars an hour. For centuries, poorer scribes (which is to say most of us) have preferred to rely on rituals and folk remedies. Sharpen 10 pencils. Eat a sandwich. Pretend that the first chapter of your long-overdue opus is a casual letter to your grandmother. Weep quietly. Have another drink.

And from the article on Barry Michels at the New Yorker link:
By far the most common problem afflicting the writers in Michels’s practice is procrastination, which he understands in terms of Jung’s Father archetype. “They procrastinate because they have no external authority figure demanding that they write,” he says. “Often I explain to the patient that there is an authority figure he’s answerable to, but it’s not human. It’s Time itself that’s passing inexorably. That’s why they call it Father Time. Every time you procrastinate or waste time, you’re defying this authority figure.” Procrastination, he says, is a “spurious form of immortality,” the ego’s way of claiming that it has all the time in the world; writing, by extension, is a kind of death. He gives procrastinators a tool he calls the Arbitrary Use of Time Moment, which asks them to sit in front of their computers for a fixed amount of time each day. “You say, ‘I’m surrendering myself to the archetypal Father, Chronos,’ ” he says. ‘I’m surrendering to him because he has hegemony over me.’ That submission activates something inside someone. In the simplest terms, it gets people to get their ass in the chair.” For the truly unproductive, he sets the initial period at ten minutes—“an amount of time it would sort of embarrass them not to be able to do.”
It's really what Boice and Silvia and Raymond Chandler and everyone else has told writers to do, but with a Jungian spin.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Writing Process: Snoozefest and Drive-by Prose

Historiann has a good post up about finding "teh funny" in what she's writing about and how that's a problem right now:
But, the problem for me right now is that there just isn’t a lot of humor in the story of a little girl whose life was filled with warfare and trauma for her English family, and the starvation, disease, and eventual destrution of her Indian family.
I hear you, Historiann. What's got me stuck right now isn't so much the subject matter of what I'm working on, although it's kind of grim, as the question of voice.

Right now I'm mired in the depths of what can charitably be called "snoozefest prose." If it were somebody else's snoozefest prose, I'd make fun of it and ignore it, but since it's mine--well, I still make fun of it, but I can't ignore it.

The thing is, the only way to get through to what I really want to say is to slog through the snoozefest prose, writing down sentences that I know I'll have to change, before getting back to it with an ax later on and turning it into something someone will want to read.

As an antidote to this prose, today I reread a conference paper that I gave last fall, one that received some good questions from the audience and compliments later. Like Historiann, I write in part to amuse myself and thought that this one might give me some ammunition for revising the snoozefest prose. It did. The conference paper's style was more much more flexible and funny because it was written to be read aloud. A conference presentation is the "drive-by" prose of scholarship: you say it and you're done.

Now it's time to get back to wrestling with the snoozefest prose. It helps, though, to know that someplace within it is drive-by prose waiting to get out or at least to enliven it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Short takes on the week

  • Marc C. Carnes's article on Reacting to the Past (history as RPG) is inspiring--really. I almost wrote "inspiriting," and it's that, too. It made me want to adapt some of these techniques for my own discipline. I already do some of this research-based and team-based role-playing as a learning technique, but this makes me want to do it more systematically.
  • Dr. Crazy has a good post about "The Path to Full" and takes on the secret fear of "am I stalled at associate"?
  • Tenured Radical has a good post about the practical dimensions of using research libraries.
  • Historiann has taken this fabulous picture of the sign to my secret bunker on her travels. I hope she is going to stop in and say hello to the Henricksons and have a glass of rebellious wine with Barb.
  • The Atlantic showers Nick Denton of Gawker with fanboy love for new media, albeit with a light dusting of skepticism, just as The New Yorker did a few weeks ago. It's a perfect subject because the old media gets to pull out the "journalism-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket" card while indulging in all the frivolous delights of new media journalism. Case in point: the media storm over Amy Chua, which The Atlantic got so excited about that it put BOTH of its women columnists (Caitlin Flanagan and Sandra Tsing-Loh) in the same issue instead of making them take turns the way it usually does.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

At the Chronicle: "Actually Going to Class?"

Over at The Chronicle, "Actually Going to Class, for a Specific Course? How 20th-Century" asks a question and raises a few more:

Learning outside of this structure engages students more deeply, recent data indicate. Professors talking for 16 weeks or so, assigning readings, and then testing students often appears to yield a bunch of quickly memorized facts that are soon forgotten. . . .
Courses won't go away completely, Mr. Bass argues—they do provide a handy framework. But he said he hopes that professors will stop thinking of them as a goal unto themselves and focus more on linking skills conveyed in the classroom to hands-on student activities.

Really? "Quickly memorized facts"? Where do these people go to school, the Mr. Gradgrind Academy? Yes, if you set up a straw man of a Facts-O-Rama education and then test for the kind of learning that takes place, you might see that it doesn't work very well.

The second quotation has more going for it and a couple of things wrong with it. The first point is that hands-on student activities are important. Here's my question: where do you do the "hands-on student activities" if you don't have a class? If you have a course in which content (as in "a body of knowledge," not "how I feel about looking at this video") is important, hands-on learning can't do everything, although it can help.

The second point is that the author is almost apologetic about the concept of a classroom. What is a classroom but a place where presumably interested parties get together to work on learning and contributing to a body of knowledge? Unless you're Stephen Hawking, rattling around in your own head with a text doesn't get you nearly as far as discussing it with others.

Another person quoted in the article has made the astonishing discovery--hold on to your seats--that "The class discussion only really works when everyone is prepared." Instead of seeing that as a reason to give up on class, however, I see it as a reason to keep trying harder with the admittedly useful "framework" of a class rather than to give up and send them to YouTube.

I can't speak to the efficacy of podcasted lectures in, say, science classes, but in the humanities, which apparently nobody cares about anyway, there's a give-and-take in the classroom that can't be replicated. In short, let me state a fact:

I have never given the same exact lecture twice, and my classes have never discussed the texts in the same way twice. We see each others' faces, hear each others' voices, and learn from each other, and it's that process that's valuable.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Giant messes o' stupid

In one of my favorite pieces by James Thurber, "University Days," Thurber describes his experiences in botany class. According to the piece, Thurber could never see anything through a microscope, which enrages his botany teacher:
"We'll try it," the professor said to me, grimly, "with every adjustment of the microscope known to man. As God is my witness, I'll arrange this glass so that you see cells through it or I'll give up teaching. In twenty-two years of botany, I--" He cut off abruptly for he was beginning to quiver all over, like Lionel Barrymore, and he genuinely wished to hold onto his temper; his scenes with me had taken a great deal out of him.
Thurber finally sees something and starts drawing. "You didn't, you didn't you didn't!" the professor screams. "That's your eye! . . . You've fixed the lens so that it reflects! You've drawn your eye!"

I too am starting to quiver all over like Lionel Barrymore,* not at my classes, which are fine, but at the giant messes o' stupid from the things I read in the news about people who can't seem to see beyond their own eyes.

(Let's leave aside the big one, which is that if the anti-union forces manage to fire everybody and drive them into the poorhouse, who's going to buy all the products from small businesses, and with what money? Who's going to buy the big-ticket items that we keep being told are going to "grow us out of the recession" when the U.S. has outsourced those jobs so that nobody can afford the big-ticket items that we're being exhorted to buy? When are all those wealthy people that we can't tax because then they won't "invest in jobs in America" going to, you know, kick in and invest in jobs in America? In 1980, Reagan said this would happen, but I'm still waiting. Update: Go read Paul Krugman, who says it better than I can. )

Sorry. Let's choose a smaller one so that I can stop channelling Lionel Barrymore.

Back to computers and online classes instead of teachers in Idaho. In responding to Jon Stewart, Sisyphus has it right: "Because nothing is easier to control with a computer program than a distracted, unmotivated child who doesn't want to learn about fractions or verb tenses or godhelpusall critical thinking."

Let's add some critical thinking to the Idaho "computers iz r teachers" idea.

1. This plan is being hailed by those in favor of online for-profit education in K-12 because "with a laptop, every student can take an online class." Q.E.D.

2. Online classes are on the interwebs.

3. You need an internet connection to get on the interwebs.

4. Internet connections do not come free with laptops. They cost money.

5. If a student is so disadvantaged that he or she doesn't have access to a computer at home, what are the odds that the home has internet access?

6. If a student already has access to wireless at home, what are the odds that he or she does NOT have access to a computer as well?

7. Tell me again how the mere possession of a laptop is going to make possible the hours online that an online class requires? Is Idaho going to pay the wireless costs?

8. If the students are supposed to use the laptops at school, sitting in a room and working individually on different classes--that is, putting 40-50 lively teenagers unsupervised (teachers were fired, remember?) in a room with computers and internet access--no, nothing could go wrong there, nothing at all.

Okay, I'm starting to quiver again. These people are only seeing their own eye. That's all I've got to say.

[*For those of you who are not old movie fanatics: you've probably seen him as Mean Banker Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life at Christmastime, which is when this movie gets shown a lot.]