Peer Review, Revisited

I wrote a post two years ago about how I teach peer review. To sum up: I have students write anonymous letters to one another about their work. They have to summarize the project of the paper; identify  the strengths and weaknesses of the argument, evidence, and structure; and offer constructive suggestions for how address the paper’s issues.

This morning, I was asked to do a session on how I teach critique for a presentation to a major donor for our program. I decided it would be a good time to get some student feedback on how well they think my way of teaching peer review works. I just asked them to compare their experience with peer review in my class to any experience they had previously, and explain what they thought worked well (or was difficult) about the peer review in my class.

I thought I would post some of their responses, because they nail exactly why I do peer review the way I do: I want students to understand that giving positive feedback without constructive criticism can hurt, not help, their friends. I want them to realize that feedback on ideas and logic and structure need to come before an emphasis on grammar and mechanics. I want them to understand that they can benefit as much from giving feedback as receiving it.

Here is what ten of my students had to say:

“My experience with peer review in high school was largely negative. I did not feel comfortable having to critique other people’s work, nor did I ever receive feedback on my work that I found particularly helpful. I can easily say that my experience with peer review within the Georgia Tech English program has been completely different. Critical but respectful analysis of other student’s work is encouraged, and almost every peer review letter that I have received this semester has been insightful and constructive. I largely attribute this difference to the way that Dr. Taylor characterized criticism as a vehicle that will improve rather than hinder the quality of an individual’s work. In other words, it is more of a hindrance to provide no criticism than it is to give a thoughtful analysis of another individual’s work.” — J.K.

“Dr. Taylor’s class requires much longer, more detailed peer reviews than I have experienced in the past. In high school, the most extensive review I had to do included writing comments throughout a copy of my partner’s essay and writing a few other general comments at the end. In this class, the review is a full page long letter which we write for and receive from multiple classmates. This provides us with much more detailed commentary to work with, which is more helpful than comments that need to be squeezed into the margins of an essay.” — A.B.

“Peer review in Dr. Taylor’s class is an effective way to provide and receive critique on assignments. In high school, my experience was that when we chose whose papers we reviewed, we ended up choosing our friends and not providing as deep a criticism as is often necessary. Here at Georgia Tech, I’ve found that having our peer review partners chosen for us is beneficial in that I usually receive a partner who I have never met. Not knowing my partner allows me to treat them like a peer, rather than a friend, which in turn allows me to criticize their paper from a more objective standpoint. Personally, I know that I have benefited from this system as I have received a lot of good criticism on my work. I hope that the criticism I have given is just as useful as what I have received.” — J.B.

“Compared to high school, peer review in this course is much more advanced and prominent. Very rarely in high school did I use peer review in class. When we happened to peer review each other, the vast majority of the reviewing was grammatical editing. There wasn’t too much actual reviewing of the writing itself and its argument. However, in this class, peer review mainly focuses on the argument of the writing and its effectiveness in displaying its message. Editing simple grammatical structure and spelling errors are minor when it comes to peer review in this course. As a result, peer reviewing sometimes leads to an entirely different piece of writing if the argument or message is ineffective.” –T.J.

“In high school whenever I had to do peer reviews they were always superficial. We were usually given an outline with blank spaces or specific questions with rankings. For the most part they didn’t help with revision whatsoever. In this class, I like that we’re just told to write a letter. Outlines and rankings don’t always work well because everyone’s project is set up differently. It is more beneficial to write a letter because it can better reflect and critique an individual project for its unique aspects. By doing peer reviews in this letter writing manner, I’ve become a better reader. I’ve gotten better at “coming to terms” with a piece of work and learned to dissect a paper. I’ve also become a better critical reader, not just taking what I read for truth, but considering both the author’s argument and evidence and the things which they fail to consider.” — K.I.

“In this course, the experience with peer review was quite different from that of high school, but was beneficial and taught me a lot about the process of peer reviewing. Previously, students would exchange a hard copy of what was being reviewed and simply wrote notes on the paper. This made it very easy to simply comment on syntax and grammar and not reflect as much on the ideas of the work and its overall organization. With the method of writing a peer review letter, I found I was reflecting less on small grammatical errors. I also benefited a lot more from receiving letters rather than a physical copy that was written all over. It was a little difficult to write the letter because it forced me to stray from the more obvious corrections and think more about the work’s argument and supporting ideas. From this new process I learned the value of incorporating people’s reflections on my ideas and organization into my work rather than corrections on minor syntax errors.” — M.H.

“I found peer review this semester to be extremely effective and helpful. Often times, I’m seeing my work through tinted glasses, and having someone else look at my work helps me make connections that I would never have thought of. Peer review in high school was cursory at best, and we mostly fixed each other’s grammar and syntax. In Dr. Taylor’s class, there is a focus on reviewing the themes and arguments behind our work, and making sure we adequately and logically support them. Having actual analysis and in depth reviews of my work in college have made my artifacts much better by forcing me to rethink my ideas many times.” — S.I.

“I found the peer reviews to be fairly helpful overall. As always, an outside perspective finds flaws and new ideas within your argument that you would never find yourself. I enjoyed the emphasis on reviewing content instead of grammar or syntax, since I can do that myself without issue. I found the more critical reviews the most helpful; they weren’t afraid to call core elements of my arguments into question. If I would change anything, I would change the language in the assignment guide to encourage more criticism and less positive reinforcement.” — J.C.

“My experience with revision in the past was simply a professor handing back my rough draft that dripped with red ink. I would make the changes that were suggested (mostly syntactical and grammatical errors) and then I would hand that back in for a final grade. Now my revision experience is less mechanical, it is an iterative process that smooths my arguments edit by edit like waves flattening the sand on a beach. It consists of edits by peers, Dr. Taylor, and myself all helping the essay evolve and become more concise while turning a simple argument into a multifaceted scholarly one. I have found that the more I revise the better a writer I become and the more likely I am to make a strong paper from the onset.” — D.V.

“Receiving a peer review in the form of a letter has been more thorough than peers reviews I have experienced in the past where edits are just scribbled directly on the page. In this more structured and lengthy form, people tend to reveal their thought process behind the edits they are suggesting, which is often just as if not more helpful than the edits themselves. Also, my editors are more careful to identify where things went well in addition to where I went wrong, so I know where to focus my final draft.” — L.H.


The Academic Job Search: Some Stats

I don’t know that anyone is still reading this blog, but I didn’t want to post this directly to Facebook, because no one still on the job market should have to read this kind of thing if they don’t want to.

Now that I have a job (yay!), I thought it might be a useful exercise to provide some stats about being on the job market. I found it helpful to see this kind of information when I was a grad student, and I think we need to be transparent about exactly what our current system involves–and what it costs.

Years on the Market: 5.

My first year, I was ABD. I defended in October of my second year.

Applications Submitted: 168 (Year 1, 25; Y2, 76; Y3, 8; Y4, 28; Y5, 32)

My first year was a partial search. My second year, I applied for a lot of post-docs, visiting positions, lecturer positions, and composition jobs (as opposed to jobs in my field of Renaissance lit). After I got my 3-year post-doc at Georgia Tech, I did not apply for many visiting or post-doc positions, though I did apply for potentially permanent lecturer positions. I only applied for composition jobs if there was something extremely appealing about them.

First round interviews invitations: 28 (Y1, 3; Y2, 7; Y3, 2; Y4, 9; Y5, 7)

12 of my first round interviews were at MLA. The other 16 were phone or video interviews. In Years 2 and 5 I turned down at least one first round invitation to interview because the invitation came after I had accepted a job offer. In Year 3, I did the same because it came so late in the summer that I couldn’t back out of my obligations to my current school. Two first round interviews were horror shows (one by phone, the other at MLA). All others were completely professional and respectable.

Campus visit invitations: 6 (Y1, 1; Y2, 1; Y3, 0; Y4, 1; Y5, 3)

In Year 5, I  turned down one campus visit invitation because I had already accepted a job offer.

Job offers: 2. (Y1, 0; Y2, 1; Y3, 0; Y4, 0; Y5, 1)

My first job offer was for a three-year post-doc, the second for a tenure track position.

Costs: $4000 (approx.)

This doesn’t count several thousand dollars I shelled out for campus visits; I was fortunate that all of the universities that invited me reimbursed me fully and promptly. Of the five campus visits I went on, only one university made all the arrangements and made it so I did not have to do any major outlay of costs.

I went to MLA every year, though three of those years MLA was in a location where I did not have to pay for a hotel (in Seattle and Vancouver I stayed with family; in Chicago I stayed with a friend). When going to Seattle, Vancouver, Boston, and Austin, the timing or location was such that I did not count the cost of a full round trip ticket as an expense, because I was either already in the city visiting family for the holidays, or was able to make it a stop on my way back from visiting family. When I did stay in a hotel, I split the room with another attendee. Even so, I spent more than $2000 on flight and hotel costs, as well as more than $400 for Interfolio and $550 for MLA membership and registration.

Hours Spent: Countless.

So much of this is idiosyncratic. Even how much you end up having to spend is idiosyncratic, as my own costs show. I easily could have had to spend thousands more if MLA had been in different locations. Success on the job search, so far as I can tell, requires skills, professionalization, training, and experience–but that only gets you in the game. After that, success depends on a combination of all those things with the luck of the fit and luck in timing that is not under a candidate’s control.

Creating Good Peer Review

My computer is acting funky, at the moment, so I am backing everything up and taking it to the Apple Store this afternoon for a check up. But, since I can’t do any “real” work at the moment while I wait for the back-up to finish, I thought I would do a post on how I teach peer review.

I learned the value of peer review at UConn, where a core feature of our composition courses is the Small Group Tutorial, or SGT, where the instructor would meet with a group of two to four students for an hour, and lead a peer review session. I didn’t like required peer review as an undergraduate, because my own experience was that I didn’t get good feedback; I did much better when I sought out my own readers and exchanged papers with people in different classes, or even at different universities. But SGTs helped me reorient my thinking; I started to think about including peer review not just because it helped the writer, but because it was about training students to do peer review. Rather than expecting students to already know how to give feedback, I was teaching and modeling it for them.

However, the teaching load at most schools really isn’t conducive to hour-long sessions with small groups of students, so at Georgia Tech I’ve been experimenting with how to teach peer review and make it more effective for students. I’m focusing on teaching what peer review is, why we do it, and what it (should) be good for. What I did this semester worked surprisingly well, and a few colleagues here and at other schools asked me for my materials, so I thought I would share what I do. But first, two notes:

1) As I said in my last post, I regularly use Joseph Harris’ book Rewriting in my classes. A lot of the language of this prompt is drawn from his book. Students are already familiar with the terms when we start peer review.

2) For the first round of peer review, I didn’t have students meet together or give comments to each other orally.* Instead, I have them do double-blind peer review, and later I use a discussion of how that worked to set up a discussion of academic research, and how academics use peer review. I use Piazza, which allows me to set up numbered discussion groups as well as anonymous posting. I assign each student a number, and each number to a group, and they post all their papers there. There were at least three students in each group, so that even if one member of a group didn’t give comments, everyone would get something. I also added extra office hours so that if anyone wanted help figuring out what to do with the comments they received, I would be available.

My students get two sets of instructions, one that is built into our class assignment guide, and then a reiteration/extension of those basics, usually in the form of a class lecture/discussion. However, we had a lot of snow days this year, so my students got the second set in an e-mail, which makes it a lot easier for me to share them with you here.

Write an anonymous letter to the authors of the papers you reviewed, including but not limited to the following:

    1. Come to Terms: Explain what you understood as the project of the paper. Start by identifying the thesis, but also give a holistic explanation of what you see the author trying to do.
    2. Forwarding: What works in the draft? How can the author build on and do more of that?
    3. Countering: Where are there places that the logical argument and/or use of evidence could be improved? How could the author acknowledge other points of view or other possibilities? Where do you think, “That’s not what I thought when I read that,” or “Maybe, but what about X?”

Your peers will grade you on the quality and usefulness of your responses, so be sure to put in sufficient effort. Some tips to make your comments more effective:

    • Don’t ever say “this is a good paper.” Instead, identify specific elements that work well.
    • Specifics should be paired with suggestions for improvement. For example: “I really didn’t understand how your quotation of Satan’s appeal to Eve’s beauty in the second paragraph had anything to do with your point that Eve’s behavior was unselfish. Could you find a more appropriate quotation, or explain what you were thinking a bit more?”
    • Quote the paper: “Your thesis in the introduction is that ‘Milton’s God is cold and unfeeling in order to make Satan seem more appealing.’ However, most of your paper actually seems to be about Satan’s perception of God, which isn’t the same thing. Maybe you should rewrite the thesis to better reflect the contents of your paper? I think Satan’s perceptions are more interesting than your original thesis.”

For the in-class or e-mail instructions, I discuss broader issues of why and how we approach peer review. I cover at least the following points.

  1. The anonymity of your drafts and peer review comments is designed to give you freedom in responding: freedom to know that whoever comments on your paper won’t know who you are, freedom to express your confusion about something someone has written, freedom to be critical, etc. You won’t always have this anonymity, but it can be useful when you are first learning how to give feedback.
  2. In addition to thinking in terms of Forwarding and Countering, make sure to think about the rubric that I’ll be using to grade the papers, which is included in the assignment guide. Forwarding and Countering are ways of helping to improve ideas, but you don’t want to forget about the rhetorical elements we’ve been discussing in class.
  3. Your job is not to be “nice.” Your job, as an ethical reader of someone else’s work, is to help them revise their paper into the best it can possibly be. You should be professional, of course, but it is most important that you be honest about what doesn’t work in the paper. One of my favorite fantasy novels, The Curse of Chalion, includes this line, from a teacher (Cazaril) to his students:

“If you desire a man to tell you comfortable lies about your prowess, and so fetter any hope of true excellence, I’m sure you may find one anywhere. Not all prisons are made of iron bars. Some are made of feather beds.”

The point Cazaril makes is that telling someone their not-so-good work is good is easy, but doing so does them a disservice, and may actually hurt them. It binds them, and keeps them from improving. It prevents them from being truly excellent. Even if the paper you are commenting on is better than yours, it doesn’t mean you can’t offer them good feedback–you might still see things in their paper that they can’t. Don’t stop with identifying what is wrong, however; make suggestions for improvement. And even when someone does something that works, try and help them make it even better.

Then, finally, I have students grade the peer review letters they received.

Rank each peer review letter: give a “5” for a letter that was very detailed & helpful; a “4” for one that was somewhat detailed & useful; a “3” for a letter that was useful but not detailed; a “2” for one that was detailed but not useful; a “1” for one that was neither; and “0” for one not submitted.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of comments most of my students produced. Most students did light editing/marginal notes using Word’s reviewing features, and then wrote several paragraphs focusing on the big picture issues. A few students actually full-page letters with comments–in other words, for these 6-8 page papers, they were giving more comments than academic peer reviewers usually do for 20-page articles. And, to be honest, taking into account that these were freshmen papers and freshmen reviewers, the quality of the comments was sometimes higher than the average journal peer review response.

When I asked students about what they liked about this system, a lot of them said they appreciated the anonymity; they felt freer to actually give criticism instead of just saying “good job”. Most also liked that because the letter was the primary form of commenting, it meant the focus was less on editing and more on true revision. But the comment that I found extremely telling came from a particularly bright but somewhat disengaged student, who admitted that in the past, he had ignored peer review comments unless they came from someone he thought was smarter than he was. The anonymous process deprived him of his reliance on perceived authority/intelligence, and forced him to really pay attention and decide based on the merits of the comment. I saw enough nods around the table at that one to think that might be a bigger issue with traditional peer review than I had previously thought, at least with students at Georgia Tech, who are often used to being the smartest among their high school peers.

This is still a work in progress for me. Not all the students bought in; there were a handful who didn’t take the advice of their peers, or who didn’t give good advice. This process also doesn’t really get at the dialectic or collaborative elements that I truly valued when I exchanged work with peers of my own choosing (with long sessions on IM as we figured out how to rewrite paragraphs and reorganize documents). I want my students to get that experience, too.

So: What do you do for peer review that works well? How do you teach good peer review skills? What do you emphasize?

Teaching Difficult Texts in Composition: The Problem of “Study Guides”

Dustin Hannum’s Techstyle post on teaching Moby Dick in a first year writing and communication class hit close to home for me when I read it a few months ago. His articulation of the fears that both students and some teachers have about difficult literary texts in a first-year classroom were very similar to the words I’ve heard about teaching John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which in addition to being nearly as long, symbolic, and difficult as Moby Dick, has the added problem of being seventeenth-century epic poetry. Like Dustin with Moby Dick, I persist in teaching Paradise Lost, alongside its adaptations; I’ve taught pieces of the poem in two different classes at the University of Connecticut, and the whole poem as the centerpiece of two different first-year composition classes, one at UConn and one at Georgia Tech, both with an adaptation component.

One of the objections I’ve heard from other instructors is that when we teach difficult but classic texts, students are more likely to use notes systems like CliffsNotes and SparkNotes, and to plagiarize them in their work. And certainly, I will admit that the downside to teaching a piece of classic literature is that students are far too often tempted to plagiarize. But that has only a little to do with the difficulty of the text; in the past, I’ve found that there are always one or two students willing to admit they look for such notes on any topic or text, no matter how straight forward. I once had a student write in their self-reflections on an essay on the science fiction novel Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (which is very easy reading) that he had found it “difficult and challenging” to write the essay because he hadn’t been able to find any good online discussions of the themes and topics he was writing about. The highlight of the comment was this: “This forced me into a position where I had to develop ALL points and arguments completely on my own. I am more grateful than bitter about this though.” Of course, saying that he was more grateful than bitter implies that the student was still at least a little bit bitter.

When I taught Paradise Lost this spring, during the second week of class another instructor came up to me and confided that she had seen one of my students reading a copy of the Paradise Lost CliffsNotes in the hallway (the student had to be mine, because as far as anyone knows, I’m the only one teaching the poem here). I will admit to being more amused than anything else; I remembered my own first encounter with Paradise Lost in 2001 very distinctly, and it involved just such a study aid. I was 17, and the class was my first substantial encounter with British literature (a function of having skipped most of high school English and attending the local community college where I could fulfill all my requirements with American lit). We had been assigned selections from Paradise Lost out of the Norton Anthology. I read the piece of the text that had been assigned, understood only some of what was going on, read it again, understood only a little more than the previous time, and then promptly went online and found the Spark Notes to help me figure out a little bit more. It helped a lot in terms of giving me the big picture when I couldn’t get past the words and styntax. I could tell its answers were a bit too pat at times, but it was enough for me to start constructing my own readings around and responding to the ideas posed in the notes. I occasionally returned to SparkNotes and other guides when reading a text as an undergrad, but it became more and more rare as I got more and more confident in my ability to read complicated texts. When it comes to Paradise Lost, the trick is to find a way to help students move past their reliance on such notes. And if students can feel confident enough to work with Paradise Lost on their own, they can feel confident about their ability to work with just about any difficult text.

So now, when I teach, I mostly work on the assumption that 75-90% of my students did the actual reading, and that a similar percentage read some sort of guide; obviously, not all who did the reading read the guide, and vice versa. It usually becomes clear to me during class discussion who falls into which category. None of the students are brazen enough to have SparkNotes or CliffsNotes out in class so anyone can see it, even if they used it out in the hall, but the notes do not prep students to engage in close readings of passages on the fly. They are almost universally light on evidence, so when I ask a question about a character and then ask them to point to a particular passage, they usually aren’t ready unless they’ve done the actual reading. So, if a student can make a general statement about a character or the poem, but can’t describe any details about what in the text led them to that conclusion, they invariably relied on the study guide instead of the reading.

But students also inevitably discover that SparkNotes and the equivalent aren’t going to address the big-picture questions I asking in a composition course on Paradise Lost. A lot of what I do is guided by my use of Joseph Harris’ book Rewriting. I became familiar with Harris’ book when teaching at the University of Connecticut, where over the space of a few years, it became a staple of our introduction to writing pedagogy class as well as many instructors’ classrooms. Rewriting emphasizes that all texts, but especially academic texts, are in conversation with one another, and must constantly “rewrite” each other in order to advance the conversation. I assign the book, or pieces of it, alongside the poem at the beginning of the semester.

If you haven’t seen the book, I highly recommend it, but here’s a brief summary of what I find useful: Harris emphasizes four “moves” that all writers make as the essential building blocks of academic writing: coming to terms, forwarding, countering, and taking an approach. Coming to terms might be simply explained as “summarizing,” but with an emphasis on reading a text generously, with the goal of noting both what is useful about an idea and what its limits are. Forwarding is taking an idea (usually one you’ve come to terms with) and building on it. Countering is not simply arguing with an idea, but saying, “yes, but”—that is, generously reading an idea and then identifying its limits, and attempting to solve them. Taking an approach involves a more expansive version of forwarding, as it concerns using the underlying issues of methodology and assumptions of another text, rather than the particulars of expression.

Paradise Lost is a particularly useful text for students to start to learn to identify and use these moves because Book 2’s debate in Pandemonium embodies all of them, but in ways that draw attention to their improper as well as proper use. Belial ungenerously summarizes Moloch’s position before he counters it; Mammon forwards parts of Belial’s argument and counters others, adding his own twist; Beelzebub forwards Satan’s idea of subverting mankind to the rest of the demons (adding his own elements not present in Satan’s speech to Beelzebub), but in failing to acknowledge his source, he misleads the other demons as to their origins—and my students invariably see this as manipulative and unethical, even if they sympathize with Milton’s Satan’s. The general outlines of this reading could be found in something CliffsNotes (which discusses Belial’s and Mammon’s sophistry, and how Satan and Beelzebub defraud their fellow fallen angels), but using Harris adds a layer of complexity by showing that these demons are using rhetorical moves that can be, in other contexts, good. (It fits nicely, in other words, with the theme that evil is the perversion of good, and the notion that the fallen angels still maintain some of what made them angels in the first place.)

In the first few books of Paradise Lost, then, we focus on the moments where Milton has his characters engage in these rhetorical and intellectual moves from Harris. But as we move progressively deeper into the poem, we start to dig into research to see where Milton himself might be coming to terms with an idea, where he plays with forwarding and countering of ideas from his own time period. Was Milton forwarding ideas about Arianism in his poem? Was he countering or forwarding the misogyny of his own period? How was he coming to terms with seventeenth-century scientific debates in representing Adam and Raphael’s discussion of the creation of the universe? How did his epic poem take an approach from his earlier works? (I usually teach Paradise Lost alongside Areopagitica, but students sometimes choose to read On EducationTenure of Kings and Magistrates, or other works on their own.) And then there’s the big question: which of these moves is Milton using in relationship to his most obvious source material, the Bible? (Answer: All of them. The hard part is identifying which ones he’s using at any given moment)

Once they are doing research, students have start making the same moves in their own writing. Are they simply going to come to terms with a source? Can they forward its ideas in a new direction? Do they need to counter something a source says—and what are they to do when two sources disagree with one another? Milton’s poem proves to be fruitful not only in providing content for them to practice their skills, but in providing models for the work itself. They learn, in other words, to “take an approach” from Milton. Of course, Milton can be a bit intimidating as a model—which is one reason why I teach adaptations alongside Milton’s poem, for each adaptation or appropriation has to do some of this work, and in ways that often give students permission to try their own hand at critiquing Milton’s work, or at using the work of others to offer critique.

Difficult texts like Paradise Lost do sometimes scare students into improperly using online notes. I caught two students plagiarizing from them in the first logical outline for the paper. (My comment on Facebook at the time was something like, “The upside to teaching 21st century science fiction instead of epic poetry is that no-one has made a SparkNotes for Old Man’s War.”) But while those two students failed the initial assignment, it was relatively low stakes, and we had good discussions about why they had used the notes. In both cases, it had been because they were afraid of saying something “wrong” about the text, of feeling like they couldn’t come up with their own ideas. I told my students that for this paper they could cite the notes, but they had to do the work of countering and forwarding to make their own argument. What surprised and pleased me was that by the end of the revision process, the material from SparkNotes had completely disappeared, and students had developed their own arguments. One of the papers even ended up being among my favorites for the whole class, as she wrote a compelling paper about the way Milton uses the horrors of hell to discuss what drives (or doesn’t drive) repentance. The notes served as a useful crutch (once we got past the plagiarism issue) to get them started, but by the end, they were standing on their own two feet.

Twitter, Commonplace Books, and the Vorkosigan Saga

One of my favorite low-stakes assignments in my lit classroom is the commonplace book. Sometimes I give a really formal commonplace book project–I give them the common heads, and ask them to keep track of passages and themes that correspond to them. Other times, I just ask students to record the passages they are interested in, without requiring them to have them correspond to categories (since we do this on blogs, they still have to tag them with potential categories, but they tend to be less consistent). They usually, by the end, have at least a few categories that have become recurrent, but getting them to realize those patterns at the end of the semester usually takes a project of its own, where they are required to (and some students who have been doing the commonplace project perfunctorily rather than in the true spirit of the thing, find they don’t have many interesting patterns at all, and end up having to re-read and do the work they avoided at the beginning!).

For the past week or so, I’ve been using my Twitter account as a kind of commonplace book as I’ve been re-reading a few select pieces (read: novels) from the Vorkosigan Saga. I’ve done two novels so far, The Vor Game and Memory (the latter being my favorite of the entire series). I’ve done this kind of common-placing before, but only on Facebook, posting my favorite quotations as they strike me, often in ways that are personal or powerful or that just seem true.  Doing it on Twitter, however, produced a distinctly different result for me. First, my followers on Twitter are clearly not as engaged with the Vorkosigan Saga as I am, at least as evidenced by fewer “favorites” compared to “likes,” fewer retweets and replies compared to comments and additional quotations. That might be a result of being fairly new to Twitter, versus established on Facebook, and having far fewer followers than friends–which is not a problem at all, but it did make the tweeting feel more solitary.

The other thing I observed is that the 140 character limit pushed me to really narrow my focus. I was choosing soundbites, not the larger, more emotionally dramatic moments of whole paragraphs or even series of paragraphs from Bujold’s prose that I usually posted on Facebook. (I will admit, I gave in and posted a few on Facebook because they are so brilliant.) But those soundbites proved crucial; I paid more attention to sounds and words, and the way those words were repeated over and over again. This was especially the case as I came upon my favorite passages, and was forced to choose just a single sentence to represent the whole passage. Suddenly, I became much more attuned to the recurrence of the questions of freedom and choice, games and winning that permeates Memory and evolves over time.

I had been suspicious of using Twitter in the classroom; my own prejudices are for longer engagement, not shorter. Not being able to post more than 140 characters (and needing to hashtag “#vorkosiganreread” at the end of each tweet!) twisted my heart. But this has convinced me, at least in part, to try tweeting in the classroom. I’m not entirely sure what form it will take, whether supplement/complement to the commonplace book, or something else. This might–or might not–work for a writer like Milton, whose sentences and even phrases sometimes go beyond the length of what Twitter can handle. But for other writers, while Twitter might not have much room for the depth of analysis that I want from students, it does possess power that might help students see different patterns than what they can see in the commonplace assignments I usually give.

Visual Design in the Writing Classroom

Okay, let’s see if I can get back into blogging! I want to start with the post I promised way back in… November? December? on teaching visual design in a writing class.

The “Visual” component of the WOVEN philosophy of composition is probably my favorite addition to my teaching. I love teaching writing, and I think I’m good at it, but I really, really like the fact that part of my job is now teaching students to make not just their words but their documents pretty. Of course, that’s an oversimplification of what I’m doing. After having done it for two semesters now, I really do think that the way I teach visual design helps make students better writers, not just better communicators.

My own experience with visual design and documents started pretty young; I was on the newspaper staff in high school, and I remember spending hours using Adobe InDesign (though I think it might have been called something different way back in the 1990s) to put together our “paste-up”—there were a couple occasions where I was in the Newspaper office at midnight, making sure my center spread looked great. I didn’t really have much of an education in this, though—I wasn’t in the official journalism class because it conflicted with my schedule; I was just given assignments and expected to complete them during a free period on my own.


Graduate Study For a Galaxy Far, Far Away

“Project Thank You Greg”: A spoof on Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century, 2nd Edition.

But I loved doing that kind of design, making words and pictures work together to tell a story. It wasn’t long after that that I taught myself HTML and started coding websites by hand. Mostly I made fan sites for X-files on Geocities, because I was 14 years old and just discovering fandom (thank goodness everything that was ever on geocities is gone now, however). Since high school, I’ve played a lot with photoshop, been involved in a few major website re-designs, and designed some posters and book covers–including a Star Wars spoof cover of my advisor’s book that we gave him when he stepped down as graduate director.

My initial difficulty in moving from these experiences to teaching was that I’m almost entirely self-taught. I didn’t have a lot of vocabulary to describe the things I know how to do instinctively. (You could have watched me butt my head against Photoshop and InDesign for hours, knowing there’s a tool to do what I want to do, but having no clue what the technique was called, so I couldn’t even Google it.) But I’ve read a lot in the last year, and worked with amazing colleagues that pointed me in the right direction. Now I’ve developed a better, more nuanced vocabulary, and I’m starting to get better at teaching visual design as a result. Also, my own skills are improving, after long disuse.

My second difficulty is that I don’t have time to teach them more than the bare basics, and I have students who have come in with radically different backgrounds in visual design. Some of my students have their own versions of the experiences I did—some of them have created hand-coded websites just like I did, some worked on yearbook in high school, and some of them are bonafide artists. One of my students made me an amazing miniature of Michaelangelo’s image of the fall of Adam and Eve from Sistene Chapel as part of her Paradise Lost remix project last semester:

But other students don’t have any real experience creating visually appealing work. They often don’t think of themselves as artistic and creative, and while they know what looks good when they see it—at least some of the time—they don’t know how to manage color, contrast, balance, or movement.

As a result, when I teach visual design, I tend to focus on the most basic principles. A few colleagues introduced me to Robin Williams’ book The Non-Designer’s Design Book, which gives four principles that are a great place to start: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity. I’m not going to go over what those are here (there’s a great summary in this LifeHacker article), but suffice to say they are some of the most important features of design, especially for students who don’t have a lot of experience or talent with design, because they are all things any student can do. And, even better, together they make a great acronym that helps students remember the principles: CRAP. (As I tell my students: don’t MAKE crap, use C.R.A.P!)

CRAP principles work particularly well when paired with writing. In fact, they’re very useful in simple document design, such as writing reports. But I usually introduce students to the concepts when we are doing a slightly more ambitious project, such as creating a poster or infographic. I like teaching posters and infographics because the visual design requires students to have very tightly structured arguments in order to actually enact the CRAP principles. I already have students create logical outlines when they write papers. I make them do the same for posters, but with an added step. Once they create a logical outline—which, by design, is linear—they have to create a series of visual outlines that transform those logical relationships into several different visual layouts. They have to think about the multiple ways that information is linked. This is crucial, because proximity and alignment (and, to a lesser extent, contrast and repetition) only work when you know which ideas belong together, and can organize them in 2D, and sometimes 3D, space. In this way, teaching writing and teaching design can go hand in hand. Visual organization and hierarchies become visible as the equivalent of verbal transitions, and seeing how disorganized information becomes without those cues helps them take back the importance of transitions to their next project.

Student Poster on Milton and 17th Century Science

Student Poster on Milton and 17th Century Science

Additionally, in the course of creating the visual design, students literally begin to see connections between pieces of information that they didn’t see when they were just writing them down in a traditional, linear format. For example, last semester, I asked students to create a poster or infographic that made an argument about Milton’s Paradise Lost in relationship to its historical context. I gave them a list of broad potential topics (English Civil Wars, The Restoration, Milton and Religion, Milton and Science, Gender in Paradise Lost, etc.), and then asked them to narrow a topic down into a research question of their own choice. They conducted research, wrote an annotated bibliography, and then transformed their research into a visually organized argument. One poster I got was from a student who worked on Milton’s relationship to ideas about science in the early modern period. His poster, in its initial draft, read almost exactly like a paper. However, he included three images, one from each of the three primary sources he was working on (Thomas Willis’Cerebri Anatome, William Harvey’s De Motu Cordis, and Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium). In being forced to include images, and putting these images side by side, he realized that the images each proposed a slightly different view of the relationship between science and God. He was then able to rewrite and restructure the poster around those three images.

Teaching the poster and infographic in a writing and communication class that is also a literature class really proved valuable. The poster takes a lot more work on the students’ part, and a lot more work in terms of teaching than the traditional paper. But that work is not just in learning the technologies of creating posters, or figuring out how to get the boxes to all line up the right way. Rather, it’s the work we want our students to be doing all the time: thinking about arguments, about connections between texts and ideas, thinking about audiences and how they’re going to process the information the author gives them.

Long time, no see

Well, it’s been a lot longer since I posted than I meant it to be. The biggest reason for this was that not only was I teaching two courses, I also started a new job as the Assessment Coordinator for the Writing and Communication Program. That was (and will probably continue to be) a lot of work. But now that the semester is over, I’m hoping to have a bit more time for blogging, using that to kickstart both some research and teaching projects (and maybe reflect on what I got out of the assessment process a bit too).

But first, I’m going to Kalamazoo for the International Congress on Medieval Studies. Next week, I’ll be presenting my paper “Rewriting Richard III: Shakespeare in the Vorkosigan Saga,” which is part of a forthcoming article (“‘This is Not the Play’: Shakespeare and Space Opera in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga”) that will be in the collection Shakespearean Echoes, edited by Adam Weston and Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr., which should be coming out in late 2014 or early 2015 from Palgrave Macmillan. I’m pretty excited to be sharing this work; I fell in love with Bujold’s novels a few years ago, and when I was teaching Shakespeare adaptations, it was a big part of how I was making my research and teaching work together. 

But Kalamazoo is always about more than just the presentation (though I’m pretty excited about that). It’s about seeing old friends–my very first year at Kalamazoo, I got to see my old advisor from undergrad. While he doesn’t attend much anymore, this year I’m going to be seeing one of my favorite people from undergrad, who I haven’t seen in a decade. She has a husband and a baby (I haven’t met either), and she’s doing her PhD at Notre Dame. I’m sure I’ll see a lot of UConn people (if you’re reading this, write a comment or send me an e-mail if you want to catch up!) and maybe even participate in a blogger meet-up if there is one like there was a few years ago.

And then there are the panels. One of the best things about being a Renaissance scholar at Kalamazoo is that it’s almost like there’s a mini-conference for us within the larger conference. There’s a day of Shakespeare events, a day (well, a bit more than a day) of Spenser events, and a day of Sidney events. And the scholars who tend to be involved in the Renaissance sessions are, if the last time I was there was any indication, brilliant, generous, and kind. 

So, that’s the next week or so for me. When I get back, I’ve got my assessment report to finish up, and then I hope to be back to blogging. If I don’t, feel free to pester me.