Opening the shutters

This blog has been a little quiet, for reasons explained over at Music for Deckchairs, but at the beginning of the Australian summer 2014/2015 I have been given the opportunity to engage with a group of writers who are also degree-enrolled students at the university where I work, and so I’ve opened the shutters to create a space for some of the reflections that go with this.

This means messing about with embedded images, so apologies if this doesn’t come through cleanly as I remember how it’s all done. But the image that came to me strongly is of opening up a house that’s been closed.

My teenage daughter is a keen rewatcher of Love, Actually. I know this is a movie that drives some people to incoherent irritation, but she’s a fan. And so several times I’ve watched Colin Firth throw open the shutters on the cottage in France where he goes to write on his battered typewriter.

It’s such a fantasy of writing, especially in the digital world in which we have not protected well the boundaries between reflective writing, bureaucratic and transactional writing, and social writing. It’s the fantasy encoded into my favourite font, American Typewriter.

Did you know that if you listen very quietly to a paragraph of American Typewriter you can hear the sound of someone typing on a real typewriter?

Just kidding.

I suspect this image isn't CC anything.

I suspect this image isn’t CC anything.

So anyhow, now the shutters are open on this blog for the summer, and from time to time there will be some reflective thoughts about working with these students, who will also be reading this.

It’s nice to be back.



Toxic conversations

Steve Wheeler, who maintains a very busy and highly regarded blog on elearning, has written a useful post this weekend on the evolution of his motivation for blogging.

He began his blog as a way to organise his own thoughts, and to keep track of his ideas. He learned that by storing and reflecting on his ideas online, he was able to organise them and link to other thoughts more effectively than if he’d been using a paper diary. “In essence,” he writes. “blogging crystallised my thinking, and extended the scope of my knowledge.”

The second thing he discovered about writing online rather than in either a formal publication or a paper diary is that your thoughts are immediately out there for other people to read and engage with. The pace of formal publication is glacial compared to blogging and a private diary is, well, private. So from the moment you start writing in public on your own blog rather than a site owned by someone else, and you make it possible for people to comment on your posts, then you open yourself up to what Steve Wheeler calls a conversation around your ideas.

I was thinking about all this as I was reading Helen Razer’s furious post on quitting blogging for precisely the same reason. Helen Razer is a well-known writer-in-public, who doesn’t exactly hold back herself, as the link below shows. This week in an op-ed piece she weighed into a situation that’s preoccupying Australia, about the nature of the attacks on probably-departing right-wing Australian MP Sophie Mirabella. On her blog, she explains what happened next:

Man, I got bollocked. Even more than usual. When former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser singled my article out for derision and several of my colleagues posted this information on social media with no little amusement, I just thought WHAT THE ACTUAL HELL. This writing gig is crap. … I have written capably to a large audience for some time for next-to-nothing. I made a contribution that was not without merit. And one to which you are no longer entitled. Because you give me shit and pay me shit.

All I am really saying is that conditions for the professional writer have become untenable. And I quit because the money is terrible and the snark is worse.

I don’t think this is a uniquely Australian problem.  Excellent US tech writer Audrey Watters (who has disabled comments on her blog for similar reasons) would certainly say that women who write in public, in particular, attract personal attacks that go well beyond engaging with ideas, right up to the level of death threats.

It’s something we all need to take seriously, especially when encouraging new writers to try something. When the online public conversation is a toxic swamp, is it still worth making a contribution? Why?

Speaking of new writers in public seeking to make a difference to their own lives, here is my friend, fellow gardener and colleague Chris who has just moved from being a very successful academic writer into blogging about his personal search for simplicity. I love this: it’s not all trolls and snark out there.


Doing up the buttons

Students who have to write online for assessment face a real conflict, it seems to me, in terms of finding the value in their own voice.  Advocates for “voice” can also build the slightly false hope that once you’ve found it, you’re set for life, like a stand-up comic with shtick. But so many people this week mourning the death of Seamus Heaney have written about the importance to them of the sound of his voice.  I was really moved by Catherine Cronin: “I hear Seamus’s voice in my head and my heart when I look at this photograph.”

Online writers don’t have sound, so they have something else: the shapes they make with words themselves, silently. But I think those who have heard Seamus Heaney and still hear in their hearts are saying something the same: part of the craft of reading is that we come to recognise the writing voice of one person as different to another, even without hearing them with our ears.

Elan Morgan has been keeping a blog for ten years, and in a lovely post this week reflecting on that history (and a few other things), she has this to say about coming to terms with voice as a bodily gesture, that changes and ages just as you do :

I was not always comfortable with my voice, style, and point of view, and I’m not always comfortable with them now, because life is change, and I’m always changing. When I started blogging, I don’t think I had much of a voice or style. Anything I did was accidental at best, and I had no real sense of what I sounded like.

The more you write, though, the more you start to cultivate voice and style, and the more you are able to hear yourself come through. Your voice will become as another limb, one that you employ as naturally as you do your fingers when you do up a button.

The point for all of us to write online is that none of us do up buttons in the same way that we did as children, or even in the same way we did five years ago. We don’t even do up buttons in the same way as people around us. Just watch.

The shifting nature of our own skill is measured in the tiniest of increments, as the buttons require less conscious attention. But we’re still using hands we recognise as our own, and by repeating this simple gesture over and over and over without thinking, we keep extending our capacity to do something very delicate, unselfconsciously.


This is me with my aunt, and her beautiful hands.

The way to think this through is to look at the hands and fingers of children around you, and then look at the oldest living hand you can see. At the end of her life, my aunt no longer clearly knew that the hands that tugged at her sheets were her own; they became strangers to her. This happens.

So, hand and voice, we do need to use them for craft and expression while we can, in ways that are authentic to us.

The highlight of my week was reading from a new student writer that the blogging process was turning out to be enjoyable because it introduced him to others with different points of view.  And then I realised that this is the exact opposite of writing to a grading rubric.

I think we need to talk more about how every reader reacts differently in their heart to the voice of another human struggling for expression. Grading can’t turn this into an exact science, it just can’t.

Writing for the real world

Yesterday I was asked about the tone and rules of blogging for assessment, and I was really interested that this was “as opposed to blogging in the real world”.

This is a problem we’ve made for ourselves, but it’s not triggered by blogging itself. There’s an expanding inventory of post-conventional assessment activities that pride themselves on “real world” applicability, and yet we insist on applying the one tool you don’t find in the real world—grades—in response.  In fact, there’s a pretty strong case that the gap between the real world and the university world is forced by grading as a practice. Grades tether higher education to K-12, and make it really hard to convince students that university work is aligned to professional practices.

The thing is that in most professional settings, someone who doesn’t like your last piece of writing is at best going to give you feedback and support to have another go; and at worst is simply going to overlook you next time. Sometimes people who love your work will say nothing at all until you express self-doubt. You’ll struggle for an afternoon over a two-page paper and it will come back from the executive office cut to a paragraph. Some days you’ll write with a skater’s elegance, and everyone will overlook the writing but adopt the idea that you proposed. You’ll submit things for publication that get rejected, and other things that aren’t so good that get published. And so on.

Grading is a really poor preparation for all this.

But here we are, and understandably students want to know which side of our mouths we speak from when we say “authentic”.  If they write in the accessible tone of blogs they like and follow, will we then grade them according to the conventions that  are responsible for so much awful academic writing?

I think we can push ourselves a bit harder here, to accept that students writing on public platforms like WordPress are already in the real world. If we have to grade this, we should try to draft statements of competency and achievement on the basis of what we know about real world writing, not on some effort to force equivalence to term papers, exams, or university essays.

But what I really wanted to mention was this lovely post by Pat Thomson, on writing “I” as an academic.

Pat writes an excellent blog for academic writers. Her post is on one of the most tired assumptions in academic writing, that if you write “I” in a paper, the floor will open up beneath you and you will be hurled into a pit of crocodiles. The result is contorted writing, and no sense of who thinks what. I love this post because it’s practical, and focused on writing in public.

Making the grades [Dave Cormier version]

Here’s another practical approach to the dilemma of assessment, from Dave Cormier’s excellent blog:

I think I would say, rather, encourage the writing of self-assessment strategies by the students. I’m thinking that this should be included in the syllabus as a structuring piece around student reflection… both reflections in the blog and reflection in their own learning plan.

Teaching students how to make good questions for themselves, to ask them in ways that are going to lead to effective searching and learning, is something that should be overtly done. Taking time to specifically say that people are allowed to look at their own knowing, plan their own path to catch up, and that this will allow them to participate more fully in the community.

I love this. I’m not sure “teaching students how to make good questions” is how I would put it, but I like that this approach treats asking questions as a craft skill, like teaching people how to make good shelves.

So the question is: what is the craft of evaluation? If it can be learned, and I think it can, does that mean it has to be taught? Or is it like the skill of self-evaluation that all writers learn through writing?  I read a comment today from a student writer who was dismayed by pieces she’d written earlier in her blog, and I recognise this feeling. But it’s truly a sign that things are working as they should: the reason you can now see that it’s less than you want to achieve for yourself is that you’ve got better at judging writing since that time.

Judges at a cake show

“The Tyranny of the Judges”, Telegraph UK, 2009, photo credit ALAMY

The more I read, the more I think it’s possible to create a more open approach to grading with student writers, that doesn’t respond to the nuance, craft and trust that reflective writing represents by holding up a number, as though we’re judging a cake show.

writing like those I admire [Pat Thomson]

I really love this post from Pat Thomson from a few months ago, partly because she cares for two books I love: Camera Lucida (Barthes) and The Practice of Everyday Life (de Certeau). But the key point is that the best way to become a better writer is to read with a sense of the craft, not just the content, of the sentences someone’s put together.


That half conscious state between sleeping and waking seems to be the time that I begin to compose a blog post. I often wake up relatively early with a half formed idea. I then work on it idly, gradually waking up, before finally getting up and getting it down.

This post began in exactly this way, with a five am wondering about what my favorite academic books would say about – and to – me. As I started to go through the books I’d put on a very, very short list I realized – and it was one of those kind of Homer Simpson d’oh moments – that the books I most valued were ones which were the kind of work I’d love to do.

So I want to suggest here that it could be helpful to think, more often than I have been doing, not simply about the research…

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Making the grades [Howard Rheingold version]

Howard Rheingold’s social media classroom at Stanford includes an example of the negotiated approach to grading that really interests me. Among other useful, practical advice in his wiki on expectations in relation to assessment, is this:

In order to learn valuable skills that will become necessary in your future lives (and which are not sharpened through traditional grading practices), each student is asked to agree to a contract for a specific grade (contract grading), to participate in helping co-learners evaluate and improve their learning (peer assessment), and to engage in regular reflection on what he or she has learned (self-assessment).

Contract grading, as Rheingold points out, isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s for those who can plan ahead with some confidence that the goals they set for themselves have been correctly aligned to their personal resources and skills. Essentially, contract grading treats the grade not as feedback delivered by an expert diagnostician, but as a deliverable that can be achieved with good management. Agreeing to achieve an A grade isn’t the same as intending to aim for an A grade. The contract sets out what actions and standards secure an A grade, and peer review then confirms (with some modest plus or minus leeway) whether that task was completed. There’s a penalty system, of course, and some waiver instruments to enable students to negotiate misadventure.

It’s really worth reading this part of the course wiki at length if you’re interested in alternatives to “traditional grading practices”.

But I have some questions. First of all, I’m interested to know more about what role students themselves play in developing the framework for considering their learning to have been successful. Advocates for meaning-centred learning argue—effectively, I think—that humans learn best when what they’re learning aligns well to their own sense of purpose at that time. There’s a bit of jargon, but in essence their point is that meaning-centred learning is:

a learning theory that holds that human learning is the self-motivating and self-regulating process of creating personal meaning in one’s life-world through reflective, critical, and inquiry-based activities that occur across all learning domains. Thus, according to MCL, the learner constructs personal meaning from his/her own experiences and their relationship to prior experiences within multiple life contexts in order to continually self-evolve as a mature personality who is capable of authoring his/her own life story (Kovbasyuk & Blessinger, 2013).

It seems to me that the challenge for both authentic and meaning-centred learning is to open up negotiation about grades so that the grades themselves are also able to be personalised. Institutions with whole divisions devoted to ensure that everyone’s measured by the same stick are notoriously weak at encouraging the capacity to identify, own and value your own judgment. And as a result one of the least well developed graduate skills is the capacity to judge your own achievements relative to context. But again, this is a skill that’s there to be learned. To be invited to set the terms on which you’re assessed is certainly something that lines up well with the future, even if it doesn’t produce an uninterrupted symphony of large-cohort assessment data for external reporting.

The second question I have relates to the role peer review plays here. Rheingold’s project openly addresses itself to “dedicated students who would earn top grades under any evaluation scheme”. It’s Stanford, let’s face it, and it’s based on a course taught at Duke U. So I have some questions about how to develop an environment in which negotiated goals that are also peer evaluated can be achieved among people who are in a wider range of personal circumstances. What levels of skill and trust need to exist within a community, that individuals will find common judgment to be just? How quickly can these be achieved?

These are really important questions for anyone who learns through writing in public. When you look at one piece of writing, and then another, and you can tell the difference, that’s the skill the grading delivers. I think we could share this.