Category Archives: book review

Critical Attention and Digital Tech

Selfe, C.L. (1999). Technology and Literacy: A story about the perils of not paying attention. College Composition and Communication, 50(3), 411-436.

I haven’t read Selfe’s call for critical attention, critical awareness of technology since grad school. I had forgotten how much I like this article. I want to talk about why I assigned it, and why so many of her suggestions continue to be necessary reminders.

First, I assigned this article in my Social Media grad class that meets tonight as an introduction to the field of Rhetoric and Composition, specifically digital writing and social media. Most of the students in our program study and teach literature – so before we jump into digital rhetoric and digital humanities texts I really want to discuss the foundational ideas about literacies and technologies that shape so many of our research questions and influence public discussions of technologies. I’ve read one too many “ban all phones because teens are depressed” articles recently that never ask – are teens more depressed now? Do these teens have an outlet for discussing their experiences, their depression? Do they have people to help them work through these ideas who destigmatize mental health, take them seriously, and work to help them feel comfortable and confident? In most cases, the depression (causation error – thank you rhetoric training) linked to facebook results in a call for banning phones and facebook. While I don’t want to extoll the virtues of facebook (or my favorite twitter), and I’m not just arguing for the need to include digital technologies, I really do believe that to address the issues teens face we need to critically question the values influencing the cause and effect issues in our logic.

What I love about Selfe’s call is her focus on literacies and values, and her lengthy discussions of how school curriculum, public funding, values, and politics all influence what is taught and where it is taught. The inclusion or not of technology is always political – and in either case unless students are using and critically examining, we’re doing a disservice to our students. I’ve also been reading Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole where she draws attention to ALL. THE. THINGS that influence composing and a composing situation (lights, food, water, desk height, chair comfort, etc.). I want to discuss what Shipka’s call for paying attention to everything surrounding composing adds to Selfe’s call for critical awareness. Both are so important!

Second, I’ve also assigned the article to my undergrads. I want them to grapple with how we ask questions about critical awareness of technology in relation to writing and why writing. So often, students complete composition courses simply because they are ‘required’. We know that affects their mindset about the course (in some positive and some negative ways). My goal is to raise awareness of all the places they compose, and all the choices they subconsciously make when they compose.

I saw a link floating around facebook – a composition course with the theme of Master of None. While theme’d courses are a whole discussion themselves, as I read Selfe’s article and considered Shipka’s call for attention to contexts of writing I thought about all the episodes, all the jokes Aziz Ansari devotes to the amount of time he spends composing a message. We all get it – we all spend tons of time making these hard decisions, but it’s rare that we stop and consider that we’re making hard writing decisions. We notice the language choices, we pay attention to the audience and audience reception, the device and so many other things. But why do we know to write in those ways? I hope Selfe can help my undergrads ask these questions. The goal is to raise awareness of how they are better writes because of my course so they can start from a better place (transfer) in all their other classes.

With all these ideas floating around, I’m excited for my students to read and discuss this article!

 

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Arguments Illustrated: A book review

An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi

At my previous institution I taught rhetorical theory courses at the undergraduate and graduate level. I’ve been missing out on teaching rhetorical theory – history of rhetoric – so when Amazon recommended An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments I bought it.

I read the book in two ways:

  • the first was as a teacher of rhetoric – especially missing my rhetorical theory texts and assignments
  • the second was as a teacher of composition – especially freshmen composition that focuses on the need to teach critical thinking

As  a teacher of rhetoric, I prefer to read theory texts. The more detailed discussion, the inclusion of history that influenced the development of argument theory (thanks Smith even though I always struggle with parts of your book) helps me as a learner understand the historical context that influenced argument understanding and contemporary usage. From this perspective, I didn’t love the book. I wanted more academic description.

As a teacher of composition, I love the straight forward descriptions, the naming of argument, and the comic/illustration. I think this can help students break down the subconscious choices humans make as they communicate – and the fallacies we subconsciously use – to help them gain entry to critical thinking for application to academic arguments. This is usually the most complex discussion in composition – we are really ‘good’ communicators, and normally employ cultural conventions we don’t recognize we know (or recognize we use). This book makes a list of the more popular argument fallacies in contemporary society to help readers gain entry to the convention – to recognize the convention (with some nod to the historical foundations – enough for a freshmen comp course!)

I also think the illustration can help students understand the issues with their argument presentation. The struggle here will be providing this as feedback to students: “Here is this totally awesome book (https://bookofbadarguments.com/), look at page 12 and 13 (Appeal to irrelevant authority) to better contextualize the secondary sources”. Will that help students actually navigate and understand how to better develop their appeal? This is a complex struggle with student understanding of logic and bias. Dr P may say something earth shattering about the color pink, but physicists have more expertise in color than compositionists, is her authority on the color pink credible?

I liked this book. I want to use this as part of my feedback to students in composition courses, but I also miss my rhetorical theory courses. As I begin my work developing Fall curriculum I’m exploring ways of using the comic approach provided in this book to help students access writing feedback in meaningful ways!

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Mindfulness in the Grad Classroom: A book review

The Mindfulness-Informed Educator: Building acceptance and psychological flexibility in Higher Education edited by Jennifer Block-Lerner and LeeAnn Cardaciotto

I just finished teaching a graduate course “The Teacher as Writer” in which we used ideas of mindfulness to support writing productively. I’ve been interested in this idea for a while, especially when freshmen enter the composition course convinced they are terrible writers, English is their worst subject. I want to know where those ideas originated – what they feel about writing that leads to these ideas. What I’ve (non-scientifically) discovered is this leads to epic amounts of writer’s block, papers written at the last minute, less transfer of composition learning to other situations. These (again non-scientific) findings are serious – students can gain so much from a freshmen composition course taught influenced by recent composition theory like Writing about Writing, Teaching for Transfer, Writing Across the Curriculum theories and all the amazing cross-over amongst these ideas.

After working through my own ideas of mindfulness, I chose this book to support ideas in a graduate level writing classroom. Can a whole group of educators (K-12 instructors and me) come to a strong place wit mindfulness? Since productively writing educators make better teachers, can mindfulness help us (educators) with our own writing to strengthen our teaching of writing?

The good news, according to all the great studies in this book – yes. Most surprising, even informal attention to mindfulness, attention to present moment awareness to reduce stress (to reduce test anxiety, writer’s block) can have significant positive results in students. Not just in studying and test performance, but in overall reductions in depression, anxiety, etc.

While this book mentions some techniques, it doesn’t offer well developed formal discussions of the techniques studied to produce these results. The focus here is to justify inclusion of mindfulness in higher education – so the focus on scientific studies makes tons of sense. As an educator looking for ideas to modify and support student writers – this book falls short.

If you’re looking for evidence that mindfulness training in higher education leads to significant positive results, this book is fantastic. The references to specific practices students liked, textbooks used in formal training (in university 101, or first year experience 101 seminars) are excellent. When I initially selected the book – I skimmed Part II (titled Mindfulness-and Acceptance-Based Approaches in the Training of Behavioral Health Professionals) and Part III (titled Application of Mindfulness- and Acceptance-Based Approaches in Higher Education: Special Populations and Contexts) understanding these sections to provide more detail on mindfulness in higher education – tips for implementing lessons in the classroom – lessons we could modify to suit our needs in our classrooms.

So I love that this book provided significant research findings on the benefit of these programs, I had just hoped it would have higher education ideas for implementing these programs.

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