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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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Book Review

Copyright Clarity: How fair use supports digital learning by Renee Hobbs

Hobbs overview of copyright law, specifically as it pertains to education (primarily K-12 but also very applicable to higher ed), is incredibly helpful to understanding what instructors and students can do with digital media. Her inclusion of examples, examples that included the ‘can we digitally publish this’ were so helpful to all grade levels, with various levels of technology access.

This book can be a quick read. I’ve previously read Hobbs’ Digital and Media Literacy text so some of the text was carry-over from media literacy ideas, but there is a need to read both texts as the focus on copyright raises important questions to help students understand their freedom in copyright (hint: it’s not everything, but it’s pretty darn close). The quick read comes from the overlap in chapters 1 and 2 – these were fairly repetitive with so much “we’ll deal with this specifically in chapter 3 (or 4 depending on the concept)” that I breezed through the chapters in 30 minutes. Similarly, I spent little time with chapter 5 as it deals specifically with film. I use videogames more frequently in my work, and the required play of videogames shifts this conversation significantly so I didn’t find helpfulness. However, this is a really helpful chapter for other scholars and teachers.

The focus in this book is on the idea of transformativeness, attention to the creative process and how the original was was used, repurposed and reused as it relates to Fair Use. What I found most important from this are the questions that educators should be asking about their use of media – AND teaching to their students.

Hobbs wants educators to consider (paraphrased from page 48):

  1. Did their use (their = student/educator) ‘transform’ the work for a different purpose – or did it copy the original intent and value?
  2. Was the amount of the original material used appropriate given the copyrighted work and original use?

The goal with these questions is to highlight the necessary ambiguity in copyright law to allow intellectual sharing and protection – while also highlighting the important work education and assignments (therefore students) can and should do with cultural material.

There are several things happening here of incredible importance. The first, and Hobbs notes this in chapter 1, educators need to engage students with cultural materials. Students engage with culture everyday, mostly unconsciously, we are in an excellent position to help them consider the ways they engage culture, the ways the create (and can create) culture, the ways they need to be critical of their own cultural engagement.

Second, for this to work students need to think critically. I had a class in the Spring that struggled with critical engagement. They wanted the right answer – in a composition course. Then tried to write 5 paragraph essays for their final research essays. None of my examples resonated with this group – they continued to culturally turn off. I have ideas for using Twitter more effectively in future semesters to ask students to bring the culture for critical engagement. My only criticism for Hobbs would be – every example included shows things going so well. What happens when we have the off-teaching day where the critical engagement for the entire class isn’t there. For higher education educators one day can be such a huge portion of the curriculum. (The Digital and Social Media text had a few examples of things not working and on the fly decisions that went well – but sometimes even those on the fly don’t work, what then???? How do we reengage? a timeless pedagogy question I know!)

Finally, students have a lot freedom to use existing media (as long as they critically consider the use). We need to empower them to understand this! I love this concept – I will rely on this concept in future semester. But, I worry about the transfer of these skills. Do I think students who get it can successfully navigate these questions and consider Fair Use – absolutely. But from a book littered with examples of teachers setting strict boundaries on use due to their misunderstanding of Copyright law – what happens when I send my student out into the world and their Physics teacher considers their Fair Use of a Schrodinger Cat meme plagiarism? I understand this example is borrowing trouble (use of colloquial saying intentional) – but as I transition my composition syllabi to a more obvious Teaching for Transfer model, I’m stating the underlying goal as the transfer of understanding of writing (and digital media) practices. I want students to actively and consciously transfer good writing practices developed in my class. But what happens when good digital media practices are considered plagiarism?

Overall, I found much to enjoy with this text. As I began this review my intent was to focus on transformativeness. I see so much possibility for this in the composition classroom. But, as I began writing about this idea I also have so many questions. I look forward to exploring this further as I put together my composition syllabi for Fall semester.

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Book Review

Hobbs, R. (2011). Digital and Media Literacy: Connecting Culture and Classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

One of the biggest struggles, as a reader of texts on digital and media literacy in classrooms, is finding a book that balances theory and practical classroom application of the theories. In an effort to avoid being prescriptive I’ve read too many texts that provided only theories and discussions of existing studies with no classroom application. I’ve read others with too little focus on the theory that influenced and supported the lesson plans. Unlike others works, Hobbs finds a great balance of theory and example lesson plans.

Underlying Hobbs discussion is the need to help students develop working theories of media and digital social tools, to strengthen their practices with these tools, and to develop their critical approaches to these spaces.  This focus matches my goals when using and discussing digital media tools.  Students need to learn to use the tools and avoid letting the tools use them – critical approaches to what students know and what they experience is so important for meaningful student engagement with the tools used.

In my advanced composition I require students to follow a social media user of their choice. The only recommendation I have for selecting a user and space is for students to not picking something too close to their heart – it can be difficult to analyze and critique your own fandoms. As I was finishing this book I received an email from a composition student thanking me for requiring students to critically engage with social media. Despite early skepticism with using social media – she appreciated the assignment and the chance to critically engage with a social media of her choice.

For this assignment at least, approaching social media to help students develop critical practices was a success. Developing assignments with Hobbs goal of developing more critically engaged students is possible! YAY!

While I’m updating my syllabi for my Summer and Fall classes I’m continuing to consider additional ways to develop more critical literacies practices. While we, as a class, brought in real-world examples early in the semester, we didn’t continue with this practice. I want to continue to support this practice in students and am consider ways of modifying my Twitter assignment to encourage (require) students to critically engage with news media in addition to the social media assignment. Both support critical reading and writing – the major goals of composition courses – and will allow for both academic and public genre writing.

Reading Hobbs book emphasized the importance of critical engagement with news media. While her book barely touches on videogames – my favorite media form – I really appreciated the mix of theory and practical application of digital and social media to support literacies development.

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Creativity in the Classroom

I often call my approach to “Game Days” or “Quest Days” gameful, sometimes gamification, sometimes game-like learning, occasionally problem based. At best, my pedagogy is a student-centered, and creatively gameful. So we’ll go with at best.

As I wrote the Game Day quests (my Videogames and Literacies course) and Quest Day quests (my Rhetoric Capstone) I revisited Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor by Lynda Barry for inspiration on inspiring creativity. That’s right, inspiration on inspiring creativity. What games do well is design systems with rewards, motivations, and choice that allow players (users/learners) to experience learning. Once players have enjoyed learning, they’ll enter levels where creativity matters. For example games in the Little Big Planet franchise and similar games allow a player to collect items that will aid a player in designing their own level – once the player has reached an appropriate level within the game as decided by the game designers. In games like Plants vs. Zombies 2 the player has access to a LIMITED number of plants to begin with, then as the player progresses they open plants. The game then emphasizes choice as each level allows a limited number of plant slots (let’s say 5) while the player probably has a large arsenal (6-50 for instance). In all these cases, the game helps the player level up, limiting many of their choices until they’ve reached a more advanced level in the game – with game elements and desire to make more choices helping to motivate the player.

Education and an individual course are not designed in this manner. Course-to-course learning is absolutely scaffolded, which in many ways game learning mirrors. But the restriction of choice is not very present as a motivational tool. So as I read through Barry’s Syllabus I was exploring ideas of inspiring inspiration as a way to academically mimic the choice scaffolding and motivation of games to design my gameful course day assignments. What this reminded me is that I may use game-based language with quest, levels, varying points, and bonus points – but what i’m adding back to the classroom in these early quests is inspiration to be creative and free-space to create choice. These are the new elements to my gameful assignments students struggle the most with as they are the most new element.

In Syllabus Barry experiments (across several semesters) with ways to activate showing thinking, from drawing circles, to drawing on notecards, to writing and drawing everything in composition notebooks for an entire semester. She explores, with her students, what ideas look like in physical form, what processes and thinking look like in physical form in composition notebooks.

So for these first two gameful days I’ve asked students to simply create. And I have a feeling tomorrow, when they’re asked in class to create this will be the panic moment. I don’t have the practice space that games do in this learning situation, I need my students to move to choice must faster than a game would allow. What I’m struggling with today, is this classroom gameful? At the college level, does this need to be the steep cliff for students to experience creatively learning? Is this inspiring inspiration?

One of my online grad students said it best – I’ve come to expect the unexpected in Dr P’s classes. I find that inspiring, so hopefully it inspires inspiration in my students tomorrow!

Barry, Lynda. Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2014. Print.

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