Saturday, June 24, 2017

Post 06: The Complexity of Writing

I like to talk about complexity and writing. In short, I view writing as a complex activity, and that changes the way I teach it.

First, I should define what I mean by complexity. Everyone knows that complex is different from simple, but too many people confuse complexity and complicated. A complex process, for instance, has many intricate steps and usually requires great expertise to competently complete; whereas, a simple process has few steps and does not require great expertise. But complicated processes are also not simple, and many people confuse complicated and complex. They are not the same. For example, a jet fighter—say, an F-18—is complicated. It is composed of hundreds of thousands of parts assembled in intricate patterns to create a marvel that flies at 1,200 miles an hour and can out-fight most anything else in the sky, except the F-35. It takes great expertise to maintain and operate these machines. However, an F-18 is not complex because there are very few ways to configure it so that it will function as intended. There is basically one right way to put it together, and the military spends great energy and money making sure that its people know how to do it.

An essay, on the other hand, is complex. It, too, is composed of lots of parts (morphemes, words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, division, etc.) assembled in intricate patterns to create a marvel that helps people communicate with one another, but unlike an F-18, an essay can be put together successfully in many different ways. Moreover, changing any element in an essay (for instance, a different reader) changes the entire essay to meet a new demand. Unlike a complicated process or artifact, then, complex processes and artifacts have many more solutions and can restructure themselves to meet new demands. So complex things, such as humans and essays, are complex because they have more than one solution and arrangement (think of the millions of different looking people), and they can morph or evolve to meet new situations and demands.

This complexity makes essays—and people—more difficult to work with and master than an F-18. Lots of us don't like that. We want essays to be simple, or at least merely complicated. So we create little formulas such as the 5-paragraph essay to try to make writing a simple process that anyone can do in 30 minutes, which is about as long as we want to spend on any given writing assignment. This formula seldom leads to an essay that anyone other than your mother wants to read. Most 5-paragraph essays are insufferably boring and maudlin. Believe me—I've read thousands of them.

Good writing is complex: a complex process leading to a complex product. The best essays are always complex, and complexity is damned hard to teach and even harder to master. But it's the only writing worth writing or reading.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Post 05: Fear

The one social issue that I most want to see corrected is our loss of faith in the future.

Too many people around the world believe that society is collapsing and we are all going to hell in a hand basket. We are afraid to go outside our houses. Both as individuals and as a nation, we arm ourselves to the teeth and store up canned goods against the coming apocalypse. If the terrorists don't get us first, then global warming will. Each new government leader is the absolute worst ever for one-half our population, and we are sure our nation is doomed. All we can do is huddle behind our walls and hope/pray the bastards don't break through. This is an awful way to live.

I do not suggest that society doesn't have some real issues—we do—but they are not the end of the world, and if we will quit hunkering down and will get up to face our issues, then we can resolve them or work around them. We can.

Matt Ridley wrote a book called The Rational Optimist that looks at the data from 10,000 years of human history, and he says that by any measure you want to apply, we humans are better off now than at any other time in history. No doubt about it. There is no Golden Age in the past when things were better. We are the Golden Age, and tomorrow is likely to be better. His publisher's blurb summarizes his argument this way:
Over 10,000 years ago there were fewer than 10 million people on the planet. Today there are more than 6 billion, 99 per cent of whom are better fed, better sheltered, better entertained and better protected against disease than their Stone Age ancestors. The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going erratically upwards for 10,000 years and has rapidly accelerated over the last 200 years: calories; vitamins; clean water; machines; privacy; the means to travel faster than we can run, and the ability to communicate over longer distances than we can shout. 
Yet, bizarrely, however much things improve from the way they were before, people still cling to the belief that the future will be nothing but disastrous. In this original, optimistic book, Matt Ridley puts forward his surprisingly simple answer to how humans progress, arguing that we progress when we trade and we only really trade productively when we trust each other.
Where has our faith and trust gone? Just 100 years ago, you were far more likely to die a violent death either by attack or accident than today, but we seem more afraid today. Why? It is easy to blame the media who feed us daily with an endless parade of screaming heads telling us how bad things are. Whether you watch Fox or CNN, it's the same awful news with either Obama as the bad guy or Trump, the Muslims or the Russians or the North Koreans.

So what do we do? Well, you scholars are doing the best thing: you are preparing yourselves for the future. You are completing your degree as an act of faith that you will make life better—for yourselves, of course, but also for your families and communities. That's the best antidote to pessimism. Do something positive. Get a new degree. Prepare yourselves to face the future.

I have faith in you.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Post 04: Swarm Writing vs. Traditional Writing

My online friends and I have devised a new way of writing. It ain't your grandma's style of writing, but it is interesting. I call it swarm writing. Let me introduce you.

Back in 2015, my colleagues and I wrote an article called "Writing the Unreadable Untext" for Digital Pedagogy in which we described a group writing project that we stumbled into as we were trying to write an article about a massive open online course (MOOC) that we had all taken. My friend and teacher at The American University in Cairo Maha Bali and I started writing what became the Untext in October, 2014, and soon we had swarm of friends from all over the world writing with us:

  • Keith Hamon - Florida (at the time)
  • Maha Bali - Egypt
  • Rebecca Hogue - California, 
  • Kevin Hodgson - Massachusetts, 
  • Terry Elliot - Kentucky, 
  • Simon Ensor - France, 
  • Scott Johnson - Canada, 
  • Sandra Sinfield - England, 
  • Apostolos Koutropoulos - Massachusetts, and 
  • Sarah Honeychurch - Scotland
It was fun as you can see here. If you get through it, then you may question my competency to teach you anything about writing, especially formal, academic writing. Well, welcome to the rabbit hole, Alice.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Post 03: Writing as a Tool for Learning

I have written for as long as I can recall.

Of course, for the first forty years I wrote on paper: scraps, lined yellow pads, journals, blank typing paper. For the past 20 years, I have written mostly on computers. For the last 10 years, I've written on my blogs—first, a personal blog about my family, and then a professional blog. I'll talk mostly about the professional blog, now called Learning Complexity.

This is where I learn. I explore all my new ideas on this blog first, and then later, I work out the good ideas, the ones that stick, into scholarly articles and presentations. But I don't write anything professionally that isn't written first in my blog.

Now, lots of the stuff that I write in my blog is never published or presented professionally. It isn't good enough. I make lots of mistakes in my blog, but that's okay. My blog is where I'm working out my ideas. It's where I'm writing through lots of ideas to learn what I really think about some issue.

For the past few months, I've been writing about complexity in education. It's a tough line of thought for me, and I've written a few silly posts that I no longer accept. Still, I had to work through those silly ideas to get to the better ones.

Here's something you can learn from someone who has been writing for nearly 60 years: it's a lot easier to fix a silly or poor idea than to fix no idea. Write something down, even if it's silly. You can fix it later. I do.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Post 2: The Most Important Thing about Writing

Of course, writing classes have to cover lots of issues, but if I had to choose just one issue that every writing class should deal with, then I would choose conversation. I wish every writing student could see how writing is a conversation with ideas and people.

My 30-years of teaching writing in college have convinced me that too many students write poorly because they are simply filling up paper with 500 or 1,000 words, or however many words the assignment calls for. They are not really engaging with ideas and people. Consequently, they say nothing to nobody, which results in empty, vapid papers, which we teachers then have to read and grade. It's enough to drive a teacher to drink or suicide.

Now, this may sound like an attack on the students, but it isn't. I don't blame students—not completely. Students are quite willing to write, and they have great experience, especially today, with writing as conversation. All my current students write daily: in countless texts, Facebook posts, and tweets, and they write all that stuff because they instinctively like to engage in conversation. It's what humans do. All of us engage a few conversations intensely (say, fashion, sports, politics, religion, or romance) and many other conversations more casually. Today's students are already writing more than at any other time in history. According to a 2016 article on the website Text Request, "In June of 2014, 561 billion text messages were sent worldwide. That’s the most recent number we’ve got. Obviously that’s a rounded figure, but it brings us to roughly 18.7 billion texts sent every day around the world." That adds up to about 7 trillion text messages a year. That is a hell of a lot of writing about nearly everything you can imagine. This generation is producing more writing per year than in all of previous human history combined, and they are doing it because they want to. No doubt about it.

So why don't they like academic writing? I think it's mostly because they don't see academic writing as a conversation about engaging topics with interesting people. For most students, a class paper is just an assignment, empty blather to no one about something that doesn't matter. When they find themselves trapped in that kind of situation, they don't know how to get out of it. College writing courses should teach them strategies for turning any class writing assignment into an interesting, worthwhile conversation. In her presentation "Writing Is a Conversation," writing instructor Johannah Rodgers says that treating writing assignments as conversation has numerous benefits for students. First, it increases student's confidence in their writing, and then it makes the connections between the written conversations student already have in their social spaces with the academic conversations they engage in college. This can make for better writing and higher grades for students and better reading for teachers. That's a win-win.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Post 01: Introduction

I'm writing with you this term, so here's an introduction.

I've worked in education all of my professional life. I have a doctorate from the University of Miami in composition and rhetoric, and I expected to teach college English forever. However, life has a way of shifting. My first job in 1982 at a branch campus of the University of Houston shifted me into educational technology. I set up an academic support center and computerized it. This was back in the days before you could get a degree in computer science, so lots of different people were doing computers. I installed the computers in The Communication Center that I directed and networked them to the campus network. The World Wide Web did not exist then, so we used FTP and IRC to communicate with other users, but mostly, we used word processing to write papers. And yes, they were papers. We still printed everything to give to a teacher. As you may have noticed, I don't do that any more. We write documents, not papers.

I left the University of Houston for Mercer University to set up, computerize, and network another academic support center. Then I moved over to Wesleyan College here in Macon to become their Director of Information Technology. In 1995, I went to Monroe County (GA) Public Schools to build a county-wide network and put all their teachers, staff, and students on the Web. In short, I was full-time technology, which is why I use so much technology in all my classes now.

Though technology was my day job (I liked it and it paid more), I still really loved teaching English, so I always taught adjunct classes—mostly at Georgia College and State University. In 2011, I retired from the State of Georgia and took a full-time teaching job at a college in Florida. I didn't like the school much, so I won't mention its name, but I started looking for another position within six months, and in 2015,  Middle Georgia State University offered me a position teaching English. I took it, moved back into my Macon home, and here I am working with you.

That sums up my professional life, but I can give you a few personal facts: I'm married to a beautiful Bahamian woman, and we have two sons, both grown and gone. Six months ago, our youngest son gave us our first grandchild, a thoroughly lovable girl named Madeline, or Maddie, as most of the family is calling her. I am head-over-heels in love with her, and if you stand in one place too long, then I will bombard you with a thousand pictures. She's worth it.