Celebrating my Students’ Blogs

My first year Creative non-fiction students are asked to write blogs. Part of the purpose of using blogs rather than a more conventional “journal” or just individual homework assignments is that the blog is public. They can read and comment on one another’s work. They can see the best, and I find that they work hard to outdo one another and themselves. Their work is, in a word, awesome. I am so proud.

With their permission, I’d like to open a window on my class blogs. They blog anonymously, linked to a list in our password-protected class site – we all know who the authors are, but you won’t.

The first assignment was to write about the nature of “truth” (what is “creative” about creative non-fiction?) Here is one response

Then we started working on description, and their task was to write about a place they knew well and visited frequently. Lots of varying responses to that one; I loved this one about Island View Beach and this one that turned into a ghost story.

Another week we did interviews, then I suggested that they might like to try writing about themselves in the third person. They had a lot of fun with that

Then, they were asked to write about someone they’re close to, if possible with a photograph.

Maybe the most difficult task so far was the “braided essay” – focussing on structure and weaving together several different types of writing. These were based on a class where everyone brought “treasures” and there were many possibilities for how the students tied them together. Here’s one I loved
And another one.

I hate to limit this post to only a few entries – there were so many others I could have chosen, and there is so much talent in my class. But this will give you a taste of the exciting work that my students are doing.

Advice for Novelists

I was talking to one of my students yesterday about the process of writing a novel, suggesting that if she thought she had a novel in her she should a) just get on with it and b) probably do some research to help her fill in important textural details.

As internet felicity would have it, my blog-roll turned up two gems this morning, backing me up on those very points. Maggie Steifvater, author of several excellent young adult supernatural fantasy novels, tells how she wrote Linger two hours a week on Wednesdays, because she had to make a living the rest of the time. But she also talks about drafting and filling in the details later and all kinds of good things.

And can you imagine taking a master-class with Terry Pratchett? He talks about the importance of research and of just letting your imagination take you places and how collaborating with Neil Gaiman was so easy because neither of them had egos.

November is Writing Month

I’m participating in National Blog Posting Month. I may do my daily postings on my “other” blog, the one I don’t make public to everyone, because it’s easier to write personal stuff every day! However, if my students in Creative Non Fiction take up the challenge, I shall post in here as well.

If you are going whole hog and participating in NaNoWriMo you might like to try the great word processing program for writers, Scrivener. They have an offer especially for participants where you can use the latest version for free for the whole month of November and get a hefty discount if you succeed in the 50,000 words. Everyone can get 20% off by using a special discount nanowrimo code.

Good luck to all marathon writers of whatever persuasion. Lots of writing must be a good thing!

Sunday Rant – A Plea for the New Media

Are there any Math teachers out there who still refuse to use a calculator? Who still use a slide-rule and memorize times-tables?

To me, that’s the same as the way many of my colleagues, not just in my department, but everywhere, seem to be in a state of denial about the importance of new developments in web technology to what and how we teach.

I admit that I was an early adopter; I jumped all over the web when it was all server-based and clunky and before YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and Wikipedia. And I can understand that anyone whose first contact with all this was back then when it was server-based and clunky might have been put off wanting to try it again. But still.

One of the most valuable benefits of all the new Web 2.0 social software sites has been the ability to develop world-wide networks sharing information, pedagogies, material. Well, at least, for some. In vain, I’ve been searching for my “PLN” – my personal learning network. Oh, there are academics and professionals out there. Historians appear to be all over the web – medievalists for gosh sakes! Librarians are all over it. K-12 people are all over it. Writers – mostly working writers rather than writing teachers – are all over it. ESL teachers are all over it. So my Twitter feed is full of historians, librarians, K-12 and ESL teachers, and some writers and ed-tech people (though many of them tend to focus rather too much on the technology and not on the content). But where are the college or university level writing teachers? The literature profs?

A large part of it, I think, is workload. Many of us are just so busy that the thought of learning something quite new is daunting.

But – pssst – guys! This stuff is EASY. If you can use Microsoft Word, which you all can, you can do this.

But another large part of it, I think, and here I may be in danger of stepping on some people’s toes, so forgive me in advance, is … elitism. Snobbery.

There’s this perception that it’s all brainless and shallow and produced by and for the unwashed “masses” and is therefore beneath the notice of those of us who read the Globe and Mail (paper edition) and read only Booker prize nominated novels. It’s all about dumbing down and reduction and therefore should be resisted with all our intellectual strength. Oh, yeah, our kids are all on Facebook and into that Twitter thing and writing fanfiction, but there’s no need for us to dirty our hands with it…

But you know what? There’s some brilliant stuff out there! Denying that it’s there is like refusing to watch any television because much of it is stupid. Don’t dismiss as silly the “Twitterization” of literature – think about its potential for our teaching! The new media is not about the death of literacy and critical thinking, it’s about the growth of universal literacy. It’s about the ability to collaborate and share and create and publish at a rate unimaginable even ten years ago. It’s about recognizing that the ways we read and write and publish are changing and are going to change even more – and it’s going to happen probably within our professional lifetimes. We are going to have to rethink our ideas about copyright and – yes – plagiarism and originality. Students are going to need the critical skills to help them wade through the information overload, to help them sort out good from bad. And, just as the birth of the calculator meant that students no longer had to waste their time doing the “grunt” work of mathematics, so, potentially, does the new media technology mean that students can concentrate on higher thinking skills: synthesis, critical analysis.

But only if we teach them how. And we need to know the tools ourselves before we can teach our students.

ETA: look what appeared in my Twitter feed, quite by chance, just after I posted this:

Thinking About Audience

One of the reasons I make my students keep blogs is that it forces them to consider an audience. If they write a journal on paper or in a Word file, they know that I am the only person who is going to read it; write that same document in a blog, and they know their peers will see it too, and conceivably anyone who stumbles over their work. Heck, Neil Gaiman or Stephen Fry might find their blog, who knows! For most of them, this tends to change their work, to “up” the quality – isn’t it interesting that they’ll write better for an audience of their peers than for me 😉

So I shouldn’t be surprised that in this blogging challenge I find myself thinking about audience more than usual. I’m publicizing the challenge; I could be attracting a new readership to this blog, including my own professional peers and other members of the college or wider teaching community. And even though I’ve always had an audience at the back of my mind, as you have to when writing a public blog, all of a sudden that audience has become more immediate and real. Has it changed my writing? You bet! I find myself much more conscious of spelling and grammar – heaven forbid that someone catch me out in an error. I’m taking care to preview my work, and am being more scrupulous about my writing. Because I’ve linked my Twitter feed to the entry publicizing the challenge, I find I’m censoring my tweets just a bit more than usual, and limiting the personal content a bit: writing less about what I had for breakfast and more about what I’m reading while eating it.

I’ve been blogging for six years, and blogging really seriously for four. I maintain two regular blogs: this one, and a “personal” blog on LiveJournal. Although my LJ blog is theoretically public, I’m reluctant to attract a readership beyond the chosen circle of “friends” there, and will never link to it from a more public blog. I’m realizing that in the blogging world, as in “RL” – real life – I monitor the information I divulge depending on the level of friendship. I have very close friends, close friends, acquaintances, and random meetings online, just as I do in the “real” world. What it can be difficult to remember sometimes, though, is that conversations at the level of “to a very close friend” can be seen and responded to by those I’d put in the “random” category. Is that going to stop me from revealing myself in my personal blog, or on Twitter? No, but I may be more careful. You never know when Neil Gaiman might stop by.

Happy New Year!

If you are a teacher or a student, you may feel, as I do, that the “real” New Year, time of fresh starts and hopeful beginnings, is in September, not January. As we embark on this year, here’s wishing for good luck and great success for all, whether you are a brand new student, a seasoned grad student, someone embarking in a career of teaching English, or an experienced teacher trying new things.

I hope this blog will be a resource you can turn to. My “new year’s resolution” this year is to post at least once a week, and to try to provide interesting links and announcements that will be of interest to my students and colleagues, and to all who share an interest in English.

To start out with, I’d like to draw your attention to the “Links” pages in the menu bar of this blog – these contain sites on a number of topics that I have found over the years. Other blogs and key sites of interest can also be found in the sidebars here. And note my Delicious feed – this is updated as I find new things.

For my 150 students, one of the most useful sites for English composition overall is The Guide to Grammar and Writing.

For 152 (creative non-fiction), which I am teaching this year for the first time, have a look at
Creative Nonfiction, an online journal and information hub for the genre.

And of general interest – many of us are eagerly (but somewhat fearfully) awaiting the new movie version of Where The Wild Things Are. From the New York Times, here’s an article on the making of the movie. You may need to sign up to read it, but it’s free.

Of Romance, Ferrets and Plagiarism

Apparently the Romance readers and writers blogs were abuzz some time ago with news that one of the hottest writers in their genre had been caught with her pants down (so-to-speak) having stolen word-for-word material from a non-fiction article about ferrets. Ferrets? You may well ask. The author of the ferret article has written most amusingly about the scandal.

What amazes me, reading the passages in which the plagiarism appears, is not only how completely shameless the copying is, but how appallingly clunky and completely unnecessary the dialogue is in the context of the passage. It’s not just “info-dump” of the worst kind, it’s “dude! wtf??” You have your characters enjoying a post-coital cuddle in the teepee, spot a ferret, and feel an irresistable impulse to launch into a lecture more appropriate for the Discovery Channel? And it’s the classic error that often catches students – have a section in your work that is so completely incongruous that someone is bound to wonder if it comes from somewhere else! What was the author thinking? Did she have a word-count to make up, perhaps? And thought – hey, ferrets are sexy little beasts; let’s introduce some nature-study to go with all the heaving bosoms and burning loins.