Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘university’

How to Boil Water

I never took the freshman and sophomore comp courses at TCU; I tested out from AP testing (thank God). I got to skip out on the repetition of how to write an essay, how to analyze a source, how to do research and cite sources, how to write about literature. But I have read the course outcomes for freshman and sophomore comp. Because TCU’s accreditation agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), requires these course outcomes, these lower-division courses have the following outcomes listed:

ENGL 10803 Introductory Composition: Writing As Inquiry

1. Students will demonstrate the ability to write in a range of genres, using appropriate rhetorical conventions.

2. Students will demonstrate competency in reading, quoting, and citing sources as well as competency in balancing their own voices with secondary sources.

3. Students will demonstrate the ability to employ flexible strategies for generating and revising their writing.

ENGL 20803 Intermediate Composition: Writing As Argument

1. Students will demonstrate facility with the language and analysis of argument.

2. Students will demonstrate the ability to write an argument for a specific rhetorical situation.

3. Students will demonstrate competency in using sources (primary, secondary, digital) in argument construction.

4. Students will demonstrate the ability to use computers effectively as a communication mechanism.

In my cyberliteracy course, my professor asked us to rewrite these course outcomes to reflect relevant and useful skills in writing and composition. These courses often focus on a narrow set of writing skills, particularly geared toward academic writing that has little application outside the university setting. My group and I discussed some of the issues with these course outcomes as they do not prepare students for what the writing world is like beyond the college campus. We argued that the first course’s three outcomes could be shortened simply to, “Learn to write in an effective and appropriate manner with clarity and precision.” Instead of focusing so much on the academic composition side, introduce students to publications online through blogging and social networking. So much of getting a job these days, in publishing or otherwise, depends on your online presence and proving that you know how to express yourself. Many entry-level positions involve maintaining social media for the company, and being able to compose anything from a tweet to a blog post is essential. Also, these classes do not teach essential digital skills such as effectively using a search engine or using online databases such as JSTOR or Academic Search Complete. We are leaving students illiterate in the world of Google and Wikipedia. We thought that if students want to continue in academia after undergrad, there should be a separate course for academic writing and instead have the intro comp classes focus on more utilitarian forms of writing such as technical writing, magazine writing, newspaper writing, business writing, etc. Students should walk out of a freshman comp class and understand how to write for a variety of positions and workplace demands–even composing a memo or writing a brief business letter.

The sophomore comp class should continue with how to develop an online presence through social networking (LinkedIn, e.g.) and continuing to find online publication avenues. Rather than focusing on a competency in using sources, focus instead of the ability to analyze sources for their accuracy, reliability, and meaning. I come across so many writers in my job at a writing center who cannot analyze a source for its meaning and implications. They can summarize a source but not take it a step further and say what they can infer from reading a document. Also, students should learn more difficult software such as InDesign. So many jobs expect students to have a rudimentary knowledge of the Adobe Creative Suite–particularly Dreamweaver, Photoshop, and InDesign. Composition should involve some visual rhetoric as well–showing students how to build an effective website, how to edit an effective photo, how to create an effective ad or page. These are all useful skills. Of course we should never drop the ability to effectively express oneself and have a practical use of grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling, but the intense focus on the academic essay is not helpful to students who want to go out into the “real world.”

Also, this type of formal writing does not prepare students for the times they will need to write personally. Personal writing and creative nonfiction are some of the most difficult genres to master. Being able to write about onself, especially in a concise and clear manner, is a difficult task, one professional writers struggle with. Expecting students to walk into college knowing how to write a good personal essay (even when admissions expects a good personal essay in five hundred words or less–ask a professional writer to do that and they might throw something at you)  is unrealistic–a good amount of maturity and deft handling of English is required. Instead of forbidding students to use “I” in essays or address the reader as “you” or to use contractions, teach students the importance of communicating, getting your message across, because the point of writing is to communicate, to spread information, to tell someone something you want them to understand. Rather than leaving students in the dark on the real applications of publication and writing, give them the tools to walk out of college and enter the real world.

This lack of real world preparation is a controversy in universities. Some people see the university system as overly indulgent and too focused on the curricula of esoteric learning removed from real life. Others argue that the university system is designed to teach the ability to think critically and not a technical school for vocation preparation. The whole point of the university, some argue, is to learn for the sake of acquiring knowledge, not to get a job after graduation. But students expect a bachelor’s degree to be the key to a job after school (at least they used to). Not teaching students tools to be effective in the workplace leaves them at a disadvantage, especially when they are competing with more experienced and skilled workers already out of school. We can still teach writing, composition, and rhetoric while supplying skills necessary for “real life.” These skills are as basic as boiling water–universities that don’t teach students how to express themselves and publish online are leaving students in the dark about how to create an online presence, find jobs, and showcase their skills.

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The e-textbook Explosion??

E-textbooks have become more and more prevalent in the university textbook scene. E-textbooks are less expensive than their print counterparts, which is a huge draw for students on a budget who can’t afford that $125 textbook that will be out-of-date and “obsolete” after one semester. Some textbook sellers even let you buy specific chapters rather than the entire book, and you can also “rent” books for 30-, 60-, 90-, 120-, and 180- day periods. These options make textbooks more affordable, more portable, and more available to students. Some students, however, still prefer the hard copy, because the hard copy is easier to mark up, annotate, and read without distraction. I once used an e-textbook for an intro religion course, and I had a hard time reading from the screen, remembering where text was located on the page, and reading deeply beyond surface-level comprehension. Some apps do allow noting and markups, but many students complain that such annotation is simply “not the same” as writing notes and underlining/highlighting by hand.

Various tablets/e-readers offer textbooks on their user interfaces, including the iPad and Kindle Fire. Students and professors mostly use third-party applications to buy and mark/annotate e-textbooks. One of these applications is Inkling for iPad, which offers interactive textbooks through major publishers–McGraw-Hill and Pearson, W.W. Norton, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, e.g. “Inkling allows publishers to create interactive content with video, interactive quizzes, 3D models and more that can be easily published across a variety of formats and platforms and updated just as easily” (www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/50622-inkling-debuts-multimedia-publishing-platform-at-toc.html).

According to an article on Publisher’s Weekly, “E-textbooks on the Cusp?” (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/50552-e-textbooks-on-the-cusp-.html), 46% of students are interested in purchasing a textbook for their iPad, but only 10% use a tablet or smartphone for schoolwork. The article argues that because the interest is there, usage will increase as tablet prices (particularly the iPad) decrease and as professors and universities fully integrate e-textbooks into their courses.

Personally, I find that this prediction/projection is somewhat overly optimistic, unless the projection is for several years down the line. The majority of students are still reluctant to read e-textbooks on their computer or tablet. (I am one of them; I would spend more money for the print version than have to read the electronic version and not remember what I read). Students in the future may be more comfortable reading from a computer screen or tablet, but most current students have reservations about readings online. In a course I am taking right now, many readings are online, and most of the students in my class print out the electronic articles anyway to maintain their ability to mark/highlight the reading.

Also, the cost of tablets on top of the necessary laptop/computer for higher education may be beyond many students’ grasp. The iPad has no USB ports, so it cannot be connected to a printer or other drives. Its use is currently more for entertainment and less for education, and many iPad users see it as a leisure tool rather than a part of education. A tablet, particularly the iPad, cannot replace a computer for schoolwork, and buying an iPad specifically for Inkling and textbooks may not seem a worthwhile investment when the student can find the used textbook in print for less money. However, if schools provide iPads or other tablets because the university wants to integrate interactive textbooks, students may be more enthusiastic.

E-textbooks may emerge slowly as students who are more experienced in learning from a screen enter the university system and as the economy recovers, allowing students to afford expensive technology. Until then, though, I think that e-textbook publishers should not get ahead of themselves in prophesizing huge jumps in e-textbook sales.

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