Tag Archives: discussion

Teaching through Paradox: The Individual Voice and the Group Voice

Steve Volk, May 7, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Before We Begin…

Today’s article is my final one both for the year and for CTIE’s “Article of the Week.” Skimming back, I found to my surprise that I posted the first article 10 years ago, almost to the day (May 6, 2008), although I didn’t begin to write weekly original articles until 2012. Since then, I’ve uploaded more than 125, posting them every Sunday during the school year, a practice that played havoc with my weekends. I’ve covered everything from writing good letters of recommendation, to managing difficult discussions, to suggesting ways to think about reading, writing, grading, and activism. I’ve ventured into national issues that impact how we are able (or not) to teach, explored the environment that influences how students are able (or not) to learn, and tried to read the signals as to how higher education is surviving the current Trumpian moment (poorly). The feedback I’ve received indicates that you enjoyed some of what I’ve written, but neither were you hesitant to let me know when you disagreed. You’ve called my attention to failures of spelling, embarrassing typos, and critical research I overlooked. All the feedback was greatly appreciated, and I can only hope you’ve found at least some of the commentary to be worthy of further thought.

But it’s time to move on. I intend to keep writing about education, teaching and learning, democracy, and the factors that shape each of them on my new blog, “After Class.” The title encompasses multiple meanings. In the first place, I have discovered that, quite often, more learning takes place directly after a class ends than during the class itself. Learning and reflection can bloom in the conversations that emerge when students approach to ask a question they somehow felt constrained in asking during class, as you chat with a colleague on the way back to your office, or when, as you pack up your laptop and head to the door, a boisterous conversation emerges in your own head as you ponder what on earth just happened in that class! Secondly, having retired from teaching in 2016, and now from directing Oberlin’s teaching and learning center, I am soon to be fully located in that “after class” space, free from grading papers and crafting seminars as well as from institutional responsibilities and constraints, where my schedule will be determined more by what I’m thinking or reading than by specific deadlines. And, finally, the title nods to the more intersectional approach that has shaped my thinking about education and democracy as friends, colleagues, and family members have introduced me to critical pedagogies, culturally relevant approaches, and the way in which on-going struggles against racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and inequality are shaping demands for high quality, inclusive and equitable education in this country. In any case, should you wish to follow what I have to say, you’ll find me at After Class. There you’ll be able to subscribe to follow my posts when they appear, or if you would like me to subscribe you to the blog, just send me your email.

And now, back to this week’s article…


This week’s article was inspired by a photograph taken by William DeShazer for an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (March 30, 2018). He was kind enough to give me permission to reproduce it:

William DeShazer, for Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted by permission. All following photographs are taken from this one.

The photograph carried the following caption: “At Illinois’s late-February game versus Purdue U., basketball fans strike a Chief Illiniwek pose.”

The Chronicle’s article, “The Mascot is Fiction. The War is Real,” reveals that even though the University of Illinois trustees “retired” “Chief Illiniwek” as their mascot in 2007, many students are still encouraged by a group supportive of the mascot to suit up in their old Illiniwek gear when they come to a game. Chancellor Robert Jones, for one, takes the challenge seriously. “Perhaps more so than any other time in the last 10 years,” he complained, “it has become a divisive issue that has in many ways pulled this otherwise outstanding, vital academic community apart.”

My interest in this photograph was not sparked specifically by the central issue of the story, the stubborn use of Native Americans as team mascots. (Only this year did the baseball team that manages to break my heart every season – the Cleveland Indians, for God’s sake! – begin to nudge their noxious “Chief Wahoo” off the field.) There’s much to be learned in exploring this topic (and James Fenelon’s Redskins? Sport Mascots, Indian Nations and White Racism, Routledge 2016 is a good place to start), but, instead, I’m interested in what the photograph tells us about crowds and the individuals who make them up as a metaphor for thinking about how we as teachers can embolden the voice of individual while also listening to and engaging the voice of the group. What can we do to support individuals as they learn to speak their conscience in the face of adverse social pressure? How we can make the group aware of its own voice and capable of self-generated change?

Reading the Photograph

“A photograph is not just the result of an encounter between an event and a photographer,” Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography. “Picture-taking is an event in itself, and one with an ever more peremptory rights – to interfere with, to invade, or to ignore whatever is going on. Our very sense of situation is now articulated by the camera’s interventions.” While not the photographer, I intend to invade this image to raise issues that, likely, weren’t on his mind when he snapped it, fully aware that I am reading attitudes and behaviors into those caught by his lens which might be illusory or simply a reflection of my own thinking. But, on the other hand, the postures frozen in place by the camera look exceedingly familiar to me; I’ve seen them many times and have been there myself (metaphorically) so many times. So I’ll assert my peremptory rights of interpretation.

This photograph tells two different stories which, at their heart, speak to a certain paradox that we deal with in the classroom, one which Parker Palmer pointed out in The Courage to Teach. The first story is about conformity and the power of the “crowd” to assert its hegemony and intimidate opposition. The second is about non-conformity, resistance, ambiguity, and unease that challenges the wisdom of the crowd. As teachers, we must deal with both.

Here’s the photo once more: take a long look, and consider what you see.

William DeShazer, for Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted by permission. All following photographs are taken from this one.

The image is of a group of young people, students, in an arena. They are decked out in Illinois orange and the great majority of them have their arms crossed. This, we will learn, is a “Chief Illiniwek pose,” the “Chief,” again, being the mascot (or “symbol,” depending on with whom one talks) of the University of Illinois from 1926-2007.

Let’s zoom in on one group (please forgive the lower quality of the blow-ups), which I call “All in for the Chief,” to get a better view of this. (I’ve given names to the images just to help me refer back to them.)

“All in for the Chief”

The faces in this group are quite fascinating, a combination of smiles (upper row) and grim determination (lower row). All of them, however, as with the great majority in the arena, are making a statement since the university’s board of trustees banished the “Chief” more than a decade earlier. I make no claim to know why these individuals chose to adopt the “Indian” posture, other than to say that they know they are making a statement and that they are defying the university’s desires. We also can be sure that they know they are in the majority in the arena.

Is this the end of the story? That students attending a University of Illinois basketball game demand the return of their “Chief Illiniwek”? “Photographs are really experience captured,” Sontag continues, “and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.” What the camera acquired here was not just the apparent uniformity of the fans, but the fact that the crowd is composed of individuals, and as we keep observing, we encounter doubt, hesitation, ambiguity, and even resistance.

Let’s look further.

“In Sync?”

The young man to the left can be found in the center of the larger photo, just north of the horizontal midpoint. Is he craning his neck to look for a friend in an upper row? We don’t really know. But it’s not going too far to suggest that, having crossed his arms, he’s scanning the crowd to make sure that he’s in conformity with the group, that he’s not standing alone with his “Indian-folded” arms. His posture is confident, his face is less so: just checking, he might be thinking, just want to be sure that I’m not doing this alone! As I said, there’s absolutely no way I can claim to know what, in fact, was on his mind as he turned his head, or if anything was on his mind. He could have simply been reacting to a sound behind him (although no one around him has followed his glance). But whether I’m reading him appropriately or not, I would hazard to say that we have all be there: just a bit uncomfortable or doubtful about our actions and therefore glancing around to make sure we were in sync with our peers, that we were not out of step.

It’s not easy to stand against a crowd, particularly if we’re not quite sure what we think ourselves. And it’s even harder for adolescents who, research has shown, have a greater need for cognitive-closure in general and in the avoidance of ambiguity specifically. It’s not hard to read the discomfort of those who are unsure, a discomfort which is manifest in the “kind of/sort of” gestures we can see in the crowd.

“Not quite all in”

“Perhaps if I just begin…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The two women in these images both suggest that they have less enthusiasm about adopting a “Chief Illiniwek” posture than their male companions. They don’t seem ready to buck the crowd by refusing the gesture, but neither do they fully embrace it. Their hands clasp at chest level, but their arms don’t cross. Is this a fair reading: “I not really comfortable about doing this ‘Indian’ thing, but maybe I won’t be noticed if I just kinda hold my hands together.” And what about the woman in the image below?

“Cough of convenience?”

 

 

I’ve labeled this a “cough of convenience?” as in: “I was really intending to do the arm-thing, but I had to cough so I couldn’t?” Can we read this as uncertainty? Refusal? What is clear is that she’s not nearly as committed as the woman on her right.

 

 

Just below the group in the “All in for the Chief” photo, stand four men in various postures of non-participation. One, to the right of center, has his hands together, but his arms aren’t crossed; the man to his right has his arms at his side, the one on his left could be clapping; and, the bearded man below, has brought his hand to his chin.

“Not doing this”

And finally, there is what I call the “Full Refusal”:

“Full Refusal”

Hands firmly sunk into her pockets, this woman, although surrounded by crossed-arms companions, is not participating. No ambiguity, no hand-clasping or apparent coughs. She will not go along with this.

Individual Voices/Group Voices

The predominant message in William DeShazer’s photograph blends well with the narrative of the accompanying article, that a decade after the trustees banished a Native American mascot, the students haven’t let him go. From the determined look on many of their faces, perhaps they are even more committed to him now than students were in the 1940s or 1950s when they didn’t bother thinking about what they were doing.

By paying more attention, we are better able to observe disturbances in the group’s zeitgeist. Some students mime the “Chief’s” bearing in a less-than-enthusiastic manner, while others reject the performance completely. So, what does it tell us? Probably the easiest take-away is that measuring a group’s response is not the same as being mindful what is going on with the individuals within it. “Is this clear to everyone,” we ask, after making a particular point in a lecture. The room says “yes,” as many heads are nodding in agreement. So we move on. Still, there’s the guy in the back row or the drowsy one two rows up. They aren’t nodding their heads but neither do they raise their voices to say that, no, they actually don’t understand. This is not a critique, for we’re probably not going to stop everything and ask, “Thomas. Do you have any questions?”  Not only can it be embarrassing to Thomas, but it can also suggest implicit bias on our part.  And we don’t have time to go over every point if no one indicates confusion. But reading the class closely can help you look beyond the group and reach out more effectively to the students who appear to need more help. The ability to read a group and the individuals within it at the same time, inward and outward reflection, often just comes with experience. (And this is another reason to have students leave a “muddy point” comment at the end of the class.)

My second point is a harder one to make. When I look at DeShazer’s photograph, I’m drawn to the students who appear to be caught in a moment of doubt or uncertainty as those around them assume the posture. They came to watch a basketball game, but they need to make a quick decision about a contentious issue with social consequences: to cross arms or not? Go with the crowd or refuse its pressure? I don’t pretend that it’s a huge deal to them, and it’s not unlikely that they will forget about it with the opening jump ball. But their body language indicates a flash of doubt. They embody the difficulty of going against the crowd or of taking a stand when one is not ready to make a decision. We often face such moments, but my question is whether we, as teachers, can help students when they come to these frequent crossroads.

Teaching as Paradox

Parker Palmer talks about the way in which teaching and learning are fashioned by various creative tensions, by paradoxes. It is paradoxical, for example, that the space of teaching and learning should be both bounded and open, hospitable and “charged,” silent and filled with talk. He also notes that the teaching space “should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group,” and this is the paradox that, for me, is best represented in the DeShazer photograph and which allows us to transfer its message to the classroom.

In our classes we work  to help students find their authentic voice whether they are in conformity with the group or not – indeed, even more so if they challenge the group. We also “listen for what the group voice is saying and…play that voice back from time to time so the group can hear and even change its own collective mind.” As Palmer puts it, “in a learning space shaped by this paradox, not only do students learn about a subject, but they learn to speak their own thoughts about that subject and to listen for an emergent collective wisdom that may influence their ideas and beliefs.”

This is not easy. How do we encourage students to articulate their ideas even if they might be considered unorthodox or unpopular? How do we create an environment in which groups can hear themselves, changing and growing when necessary? How do we help students appreciate complexity and accept ambiguity? How do we support them as they determine when to take a stand and when to say that they’re still thinking about it? How do we invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group?

Some of the answers to these questions are to be found in how we structure the space of learning, the classroom. I’ve offered some suggestions before about helping students establish their own rules of conduct to keep their discussions both open and bounded at the same time (see here, for example), or ways to encourage students to listen to each other. And, while I’ve talked about the role of social media and its impact on teaching and learning many times, the more that I think about it, the more I think it important to encourage students to adopt procedures that separate the classroom from a larger social media environment. What happens in classroom needs to stay in the classroom. When a student’s fashion choice for her high school prom generates 42,000 (largely) dismissive tweets in a matter of hours, it is not hard to see how students can become paralyzed by the thought of voicing an unorthodox opinion.

We can also address this by introducing pedagogies that help students appreciate complexity, remain open to multiple opinions, and admire contradiction and paradox, and I’m sure you already employ many of these methods.

  • Set up in-class debates. You can assign positions in advance or have students randomly select their “side” at the last moment, requiring that they prepare to argue both sides of an issue;
  • Use role playing techniques to foster perspective taking;
  • In papers where students are required to come to a conclusion based on the evidence that they have considered, have them also elaborate the most likely objections to, or weaknesses in, their positions;
  • Have students present conflicting interpretations when reading primary source documents, whether historical or literary;
  • Help students both value evidence and understand its limitations and contingencies;
  • Encourage students to think beyond critique alone and help them to understand the implications or likely consequences of certain courses of actions.
  • Allow students to recognize their preconceptions, and offer them the chance to hear alternative narratives.

In the end, and perhaps most importantly, I think we teach students more by how we act than by what we say. Whether we want to be or not, we are role models to our students.  It is important not only that they hear us speak our minds, but that we give them the space and the encouragement to articulate their own thoughts, to experiment with ideas that may not yet be fully formed, to inhabit ambiguity as well as certainty, to hear the crowd yet listen for the resistant voices within it.

Inksheds and Eggshells

Steven Volk, April 11, 2016

Bored-in-the-Classroom-Vintage-How-To-Learn-Danish-When-Youve-Got-Other-Shit-To-Do-Scandinavia-StandardAs the semester drags itself into the last month of classes, it sometimes feels that we are walking against the tide in a heavy surf. Each step seems painfully slow, the distance gained so small. Classroom patterns are now deeply embedded and it’s hard to change or challenge them. This is particularly obvious in discussions where, by now, everyone in class expects the same hands to be raised when we ask for comments or toss out a question. To be sure, we are grateful that, at least, we can count on those students to say something, otherwise we’d all drown in sea of silence.

At this point, most of us will just wait out the semester, promising ourselves that next semester will be better – that we’ll get them all talking, and they will always be on point, and will be eager to dig into the most serious topics, and….

But maybe it isn’t too late to try something new, even at the tail-end of the semester. Enter “inkshedding.” Inkshedding is a writing-discussion practice begun in the early 1980s that Russ Hunt and Jim Reither of St. Thomas University (Fredericton, New Brunswick) designed to link classroom writing and discussion. While “inkshedding” sounds like a contemporary neologism, it actually dates to the 17th century when some writer substituted “ink” for “blood.” It meant the consumption or waste of ink in writing, according to the OED. Thomas Carlyle’s employment of the term in mid-19th century is eerily apposite of the current political moment:

Who shall be Premier, and take in hand the “rudder of government,” otherwise called the “spigot of taxation;” shall it be the Honorable Felix Parvulus, or the Right Honorable Felicissimus Zero? By our electioneerings and Hansard Debatings, and ever-enduring tempest of jargon that goes on everywhere, we manage to settle that; to have it declared, with no bloodshed except insignificant blood from the nose in hustings-time, but with immense beershed and inkshed and explosion of nonsense, which darkens all the air, that the Right Honorable Zero is to be the man. (Latter Day Pamphlets, III)

Inkshed: http://www.inkshed.ca/blog/

Inkshed: http://www.inkshed.ca/blog/

Inkshedding, as described by Hunt, grew out of freewriting exercises developed by Peter Elbow, exercises in which students are asked to write in response to a reading, a comment, or some shared experience. Hunt and Reither were concerned that writing should be more social and that freewriting which doesn’t go to somebody is lacking. Even Elbow later admitted that the stakes might be too “low” in freewriting.

So Hunt and Reither would have the students pass their freewriting texts around the class, and they would then mark with a vertical line the passages in the texts they were given that they found most “striking.” From this beginning, the exercise developed in a number of ways. Dan Cleary, who taught English at Lorain County Community College, came up with one of the most common, a practice which James Lang summarized in On Course (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Students begin by freewriting for 5 minutes on a topic of shared experience (a reading, event, comment in class, etc.). Then they pass their notebooks to another student who reads what has been written, and then spends 5 minutes freewriting in response to the first writer. This continues for 20-25 minutes, with students in written dialogue with each other. Only at that point does the discussion become an actual, out-loud discussion. Encouragingly, as Dan Cleary remarked, “I’ve never had a dead-end discussion after an exercise like this…”

Some Theory behind Inkshedding

Pine Branches, Inkshed Press, Cumbria, UK: http://www.inkshedpress.co.uk/

Pine Branches, Inkshed Press, Cumbria, UK: http://www.inkshedpress.co.uk/

There are some immediately obvious advantages to the Inkshedding practice. As many who have used it explain, the practice draws everybody into the process, even the non-talkers, since everyone has to write, read, and write again. And it’s not hard to imagine that, once the discussion moves from the written/silent phase to the oral/open phase, not only will it be more informed, but the teacher will have a greater opportunity to intervene to call on those whose voices are often not heard in class. (Note: we often see these as “shy” students, but I’m less willing to employ that term – more on this another week.)

Inkshedding is also informed by learning theory. Here’s a summary of some of Hunt’s main points:

  • When discussion takes place in a written form, it “broadens the bandwidth,” allowing everyone in the room to “talk” at once. Even in the best of discussions in a relatively small (12-15 student) classroom, students can be frustrated because the point they had wanted to address already left the dock five minutes earlier, and to return the discussion to that place would be counterproductive. Writing allows everyone to comment. But, as Hunt observes, what is even more important is that every idea or response has a chance not only to be formed in the first place, but also to be “heard” (i.e. read by a number of other people).
  • Hunt notes that we often overlook the importance of reading to the writing process. Inkshedding differs from (simple) freewriting because the text is read both in a social and a dialogic way. It is read for what it says, not to evaluate it or give the writer advice for how it could be “improved.”
  • The “transactional” nature of this reading process, particularly in the sense defined by John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley (Knowing and the Known), is critical in that it “reminds us that no component of the process can be understood or characterized outside the process.” The reader is influenced by the writer, the writer by the reader, and the whole event is tied to preceding and subsequent events. As Anthony Paré, the head of the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia-Vancouver, observed, “Texts are located in an intertextual web. This is something students don’t (can’t) get, since their texts are not linked to other texts. Students eavesdrop on the disciplinary conversation and report what they’ve heard; they don’t join the conversation. They are intellectual voyeurs. Inkshedding gets them into the action.”

From Writing/Reading to Class Discussion

There are a number of ways that the written discussion can move from its initial phase into a full-blown, out-loud class discussion. In the early phase of Inkshedding, Hunt and Reither would form a small group of volunteer editors who would collect the notebooks, read them all, and mark the passages they found to be most “striking.” Those with the most marks would be transcribed, copied and distributed for a subsequent meeting of class, to start off an oral discussion. That practice drew a fair amount of criticism as it meant that not everyone’s comments would be read. In response, students suggested posting all the comments on the class walls so that students could circulate and read them. But this could prove unwieldy, not just because it wouldn’t work in a large class, but because students probably would only read those comments employing the best handwriting.

1962 "Hi-o-Hi" (Oberlin College Year Book; Oberlin College Archives)

1962 “Hi-o-Hi” (Oberlin College Year Book; Oberlin College Archives)

Another response was to continue the discussion at a silent level, a period when anyone could read any other comment and note what she felt to be the most “striking” passages for transcription. As Hunt noted, “These ‘reading times’ often bec[a]me one of the most powerful moments in my own teaching and conference participation, as people silently exchange[d] sheets of paper and a “discussion” occur[ed] in almost complete silence, punctuated by sotto voce expressions of agreement or outrage, or laughter. There is something particularly powerful about the fact that the reading and selection is being done immediately, or as one anonymous commentator on an early version of this text put it, ‘in real time.’”

A further possibility, particularly if the intent is to move to oral discussion quickly, is to ask students to find one passage from someone else’s inkshed to read aloud. As Hunt observed,

One of the most important educational aspects of inkshedding, for me, is the way it foregrounds and dramatizes the transactional nature of text. For almost all students (and this is especially important for those who have difficulties, or limited experience, with writing and reading), text has never been the basis of an authentic social transaction — beyond, perhaps, a thank you note to a distant grandmother or, more recently, e-mail exchanges with friends. The process of creating an identity and a role in a group through written text, as they do every day through oral utterance, is one in which they have only rarely engaged. And it is my belief that this process is the defining mark of the fully literate person.

Enter the Eggshells

The Political Egg Dance

The Political Egg Dance

Discussions can stall, or never properly start, for a myriad of reasons: students haven’t done the reading, a few voices (almost always the same ones) set the tone and (consciously or inadvertently) dissuade others from joining in, the “quiet” students feel overly cautious about entering the discussion, students are tired or have other things on their minds. But there are other reasons as well, and we are all quite aware of them. Sadly, I can’t tell you the number of times when students, in private discussions, have said that they didn’t take part in a discussion because they were worried about how other students would react to their comments. They were concerned that what they said might be “taken the wrong way,” “misunderstood,” or that, lacking specific theoretical or linguistic chops, they feared tripping some word-choice detonator. They felt that they were constantly walking on eggshells worried that, as they put it, what they said would “be held against them” outside of class.

This is a massive area of concern that requires many posts and much more discussion, but it is one area where inkshedding can be helpful. We can think about this from two different directions. The first relates to the nature of the classroom discussion as it usually occurs. As we know (and as I noted above), when you raise an issue for discussion in class only one person at a time can respond. So you ask the question, wait a few seconds, and call on the first student whose hand is raised. If your classes are anything like mine, the first ones to raise their hands will likely be the same ones every time. Fine – at least this can begin a discussion and others will join in, which is what often happens.

But what we are probably not as aware of is that the first comments tend, in Hunt’s words, “to determine and focus the range of discussion, and effectively determine the kinds of questions or issues which will be raised.” If the discussion has already been framed in a certain direction, students with other perspectives, particularly if they worry that they may be challenging existing orthodoxies (what ever the particular classroom orthodoxy may be) or that they may not be able to state their view in a carefully articulated fashion, are much less likely to engage in the discussion, and therefore the discussion is less likely to open new, suggestive, or controversial, areas. Inkshedding, with its write/read/write/read/discuss structure can allow more “initial” voices into the discussion before it heads down a particular track.

The second point can, itself, be controversial: When employing inkshedding methods, some faculty don’t require that students put their names on their inkshed writing, allowing them to remain anonymous (at least to the extent that students aren’t familiar with each other’s handwriting and only if the paper on which they write is passed a number of times before it halts and is read and commented upon). There is, of course, no anonymity when the discussion is oral, and there is much to the argument that students (as well as faculty) should take responsibility for what they/we say or write, particularly when technology and social media allows individuals an anonymous cover to say the most vile things without any sense of responsibility or any thought to the consequences of such utterances.

And yet, precisely because I worry that the pressures of conformity are preventing students from testing out emerging ideas or putting forward thoughts that could be considered controversial in the classroom, I now assign work that is anonymous to all but me – and have done so with highly positive effects. Certainly, if inkspilling became a surrogate classroom YikYak, the practice of unsigned writing should be halted (and discussed!). But because that seems unlikely and because anonymity might actually promote more cautious voices to emerge, inkshedding should be considered as an approach to more robust classroom discussions that includes a wider diversity of voices and positions.

Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno

Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno

Drawbacks?

A number of faculty who have written about their inkshedding experiences have found it too cumbersome to be effective as designed. They support its theoretical basis – the importance of social, dialogic and transactional writing – but they have concerns about the actual implementation of the exercise. Doug Brent of the University of Calgary discussed the most obvious limitation, handwriting. “Handwriting, especially handwriting that is clear enough for other people to be able to read it, is slow. Equally slow is the practice of passing the inksheds around and marking particularly interesting passages. And, since the point of inkshedding is that it should be seen by more than two or three people, somebody needs to collect them, transcribe the marked-up passages, and circulate them later.”

Technology to the rescue. Brent moved the exercise to an in-class Google Doc (he was teaching in a classroom where all the students had computers – the same can be arranged if students are asked to bring in their laptops or are provided with laptops), creating an empty shared document and asking students to read each other’s inksheds and copy interesting passages into the Google Doc. As he noted, “A collaboratively constructed document beg[an] to unfold in real time.”

When Brent questioned his students (via Survey Monkey) about their experiences with inkshedding, 14 of 20 responded, mostly positive:

  • Inkshedding ‘forces’ us to provide our thoughts and ideas, in a way that pretty much 100% engages us.
  • I think it is more beneficial, because I personally do not like speaking aloud.
  • This gives me and other students like me a chance to get their point across without feeling pressured.

The students were particularly positive about the experience in its digital format:

  • I like Google Drive because of how instant everything is. Collaborating and commenting are the most useful parts, I think. Instead of having to send a file or give a physical copy of a paper to a classmate or professor for review, you can just share it on Drive and see the comments as they are being created.
  • Google Drive made it easier to communicate and more efficient. If everyone wrote on a piece of paper and passed it around chances are only one or two people would see it, but with Drive it is available for everyone to view, which is amazing!

To Use or Not to Use

So what are the pros and cons of inkshedding? Brent asked colleagues who are active in the “inkshed community” for their opinions. (Yes, there is a community with its own blog, and associations – the Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Learning.) Here is the list he generated:

Pros:

  • as a writing-to-learn tool;
  • as an exploration tool;
  • as a way to understand text(s), assignment(s), difficult concept(s), etc.;
  • as a safe place where students can ask questions and express confusion;
  • as a place of sharing experience and knowledge;
  • as a tool that triggers further thinking about topics, texts, assignments;
  • as a reflection tool (after an assignment or a task has been completed);
  • as a crossroad (making connections between what is in class and what is outside of class or how knowledge gained in class can be applied elsewhere);
  • as a meditation tool (on a difficult day, to get students to centre themselves);
  • To build relationships: I tell my students that I will have a conversation in the margins with them over the semester.  This also happens between the students themselves, but as an instructor what I love best about inksheds is the way it allows me to reach students;
  • To provide a method of writing that everyone can succeed with; inkshedding is diplomatic and the fact that it isn’t about punctuation, grammar and structure means that it opens up spaces of possibility for students who have been previously silenced by anxieties about those things;
  • To bring the voices of quiet students onto the floor; e.g., I pull an insightful quote from a quiet student’s inkshed and just before class, ask them if I can call on them to share their excellent point with the class;
  • To get students can take risks (e.g., test something a little edgier, or feel safe about saying that they dislike or disagree with someone/something);
  • To help students find paper topics;
  • It allows students to read each other’s writing, which not only exposes them to different interpretations and understandings of the readings, but also allows them to see the range of student writing out there. They get to see “real” student writing. This has a variety of benefits, addressed below;
  • Writing for a real audience allows them to develop a sense of audience–they replicate the strategies they find worked for their readers and want to achieve greater clarity for their readers. Their peer readers are often more important than their instructor reader;
  • They get stylistic and organizational ideas from each other. Frequently a student will report that she liked the way so-and-so did this or wrote in a particular way, and they experiment with it the next time around;
  • Reading each other’s writing, especially this informal writing, is immensely reassuring in letting them know they are not the only one who thinks a certain way or struggles with an issue (writing or a difficult article);
  • Conversely, reading each other’s writing exposes them to a variety of experiences and ideas that may be different from their own. Seeing their peers twice a week and having to comment on their writing brings about a certain cultural sensitivity that may not develop otherwise;
  • The pointing and the inkshed reporting, which calls attention to positive aspects of inksheds builds students’ confidence because they are not used to having readers point out what they like or say that their words are eloquent, humorous, powerful, etc. That little smile on a student’s face when someone calls attention to something they wrote is great to see;
  • Often their understanding of a concept is enhanced or increased by reading someone else’s summary or interpretation of it.

And the Cons:

  •  International students sometimes don’t see inksheds as helping them improve their Standard Written English;
  • Students need a certain level of language proficiency before they can inkshed in English;
  • Students can get the false impression that grammar doesn’t matter in their writing–or some lesser order errors can get fossilized– if this is the only or main genre of writing in a class. This can be ameliorated in various ways; i.e. dialogue, ‘soft’ expectations for gradual improvement, etc.
  • If not carefully coached on how to give worthwhile content feedback, students can get lazy in doing so OR actually hurt each other. Feedback needs to be monitored–at least early on.
  • Inkshedding can be stressful, especially the first one or two. Instructors can reduce stress on the first few inksheds by making them about easy topics rather than about a particular reading.
  • Students can reject or de-value inkshedding (especially early on) if they don’t understand why we are asking them to it. Instructors can spend time on rationale (and engage their ideas too) to help with this. Also, writing along with students models its value for all–and also messy writing!

Inkshedding may not be for everyone, but maybe it will offer just the way into a broader class discussion that you were looking for, some way to shake up the class in the latter part of the semester.

(And, by the way, many use inkshedding at conferences as well, as a way to open up a discussion after a presentation.)

Paragraphs Take Time; Conversations Take Time

Steven Volk, October 4, 2015

As instructors bring their classes to the glorious Allen Memorial Art Museum, they begin to consider the potential not just for teaching with art, but of teaching through art. Liliana Milkova, the academic curator at the museum, and I have written about the process (“transfer”) whereby the learning that occurs in one domain can be shifted to another. In extended interviews with Oberlin faculty who have brought their students to the museum, we have found that a number of specific skills foregrounded in visits to the Allen are transferring back into the classrooms in a variety of disciplines.

Denise Birkhofer, Ellen Johnson '33 Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, in Ellen Johnson gallery of Allen Memorial Art Museum

Denise Birkhofer, Ellen Johnson ’33 Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, in Ellen Johnson gallery of Allen Memorial Art Museum

For example, faculty members have observed that the work their students do in the museum often helps them think about the link between evidence and argument in new ways. Some of these realizations originate from the curators’ use of VTS (Visual Thinking Strategy) approaches in the museum. VTS fashions a viewer’s engagement with art through three basic prompts: (1) What is going on in this picture; (2) What do you see that makes you say that; and (3) What more can you say about the object? Having the “primary source” (the painting or sculpture) directly at hand strongly grounds the student’s ability to use evidence to support an interpretation: Where in the painting do you find evidence suggesting that the man is angry? Such lessons from the museum can transfer easily to classroom discussions and written work.

Close Readings

Of the many potential elements for transfer from museum to classroom, perhaps the most frequently reported by the faculty are the impact of close observation in the museum on close reading in the classroom. Both processes are supported by holding students figuratively or literally in front of the object (or text) they are studying, giving them the time they need to observe closely. By doing this, we are teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention, in the words of Harvard art historian Jennifer Roberts. In a widely circulated article on “The Power of Patience,” Roberts wrote, “in the process of designing a syllabus I need not only to select readings, choose topics, and organize the sequence of material, but also to engineer, in a conscientious and explicit way, the pace and tempo of the learning experiences.”

I thought of the importance of “slowing down” as I read Sherry Turkel’s commentary, “How to Teach in an Age of Distraction”, which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Review. (A shorter op-ed, “Stop Googling; Let’s Talk,” appeared in the New York Times on Sept. 26; her book on the topic, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, is just out from Penguin.) In her Chronicle article, Turkel, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, recounted what happened in one of her recent seminars, one that was heavily dependent on personal narrative. Midway through the semester, she reported, some students came to talk to her.

Alex Pang, Flickr CC

Alex Pang, Flickr CC

“They admitted to texting during class, but they felt bad about it because of the personal material being discussed. They said they text in all their classes, but here it seemed wrong. We decided the class should talk about this as a group. In that discussion, more students admitted that they, too, texted in class. They portrayed constant connection as a necessity. For some, three minutes was too long to go without checking their phones. They wanted to see who was in touch with them, a comfort in itself.”

Let me repeat that: For some, three minutes was too long to go without checking their phones. Turkel suggested they try a “device-free class,” and observed how the students seemed more “relaxed and cohesive” in those discussions, how they “finished their thoughts, unrushed” and seemed “more present and able to be in an uninterrupted conversation.” While I was pleasantly surprised that her students could move from a state of technological high anxiety to unpluged relaxation so quickly, I saw Turkel’s comments as coming from the same place as Robert’s. Indeed, if I was surprised, it was only because I don’t know many instructors who actually allow texting in class. From the comments I hear, it would seem that more and more of my colleagues are going further, either discouraging or prohibiting the use of laptops or other digital devices in class. Maybe that’s just me, or just here. One large survey found that 80% of college students admit to texting during class; 15% say they send 11 or more texts in a single class period.”

There is substantial research, some of which has been reported here, recommending the benefits to learning and memory that come when students take notes by hand rather than on a laptop. Even more, as Carol Steiker, a professor at Harvard Law observed, students who are in court-stenographer mode “sometimes seemed annoyed if you called on them because it broke up their transcriptions. If your notes are meant to capture the themes of the class, you remember your participation and you make it part of the story. If you are trying to write a transcript of class, class participation takes you away from your job.”

"The Phone People," Guilaume Regnaux, Flickr CC

“The Phone People,” Guilaume Regnaux, Flickr CC

Nor are devices a problem only in class. I am probably not alone in noticing that as soon as class ends, the phones emerge and large numbers of students are quickly absorbed in what seems to be a dangerous practice of texting-while-descending-the-stairs. Indeed, we seem caught between furiously peddling bicyclists and texting pedestrians oblivious to their surroundings as we tread our increasingly perilous path across campus.

Multitasking

The debate over the value (or dangers) of multi-tasking has gone on for some time. In a 2007 article, “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes” (Profession, 187–199), Katherine Hayles argued that we are at a moment of “generational divide” between an older cohort that equated learning with the “deep attention” characterized by long focus times and what I would call a “vertical” engagement with a topic, and a younger generation more prone to rapid switching among different tasks, shorter attention times, a low tolerance for “boredom” (i.e., unoccupied time) and a more “horizontal” mode of exploration characteristic of the digital hyperlinks. Hayles’ argument is that whether or not we (i.e., the “older” generation) want this, “The trend toward hyper attention will almost certainly accelerate.”

“As students move deeper into the mode of hyper attention,” she writes, “educators face a choice: change the students to fit the educational environment or change that environment to fit the students. At the extreme end of the spectrum represented by ADHD, it may be appropriate to change the young people, but surely the environment needs to change as well” (195).

Hayles defined hyper attention as the capacity to negotiate “rapidly changing environments in which multiple foci compete for attention” (188). She contrasted this with “multitasking” which significant research has shown to place a substantial burden on learning. A study by Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University–Dominguez Hills, had students mark down once a minute what they were doing as they studied. A checklist on the form included: reading a book, writing on paper, typing on the computer, using email, looking at Facebook, instant messaging, texting, talking on the phone, watching television, listening to music, and surfing the Web. He noted that their “on-task” behavior began to decline at the two-minute mark. By the end of the 15-minute study, he found that they had spent only 65% of their time on task.

Indeed, evidence of the detrimental impact of multitasking continues to grow. To cite just one example, the majority of a cross-disciplinary survey of 774 students was shown to be engaging in classroom multitasking. Further, this was significantly related to lower GPA and to an increase in risk behaviors including use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. As Maryellen Weimer suggested when pondering how to bring such behaviors under control, “I wonder if it isn’t smarter to confront students with the facts. Not admonitions, but concrete evidence that multitasking compromises their efforts to learn.”

A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, “Generation M : Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” found that almost a third of those surveyed said that when they were doing homework, “most of the time” they were also watching TV, texting, listening to music, or using other media. As Victoria Rideout, the lead author put it:

“This is a concern we should have distinct from worrying about how much kids are online or how much kids are media multitasking overall. It’s multitasking while learning that has the biggest potential downside. I don’t care if a kid wants to tweet while she’s watching American Idol, or have music on while he plays a video game. But when students are doing serious work with their minds, they have to have focus.”

r8r, "Studying for Finals," Flickr CC

r8r, “Studying for Finals,” Flickr CC

Engaging Our Distracted Students: The Role of Conversation

So, to return to Turkel’s question: how do we teach in an age of (many) distractions? For many teaching in large universities with class sizes in the hundreds, one key was devising a way to return students to conversation, something which Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera (the provider of online courses or MOOCs) thought could be better done online than in class. (This has not necessarily proven to be the case.) But for those of us fortunate enough to teach in a school where 40-50 person classes are considered large, we know that “the most powerful learning takes place in [a context of] relationship,” at times between students and teachers, at times among peers. Turkel’s students tell her that “they want company. They are afraid that they already spend too much time alone and online.”

Turkel defends the lecture as the place where this “company” is to be found on college campuses. “For all its flaws,” she writes, “the lecture has a lot going for it. It is a place where students come together, on good days and bad, and form a small community. As in any live performance, anything can happen. An audience is present; the room is engaged.” But even as she praises the lecture – indeed, I am far more cautious of its pedagogical limitations – she, too, pivots to the importance of the conversations that can develop in a lecture, not the content that is delivered. She quotes Lee Edelman, a literary theorist at Tufts, who observed that his biggest challenge as a professor was “not teaching his students to think intelligently, but getting them to actually respond to each other thoughtfully in the classroom.” He found that his students were struggling with the give and take of face-to-face conversation.

*k59, "Conversación," Flickr CC

*k59, “Conversación,” Flickr CC

But how can conversations provide students with a steady focus and the ability to steer their way through multitasking temptations in an age of increasing distraction? Only, I would argue, to the extent that we actually think about how we “engineer,” as Roberts put it, “the pace and tempo of the learning experiences.” Conversations must necessarily have “empty” spaces built into them, time for thinking before responding, time for boredom. And this is a generation that is boredom-adverse. “If boredom happens in a classroom,” Turkel writes, “rather than competing for student attention with ever-more extravagant technological fireworks, we should encourage students to stay with their moment of silence or distraction.” She cites a chemistry professor who said that he wants students in his class to daydream. “They can go back to the text if they missed a key fact. But if they went off in thought … they might be making the private connection that pulls the course together for them.” Boredom (in its creative sense), daydreaming (and not about lunch), doodling (while thinking) all require that we allow and encourage the space that is not completely filled; that we slow things down.

In an interview with the New Yorker, Nicholson Baker, the writer, talked about how he would read aloud to slow himself down, because when he reads aloud to himself:

“it becomes the only thing there is. I think that a necessary precondition for the appreciation of art is the feeling that the thing that you’re looking at, or reading, or listening to, is all that there is for that moment, and you really have to give yourself to it. So, if you’re in a life where everything is sort of jumping for you and you’re only spending two minutes with anything, you’re not probably going to be able to take anything at the proper speed. So, I think reading things aloud to myself has helped me slow down. I guess, remember, remember the sound of words, the sequence of words…all I have to do, actually, is put on, say, a Debussy piece, or something, and it slows me down. I think that things that take time are useful; paragraphs take time, piano preludes take time.”

Conversations take time. If we are to help our students develop their capacities for deep engagement and build their capacity to cope with the increasing distractions of a hyper-connected environment, we have to consider the pace and tempo of learning as a subject we need to address regardless of our disciplines. It is its own discipline.