Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Pleasure Principle

by Kamilah Cummings

Earlier this month I participated in a webinar presented by Dr. David Kirkland of New York University titled A Song of the Smoke: Critical Thoughts on the Literacies of Young Black Men. The webinar was part of Georgia State University’s “Conversations in Global Literacy” series. Kirkland’s presentation examined how educational bias has marginalized black male youth and created a cycle of miseducation that disengages them from the classroom at all levels of education. As part of rethinking the ways educators address this crisis, he offered thoughts on how to better engage these students and their literacies in the classroom. One of the thoughts Kirkland offered for how to do this is to replace “reading, writing, and arithmetic” as the rudiments of education with “pleasure, play, curiosity, and creativity” (Kirkland).

Although we envision the classroom as a place of inclusion, research reflects the reality that many classrooms from kindergarten to college remain places of exclusion. In the article, “Are we having fun yet? Students, social class, and the pleasures of literacy,” Bronwyn T. Williams writes, “if we consider how experiences of reading, writing, and other forms of popular culture influence students’ perceptions of pleasure and literacy, social class has a role to play. Intelligence and pleasure obviously have no class boundaries, but the experiences students have with different forms of texts and communication often do have them. (Williams 339-340)” Williams admits that this can be an uncomfortable subject for educators, but it is a fact that both he and Kirkland argue educators must acknowledge to better facilitate student engagement and learning. Kirkland believes a pedagogical approach that incorporates pleasure, play, curiosity, and creativity can create a more inclusive learning experience.

Certainly, Kirkland and Williams are not the only scholars to recognize the need for pleasure in the classroom. However, as they both acknowledge, the pleasure principle has all but disappeared from most college classrooms. For many educators, pleasure and learning are mutually exclusive experiences that can only unite in specific disciplines.  

Following Kirkland’s presentation, I thought about ways that I use “pleasure, play, curiosity and creativity” to engage students. As much as writing teachers, or teachers in any discipline, love our subject matter we have to accept that many students do not share our love or enthusiasm. With adult learners in particular, there might be a multitude of reasons why students have been disengaged from writing. However, if we find ways to make it more pleasurable and, dare I say fun, perhaps we can disarm some of their fears and frustrations.

This reminded me of a recent class where several of the students confessed that they, “did not like writing.” Rather than attempt to unpack all the reasons why they felt this way, I decided to try to make writing fun so that they could gain pleasure from it while revealing their writing strengths. So, I brought the party game “Table Topics” to class. The game consists of cards with thought-provoking questions on a range of topics from popular culture to politics. It is marketed as a conversation-starter. I used it as a form of low stakes journaling/prewriting assignment. Students pulled two cards and were allowed to decide which question they wanted to answer. I gave them 15 minutes to write a response to the question. I was surprised at how much fun the students had with the game. However, more importantly, they were surprised by how much they were able to write and how much pleasure they had writing it. In previous low stakes journaling/prewriting assignments, students sometimes struggled to write for the allotted time.

The University of New Hampshire’s English Department Director argues, “We can make great claims for the future utility of writing, but if we make it a dutiful act of delayed gratification, devoid of immediate pleasure, students will not write voluntarily, and they will not really engage with the work we require” (Writing and Pleasure). My experience supported this. Playing a game delivered more benefits than I expected. I was able to use their responses to show them how they could effectively write a thesis, use narration, support points, use descriptive detail, compare subjects, and more.  I learned about my students’ outside interests and experiences, which I pulled from to further engage them by selecting more pleasurable future readings that aligned with their interests. I also referred to their game responses when providing later feedback on written assignments. Rather than compromise the academic integrity of the class, as some fear might happen, I felt playing the game enhanced it.

Williams cautions that “taking pleasure seriously in the literacy classroom is not about making everything a game” (Williams 341)Instead, he argues that “it is a matter of encouraging students to bridge supposed barriers between creative and critical work and to understand how pleasures in interpreting and creating texts of all kinds can connect to building pleasure in academic literacies” (Williams 341). I agree. I did not turn my classroom into game night at SNL. However, I did find that one night of play helped me to improve student engagement in my class and yielded a more pleasurable overall learning experience.

Works Cited

Kirkland, David E. A Song of the Smoke: Critical Thoughts on the Literacies of Young Black Men. 14 September 2014.
Williams, Bronwyn T. "Are we having fun yet? Students, social class, and the pleasures of literacy." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (December 2004/January 2005): 338-342.
Writing and Pleasure. 2003. 29 September 2014 <http://cola.unh.edu/english/writing-and-pleasure>.

Monday, September 29, 2014

SNLwriting on the radio

Check out Steffanie Triller and Edward Evins on DePaul Radio this past Friday! They were guests on the UCWbL's Scrawl Radio show and talked about what makes SNL unique, how to work with SNL writers, and the Month of Writing.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Upcoming DePaul Workshops on Teaching and Learning

The DePaul Teaching Commons is offering the following workshops in September and October:
Commenting on Writing to Encourage Revision
Responding to student writing can be time consuming and difficult to approach strategically. In this interactive online workshop, presenters will offer guidelines for prioritizing comments, composing helpful summary notes, and avoiding over-commenting on student work.
Connecting Your Classroom to the World: Developing Global Learning Experiences
This workshop focuses on a range of global learning assignments and contexts that can link current local students’ coursework to international perspectives. Participants will learn about internationalizing course materials, online learning technologies that can facilitate cooperative global learning, and teaching partnerships with colleagues in other countries. Lunch will be provided.
Promoting Student Dialogue Through Online Education Modules
Using technology to “flip the classroom” and teach concepts online, class time can be maximized for student dialogue and deeper levels of meaning making. Participants will explore best practices for online module design, module integration into live classes, and learning evaluation design. Light refreshments will be served.

Writing and procrastination: What type of procrastinator are you?

Based on the research of DePaul's Dr. Joseph Ferrari, Lifehacker created a flowchart to help you decide what type of procrastinator you are. The site also provides a nice synopsis of Ferrari's theories about why procrastinators procrastinate (and my personal favorite, why "procrastinators hate procrastinators").

When I talk with students about writer's block, I introduce some sort of cool digital tool for invention, draw a cluster or brain map, create an outline and start to flesh out the essay as an example, or direct students to "talk to someone, be observant, read something, and some ideas will develop." When it comes to procrastination, I tend to suggest using a daily calendar, setting small goals, or finding a buddy to be accountable to.

Yet, the following week, I still wind up with several late papers and incomplete work, and then a sour feeling comes over me. I ask them, "What happened?" One third of the guilty will say "writer's block", one third will say "I'm a procrastinator", and the other third will tell me about their sick kid, late nights at work, flooded basement, or one of the ten plagues that came across their path in the last seven days. Are "writer's block", "procrastination", and "my kid was really sick" all variations on the same behavioral pattern?

I'd say there are similar, and possibly more forms of procrastination that are task-specific. When it comes to my experience with academic writing and writers, there are likely several variations of procrastination. A bit of research confirmed my suspicion. According to Onwuegbuzie and Collins, "students apprehension about writing appears to be related to academic procrastination stemming from fear of failure and task aversion. This result is consistent with work of Boice who found that procrastination was one of seven cognitive components of writing block. A reciprocal relationship is likely between these constructs" (562). Boice's seven cognitive components include: (1) work apprehension, (2) procrastination, (3) dysphoria, (4) impatience, (5) perfectionism, (6) evaluation anxiety, and (7) rules. Yep, I'm pretty sure I have experience most, if not all of these, myself during my academic career, so I imagine that some these are just now rearing their ugly heads for adult students returning to college.

More recent research has shown that procrastination and writer's block go beyond the cognitive to the social and affective (Wellington 147). Attitudes, beliefs, history, and culture all contribute to those seven cognitive components. Wellington suggests that solutions to procrastination lie in (1) the support and communities that universities provide for writers, (2) opportunities for giving and receiving feedback, (3) educators helping students think about writing as a form of developing and growing their knowledge and understanding (writing as learning), and (4) confronting and talking about the affective elements of writing such as joy, relief, fear, pain, or stress.

I've realized over the years that the process of learning and writing is more than a classroom, a brain, a computer, and textbooks, and that teachers should be required to take at least a few courses in psychology. Procrastination is a real thing that affects real people in achieving their life goals. While I'm not trained in helping people get through these heavy issues, I can at least talk about them in my classroom and offer some food for thought.

For more guidance on avoiding procrastination, check out Ferrari's new book, Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting it Done. Just don't wait too long.

Works Cited
Boice, Robert. "Cognitive components of blocking." Written Communication 2.1 (1985): 91-104.
Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J., and Kathleen MT Collins. "Writing apprehension and academic procrastination among graduate students." Perceptual and motor skills 92.2 (2001): 560-562.
Wellington, Jerry. "More than a matter of cognition: An exploration of affective writing problems of post-graduate students and their possible solutions." Teaching in Higher Education 15.2 (2010): 135-150.