Thinking and Writing Through New Media

Here is the syllabus for a new course I will be teaching at the NYU Gallatin school this Fall. The course is a first year writing seminar I designed called “Thinking and Writing Through New Media.” The goal is for students to critically examine the past, present, and future of writing technologies as a lens to understanding their own writing process and the impact of new media on the way we think. The three major writing projects were inspired by Sondra Perl’s “Digital Literacy Narratives,” Miriam Posner’s “Device Narratives,” and Kari Kraus’s “Design Fiction.” I will post these assignment sheets throughout the semester, but will explain the concepts to anyone who is interested now. Your feedback is most welcome.

Here is the site URL: https://wp.nyu.edu/licastro_fall14/

Courses

TEACHING EXPERIENCE

Borough of Manhattan County Community College, New York, NY

Graduate Intern/Adjunct Instructor of English, 2010-12

English 101: Composition

This course is tailored every semester to the final exam readings selected by the department. Themes from these readings are used to prepare readings and design an assignment sequence which includes provocations, in-class and online discussions, drafts, group presentations, peer reviews, and research papers. Focus is on developing strong thesis statements and supporting arguments with evidence from the text.

English 201: Introduction to Literature

Using a theme, such as “Dangers of Technology,” this course examines literary genres (drama, novels, memoirs, poetry, short stories) through critical theory. A meta-awareness of methodology is developed through the use of innovative technology. A sample reading list, assignments, and student work can be found on the course blog: http://thedangersoftechnology086.ws.gc.cuny.edu/

Marywood University, Scranton, PA  

Adjunct Instructor, 2008-10

Early American Literature I and II: “Canon Wars”

This two course series invites students to critically examine the contents of the Norton Anthology of Literature, especially the diversity of authors included or excluded in each edition, in order to question how the proliferation and adoption of these textbooks can shape the invisible boarders of our discipline.

World Literature: “An Epic Quest”

Moving both chronologically and geographically this course examines the genre of the epic through literary theory, especially cultural and textual studies. Students work in groups to present critical analyses of each text leading to a final assignment in which students draw from biographical research and creative writing to compare texts.

Composition: “Riots and Revolutions”

This first-year writing course uses the lens of modern, international riots and revolutions to invite students to develop strong arguments using academic research and writing techniques. Social media, digital archives, and other online resources are used to develop digital literacy skills.                                        

Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA  Adjunct Instructor, 2008-10

Composition for Pharmacy Majors

Targeted specifically for students accepted into the competitive pharmacy program at Wilkes University, this course focuses on developing the literacy skills needed to excel in STEM fields.

Early American Literature

This upper-level seminar presented several difficult full-length texts and critical material to advanced humanities majors. The focus was on developing close reading and critical analysis skills.                                             

King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, PA  

Adjunct Instructor, 2008-10  

Writing Skills

This course was mandatory for all students who did not pass the writing component of the entrance exam at King’s College. The department developed the syllabus and selected the textbook with a focus on grammar and basic writing skills. As the instructor I included supplemental exercises and assignments to exercise these skills.

Composition

A portfolio-style writing course, that used process-based pedagogy to develop academic writing and research skills through assignments built on the rhetorical modes.                                                 

Harold Washington Community College, Chicago, IL

Supplemental Instructor, 2007-08

Writing Skills and Research Writing

As the internship component of my Teaching in Two-Year Colleges Certificate, I worked as a teaching assistant to a full-time faculty member who mentored me through designing assignments, grading student work, and tutoring students one-on-one in the writing center.

Philosophy

During my career as both a student and an educator, I have embraced digital tools. My work has allowed me to create robust virtual learning environments that support, amplify, and extend the learning process. As a pedagogue, my use of multi-user networking sites open new doors for my students, fostering a participatory culture 1 while cultivating technological literacy. In practicing meta-medium fluency, students learn computational thinking skills which they can apply across the curriculum 2. I practice this theory by focusing on three essential elements: access, creativity, and collaboration.

Access: I want students to have access to the course material in the legal application (“the ability to enter, speak with, or use”), the cognitive application (“the state or quality of being approachable”), and the technological use (“to locate (data) for transfer from one part of a computer system to another”) of the term 3. I build my course site using a WordPress blog and make the site open to the public, thereby extending the boundaries of the physical classroom, and providing students with the ability to connect our course content to work done in their academic, professional, and personal lives. Discussing how this access changes our work in the class and our culture at large leads to questions of digital citizenship such as identity formation, privacy, and copyright. The simultaneous attention to medium and method bolsters the development of student’s meta-awareness of their own understanding and learning processes.

Creativity: In order to foster continuous creative thinking, I engage my students at every stage of the learning process 4. While I create the infrastructure and administrative features of the blog, the students contribute the majority of the content. They integrate and create multimedia elements to enhance their posts, encouraging the students to compose mulitmodally, and to analyze visual and verbal rhetoric. For example, students create projects that can include video, images, and sound using cloud-based presentation software to present their research to their peers. By re-imagining and remixing their work in a variety of media the students practice computational thinking, requiring them to be adaptive, and challenging them to be innovative. (An example course site is live at http://thedangersoftechnology086.ws.gc.cuny.edu/)

Collaboration: As meta-media are by nature social, the skills associated are best learned through collaboration. The opportunity for “collaboration by difference” is created by the diverse backgrounds, ranges of knowledge, and varied experience levels of CUNY students 5. This approach thrives on difference in perspective; students analyze these differences in order to understand what drives their own meaning-making processes. Therefore, I strive to build a framework for social knowledge construction in my classroom, through both virtual and physical interaction. Students work together to generate ideas, compose drafts, create presentations, and review and revise their work – all made possible through the facilitation of digital tools designed for collaborative work.

Thinking critically about how technology changes the way we think and work creates a positive feedback loop; it helps students learn, it helps me to teach. I encourage students to take risks and experiment by stressing that “failing-forward” is an essential part of learning. I facilitate this approach through the cultivation of habits of mind, guiding students to formulate critical questions, develop information literacy, and practice oral and written communication skills. These are fundamental concepts in any discipline, and are invaluable throughout life.

 

 

 

 

  1. Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. (NYU Press: 2006).
  2. Campbell, Gardner. “Media Fluency?” http://www.gardnercampbell.net/blog1/?p=1238. (Posted May 17, 2010).
  3. “Access.” Dictionary.com (Accessed March 11, 2012).
  4. In 1961 J.C. R. Licklider said “No one knows what it would do to a creative brain to think creatively continuously… interactive computers can give us our first look at unfettered thought.” Source: Waldrop, Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution that Made Computing Personal. (Penguin Books, 2001).
  5. Davidson, Cathy.Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. (Viking Press: 2011).

Tales of a Freeway Flyer

My First Article for the GC Advocate:

Considering the frequency and urgency of articles across both academic publications and, although less so, public news sources warning students not to go to graduate school, it would be ignorant of me not to ask myself why I am entering my first year of a humanities doctoral program at CUNY. I do not have a trust fund or a stable supplemental income, therefore I am the prime target of these authors. However, I am not entering into this solely for the love of reading or with the naive belief that I will land the perfect tenure track job at MLA while finishing the last pages of my dissertation. My masters program prepared me and trained me for the current reality. The teaching in two year colleges internship and certificate program at DePaul University in Chicago gave me the practical knowledge, mentorship, and experience needed to enter the workforce with an M.A., and that is exactly what I did. Within two weeks of graduation I was offered classes as an adjunct instructor at seven different colleges in Pennsylvania. As perhaps some of you are aware, most colleges only allow adjuncts to teach two or three sections a semester, so I taught the maximum possible: three schools, two classes at each school, and over 120 students. Most people call this insanity. However, despite the hardships I faced as a freeway flyer, it was the best experience of my life.

To be clear, I am not supporting the abuse and exploitation of adjuncts, because it is the students who suffer from the working conditions of the contingent work force in higher education. However, for a twenty-something without a family to support, teaching a plethora of classes at multiple institutions was a rewarding and informative process that led to immense personal and professional development. The learning curve was steep. First, there was the culture shock of moving from Chicago to a middle-of-nowhere coal mining town that inspired a satirical representation as the setting of a factious paper supply company office. My quick commute on the Chicago El train was replaced with a forty-minute commute through the mountains navigating the constantly under construction highways to make class times that were barely an hour apart. This only intensified the fact that I was lost in a world of prepping and teaching three different courses.

A lot of ink has been spilt on why teaching your own course for the first time is terrifying. In m first semester as an adjunct I was faced with constructing three composition courses, a remedial writing course, and an Early American Literature course on three different campuses with three different sets of departmental requirements and guidelines. It was impossible to hide my performance anxiety. Dr. Laurie McMillian, the interim chair at the university where I was teaching a variety of courses, gave me some sensible advice: “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.” She was right. Even though I had not taken an Early American Literature class since undergrad, and had never taught from a grammar-based workbook, I did have training in the classroom. I was not only armed with the wisdom garnered from the articles on pedagogy by Bartholomae, Murray, Lunsford, and Elbow that I devoured in my coursework at DePaul, but I also discovered brilliant blogs such as Prof.Hacker, which offer practical approaches to teaching in today’s technologically advanced classrooms. To my dismay, many tenets of the teaching philosophy I composed were replaced by realistic approaches to the limits of my students. I quickly realized that my idealistic notion of assigning dozens of novels was absurd. Not only did I need to teach from an anthology, I also needed to search for the cheapest one available. The chairs who hired me were more than willing to provide me with sample syllabi and desk copies of potential textbooks, which I enthusiastically spent the summer annotating and analyzing until I had composed my course outlines. So even though my color-coded filing system complete with traveling filing cabinet failed, I learned two key tools for success: first, most department heads want their faculty to succeed and many schools have resources for new teachers, and, second, technology can help you conquer the classroom.

As a born digital Jerome McGann groupie, my proclivity for technology informs the central doctrine of my political approach to teaching. I strongly believe we should be teaching students technological skills across the disciplines. But as many of you are aware, finding support for digital endeavors is unbelievably frustrating, if not infuriating. I needed to build six courses on three separate LMS formats, and due to the bureaucracy of human resources, I had very little time to orient myself with the systems. My inquires about faculty workshops were met by a middle-aged woman in a kitten sweatshirt and Crocs who printed out the 400 page Moodle manual and handed it to me – single sided. Clearly, I was on my own. The sink-or-swim style of survival actually benefitted me greatly. I was forced to teach myself how to build an online course and navigate various models of smart classrooms, and those skills have saved me every semester. The freedom of paperless grading is essential to my success as a freeway flyer. My wrath for the Windows operating systems aside, Track Changes can be a powerful teaching tool and an advantageous agent for managing hundreds of students’ papers.  After coming to terms with the snide responses from anti-tech colleagues, I found a community of like-minded professionals online who nurtured my desire to present students with the digital tools that are redefining the education system.

Aside from navigating virtual worlds, adapting to the office culture of three different schools was a daily challenge. At times, this was a scary and hostile world.  These encounters often made me question my desire to pursue my doctoral degree. Luckily, the faculty members who were kind, enthusiastic, and welcoming far overshadowed these ill-spirited apparitions. Three of my colleagues invited me to join a panel at CEA last spring, giving me the opportunity to present at a conference with funding from our university. One of those professors, a CUNY alumnus, encouraged me to apply to this program and advised me through the application process. Despite a significant age gap, I fostered great friendships with my fellow faculty, and these are important professional relationships that will be fruitful throughout my career. I learned to constantly contact the chairs of each department, keeping them abreast not only of my triumphs, but also my concerns in the classroom, and the result was a steady supply of courses each semester. Even when an unprecedented drop in spring enrollment devastated the region, my chairs fought to give me at least one course. I was not only a teacher to my students, but also a student to my fellow teachers. On the same note, my administrative assistants were possibly the most vital resource during my time as an adjunct. There is no possible way to manage copy quotas, departmental meetings, registrar deadlines, campus calendars and grading procedures without them. If there is one valuable piece of advice I can share, it is to respect your office managers. They can and will rescue you when all else fails.

I have to admit, there were times when I thought I was going to fail. Upon reading the writing samples of my composition students in Northeastern Pennsylvania, I thought that there was nothing I could teach them. Unlike the overtly diverse, street smart, low-income population of the urban community college in Chicago where I had interned, the students in these rural suburbs seemed privileged, homogenous, and apathetic. Their diagnostic essays were polished and organized, with clear thesis statements, and well constructed support. However, one truism echoed across the pages: the students professed their abhorrence of writing. Since the majority of the students came from the surrounding towns, they had all been educated in Pennsylvania public schools wrought with corruption (Google NEPA teacher kickbacks). They complained of inadequate teachers who only provided exercises designed to help them obtain high scores on the PSSA tests. Each of their essays was a formulaic replica of the last without any personality or creativity expressed within the well constructed lines. I did not need to teach them basic writing skills, they needed to find their voices. We worked on using critical thinking skills to develop opinions on controversial current events. We debated, defined terms, and read newspaper articles. They challenged me to change my approach to composition. I adjusted not only the course objectives, but the assignments every semester to meet the needs of that particular student population.

The hundreds of students who sat in front of me each day taught me more than any textbook ever could. Unfortunately, it is from the extreme cases, the “bad” students, that I have learned the most. In my first semester of teaching I had a remedial writing class. I was privy to the scores they received on a very basic grammar test, and all of the students had missed more than 50% of the questions. When the first full length paper from one freshman football recruit came back practically perfect, I knew I was in for a fight. As he slouched back in my office chair, headphones blaring, no books or pens in tow, he mumbled something about his coach “helping” him write his paper. With his arms folded and sunglasses on, his coach declared to me, without guilt or regret, that his facilitation was acceptable because it was the student’s ideas, but he had put them on paper. I was outraged. My chair informed me that this was not unusual, and that the most I could do was fail him on that assignment. The administration did not remove him from the class, nor did they suspend him from play. This Division III school made athletics a higher priority than academic integrity. The next semester a student forged an e-mail from me and delivered it to academic services as proof that I was changing her grade from a D to a B. When the director called me with the student and her mother in her office demanding the grade change, I laughed. My outrage was replaced by confidence in my documentation of this student’s work through my online course site. Although I defended my position, this girl paid tuition, therefore she remains a student in that university despite this astonishing act of academic dishonestly. These are the realities of academia today.

The most radical realization about how the private university system works came from a student in my most recent summer composition course. Her diagnostic was at the lowest level I had ever seen in a college classroom. From what I could abstract from her remarkably poor writing was that she was a foreign student who had transferred from a large public school to take this class for the third time. Her ESL issues seemed beyond my ability to address, especially considering the high level of writing I received from the other students in the class, even those from her country of origin. I contacted my chair and international student services to assist me in providing supplemental support for her. Since this was a summer class on a compressed schedule, by the time a representative from the school had assessed her situation, the student had handed in an obviously plagiarized paper. The chair of my department said he had never seen such blatant plagiarism, and that he would fully support my decision to fail her. However, the representative wanted to speak with the student to ensure it was intentional plagiarism and not simply a misunderstanding due to cultural differences. During that conversation the student confessed that she had not taken the TOEFL exam and did not believe herself to be capable of composing a paper without outside help. Even after this stunning admission, the representative warned me that the student would not be removed from my course because the university did not want to damage its relationship with the embassy. When she failed the next assignment, she promised me that she would revise it and declared her dedication to my class, while at the same time threatening academic services that she would tell her embassy that the university treated foreign students unfairly.  Further investigation revealed that the student had falsified not only her test scores, but also her address and sponsorship information. Now it was my integrity that was being questioned, and I was forced to use every resource at my disposal to ensure that neither my standing nor the standards of my classroom would be jeopardized any further. While in the previous cases I conceded to the pressure from the administration, this time, I held my ground.

I know tenure track jobs are scarce. I have read the dozens of articles and hundreds of comments that demoralize those going into graduate studies in the humanities. To the naysayers I ask, “Who will be teaching your children some day?” I do not believe, as the cynical ABD once proclaimed, “That a monkey can teach composition.” If you are disgusted by the injustices I have described, then consider that we need highly educated, well trained professors in our universities. It is not for some lofty love of literature that I dream will manifest itself into a million dollar book deal that I am in graduate school. Despite earning under the poverty line, without benefits, as an adjunct, I refuse to retreat back to the world of public relations where I could have a high paying “real job.” I am dedicated to enacting the change necessary to ensure your children will LEARN. The students in my classroom will not be given grades in exchange for performance on the field or tuition checks paid in full. I am here at CUNY pursuing my path to a PhD because of my time as an adjunct. To my fellow students, I ask “Why are you here?” The day will come when the lack of funding demands that you adjunct, and upon graduation it is statistically proven that you will spend time outside the tenure system, so take this time and explore the world of teaching. That is why I am here. I want to teach. Do you?