The Pencil

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Being a writer and editor, I have made pencils permanent companions of mine for many years. Word’s track changes and Adobe’s tools have nothing on the ease and simplicity of a stick of wood-covered graphite with a small wad of eraser on top. At least my son still has to use pencils at school for some things even though they all have their own Chromebook. Math is still attended to with the best tool (we won’t address the use of calculators, memories, and counting on fingers and toes here).

As much as I hate to waste paper, staring at a computer screen for hours is too physically taxing for me to tolerate. I print and mark up texts by hand as often as possible. Pencils are the most logical tool because I can erase marks if I rethink something or want to update changes. They are not encased in plastic, so I’m less uptight about going through them. Though I do use hand-turned pens, that is another post for another time.

In my new job, I began as a tech writer but the position morphed into an editing-dense endeavor once I began to look through their existing publications and documents and started streamlining some of the content and layout. Almost immediately, I rolled away from the computer screen, and out came the pencils.

1200px-sharpener_with_pencilThen the pencils got dull. I went to the supply cabinet and searched in vain for a sharpener of any kind. Then I visited just about every coworker I could to borrow one. No luck. I did get some blank looks and a some offers of mechanical pencils, but no sharpeners. Then, one of the engineers reached on top of his file cabinet and grabbed an electric sharpener that looked to be no later a make than the ’80s, blew the dust off of it, and let me take it. It sits atop my desk like a display piece. Much like the bobble-head dolls of one of my friends. People stop dead and point and talk about the “old” ones you hand crank (Yes, I have one at home).

The motor abruptly breaks the relative silence, so I try to limit its use so I don’t keep alarming people with the sudden blast of old technology. The other day, from a few cubicles away, I heard someone giving the answer “It’s a pencil sharpener.” That reminded me of Lane Smith’s It’s a Book with all of the silly questions related to what it “is and does.” I mean, really, will curious queries be applicable to the pencil itself one day?

Reading about pencils: The Pencil Perfect by Caroline Weaver. I have to admit, it is not well edited and, if you are an academic, not scholarly, but, for a niche book created from love of something that is truly an unsung part of history and world culture, it is still of value.

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Should Your Blog Topics Be Thematically Consistent at All Times?

paint cansI just finished a conference call at work about creating general interest blog posts for our website. People were suggesting topics that were not linked to technical writing or instructional design, but diverse topics like music, candy, humorous IMs, and Halloween decorating. But I kept thinking that the thematic focus should be consistent somehow with our industry. It’s the composition professor in me: I always bring a subject or argument back to a basic foundation—a big picture. So, if tech writers and designers are writing about these random things, shouldn’t they still be related to our environment somehow? If you like the Beatles, as one person enthusiastically told us, can’t that also tie to design (album covers) or sound (voiceover technology)? Candy and decorating can relate to branding color schemes and images for clients, right?

But then I started to think about how my own blogging digressions have produced some very interesting feedback. I’ve had online conversations begin with new people who suddenly drop in and respond to these added topics. I’ve found new ideas and perspectives I didn’t know I would be interested in. So, maybe going seemingly off topic will provide us with some great results. Maybe these are chances to bond with others we didn’t interact with very often.

There are a few colleagues and myself who spend the day connected via Slack. To offset stress, burnout, creative conundrums, drawing blanks, and maybe the loneliness of telecommuting, we check in with humorous gifs and observations. The hysteria often mounts and the energy increases. Our connection might be initiated by our work relationship, but the topics are often reflective of our external interests. It’s rather freeing to think of something that has no consequences, no deadlines, no evaluations or profit tied to it. A kind of tonic that invigorates and connects us rather than divides or distracts from our goals.

So, perhaps, variety in subject matter reflected in our blogs may drive more new followers to us and encourage established connections to share a wider variety of responses. At least we won’t be bored!

What’s Up With Process Analysis?

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The other day, a colleague asked me how I felt about writing procedural documents. Basically, in process analysis, you break down the steps of a procedure so someone can understand and, if desired, repeat the steps and get the same results. The process might be complex and fully coherent only to those trained in an area such as car repair or IT—the discourse community as we call it in academia. Or the steps can be formulated for the average person with no prior experience in the particular process or field. For instance, their process could be to assemble a piece of furniture ordered from a catalog. Either way, once the audience is identified, the steps are presented in accessible, logical language.

While this is not an area of writing that people find fascinating to discuss at social gatherings—they are much more interested in hearing me discuss, albeit briefly, my research and writing on medieval Irish literature—I find it a challenge and one that presses me to really consider how clearly I communicate in other areas. If I can guide a stranger so well and thoroughly that they can replicate the wiring and structure of a large machine (mass manufacturing), or build a chair (standard instruction manual), or successfully assist and satisfy an irate stranger (customer service protocol), I have affected many lives in a positive manner. That’s pretty cool, frankly.

To make this accomplishment even more effective (and satisfying), I need to think about all possibilities that may arise once the user is interacting with my text. That is mostly wondering what might or can go wrong even with the directions in place. For instance, not all customers can be calmed by the same responses or promises. The customer service rep might not be able to assess whether or not they are being worked for a deal or freebie, or if someone has had a bad experience before they got to your line and just have hit their limit of patience. What if the tools needed for handling sensitive materials are no longer readily available to the workers at a factory and your text only addresses what they don’t have? (Think the main office cutting corners in purchasing . . . ) Where can these people turn?

A good mystery writer or a type-A personality (like me) can have a field day with this type of writing! Those of us who spend maybe too much time planning for the many curve balls life might throw can have their cake specially baked and plenty of time to eat it too. So, what may not be a big hit for cocktail conversation (teaching at a University always got more admiration for me) is still definitely satisfying.

With this in mind, I am reminded of the time I met Frank McCourt at a tribute to the author Benedict Keiley who had recently passed away. We had a mutual friend, so we were introduced and began to chat (are you finding me more interesting now?). When he found out I was teaching at Pace University there in the city, he pursed his lips, scowled, shook his head, and said “Now that’s a racket. Everyone thinks your great when you tell them you are a professor! Tell them you are a high-school teacher and . . .” He proceeded to make another face of exasperation. He was not tearing me down. He was expressing the general attitude out there. Of course, pretty much no one knows who I am and he, now sadly deceased, will continue to be one of the most well-known Irish authors of the late 20th and early 21st century. He was a high-school teacher and yet, in that unglamorous role, influenced future writers prior to his own fame and fortune.

It remains to be seen if my time in academia has opened any major paths to my many students. I may not become famous and may no longer be able to impress anyone with my job description, but I may just touch and affect many lives in such a way as to improve their worlds in small but meaningful ways. For a writer, it’s all part of the process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Are College Students Used to Reading?

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As I read through another essay in Deep Reading, I was struck by the author’s commentary on her early years of learning. Meredith Ross (“The Unschooled Writer”), struggled with the “flat” or simplistic wording of tests: “I had grown up in a world of context and complexity, and the trivia questions and the flat answers in boxes just weren’t cutting it.” Granted this was referring to a test she took to be able to participate in a television show about “child geniuses,” still, these questions were not much different from many standardized tests. I should know, I used to write items for such tests! We had to avoid religion, emotion, controversial subjects, birthdays, anything too representative of wealth (an inner-city child might be offended if we used the word “yacht” instead of boat), etc. Basically, anything interesting or well-rounded in nature. Apparently students should not be distracted by variety or anything requiring imagination.

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What I am getting at here is her emphasis on “content and complexity.” It seems that fewer and fewer students enter college with an expectation of anything more than flat, generic questions based on hyper-edited-for-easy-content passages and photo-dense pages—this goes for course reading and textbooks–not just tests. They seem to be more shocked by challenge than bored by blandness.

She bucked at the idea of having to be right the first time: “Almost every mistake I made as a child, small or large, was . . . understandable [and] easily correctable . . . rather than an insurmountable failure or something that needed to be addressed seriously.” Trial and error were part of her process. Especially her writing process. So why do so many freshmen sit silently and afraid to risk mistakes these days? I used to have students who would at least try to guess. Even light sarcasm is better than silence in most instances. But silence is more and more common.

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Perhaps inserting a sense of humor into the mix might help: “I don’t know if there’s a better lesson for a writer to learn: do your best, and if it comes out wrong, just laugh and know better next time.” I do try but it seems that they aren’t sure they should laugh either!

Overall, I’d like to see more students these days react like Ross and abhor the tedium, expect the complex and the engaging, and take the risk.

Deep Reading vs. Casual Review

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I’ve been addressing, here, students’ preparedness for their first-year composition course. No longer taking for granted that they have been reading regularly for school or personal interest and that they at least have some experience in questioning–analyzing–their materials, I have actively asked them to question their relationship with the course essays and assignments. Ordinarily, I would get right to work on assigning their writing projects and the planning and brainstorming for their essays, but this cannot be the starting point anymore. I need to find out what they truly understand or find of interest in the text before they can even begin to formulate their own work.

For the most part, very few are aware that they have prior personal experience or knowledge that they could apply to understanding their materials. They see each essay as a separate entity that stands alone from all other assignments in other classes. They often don’t relate the subject matter to experiences and choices from their everyday lives. It’s hard to fathom for me because I’ve always been asked to relate the now to the past and to future possibilities. I assume everyone has done the same.

That does not make for effective teaching. This is not to say that I am leaning in the direction of trigger warnings and the like. I still feel that adults must be able to face multiple and possibly uncomfortable subjects without filters. It’s up to them to decide what they can handle–not up to me to shield them. But, positive or negative, they still need to be clearly engaged.

Very few have been interested in reading with true depth rather than reviewing for class time. Some come to me having struggled with understanding the writers’ overall viewpoint and even the vocabulary level. Personal essays are simply narratives without perspective to some. Overt argument is distilled into basic summary. Class time has become about how to read in general rather than how to write at this level. But, if that is what I have in hand, that is what I work with. And, coming to this with empathy makes me more effective and creates a particular safety zone that I am ok with providing. Some call it remedial work, some call it developmental, some call it refresh and review. Regardless, I call is a necessity for students from community college to private universities these days. I can’t reform K-12 education but I can accept what that produces  and do my best with what I inherit.

Literature and the Writing Process

orwellAs I continue to look through the essays in Deep Reading, it has become more apparent that the choice of using fiction or nonfiction for the classroom is a topic that many professors remain obsessed over and still debate on a regular basis. I’ve often argued this topic with colleagues and find that many composition professors are absolutely against bringing any form of fiction into their classroom. They feel that students need to be exposed to particular formats that they can follow and apply for themselves for their assignments. How could a work of fiction assist them in their own expository writing?

Yes, they should read works of nonfiction for examples of the modes of writing (e.g., argument, definition, process analysis), organization, research, citations/references, etc. But what about students’ interests? What about being engaged creatively? Not that nonfiction is boring, but sitting with an anthology of (sometimes outdated) essays by writers who may be unfamiliar to them is not a promising recipe for enthusiastic class discussion or original essay theses.

There is much to find in many novels that will engage a student and encourage complex analysis of important topics. One of the scholars whose work was most interesting to me is Sheridan Blau of Teachers College. He makes a succinct and logical argument in favor of (some) fiction as a catalyst for writing: “[M]ost serious novels . . . are interlaced throughout with passages that are themselves not narrative, but that are important to the experience of the novel as a structure of meaning and drawn from the discourses of philosophy, theology, ethics, and the various social and natural sciences.” In other words, students can get more than entertainment when they read fiction—if they are guided properly. Why not focus more on the overall topics students would like to investigate and argue rather than obsessing over the genre from which these topics are derived?

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