Friday, 24 January 2014

#rhizo14 – week 2: Seeding independent learning: wrestling with writing

Lots of wrestling in FB this week with what could be argued to be an essential ‘issue’ with MOOCs – they are open – free – out there… surely this is thus egalitarian learning at its very best? But no – some are still silenced – some are still feeling the pain of not being good enough – that ‘fish out of water’ feeling that is the experience of so many non-traditional students in the traditional classroom.
We have some strategies that work here to overcome this: say hello – be welcoming – comment – reply – extend a welcoming hand to other students. In doing this we ARE the community, all of us, everyone who does this friendly human thing in this strange and potentially impersonal world.
I blogged about this before – how doing the MOOCs really reinforced the need to bring the human back into the physical classroom. To make time for students to get to know each other – to bond – to feel that it is okay to speak – to listen to and be with their fellow students.

This year we found that role plays and simulations in the trad ‘lecture’ time really helped this to happen. We had a Post-apocalypse scenario running over several weeks:
Who would you keep in your bunker and why?
What education system would you build – immediately on leaving the bunker; five years later; ten years on…
What cultural activities would you save and why – and how would you build a sense of self-efficacy in future students?
The students were puzzled at this strange ‘lecture’ programme at first – but leapt into the discussions and found their voices – and found that they could speak to and with their fellow class mates. I think they formed a ‘cohort identity’ (BLAH) – and the classes definitely FEEL different.
We are also using creative techniques: drawing, collage, poetry… to help us all to think differently – to find our voices in different ways and in different media… And we are asking the students to blog about their learning hoping that this semi-academic space which is open for their colonizing develops their voices in powerful ways.
At the same time, they are going to have to wrestle with the slow, painful and iterative process that is academic writing.
How can we encourage and support our students in this struggle? How do we keep the flow going – and hopefully the joy – when this mountain does have to be climbed?
It’s really hard because writing is hard and the fear of failure is so PRESENT. That fear of making a fool of yourself – of not getting it right – of making your own ignorance visible to the world – of being judged. (Yes folks – let’s check out our FB page – we fear it too – you know!)
Especially when this fear is manifest in a vision and practice of writing that seems to tell students that they must get it right first go. That writing is the pouring out of perfectly formed, pre-digested learning - rather than the stuff and process of learning – and anything else is just pure visible, recorded proof of personal inadequacy and failure.
Below is what I have just sent to a student who has already written her Project – all of it: the proposal part is not due in till W19 (this is W15) and the final report part of it is not due in till W30. She is engaged. She is a motivated student. She has started early. It’s a great first draft – yet I fear that any feedback that suggests that it needs revision will wound.
So this is what I wrote:
I can see that you are going to be a tortured perfectionist! Apart from the pain (!!!) - this will make sure that you do get a wonderful degree. But you are going to have to give yourself permission to write stuff which will not be perfect first go (and nor should it be!) - and then go over it a few times to knock it into shape.
So, yes, there are some bits of the writing that need a little 'smoothing' - some bits are better than others - but there is a project sitting there - waiting to be 'emerged' through a revision process.
This is one reason we *try* to get students to write early (but most of them never do!). When you first write something it is great and so are you! After a little while, because your brain has continued to wrestle with your ideas, you go back over your piece, you see that it is not perfect - and you start to tidy it up. 
You change a bit here and there... you realise that those two longish sentences can be cut down into one short sentence that actually makes your point in an even better way... 
This is the struggle to write - and it is what we all should do to get our ideas across. It is a brilliant, slow and sometimes painful process - but it is the writing process. 
We have to give ourselves permission to write something - and then to change it. So - give yourself a couple of days - then go through your writing again yourself. Try to be shorter (we always need to be shorter!) - make sure you are saying exactly what you mean - change it a bit... Remember to *Save As* the versions: v1, v2, v3 and so on (we often go through 17 or more versions to get to something we are happy with). It is great to keep all the versions - especially as sometimes we delete whole sections of our writing - and then think that it was really important and needs to be in the piece after all...
We need to learn that this IS proper academic writing: this PROCESS is... (and also - it will give you data for future auto-ethnographic studies!). Most people think writing should be 'right first go' - or that if they have to change something - then they are a 'bad person' or a 'poor student' - but no - this is the necessary process of writing. 
Think of it as having a structured academic conversation with yourself.
This is the hardest thing for us tutors to get students to do. It is also hard to get other academics to realise that THIS is what we need to help students to do. It's not about shouting about spelling, punctuation and grammar - important as they are - but making time and space for this slow and thoughtful process to happen - especially when our students do not want to do this. It all feels too slow and painful.
Anyway - once you have improved it a bit yourself - print all of that off - and bring it to the class on Wednesday. We can give you feedback and hopefully help you to the next step!
But these are just words!
When I was a first year student we had no high stakes assessment that I can remember. All the first year stuff was designed to get us to think – to engage – to learn… It was brilliant – it was a bit like… a MOOC!!
Since I went through HE, ‘they’ broke it a bit more – made it harder – more formal – with more opportunities to fail – and then they let a few more non-traditional students in – and started to blame them for their failure or their fears – or their ‘fragility’ – instead of trying to fix the problem of education…
And now I don’t know how to get these bullied students to embrace this horrible and beautiful struggle with writing….

I am enjoying #rhizo14 so much – and as the community is the curriculum – this is the issue I thought I’d pop out there this week. I do hope for some Comments here folks. I need your thoughts!
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