My handwriting is poor. For years I have joked that I can get away with this because I'm a doctor.  And I have absolutely no trouble reading my own brand of shorthand. What's the problem? As a writing teacher, I am always commenting on my students' texts, mostly in marginal notes on papers and in an end comment letter. I work very hard to write legibly on my students' texts. But the fact remains that my poor handwriting always makes its way into those comments. I offer a translation "service" to my students when I hand back papers and dedicate class time to a reading of my comments before we work to put common writing challenges on the board. And over the term my students do become better interpreters of my shorthand.

Commenting on student texts has always seemed more personalized when I'm hunched over a desk with a pencil in hand, making decisions about where and when to mark the text. And space limitations of the margins help reduce the likelihood that I'll overwhelm the student with feedback, though that's always a real possibility.

Back around 2001, when I taught freshman writing as an asynchronous online course, I experimented with digital markup using Acrobat. I found it time consuming and clunky, and while I could write more text quite quickly - and legibly - I disliked the distance the process put between the printed page and myself.

MS Word's comment tools and track changes have always bugged me for some reason. Perhaps it's the ease with which one can simply "accept all changes," effectively allowing a student to let me revise the paper. (I feel this way even though I almost never actually rephrase or rewrite a student's sentence.) This is already a challenge in teaching revision: students often revise only those moments we mark in a text, thinking that will "fix" the paper.

Strange. For all I've done to embrace emergent digital writing technologies over the last dozen years, I have resisted what is perhaps the most basic tool the writing teacher might adopt in working with student texts. Until now.

Enter Google Docs

I feel like a luddite for not getting serious with Google Docs. My institution uses Google Apps for Education, effectively putting all of my students on the Google network. This is quite exciting for a number of reasons that go way beyond Docs. But that's another story.

Students write their papers directly into a Doc they create on their account, copy-paste a text document from their computer into a Doc, or upload a text doc to Docs. Once they have the paper appropriately formatted (double-spaced, block quotes, page numbers, etc.), they "share" the document with me. I comment on the document and they get immediate feedback.

It's a bit like MS Office, making it less than beautiful, only I don't need to have the files on my machine or worry about file compatibility. (Until this term, I regularly received attachments in .pages, .doc, .docx, .txt, .odt, and even - yes - .wpd formats.) I have four different word processing programs on my computer so that I can handle this variety!

I do have an issue with "shared" documents and marking texts. The real-time nature of Docs means that my comments show up immediately. I prefer to distribute final, marked papers at the same time, particularly since it can take several days to work through a (virtual) stack of papers. The workaround I'm using involves copying the shared document, pasting it into a new document I own, and making my comments. I can then share the comments to each student at roughly the same time.

Peer Review

More important than the way this tool enables me to comment on texts is its potential in the peer review process.  My approach to peer review has always involved in-class reading and discussion of student texts. Everyone brings multiple copies, small groups do read-arounds and discuss each text in the group, and I sit in on groups to offer guidance and encouragement.

New this term, I'm putting the reading of drafts onto homework, with the class period reserved for discussion of the ideas and suggestions for revision. Students share their draft Doc with designated peers; commenting happens on the Doc.

I can quickly and easily see the character of the students' comments, flag and echo some of the best comments by peers, and add my own to the mix. Gone are the days when I would have to collect 3 copies of a draft to see the "layers" of peer feedback on a student's text, or rely on some other elaborate, paper-heavy mechanism to evaluate the peer review in my classes.

I do worry that the marked document may overwhelm novice writers who can easily become overwhelmed by the quantity of feedback on a single document. (It would be very, very cool if the author could choose to view one set of comments or another.)

Problem - MS Office is Inescapable

In terms of workflow, I have found that the current version of Docs is very limiting when one wants to print comments. Print your Doc and the comments get stripped out before printing. Docs has a full portfolio of export/download options (.doc, .pdf, .html, and more). But only .doc preserves the comments though the export. Frankly, this stinks to high heaven!

Here's the workflow:

  1. Open Doc with comments that you want to print to bring to class, perhaps to reduce laptop multi-tasking during peer review.
  2. Download .doc file to computer. Open in Word, Pages, Open Office, or another editor. Print.
  3. Bring to class.

This approach isn't too cumbersome if you're only printing one Doc. Now multiply the process by 20, 40, 60 to hand back papers with comments.

The writing teacher has already spent 15-30 minutes marking each text. Putting two steps between "desire to print" and "actual print" seems ridiculous. And I'm not sure what technical hurdle would prevent comments from printing. I'm sure Google will address this in some upcoming update.

In an online or hybrid/blended writing course, I can see Docs as a wonderful tool. Printed text becomes irrelevant in an online environment.


It's taken a little while for me to take it up, but I finally broke down and upgraded my WordPress install to the latest version. I'm only just starting to get to know this version. Still, it's pretty clear that the WP team has made some good additions.

Drag and Drop Media Upload

Right away, I noticed a simplified media upload mechanism. WP is getting smarter. It can now detect the media type you want to upload and sort it appropriately. Even more interesting is the drag-and-drop functionality for media uploads. I gave the tool a quick test drive by uploading a header image, a shot of my backyard pond, below.

Header for Spring 2012 English Composition Course
Backyard Pond.

Flyout Menus

Anyone who spends time with WP knows that the dashboard sidebar menu structure is a bit long.  On a laptop, it's not uncommon to see the menu run below the fold, forcing a scroll just to locate the settings options.

Flyout menus changes all that.  It's easy to see your menu options on hover, saving the extra click and streamlining the look of the text in the dashboard sidebar.

Why Update?

Good question. When is something good enough?  I can't really answer that question.  There are security issues to consider, of course, and the newest version closes some vulnerabilities. In all honesty, the security concerns weren't enough to move me to the upgrade.

I needed a little down time on my running sites to feel comfortable with an update.  The semester break created that down time for me.  (I didn't want to break course websites midstream.) But that wasn't even enough, really.

In the end, my desire to create an option for users to subscribe to Page updates through RSS led me down a path that required the update. RSS Pages for WordPress 3+ required an update to my WP 3.  That update went well, although the plugin page indicates that it had not yet been tested with 3.3.1.  Consider this a leapfrog moment.  I installed the plugin and it seems to be working just fine.

It's official. Xtranormal is a great little online tool for composition courses, particularly if your course emphasizes the conversational nature of academic writing.

After contemplating the use of Xtranormal in my composition course for about a year, I offered students the option of creating an Xtranormal script and video in lieu of two low stakes assignments. Working in groups, students who opted for the video project produced two-minute videos that put Malcolm Gladwell, Sherry Turkle, and Nathan Rott into conversation on the issue of social media and social action.

Writing effective source-based papers with a strong dose of argument is a tough task for college freshmen. Producing animated videos that put texts into conversation can actually reduce the level of complexity involved in getting the argument rolling. On top of figuring out the texts, locating moments of connection, and putting the texts together in the service of a position or view, students need to wrestle with effective integration of texts, a balance of quotation, paraphrase, and summary, documentation style, organization, and sentence construction. It takes a full term (or two) for students to become even somewhat proficient at juggling all these elements, and it can be frustrating for them. Their ideas and readings can quickly outpace their ability to represent their views in the structure of the academic paper. Here's where Xtranormal is a great tool.

Xtranormal uses Flash and text-to-speech technology to enable novice movie makers to produce animated videos online.

Students prepare a script that puts a couple characters in a scene and sets them in a conversation. When students have to use some of the language of the texts they're reading as they develop the script, they really begin to do some of the hard work of academic thinking. Xtranormal is fun because the author chooses characters, a voice, a background, camera angles, sound effects, and more.

The major drawback, really, is Xtranormal's revenue model. Rather than offer a free, ad-supported version for those unwilling to purchase the characters and sets, Xtranormal teases creators by providing seed money to make the first video. There is an education discount that puts the tool within some teachers' budgets, but it's likely that most students would have to work with a limited set and character selection to work in the budget of the teaser film. (Home economics for digital production?)

Xtranormal was optional this term. I think I'll require a project of this sort next term.

I finally sat down and started some serious work on a print stylesheet for Across the Disciplines. While there are some kinks in the general printout, and I'm certain that tables, figures, and some other visual elements aren't going to print so cleanly in the current version, The print version of the journal's articles are far more attractive than they were just a few days ago.

We're hiding header graphics and nav, and are actually restyling headings for a black-and-white document. Hanging indents in the References are now carried over into the print articles. And more.

I had planned to write a print CSS for Across the Disciplines soon after I recoded the journal for XHTML 1.0 Transitional back around 2007 or 2008. It had been on the agenda for quite some time. It seemed that every time I thought I'd turn some attention to what is really a fairly straightforward project I found myself working on some other part of the site.

Most recently, I thought I'd finally write the stylesheet in December 2010. But then I spent a good bit of late December and January ensuring that the articles in the journal complied with HTML5 standards following a major site-wide overhaul of The WAC Clearinghouse.  The result is a site that will certainly remain compliant for some time since HTML5 is still just a draft specification. But that work really left little energy for CSS coding.

Lesson: Write a damn print CSS at the same time you write the screen CSS. It's easy enough to do and it's possible that readers will thank you for saving color ink, whitespace, and paper.


Last April, at the Northeast Writing Across the Curriculum Consortium (NEWACC) Steering Committee meeting at Boston University, I agreed to work with Mike Palmquist at the WAC Clearinghouse to get a NEWACC site up and running by the upcoming NEWACC meeting at Quinnipiac University. NEWACC was imagining a website within the Clearinghouse, as well as a blog. Ideally, this would run in a single tool, a CMS with a blog built into it. I started thinking WordPress because of its strong blog platform and its functionality as a CMS. (Obviously, that's not the only option.)

Unfortunately, the Clearinghouse didn't have the back end apparatus to host any of the popular blog platforms. And there were concerns about security in a PHP/MySQL setup. At first it looked like a unified solution would not be possible. But Mike is a great guy who is willing to push the boundaries a bit.  He told me they were experimenting with virtual servers for local projects at Colorado State. After a few months of testing, in mid-September Mike got a virtual Windows Server up and running, with IIS on it.

WordPress on Windows?  Hmm. Generally, Windows and PHP with MySQL don't even belong in the same sentence. My first response was, "This won't work." Then I thought, "This won't work without major hacks, patches, and a major months-long headache." Surprise!

6 Hours Later...

WordPress is notable for its famous "5-minute installation" instructions. Right in the instructions are guidelines for installing WP on Win. Microsoft has a FREE (yes, free) product called MS Web Platform Installer that makes relatively quick work of all this headache. Get it installed on your server and you can manage all the app downloads and installations through checkboxes and a GUI.  Sweet!

It wasn't quite that simple, though I have to take some of the blame because of my lack of knowledge.  I didn't know there was something called IIS until I started trying to run a tool built to run on Apache on a Windows Server.  It took a couple meetings with some web folks at UNE (Al and Neal, thanks!) before I started to get a handle on the Windows Server/IIS thing. My internet access in Maine is pretty spotty, and this really limits file transfer speeds. The first installation of WP went into a subdirectory, and so it was in the wrong place.  And the FTP access wasn't activated on the server until after I poked around.What is amazing to me is that it's running at all. And it is!

WP 3 as a Network

The new power of WordPress 3 is that it can run multiple blogs in a single installation. It's important to activate this feature within 30 days of an installation. I don't know if NEWACC will have a use for this feature, but if we don't do it now we'll find it harder to handle down the road.  So I took on this piece as well.  I found instructions for Network activation on a Windows installation of WordPress at Laura Gentry's site. Smooth as silk.

Next Steps

4.5 months into the project we're set up with server space at Colorado State. We have a virtual server running WordPress 3, a platform that will integrate the NEWACC website with the NEWACC blog, and a tool that can actually scale up to host multiple blog or sites over time. I can now turn my attention to the thing I agreed to do in April.  I can start to build the website for NEWACC!

I was blown away at our last department meeting when it concluded with a farewell cake and much well-wishing as I prepare to leave York College for a new position at the University of New England in the fall. The cake was beautiful and delicious, and the card everyone signed left me sad to leave my colleagues. They're just wonderful.

Deep took some pictures and sent them to me, and I'm posting them here so I'm reminded of my soon-to-be-former colleagues with each posting.

Cut the CakeMore Cake CuttingSome ColleaguesMore ColleaguesCadyAnn and othersAlan, Sam, Karin (with Dean Meleties in the doorway)A Posed Shot (no smile?)The Cake

It fascinates me that we have the technological capability to make documentation and reporting easier through single-source production, and yet our 20th (19th?) century thinking prevents us from taking advantage of the potential.


Faculty at CUNY are now required to enter their scholarly/creative activity into a CUNY web-based reporting system. As almost anyone can quickly recognize, this is yet another report piled on top of existing reporting.

As far as I can tell, there was no consultation with individual colleges on the design of this system and the potential integration of the system with local college online reporting systems. The result is an expectation that we'll take the time to "repeat" our reporting in multiple systems.

Why would anyone embrace technology if it means writing, re-writing, and re-writing the same text in multiple systems? The embrace of technology just seems idiotic in that kind of context. Copy-Paste works, but it really doesn't take advantage of the wonders of the database.

Fortunately, we have a responsive web team on campus. When I brought this new "report" to their attention, we were able to begin work on a mechanism to push the data entered in our local systems to the CUNY system.

The setup is not nearly as seamless as it might be. But it's a whole lot better than what would otherwise be the case.

A recently published article in Science (April 17, 2009) has me rethinking the notion of "low stakes" writing. The article by Cohen, et al. entitled "Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap," reports on the longitudinal effect of low stakes, structured writing on the academic performance of African-American middle school students.

In an effort to counter negative stereotype effects, researchers administered a series of values writing prompts aimed at helping the subjects articulate and affirm their values. "Beginning early in seventh grade, students reflected on an important personal value, such as relationships with friends and family or musical interests, in a series of structured writing assignments." One fascinating aspect of the study is that the writing was not directly connected to academic pursuits, or to the development of communication competencies. Most important, it seems, is the payoff!

The intervention appears to have had amazing consequences. "First, early poor performance was less predictive of later performance and psychological state for affirmed African Americans than for nonaffirmed ones, suggesting that the intervention reset the starting point of a recursive cycle. Second, the affirmation not only benefited GPA, but also lifted the angle of the performance trajectory and thus lessened the degree of downward trend in performance characteristic of a recursive cycle. Third, the affirmation's benefits were most evident among low-achieving African Americans. These are the children most undermined by the standard recursive cycle with its worsening of performance and magnifying of initial differences in performance. Fourth, the affirmation prevented the achievement gap from widening with time. Fifth, treatment boosters were not needed to sustain its impact into Year 2."

Who would have thought that brief, structured, values writing assignments could have such academic career-altering effects?

My own pedagogy has tended not to explore the ground on which the prompts in this study are built. Needless to say I'm rethinking some of my own practice in light of this work. These seemingly low stakes prompts, assignments with little or now direct connection to students' grades in a course, are anything but low stakes when one considers their impact on long term academic performance.