Revision of Stream Assignment Drafts

This is a revision of the stream assignment that I posted on the prior blog. Bonnie is in my office with me and we are writing this together.

Streams 1, 2 and 3: For each assigned reading, course members will complete three streams of responses.

Directions for Stream 1: Find a “nugget” and make it meaningful in your response to it. Your response to the nugget should be relevant and robust.

  • What is a nugget? Something that perplexes you; perhaps you strongly disagree or maybe it captures the essence of something you truly believe. Maybe it’s something you have never considered. Perhaps it is something you have always thought true.  A nugget may generate awe or fascinate you. A nugget elicits a light bulb in your mind.
  • How to make it meaningful?  This is your challenge. Use the tools of the internet to compose and illustrate your response.

Directions for Stream 2: Using three 1/2-1  hour screen shots of the history of your browser, reflect on the associative trails that you made. Explain the ways that the associative trails reflect the way you think and the associations you make.  It may be best to choose periods when you were especially active.

To take a screen shot of your browser history:

  • In Firefox, click on History–Show all History–>Make box bigger–>Take Screen Shot
  • In Chrome and Safari, click History–>Show History–>Take Screen Shot

Directions for Stream 3:  Daily prompts provided?

  • One example for this prompt could be Ballenger’s Interest Inventory.
  • They could do group work with asking questions about mundane or interesting object.
  • Watch videos on youtube and brainstorm. questions about what you watched…
  • Choose your own adventure RQ activity.

We are confused about how stream 3 works.

  1. Is stream 3 synonymous with the “reflective post” that appears to be due every Friday?
  2. How will we help them develop a topic and questions without offering some guided activities, such as those I noted above.

By the time that the groups must be formed (June 20), they will have read only two essays.

We would like to provide several stream 3 activities during the first 10 days leading up to the day that the topic is due–June 20.


We also don’t understand what the “first draft inquiry project” means on June 27.

Are we going to use the language of “stream 1″ and “stream 2″ etc?

How do you change the color of font in rampages?


Drafting Streams and Questions

I returned from two weeks in Mexico and Cuba just a couple days ago, and yesterday was my first day back at work. Since the MOOC starts in just 12 days, I was anxious to get caught up on what I missed. I spoke with Bonnie at some length over the phone, and I met with all the UNIV instructors teaching the course for well over an hour yesterday morning.

Looking at the draft of the daily schedule for the course, I began to think about week one. What would day one look like? What do we need to do to make day one happen? The schedule says the following: “June 10: BEGIN. Live Hangout, blogging assignment, AWMT.”

I wondered about the live hangout. Would this be WITH students or just for the faculty teaching the course?  This question was clearly answered during our meeting yesterday afternoon. On day one at 8pm, the faculty teaching this course will participate in a Google Hangout and discuss the syllabus, the assignments, and of great importance, the spirit of the course. The session will be live, so that anyone watching can comment through text, and it will be recorded, so that anyone who can’t watch it live CAN watch it later.

I also wondered about the blogging assignment. Is this stream 1 for AWMT? Is this a separate blogging assignment about something totally unrelated? Is the blogging assignment simply to set up a blog? I still don’t have the answer to these questions, but I suspect that a checklist for what students need to do for day one might look something like this:

By 11:59pm on Tuesday, June 10, all course members should complete the following:

  1. Explore the syllabus and daily schedule for the course.
  2. Create a blog. You may use a pre-existing blog, or you can create one wherever you want. We encourage you to use rampages, which is VCU’s version of Wordpress, but with extra functionality.
  3. Email me a link to your blog at
  4. Read As We May Think, by Vannevar Bush
  5. Complete stream 1 on your blog (?).
  6. If you are available, participate in the live Google Hangout session tonight at 8pm!  If you are not available, the session will be recorded and made available to you promptly.

In order to prepare to give these assignments, much work on our part must be done:

  1. Write a syllabus with explanation of the course, policies, and grading.
  2. Write a daily schedule of assignments for students with due dates so they can see and understand the arc of the course.
  3. Write an assignment for stream 1, stream 2 and stream 3
  4. Decide if students will write the streams on their blogs (see question mark above) or in a discussion area where they can vote responses up or down. In my notes, I see that we discussed both options. I really advocate for the discussion area. I think that really gets to the spirit of the course and will encourage the type of participation that we want to see.
  5. Practice Google Hangout (we scheduled a practice session for our meeting next week on Wed, June 4 at 1.)
  6. We need access to the website so that we can create our individual section homepages.


As I write this, I look at my notes and realize I am still very confused about streams 2 and 3. In my notes, I see that I asked if all students would complete streams 1, 2 and 3 for each of the readings, and the answer was yes, definitely. However, when I look at my notes in which I described streams 2 and 3, I am confused. My notes say that stream 2 is characterized as “exercises in habits of mind and shared vocab (from the readings)–an exercise in making, storing or commenting on associative trails from AWMT.” I expanded on this in my notes, citing possibilities for the following:

  • Compile a history of where they were on the internet for the last 30 min. Find the trail and reflect on the pattern, etc.
  • Read the essay, look up online what they don’t already understand or know or find supplementary info there, annotate the essay in diego and explain the history of your internet searching
  • Jason–asked could we use Storify for this?

My notes say that stream 3 is characterized as “What will you build? (Brainstorming Inquiry project).” I wrote that “this is where they will blog from the beginning about how to build, create, compose and imagine.”

Like I said above, my understanding was that they would do all three for each essay, and I think that makes perfect sense. However, I got really confused when yesterday the early morning group was talking about the streams as parts of each unit (that doesn’t make sense if all readings are in unit one) and in the meeting, we talked about individual instructors assigning a daily blogging exercise. Wouldn’t that daily blogging BE stream 3? At any rate, I’m clearly confused about how this will work, and I hope whoever reads this will comment with clarification.
During our meeting with all the UNIV faculty yesterday, Bonnie and I decided to move forward with part of #3 above in the list of what we need to do in the next 12 days. We are meeting today at 12pm to write a draft of stream one assignment and create a quality example. With this in mind, I reread As We May Think this morning in it’s entirety–as it had been more than 6 months since I read it closely–and I’m going to begin a draft of the stream one assignment right here.

Streams 1, 2 and 3: For each assigned reading, course members will complete three streams of writing.

Directions for Stream 1: Find a “nugget” and make it meaningful in your response to it. Your response to the nugget should be relevant and robust.

  • What is a nugget? Something that perplexes you; perhaps you strongly disagree or maybe it captures the essence of something you truly believe. Maybe it’s something you have never considered. Perhaps it is something you have always thought true.  A nugget may generate awe or fascinate you. A nugget elicits a light bulb in your mind.
  • How to make it meaningful?  This is your challenge. Use the tools of the internet to compose and illustrate your response.

My nugget and response for As We May Think:

“Whenever logical processes of thought are employed—that is, whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove—there is an opportunity for the machine” (Part 5, Par 1).

It strikes me that the machine always comes after the human thought.  We must always create a groove of our thinking, meaning many people must think the same thing many times, before we can articulate what it is we think clearly enough to create technology to do that thinking for us. This reminds me of how people learn. In Robert Leamnson’s, Thinking about Teaching and Learning, he wrote “A child, trying to make sense of the world, probably gets things wrong more often than not. Each attempt might use new connections that provide a representation of reality. The child’s learning could be considered a matter of testing its representations against real world situations—experimenting, in other words. Several representations might be set up and tested until one works consistently. The pathway gets used repeatedly and becomes hard-wired – a preferred and stabilized path emerging from multiple synapses achieved through budding and made permanent through use (emphasis mine).” Leamnson denotes a “path” that strikes me as much like the “groove” to which Bush refers. In both cases, a thought is internalized to the point that it is understood by the individual and ultimately the group, and this thought can be articulated and re-imagined in a new form. In fact, one might say that the machine, the technology, is really a remediation of the thought or idea that created the groove or path–although that is notedly a stretch.

We think of technology as creating solutions for problems that already exist–but also those that don’t yet exist. Many times I encounter technology, software for example, that does something that I don’t need to do. Why would anyone need this, I ask, but the answer is that it is a solution to someone else’s problem or perhaps to a problem that is yet to emerge. In As We May Think, Bush explains how scientists from many facets of academia were called to “the application of science to warfare,” and he argues that since the war is over, it is time for those scientists to “turn to the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge.” He suggests that we have stored and retrieved knowledge in the same way for too long, and he advocates using the technology created originally for warfare to provide a means for spreading knowledge. It is fascinating that Bush was so clearly able to imagine the future of the computer. What he calls the Memex is clearly an early version of the Personal Computer. Although he imagines all that knowledge stored in something the size of a desk with gears that would manipulate it, what we have today  is really just a miniature version of the Memex that we call the PC or iPhone or Droid.

What is most fascinating about the article, in my opinion, is what he describes as a primary purpose of the “machine” he mentioned in the passage I claimed as my nugget. What will that machine do once it is built?  If it just saved all the images of everything, there would be no way to retrieve the knowledge it stored.  Thus, it is Bush’s notion of “associative trails” that is really the most important concept in this essay. As discussed earlier, learning occurs when our brains create grooves or paths, and the machine that Bush proposes will operate in much the same way. The associative trails are the connections that illustrate the way we think. Thus, when you really think about it, a personal computer is really a mirror of a person’s mind in that it reflects all those “logical processes” and “associative trails.”

In Defense of the Argument

We have been talking about irony, so here is my contribution. I’m going to write an argument about why I think it’s important to teach argument in UNIV 200.

Every semester, I tell my students during the first week (and several more times thereafter) that if I had to say my most general goal for all students who take my course, it would be for each of them to leave my class knowing how to say what they believe and why they believe it. I tell them that they all MUST hope to have jobs in which this skill is vital and exercised daily, because otherwise, they are probably doing some kind of menial labor–although, of course, I know there are plenty of labor-type jobs where people have to make arguments as well. I truly believe this, and I tell my students that since they are in college, they must all want to have jobs where someone is asking for their opinions and needing them to explain why they believe what they do. I think it’s our jobs as writing and critical thinking teachers to help our students improve their ability to articulate their beliefs and explain their reasons for believing. It always surprises me, even after teaching this course  in research writing and argument for 15 years, that many (often most) students entering our classes cannot make a claim and say three reasons why they believe it. Usually, by the second or third reason, the reasons become unfocused and related to the claim in only the most tangential way. This happens in speech, and it happens just as much in writing. And it’s more noticeable in writing.

Even when we write down the claim and three reasons, many students cannot see why that second or third reason is not actually a reason why the claim is not true. Here is an example that I would say is quite typical of the way students think and write when they first enter 200.

I believe everyone should adopt dogs from the SPCA because…

  1. puppy mills employ harmful practices that are abusive to dogs
  2. puppies can be good companions for people
  3. dogs are not expensive pets

As any reader who is educated in basic argument can see, the first reason makes perfect sense but the next two are unfocused. They are reasons why people might adopt dogs, but they are not related to the argument about adopting from the SPCA. Even with the “because clause,” some students still write these types of claims and reasons and struggle to understand what is wrong with them. However, I have found that working with these “because clauses” is the best way to help students improve their focus and their logic as a whole. While some students can’t see what’s wrong with those reasons, others see it immediately and can help them. Bruce Ballenger has a good section in The Curious Researcher about this that provides a decent model for this type of thinking and writing. When we use because clauses, most students are able to write sentences that make sense, at least on the surface.

As I write this, I’m thinking how ridiculous this must sound–to say that second-year college students can’t write down a sentence asserting a belief and then write three phrases explaining why they believe what they do. We could write many blogs entries about WHY this is the case and speculate about how this has happened, but the truth is that for our purposes as teachers in 200, it doesn’t matter. This IS the state in which many students enter our courses. These are the skills they have, or don’t have, as is often the case. Happily, I believe that I achieve my goal for almost all of my students: when students leave 200, they can say what they believe and why they believe it.

Of course, I also have other goals for my students. I want them to be able to support their assertions with strong reasoning and evidence. I find that most students can find and read research in a variety of types of sources, but they do not know how to write a good paragraph. When I ask them to think about how they learned to write paragraphs, they don’t remember learning. Okay, that’s normal. When I ask them to write a paragraph, they do so without any reasoning for why they write it the way they do. They just sit down and write. Okay, well maybe that is normal too. It’s hard to reflect on one’s own reasons for writing the way one does. I couldn’t do that well until after I became a writing teacher and my teaching illuminated for me my own process. But when I ask them to analyze that paragraph that they wrote and explain why they put the sentences in the order that they did, most cannot do that. As a teacher of research writing, or just as a writing teacher, or just as a teacher in general: it is this last thing that concerns me.  In UNIV 200, I teach students how to write paragraphs. I try to help them become aware of their own writing process. I give them a basic formula for paragraph writing–claim leads to reasoning leads to evidence–and use paragraphs about many different topics to show them that all good paragraphs conform to this basic style. I believe I am successful at teaching this, and I think I am also successful, at least for some students, in showing them all the possibilities for creativity within that structure.  That is another thing that I hope my students learn about argument: writing arguments is a very creative act. If it’s not creative, it’s probably not very good writing.

Teaching students how to write paragraphs might sound like pretty dry and boring stuff. But if you think that, you are wrong. It can be fun and challenging and engaging. I frequently ask students to bring in their own essays and a pair of scissors. I have them cut up a few paragraphs into sentences and give them to their neighbor to put back together. The neighbor must explain to the writer why s/he put the sentences in the order in which s/he did. Since it’s often wrong, the writer must then make an argument for why the sentences belong in a different order. Not only does this teach paragraph writing, it teaches students to be cognizant of their choices in writing–and it also gives them practice making arguments about why the sentences belong in the order in which they say they do. This exercise transitions easily into looking at writing in other forms and considering the choices that the writer made–not just about paragraph structure but about essays a whole. In a digital course like the one we are teaching this summer, this type of exercise could be easily modified. We could do this with Youtube videos or with blurbs from an editorial or even with comments in many social media platforms. We could examine what makes some comments effective and others not so much.

I believe that students need to learn the basic fundamentals that I name above (and others as well) before they can experiment with those structures. They need to be able to write a paragraph before they can write a five paragraph essay and a five paragraph essay before they can learn to write a 10-page argument. As such, I believe they need to learn how to make a claim and explain three reasons why they believe it, with each of those subclaims following the claim–>reason–>evidence model before they can take some poetic license and make their paragraphs and essays their own.

Yes, I think it’s important for students to learn these skills because they need to learn them to be successful with writing in college. However, that is NOT the main reason that I think it’s so important to learn argument. The real reason is that students need this basic ability to say what they believe and why they believe it in order to be productive citizens. As educators, we have a responsibility to give our students this chance for effective communication. That might sound dramatic, but I honestly believe that if everyone could use basic logic and say what they believe followed by three basic “because clauses,” they world would be a better, less violent, more collaborative and far more productive place.

I’m very excited about the pilot course we are teaching this summer! I can’t wait to incorporate the digital media into the 200 class. I really mean that. But why must we do that at the expense of teaching such a fundamental skill as argument? Why can’t we incorporate the digital media and do all the cool stuff but still teach our students how to say what they mean and why they mean it? Students can write a paragraph or even a page or two, but when it comes to writing a sustained argument, most can’t do it before taking 200. And that’s okay. It is just fine, actually. That is why they take the course. But our students will not be able to compose/create/image amazing visual arguments at the end of the semester without receiving some instruction and opportunities for practice first. And they need to practice more than just writing short blurbs.  I believe in us–I think we could come up with some really cool ways to use the internet to teach some of these skills.

I know we want this course to be surprising and unusual, and I want that more than anything, but why is teaching argument automatically boring and common? It doesn’t have to be. I know that many of our 2oo faculty are doing really innovative types of instruction for teaching some of these important basic skills. No one is teaching the five paragraph essay or anything like it. And no one is getting up in front of the classroom and lecturing about Aristotle and rhetoric–or anything else, for that matter. Our classes are interactive, collaborative and engaging. They are full of active learning.  I, and  many of my colleagues, have found engaging and challenging ways to teach argument that provide students with opportunities to apply and practice what they learn.

And my students thank me at the end of each semester. For the vast majority of our students, 200 is the very last writing course they will EVER take. When I tell my students this, that after a lifetime of taking writing courses every single year, this really is the last one, they realize that, well, this really is the last one. And I think they start listening because they realize that there will not be any more chances to ask questions and learn what they don’t already know. They realize this because I tell them so, and I can actually see it sink in. It’s not meant to scare them; rather, my intent is to motivate them to action. Anyway, now I am losing my focus. But such is the nature of a blog post. Okay, I won’t go THERE right now, but I said it. And I don’t want it to be true for our students. Can’t we teach them about sustained argument AND give them this great experience with new media?