Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sample Summary

Below appears an example of the kind of summary discussed here, although it treats a different source than is acceptable for the class assignment.

On 25 June 2013, Cracked.com published Luke McKinney's "6 Important Things Nobody Tells You About Graduate School."  In the article, McKinney lays out a series of what he perceives as truths about the graduate experience, grounding them in his own stated experience of graduate school.  Throughout the article, he repeatedly returns to the idea that the kind of learning distilled in postgraduate academic programs is the major driving force behind human advancement and achievement, using the six points of his title to illustrate how it is so and the value of its being so.  Although McKinney restricts his discussion to the sciences, he expresses himself clearly and in such a fashion that the article is a useful piece for consideration no only by his own colleagues, but by all engaged in the highest levels of formal education.

Announcement Regarding Office Hours, 26 June 2013

Students, as I have been advised that I have an 11:30a meeting, my office hours will be truncated tomorrow, 26 June 2013.  I expect to be available after approximately 12:30p until approximately 3:30p.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Sample Summary

The summary appearing below is adapted from another blog I maintain.  It conforms to the standards laid out here.

On 22 June 2013, the New York Times featured Verlyn Klinkenborg's "The Decline and Fall of the English Major."  In the article, Klinkenborg offers an elegy for the decreasing numbers of undergraduate students of English language and literature.  Cited are graduation numbers from Yale and Pomona College as well as a tripartite reason for the decline those schools evidence.  Presented also is a statement of the value of the humanities in general and of the English degree specifically--not a direct monetary value, but a value insofar as it represents being able to effectively express thoughts and ideas, thereby effecting agency in the world.  Unfortunately, Klinkenborg's statistical data offer too small a sample to be representative, and the statement of value--a fairly standard view among humanities scholars--is too vague to convince those who are not already convinced of the value of the humanities that the decline of their study in one form at the undergraduate level is lamentable.

Friday, June 21, 2013

About an In-Class Assigment in Technical Writing and Presentation

A few semesters ago, I began using a particular in-class assignment in my ENG 202: Technical Writing and Presentation classes at Technical Career Institutes.  In the assignment, I give students a document to read, usually one originating online.  I ask them also to examine the document in terms of how well it does or does not fulfill the functions of technical writing, as determined early in the semester through guided class discussion of students' background knowledge of technical documents (that the classes are at a technical school helps with this).

Students do, admittedly, have some difficulty with the assignment.  Several fail to understand the prompt that is given--"Discuss how [the selected document] functions, and how it fails to function, as a piece of technical writing.  Please refer to specific textual and paratextual details to support your discussion"--and offer instead a summary of the piece or a free response to it.  I am happy to see that the students can write an adequate summary and are able to engage meaningfully with their readings, but within the context of the course, I cannot necessarily reward their doing so on the assignments given.  If, as is often assumed to be the case for a technical writing class, the task is in large part preparation for the workforce, then I very much cannot reward inattention to the assigned task.  Employers are hardly likely to, after all.

Even with the difficulties some students face, however, the assignment is valuable.  Other students perform increasingly well on the designated tasks, improving each class meeting in terms of their abilities to stake claims, identify and deploy appropriate textual evidence to support those claims, and explain how the evidence functions to support their ideas.  They also improve in the usage issues upon which I comment as part of the requirements of the course and of academic instruction in writing generally.  And all of the students are repeatedly engaged in examination of "real-world" materials that correspond with the concepts covered in textbook readings and continued classroom discussion.  They are therefore offered abundant practice in working with technical writing materials and in interpreting evidence, both of which are likely to be helpful to them in their careers and the lives which enfold them.

The assignment could be easily deployed in other contexts.  For a technical writing class at something other than a technical school (and even at a technical school, although I do not do so with my own classes as explicitly as I perhaps could), the initial discussions of technical writing features that undergird the assignment could be supplemented with provided exemplars of technical writing, arriving at something of a list of genre features from representative high-quality examples of it.  Also, the documents I offer to my students tend to reflect my own personal and professional interests--they have included such disparate ideas as aikido, gaming, and tenure processes--largely because I am able to access them easily.  Some of the difficulties students have faced with the assignment possibly stem from unfamiliarity with the content.  Examples of  technical writing in other areas of inquiry could be meaningfully deployed to correct for that particular problem.  (This presupposes that it is a problem, which may well not be the case.)  Further, the documents I provide, owing to the limitations of the teaching environment in which I offer them, are somewhat decontextualized; they are often print-outs of online materials, and the shift in medium affects the way in which they can be interpreted.  Presenting them in their native hyperlinked online context could allow access to more illuminating paratextual features--as well as to hypertextual features which teaching more aligned with digital media can more effectively address.

While the above paragraph identifies ways in which I might improve upon my own use of the assignment, it is still one well worth using.  It, like the riddle assignment about which I have written before, does much of what I want to have done in the classroom, offering students practice in the specific skill proficiencies mandated by course descriptions and connecting that knowledge to the larger cultural contexts in which my students will work and live.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Sample Annotated Bibliography for "Searching the Hoard in _Words like Coins_"

Students, an example of the annotated bibliography discussed here appears below.  Use it as a model for the kind of writing you are asked to do in my literature classes, but keep in mind the limitations on its applicability due to the differences in media between the model and what you are expected to submit to me.

~Carroll, Siobhan. "Honor-bound: Self and Other in the Honor Culture of Robin Hobb's Soldier Son Series." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 18.3 (Fall 2007): 308-18. General OneFile. Web. 13 June 2013.

Carroll argues that Hobb uses fantasy tropes to lay bare conflicts among and within honor systems.  She posits that in so doing, Hobb effectively interrogates the "standard" ideas of appropriate conduct that appear in fantasy literature, offering instead a nuanced and therefore more authentic view of the interplay between public and private expectations of behavior.  Carroll illustrates her point primarily through two examples from the first book of the Soldier Son trilogy, acknowledging the limitations imposed by the then-incomplete series on her conclusions; she nonetheless asserts that Hobb offers a potentially helpful analogy of the dealings of the United States in its contemporary conflicts.

It is true that the Soldier Son novels are set in a milieu unlike that of Words like Coins, which would appear to limit the usefulness of Carroll's article in analyzing and discussing the novella.  Carroll's is one of a limited number of scholarly sources that directly treat Hobb's work, and so is valuable for the project in that regard.  In addition, in interrogating the relationships among peoples--something which does figure in Words like Coins--Carroll's article offers what might be taken as a paradigm of analysis to apply to the novella.

~Elliott, Geoffrey B. "Manifestations of English Arthurian Legend in the Farseer and Tawny Man Trilogies of Robin Hobb." MA thesis. U of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2007. Print.

Elliott examines deployment of Arthurian tropes and figures in the six novels of Robin Hobb's Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies.  While there are not one-to-one correspondences, Hobb appropriates a number of features of milieu, protagonist, and supplemental characters employed in the major works of Arthurian legend in English, notably Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.  The thesis ultimately argues, using Hobb as an example, that the medieval continues to merit study because it continues to inform the present.

As one of the relatively few scholarly sources directly treating the works of Robin Hobb, and one of the earliest, Elliott's thesis is particularly relevant to the study of her works.  In addition, the text focuses in large part on the milieu of Hobb's Words like Coins, explicating the derivation of a number of the features of its setting and social structure.  Accordingly, it serves as a possible resource for further understanding the novella.

~Roberts, Jude. "'Circumcision: everyone's talking about it': Legislation, Social Pressure, and the Body." Journal of Gender Studies 20.4 (December 2011): 347-58. EBSCOhost. Web. 5 June 2013.

Roberts uses the short story "Cut," written by Hobb under another pseudonym, and major theorist Judith Butler's work to illuminate how both fail to effectively move beyond the concerns of the individual to the possibility of effective collective action regarding female body modification, including genital cutting.  In effect, Roberts uses the two writers' works to demonstrate that legislation of body issues is ultimately futile, as any law will ultimately undermine itself through being appropriated for purposes the law's framers could not foresee.

Roberts's work is useful as an entry into plumbing Hobb's work for concerns of gender studies.  It tacitly asserts that at least some parts of the author's corpus have engaged with serious cultural concerns.  In so doing, it validates continued study of the author's corpus, for if one of a given writer's works can sustain academic critique, then others may well be able to do so.

~Strunk, William, Jr., and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. New York: Pearson, 2009. Print.

Long held to be one of the standard texts on appropriate composition practice, The Elements of Style lays out a number of principles of usage, compositional practice, form, use of common expressions, and style.  In addition, the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition of the text offers commentaries about its utility and development, illuminating further the value of the text.

Strunk and White admittedly do not directly engage with Robin Hobb.  They do, however, engage fully with the tasks of writing as traditionally--and in many cases still--understood. Their recommendations carry such weight as to be accepted as fundamental principles of writing.  What they say about the task of writing, then, can serve as a paradigm for it, offering a standard of comparison against which Hobb's statements concerning writing can be evaluated.

~Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” J.R.R. Tolkien: “The Monsters and the Critics” and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: Harper Collins, 2006. Print. 109-61.

Tolkien argues in "On Fairy-Stories" that fantasy literature is as deserving of study as any other form of literary art.  In his view, it depends largely upon magic for its character, and while the presence of magic is necessary, the more closely the milieu of fantasy literature adheres to the observable reality of the reader, the more effective it will be.  Also, in its use of magic, fantasy literature offers a form of escape more appropriate to adults than to the children towards whom much fantasy literature is directed.  In addition, Tolkien posits that any literary art partakes of the divinely creative, so that even fantasy literature becomes an act of devotion.

Any consideration of fantasy literature seemingly must take Tolkien into account in some way.  As "On Fairy-Stories" forms a nucleus of fantasy criticism, being perhaps the seminal work in the field, it suggests itself as a starting point for the conduct of any analysis of fantasy literature.  It offers an early--and fairly reliable--idea of what marks fantasy literature as fantasy literature and as successful fantasy literature, and so it provides a standard of comparison against which Hobb's novella can be measured.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Sample Summary

The summary below is of an article to be summarized by students in a section of ENG 202: Technical Writing and Presentation at Technical Career Institutes for which I served as a midterm exam proctor.  It conforms to the standards for summaries in my own classes at that institution, which are discussed here.

Sam Howe Verhovek's "Mars in 39 Days" appears in the November 2010 issue of Popular Science.  In the article, Verhovek discusses the idea Chang Díaz has for a craft to take a manned mission to Mars and points beyond.  That idea is to use a magnetically-driven plasma engine to propel the craft at a speed of approximately 123,000 miles per hour, which will greatly reduce the transit time from Earth to Mars.  If successfully tested, the idea could possibly be used to support interplanetary transit of goods and people, allowing for effective colonization of the Solar System.  Verhovek also offers biographical data about Díaz and his experiences in and with space programs, helping to contextualize the discussion.  The article effectively conveys the hope of its subject and the potential of its material, presenting an optimistic view of the prospects of a return to human exploration of space.

Sample Position Paper

Students, below is an example of the kind of position paper discussed here; it is of average acceptable length for the assignment.  Use it as a model for the kind of writing you are asked to do in my writing classes, but keep in mind the limitations on its applicability due to the differences in media between the model and what you are expected to submit to me.

My study of Japanese martial arts began when I was in sixth grade.  On a field trip, I had been beaten fairly badly by classmates, and my family and I determined that I would thereafter have the means to defend myself from assault.  A friend of the family had made a long study of Korean taekwondo and Japanese classical jiujutsu and offered to take me on as a student in the latter discipline.  In the years since, I have studied Kodokan judo and Aikikai aikido, finding the latter particularly enjoyable.  In no small part, this is because of the difference I have observed among students of jiujutsu, judo, and aikido.  The first seek to be able to render others unable to attack again, the second seek victory in competitions.  Students of Aikikai aikido, however, tend to pursue something different.  The art attracts students who wish to enact a just and ethical peace in the world.

Aikido is a relatively recently developed Japanese martial art.  The English-language website of the Aikikai Foundation, which is hosted at the world headquarters of organized study of aikido, notes that it was "created during the 1920s by Morihei Ueshiba" and was "Officially recognized by the Japanese government in 1940."  The grandson of Morihei Ueshiba, Moriteru Ueshiba, is the doshu or head of the art and of the Aikikai Foundation, as its website notes, so it is only in its third generation,making it quite young.  The United States Aikido Federation, the major governing body of aikido study in the United States, reinforces the idea of aikido's relative newness, noting on its website that the first aikido dojo was established in 1927.  The time of its creation coincides with a series of world events that point up the problems of ethics and justice attendant upon attempts to dominate groups of people, those leading up to and at the beginning of the Second World War.  During that time, several nations were engaged in the systematic subjugation and destruction of peoples based upon perceived ethnic and racial differences, actions far from respectful of individual dignity and so neither ethical nor just.  Those problems were doubtlessly in the mind of the founder of aikido, commonly called O-Sensei, as he set up his school, and they therefore almost certainly exerted influence on his teachings.  As such, a desire for peace, which cannot exist save in the presence of ethical justice, is tacitly embedded in Aikikai aikido, and so it is those who seek peace who are most likely to study the art.

Moreover, the enactment of an ethical and just peace is an explicit goal of Aikikai aikido.  Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere is a standard textbook on aikido practice, and one written by two early United States students of Aikikai aikido (9).  The authors, Westbrook and Ratti, speak explicitly to the "ethical imperatives" of the art (33).  They note that the "ultimate in ethical self-defense," and the "goal of all aikido self-defense arts," is in neutralizing an unprovoked attack in such a way that the attacker is left alive and without serious injury (34).  The textbook is an influential one, reaching even outside of Aikikai aikido, and it overtly links the pursuit of peace--the neutralization of aggression--with ethical concern for others and an immediate, personal justice--the just and appropriate defense of self against attack (20).  Consequently, it embeds in much study of aikido an aspiration for an ethically just peace, and those who continue to study the art do so in recognition thereof.

Further, the Aikikai Foundation remarks that because "contemporary values stress respect for human life, Aikido is a highly relevant form of the Japanese martial arts."  This necessarily implies that aikido is respectful of persons, which concern is inherent both to ethics and to justice.  More explicitly, the US Aikido Federation notes "Aikido strives for the ultimate goal of peaceful resolution rather than defeat," that its performance works "to subdue and neutralize attackers without serious injury," done "without belittling others, without the intention of harm or fear of injury," but under a "premise of mutual respect and caring."  In emphasizing resolution rather than victory is a direct call for peace and tranquility.  In the goal of not inflicting serious injury is a recognition of the right even the errant have to the integrity of their own bodies, which is a remarkably high ethical standard with which to treat an attacker.  Similarly, in working not only to respect the other participant in the act of aikido (both by refusing to offer insult and to appreciate the potential of the other to enact harm), but to work to the betterment of that other--for what else is caring?--there is a degree of compassion that underlies the highest principles of just conduct.  Each is a fundamental goal of the art, and so each is presented as something towards which students of aikido are expected to strive from their earliest days on the mats of the dojo floor.  They are not easy things towards which to work, and so those who practice the art are necessarily those who have a strong desire to enact a just and ethical peace.

Without such a desire, it is not likely that the student will remain dedicated to the art.  Yet Aikikai aikido tends to attract people who remain in study for decades.  A number of those at my own dojo have been on the mats for thirty years and more.  They would not have done so were there not something peculiar to Aikikai aikido to attract them and retain their interest through injury and child-rearing, relocation and economic worry.  The physical techniques of Aikikai aikido have antecedents and direct parallels in other martial arts (Westbrook and Ratti 30-31), and many of those arts are far more widely studied and accessible.  The uniqueness of Aikikai aikido is in its ethical imperatives, and so it must be in them that the students of the art find what they need to sustain themselves.

It is admittedly true that the initial intention of a thing does not always continue to guide it.  Jude Roberts, for example, argues at length that law is easily turned to ends for which it was never intended--and which can, in fact, be antithetical to the desires of those who frame the laws.  If so revered and solemn a thing as a nation's law can be directed away from its original intent, many other things may, as well, and it follows that a martial art may be similarly shaded away from its first thrust.  In fact, there are many sub-schools which have broken away from their origins.  Students of Aikikai aikido, however, overwhelmingly follow the ethical path established by O-Sensei.  My own study of the art has been influenced by senior practitioners who have told me that those on the mats, practicing the techniques of aikido, are all brothers and sisters, united almost as family in the pursuit of what the art can yield.  Although members of a family might come to strife, the family itself ultimately seeks harmony--and it is in harmony with the world that just and ethical peace is attained. 

In addition, one of the foremost instructors of aikido in the world, Yoshimitsu Yamada, remarks on the New York Aikikai's website that "one of [the] goals in studying aikido to emulate as much as possible [O-Sensei's] admirable characteristics," among which are compassion and the elimination of selfishness.  Both regard for others and a willingness to act in the interests of others rather than the self are often held to be primary ideas of both ethics and justice, and enacting them is likely to produce an active tranquility that can easily be called "peace."  Yamada continues to be in a position to influence thousands of students, both directly through his own worldwide teaching (the New York Aikikai's website reports his seminar schedule, which takes him across the Americas and Eurasia) and through his own students having opened dojo of their own (as noted in biographies of the teaching staff of the New York Aikikai).  Accordingly, his views guide much of the practice of aikido, and since his views explicitly speak to adherence to O-Sensei's vision, that initial vision still guides aikido.  Aikido, at least in its main thrust of the Aikikai style, therefore remains tied to the desire for a just and ethical peace, in its statements and in its students.

It is not the case that, in its techniques, Aikikai aikido is more or less effective than other Japanese martial arts--or other traditions of martial arts. The fact that the traditions have been transmitted for decades and centuries speaks to their effectiveness as techniques, as means to manipulate the human body and equipment to end individual physical conflicts.  The chief difference is in the intention behind the performance of the techniques.  Classical jiujutsu seeks to render the opponent incapable of further attack.  Judo seeks to render the opponent defeated, usually in a supine position in a prescribed tournament setting.  Aikikai aikido seeks to make the opponent not an opponent, to neutralize aggression in the interest of permitting people to find and maintain their best selves.  The enactment by more people of their best selves will lead to the improvement of the world in which they live, an improvement which is promoted through a peace founded on ethical concern for others and a justice born of compassion.  Aikikai aikido serves that end, and its study by those who seek that end is well worth increasing, to the benefit of all.

Works Cited
~"About Aikido." United States Aikido Federation. United States Aikido Federation, 2013. Web. 17 June 2013.
~Aikikai Foundation. Aikikai Foundation, 2005. Web. 17 June 2013.
~New York Aikikai. New York Aikikai, 2009. Web. 17 June 2013.
~Roberts, Jude. "'Circumcision: everyone's talking about it': Legislation, Social Pressure, and the Body." Journal of Gender Studies 20.4 (December 2011): 347-58. EBSCOhost. Web. 5 June 2013.
~Westbrook, A., and O. Ratti. Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere. Illus. O. Ratti. Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle, 2006. Print.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Sample Paper Proposal: Searching the Hoard in _Words like Coins_

Students, an example of the research proposal discussed here appears below; it is at the short end of acceptable length for the assignment.  Use it as a model for the kind of writing you are asked to do in my literature classes, but keep in mind the limitations on its applicability due to the differences in media between the model and what you are expected to submit to me.

An increasing amount of scholarly attention is being paid to what is termed "genre fiction," or stories that do not tend towards verisimilitude, but instead adhere to norms that do not correspond with observed reality.  Among the genres of such fiction is fantasy literature, whose most notable work is Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and which is abundant on bookstore shelves.  Tolkien is far from the only author in the genre, however, and although there are many writers of poor quality who publish fantasy, many others are quite good.  One of them is Robin Hobb.

Much of Robin Hobb's fantasy writing depicts the milieu of the Six Duchies, a fictive kingdom very much in the Tolkienan tradition.  In addition to the novels of the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, she has set several short stories and other works in that fictional nation.  One of them, the novella Words like Coins, serves as a commentary on the craft of writing, noting the perils in sloppiness of language.

The importance of words in the text is signaled in the title itself, which equates words with money--and the significance of money needs little explication to readers in the United States of the twenty-first century.  Words are therefore immediately linked with the primary means of access to material sustenance, foreshadowing their importance in the narrative.  And the foreshadowing is borne out by comments made throughout the text, particularly by the pecksies (fairy-like creatures who are bound by the words they utter) and regarding the workings of hedge magic (reliant on symbols--words--for specific effect).  Indeed, questions of specific wording serve to drive the plot of the novella.  Accordingly, the concern with exact language use is foregrounded throughout the text, thereby drawing significant attention to itself and inviting investigation.

Such investigation is merited for a number of reasons.  One is to uncover what the persistence of the device reveals about the writer.  For a professional writer to be concerned with specifics of wording and phrasing is expected, and writers are often exhorted to write what they know.  Hobb's attention to lexical detail is therefore unsurprising and entirely appropriate.  Too, as a writer, Hobb likely receives questions about the process of writing and things that are important in performing the tasks of writing.  A comment about factors of importance in writing, couched in a form not unlike a moral fable, permits response to such questions while allowing her to practice her craft yet further.  Examining how the response is carried out explicates how stories can be used to transmit information beyond their plots, making narrative more obviously important than is often the case.

Hobb does not write in a vacuum, and so her writing--as the writing of any writer--likely responds to ideas at work in the context in which the writer exists.  Investigation of the work may well point to those ideas, allowing for a case study of how social tendencies manifest in individual utterances.  Because such an examination potentially reveals aspects of broader social concerns, matters in which Hobb, the people among whom she lives, and perhaps even her readers are enmeshed (and which would themselves need to be explicated to fully undertake such scholarly work), it is of singular importance that the examination be conducted.  In serving as a vehicle for revealing more of the human condition to humanity, Hobb's Words like Coins marks itself as particularly deserving of study, and a conference-length paper offers a venue to begin conducting such work.