D'Arcy Norman says Content is not enough (via Nancy McKeand):

Content is the least important part of education. What is far more important is what takes place between and among the students. The activities of the community of learners. What they actually DO with the content and with each other.

Great content IS important, but only if there is also a functioning and active community working together to learn, create and share. Otherwise, all that takes place is content dissemination. And that’s not education, open or otherwise.

How did Norman come to the conclusion that content is "the least important"? Perhaps by reacting to those classrooms in which students sit as passive receptacles, never using the content being disseminated. Obviously, that is "not education." Still, let's consider the converse: students DOing whatever without content. Would that be education?

Both content and DOing are important, and both need each other. DOing, however, does not always takes place collaboratively. I may read a book or, better yet, go to a conference in which I sit in the audience, listen, and take back some tidbit of content that I apply to my own work. My DOing, in this case, is not one of "working together" (although social constructionists would say that my DOing is the result of many previous instances of social interaction.) In this case, the dissemination of content was more important than what didn't take place between me, the other members of the audience, and the presenter. And perhaps we might not call it education, but it was learning.

Learning does take place in communities, too. But simply sharing and working together doesn't guarantee that learning will take place. Think of the many committee meetings that most complain about as a waste of time. The nature of sharing and working together is crucial, too.

Arguing whether content or DOing is more important is a fruitless endeavor. Depending on the purpose, the time, the place, and the individual/people, one or the other might take precedence—but both are essential.

The Annual Meeting of the National Writing Project started today in San Antonio. I attended two three-hour sessions: "Writing in a Digital Age" and "The Web as a Tool for Continuity" (see below for presenters' names).

Writing in a Digital Age
looked at writing in digital environments with respect to building online classroom community, professional development, and teacher leadership via a combination of presentation, small-group discussion, and whole-group discussion on successes, failures, and open-ended questions, some of which were:

  • What are the implications for the design of your site’s professional development programs with technology?
  • What are the implications for developing technology leaders at your site?
  • How are professional development experiences affected by technology?
  • How can I engage diverse students who may or may not want to be in my classroom?
  • How can I help all students become better critical thinkers, researchers, and writers?

The Web as a Tool for Continuity
was a session of sharing, discussing, and troubleshooting problems of continuity of Teacher Consultants at writing project sites and ways in which technology can support continuity. Three questions that were discussed were:

  • How can you ensure that this work will stay integral to the site, and not be a distraction or a flash in the pan?
  • Who might be the key leaders of an Internet-enhanced continuity project at your site?
  • What capacity challenges or opportunities might such an initiative contain?

One of the failures of many sites has been trying to use blogs to provide continuity of leadership and professional development. They tend to wither as teachers leave the Summer Institutes to return to the classroom.

The Bay Area Writing Project took another tack and started an e-Zine, Digital Paper, which combines stories, pictures, and podcasts. It has had some success.

The strategy of the Alaska State Writing Consortium was to have an online Open Institute. In it, teachers examined their own work and built a framework for change via activities, such as:

  • audio-conferences
  • web-based posting of documents and data
  • online discussion
  • live chats
  • daily journals
  • discussions of readings

One interesting feature of this Institute was having an ethnographer who looked at the online communications and gave feedback back to the group on what s/he was seeing, noting concerns, noting areas of idea conflict, and so on. And at the end of the Institute, a lengthy report was written on what happened in the class.

As I look back over my notes, the key aspects of building communities seem to be

  • start with a group of 3 or 4 committed people who can share different responsibilities
  • start small projects that don't overwhelm you or participants
  • make it relevant to participants' immediate needs and goals
  • give participants' time to "play" with the technology
  • develop personal relationships with participants

These principles are not new, but it's easy to get carried away with visions of grandeur only to be let down when others don't see as you do. And these two sessions were excellent in terms of being practical, showing us their own applications of and twists on these principles, and of leading us into discussing and thinking about the implications of the presenters' own successes and failures for our own sites' future endeavors.

Writing in a Digital Age
Felicia George, New York City Writing Project
Sarah Hunt-Barron, Upstate Writing Project
Rebecca Kaminski, Upstate Writing Project
Seth Mitchell, University of Maine Writing Project
Jason Shiroff, Denver Writing Project
Laura Stokes, Inverness Research Associates

The Web as a Tool for Continuity
Sonnet Farrell, Alaska State Writing Consortium
Tom McKenna, Alaska State Writing Consortium
Evan Nichols, Bay Area Writing Project
Sondra Porter, Alaska State Writing Consortium
Carol Tateishi, Bay Area Writing Project

Bradley Hammer comments on the writing his students do at Duke University in A New Type of Writing Course, arguing that technology can make writing more meaningful to students:

In great contrast to only a few years ago, most of my students write several hours a day. I’m not talking about technically perfect papers, focused on grammar and the rules of structure. These students are tirelessly blogging, texting and responding to their peers in lengthy e-mail. And rather than dismiss this kind of writing as lacking in academic merit, I’ve started thinking about how schools can embrace, in academic ways, the emerging forms of writing students have already claimed as their own. ...

As part of this change, technology has radically extended the spaces for academic debate. In real ways, blogging and other forms of virtual debate actually foster the very types of intellectual exchange, analysis and argumentative writing that universities value. 

Along these lines, Can MySpace make better writers talks about how technology is changing writing and how it can motivate students in their writing.

Amy Gahran, in Straight to the Point: The Miniskirt Theory of Writing (via Downes), asserts,

If you want to make a point in writing, make sure you nail the “so what” in your first 62 words.

Of course, as she admits, reader tastes vary and cites Dave Taylor as saying "more educated, intelligent readers prefer longer, more thoughtful and eloquent content." There's no question that the first words are important in "hooking" one's audience into continuing to read. But hopefully, one's posts will not become mere sound bites.

How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It (via Downes) is an excellent online book written by Wikipedians Phoebe Ayers, Charles Matthews, and Ben Yates. It includes an appendix for teachers.

Blogging Pedagogy has a recent post on integrating multimedia into newspaper readings Deconstructing and Reconstructing Media and Messages:

For those of you looking to invite students to interact with different media, you might consider adopting and adapting the lesson plans conveniently provided as part of the Humanities Institute’s Living Newspaper Project. In this case, the four kinds of media are printed news reports, play script, oral reading, and theater performance.

What you can't win in court: "After you’ve been called racist by some students, can you sue to get your reputation back?" That's what Richard Peltz, who teaches law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, did. He began a lawsuit against students who had accused him of being racist because those accusations had led to him being "barred" from teaching certain courses. One of the accusations concerned his having students "focus more on their writing."

While defending his intent, Peltz pledged in his new memo to never again offer the writing tips “lest I again be maligned for trying to improve student writing.”

The article shows that it is not difficult to undermine the university as a place of learning and discussing ideas.

William Major, an associate professor of English at the University of Hartford, takes Another view of bias:

There’s a great deal of discussion in academe about a perceived bias amongst the professoriate, though Horowitz is looking in the wrong place. If he and his acolytes want bias, I have no doubt that there is plenty to go around. But playing favorites has the potential to do real harm to the student, ourselves, and to an ethic of professionalism. There is the spirit of fair play, unwritten and rarely acknowledged, through which we show our students and colleagues and, most importantly, ourselves who we are and what we are about. I suppose it’s called character.

Mark Richardson, an assistant professor of writing and linguistics at Georgia Southern University, takes aim at the myths surrouding learning to write in Writing is not just a basic skills:

From that vantage point, first-year composition is only indirectly preparatory to writing in other disciplines: What a student will learn is somewhat applicable to writing a history or psychology paper, but significant gaps in preparation will remain. Psychology professors who want students to write effective papers, even at the introductory level, can't count on first-year composition to have done all the preparatory work.

And here are a few more links on writing:
John Updike reflects on the challenges and satisfactions of the aging writer.
Zhura releases world's first online, collaborative editor for comic book writers
On college: Essay writing critical to getting accepted

Many instructors lack information on what and how they can use various media in their classrooms without violating fair use. To learn how to use copyrighted material appropriately, the Center for Social Media has a downloadable report, The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education.

This document is a code of best practices that helps educators using media literacy concepts and techniques to interpret the copyright doctrine of fair use. Fair use is the right to use copyrighted material without permission or payment under some circumstances—especially when the cultural or social benefits of the use are predominant. It is a general right that applies even in situations where the law provides no specific authorization for the use in question—as it does for certain narrowly defined classroom activities.

This guide identifies five principles that represent the media literacy education community’s current consensus about acceptable practices for the fair use of copyrighted materials, wherever and however it occurs: in K–12 education, in higher education, in nonprofit organizations that offer programs for children and youth, and in adult education.

Related links from the NCTE Inbox:
Fair use and copyright for educators (Traci Gardner)

Elementary Teachers
Research building blocks for elementary classrooms

Middle Level Teachers Campaigning for Fair Use: Public Service Announcements on Copyright Awareness
Inquiry on the Internet: Evaluating Web Pages for a Class Collection
Exploring Plagiarism, Copyright, and Paraphrasing
Copyright Law: From Digital Reprints to Downloads

Secondary and College Teachers
Creative Outlining--From Freewriting to Formalizing
The Ten-Minute Play: Encouraging Original Response to Challenging Texts
Modeling Academic Writing Through Scholarly Article Presentations

Typealyzer—a new tool for procrastinating (via Stephen Downes).

Typealyzer purportedly analyzes your blog's personality type as per a Myers-Briggs typology). Taking the ability of some algorithm to assess my personality via a contested psychological theory with a grain or two of skepticism, I found my blog's personality to be INTP:

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

My take: The parts I like must be true, and the parts I don't, false. (See Emotion Overrules Reason.)

Nancy McKeand at Random Thoughts had a more thoughtful perspective. Although she usually tests INTJ, Tyepalyzer pegged her as ESTP:

While I took the test and began this post as a joke, it has made me think about how I am someone different online from in real life.  I can’t really explain it but I can see that I am an ESTP here

Different contexts do bring out different fragments of our personalities. Quite a bit of research on synchronous communication in classrooms, for instance, has shown that students who speak little, if at all, in class discussions, come alive in online discussions, and the converse apparently occurs, too.

In addition to contextual constraints and assuming for the moment a certain amount of validity and reliability, these personality analyses show preferences rather than absolutes, preferences whose degree of preference is not indicated. As noted above, Typealyzer is great for avoiding work.

Eighth and twelfth graders in New Jersey have the highest scores in writing on a nationwide test: 56 percent scoring at or above the proficient level, compared to one-third of eighth graders and one-fourth of twelfth-graders in the U.S. (see In Test, Few Students are Proficient Writers). And the university graduating the most teachers in New Jersey is Kean University. Of course, I can't say with certainty that Kean University is responsible for those writing scores, whether in part or otherwise, but such a correlation brings a certain amount of satisfaction in working in the Composition Program at Kean.

What is the value of a degree in literature, philosophy, or humanities?

Frankly, I enjoy literature because as a human being, stories stir my imagination. As Doris Lessing, in her 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech, stated,

The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise. But the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us -for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

And, in addition, I would love to have a good understanding of the craft involved in great stories so that I could appreciate them better.

But that's not the same as justifying their study to an external audience (see Fish's "Will the Humanities Save Us?"). Yet various articles make the assertion for a practical application of a degree in English. For instance, So you want to study ... A master's in English (Liz Ford) is a series of interviews on people who chose to study English, including why they did.

One individual stated, "One employer said, 'We want people who can think outside the box.'" Well, I imagine that English majors can certainly think outside of science or business boxes, but I'm not sure what value one of Shakespeare's sonnets would have in engineering design or accounting procedures.

Another stated, "More so than any other subject, English gives you transferable skills. You learn to write and express yourself well and learn communication skills." To some degree, I buy into this. Even so, it's a well-known fact that writing in a one style doesn't transfer well to another. One study (Berkenkotter, Huckin, & Ackerman), for instance, showed the difficulty a doctoral student had in transferring his previous experience in writing (bachelor's and master's in education, along with an intensive eight week seminar on "The Writing Process: A Humanistic Perspective") into the field of rhetoric:

During his early months in the program ... An analysis of his papers reveals several months of confusion during whicdh his writing suffered from numerous stylistic problems: poor cohesion, disorganized paragraphs, lack of focus, inappropriate vocabulary.

One reason for the difficulty in writing transfer was

Nate is "wrestling with ideas" at the expense of organization and style

In other words, to write well, you need to know the content matter. In fact, although Nate did make progress, his

difficulties with cohesion and coherence persisted long after he gained a relative mastery over the material that he was studying in his courses

If this much difficulty occurred in transferring writing knowledge and skills from one social science discipline to another, imagine how much more difficulty will occur when transferring outside of the social sciences to business or the "hard" sciences.

Then, Why should anyone think that academic experience, regardless of discipline, would provide someone with good writing skills? Denis Dutton, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, wrote an article entitled "Language Crimes: A Lesson in How Not to Write, Courtesy of the Professoriate",

Pick up an academic book, and there’s no reason to expect the writing to be graceful or elegant. Many factors attract people to the scholarly life, but an appealing prose style was never a requirement for the job.

Having spent the past 23 years editing a scholarly journal, Philosophy and Literature, I have come to know many lucid and lively academic writers. But for every superb stylist there are a hundred whose writing is no better than adequate — or just plain awful.

Yet, literature, as Lessing asserts, has a value in its stories. Stories may be the best way of learning. As Alicia Juarrero, a philosopher, asserts, understanding requires a hermeneutics that “provide[s] insight into and understanding of how something happened, that is, into its dynamics, background, and context” (p. 240), that is, stories (see Dynamics in action, Part III). The stories she speaks of, however, are not limited to literature but may take the nature of Shell Scenarios for managerial decision making or of Roger Shank's Socratic Arts, in which

students work through the story to achieve the missions the story puts forth, they learn the critical skills they need to successfully accomplish their tasks. The SCC implements true learning-by-doing, integrating all aspects of real-world tasks, as opposed to teaching skills independently, without context.

Daniel Drolet, reporting on Philosophy's Makeover (via Stephen Downes), quotes Jeff Noonan,

“Philosophy develops communication skills, the ability to organize complex materials, negotiate between different positions and tease out different problems,” says Jeff Noonan, head of the philosophy department at the University of Windsor. “An extraordinary range of jobs require those abilities.”

And according to Daniel Gervais, a professor of law,

There’s definitely a thirst in business for people who can think creatively, analytically and outside the box

Although I would instinctively think that learning to think systematically and logically should be of help in solving certain types of problems, I know too little of philosophy to evaluate its practical use. Yet, isn't this claim about creative thinking and thinking outside the box the same as claimed by English majors? And wouldn't it also be subject to the limitation of a lack of subject matter knowledge? Perkins and Salomon in Teaching for Transfer write,

While the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic typically show transfer (for reasons to be discussed later), other sorts of knowledge and skill very often do not.

And philosophy would not seem to be a basic skill, although perhaps, as Perkins and Salomon note, certain skills such as "the role of evidence" and "general and important thinking strategies" may be applicable here. (See also The Expert Mind by Phillip Ross and Eklund's review of Heather Dykes' book Metaphysics and the Representational Fallacy via Stephen Downes.)

In addition to critical thinking outside-the-box skills, many argue that humanities can give character. Stanley Fish naysays that as wishful thinking in Will the Humanities Save Us?

The premise of secular humanism (or of just old-fashioned humanism) is that the examples of action and thought portrayed in the enduring works of literature, philosophy and history can create in readers the desire to emulate them. Philip Sydney put it as well as anyone ever has when he asks (in “The Defense of Poesy,” 1595), “Who reads Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back that wishes not it was his fortune to perform such an excellent act?” Thrill to this picture of filial piety in the Aeneid and you will yourself become devoted to your father. Admire the selfless act with which Sidney Carton ends his life in “A Tale of Two Cities” and you will be moved to prefer the happiness of others to your own. Watch with horror what happens to Faust and you will be less likely to sell your soul. Understand Kant’s categorical imperative and you will not impose restrictions on others that you would resist if they were imposed on you.

It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge. The texts Kronman recommends are, as he says, concerned with the meaning of life; those who study them, however, come away not with a life made newly meaningful, but with a disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged.

And Fish's position is backed up by studies in character education. Lawrence Kohlberg found that reasoning was necessary for moral judgment, and moral judgment for moral action, but moral reasoning and judgment were not sufficient for moral behavior. That is, one may be able to judge a situation correctly in terms of moral principles and still not take moral action.

Although Fish concludes that there is no practical "use" to the humanities, I'm more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to philosophy, as far as transfer of critical thinking goes. And although the evidence for transfer of thinking skills with respect to literature would not seem to be on the same level as philosophy, with Lessing, its stories can instill a "fire" within us that has its own value and without which we might not be human. In fact, along the lines of Juarrero and informed by literature, I would redesign, as much as possible, curricula to be great stories.

Offline references
Berkenkotter, C., T. N. Huckin, & J. Ackerman (1998). Conventions, conversations, and the writer: Case study of a student in a rhetoric Ph.D. program. Research in the Teaching of English, 22, 9-44.

Juarrero, A. (2002). Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Kohlberg, L. (1999). The cognitive-developmental approach to moral education." In A. C. Ornstein and L. S. Behar-Horenstein, eds., Contemporary Issues in Curriculum, 4th ed. (pp. 163-75). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.