ATC2006 Begins!

I couldn't be more psyched about this semester. The Clock has an incredible staff and great leadership from Sam Kenney and Brooke Thornton. The work we've begun on faculty governance is now in the hands of a very capable group of faculty, PATs, and OS. My Twice Told Tales class is very engaged in the readings and the course. My Technical Communication classes (complete with several re-tooled assignments/structures) are coming along very well.

But more than anything else, I'm excited to be a part of another semester of Advanced Technical Communication. Anyone who's talked to me for more than two minutes in the last two years knows that the first offering of that course was the peak of my teaching career to date. My current class of six was hand-picked from among the best students I've worked with in the past two years. And they're ready to go--they've even suggested blogging (why else would I be blowing the dust off of this ancient blog?) as a way to track the project over time. More than a seminar, the class is a lab. I'm there to guide them when necessary, but for the most part, they "discover" their path and they set many of their own goals. I'm not basing my high expectations solely on the Fall 04 experience, I'm basing it largely on my confidence in these six remarkable students.

This year, we're working with Evelyn Stiller from the Computer Science Department to develop a web site that will help students in the Web Expressions course learn to use PhotoShop Elements. Together, we'll be learning to use PhotoShop Elements (our subject and one of our tools) as well as DreamWeaver, pbWiki, and any other tools we need. We'll be meeting regularly with Dr. Stiller to get background, receive feedback, and apprise our "client" of our progress.

For now, we're still forming as a team. We're relying on the text to give us some background knowledge and points of reference for later on, we're exploring our own roles, we're investigating tools and the client application, we're branding our group and generally getting to know each other in this new context. If experience is a predictor, we will be a solid team by this time in two weeks and that team will become more skillful and tightly-knit even as the deadlines begin to loom large.

To top it all off, three students from the former class have agreed to visit the class this year to participate in discussions, talk about their current role as technical communicators, and generally cheer the current group on.

I love this job.

PSU's web presence

Our CIO, Dwight Fischer, recently attended a faculty meeting where he advocated putting "dirty laundry"--such as our faculty and committee meeting minutes--behind the firewall. He makes an eloquent argument for it here. In a nutshell, Dwight's argument is that prospective students are not arriving at our site through the "front door" of, they're coming through the attic window of Google and Yahoo! This, he argues, might make their first impression of PSU a messy one if they arrived at meeting minutes or one of the hundreds (thousands?) of other pages that are not properly vetted.

I think he's right that many of our pages are outdated, irrelevant, and even sloppy. I also agree that many people don't give a site a second chance if they arrive at a page that is confusing or unprofessional (why should they when there are so many to choose from). To that end, I'm in favor of surveying the site--including oz pages--and requesting that specific pages be updated, corrected, or even deleted. I'm sure we could program something to crawl our site periodically and automatically notify people of pages that are more than 1 yr. old (we could exempt specific pages if the owner notified ITS that those pages should stay). We should support this effort by making web-authoring courses/sessions widely available to faculty/staff/students and insisting that all student orgs, departments, etc. review their entire site periodically. In other words, if there are steps we can take to make our site better (better-produced, better-written, better-maintained, etc.) lets take them.

But let's not allow a marketing ethos to supplant our educational ethos. First, I think the Internet abilities of students have been mischaracterized. On the one hand, I think it's hype to say that a whole generation is busily blogging and podcasting and [the-next-big-thing]ing. I think young people are divided much as the rest of us. There are the bleeding-edgers (for whom blogging is already dead, replaced with vlogging), then there are the vast middle group who use technology when it's easy, sexy, and/or useful, and there are the resistors who disdain technology altogether. Once a technology meets that middle threshold, I think most of those young people become very adept, very quickly. And here's my point--Googling is no longer edgy. My students may not know how to use WebCT when they first get here, but they are already VERY adept at much so that I strongly doubt great numbers of potential students would accidently wind up in the Athletic Council minutes when they were really looking for PSU Football tryouts.

Second, and this is my real point, as a public institution, our decision making should be open to public scrutiny. If the minutes are sloppy, we should do better. If the issues are too complex for someone who stumbles into them accidentally, we'll just have to live with that. One faculty member argued that public discovery of the fact that we had heard a presentation on a "A Culture of Peace" at the faculty meeting might fuel the controversy over a liberal professoriate. Never mind the implication that our "Culture of Peace" would only succeed if it were secret, better Jane Q. Public stumbles on it accidentally, than a good muckraker finds the same information (because they WOULD EASILY find that info...unless we hide it even from students...who are paying the bill) hidden from the public. How can we advocate knowledge for those who seek it, then hide information? I think we should invite questions about our policies and about the deliberative process that goes into them. We often make tough decisions in these meetings--we should make the record of those decisions available. In fact, I think that civility is something we should proudly proclaim: "PSU newsflash--Faculty discusses 'Culture of Peace' -- No one is called a traitor!" Transparency in government (and folks, my paycheck says I'm part of the government) is vital in a democracy.

I come from a corporate background where marketing, branding, etc. often steer the ship. In a corporate context, I don't necessarily disagree with that paradigm--after all, their bottom line is usually THE most important factor in their $urvival. I'm still trying to understand how academia balances its priorities.

Wrapping up Fall 2005 EN3090

What a semester. For the first time ever--and I hope for the last time--I taught three sections of Tech Comm. I had to make changes to the course, and I'll talk about those in a moment, but I was very pleased with some of the results.

First, the success stories. Among other changes to the course, I made everyone collaborate with a partner so that cut the number of projects to 38. Of those, there were many that displayed excellence of one sort or another, but the seven "A" projects stood out in quality of research, quality of argument, quality of writing, and quality of design. They all shared one characteristic--their authors were very passionate about the topics.

Here's the rundown:

  • A project that analyzed the crisis in text book prices. Not surprisingly, honest research revealed that it was very difficult to point the finger at one source. After 15+ pages explaining the problem and examining data from sources such as the GAO, the authors recommended a multi-faceted approach including asking profs to post information on their texts well ahead of the beginning of the semester (I immediately sent an email to all of my Spring students giving them the title, author, isbn, etc. for my texts). I suggested that this report be repurposed for the campus bookstore committee and (potentially) for the general faculty.
  • A project proposing a quarterly magazine devoted to healthy body images for PSU women. Again, a thorough discussion of the problem followed by an equally thorough description of the proposed magazine. I'm 100% behind this idea -- though I do wonder if they could start with a webzine.
  • A proposal to create a Geology Minor at PSU. Their most shocking finding: after examining the courses that comprise other schools' Geology minors, we already have the courses/faculty in place, we only need to create the minor program! Wow.
  • A report that examined the mosquito problem in Plymouth in light of last fall's discovery of birds infected with EEE and WNV. One of the writers had actually worked in mosquito control in the past. Instead of relying on their own experience, they went to great pains to find and cite excellent sources. Acknowledging their own student status and seeking cover under the credibility of "expert" increased their own credibility.
  • A report that examined the dangerous crosswalks on Highland by the library. Great research, great documentation of their sources, very direct and compelling writing. They actually made the idea of a pedestrian bridge seem reasonable (until the price came up). Dream big!
  • A proposal seeking to address the outrageously long wait at the coffee shop in the HUB. This one was close to my heart. They proposed simple coffee carts in the outlying buildings (Hyde, Boyd, Rounds) that could be supplied by a van. I don't know if it makes $ense, but it would make me less grumpy in the morning.
  • And finally, a proposal by the weather guys to purchase a system called WSI for the meteorology department. This is the software that makes all of the space-aged illustrations and fly-throughs during a weather forecast. More than anything else, they made compelling arguments that PSU grads hoping to break into broadcast├é meteorology were not competetive because they have not trained (and cannot make demo tapes) on WSI.

Now for the changes this semester. The big change: everyone had to have a partner for their projects. Many students HATED this. The common complaint--my partner can't write so I'm stuck doing all of the hard work. There are ways that a partner can be a good collaborator even if they're not doing an equal amount of writing. But, in a few cases, both sides agreed that one partner did ALL--or nearly all--of the writing. Unacceptable. I'll work on mechanisms to ensure each partner is doing a considerable portion of the writing.

I dropped my old technical description assignment, but the instructions assignment suffered because of that.

I also added another conference. Since I had THREE sections, these conferences were too short. But they were so worth it. If I could swing it, I would add a third. Instead, I'm thinking of adding a research presentation--an informal presentation where the students stand up in front of the class and discuss the sources they are using for their project and the lines of questioning they are pursuing approximately two weeks before the due dates.

Another change I'm considering: HTML journals may be replaced with blogs...