Author: kjaxon

Blogging with my peeps: first-year problems

EOP43Excited to be back in the full swing of the spring semester. I spent the first day of classes completely full of jitters the whole day; funny how that doesn’t go away after 15 years of teaching. I have an amazing group of students in my jumbo first-year writing course: 88 freshmen who are a sea of awesome. I have eight writing mentors who work with me in the space, but this semester I am also running one of our break-out workshops too. This means I have 12 students on Thursday afternoons and we work together on the writing for our course.

We’ll spend this semester thinking about the problems of the freshman year. With 97 of us in the room, we have an opportunity for a rich data set. We’ll blog about “the day in the life” of a freshman, create surveys, follow case studies, read current research, and ultimately create a series of white papers, working to solve the problems of the freshman year on our campus. Students will then be part of one of three teams who turn those white papers into 1) short documentary films, 2) an augmented reality game to be played by incoming freshman, or 3) a website resource for incoming freshmen on our campus.

Today we’re starting our WordPress sites, so soon we will introduce 88 new bloggers to the world. I hope you’ll read about their campus lives: they are all first generation students and they have amazing stories to tell. And if you are so inclined, introduce yourself and discuss ideas they are researching with them.


Sabbatical Starts: For Once, the Journey May Actually Be the Reward

There is a tattoo on my left forearm, copied from borrowed letters in my grandmother’s handwriting, that reads “the journey is the reward.” The tattoo is both a talisman and a reminder: seeing my grandmother, Lois’, beautiful script is comforting and empowering, and the phrase–focused on the journey and not the destination–functions as a sort of flick on the ear when I get too far ahead of myself, a reminder to pay attention to the moment.

tattooHonestly, I’m terrible at remembering it’s supposed to be about the journey: I often joke that the tattoo I need next, perhaps set parenthetically underneath, is “are we there yet?” Ultimately, I enjoy making a plan and getting to the goal, often as quickly as possible. When I got the news about sabbatical, I wondered how my typical ways of working would need to shift from such a destination driven mindset to one open to meandering. I am perfectly capable of over planning the joy right out of this sabbatical journey (as the bulleted list below may reveal).

Since 1995, late August has marked the return to school for me either as a student or as faculty. In fact, with the exception of five years of my life, from 1990-1995 when I had Ashley and Nick and spent the toddler years at home with them, I’ve prepped for the return of school. Ashley started kindergarten in fall 1995 and I started back to work on my bachelor’s degree. In the year she finished her first year of college, I finished the PhD and started down the road as a tenured-track professor. Last fall, I blogged about how much I enjoy the school rituals and routines: the anticipation of meeting new students, designing courses, and planning for the year’s goals. And while I try to be present in my teaching, truly listening to students’ ideas, I’m also guilty of looking ahead to the next deadline, the next task. Many days and weeks simply feel like survival, hoping to “get through” the day or the semester. And I always have a five-year plan in mind.

So what fascinates me about starting sabbatical: the journey is implied. I don’t have to work at being present because I’m not in a hurry to “get through it.” To someone like me, a first-generation college student, sabbatical feels so decadent: time to read deeply, to write, to think. As I read another whole book this weekend, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking  (wonderful btw), with no worries about course prep, the gift of sabbatical settled in fully. Typically, particularly this time of year, I read in the service of prepping for courses. As all of my colleagues who teach a 4/4 load understand, we steal moments to read outside of course prep or we work 15 hour days to fit teaching, service, and scholarship into our lives. The time to fall into rabbit holes of inquiry are challenging to carve out in days spent with meetings, prep, feedback for students. (Side note: I’ve been thinking a lot about my non-tenure track colleagues this week and feeling a sort of survivor’s guilt. Wondering how I can advocate for time for scholarship and reflection, even genius hour models, for adjunct faculty when I return in spring.)

However, even though I’m grateful for this gift, I’m not fully capable of only meandering. Perhaps my working class background, with a touch of OCD and a highly driven nature, makes a complete submission into the sabbatical “journey” impossible. I still, of course, made plans. Since this blog serves to mark the start of this journey, here are the paths I intend to follow for the next five months:

  • Blog weekly. Despite debates about whether blogging is dead (or if it was ever alive), I still like the form and often turn to colleagues’ blogs for insights, info, humor. (Some of my favorites: CogDogBlog, BavaTuesdays, and Nerdy Book Club.) The goal is to blog weekly, using the blogs to mark the sabbatical journey, share texts I’m reading, rant on some educational trends that bug me. For the latter, “flipping” the classroom will be top on the list of rants, not because of the idea per se, but because of my frustration with educational “lite” approaches to learning that too often side step the heavy lifting educational innovation demands. Some of the blogs may function as drafts, a way to try out ideas that I might want to revise and submit.
  • Read & Annotate. As I mentioned, one of the most amazing gifts of this sabbatical is time to read. My reading list is long, filled to the brim with books and articles about making, design, tinkering, and play. I’m currently working on an annotated bibliography that I will make public by mid-September, which will be an ongoing project. The reading is in the service of articles and presentations I am working on and a new NSF grant Leslie and I plan to submit in November.
  • Publish. The good news is that with my colleagues from science–Leslie and Irene–we’ve turned our NSF funded research into a book called Composing Science: A Facilitator’s Guide to Writing in the Science Classroom. ComposingScience_coverThe summer months were spent with developmental and copy edits, cover design, securing permissions (thanks Leslie!), and now the book is set to release October 23. This fall Leslie and I will spend time working with science faculty at Miami, Ohio (thanks to Liz Wardle) as they redesign science writing courses and we will share our research at a variety of conferences. Leslie and I are also working on the companion website for the book in September in Boise. Up next for publishing is a series of articles: one on making in science (with Leslie), one on epic learning, and one yet to be determined. Other writing includes two grants: the NSF grant with Leslie and one NEH grant.
  • Present. A series of conference presentations take up a chunk of time this fall. Very excited to talk about making with Peter Kittle and Laura Sparks at our panel at DML2016, and both scared and excited to be giving an Ignite Talk this year as part of the DML Ignite line-up. And, bonus, Gardner Campbell is hosting! Leslie and I will lead a workshop at the NWP Annual Meeting in November too. For fun, I hope to attend the Watson Conference since a lot of my favorite scholars are sharing work, including Tom Fox, Laura Sparks, Mark Hall, Liz Wardle, and Jody Shipka.

As an aside: When I initially found out about sabbatical, I was struck by the number of colleagues who told me “I must find time to travel.” These colleagues have fewer student loans than me. Any search you do about “using your sabbatical wisely,” will also lead to lots of advice about travel. All of this is a nice reminder of the privileged world of many academics, and for me, a reminder of my sometimes first-gen, outsider status (which I mostly love). My travel will involve finding inventive ways to pay to attend conferences and a lot of local hiking at Lassen National Park, which I plan to relish. IMG_3858_1My spousal unit and I bought a $40 annual pass to Lassen, and our goal is to take #walkingwednesday hikes until we need snowshoes. Someday, on a future sabbatical, traveling abroad will be an option. Writing from some castle in Ireland would not suck I’m certain.

The paths and plans in my tidy, bulleted list are not set; they’re more like temporary passages than concrete roads. I hope that a semester sabbatical will be enough to reset my pace, rethink what counts as a normal day. I may even have to face who I am when I can just be and not do. This is a good thing. I also know that the time is precious: I’m not sure my grandmothers, Lois and Evelyn, would know what to think about this “ceasing” of work. I wish I had the chance to explain to these two smart, amazing women, who talked of “getting back to chores” that because of them–how they modeled curiosity and a maker mindset–I may be able to carve out the best possible path for this sabbatical…full of hikes, books, blogs, and happy chores.

#2NextPrez: Film from Students at Chico State

I spent the past few weeks working with my colleague, Dr. Tracy Butts, 19 cool writing mentors from our English Department, and 191 incoming freshmen at Chico State. The students are part of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) on our campus. Students spend two weeks living in the dorms– and as first generation college students–they are introduced to staff and resources for support on campus.

Since 2006, we’ve included an “English component” to EOP’s Summer Bridge program, offering an introduction to the kinds of literacies students may experience in college. This summer, we connected with the Letters to the Next President, a national program supporting student voices. Our 191 students wrote letters to the next president, which can be found on the Youth Voices website. They wrote about immigration, access to education and health care, about support for the homeless, and their reactions to gun policies. The letters do a particularly beautiful job of humanizing the statistics and “facts” we hear in relation to these national issues.

The students nominated about 30 of their peers to represent the letters on film:

#2NextPrez: Letters to the Next President from Kim Jaxon on Vimeo.

Looking forward to continuing our work with students as they begin their college careers this fall…

Epic Composition: Talk from Jaxon & Fox CCCC 2016

Below is the talk from our #4C16 panel (April 2016). Link to slides too.

Epic Composition
Kim Jaxon & Tom Fox
CSU, Chico
CCCC Houston, TX   April 2016



We want to start by getting some misconceptions out of the way.  Our large-enrollment composition course was not occasioned by institutional pressures, not budget, not bottlenecks, not faculty shortages.  It is not a scaled-up version of regular composition and does not take part in neoliberal projects of scaling for fiduciary efficiency. Instead it was from the outset a design for better learning, better instruction, that emerged from an “entanglement” of the institutional environment and intentional innovation. Particularly germane to the institutional “environment” are three programs that interact with the jumbo: The Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), the First Year Experience program, and our composition program’s forty-year history of using students as writing mentors. The innovation was to create a large-enrollment academic writing course, usually around 90 students, that meets for one hour two times a week. In the large class, students are supported by 9-10 mentors, upper-division English Education majors or graduate students in Language and Literacy advising track. These mentors also meet with the students in a workshop (usually 9-10 students) for two hours on Thursdays or Fridays. The jumbo in both qualitative and quantitative measures is a success. Students achieve, get good grades (98% pass rate), enthuse about the course.  Professors, speaking especially about ourselves, are equally enthusiastic about the course, witnessing engaged learning and high achieving students.

There is a lot to think about in this model: the education and use of mentors, the role of the instructor, the structures of the workshop, a public event at the end, and the curriculum (which we will talk about only briefly). But today we want to tackle head-on, to explain, to theorize, why the central difference—the high number of students—makes this course a better learning environment than our regular composition courses. The primacy of the teacher and student dyad and the classroom as closed container fades in the jumbo and is replaced by a network: encounters and entanglements with other students, with mentors and professors, and with other university professionals,  inside and outside the jumbo. This network, formed by EOP, reformed again in a First-Year Experience and a courselink that follows, and again in the structures of the mentors and workshops becomes epic and viral.

The concept of “epic” we take from Jane McGonigal’s Reality is BrokenEpic happens when participants in a project realize that the projects and actions they engage in and environments where they take place seem “bigger than ourselves” (98). “Epic” projects provide contexts for action as a form of service to these larger goals, encourage wholehearted participation, and—perhaps most relevant to our goals—provide mechanisms for the exchange of expertise. When systems are designed to help people share their interests and goals, she argues, people can be called upon and are motivated to do work they excel at. “And the chance to do something you’re good at as part of a larger project helps students build real self-esteem among their peers,” McGonigal says, “Not empty self-esteem based on nothing other than wanting to feel good about yourself, but actual respect and high regard based on contributions you’ve made” (130-31). The realization of competence, the offering of contributions from the students creates a swarm that generates not just a single identity, but a collection of identities driven by the desire to be scholars, to find out things, and to share their findings with colleagues. 

The embeddedness in local institutional context makes the jumbo nonscalable.  We take our understanding of scalability from Anna Tsing’s remarkable article, “On Nonscalability:The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales,” where she argues that the understanding of scaling—the movement of a project from one context to another with little change to the original (think McDonalds, Starbucks) is an underexamined concept. Tsing shows that scaled projects are a capitalist fantasy, always transform themselves and their new contexts as they move, often by destroying environments, cultures, and people. Scaling, a process through capitalist projects (say “Composition”) are reproduced in ever expanding contexts with little or no change to the original. Though there’s an argument that the Harvard model of composition is exactly that fantasy, that’s for another paper.  We use Tsing’s ideas to counter the argument that our jumbo is a “scaled expansion” of Composition and argue that the learning we offer is about the richness of nonscalability.

Composition as a scaled project at CSU, Chico has fairly routine results: creeping class size, two or three or even four tiered staffing systems, varied degrees of knowledgeable instructors, widely varied approaches and purposes for the class. While we have done the regular things to counter these problems (common outcomes, professional development meetings, etc), mostly we’ve come to think that this is the imperfect world we live in. We began to question the high value placed on the role of the instructor to drive the composing processes of students, wondering if the emphasis placed on extensive feedback by one authority, for example, is the best means for supporting writers. These questions became especially acute when we realized that in 2007 close to 40% of EOP students were failing the first-year composition course (as compared to our non-EOP students whose fail rate was closer to 10%). Shortly after, Jaxon and colleagues instigated a series of structural changes, including a series of mentor-supported writing intensive activities nested within a redesigned sequence of courses.  Jaxon and colleagues’ success in the Summer Bridge program occurred because of the healthy exchange of ideas and practices between the EOP staff and writing faculty.  One feature of Summer Bridge stood out: the 200 students talked, listened, interacted, joked, shared, learned, and supported each other to a degree that is uncommon in the usual institutional contexts.  There was a palpable energy in the space as this large number of students worked side by side supporting the writing of their peers. 

So Jaxon wondered, what if it were possible to replicate the “epic” sense that she observed in the Summer Bridge program in first-year composition and mesh it with what we know about how writers work?  In the world, writing circulates across networks, platforms, readers, and critics: we are interested in the ways in which a large class can approximate complex systems of production and circulation (Trimbur, 2000).

So that’s good. What’s the advantage of putting them all in one room? Why are bigger numbers better? Let’s step back and make visible a contrast between the jumbo experience and the educational histories of our students. Many come from an NCLB-scarred educational environment where writing–and any other unmeasurable practice–was pushed out of the curriculum, where the students take, on average, twelve different standardized tests each year (Strauss). They enter the CSU system, take a bizarre test that nearly all of the EOP students fail, have to do (and pay for) “early start,” a ridiculous initiative that requires students begin remediation after they are accepted and before they are enrolled. Though these alienating experiences produce a wise skepticism about education, students still hope that “college” will somehow be different. It is this latent hope—hope represented by the human characteristic of curiosity that drives learning—that is nurtured by the iterative structures that students inhabit at Chico. What drives the energy of the jumbo is the number.

Tony Sampson, in his book Virality: Contagion in the Age of Networks, cites a Stanley Milgram experiment:  If one person looks up at the sky, 20% of passerbys also look up at the sky.  If five people look up at the sky, 80% of passerbys look up at the sky.  Sampson comments, “the individual makes a contagious assumption based on the quantity (my emphasis) of evidence that there is something worth looking up at” (51). In a similar way, the quantity of students who embrace the jumbo increase the virality of the experience.  This explains the high pass rate and the general “this is worth my time” attitude of the students.

Students enter a space that offers complex and extended attention to multiple ways to participate. A question driving our design is “What ways of doing, what identities are offered, supported, and celebrated?” We hope to extend a sense of self like that of a “successful college student” to something deeper: an identity as a scholar and member of a team of scholars. We argue that the large class affords the construction of a scholarly identity, an identity we think was always already there, but untapped and unnoticed. The  students are recognized as scholars, thinkers, writers and this recognition comes from relationships they value, from their mentors, the faculty, but more importantly, from their large number of peers.

The structures of the jumbo makes sustained contact among students possible: they coalesce around commonalities of academic work, success for themselves, and their families. These commonalities are overdetermined, or multicreated, by the EOP, shared desires of economic mobility, our mentors, and ourselves. The “flow of desire” is about academic success, the realization of an identity of a smart person, a scholar, a researcher. The virality of the jumbo emerges from this mix of spontaneous encounters, designed social spaces, and shared desires.

An iterative social practice in the jumbo is to model and create noticing. We were concerned at first, at the possibility of students feeling lost in the numbers. That has not proved to be a problem: routines in the classroom set up noticing. We create structures—small teams, public blogs, consistent exchanges of student work, featured work—which model and support noticing. The experience of being noticed, either by the professor, the mentor or a peer, in a class of nearly 100 is more powerful than being noticed in a class of 20.  

As an example of one structure that supports, and more importantly, makes noticeable, the scholarly work of students, we ask students to participate in a “Review Board.” Each workshop team sends a representative to meet with the instructor for an hour outside of class time each week. The Review Board is responsible for reading the work of their peers and nominating a writer to be featured in class. We end up with nine featured writersone from each workshopand we pick a few to talk about in the large class. The review board’s jobback in the large classis to present the writing, talk about why they think it represents some of the best thinking that week, pose questions to the featured writer about her choices, and celebrate their peers. We are impressed by this small Review Board team: without prompting they will often ask “what was the purpose of the writing this week?” Or they will say, “we featured her work last week; we should make sure someone else is featured.” The students recognize that the writing is intentional and that we value the ideas from as many students as possible in our class. Each week, a new batch of scholars emerge and are highlighted in our spaceand over timewe build a community where the students are noticed.

Pedagogical practices such as thisthe curation and publication of classmate’s work by classmatescontribute to students being entangled in each other’s work, creating  contagion where students pursue inquiries of their own design, inquiries that matter to them and begin to matter to their classmates as well. It’s the collective forcethe numbersthat make this powerful.

We’ll leave you with some questions to ask yourself for large course design:

  • What activities and structures are better with more people?
  • What classroom practices support noticing and being noticed?
  • What does a large class make possible? (for example, an “n” of 100 for a data set)
  • What ways does a large class make going public meaningful (from gallery walks to web-publication, print-publications, and public presentations)
  • How can you redistribute labor in equitable and effective ways to provide students with response, with people to think with, with notetakers and record-keepers?
  • What technologies work better with larger numbers?

Works Cited

McGonigal, Jane. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2011.

Sampson, Tony. Virality: Contagion in the Age of Networks. Minneapolis, MN: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Trimbur, John. “Composition and the Circulation of Writing.” College Composition & Communication. 52.2 (Dec 2000): 188-219.

Tsing, Anna. “On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales.” Common Knowledge 18.3 (August 2012): 505-524.

Connected Learning: Creating the School Year We Want to Live In

Recently, I was fortunate enough to be asked to host the September 2015 Connected series: “Back to School: Creating the School Year We Want to Live In.” Below are the webinar archives, which bring together educators from 1st grade to college who discuss how they design classrooms that nurture kindness, support inquiry, develop student expertise, and how they nurture their own professional growth throughout the busy school year. #connectedlearning

The Rumpus: It Starts Again

I just finished course design for the fall 2015 semester. If you were to shine a flashlight into this world every August, you would find me on a couch in the living room, hair disheveled, clothes unchanged for days, various food products tossed to the floor, and surrounded by books ranging from Vygotsky’s Mind in Society to Scieszka and Barnett’s Battle Bunny. I love this time of year. And once I get started on prep, it is almost impossible to stop. For me, imagining a learning environment, curating the texts, and designing for community and participation is like playing a great platform video game. Each course becomes a puzzle to solve as I imagine students inhabiting this world I’m trying to build. And I know–and hope–that they’ll take the world as it’s designed and mess it up. They’ll mess it up in all the best possible ways.

prepImagining the course without students is actually easy…and tidy. The class is so clear in my head: what we’ll read, how we’ll talk about it, what students will make. And then other humans come in the room, and in most semesters, students do things and make things that I could not have imagined. And I learn. And we learn. What I learn mostly is that I have to be willing to let go of my favorite things I’ve designed for the course. I have to let students remix, mashup, and throw out our plans: their questions must drive the course even if we meander at times. I appreciate the struggle that comes from designing a course where it is safe to fail. Where failure is valued, not because “anything goes,” but because we are thinking through such complicated ideas we could not possibly solve them.

Course prep means I’ve probably opened 1000 links in the last few days and I’ve read or re-read 15 books in the last two weeks. And this devouring of material may be why course prep is so engaging: prep is so much more than putting due dates on the calendar. The reading and re-reading reminds me what matters in my field and points out the holes in my thinking. I finish this prep every time with a list of ideas to focus on for the upcoming school year. Here’s how it looks so far:

Multimodal-ing. I want to get clear(er) about multimodal composing: the whys, what assignments do, how to assess, how to give feedback, etc. I’ve been re-reading Gunther Kress and diving deep into Shipka’s recent work. Reading list is in process and a plan to gather a group of colleagues to read together.

Coding. I want to learn more. As I argue for an open web, I feel limited in my understanding of the structures of the web. My plan: time with Code Academy.

Writing. Leslie Atkins, Irene Salter, and myself signed a book contract with Teachers College Press. Our book–Composing Science: A Facilitator’s Guide to Writing in the Inquiry Classroom–aims to provide research and support for teaching writing in the science classroom, particularly in higher education. We would like students to experience writing practices that mirror the practices of scientists (so, no lab reports). We are super excited to be working with all we’ve learned from our NSF grant and the last couple of years we’ve spent teaching and researching together. My plan: level up in my writing with more precise arguments. We have beautiful student data to work with and I’d like to do it justice.

Opening. I started a commitment last fall, after the DML work, to open up my class and make connections outside our space. I want to connect students to communities of practice they hope to join. I started by connecting with an amazing teacher, Wendy Fairon, and asking my future teachers to blog with Wendy’s 7th graders. The two populations of students blew us away with the connections they made to each other and to young adult novels. I’m hoping to continue this work with Wendy and with a teacher from Redding. I’ll also pair students–as peer response buddies (like a pen pal)–across sections. I’ve found that this outside audience is great for our blogs. I’m constantly in search of ways to connect my students to other authors, students, and fellow faculty.

Love the fresh start in fall. Let’s do this.