Journal Incubator Poster (Digital Humanities 2013)

There was a lot of interest in the Lethbridge Journal Incubator project poster yesterday at the Digital Humanities 2013 conference poster session at the University of Nebraska.

A thumbnail image of the poster comes below (there is also a letter-sized version). You can get the original PDF here

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The History of the Form Revisited

I mentioned in a previous post an article which attributed the origins of the five-paragraph essay to the early 20th century in Germany. Unfortunately, this snippet was the only glimmer of knowledge I could acquire for some time. After searching vainly for weeks for more about the history of the form, I was today finally gratified when I stumbled across an article called “The Five Paragraph Essay: Its Evolution and Roots in Theme-Writing”, by Matthew J. Nunes.

This article traces the commonly perceived origins of the form,  describing its basis in the realm of current-traditionalism, which had its day between 1870-1920. While the article is actually questioning the origins of the form in this period, it does concede the solid placement of the form within the period which I think is worth describing here. Read the rest of this entry »


The Importance of Student Motivation

I’ve gone in several different directions with my research for the unessay project, because as a writing tool I think its results are significant and varied. I’ve looked at the general principles that underlie it–scaffolding and metacognition; I’ve tried to understand what qualifies as good writing, and whether or not the unessay promotes that; and I’ve looked at how the unessay might fit into an increasingly mechanized educational system, where machines are marking papers. The main thing I’ve found is that the rules constituting the unessay promote good writing. Dan and Michael have both expressed the uncanny differences between the essays they mark and the unessays they mark.  Student writing, when liberated from the stringent way essays are taught, becomes something completely different. The ideas are better, they flow better, and they can help the student build a foundation upon which he/she can come at the essay with more flexibility. The whole basis of education is to provide a space for students to push existing skills to their limits, with the intention of having those skills overlap with new skills, and so on and so forth. Read the rest of this entry »


Unfortunately, Planning and Structure do not Equate to Comprehension and Creativity

In the realm of our Unessay research, researchers cannot seem to agree on a few questions. What is the best way to teach students to write with vibrancy? Is it to give free reins and let them run with anything? Or is what is needed a more central focus on the tools needed to write effectively, like grammar, syntax, and other stylistic concerns? And where does argumentation fit in? Where will students learn to think critically and insightfully about the issues they are presented with, rather than just forming unoriginal, albeit well supported, formulaic essays?

These were my questions as I begin to search for the ways in which other researchers, apart from Dan and our Unessay crew, have approached the issue of teaching essay writing to students. Many approaches mirrored that of Dan and Michael’s, in that they favoured a more analysis-centred approach, leaning more towards giving students the opportunities to think and to question. Form and structure typically take less of a focus, and the emphasis in instruction is placed on critical thinking and questioning. Read the rest of this entry »


A Review of “A Machine Learning Approach For Identification of Thesis and Conclusion Statements in Student Essays”

A Review of “A Machine Learning Approach For Identification of Thesis and Conclusion Statements in Student Essays”

 I’ve become quite interested in the idea of machines grading papers ever since I read the New York Times Article Dan posted in the group library: “New test for Computers: Grading Essays at the College level.” For now I am just going to concern myself with the article in my title, but I am working on a much larger piece which combines several scholarly articles as well as a few editorials, on an educational issue that I feel will become increasingly relevant as technology expands: grading machines. Read the rest of this entry »


From Reading to Writing: Why the Essay isn’t Working

Academic literature is rife with conflicting reports on the nature of the five paragraph essay. Discourses from composition professors, high school teachers, and disgruntled students cover the pages of journals and blogs, offering up heavy-handed insights about the benefits and tyrannies of the typical five paragraph format. Many praise the formulaic model that allows for expansion and embellishment, while others disparage it as the ultimate indignity in stifling any creative impulses a student may have had. So what then, is to be the consensus?

I wanted to examine the origins of the form, and hopefully tie it to its modern instructional methods. Most associate the origins of the essay with the 16th century author Montaigne, who provided the name for the genre when he described his literary experiments as essai, the French verb meaning loosely “to try” (Atwan 110). Montaigne classified his works by no other category, but simply by their common attempt to engage critical thought and the processes of questioning and answering. Yet, the deviation from this original and idealized model in students’ writing today is startlingly clear. But that is something we already knew, as the whole goal of this project is to try to examine from where this disparity originates. Read the rest of this entry »


What Makes Writing Good?

The whole point of the unessay project, as I understand it, is to further develop and understand tools that enhance good writing. The unessay is one such tool. My early research has been dedicated to the dissection of the unessay: what principles underlie its composition? how does it fit into current theories on teaching writing? And how and why is it an effective tool? Much of this research is centered around the theories of meta cognition and scaffolding. The unessay requires that its user consider every aspect of the writing process (metacognition): form, argumentation, style, topic etc., It also attempts to bridge the gap between the formal essay and free-writing, by giving the writer complete control, allowing them to utilise the skills they already have in a form they are comfortable with. The end goal is always the formal essay, but the achievement of that goal is through the slow addition of knowledge to a student’s pre-existing knowledge (scaffolding). It sounds almost painfully obvious that learning is simply the expanding framework of an existing body of knowledge, but the formal essay often disregards this concept. A student is given a framework, and it is assumed she already understands how to utilize it. I think what many teachers find–myself included during my brief stint in the education program–is that many students do not understand the form, nor do they feel particularly inclined to utilise it.

With a decent framework through which to understand the unessay, and its place in the contemporary teaching of writing, I shifted the focus of my research, broadening it slightly, to try and answer what I feel is the most significant question when assessing any writing tool: what makes good writing? If we can compile a series of attributes that constitute good writing then surely we can come up with a tool which fosters those skills. Read the rest of this entry »


Unessay and Standardized Testing

In studying the origins of the five-paragraph essay, I stumbled across an article called “Teaching Writing in the Shadow of Standardized Writing Assessment: An Exploratory Study”, by Hunter Brimi. His article begins to dissect the relationship between standardized testing and the writing skills of students. He suggest that the standard format of a five-paragraph essay originated as a marking rubric for the markers of the state-wide tests, to determine the success of the essays written by the students (Brimi 53) And while it appears to have originated as a general standard to assess writing and argumentation skills, it quickly evolved into being the method by which writing and argumentation were taught (Brimi 54). As is typical with standardized testing, teachers begin to teach the material from the test directly to ensure that their students are successful, as well as to make sure they remain free from the trouble that may ensue if their students’ grades fall too far below the line standard set by the tests (Brimi 55). Read the rest of this entry »


Teaching Grammar

As a supplement to the unessay, Dan asked me to take a quick look at whether or not teaching the formal rules of grammar has any use; Does it improve a student’s writing?

The short answer is an unequivocal no. In the article “Responses to Error: Sentence-Level Error and the Teacher of Basic Writing” Foltz-Gray argues, through a series of studies spanning several decades, that teaching grammar has no positive impact on student writing, and in may cases is detrimental. Below are a few of the studies. Read the rest of this entry »


The unessay: A contructivist approach to developing student writing (formalisation and dissemination)

This is the original application for the Unessay Grant.

Project Overview

The goal of this project is to formalise and further develop work that Michael Ullyot of the University of Calgary, graduate student Heather Hobma, writing centre tutor Virgil Grandfield, and I have been carrying out on an innovative approach to teaching undergraduate writing: the Unessay.

The unessay is based on the premise that students do not understand formal essays the same way their teachers do: as a powerful and flexible means of exploring intellectual problems. Instead they see them in much the same light figure skaters see “compulsory figures”: as an artificial set piece designed primarily to test their ability to meet arbitrary rules. Read the rest of this entry »


The Unessay and Metacognition

In order to understand what the unessay attempts to do for writers one must understand the underlying philosophies that govern it. In my preliminary research for this project I attempted to dissect the unessay, revealing its structures, and then relating those structures to the larger theories of teaching writing. Read the rest of this entry »


Introduction to Unessay Research

There appears to be a fundamental discord in the way students are taught to argue and the what professors view as a “good argument”. High school students are taught that a good argument is a point that can be evidentially proven, but professors are searching for a more open-ended approach. Students are taught to answer, while professors want them to question.

Yet, the essay seems to be a loose term in regards to genre and its conventions, with variations being prevalent across disciplines. Does “anything go” when it comes to formulaic standards? Some scholars make a distinction between the “essay” and the “article”. But how many students are taught and become truly aware of this distinction? Students read articles, yet are told to formulate essays. This distinction is one that is not often communicated to students. Upon beginning my research of the subject, I myself had never entertained the distinction. Read the rest of this entry »


Global Outlook :: Digital Humanities and International Partnerships

My post last week on Digital Humanities in a global context (In a Rich Man’s World) was derived from a proposal to the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organisations for a new Special Interest Group devoted to global development issues as they are associated with the Digital Humanities: Global Outlook :: Digital Humanities (GO::DH). I’ve had enough requests from people for the actual proposal, that I thought I’d link to it here (PDF). I’m also pleased (and very grateful) to say that the initiative has also just received funding from the University of Lethbridge through its International Initiatives programme to help get it set up and running. We hope to be arranging our first events very soon.

This is going to be an important area of activity, both within and without the proposed SIG. THaT Camp Caribe is being held this week at the University of Puerto Rico. INKE will be holding its 2012 meeting in Havana, partially out of an interest in these same ideas (Research Foundations for Understanding Books and Reading in the Digital Age: E/Merging Reading, Writing, and Research Practices).

Read the rest of this entry »


In a rich man’s world: Global DH?

The following map is from Melissa Terras’s infographic, Quantifying the Digital Humanities.

Physical Digital Humanities Centres

The map shows the distribution of physical centres in the Digital Humanities (as this is defined by members of ADHO communities) across the globe. As Domenico Fiormonte has argued, it can also serve as a proxy for other types of activity in the field, including, broadly speaking, the residency of members of ADHO affiliated Digital Humanities societies (see Fiormonte, fig. 1).But as Fiormonte also points out, the “blank” areas on Terras’s map can serve as an inverse proxy for other data. Linguistic diversity, for example, or Gross National Income as mapped by UNEP. Read the rest of this entry »


Shit humanists say: A response to “English Profs want to control the internet”

This is a response to “English Profs want to control the Internet”, by somebody who apparently doesn’t want their name front-and-centre. It is slightly modified from the comment I submitted, but since this is actual and it is in a moderation queue, I decided to post it here as well. I wouldn’t mind returning to the topic, to be honest.

I find the genre of this piece (“humanists say the darndest things”) about as tiring as the debate about tweeting conferences. It is pretty easy to make fun of ongoing conversations in any discipline you don’t normally follow, especially if, as others have pointed out, you don’t actually read the things you are linking to, let alone the broad context in which they are being written. Yesterday the Chronicle was reporting on scientists who peer review their own articles by creating fake email addresses and even entire identities. Yet I can resist the temptation to suggest that this must mean that all natural and medical sciences are one large circle jerk.

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