Sunday, February 26, 2006

Simerka Blog

Hi all: Sorry I did not post sooner. My thoughts for the exact nature of my project are in a state of evolution. I sent an email around in Dec, based on the desire to create an HLL website to complement the Spanish 225 Intermediate Composition course I am teaching for the first time. Because this is the first time I have taught an intermediate (as opposed to advanced) Spanish Comp course, I am not sure of the exact needs of the students at this level (beyond knowing that they need a very precise guide concerning how to format a bibliography) I am leaning toward the website being a joint production of myself and the class, with small groups of students working on individual pages for specific problems encountered by each of the 3 different need/ability groups:1) those who learned to read and write in a Spanish speaking country, 2) Heritage speakers who speak Spanish at home but were educated in US schools and learned to read and write Spanish in high school or college, and 3) traditional second language learners. So far, I have used class discussion and small group peer editing not only as a way to improve student writing, but also to begin to create an atmosphere of meta-composition, to encourage students to think of themselves both as student writers and also as future teachers of writing (80% plan to be high school or university teachers). This week and next, students will evaluate their body of writing to date, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and work on devising their own strategies for improvement. In reading over the other contributors’ postings, I was inspired and plan to incorporate some ideas: to expand the writing web site by posting sample student writing, hosting a small, informal reading of student work at the end of the semester.

In addition, just this week I was asked to create a W course for LASAR course at the 100 level. I had worked extensively last year on getting approval for a 300 level W course / senior seminar centered around a research paper. I am under a tight deadline and need to think about how to conceptualize the writing goals for a much lower level course. Here is the proposal I have worked on this past week instead of posting sooner.

Cover Letter
I am writing this proposal with the hope that Spanish 031 will be approved as a “Sometimes W” course in time for the course to be listed in the catalog for the Fall 06 semester. This course will fulfill all 4 of the components of a W course and will use these activities to help students approach the course content from a perspective that encourages comparative and critical thinking skills about the many cultures of the Hispanic world. There are three goals for this class: paragraph development, a 3-4 page comparative essay, and writing essay exam questions of various lengths. For each goal, the process will begin with large group discussions in which the study of class texts includes analysis of the structure, organization and modes of reasoning that the writers use in their analysis if Hispanic cultures. Through this process, the class will learn to develop a rubric that students will then apply to editing peers. writing. Throughout in the semester, students will be given opportunities for creation and discussion of ungraded and informal writing as they work toward each of the three major goals. Early in the semester, as students progress from single paragraphs to three and five paragraph essays, they will learn to fulfill the primary goals of academic writing: personal response, summarize,, evaluate, and compare and contrast, in the context of exploring Spanish and Latin American cultural production. This section of the class will culminate in a 5 paragraph response essay to Rigoberta Menchu’s testimonial writing and the subsequent controversy. In the second part of the course, students will choose two class texts for an in-depth comparative essay; through the steps of this project they will refine the composition activities described above and will also focus on the creation of strong thesis and concluding paragraphs as a key to successful academic writing. Each step of the composition process will include analysis of the structural elements of the Hispanic texts, the creation of rubrics, peer editing, and class discussion of student texts. At the end of the course, students will combine all of these activities in order to write essay exam questions of various lengths. Throughout the course, students will study the norms for writing in various Humanities and Social Sciences disciplines through class discussion of the formal aspects of literary, philosophical, historical and political texts, as well as literary, film, and art criticism. The course work will include 15 pages of evaluated work, which will include the 5 paragraph essay, the several stages of the term paper, and a final exam with 3 essays. These written assignments will allow students to engage in a meaningful way with the complexities of Spanish and Latin American cultures.

Week I: 1st reading (Las Casas)
In class writing preparation activity: paragraph structure
Individual writing: personal response to Las Casas(page 1 of 15)

Week II: Analysis of critical writing (Todorov, Pagden)
In class writing preparation activity: oral analysis of structure,
rhetoric, modes of reasoning, of a critical article.

Week III, Writing about Literature: (Lope de Vega)
In class writing preparation activity: identifying literary themes, how to relate literary texts ( Lope’s play) to Todorov and Pagden’s theoretical essays and Las Casas’ history writing

Week IV: Writing about History (Castro, Perry)
In class writing activity: 1 paragraph summary. How to identify and summarize the key points in historical descriptions of Spain’s multicultural medieval era.

Week V: Writing about the Arts (Katzew, Rivera )
Individual writing activity: 1 paragraph essay; synthesize How to evaluate Katzew and Rivera’s’s explorations of Spain and Latin America’s multicultural identity within the context of previous writings by Castro, Perry, etc. (page 2 of 15)

Week VI: Writing about Cultural Studies (Vasconcelos. García Canclini)
In class writing activity: 1 paragraph essay; evaluate. How to relate theories of hybridity in contemporary Latin America and US Hispanism with the reconceptualization of the Hispanic past.

Week VII: Writing about History II (Skidmore and Smith, Martí, Galeano)
In class writing activity: compare and contrast. How to evaluate cultural production and historical writings concerning Latin America’s responses to Spanish and US imperialism.

Weeks VIII and Week IX: Writing and Ideology
(The Menchú Controversy: Menchú, Horowitz, D’Souza, Bolt)
Individual writing activity: Critical Thinking and Persuasive Writing (page 3-4 of 15)
How to conceptualize testimonial literature and its role in the US canon, in the light of neocon critiques and leftist defenses.

Weeks IX and X: Writing Across Disciplines: Politics, History and Fiction (Alvarez)
Writing preparation activity; 3 paragraph essay, how to distinguish between plot summary and analysis of a theme. How to incorporate historical information and theoretical writings in a literary essay.

Weeks XI and XII: Thinking Across Disciplines: Politics, History and Film (Official Story)
Term Paper I: 3 paragraph essay, analyzing a theme (page 5 of 15)
Term paper 2: 5 paragraph essay, compare and contrast (pages 6-7 of 15)
In class: large and small group peer editing

Week XIII: Thinking Across Disciplines: Dance and Film (Lorca/Saura)
Term Paper 3: Construction and revision of a thesis paragraph (page 8 of 15)
Term Paper 4: Writing a strong conclusion (page 9 of 15)
In class: large and small group peer editing

Week XIV: Thinking Across Disciplines: Gender Study and Film (Almodóvar)
Term paper 5: Completed Term paper, incorporating revised drafts (pages 10-12 of 15)
In class: large and small group peer editing

WEEK XV: Synthesizing Course Knowledges. Preparing the Essay Exam
In class writing / large and small group peer editing: the essay exam. Choosing mode, length.

Final Exam 3 pages: short answer, 3 paragraph essay, 5 paragraph essay (pages 13- 15)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Hello, everybody.
Things are getting a little bit crazy already this semester, so I thought I should post while I am still sane! (at least I think I am). As I posted before, for my project, I am organizing with Jason, a conference devoted to improving student writing in the sciences. We now have a web site for the conference and Jason has put up a link to it (it is still "under construction" so please don't spread it around just yet). I won't repeat what was in my previous post or on the website. If you have any suggestions let me know. Right now I am trying to get my students in my Math 213W courses engaged in writing their first paper. It will be a short (5-7 pages) research paper using the powerful Mathematica software (introduced in the course) to experiment and discover new (at least to the student) results. We will also do peer editing. Toward that end, I will distribute a calendar this week for the paper and a sheet on guidlines for reviewers. I will post these in a few days. Students will form author/reviewer pairs. Each will review the other's paper. (Should I make the assignments or let them choose?). Jason has science writing tutors that can help me with this.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Hi everyone, and I hope you're all having a good semester too.

My only contribution to the blog so far has been a short and remorseful apology and a hideous photograph; but I have been thinking about my project. Basically I hope to create for the history department (as part of its web page) a site that will help students to advance their research (and writing) skills by providing them with a guide as well as a storehouse of links to primary source sites--of which there are many. This will not be like my John Jay website, which is outdated and targeted in any case to a different level of student; instead, I want to focus solely on (1) the use of primary texts in history papers and (2) the manner in which students at an undergraduate and graduate level conduct research utilizing secondary sources and library skills (and outlets such as Jstor, EEBO, etc). Perhaps as an add-on, I would also include a link to a site that displays the best of our history students' writing across all fields. In this way, it could be a guide providing model templates of good essays, as well as a kind of online journal that would reward the best of our students' work.

Right now I'm teaching a graduate course in historical research and methodology, and I'm struck at how students even at that level--and most of them are extremely bright--tend to get a little lost when it comes to issues such as gathering sources, locating archives or other collections, or even generating questions and theses around their ideas. I've also gotten an educational experience myself, since I'm trying to reach Americanists, non-westernists, modernists and others not in my field by locating resources and sites that would be of help to them. Primary source sites abound, emanating from the Library of Congress, the Avalon project at Yale, and elsewhere. One great resource site in general comes out of Princeton (, and I'd like to link to that or model my proposed site on it while also tailoring it to our students and the research available to us here in New York.

There are also other possibilities: faculty and student workshops (such as Amy's) could be advertised on it, faculty could contribute comments targeted at students, other workshop possibilities could be included (I'm thinking about one centered around the Louis Armstrong archive here at Queens--though most of our students don't work at that level yet, it might be a good way to show students the excitement of searching through/handling primary documents--though I'm not sure the archivist would be too thrilled! Or, someone from the collection could simply contribute on his/her own). Anyway, it's all a start.

Obviously my project is an ambitious one, and as an untenured professor with a number of research and book deadlines ahead of me, I can't do it all this semester. But I'd like to start what will hopefully be an ongoing project, and of course I'd love to have input from all of you (in fact, a lot of what we're doing seems to intersect). Anyway, if you have any comments or suggestions, please let me know. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing you all again.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Good evening to all RSWL folks & happy beginning of the semester!

I am writing with a few brief remarks about my project.

My project concerns information literacies in the English major--but of course I hope I can be in dialogue with other departments too. In several ways, I am responding to longstanding complaints that our students --even in our senior seminars--have not completed research papers or, in fact, had much experience incorporating secondary sources. Even today (around hour 11 of my day) one of my MA students three papers away from graduation said to me "I have never completed research; how do I do it?" And this in a program where there is a dedicated methodology course! Where is the place of research and information literacy in our undergrad. curriculum and how can this be enhanced?

If I were to articulate an overall goal for my project (extending from now through Fall 2006) it would be to think about the ways in which information literacies can be woven more deeply into our curriculum, to provide (hopefully really nifty) research exercises for a variety of our courses, and to create something of a "buzz" around information literacies in our department--or at least get a few people interested in it.
This will involve at least one workshop.

I have a good starting point: the Middle States Commission on Higher Education produced an excellent report in 2002 outlining possible guidelines for information literacy in the undergrad. curriculum. It's a smart and toughminded report and a real inspiration. I will read other research on the matter of information literacy. Then I will survey a number of our English majors about their levels of information literacy.

The questions I ask will be shaped by my research into information literacy -- and conversations with our colleagues in the library. I'll certainly ask them about the instruction they've received in formal paper writing but also get them to say if they've worked with certain databases/resources/ tools. I might try and probe whether they recognize a distinction between journalistic sources and academic sources. I don't know yet what I need to ask, so I am hoping for some feedback on the survey part of it. And maybe some handholding from my social science colleagues! I did not realize when I proposed the project that I needed to collect data--and of course my intellectual world is not an empirical world--so I need to think about what it means to survey people and how to respond to the information collected.

Where I go from there will depend on the kind of responses I get back. I'll probably ask faculty to do some kind of survey as well. What shall I ask my colleagues? I guess I will ask them what research teaching they do and what they wish their students already knew about research & information technology [without having to be taught information literacy] & what obstacles they face at Queens as they try and teach research.

So then I'll do the sample exercises and readings...and a research blog of some kind ... and a faculty workshop.

So that's the beginning!

I look forward to seeing you all and talking bloggishly until then!

Monday, January 23, 2006

Hi everyone--
I'm sorry for being slack in my contribution, but I'll get my spring project description off in the next day or two.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Hi All,

I'm writing to sketch out my idea for my spring project. I often teach advanced thematic history seminars, of which the central focus is the term paper that all students must submit by the semester's end. Several different times, I have experimented with holding writing workshops for students. My experimentation has never been very systematic, and my results have never been very positive. I am convinced that there is a way of designing a writing workshop that would prove productive for students. I'm also concinved that I have been reinventing the wheel, so to speak; I'm sure that there are published studies on this technique of teaching writing, and I would like to investigate them. I want to use this project as an opportunity to take the time to design a very well thought out workshop for my students that would give them the opportunity to revise and rethink their writing though sharing it with a group. My project, then, would consist of researching and designing a writing workshop, which I would then implement in my History 392W class this semester. I will share the results of this experiment at the very least by writing up a memo to distribute to you.

This project echoes some of the other RSWL participants' interest in peer review --how to do it, evaluate its efficacy, etc.-- and so I look forward to speaking about this with you all in person and hearing your ideas.

I have a second idea, as well. I am interested in organizing a panel discussion about teaching writing. This panel would be composed of STUDENTS, and not of teachers. I, for one, would really love to hear students' thoughts on the writing process. What better way than to ask them? When I was a graduate student teacher, I organized a similar panel and it was enormously successful and useful. The students loved the fact that their experience and opinion mattered, too. The trick would be to organize it at a time when people would actually show up, and to publicize it aggressively to ensure a respectable audience. It would also be necessary to invite a variety of students who would feel comfortable speaking somewhat publicly on this issue.

I look forward to hearing everyone's opinion on this.

Best wishes,


Thursday, December 15, 2005

These are some of the photos Carrie took during our last meeting of the semester. I put them up mainly to show you that you can add images to the blog. (Just click on the photo icon above the "Compose" window.) But I thought it would also be nice to share the photos!