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English 108L, Winter Quarter 2019

Assignments and Updates

See also: Blackboard

This page has the most up-to-date information available on this website. Please check this page frequently throughout the quarter!!

(Information on this page will be listed in reverse chronological order--beware!)

For help with grammar and mechanics for ELL/ESL students, try:

Wednesday, March 13:

Two things today: turn in your portfolio. The Self-reflecive Essay part of it is something that you will actually write IN-CLASS today.

Monday March 11

Research Presentation Day. The full assignment is posted on the Blackboard page here. Much looking forward!

Wednesday February 27

Reading: Alfie Kohn: "Do Our Kids Get Off Too Easy?" (click on the link to find the essay)

Writing: Two things: First, the Kohn piece is a way of helping me make more sense than I was able to make on Wednesday (not all that hard to do, actually!). It is about the same things I was trying to get my head around so that I could address what is a real issue in education at all levels, and that is how we motivate students most effectively, and how we do that in ways that enable students to excell without also creating a set of "losers." This connects with issues of assessment (self assessment as well as teacher assessment), with difficulty, with ZPDs, and with motivational theory. And maybe a couple of other issues.

Kohn is writing about K-6 students, not university students, so one could say that his argument simply doesn't apply. But Kohl was dealing with K-6 students, too, and his concept of "not-learning" certainly has been transformative at many levels of schooling.

So the first thing I would like you to do is to think about his piece in relation to your own experience and your own convictions on this subject, and then to write a page about your whether, how, and (especially) why you do or do not agree with Kohn.

What you should keep in mind is that Educational psychology has not come up with a consensus on this issue. There really are a number of views of how to think about the emotional and cognitive dimensions of early childhood education; there are fewer about what we do at the university level. Or rather, there actually are quite a few, but higher education tends to provoke much less argument on such matters, at least in part because most professors haven't thought through what the stakes would be for college level students in the first place. Few have training in how students learn best, so they often just do a version of what was done to them.

Which brings us to the second thing I'd like you to do is to prepare yourself for a Wednesday during which we begin to set up your research projects.

Your job: go back to the Glossary in Learning About Learning and rebrowse, and then choose three concepts that you might like to do some educational research and writing about. You will each be writing a paper (no more than 2500 words) on the results of your research about your topic. You will focus on just one concept, but you will be working in groups of three in order to be able to be able to support each other when a number of you will not have had much experience researching in this area. You will in the last week of class share out your findings.

Wednesday we will be using the Sorting Hat to locate your topics. I'll fill you in more fully then.

Monday, February 25

We are going to be re-starting things for the last three weeks of the quarter. I'll also be introducing the research project.

We will also look at a new dimension of writing--stylistics.


No Class: Presidents's Day Happy Holiday!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Wednesday, February 13

Reading: None

Writing: a FULL proposal for my Learning Profile. The assignment is on the Blackboard here

We've talked about this already: what I want is a kind of self research project, and I am going to try to flesh this out more fully below. I am not sure I have yet found exactly the right form for this assignment, but my best approximation as of last week is on the assignment sheet I gave you on Wednesday. I really do hope you are willing to work with me to get this right (you are older and more experienced than the first-year students who are my usual customers here, and I hope you'll find this not just an assignment but an interesting challenge).

Here are the underlying beliefs/facts/assumptions:

I introduced last time we met the notion of "pedagogical memory." Here is a summary of what my "lecture" was meant to say:

Students arrive at college with many memories about the schooling they have had, but they often do not yet know how to use those memories as a kind of databank that can be read and analyzed to become better aware of what has happened to them as learners over the years of their education: both what they have or have not become better at doing, and what the conditions under which their learning occurred as well. Most especially, they rarely have been shown how they can use those memories as a way to understand better both how they learn well and how they don’t. The best examples we've seen so far have been in the Herb Kohl reading: he reflects on his memories of not-learning and uses them (including the shame he was made to feel in his Hebrew class when he copied his friend's paper) to come up with new ways to understand not only his own memories but those of the children he now works with as a public school teacher.

You started doing this in My Writing Life. From your papers I learned a lot about how your teachers and your school experiences had effects, some positive, many negative, on you and your developing attitudes about writing.

Most of you do not like to write; some fear it, some are shamed by it, some just think they have no talent for it. These are, of course, some of the reasons you decided to sign up for this class in the first place! What I was asking you to do in that paper was, essentially, to think about how your habits/dispositions towards writing developed, and then go on to think of how to free yourself from some of the negative strictures that one, two or more of your teachers put upon you. (You can correct me about any of this, by the way. Just include as a postscript a couple of pages explaining what I have missed. I would much look forward to the conversation!)

I won't call it therapy because it is not, but it was a way to start giving yourself more credit, for rethinking how your writing processes could be modified so as to give yourself a better mental space and cognitive process to support your compositional efforts.

So to summarize: The goal of assignments 1 and 2 is to encourage students (i.e., you!) to recall and narratize events from their educational past in order that they may learn how to analyze such moments metacognitively--using the lens of your memories and the emotional states that those memories evoke (from happiness on one hand to self-abuse or feelings of incompetence on the other) to make new judgments about what those memories are telling you.

But while the process of revaluation begins with memory, students also need conceptual tools to help them recognize and assess what has been helpful for them as learners, what has been limiting, and how they can modify or introduce new understandings with which they can build/extend strong learning behaviors or work to control or delete weaker ones.

To accomplish this we have used a set of readings that offer both a general introduction to how any of us learn or don’t learn, and an introduction to key concepts in cognitive learning theory. Your challenge here is to profile yourself as a learner--you really should have lots good to say or you wouldn't be here at all, but if you are at all normal (and many of us are at least normal-ish) you also have frustrations or what you think are "bad habits" (like procrastination) that you might be able to rethink and resituate in your learning "habitus" (to use a word that is another way to say "profile"!--the way you tend to do stuff is your habitus [from which the word "habit" comes, of course].

In your first paper you used anecdotes from your writing life to tell the story of how you came to be the writer you are. In this essay, by contrast, you will again use examples from your own experience, but your focus will be on applying the learning concepts we have studied to understand your own tendencies as a learner.  As I suggest above, the learning concepts are not just a list of things to memorize (i.e., they are not what Meyer and Land call "inert" learning!); they are also a set of tools for thinking about yourself as a learner and about what you would like to strengthen or change or even find new respect for! None of us are perfect learners, though all of us have some pretty good things going for us or we really wouldn't be at one of the great universities of the world at all.

So: The learning concepts, combined with pedagogical memories you have revived and rethought, provide a way to get some conscious control over what our minds naturally do. That, in turn, allows one to become more fully aware of one’s own tendencies and can help one become a stronger and more efficient learner. How we learn, like how we speak, is actually for most of us for most of our lives a great mystery. Our work tends to be via unconscious processes. Cognitive science has begun to give us the ability to bring some of that unconsiousness out of the dark of our inner brain and into the light of rational reflection. That's the real project here--And I do not really know how to tell you how to write a good proposal--I just want you to really think your way into this. We can then have great conversations about what you could AND what you couldn't do--all to prepare for the writing of the full paper.

(I will give you some other SHORT readings to support this project, too, in class on Wednesday.)


Wednesday, February 6 (this is the same assignment you had for Monday) :

Reading: Meyer and Land, "Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practicing within the Disciplines." And it may be helpful to you to reread in Learning about Learning the Glossary entries on: Difficulty, Metacognition, Not-learning, and (of course!) Threshold Concepts in Learning about Learning. (click here)

Not everyone will find this an easy read. It is, like the Ramirez and Beilock, written not for a popular audience (you and me, for the most part) but for professionals in the field of educational theory. That said, for such an article it is more readable than most. It has many examples drawn from many fields. But because "threshold concepts" (TCs) are by their nature concepts that require you to rethink and re-understand what you think you already know, they can be pretty hard to get your head around.

The value of M&L's multiple examples is only to give you several specific concepts that are already familiar to you and thus will give you a good sense of how they (in effect) take you across a threshold from one way of thinking to a different way of thinking. We have all learned a number of threshold concepts, even when we haven't known that we are learning something that will reorganize or recontextualize something we already know and by doing so enable us to think in a new and different way.

All of which means that you don't have to understand every concept they point to. They give lots of examples in order that you can find one or two that work for you. I mentioned the mathematical example of i and I explained how in writing studies the concept of "rhetorical effectiveness" for expert writers has replaced the concept of "correctness" as a primary criterion for good writing. Both of those concepts enable a student to work at a more expert level in a particular disciplinary context.

The value of M&L's multiple examples is only to give you several specific concepts that are already familiar to you and thus will give you a good sense of how they (in effect) take you across a threshold from one way of thinking to a different way of thinking. We have all learned a number of threshold concepts, even when we haven't known that we are learning something that will reorganize or recontextualize something we already know and by doing so enable us to think in a new and different way.

This reading is also actually two articles in one--the first dealing with the notion of "threshold concepts," and the second dealing with different kinds of "troublesome knowledge," of which TCs are only one kind. This second section is easier to read, but perhaps harder to see the point of. All the authors are trying to do is list some ways in which education essentially goes wrong. It's about teaching things without making clear why one would want to know them or how they will (if they ever will) be useful. We'll go through these together in class and sort them out for ourselves.

Writing: Though threshold concepts are most often talked about in academic spaces, we actually can run into them almost anywhere. So as you read inventory the things you know, especially about things you are expert in, and list and explain three that seem to be "threshold" concepts. Write about them, explaining as fully as you can both what it means and, as best you can, why it seems to be a threshold concept and not just a "core" concept. And then explain why some might find it troublesome! What do you have to put aside in order to adopt a new way of thinking? (It's not all that important here that you be "right." We can learn something about threshold concepts from non-threshold concepts, too.) (Not-learning, by the way, is for most people a threshold concept)


Monday February 3: Snow Day--Carry forward the assignment for Wednesday. (I've moved the description to Wednesday, above)

Wednesday, January 30:

Reading: Ramirez and Beilock.“Writing About Test Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom.” 

Writing: After reading the paper, write a response that focuses on these questions:

       a. What was their explanatory hypothesis for their conclusion that writing boosts exam performance? 
      b. What can you say about how strong their evidence is?  Do you believe them? (I know you are not an expert! You don't have to be right, just thoughtful!)
      c.  Pretend you are a researcher in the area of cognitive learning.  Assuming we accept R and B’s conclusion and explanation, think about your own situation. When are you likely to find yourself feeling “performance anxiety” (the technical term for what they are trying to help students reduce) about writing? How might you set up an experiment for yourself like this one to test whether writing would help? 

[I actually use a version of this when I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep.]

Again, the criterion for success here is ECI.

Monday, January 28

Reading: For next Monday: a lightning research project on Cognitive Bias. There are many sources available on line that define and illustrate “Cognitive Bias,” and most point out that cognitive bias is actually a name for a whole set of more specific biases. Your job is to peruse 3-5 sites that seek to explain “cognitive bias” and decide which of them helps you most to understand the concept.

Then drill down: find a list of cognitive biases (like that at and select three for further research.

Writing: Once you've done your research, write your efforts up as a narrative. What did you learn about each of these cognitive biases? Pick one of the three you've studied and include a reflection on what you have/haven't learned about your own thinking.

This is an Engaged Critical Intelligence excercise (ECI). In the syllabus I describe ECI writing this way:

My criterion for the daily exercise/response papers is “engaged critical intelligence,” or ECI. You don’t have to be “right,” and you don’t have to be polished. You don’t even have to solve entirely whatever problem I give you. But I do want to see real effort, even if it’s only to narrate for me the difficulties you are having as you try to come to grips with the assignment.

Wednesday, January 23

Reading: Your own paper!

Writing: Your "Writing Life" paper.

Monday, January 21

Martin Luther King day: Day of Service

You can follow that link and see what you might like to do this coming weekend. There are lots of places to contribute--some are already closed; others would like you to register by the end of the week.

Wednesday, January 16

Reading: Willingham, excerpt from Why Students Don't Like School, and Webster, Learning about Learning. (click here) Read the glossary as well as the essay, and then...

Writing: for three key learning concepts in the glossary that you can relate to, write a paragraph each about how and why you relate to that concept. As an example, you might relate to "temporary learning" since it is very common among students everywhere; I actually have several stories to tell about that, starting with my experiences with calculus. Your job is to describe your experience with your chosen concepts in a paragraph or two each.

Monday, January 14

Reading: Sample papers and criteria sheet

Writing: 1. Prepare for the criteria norming workshop

Read both the sample papers--actually written by students in earlier classes--and use the criteria to assess the strengths of each paper.

2. Prepare a 1-2 page proposal for the paper due on Wednesday.

What's a proposal? It is a kind of prose outline for the paper you are intending to write. You can begin with something as simple as: in this paper I am going to claim X. To fill that out and make it convincing I will talk about three/five moments in my Writing Life that....

Wednesday, January 9

Reading: Herb Kohl, I Won't Learn From You, pp 1-15 (ending with the last full paragrpah on page 15).

Writing: written responses to the questions below:

1. How does Kohl explain his decision to not learn Yiddish? Why did he later come to regret his decision?

2. How was Kohl’s motive for not learning Hebrew different from his motive for not learning Yiddish? How does he explain his motives for each?

3. Kohl talks about “complex factors” behind the failure of children to learn various things. What does he mean by that? Think about a time in your own life when you found something difficult to learn, or even failed to learn something. What was going on in YOUR mind?

4. Kohl’s point of view is retrospective here; he is looking back at himself as a learner (or not-learner!). His current point of view is different from the view he took as a child. How is it different, and why?

5. Kohl talks about learning as “a major loss of self.” How can this be? We go to school not to lose ourselves but to develop ourselves into more effective and able thinkers. In Kohl’s thinking, in what way could this be a loss?

6. Kohl talks about creating a “strategy of empowerment” for enabling Barry to learn to read. What does he do to empower Barry? Have you ever had a teacher who you felt either empowered or disempowered you? What happened?

7. Think about the way in which Kohl makes his argument. What does he use as a means to convince you that he knows what he is talking about—a quality of writing we call “authority”? Find an example of ways in which Kohl develops “authority” for his argument?

(This is itself a "writing assignment," so think of these as short answer paragraphs.)