A Meaningful Next Step with the CIQ


An earlier post included a laundry list of things I wanted to achieve through formative and summative assessment instruments in general and with the Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ) in particular.

(Who wouldn’t want to read a posting that begins with that sentence?  Ah well.)
The one I want to think about now involves the CIQ.
I’d like to see if it’s possible to use them as, in some cases, first drafts of paragraph-length, critically reflective text. Perhaps assigning one CIQ as a not-entirely-anonymous text and having them select one of their responses as a starting point for deeper reflection.
I’d also like to revisit Yancey’s cautions against the “schmooze-factor” (1998) to see if it’s possible to have students examine samples of critically reflective writing (perhaps through genre analysis or perhaps in the way craft-apprentices approach and emulate models) and generate their own in ways that are demonstrably transferable. I need to look at their arguments more closely, but Beaufort and Yancey seem to be saying that if we steer students towards a particular vocabulary for discussing what they’ve learned then we’re setting them up to compose texts that aren’t authentically reflective.
But my exploration of arts-instruction seems to be pointing me back to the use of models and the benefits of asking novices to adopt the styles and vocabularies of “masterworks” –to use imitation and prescription–as an important step toward developing one’s own style and mastery. I’ve been emailing colleagues who work at the intersection of creative writing and academic writing to see what they have to say about this approach.
In a nutshell what I find curious is that the rise of genre studies made it OK to refer to models–to dissect and in some ways to emulate them–but generally speaking in composition studies the use of imitation is considered old fashioned and downright uncool. We in rhet/comp tend to scorn the 5-paragraph essay because so many first-year writers seem to believe it’s THE way to compose an academic argument–the real danger presumably being that in teaching (or perhaps even tolerating) one model we exclude variations and discourage originality. I get that, of course, and also understand that if we’re going to use models there’s only so much time in a 16-week semester to cover multiple models and therefore no matter how much we might intend students to improvise their final paper it’s possibly unrealistic to believe that a model-oriented approach would truly foster improvisation.
But then again it’s a generally accepted Best Practice to co-develop rubrics and to use past papers as exemplars for rubrics.
So when we return to the subject of critically reflective texts is the issue somehow ethics as well as pedagogy?
Image source: Whitney McKim

The Trials of “Noticing”


Giacometti Figures in a Room by Vi




For the first time in my arts-immersion experiment I’m experiencing real anxiety. And that fact itself fascinates me.


The class is basic drawing. I’m in week three. It’s been more than 20 years since I sketched-for-teacher. I dread this class.

We work on giant sketch pads. We draw big. The scale overwhelms me. I’ve filled reams of blank pages with words but now words aren’t an option. My job is to draw what I see, to become more skillful at noticing what’s before me and to represent that visual composition with lines. Shapes. To scale.

The first day the instructor taught us “the Giacometti method,” which involves painstakingly marking the relationships between objects in space. It’s a brilliant method, explained much better by the artist on this blog than by me. The method relaxed me somewhat because it requires me to stop attempting to replicate everything before my eyes and instead to choose just one small thing as my starting point, drawing a line to indicate where it is going to exist on my paper. Everything else proceeds from there. 


I notice an apple. I ask myself, “How big is that apple going to be on my page?” I mark that. I see a troll doll sitting on the apple and ask myself, “Where does the troll doll touch the apple?” and “How many apples tall is that troll doll?” And so on. I work slowly, sequentially, I forget about whether the thing is art and instead do the work of marking the locations of things.

But I still feel panicky.

Why is that?

Some of it is just ego. I want to be good at this. I don’t need to be the best but I dread being the worst. Why is that? Why does that matter? If the room were filled with professional artists (instead of novices like me) would I still feel the need to be not-the-worst?  Yes, I think so. On some level, yes.

But there’s something else too. Noticing is hard work. Much harder and much less fun than I expected. Like doing leg curls at the gym after years of not doing them. Only worse. Like attempting to do chin-ups. I’ve searched my mind for other analogies (like speaking French to a Parisian, like assembling a toy train, like trying to get my Lab to come when called) but honestly the best ones are physical. I find myself commanding a level of coordination and skill that is definitely within me but utterly dormant and resistant and under-prepared. Attempting to materialize what I’m noticing–to make marks on a page (not even drawings, just marks) documenting what I see–is physically and intellectually awkward. It’s challenging me to use a part of myself I haven’t developed. It makes me feel weak and inept and stupid.

Functional illiteracy. That’s also what this is. In the world of words, my world, literacy is about reading and writing, both of which are physical and intellectual activities that demand a type of focus and concentration and imagination that aren’t activated in exactly the same way by any other task. Other activities are comparable, but not the same. I believe this is also true of drawing. Doing it well requires repeated practice, and practice achieves first physical-mental coordination and later a leap into a different dimension of experience. When I read or write fluently I experience “flow,” not sequences of words on the page.

Noticing is also extremely intimate. In terms of sketching, noticing can’t be done superficially. We must look closely and make note of things no matter how inconveniently they are positioned, no matter how uncomfortable they might make us (physically or otherwise), no matter how intimidating they are now or how insignificant they might be tomorrow. In this moment the job is to notice them and nothing else.


Noticing can’t be faked. What you see is what must appear on the page. It will always be an interpretation of sorts, but certain things must be there in order for the image to be complete. To the extent that visual composition parallels verbal composition we might say the artist simply can’t “bullshit” the composition. If fundamental things are missing or sloppy your audience will know. She’ll know, that is, if she also approaches the work with the intention of truly noticing it.


So perhaps that’s what makes sketching so scary: the vast complexity of seeing anything for what it truly is.



Image source: Vi

Critical Reflection in 3D

For several years I’ve using Stephen Brookfield‘s “Critical Incident Questionnaire” (CIQ) in my writing classes to get a clearer perspective on what my students experience in our classroom each week and also to help all of us (my students and me) become more critically reflective, collaborative learners. I’ve been joined in this work by research partners at other institutions and by a variety of predecessors who shared our interest in making this tool work best in their own classrooms and practices. In the language of pedagogical theory, what we’re doing is good ole student-centered constructivist teaching and learning: we view knowledge as something constructed by all those participating in the experience, and the CIQs (and/or portfolios, 1-minute papers, etc.) record that collective process of meaning-making.

With so much of my scholarly and creative trajectory evolving through hands-on craft-work I find myself wondering what my constructivist pedagogy would look like if I took that term literally. What if “constructing knowledge” involved observable construction of stuff instead of (or perhaps in addition to) recording in words what we remember of what we learned. Or what would happen if reflection happened nonverbally? What if we built something to represent that week’s insight or pitfall?
When I visualize a 3D alternative to the CIQ, even if done in a rotation with the usual verbal CIQ, I worry that my students would consider the process too kindergartenish and that I’d find the experience too time-consuming, given all the word work to be done.
But then again, 3D reflection might include words . . . transverbal compositions.
Or am I just restless? Am I just bored with the CIQ and seeking a novel alternative? Yes, that too.
But I do need to change something.
What the CIQ Does Consistently Well
As a quick, weekly-ish activity, the anonymous questionnaire gives me a glimpse into my students’ perceptions of what that week’s learning was about, and how well I (and they) facilitated the learning.
As a collection of responses, the students’ carbon copies of the questionnaire give them a way to identify patterns in their own likes and dislikes, successes and pitfalls as learners. They can then use this collection as a source of data for analyzing their own learning experience at the end of the semester. By the same token, the responses give me a way to observe overall patterns useful for refining my pedagogy and curriculum over time.
What the CIQ Doesn’t Much Accomplish
The act of completing the weekly-ish questionnaires doesn’t teach students to become better reflective writers or critical thinkers. If I choose to devote additional class time to the teaching of critically reflective thinking and writing, the CIQs can be a useful artifact. But that utility greatly depends on my skill at integrating the responses into the curriculum and conversations of the course, and the students’ perception of that work as being a meaningful component of the course. And because many students pragmatically equate “meaningful” with “graded” I risk attaching some sort of grade to some sort of document that draws upon their anonymous responses. At any rate, the CIQ itself is not a means of teaching thinking or writing–at best it’s a tool for other activities that attempt to teach those things.
The CIQ responses don’t much assess whether students’ writing is improving as a result of the course experience. Nor is it assessing the students’ grasp of other course content. In conventional terms, a formative assessment instrument assesses what students are learning. Depending on the wording of the questions, the CIQ might assess the students’ perceptions of the teacher’s effectiveness, and it might somewhat assess the students’ perceptions of their own learning, but for the most part any formative assessment being done is of the teacher rather than of the learner.
In these ways the CIQ is sort of a handmaiden to teaching and learning assessment, but will always require some other instrument or activity to make use of it.
Why I’m Tempted to Experiment with a 3D Version
By 3D I mean a version that would somehow transform the CIQ from a flat questionnaire to something that challenged students to draw upon other cognitive, verbal, and visual resources to compose their impressions. What tempts me is the fact that I’m increasingly using multimodal and aesthetic pedagogies and projects in my courses and it seems fitting that my assessment methods be similarly multi-dimensional.
And yet often the simple tool is best. And CIQs are fairly simple.
Of course, complicating the tool is not the only way to bring the CIQ into another classroom dimension. A simpler solution would be to add this component: discussion. I could do a better job of reserving class time for CIQ-prompted discussions and of [co-]facilitating those discussions.
Imagine the best possible CIQ-prompted discussion: does it constitute critical reflection? does it teach critical reflection? Perhaps. Sometimes. It can fairly reliably serve as a way to teach meta-analysis. It brings us a step closer to overtly teaching critical thinking.
At her CCCC presentation last March Anne Beaufort discussed the pitfalls of prompting students to articulate their learning in “teacher talk” terms such as “reflection.” If we make it clear their task is to demonstrate they’ve learned X they’ll generate anecdotes or assertions accordingly–but doing so is less likely to be an act of “mindful thinking” or of critical reflection about the specific realities of their learning experience. Instead, it may be more of a “fill in the blank” response, no matter how earnestly expressed.

Self-reporting successes in terms of X is a time-honored method of assessment at many institutions, especially in the absence of more dependable ways of demonstrating the learning of complex content within a single semester.


So What Do I Want that’s Different?

This is really a two-fold question. What I need is an assessment method that demonstrates the extent to which my students have actually learned what I attempted to teach them. (This is Assessment 101–the thing every teacher everywhere needs.) What I additionally want is an assessment method that helps me do a better job of teaching during the semester, so I can respond to my students’ needs, interests, and inspirations. (This is what that imperfect instrument the CIQ gives me.) And beyond that I also really want some sort of assessment method that helps my students and me learn more mindfully, drill more deeply into the course content that intrigues us most, and to articulate where we are in the process of coming to know better. Furthermore, I want a way to gauge the effectiveness of my pedagogical experimentation. Finally, I want to teach my students to approach research and researched writing (in any chosen discip
line) as a critically reflective and potentially reflexive enterprise.

Is that all?
For now.

Dishcloths and Meaningful Living


My short time at the loom is changing the way I experience much of the stuff of everyday living. After my first class it seemed only natural that I would begin to look more closely at textiles: cloth napkins, hand-knotted rugs. I became interested in the way bath towels are made, and found myself wondering who threads the looms in giant factories. Humans. Ultimately everywhere it’s still humans putting things in place before the buttons get pushed. Some things are still very much dependent on small hands. More than we might think.

But something else is happening to me: I’m asking myself how life might be different if ordinary objects were things I’d made myself. Would I toss my clothes on the floor if I’d hand-loomed the fabric and cut and sewn the garment myself?  Would I darn my socks?
One wall of my weaving classroom is hung with handmade dishcloths in different colors and patterns–model projects for beginners like me. After I complete my sampler I can proceed to design a simple object: a scarf, a purse, a bookmark, a dishcloth. The first time I saw the dishcloths I thought I could imagine nothing more boring and pointless than to devote hours and hours to the weaving of dishtowels. At best, my design would be something I could purchase more cheaply at a store and get a product I wouldn’t be worried about staining and laundering and eventually discarding. And, get real: who “designs” a dishcloth, anyway?
I had to ask myself, though: what might it mean to make something as well as I could, knowing that it would need to withstand a lot of wear and tear?  And what might it mean to use something that deserved to be treated well even as it did my dirty work?
So I will weave dishcloths and vow to use them because doing so will make me a better person. I wonder what else this will teach me.
Image source: luckywhitegirl

Word as Art and Artifact


In Walden Henry David Thoreau says: “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself” (71). Was he thinking at that moment of “written word” as “unit of meaning” or was he considering the word in its entirety–its materiality as script and physical motion and visual rendering as well as its etymology and  context and meaning? Surely the latter. Or at least I’d like to think so.

If we approach writing as craft it seems to me there ought to be more time spent on the visual composition of the word–not just as a dimension of document design but as a dimension of wordcraft.

Writing is physical and it is visual and it is tactile. But in college writing classes we attend mostly to verbiage, sometimes to visual rhetoric (though more often as a conceptual approach or as overall document design, and periodically a groovy lecturette on the history of the font, usually in a tech writing class), but not much to the making of the word on the page. The act of [not typing but] writing itself–pen on paper–has become physically painful to those of us who habitually compose at a keyboard. Which is to say pretty much everyone in college. Including the professors. My scrawl verges on illegibility, especially in the wee hours of a grading/response marathon but even on post-it notes.

For some time now it has bothered me that my handwriting has become unstable. I can’t always recognize my own script because it changes from week to week depending my mood and my ligaments and my caffeine-intake. I sometimes wonder what a graphologist would make of it. Would she diagnose me as schizophrenic? Perhaps just always in too much of a hurry with too many different kinds of thoughts and manifestly frustrated by my physical and material limitations. A chronically multi-tasking mind depending on the slow sequential strokes of a pen. At the keyboard I used all ten fingers, creating the illusion of simultaneity. My work sounds more productive. Typed words are sequences of taps. Staccato. Verbal pointillism. Cursive writing enforces legato, continuity, contiguity rather than hyperlink. The difference is disorienting and marvelous.

Digital literacy is essential but if we continue to emphasize its value over that of other technologies (such as the pencil) we become detached from the handicraft of writing. This displacement is unnecessary and seems to be missing an opportunity to experience more of what it means to write. (Does Ong discuss this aspect of technologized literacy? I can’t recall.)

I don’t want to teach penmanship in Composition 1.  But I’d very much like to create a space for calligraphy and printmaking and other forms of wordsmithery in a writing curriculum. I’d also like to argue that [creative] writing is a fine art not only because it is imaginative but because it is, in all its dimensions, aesthetically significant.


image source: KRSPO

On Weaving & On Animating Metaphors


One important dimension of this project is the exploration of rhetorical metaphors not as metaphors but as actions and experiences.
In other words, instead of discussing various ways critics and others have compared writing to, e.g., weaving I’m going to weave.
Why does this matter? Does it matter? Yes, I believe it does. In so many ways. For example, I’ve sometimes used the concept of “warp and weft” to describe the interlacing of ideas, the interdependency of communities, and so forth. But what do I really know about the relationship between warp and weft?
Not much.
So I’m spending the next two months at a local arts center working on a loom. So far I’ve learned that it will take me about as long (or longer) to set up the loom–getting the warp on–as it will to actually weave my first piece of sampler cloth. I’ve also learned that some textile artists intentionally make their warp strings or weft strings more prominent (til now I always viewed the two as equally balanced, visually and otherwise).
Does setting up a loom, putting warp strings and weft strings in place, getting things tangled and wrong and ultimately owning their configuration–does all this enable me to better appreciate the metaphor and the metaphor’s insights into writing (and other matters)? You betcha. But it accomplishes more than that. It gets me working in three dimensions, composing non-verbally or transverbally an altogether different kind of narrative.
Heh. Now I’m using metaphors of writing to explain weaving.
One last thing I discovered this week: people who actually understand the community-as-warp-and-weft metaphor and who are doing something real with that insight. Their organization is called Weave a Real Peace.