Skip navigation
All Places > The English Community > Bedford Bits > Blog > Author: Barclay Barrios
1 2 3 Previous Next

Bedford Bits

94 Posts authored by: Barclay Barrios Expert
Barclay Barrios

A Clockwork Christ

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert Aug 1, 2018

[This post was originally published on December 5, 2013.]


I want to return to my recent critical moment during grading.  In short, I was frustrated—not because of the amount of work involved (that’s just par for the course at this point) but because students had problems with things we had gone over in class again and again.  I felt both angry and like a failure.  Then I realized I was just stuck in Clockwork Christ mode.


“Clockwork Christ” is a term I coined over my years working new Graduate Teaching Assistants (it’s also the name/subject for an article I’d like to write some day, if my administrative work load ever lightens (as if) so, “dibs!”).  The concept comes in part from my teaching experience but I am also indebted to the work of Richard E. Miller, especially in “The Arts of Complicity: Pragmatism and the Culture of Schooling” (College English1998).  I use the term to index two dominant and contradictory narratives of teaching that circulate in culture, narratives that we as teachers often tend to inhabit, enact, and embody whether cast in the role by our students or ourselves.


It’s easy to identify these narratives.  The first is teacher-as-Christ, the one who sacrifices everything so that students can experience the transformative powers of education.  Based on your age, you know this figure from To Sir with LoveThe Dead Poets SocietyDangerous MindsSister Act IIFreedom WritersStand and Deliver, or School of Rock.  Depending on your theoretical inclinations, you know it too through the work of Paulo Freire or Peter Elbow.  The narrative is simple: teacher encounters victimized and distrustful students; teacher passionately devotes self to “saving” these students (often through unorthodox pedagogies); students are transformed.


But running alongside this narrative is a second, inverse narrative of teacher-as-cog, the mindless functionary of a bureaucracy bent on grinding students into dust.  Based on your age, you know this figure from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in The Wall.”  Depending on your theoretical inclinations, you might find it in David Bartholomae or Gerald Graff.


Practically I see these narratives manifest in new teachers all the time.  The same teacher will, one week, hold extra office hours on the weekend (though few if any students will show up) and the next week wait with a slathering snarl for some student to miss one more class so they can rigidly implement our attendance policy, fail them from the class, and have one less paper to grade.


I don’t think we can escape from these dual narratives but we can become aware of them, which is what I did while grading.  More than that, we can deploy them.


I can’t believe I’m about to share this in the everlasting medium of the Web since I have always only shared it orally with the caveat I would strenuously disavow the words but, well, here goes… I offer you the “nuclear option.”  The nuclear option foregrounds the disjuncture of these two narratives to “shock” students at the moment most needed.  Before revealing it, there are some important points to keep in mind.  First, in order for it to work you must learn your students’ names on the first day of class.  If you can manage this, they will love you because they are nothing but a nameless face in every other class they are taking as first year students (Step One: Deploy Christ).  Second, you can use this option once and only once.  I wait for that point in the semester when students are just not doing the readings, not showing up with drafts, not “there” in any real sense.  At that moment, I stand before them and I move to Step Two: Deploy Clockwork.  I say something like this, “Look, if no one wants to do this work we can all just go home.  I’m happy to do all I can to help you pass this class but the truth is it doesn’t really matter to me because I get paid the same whether you pass or fail.”  The reaction is almost always the same: they feel guilty (their own Christ reaction) and therefore re-energized.


Ummm, in case anyone asks, I did not write this post.

Barclay Barrios


Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert Aug 1, 2018

I never cease to be amazed by the number of my colleagues who exhibit little to no awareness of FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), which is the educational equivalent of HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). Both pieces of federal legislation mandate absolute privacy when it comes to information, whether pertaining to health (HIPAA) or, more relevantly, student grades (FERPA). It wasn’t all that long ago that I could walk through the halls of our department and see boxes of graded student papers outside the doors of my colleagues’ offices (yikes!).


I understand FERPA, and I celebrate it. I also detest it. The problem is that I grade student work electronically using my word processor’s Track Changes and Comment features—good for the environment (well, good for trees anyway) and good for my sanity and health (for me, typing doesn’t produce the kind of repetitive stress that writing does). Actually, electronic grading isn’t the problem. Returning electronically graded student work is.


“FERPA-ly” speaking, e-mail is not a secure medium; someone could intercept the e-mail or a roommate could see it on the student’s computer, revealing the grade and breaking the law. So, returning graded student work by -email is technically illegal (well…let me say “non-FERPA compliant,” instead).


Blackboard and other course management systems are okay (or FERPA-compliant, if you will) since they are considered “secure” environments. But Blackboard is a royal pain in the ass and always seems to be, technologically speaking, about five years behind the curve. To return one student paper through Blackboard can take me as many as five mouse clicks. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but add in Blackboard’s slow response time and suddenly returning student work takes almost as long as grading it (not really, but that’s how it feels).


I’ve tried using Dropbox, but that involves getting each student to download and install Dropbox and then create and share folders. Besides, when I did try it I discovered it’s eerily pan-panoptic. I get a little pop-up whenever the student puts anything in the folder; they get one when I do the same. It’s like we’re always watching each other or, what’s worse, always acting as though we’re being watched.


Of course, I could print the papers but that defeats much of the purpose of electronic grading.

What to do?


Dream. In my dream, there is what I call the “FERPA-fied student locker.” The interface is simple: Dropbox simple. Each student signs up for an account in the locker with a code to add them to my class. When I sign in I see this:


To return work, I just drag and drop the graded file into the appropriate folder, where it is encrypted and stored in the student’s online locker. That’s what Web 2.0 is, folks—not just leveraging the “wisdom of crowds” through crowdsourcing but also Web applications that feel like a desktop environment. Drag and drop, drag and drop.  Let me say it one more time because I love and want it and need it—drag and drop.


That’s all I want. No discussion boards. No online peer revision. No electronic grading. No assessment tools. And no, not that other thing either. Just this.


Does the FERPA-fied student locker exist? No. Can it? Yes. “We have the technology. We can make [it] better than [it] was. Better…stronger…faster” (and I’m fairly certain it won’t cost six million dollars).

This will be my last blog post.  I’ve been writing for this blog for at least six years, though I suspect it’s been a bit longer, and it’s been a wonderful pleasure sharing my random thoughts and engaging the wider world.  But I need to focus on other areas of my research for a time and can’t manage to juggle that task with the sustained attention this blog needs and deserves. 


So, I just wanted to say thanks to everyone—to everyone at Bedford who makes Bits happen (and there have been many over the years), to all the other contributors in the Macmillan Community, to all of you out there in the cyberspatial interwebs.  I appreciate having had this platform and look forward to joining other conversations in the field in other places.

It seems that I need to revisit my policy on personal portable technologies in the classroom just about yearly now.  I’ve for a long time moved away from banning them and towards learning how to use them responsibly (so, for example, if you need to take that call or send that text, simply step out the classroom to do so).  I think, though, I am moving ever closer to a full integration.


My own use of these technologies is driving my reconsideration.  I always have either my laptop or my phone (or more likely both) at meetings these days.  I use it to review documents for the meeting and to take notes but increasingly I find myself doing spot research in the course of a meeting: searching through old emails to find out just how we handled this situation last time, checking our Collective Bargaining Agreement for the specific language about a faculty policy, or even heading to Wikipedia to get a quick background on a scholar or critic mentioned in passing.


If I assume that I am working in a professional setting (which clearly I am) and if I assume students in my classes will be in similar settings (which I dearly hope they will) then I think my own habits of technology should inform my expectations for students as well.  That is, I would hope they would learn to use technology to enhance and supplement the work before them as well.


This summer I am teaching a class on gender and sexuality and prompting students to use these technologies productively comes in handy.  I might make a historical reference, ask if anyone knows it, and then ask someone to web search it for the class when it’s clear no one has the answer.  The availability of ancillary knowledge is useful. Teaching students when and how to use technology in these settings is even more useful.  I can’t say that it’s a total success (I am sure some are still on Facebook and Snapchat) but I think it’s moving in the right direction and so I will continue to model these professional uses and will continue to revisit my policies on technology, as well.

Barclay Barrios

Summer is Here

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert Jun 7, 2017

We’re already a couple of weeks into our first summer semester here, but wherever you are I hope your semester is ending smoothly.  I’ve written before about the challenges of teaching in summer but thought I would revisit this topic, thinking more specifically about some of the unique opportunities that summer teaching brings.


At my school, summer classes run six weeks, meeting two times a week for three hours each.  The challenge for summer teaching for us is three-part: squeezing sixteen weeks of learning into six, balancing the work that can be done between classes (when students have maybe a day to do the work), and filling a three hour class in a way that’s productive.  I’d like to invert those challenges.


Three hour classes allow me a lot more time to make writing happen in the classroom.  They also open the possibility for showing more video, something I am doing this summer.  Having a class that meets twice a week means that students reinforce writing skills more often, and more intensely.  And working with a six week semester forces me to distill the course into a set of essential skills.  There just isn’t room for anything not necessary.


What is summer semester like at your school?  And how do you meet its challenges, perhaps turning them into advantages?  I’d love to hear…

One of the most common truisms about writing that circulates in culture is that you should always “write about what you know.”  Setting aside any problematic aspects of the saying (of which there are more than a few), the fact that FYC students bring this idea into the writing classroom, even if it’s just buried in their subconscious, presents another challenge to helping students generate writing.


This idea gets back to the question of authority I was discussing in an earlier post and I feel like it relates to the challenges I’ve seen students struggle with in relation to peer review, as well.  Students don’t feel like they know about the readings in the class, or about writing, or about how to offer good feedback.  So I have been thinking about how to help students know what they know.


One approach I often use is to bring the readings back to students’ lives.  For example, one of the advantages of using Graeme Wood’s “Reinventing College,” or any of the other essays in Emerging about higher education, is that—by definition—they are experts in being in college.  While this example is perhaps a bit “on the nose,” I find that most of the readings in Emerging have entryways to connect to students’ experiences and, thus, their knowledges.


Group work is also a great confidence builder, for while no one student may really “know” a reading, I find that having them pool their knowledge and skills helps them realize how much they do know collectively.  And that collective understanding travels back with students once they leave the classroom.  Building knowledge expands the base of what students know and thus empowers them to write about an essay.


One final strategy I use is getting students to write about what they know they don’t know.  I ask students to come into a class with a specific quotation or passage from the reading that they just don’t understand.  Working alone or in groups, they break these down into smaller bits and build an understanding.  Not only do students leave with a better working knowledge of the reading, but they also come to know they they know what to do when they know they don’t know.


So, write about what you know?  I guess. Thing is, in the writing classroom you’re always learning more and so always knowing more.


As I write this post, scientists around the world are marching in reaction to the political climate and in support of science.  One of the emerging issues around the march is the intersection of science and politics, with many scientists wondering just how political such a march should be.  Emerging offers a number of essays at the intersections of science and other issues, which can then serve as an entry point for thinking about the role of science in the world, which in many ways is at the heart of the march.


Sandra Allen’s “A World without Wine” looks at the cultural and economic impact of global climate change by examining threats to the world’s major wine producing regions caused by shifts in weather.  Wine grapes are enormously sensitive to climate; recent shifts in weather patterns in these regions risks a sea change in the wine industry as we know it, with serious economic and cultural repercussions.  Allen’s piece is a great way to think about climate change in practical terms and around a topic that might have some relevance to students.


“Ethics and the New Genetics,” by the Dalai Lama, instead examines the relation between science and ethics, specifically considering the rapid evolution of biotechnologies and the relative lack of a concomitant evolution in ethics.  It’s a useful essay for thinking about the ethical implications of technology.  The Dalai Lama issues a broad call for the development of an ethical framework, a call that students can begin to answer in their own work.


Richard Restak’s “Attention Deficit: The Brain Syndrome of Our Era” uses brain science to consider the impact of media on our attention and quite literally on our brains.  Restak believes that our propensity to multitask is actually breeding Attention Deficit Disorder.  His essay offers students a way of critiquing media and social media from the standpoint of science or, alternatively, an avenue for challenging science based on the lived millennial experiences.


Tomas van Houtryve’s “From the Eyes of a Drone” considers the intersection of science and imaging technology and the military by exploring the use of drones in military operations.  Given the long and complex relationship between science and the military, van Houtryve offers a useful primer for students.


Perhaps the most powerful essay for looking at these issues, particularly in the context of the Science March, is “Being WEIRD: How Culture Shapes the Mind” by Ethan Watters, which documents the work of Joe Henrich and his colleagues which has called into the question the universality of social sciences ranging from anthropology to economics to psychology.  Henrich and his co-researchers demonstrated that much of what is considered universal in these disciplines is in fact “WEIRD”: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.  Culture and environment thus, they show, deeply shape the mind and the science that attempts to account for it, calling into question the Truth-with-a-capital-T of science.  Given that the march was all about the sheer power of science in relation to fact, Watters’ essay can help students complicate that understanding.

Barclay Barrios

Finding Voice

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert May 10, 2017

One thing I find students often struggle with is locating a voice in their writing.  Because the FYC courses at our school focus on academic discourse, students have trouble stepping into a voice of authority, a challenge well explored by David Bartholomae in “Inventing the University.”  Their attempts to craft that voice often lead to writing that is stilted, choppy, and awkward.  I’ve tried approaching the problem by moving the register to the oral, explaining how their writing voice can sound just like their voice in class discussions.  But, I don’t know that it’s an approach that works as well as I would hope.


I’ve been thinking about what creative writing might offer, as well.  In our program, we have a number of GTAs who are pursuing their MFAs in creative writing and I know that a number of them have deployed small creative writing exercises in the classroom, such as open free writing, just to get the juices flowing (so to speak).  Surely, bringing elements of craft into the classroom could be a boon, but to do so would require a grounding in what is a contiguous but not continuous discipline.  To do so would also be to try and squeeze one more thing into a very crowded course.


It so often feels like a race to help students achieve proficiency in critical reading and writing in a scant 16 weeks that paying more attention to writing feels nigh impossible.  Ironic, of course, that I should be so troubled about teaching writing in a writing course.  But I wonder how others approach issues of style in the context of the FYC course.  Do you find ways to teach not just academic writing, not just correct, writing, but also good writing?

Barclay Barrios

Teaching Advocacy

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert May 3, 2017

I’ve been thinking a lot about advocacy.  In part because the current social and political climate seems to demand it.  In part because I have a long-standing investment in helping students see the FYC course as something relevant and real and not just a requirement to get through so that they can move on to courses which are more important and fun.


I’ve had the good fortune of teaching an upper-division course centered on advocacy a couple of times.  Here’s the course description I used:


This class will focus on advocacy, which we will define as rhetoric that does something.


To start, pick something you believe in—anything you believe in.  It might be a charity or cause that’s important to you (autism awareness, breast cancer, gay marriage) or it might be something you’re just passionate about (a local band, your homemade jam, hummingbirds, surfing).  The goal of this class is to teach you how to advocate for what you believe in through written, oral, and visual communication.


This class will teach you how to create change in the world around you.


The central project of the course was an “advocacy event” which combined written, oral, visual, and research components.  Students practiced these skills using “class-facing” projects intended for consumption by the class—including a design plan and an oral presentation—and “public-facing” projects intended for the world outside the class, including designing an awareness ribbon for their cause but most importantly the advocacy event itself.


I was always encouraged by the range of projects, all of which reflected students’ interests and commitments.  One student worked on bone cancer awareness, having lost her grandmother to the disease.  Another focused on a book drive for a literacy campaign.  And one promoted a friend’s band.  Some students clearly “played along,” choosing something they figured I would expect them to be interested in (you can’t win them all) but at the end of the day it remains one of the best courses I’ve ever taught because I felt like students learned how to use a range of composition skills to make a change in the world.


I’m hoping to teach that course again soon.  I’m also starting conversations with a colleague about a textbook centered on advocacy.  I’ll keep you apprised on both projects, but if you’ve had success with this kind of FYC focus, please let me know.  I’d love to hear how others have managed to get students to engage the world in very real ways.

In this series of posts, I’m asking all of you to offer your observations on students and teaching today so that I can begin thinking about what the next edition of Emerging needs.


My last question is about you: How are you teaching these days?


I’ve always been really proud of the instructor’s manual for Emerging, which was based on the training materials we use for teachers in our program.  But technology changes, program needs change, pedagogical theories change, and so teaching changes too.  I’m wondering what’s changed for you in your teaching, what you’re trying out, what’s really working for you, what remains a challenge.  I’d love to incorporate materials that support a broad range of teaching styles and approaches, so please feel free to share what’s happening in your practice so that we can think about how to bring it into the next edition.


In this series of posts, I’m asking all of you to offer your observations on students and teaching today so that I can begin thinking about what the next edition of Emerging needs.


My central question this time is: What are the most pressing challenges and problems you feel students will face in their lives today and in the future?


One of the things that I love most about Emerging is how contemporary the readings are.  I’ve always felt that one of the most enduring lessons of FYC is how to think critically not about this or that academic reading but about the real issues and problems that students, as political agents and citizen actors, will have to work through (and hopefully solve) as they move into their lives and careers.  That is, I think that FYC should prepare students not only for academic success, but also for success in the world.


Emerging has a number of readings that try to tackle some of these thorny issues such as globalization (Kwame Anthony Appiah, Thomas Friedman, Richard Manning), education (Yo-Yo Ma, Ruth Padawer, Graeme Wood, Wesley Yang), climate change (Sandra Allen), sexuality and gender (Roxane Gay, Ariel Levy, Ruth Padawer, Hanna Rosin, Dan Savage and Urvashi Vaid), and technology (the Dalai Lama, Francis Fukuyama, Chuck Klosterman, Maria Konnikova, Nick Paumgarten, Tomas van Houtryve).  But as important as these issues are, I am sure there are others we’ve not considered.


So, what do you think?  What are the thorny problems that most need addressing, understanding that the students of the today will be the ones to address those problems tomorrow (if not now)?

I’m pleased to announce that Emerging is moving to a fourth edition.  I am very excited by the prospect though also, of course (as always), daunted by the work ahead.


I’ve shared before some of the work that goes into making a new edition—everything from querying users about what works and doesn’t, to considering gaps in the introduction, to finding new readings and deciding which readings should leave, to crafting new apparatus for it all.  One of the overriding goals throughout this process is making sure that the book remains relevant and useful.  To that end, I thought I would use the next series of posts to solicit input from the Great Void which is the Interwebs and this blog.


I’m primarily interested in a series of questions that are a bit larger than the text itself but which will help us envision the directions in which to move.  The first of these has to do with the students in your classes, since at the end of the day helping students succeed is what this book is all about.


I’m wondering, what are the primary challenges your students face?


I’m mostly interested about the challenges you see in the classroom: critical reading and thinking, finding something to say, crafting and supporting an argument.  But I am also wondering about the other challenges you’ve noticed that impact student success—everything from being forced to juggle work and school to being able to afford the textbook.


I know that for the students I see, the challenges today aren’t that different from the ones that existed when I started teaching.  Often, I am not sure if that’s a good or bad thing.  But my experience is limited to my experience and I am interested in hearing what your experience is.  Please share in the comments.

Barclay Barrios

Teaching BREXIT

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert Apr 5, 2017

I write this at the official start of Brexit, as Theresa May sent the letter officially invoking Article 50 today, the start of a long and torturous process that will result in the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.  Brexit, no doubt, feels far away for the average FYC student; I imagine most have never even heard of it and fewer still would consider the relevance of this historic moment to their lives. Yet, one of the enduring themes of Emerging is the deep interconnectedness of the world.  So, in that vein, I am thinking about how to teach some of the issues around Brexit in the FYC classroom.


Kwame Anthony Appiah is the obvious starting point. In “Making Conversation” and “The Primacy of Practice” Appiah proposes that isolationism is no longer an option.  The world is too big, too crowded, and too connected.  His vision of cosmopolitanism isn’t a utopian one, but it does emphasize the fact that we need to find a way to get along.  The entire notion of Brexit is an interesting challenge to Appiah’s ideas, one students can work through in their thinking and writing: what does it mean for cosmopolitanism when a major world power moves away from connection and towards isolation?  More hopefully, how might Appiah’s concepts of cosmopolitanism and the ways in which practices can change without shared values offer guiding principles to path ahead when it comes to Article 50?


Brexit is going to be happening for a couple of years.  We really don’t know how it will impact the world, the United States, or our lives.  But it’s worth talking about, thinking about, and writing about.

Critical thinking, I like to believe, is at the core of what I do in the writing classroom. One of the reasons I love to teach with Emerging is that the readings place ideas front and center.  Students learn critical thinking in my classes by first finding the ideas, then understanding the ideas, then using the ideas.


Finding the ideas is the first step and doing so takes careful reading of the essays.  We go over how to annotate while reading so that students can mark critical quotations and parts in the argument of the essay.  I reinforce this work in class with group exercises where students locate the most important concepts and their meaning in a particular reading.


Understanding those ideas is the next step.  Group activities are again very helpful.  Groups can work to explain the ideas and offer examples from outside the text, ideally by looking to other readings.  That work of locating examples is then the first step in using the ideas.


Using the ideas, I like to say, doesn’t mean swallowing them whole.  Part of the work of critical thinking is figuring out when a concept doesn’t work and why it doesn’t, often prompting students to offer a development of the concept and thus offering new knowledge as a contribution to the conversation.  I find that working connectively across multiple readings (2 or 3 work best) is a great way for students to develop facility in testing and modifying concepts.  Along the way they start to develop concepts of their own, and that for me is the most exciting part of critical thinking.


How do you use readings in your class to develop these skills?


A common complaint from students is that they have nothing to say in response to an assignment.  Part of the challenge hiding behind that complaint is, I think, the very challenge of assuming a voice of academic authority a la David Batholomae’s “Inventing the University.” But sometimes the problem isn’t finding an academic voice, but breaking down the assignment and what it’s asking for.  And sometimes, yet again, the issue is understanding what an argument is and what it looks like.  I thought I would share some of the strategies I use with students when they feel like they have nothing to say.


First, I encourage them to come into my office hours to discuss the reading.  In part I offer that to make sure they’ve done the reading and more importantly that they understand the reading, but I also start there because when they start talking through the reading they also start saying something.  I might prompt them with questions (“What did you underline?” “What felt important?” “What does this author really care about?” “What part confused you the most?” “What did you think was the most compelling evidence the author used?”) but just having them talk through the reading gets them saying something and often helps them increase their overall comprehension of the work.


Next, I walk them through the assignment to make sure that they understand it. Often we do this work in class and I will also often have groups work on sample arguments for the assignment that we discuss and assess as a whole.  In office hours this work can be even more focused.


Then I help them find an argument.  Again I find a conversational model useful.  I ask them to talk through a response to the assignment and then jot down key words and phrases that I feel have the most potential to lead them to an argument.  I offer these back to them as seeds they can use or as a scaffold for a developing argument.

Of course often what students mean by not having anything to say is that they don’t know how to meet page length requirements.  They’re afraid that they won’t have enough to say.  I tell them that working closely with quotations from the text is the best remedy to that, as each quotation (and its accompanying analysis) adds length and strength to the paper.  Once they have an argument sketched out, I will also ask them to find some quotations that they think might work in supporting the argument.


Often when students leave, they have all of the material they need for a solid draft.  It usually takes only a bit of hand-holding and, as they reflect on the process, they find that it’s all work that they can do on their own for the next paper.  Each successful draft, even if it’s not a successful argument, reinforces that they have something to say, even as they continue to acquire the requisite skills to say it well.