March 28, 2012

Right Brain, Write Brain

Have you ever seen this animated image of the silhouette of a dancer? She turns in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. The idea is that your personal right- or left-brain dominance determines the direction you see her spinning.

If she is turning clockwise (to the right), then you are likely to be right-brain dominant, and vice versa.

It's hardly scientific or absolute, but it is an interesting way to enter a discussion on whether right and left brain dominance affects how we learn. (See my earlier post on that side of the topic.) I have had students tell me that they were able to make the dancer change directions. What does that mean?

If you are writing or plan to be a writer, would it be better to be right or left-brained?

According to the popular interpretation of this brain research, the right brain is the feeling side, where imagination rules. It is where symbols and imagery are deciphered and the side that believes, appreciates, and presents possibilities. Fantasy, philosophy, and religion are here and it seems to be the right place for fiction writers and poets.

But don't dismiss the left brain which is seen as the logical side. In this hemisphere of details and facts is also the land of words and language, order and pattern.

It is popular to view the left hemisphere as the domain of mathematicians and scientists, but writers are pretty dependent on facts and getting details down. And you can't always rely on the spelling and grammar checker or an editor to fix your grammar and punctuation.

So, which is more important? Obviously, good writers - especially in an academic setting - need the right and left side of the brain to write in most genres.

Can we develop the less dominant side of our brains to become better writers? Should the right-brained poet work on left-brained activities and writing prompts?

Learning Like Drawing: Left Brain, Right Brain

The idea of right and left brain thinking seems to have moved more into the world of "popular psychology"  than academic research the past decade.

We often hear about being able to broadly label students as "logical" or "creative" based on lateral dominance. This is probably a dangerous over-simplification, but there are some good lessons to be found in this research, even if the support for right/left brain thinking is not as strong as it was in the 1980s.

A lot of the early research came from studying people who had a part or the entire hemisphere either injured or destroyed. What was lost? What functions can be assumed by another region (perhaps even in the opposite hemisphere)?

I remember reading Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain when it was published in 1979.  It was written by Betty Edwards, a professor emeritus of art at California State University.

That first edition came from her interpretation of the neuroscience of the time, especially the cerebral hemisphere research which suggested that the two hemispheres of the brain have different functions.

There is a new edition and she has refined her material both based on new research and on the many workshops and seminars she has conducted over the years. What is still there is the focus on drawing techniques and instruction on self-expression through drawing. I always liked her connections for using drawing for problem solving. It remains a very popular drawing-instruction guide.

Edwards' method of drawing and teaching was revolutionary when she published it in 1979. Her premise is that the brain has two ways of perceiving and processing reality — one verbal and analytic, the other visual and perceptual. In her method, the latter dominates.

In fact, she actually wants students to suppress that left brain. Students need to try to disregard their preconceived notions of what the drawn object should look like. Many of us are frustrated when we try drawing a dog or a scene or a person's face because our drawings don't "look like" the source or what we imagine the drawing should be. She wants you to see edges, lines, spaces, relationships, light and shadow, and then seeing them and seeing them as a whole.

Research the past thirty years seems to show that the locus of particular activities is much less clear cut. Even the very simple idea that brain function lateralization can be seen in right- or left-handedness and right or left ear preference, isn't clear.  A person's preferred hand is a good general indicator, but not an indication of the location of brain function.

Of course, we live, teach and learn in a right-handed society. But the he number of left-handed children seems to be increasing. Why? Certainly, we are more relaxed about allowing children who show early preference for the left hand to use it, as opposed to a 1950s tendency to force the right hand for learning penmanship and other simple school tasks. Is technology changing our brains?  That's a popular theory being presented. (see The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains)

In our writing world, language functions (such as grammar, vocabulary and literal meaning) are typically lateralized to the left hemisphere, especially in right handed individuals. Interestingly, while language production is left-lateralized in up to 90% of right-handed subjects, it is more bilateral, or even right lateralized in approximately 50% of left-handers.

The neuroscience even seems to show that depression is linked with a hyperactive right hemisphere. This is beyond my interest or comprehension, but there is evidence of selective involvement in "processing negative emotions, pessimistic thoughts and unconstructive thinking styles", as well as vigilance, arousal and self-reflection, and a relatively hypoactive left hemisphere, "specifically involved in processing pleasurable experiences" and "relatively more involved in decision-making processes".

Beyond drawing, it is probably just as worthwhile for teachers to examine themselves as right or left-brained teachers, as it is to look at their students preferences.

Teachers with left-brain strengths generally prefer to teach using lecture and discussion. To incorporate sequence, they put outlines on the board or overhead, and they like to adhere to prepared time schedules. They give problems to the students to solve independently. Teachers with left-brain preferences assign more research and writing than their right-brain peers. A reasonably quiet, structured classroom is preferred. The classroom tends to be clean, with items in their place.

Teachers with right-brain strengths generally prefer to use hands-on activities over a lecture format. In concert with the right-brain preference of seeing the whole picture, these teachers incorporate more art, manipulatives, visuals, and music into their lessons. They tend to embrace Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences. They like to assign more group projects and activities, and prefer a busy, active, noisy classroom environment. The classroom of a strong right-brain teacher will typically have materials and books scattered all over.

March 27, 2012

4th Annual Faculty-Staff Poetry Reading

In celebration of National Poetry Month....
PCCC's Fourth Annual
Poetry Reading

Tuesday, April 3
1:10-2:30 PM
Paterson Room
Main Campus

Come hear the writing of PCCC's poetic community.
Featured readers include Susan Balik, Elizabeth Nesius, RIchard Marranca, Ken Ronkowitz, and Maria Mazziotti Gillan.
  Admission free.
Open to the public.

All are welcome. Please alert your students, and feel free to bring your class!

The reading will be followed by an open reading. All PCCC faculty, staff, and students are invited to read.

Questions? Contact Elizabeth Nesius at

We look forward to seeing you there!

March 26, 2012

Occupy the Classroom

Occupy the Classroom is the theme of the 2012 NJCTE Conference this Saturday, March 31st.

NJCTE is hardly a radical organization. And "Occupy the ______ " (fill in the blank) has been a popular meme the past six months.

We best know it for the Occupy Wall Street protest movement that began September 17, 2011 in Zuccotti Park, located in New York City's Wall Street financial district.

OWS has led to Occupy protests and movements around the world. These protests are focused on social and economic inequality, greed, corruption and the influence of corporations on government—particularly from the financial services sector.

Their rallying slogan, We are the 99%, addresses the growing inequality between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population in America when it comes to income and wealth.

So, why Occupy the Classroom?  Since the movement was intended to effect change by "direct action" (instead of petitioning authorities) maybe it is a call for teachers to take action in their classrooms.

I read a piece by Nicholas Kristof on Occupy Wall Street that also touched on education. He wrote about the expansion of early childhood education and the inequity that may well result if many young people never get the skills to compete.

He quotes Kathleen McCartney, the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as saying “This is where inequality starts.The reason early education is important is that you build a foundation for school success. And success breeds success.”

She shows Kristof a chart showing that even before kindergarten there are significant performance gaps between rich and poor students that widen further in school.

Do we need to occupy the classroom in order to point to inequities in childhood education, technology use and access to resources?

Kristof also mentions that President Obama "often talked in his campaign about early childhood education, and he probably agrees with everything I’ve said. But the issue has slipped away and off the agenda."

March 20, 2012

Completion Rates and the Uncounted

"Traditional" college students from a 1950s LIFE magazine

There was a time when almost every college student was a "traditional" student who finished high school, went to college full time, spent 2 or 4 years there and graduated.

There is plenty of data-collection on students and at the state and national levels there is a lot of interest in how many students are first-time, full-time students who enroll in the fall and get degrees from the places they started, in at most three years for an associate degree or six for a bachelor's.

The Chronicle of Higher Education even has a "College Completion Web Site" about these kinds of issues.

Who graduates from college, who doesn't and why are big questions for colleges these days.

Of the five million students who started college in the fall of 2009, 2.4 million of them didn't fit the federal definition, according to the U.S. Education Department. Almost 40% of all students in college then were enrolled part time, and many of them have probably since transferred. (According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a third of students who started college in the fall of 2006 transferred at least once in the five years that followed.)

And what about our adult students who earned some credit in the past and are now back to try to finish a degree? Add them in with the transfers, part-timers, and students who take a break and re-enroll either later or elsewhere.

According to a recent Chronicle article, even if they graduate, they don't count.
1.2 million aren’t counted. It’s impossible to know whether many freshmen graduated or not, because the U.S. government simply doesn’t track them. Part-time students are among those not counted.

2.1 million didn’t officially graduate. This number isn’t exact, because it includes both drop-outs and students who started at one college and graduated from another.

Anecdotally, the article notes that President Obama would have been an uncounted student. He started at Occidental College in 1979, but as a rising junior, transferred to Columbia University. He got his diploma in 1983, but by today's national standards (first used in the mid-90s), he wouldn't even be a graduate.
Same goes for the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney. He went to Stanford University in the fall of 1965, but he left the following summer on his Mormon mission, spending more than two years in France. Back in the United States, he enrolled at Brigham Young University in 1969 and graduated two years later. But he wouldn't count either.

Solutions? Every school is looking at ways to improve completion rates. And most schools are hoping for a different way of looking at student success. Our own PCCC President, Dr. Steve Rose, likes to comment at graduation that a student who working full time, running a family and taking classes for 6 years to complete their A.S. degree IS a success story, despite what the data may say.

Sometimes the possible solutions that digging deeper into the data suggests are not what you might expect.
The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system used to allow students to apply for enrollment until the Friday before classes began. But then administrators at one college looked at what happened to those students and discovered a pattern: Students who enrolled closer to the start of the semester didn't do as well as those who had signed up earlier. As a result of that finding, the college required new students to apply at least 10 days before the start of the semester, and similar efforts are being studied at other institutions in the statewide system.

Further Reading

Do College-Completion Rates Really Measure Quality?

The Rise and Fall of the Graduation Rate

March 12, 2012

Steinbeck on Writing

John Steinbeck - author of The Grapes of Wrath and many other novels, Pulitzer Prize winner & Nobel laureate, gave advice on writing in an interview in the Fall 1975 issue of The Paris Review. Although he was talking more about fiction writing, some of the advice holds up for the kind of writing we ask students to do.

For example, learning when to put an idea aside, being a tough self-edit and just writing the page without dwelling on the entire paper are all important things to learn. Reading your paper aloud (not just for dialogue) is something we ask students to do in all our sessions in the Writing Center with our consultants.
  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

March 9, 2012

Writing Across the Disciplines Day

Spring Break may have arrived at PCCC, but not for the Writing Initiative team! We are busy getting ready for our second Writing Across the Disciplines Day, which will be held on Tuesday, March 13. This one day workshop is designed for faculty who would like to incorporate more writing into their courses. Some of the topics we will be covering are:
  • Using formal and informal writing
  • Creating effective writing assignments
  • Responding to and grading student writing - for content and for writing
  • Writing Resources available to faculty and students at PCCC

Our first Writing Across the Disciplines Day held on January 5 was a great success. We are certain this upcoming one will be as well.

March 7, 2012

Cite That Tweet

We frequently have students in the writing center looking for help citing sources in their academic writing and we sometimes have to break out the MLA guide.

Well, the Modern Language Association  is keeping up with citations and now has announced their official format for citing a Tweet.

If you think that Twitter is just for silly stuff, I guess you must have missed news stories from the "Arab Spring" to the earthquake in Japan to reactions to Bank of America fees to the death of Steve Jobs or Whitney Houston. News often breaks first on social networks like Twitter.

The basic format looks like this

Last Name, First Name. (User name). "The entire tweet." Date, Time. Tweet

There is no URL - maybe because (unfortunately) Twitter is really difficult to search for posts that go back more than a few days.

Here are two examples:

Ronkowitz, Ken (ronkowitz). "Everything That Happens In One Day On The Internet" 6 March 2012, 8:26 p.m. Tweet. (poetsonline). "The Poet & Writer Evening News is out!" 21 Feb 12 2012, 6:41 p.m. Tweet.

Here is the actual MLA instruction for citing:

Begin the entry in the works-cited list with the author's real name and, in parentheses, user name, if both are known and they differ. If only the user name is known, give it alone. Next provide the entire text of the tweet in quotation marks, without changing the capitalization. Conclude the entry with the date and time of the message (using the reader's time zone)and the medium of publication (Tweet).

I am not sure if the American Psychological Association (APA)  has it in their guide yet.

UPDATE:  For APA information, take a look at this post   (Hat tip to Dr. Lonna Murphy)

March 6, 2012 Faculty Showcase

PCCC faculty and staff are presenting at the Best Practices Faculty Showcase on March 16, 2012, held at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ.

The Best Practices Faculty Showcase is a place for NJ faculty and academics to share innovative teaching methods that involve technology. Each year, over 20 sessions are presented at this one-day event.

PCCC will have the following presenters this year.

Kenneth Ronkowitz, "Unintended Consequences: Measuring Faculty Buy-in to Instructional Technology"

"Besides redesigning 25 GenEd courses across disciplines to include more writing, an initiative at PCCC has been to introduce instructional technology into those same courses. Now in its fifth year, we have found varied success with the six technology components. This presentation looks at the assessment of "faculty buy-in" (or lack thereof) for e-portfolios, video lecture capture, supplementary websites, streaming media, reusable learning objects and online gaming. Through surveys of faculty and students and focus groups, we have tried to determine the best practices that led to faculty using technology in the intended and some unintended ways. Through data from institutional research, we have determined what impact the initiative has had on overall student success. Our efforts have been the 2012 National Council of the Teachers of English (NCTE) Award for Two-Year Colleges in fostering student success."

Elizabeth Nesius, "Creating a Helpdesk Where None Exists"

"As the use of technology in education continues to increase, so does the need to train people to use it effectively. When an institution cannot provide a 24/7 helpdesk to assist students, faculty are often level one support for students, although the faculty themselves may not know how to help with technological issues students have. At PCCC, one way we have found to address the growing need for technology training is through the use of "lecture capture" software like ECHO 360 or Camtasia Relay to create short training videos on specific topics. Not only have training videos reduced the amount of technology training faculty need, but they also have had the unintended consequence of reaching a broader audience than a help desk or in-person training session, which has allowed for broader adoption of new technology. It can also reduce costs, as it provides an alternative to a help desk when dealing with common problems. In the future, we intend to develop short videos not only for technology training, but also for concepts that apply across disciplines so that some content can be offloaded from the classroom, giving faculty more time to spend on course content."

Richard Lauria, "Wiki-fy Your Class"

"A wiki is web page that you create and use to help you teach your classes. It's more than a blog and less than a LMS (Learning Management System). At a minimum, wikis can be used for organizing your class: an electronic bulletin board with your syllabus, course schedule and contact information posted. Another possibility is to use it as a resource: a repository of links, articles and videos to supplement what gets taught in the classroom. To truly wiki-fy your class, you let the students build it. You start with an address and a skeleton structure, but you give students access and let them populate the pages of the wiki. Regardless how you decide to use it, a wiki can be a very powerful tool. I will demonstrate how to create your very own wiki and start using it in your class today." is a consortium of academic and research institutions in NJ. Their main focus is innovative uses of education technology and the development of new technologies.

For more information on, go to For more information about the Best Practices Faculty Showcase, go to