Yet Another Glass Ceiling

We have finally arrived at a point in our maturity as a society that a woman could at least be a serious contender for the presidency.  Women of my generation have had the satisfaction of seeing glass ceilings shattered, from corporate offices to the US Supreme Court.  But where one glass ceiling may be removed, another will take its place.  According to this Sunday’s NY Times, the blogosphere (purportedly a true democratic marketplace of ideas) has its own glass ceiling. The article states that while 14% of men and 11% of women blog, women’s contributions to the web are much less likely than men’s to be noted:  “Yet, when Techcult, a technology Web site, recently listed its top 100 Web celebrities, only 11 of them were women. Last year, Forbes.com ran a similar list, naming 3 women on its list of 25″ (click here for the full NY Times article).  

Sigh.  Do female bloggers need to use male pseudonyms to be taken seriously, as did our scribbling ancestor George Eliot (nee Mary Ann Evans)?  Consider Techcult’s methodology for selecting the “top 100 Web celebrities”:

“We gathered around 200 potential names and queried them on Google to see how many results they would generate. Some minor adjustments were made, and the 100 names with the highest number of results were profiled […]” (click here to read the full article).  As someone who works in the social sciences, I had to wince when I read this.  So not scientific!  From whom did they gather 200 names?  If you were not in that first 200, then you were SOL.  Judging from the comments to the article, a number of male “Web celebrities” were overlooked, but, really, only 11 out of 100 are women in this list?  And one of the women is Tila Tequila?

Perhaps my sister bloggers should take comfort in knowing that at least this list was so unscientifically produced but it’s not worth taking seriously … except that it’s cited in the NY Times, thereby giving it a broader reach than it deserves.  But let’s take heart.  The blogosphere is relatively new, and it is a great tool with which to connect with each other, giving us a strength in numbers that would have been unimaginable in the days of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  We can start by joining networks such as BlogHer.

Blog on, sisters!

Interminable Writing

I know that good writing can make me laugh, and I got more than a few chuckles over at The Interminable Writer.  The blog won my heart with this quote:

“Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterward.” ~ Robert Heinlein

KJ, the Interminable Writer, has that straight-talkin’, potty humor that reminds me of the late great Molly Ivins, except that KJ makes humor out of her writing (or efforts to write, hence her choice of quotes) while Ivins made her humor out of politics.

Writing is a lonely, solitary business.  A sense of humor is necessary for survival, so if you ever need a quick pick-me-up, click on over to The Interminable Writer.

What does “MFA” stand for?

Fellow blogger Chicklit provides this link to a great story by Margo Rabb, published in All-Story.  Rabb provides a funny and insightful perspective on MFA programs.  I’ve always had mixed feelings about MFA programs:  sometimes I want to enroll in the one at my local university, and take advantage of the “connections” I might be able to make; other times I want to just hole up with my laptop and write what I want to write, damn the critics.

My opinion is colored by my own experience in a creative writing program (what my local university had before they developed an MFA program).  I was ostensibly a literature major but took writing workshops because I wanted to develop my writing.  So much of what I observed during the two years in that program are captured in Rabb’s story:  the favoritism, the unskilled (and thus worthless) workshop critiques, the sexual games among the students, the competition.  

I was lucky in that most of the students in the program treated me kindly.  I had so little confidence in my writing that I obviously wasn’t a threat to any of them.  I also was happily married at that time (and still am … to the same guy even) and avoided the after-class bar and bed hops.   What disappointed me about the experience–and why I would loathed to attend writing workshops again–was the fact that I came out of it with no more confidence in my skill as a writer than I did going in.  

Yes, I did receive praise for a couple of my stories from one of the more highly regarded workshop professors, and I even won a graduate student writing award (although that was for a literary essay, not a short story).  But what has unfortunately stayed with me was the high ridicule expressed over one of my stories during one workshop, a story that had an autobiographical basis.  I didn’t know how to deal with the humiliation, nor why I had to be humiliated, no matter how bad my story was.  Like the narrator of Rabb’s story, I wept bitterly.

The fallibility of the workshop professor was also a disappointment.  His overt favoritism toward some students sparked ill-will within the group, and his was always the “last word” in the workshops.  One time I strongly argued on behalf of another student regarding a technique she had used in her story.  I said it worked; he said it didn’t.  His opinion squashed mine, which could have been OK if only I had been allowed to make my argument in full.  

So I guess I still have some grudges–15+ years and counting.  But since then (and most recently), I’ve engaged a paid writing mentor who provided criticism and support, and found myself writing more in these past three years than I had in the previous ten.  I’ve also shared my stories with friends, again getting needed criticism but also much needed support.  I think my former professor would consider me delusional to rely solely on the feedback of friends and paid mentors.  But so what?  I am writing, and I am being read, even if (at this time) by a very small group.  It’s enough to sustain me and encourage me to, as one friend commands, “keep writing”!

A new gig and other things

Last week I started a new job.  Well, more like a new old job.  I’ve taken a position as a survey coordinator with a former employer.  I have the distinct pleasure of working again with a group of people that I respect and like.  There are some new faces, of course, but overall it’s a great group and I’m happy to be back with them.  The downside is I haven’t written for my blog since starting my new job until now.  I have been writing, however.  Check out The Writer’s Resource Center and see all my long comments to John Hewitt‘s latest series on becoming a technical writer.  He’s using a new style that I think is working very well.  He ends his post with a few questions, and that’s what does me in.  Although I’m not a technical writer, John and I apparently have enough work experience in common that I can’t help but write essays in responding to his questions.  I hope he doesn’t get tired of hearing from me 🙂

John’s new series and my new job are leading to me rethink this blog.  I want to stay focused on writing, but I don’t want to just rehash what everyone else in the blogosphere is saying about writing.  My new old job is in the field of public health, and I think there’s a lot to say about that field.  In particular, how to write about public health:

  • how to write reports that may have a widely diverse audience (general public as well as public health professionals)
  • how to integrate public health statistics in a way meaningful to the lay person
  • when and how to use graphics, figures, and tables
  • how to decide on what public health topics to write about

If you work in the public health field, or have an interest in public health, please leave a comment or email me directly with any suggestions you might have for my blog.

And, as always, thanks for stopping by!

Using Writing to Mentor Students in an Online Course

For several semesters I’ve had the privilege of working as a teaching assistant (TA), or online mentor, for a distance-learning Master in Social Work (MSW) program. My primary duty as a mentor is to monitor and provide feedback for the online forums that students are assigned to participate in every week.

Usually, students are assigned to groups and have to complete a group forum (or discussion board (DB)) as well as an individual DB. The number of students range from 12 to 15. At first glance, one might think, “what can be easier than monitoring and responding to online discussion boards?” That’s what I thought when I very first agreed to be a TA.

It’s easy if you all write to the students is “great job” or “good work.” Of course, that’s exactly the feedback that we tell them is insufficient when responding to their classmates’ posts. They won’t get credit for one-liners; they are expected to provide their classmates with responses that show they actually read the posts.

Could I possibly do any less for them? Of course not, but I learned the hard way that writing substantive feedback takes planning, organization, and creativity.

Planning
As soon as I have the syllabus and course schedule, I mark the deadlines for each DB on my calendar, including whether the DBs are group or individual (or both) and if any have multiple parts. I plan to give myself at least an evening or two to write my feedback, knowing that most students won’t get their posts in until the last minute. Still, the sooner I start writing, the easier it will be for me to finish up on schedule.

Organization
Keep a spreadsheet with the students’ names, the groups they’ve been assigned to, and a column for each DB that they will have to complete. Although the course utilizes an online grade book, keeping my own records enables me to stay organized without always having to go online. Including notes such as the student’s location, current job, major life event (just had a baby) etc., also helps to keep you oriented when a student starts slipping in their assignments. Most of my students are working professionals, with children, and major life events tend to be common.

Creativity
I developed five general precepts for providing feedback to students’ DB posts.

1. Address the students as you would if you were in a traditional classroom. Rather than write individual responses to the individual posts, I wrote one feedback for each group and/or individual forum, and then email my feedback to the whole class, including the instructor. The whole class then has the benefit of learning from each other’s efforts without having to go back to the DBs and slog through individual posts. The instructor has the benefit of judging both the students’ and my performance on the DBs.

2. For group posts, highlight a line or two from each group’s post in your feedback. Help them learn the kinds of responses you’re looking for in the DBs by providing these highlights and integrating them into your feedback.

3. For individual posts, select a few of the best and integrate them in your feedback, giving kudos to those students. You shouldn’t try to acknowledge every student in each feedback you provide. Rather, use this technique to highlight a few students at a time. This way you can encourage those students to continue to do well and stimulate the other students to work a bit harder in the hopes that you will eventually single them out for kudos.

4. At the same time, don’t leave any student out. Even the most taciturn student will eventually get acknowledged in my feedback. In my most recent class, I had students who wrote posts of no more than three or four lines while a few students wrote five-paragraph essays. I made a point to always find something positive to say about anyone’s posts.

5. Do not name students or use direct quotes from their posts to illustrate “bad” writing. Sure, there were plenty of posts that were hard to read because the students didn’t spellcheck or proofread before hitting the submit button. There were students who didn’t always complete all parts of the DB assignment. But public criticism would only alienate these students and their classmates. I usually include a general statement in my feedback, reminding all of the students to write and edit in a word processor first and then post their response. And if certain students still don’t get it, I just email them directly and see if they need help in using the online discussion boards.

If you want to be an effective mentor for an online course, plan to do a lot of writing. Writing is what links you to each student. Writing is how you demonstrate what they need to do to be successful in the course. Writing is how you show them that you care about their success.

So, have you ever worked as a mentor for an online course? Besides your own blog, have you ever used your writing as a mentoring tool?

Setting Deadlines for Writing

Karen Zara, guest blogger at the Writer’s Resource Center, has a lively post on why deadlines may be almost as good as money to spur your writing. Yes, indeed, she makes a compelling argument for how deadlines can determine whether and what you write, and, of course, that (ideally) translates into making money. Click here to read her full post.

Her post resonates with me because I find myself adhering to externally imposed deadlines while forever adjusting my internally imposed deadlines. When someone tells me to jump, I ask “how high?” When I tell myself to jump, I say “later.” Sadly, this is particularly true when it comes to my writing. Recently I completed a two-and-a-half year mentorship for my fiction writing, and I am anxious about whether my production will grind to a halt without a “mail by” date hanging over my head. So my first effort at keeping the momentum going is to enter writing contests.

Writing contests have deadlines. If you miss the deadline, you miss entering the contest and having a chance to win (anything). Whether I actually enter the contest is not the point, however; it’s that I used a real deadline to spur myself to write. That’s one thing I like about contests–they have deadlines so if you snooze, you lose.

So, how do you keep your writing momentum going?

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