Academic writing: saying what you really mean

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This morning I picked up this quote from a blog post Thirteen Ways of Looking at Ted Hughes by Anthony Wilson.

Teachers’ words should not be ‘How to write’ but ‘How to try to say what you really mean’ – which is part of the search for self-knowledge and perhaps, in one form or another, grace.

Ted Hughes (2008). Poetry in the Making, p.12

The quote caught my attention because recently I have come across a number of academic articles where the author/s undoubtedly know the conventions of writing but don’t seem to know how to say what they really mean. Although the peer review process is often criticised, in my experience it can help authors to become clearer in saying what they really mean. On a couple of occasions I, with my collaborators, have had to completely rewrite an article in response to reviewers comments, even to the point of changing the title, before the paper could be published. It is really nice to get a review which says ‘no changes required’, but this has only happened to me once!

Why can it be so difficult for intelligent academics to say what they really mean? Putting aside the possibility that the author has simply not spent enough time engaging with and reading around relevant and associated ideas, two possible reasons immediately come to mind.

  1. Research is by its nature messy and emergent, so ideas are emerging and dynamic. They don’t come fully formed, but grow and develop with the on-going process of the research. It is often difficult to know when to stop the research, stop the reading, stop the data collection, stop the analysis and discussion with colleagues and just get on with the writing. Perhaps there are times when we don’t make the correct judgement about this time to stop and begin the writing.
  2. We often end up wallowing in data and find we have far too much for the 6000 word paper (or less, but rarely much more) we want to submit. It may be that the data analysis suggests more than one line of argument and you’ve spent so long on the research process that it’s hard to let go of some ideas, the result being a paper that loses focus; the author then can’t or doesn’t say what s/he really means.

Etienne Wenger has said that meaning occurs through an on-going process of negotiation, which does not necessarily involve language and that reification gives our meanings an independent existence and shapes our experience. (See Meaning is the driver of learning)

For authors of academic articles there is a tension between negotiation of meaning and reification. As Wenger says ‘Reification as a constituent of meaning is always incomplete’ – so perhaps it is not surprising that we find it difficult to say/write what we really mean, because meaning is always up for negotiation.

How does the ModPo MOOC enable or create a community?

In this final week of the third iteration of the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC – Al Filreis (the MOOC convener) has asked ModPo participants how the ModPo community works:

I am now here in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, and will be presenting about ModPo at a conference here. The conference is called “Building Massive Open Online Communities,” and the organizers of the conference believe that ModPo is an instance of a so-called “MOOC” that does indeed make a learning community possible—indeed perhaps even necessary to the success of the course.

I want your help in presenting to the people here about the ModPo community. How does it work? What would you like to say to the people here at this conference about the way we’ve conducted ourselves as an online community of learners? What are some advantages, in your experience, of the collaborative and interactive approach?

This is an interesting question. The evidence suggests that ModPo has formed a community of practice very successfully.

Etienne Wenger in his book Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity has written about the formation and work of communities of practice in detail, and on his website writes: In a nutshell ……

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

This is true of ModPo – there is plenty of ‘passion for poetry’ in the forums and webinars, in the Facebook group and even on Twitter.

Here is a recent video of current ModPo students talking about their experience.

This video provides a flavour of the diversity of the community and the shared passion for poetry and for ModPo.

In Wenger’s terms ModPo is a community of practice as opposed to simply a community. ModPo participants (community members) gather together around the domain of poetry and share their practices. In the forums, there are shared interpretations of the poems introduced in the course, shared writing, shared poems, shared readings, shared close readings and shared cultural experiences. Sharing, social interaction and social learning are at the heart of the success of ModPo. Everyone’s contribution is welcome, from novice to expert, and there is a real sense that it is possible, for those who want to, to move from the periphery of the community along a trajectory of increasing competence to the centre of the community. It is also perfectly acceptable to remain as a legitimate peripheral participant. I myself feel very comfortable in this latter location.

Etienne Wenger, also in his book, explains that there are three dimensions of practice in a community:

  • Mutual engagement (engaged diversity, doing things together, relationships, social complexity, community maintenance)
  • A joint enterprise (negotiated enterprise, mutual accountability, interpretations, rhythms, local response)
  • Shared repertoire (stories, artifacts, styles, tools, actions, discourses, concepts, historical events)

Shared history is an important aspect of a community of practice and in ModPo this is evidenced by people returning each year to do the course and through the course materials remaining open during the year. The history of the Kelly Writer’s House, from where the course is run has also been shared with ModPo participants.

This sense of place in ModPo is one of its unique features. ModPo participants are invited to enter this space, either physically or virtually each week and join the ModPo team and teaching assistants for discussion. The place and space feel immediate and real and I think are instrumental in forging a sense of community and belonging.

Returning to Etienne Wenger’s social learning theory, he describes four components of learning in a community of practice, which are all evident in ModPo

  • Learning as doing (practice) – in ModPo doing is related to writing (assignments and peer reviews), close reading the poems, discussion and social interaction in the forums
  • Learning as experience (meaning) – in ModPo learning is a shared experience which is negotiated between community members
  • Learning as belonging (community) – in ModPo, for those who want it, it is possible to become a member of a world-wide community of poets and those who are passionate about poetry
  • Learning as becoming (identity) – in ModPo, the very nature of the domain (poetry) and the personalized close readings inevitably have implications for personal identity development.

Finally, a community is not static, but dynamic. It has been interesting to see how ModPo has evolved and continues to grow as a community. Each year new members are welcomed and this year there seems to have been increased recognition that 30,000+ people cannot effectively communicate with each, but need to congregate in smaller groups. Study groups are encouraged and this year one of the community teaching assistants (Laura Cushing) took it upon herself to create a list of the study groups that were springing up around the world, so that participants could easily locate those in their geographical areas and arrange to meet face-to-face to socialize, share close readings and their passion for poetry.

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 14.51.09San Francisco Meet Up (Source of photo: ModPo course site)

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So there is plenty of evidence that the ModPo MOOC has created a community of practice around the course. I haven’t specifically answered all Al Filreis’ questions, but hopefully this post provides a sense of some of the ways in which ModPo has done this. I could write more, but I think that’s enough for now.

Minority voices and the ‘Problem’

This week in ModPo I have been introduced to, moved and disturbed by Langston Hughes’ poem, – Dinner Guest: Me. Langston Hughes was a Harlem Renaissance anti-modernist poet. Dinner Guest: Me is a compelling poem. At one level it looks so simple; at another it is clearly anything but.


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Langston Hughes, “Dinner Guest: Me”

I know I am

The Negro Problem

Being wined and dined,

Answering the usual questions

That come to white mind

Which seeks demurely

To Probe in polite way

The why and wherewithal

Of darkness U.S.A.—

Wondering how things got this way

In current democratic night,

Murmuring gently

Over fraises du bois,

“I’m so ashamed of being white.”


The lobster is delicious,

The wine divine,

And center of attention

At the damask table, mine.

To be a Problem on

Park Avenue at eight

Is not so bad.

Solutions to the Problem,

Of course, wait.

This poem was written in the context of a long history of racism in the USA, a system of racial subordination commonly known as Jim Crow and the question posed by African American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois – ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’.

In the poem, Langston Hughes, a negro poet is at a ‘high society’ dinner party where all the other guests are white people. He knows that despite the ‘polite talk’ he is perceived as the Negro Problem – not necessarily hated, but a problem with a capital P.

I cannot pretend to understand what it feels like to be in this position, but the poem does raise the question of whether and how a minority voice can be heard. Langston Hughes was wined and dined at a ‘society’ dinner, but still his voice was not heard.

This situation was even more appalling because the dinner hosts seemed to have the best of intentions ‘in their terms’, but did not seem to recognise that they had all but ‘silenced’ the minority voice.

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 The issue of the minority voice is not only a racial issue. It can be seen everywhere and in any situation where alternative perspectives are not welcomed or listened to. This is particularly disheartening when it happens in learning communities and even more disheartening when there appears to be a lack of awareness or concern for those who have been ‘silenced’.

This is a significant problem for open online learning. How do we know whether the voices being heard, i.e. those that are present, are representative of the wider community? How do we know how many people feel their voices have been silenced? Where does the Problem lie?

Would Emily Dickinson have been awarded a ModPo certificate?

I dwell in Possibility   by Emily Dickinson

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer House than Prose –

More numerous of Windows –

Superior – for Doors –


Of Chambers as the Cedars –

Impregnable of eye –

And for an everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky –


Of Visitors – the fairest –

For Occupation – This –

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise –

I love this poem by Emily Dickinson, brought alive for me by Al Filreis and his teaching assistants in ModPo, the hugely successful Modern and Contemporary American Poetry massive open online course, now running for the third time.

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In their close reading Al and his team unpick this poem line by line and almost word by word. They also discuss the poem in relation to Walt Whitman and his poem ‘Song of Myself’ .

It has occurred to me that if Dickinson and Whitman were students in the ModPo course, then Whitman would probably get his certificate, but Emily Dickinson probably would not. Why – because Whitman would have been all over the discussion forums like a rash, but Emily would have eschewed this activity. Participation in the discussion forums is a requirement for a certificate of completion in ModPo. (I realise that this is a personal perspective, but that’s what ModPo encourages – alternative perspectives, right or wrong).

In this age where there is almost a ‘tyranny of openness and interaction’, where openness seems to mean we have to be willing to interact with anyone and everyone, I can relate to Emily Dickinson’s resistance to open her house to just anyone. She seemed to recognise the relationship between filtering out unwanted distractions and the potential of dwelling in possibility with others who could engage with her seriously. I am not sure whether she recognised the value of solitude and contemplation or whether this was a necessary part of the age in which she lived, but she seemed to appreciate that selective interaction would for her be more productive. It would be possible to enter her house and dwell with her in possibility, but only through hard work, and then the sky would be the limit.

I would have liked to be able to enter Emily Dickinson’s house. I would have worked hard to gain entry. She sounds like the kind of woman I would have valued knowing, but I also appreciate that from her perspective, she might not have opened her door to me – and that would be OK. For me it would be important to have a mutually respectful and meaningful relationship, not one dictated by the edicts of the age. OK I know that ‘edict’ is too strong a word, but hopefully I’m allowed a bit of poetic license here 🙂

The Pedagogy of ModPo

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One of the things I appreciate about ModPo (the University of Pennsylvania’s Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC ) is that whilst the essential syllabus remains the same from year to year (or has done so far and it is a very extensive syllabus), there are changes to the ‘course’ each year (course in inverted commas for reasons which will become clear below). This year there are two significant changes.

  1. There’s an additional ModPo Plus section. ModPo has a lot of participants who keep returning. This is the second time for me, but some participants are back for the third time. The ModPo Plus section introduces new poems for each week (in a separate section of the syllabus) and encourages people who need to/want to, to move on. I see this as supported differentiation within a MOOC!
  1. A section has been created especially for teachers. The ModPo team realizes that lots of teachers attend the course looking for ideas on how best to teach poetry in their classrooms. They have developed this area of the course to highlight resources that relate to teaching, to share lesson plans and teaching strategies and to facilitate discussion and interaction between teachers. This must be incredibly helpful to teachers who teach poetry.

Within the teaching resource section, I have watched two videos.

  1. The pedagogy of close reading
  2. ModPo and open education

I don’t teach poetry, but I have found both these videos interesting and helpful in relation to my own work as an independent researcher of open, emergent learning environments.

1. The pedagogy of close reading

What I liked about the discussion about close reading was the emphasis on the need to slow down. Close reading cannot be done quickly – unless you are a 600 word a minute person and I do know someone who can do this – and I am so envious!  But for someone like me, it is good to have confirmation that for most people meaning making and understanding requires slow reading. The ModPo team in this discussion shared strategies they use for close reading with groups of students, strategies such as reading aloud, repeating lines, reading backwards, selecting and mapping key words, assigning lines to different students, creating false dichotomies/binarisms on interpretations and so on.

These are strategies that can be used on any text. As Julia Bloch (the lead teaching assistant) said – ‘You can close read a cereal packet’. I know someone who after having done ModPo decided to close read an assignment question with his students – to help prepare them for writing it. I can see that this could be very helpful. Anyone who has set student assignments will know how difficult they can find it simply to read and understand the question.

Al Filreis’ rationale for close reading is that it disperses interpretative responsibility amongst the group – it is more democratic, but also harder than listening to a lecture. The focus in ModPo is on the process rather than the content, although there is plenty of content.

2. ModPo and open education

This was an interesting discussion in which the team discussed their understanding of xMOOCs, cMOOCs, connectivism and where ModPo sits in relation to these.

Dave Poplar, one of the teaching assistants, did a good job of sharing his knowledge and understanding of xMOOCs, cMOOCs and connectivism. He pointed out that ModPo is technically not a cMOOC because in a cMOOC the syllabus is not centralized.

What is a cMOOC? This was how Dave Poplar answered the question. A cMOOC is a connectivist MOOC, structurally created to enable connectivism. (See Stephen Downes’ and George Siemens’ blogs for more information.) This approach recognizes that society has changed. We are confronted with a chaos of information. Knowledge can no longer be possessed by HE institutions and transferred, but is instead the process of forming connections. A cMOOC uses the global communications network to distribute the whole concept of the authority of knowledge and make it accessible to all. In cMOOCs the students drive the direction of the course.

Needless to say this approach to teaching and learning can pose a threat to HE institutions who are committed to the idea that they are the authority, they distribute knowledge and students pay for this. It therefore suited many of them when some platform builders, such as Coursera, Udacity and the like, came along and offered the possibility of taking existing courses and distributing them to huge numbers of people (the massive in MOOC). These then became known as xMOOCs. xMOOCs took the traditional approach to teaching and learning and put it online. Unlike cMOOCs, in xMOOCs there is nothing inherently different to the traditional approach to education.

ModPo doesn’t think of itself as either an xMOOC or a cMOOC. Although it uses the Coursera platform, it doesn’t believe that this platform is inherently a regressive pedagogy – there is nothing inherently lecture dependent about the platform. ModPo believes it is as connectivist as an xMOOC can get. My experience of ModPo would support this.

The ModPo team do not believe that they offer a course or a text book. Instead they offer a set of resources, synchronously once a year for 10 weeks, including links to a huge number of open resources. They have nurtured a dynamic community which helps with the curation of these resources. It is not ModPo’s intention to replace existing courses.

They believe that the most powerful learning in this dynamic environment can be experienced in the discussion forums and through the live webcasts. For them the advantage of the forums is that the discussion cannot be controlled or predicted. Close reading of poetry is an open activity which requires the collective intelligence of lots of people and in ModPo this is the collective intelligence of a global community of lovers of poetry.

ModPo – Learn how to undo the way in which we read

Al Filreis’ Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo) open course/Coursera MOOC has started again today. This is the third iteration of this course. I didn’t catch it first time around, but I did complete the course last year (2013).

I have just listened to the introductory video, which I realize is the same one that was posted in 2013, but it has still had the same motivating effect on me as it did last year, although it is interesting how this time, now knowing the poets that are being talked about, I have heard different messages.

If you have not participated in ModPo before, then I can recommend it. I know very little about poetry, little more than what I learned in this course last year. I have some poetry books on my bookshelf and I like to hear others talk about and read poetry, but I don’t seek it out for myself. So why would I return to ModPo a second time?

My work and real interest is in how people learn. What I find so fascinating about ModPo is how much of what happens in this course resonates with my own personal interest in how people learn. There is so much to learn from the way in which the poets use language for meaning making.

So what is it that makes ModPo (for me) such an effective learning environment?

A lot of my work and research focuses on open and emergent learning. A Coursera MOOC is, by my definition, not 100% open. For example, I can’t research the learning that takes place in the ModPo discussion forums. That data belongs to Coursera. I cannot assume that the resources within ModPo are openly available (although some of them are). I have to check copyright. I cannot take the ModPo syllabus and remix and repurpose it for my own ends – not that I want to. I am just making the point that ModPo does not fulfill some of criteria for openness that from my research need to be present for emergent learning. But it must fulfil enough, as there is plenty of evidence of emergent and even transformational learning in ModPo.

How does ModPo do this? What is it that makes the environment/course special?

I think a number of factors contribute to this. Here are some that have occurred to me, in no particular order of preference and of course, other ModPoers will have different perspectives. That’s what ModPo is all about.

– A very vibrant community has formed around ModPo with a Facebook site that remains active between courses and an active Twitter stream. This community is full of people who are passionate about poetry.

– ModPo has an energetic, charismatic and very well informed (his expertise shines through) leader in Al Filreis, who is also passionate about poetry and about teaching. I don’t think the importance of this can be underestimated. In addition, he has a group of 10 teaching assistants (TAs) who are with him in his videos. These TAs (past students) are also very knowledgeable and add great depth to the discussions about poetry through their alternative perspectives. They also offer office hours on the course, which means that we can contact them directly with specific questions.

– Al has also established a group of ‘alumni’ (community TAs) to help out with moderation in the discussion forums. They are worth their weight in gold, because the forums are overloaded with discussion – so much so, that for me it is too much. Last year one of the community TAs, Carol Stephen, did help me out and interact with me briefly, which I appreciated given the huge number of people in the course (30000+ already this year, on the first day of the course). I didn’t join the forums last year, and I will only be dipping into them this year – but this does mean no certificate, even if you do all the assignments, quizzes and peer reviews – as I did last year. The requirement is a weekly post to the discussion forums. For me, it’s enough to follow along and learn. On reflection I have realised that it is enough for me to connect with the ideas. ‘Noisy’ forums and me just don’t go together – although I might lurk! I’m more of a one to one person.

– The course is also full of resources and content – a huge diversity of resources. PennSound , Jacket 2 magazine and Al Filreis’ website. Resources are also created by participants who share their own poetry and close readings.

– It is a challenging course. To complete it you have to work hard and put in the hours. If you complete it you feel that you have achieved something, not least what it means to do a close reading of a poem. For me a close reading of a poem gives me an insight of what it might mean to close read a book or a journal paper.

– But what really makes this course special for me is the sense of place that it creates. Al Filreis runs his course from a physical location – the Kelly Writer’s House, which last year he took us round by video. We go into the different rooms and meet the students and teaching assistants and see who they are talking to, where they are sitting, what they are eating. When Al does his videoed close reading of the poems we read, all his teaching assistants are around him (Al’s Pals as he calls them), each voicing their own thoughts and modelling what it means to do a close reading. We, as online participants, feel that we get to know these teaching assistants and that we are in the room. I think this aspect of the course must be unique. I haven’t come across it anywhere else. There is also a weekly live streamed meet up in the Kelly Writer’s House, which anyone physically in the area can drop in to and some ModPoers do.

Last year after I had listened to the introductory video, the poem by John Yau caught my attention and I ended up writing this post.

This year, when the teaching assistants, introduced themselves by talking about their favourite poems, I was able to listen more carefully to what they were saying, because I knew the poets and poems from last year. All the teaching assistants are great and if I could, I would link here to all their introductions to themselves on the Coursera site – but as I mentioned above Coursera is a closed site, so I can’t do that, although I have found this link which lists them all, including the community TAs.

As it is – I’m going to just record here the comments that stood out for me from this video.

Emily Harnett recommended Cid Corman’s poem ‘It isn’t for want’. For her this poem is about the relationship between reader and writer. As a blogger, I can relate to that.

Dave Poplar recommended Jackson Mac Low’s poetry – which he said challenges us to read differently and think differently. I aspire to that.

Kristen Martin recommended Lyn Hejinian’s poem ‘My Life’ and said that this poet shows us that life isn’t lived linearly and you should not have to write about it in a linear fashion. This comment immediately resonated with my recent reading of Deleuze and Guattari’s work (A Thousand Plateaus) and their concept of the rhizome and ideas around starting in the middle.

Finally Al Filreis finishes off with John Yau’s poem, saying

The how of what they [the poets] are doing is the what

How you say what you say is what you say

How you say what you say is more important than what you say

The how of what you say is what you say

Form is content

We are going to read – that is interpret – form


In this course we will learn how to undo the way we learn to read

Take this course because you’ve spent too much time thinking of language as a utility and not enough time thinking of language as self-making – the selves you will meet in these poets are languaged selves… it’s time for us to focus on the how of our language.

Openness, constraint and emergence

Openness does not mean that anything goes. Even openness of mind does not mean this. In our work on emergent learning, we (Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau, Regina Karousou and I) have in the papers we have published (see here  and here) suggested that constraints are needed for emergent learning to occur. I have been thinking about this further over the past week or so in relation to the work of two artists – Jackson Mac Low, the American poet, performance artist, composer and playwright and Edmund de Waal, the British ceramic artist and author.

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Jackson Mac Low featured in Week 9 of the Modern & Contemporary American Poetry MOOC (ModPo).

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Edmund de Waal featured in a BBC One Imagine arts programme (see below). The two seem connected to me in the way in which they use constraint to fuel their creativity. They have both challenged conventional thinking in their own fields.

Mac Low created a memorial to Peter Inisfree Moore  by using the three words of his name to find 960 words, some recognisable and possibly meaningful and some nonsensical. His idea was that the words become less relevant because they are produced deterministically through a set procedure and not egoistically. Mac Low then got together a group of collaborators to perform this piece. (Click here for a recording).

He gave them rigorous instructions on how to collaboratively perform. He wanted his piece to be collectively intelligible. Each performer must be present with complete concentration, singers must use clear diction and move their eyes freely from any word to any other word and so on. There are a lot of ‘musts’ in his instructions. This was a random piece meticulously performed.  It forces us to shift our attention and listen. Its making and performance relied on constraints.

Jackson MacLow, wrote to Al Filreis about this piece as follows:

The community made up of the performers is a model of a society that has certain characteristics  that I would like to see abound in the wider society. The individual performers exercise initiative and choice at all points during the piece but are also constructing an oral situation that is not merely a mixture of results of egoic impulses but an oral construction that has a being of its own.

This for me resonates strongly with the original philosophy behind cMOOCs and the idea, which we have discussed in our papers, that emergent learning depends on frequent interaction and self-organisation of learners.

When I watched the BBC programme about Edmund de Waal, I was equally fascinated by how his emphasis on repetition ultimately led to a similar collaborative ‘performance’. deWaal for his exhibition A Thousand Hours – created a thousand porcelain pots through a quite deliberate and repetitive process. He was then meticulous about how they were exhibited in vitrines, using drawn plans which a team of collaborators were required to follow to place the pots in exact positions.

To watch Edmund de Waal at work, view this video.

Edmund de Waal: a thousand hours from Alan Cristea Gallery on Vimeo.

For both artists, the hard work, the open thinking, the collaborative physical experience, shift of attention, the community of performance and the open listening resulted in outcomes beyond anything that could have been predicted; the outcomes were emergent.

As one of the ModPo teaching assistants (Amaris Cuchanski) said in the week 9 video discussion about Jackson Mac Low

‘The individual constraints liberates the community as a whole. Meaning is created in the space between the subjectivity of the people involved’.

I am still grappling with the relationship between openness, constraint and emergence, but both these artists sparked off these thoughts. Edmund de Waal opened his mind to the possibilities of porcelain pots and Jackson Mac Low opened his mind to the possibilities of words and sounds, but both applied constraints to their work.