Incubator Info Sheet Assignment

Black fingers typing on a computer keyboardIn my last post, I described my plan to organize a series of assignments for my technical writing course around a fictional business incubator. This week, I have the first of those assignments to share with you.

For the series to work, I need students to choose a company that they will focus on for the assignments they will write. The first assignment asks students to share the basic information about their company in a memo. In the scenario, their information will be combined with that of other new companies that are joining the incubator for a presentation at the first meeting of all the members of the incubator.

The assignment below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. References to “Markel” in the assignment refer to chapters in the class textbook Technical Communication by Mike Markel and Stuart Selber.

Background

All of the projects will relate to your membership in a fictional business incubator, the Ut Prosim Incubator. The projects you will complete for your portfolios will be documents that you create as a member of this incubator. You will create a business and then write the pieces for your portfolio from the perspective as a starting business owner. You will collaborate with other members of the incubator and contribute materials to the endeavors that the incubator undertakes. You can read more about the incubator and how the projects connect on the Writing Projects Overview page.

The Scenario

During your first week as an Ut Prosim Incubator member, you receive the following memo:

Ut Prosim Incubator logo Ut Prosim Incubator

   1872 Inventors Way, Blacksburg, Virginia 24060

   Interoffice Memo

To: CEOs of New Incubator Companies

From: Traci Gardner, Ut Prosim Director

Subject: Your Company Info Sheet

Date: August 27, 2018

Welcome to the Ut Prosim Incubator! We are all so happy to have you join the Fall 2018 class of entrepreneurs.

I know you are still settling into your office, so our first all-company meeting will not take place for a few weeks. At this meeting, you will introduce your company to the other members of the Incubator.

The meeting will be informal, but we do want to prepare handouts and slides to share with attendees. We will also post the basic information that you provide on the Incubator website, for the possible research partners on campus, potential investors, and the public.

Please send the following information to me by September 7:

  • Your Company Name
  • Your Company CEO (use the name you want to appear in official documentation)
  • Your Company Mission Statement (a statement of your company’s goals and values)
  • Your Company Overview (explain what you company does, including whatever research you do, products your create, or services you provide)
  • Your Company’s Target Audience (who are the customers you serve or hope to serve)

Do not worry about formatting or design in your response. We will format the information for all the companies according to the Incubator’s branding and style guidelines.

We will send out a meeting announcement once a place and time have been confirmed. In the mean time, if you need any help settling in, please let me know or contact my assistant, Leslie Crow <lcrow@utprosimincubator.org>.

The Project Assignment

Step 1: Decide on the focus for your business.

Decide what your company will do—will you focus on products or services? You will focus on the company that you imagine for the entire term, so choose something that you know well. Sure, you can be creative, but create something doable that you have experience with (or at least strong knowledge of). Additionally, your focus must directly relate to your major.

As long as you comply with those two stipulations, you can focus on anything you want to. You have capital, staff, and resources to do whatever you set your mind to.

Step 2: Analyze the audiences for your memo.
Review the memo above and decide who the audience is for the memo you have to write and for the information that you have to gather. Use the information from Markel, Chapter 5 to decide how the characteristics of the audiences will influence the writing that you do. Consider the questions in Figure 5.2: Audience Profile Sheet and/or the Writer’s Checklist at the end of the chapter to guide your analysis.

Step 3: Determine the information that the memo requests.
Work through the memo above and find the information that you have to provide in your response. Once you find the list of requested information, decide on your responses. You are creating your business, so you get to create the answers for all the requested information. Don’t get stuck on perfectionism at this point. Compile your ideas, but know you can always come back to revise.

Step 4: Write a memo to me with the details.
Compose your memo, as requested in The Scenario above, with all the details you have gathered and created. As you work, keep the following points in mind:

  • Even though sophisticated formatting is not required, ensure that your answers are easy to find and read.
  • Check your draft for the use of plain language.
  • Ensure that you follow all relevant ethical guidelines as you create your responses, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel, Chapter 2.
  • Be sure that your memo makes a good impression with accuracy and correctness. It should be polished and professional.

Step 5: Check your draft for correct use of memo format.
Be sure that you include the memo headings (To, From, Subject, and Date). For more details on memo format, consult Chapter 14 of Markel.

Step 6. Review your draft for design and basic writing errors.
Everything you write should use accurate/appropriate image editing, grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting. These are important basic writing skills that you should have developed in high school. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel, Chapter 10.

You can also consult the information on “Sentence-Level Issues” in Markel, Appendix, Part D: Guidelines for Multilingual Writers (ESL). While the section is labeled for multilingual writers, it is useful for everyone. It includes explanations and examples for many common mistakes writers make.

Step 7: Submit your draft to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Post a rough draft of your info sheet to your Writing Group in Canvas in the 08/29 Peer Feedback Discussion in Canvas. Additional instructions are in the Discussion. Post a draft of your memo by August 30. If you are late submitting a draft, your group may not have time to provide feedback.

Step 8: Provide feedback to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Provide feedback to the members of your writing group by September 4 (end of the grace period). Use the information on the Writing Groups page to provide constructive feedback that will help your group members make concrete improvements to their drafts. 

Step 9: Revise your draft.
Use the feedback that you receive from your group members to revise and improve your document. You can share your draft again with your Writing Group, if you desire. As you revise, keep in mind the advice in Steps 4, 5, and 6 above, as well as the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 10: Include a polished version of your response in Project Portfolio 1, due October 1.
Have your Info Sheet memo finished and ready for submission in your Project Portfolio 1, which is due Monday, October 1. The grace period for Project Portfolio 1 ends at 11:59PM on Thursday, October 4.

Assessment Criteria

Your project should meet the following criteria:

  • Makes a good first impression as a polished and professional document.
  • Uses memo format with the appropriate headers.
  • Meets the needs of the intended audience.
  • Uses layout and formatting that makes information easy for readers to find and read.
  • Is written in plain language, which communicates the ideas clearly.
  • Follows all relevant ethical guidelines.
  • Uses accurate/appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting.

Credit: Ut Prosim Incubator logo created with “Incubator” by lastspark from the Noun Project, used under a CC-BY 3.0 license.

So far the assignment has gone well. The biggest challenge I have had to deal with (other than the typical questions about due dates and the like) has been ill-chosen companies that do not actually relate to the student’s major. Many of the students are new to the memo format, but the peer feedback activity and the revision time they have should take care of any issues that come up.

In my next post, I will share a correspondence assignment that is the next step in the course. In the meantime if you have any comments to share on this assignment of the series in general, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

New Assignments in the Incubator

Twelve Wynadotte bantam eggs in an incubator, 6 larger white eggs on the left and 6 smaller partridge colored on the rightThis fall, I am designing new assignments for the  Technical Writing courses that I teach. During the coming weeks, I will share the different assignments and activities with you all. The first step in my process was to determine these basic kinds of assignments I would ask students to create:

  • Correspondence (to include letters, memos, and email)
  • Technical Description
  • User Documents (or Instructions)
  • Short Proposal
  • White Paper (a report for non-experts)
  • Progress Report
  • Poster Presentation

My next goal was to create an overarching theme for the assignments. In addition to unifying the assignments, the theme allows students to become familiar with one writing scenario that they work with during the entire term. This strategy enables students to jump into writing more quickly, rather than spending time figuring out the background situation for each assignment first. Naturally, there are still rhetorical parameters for students to analyze for each activity, but the information from one assignment helps them determine the details of the next.

For the theme to work, it must support all of the assignments I had planned for students from a range of backgrounds. Students in the course are studying areas such as engineering, computer science, forestry, wildlife conservation, dairy science, and building construction. I needed to find a way that all these different careers would interact and write similar kinds of documents.

My solution was a business incubator that would bring together all these students to help them launch a new business. Not every student plans to go out into the world to create a new business; but the scenario is familiar enough that they are able to play along and imagine how they would work in the situation.

In my posts for the coming weeks, I will share the different assignments and how they relate to the theme. This week, I want to share the basic details for the theme and activities that the class will focus on this term. One local parameter that you need to know about is the Virginia Tech motto Ut Prosim, which translates to “That I may serve.” This motto drives a lot of service projects and outreach at Virginia Tech, so it was a natural addition to the incubator scenario. Students are very familiar with the motto, so I do not need to explain it in the course documents. Here is the Writing Projects Overview, which explains the overarching writing project theme to students:

In this course, you will write a series of connected projects that you will submit in two batches (Portfolio 1 and Portfolio 2). As explained in the Grading Policies and Standards, these portfolios are collections of the original writing that you do in the course, such as memos and reports. As we begin on these projects, I want to explain how the projects are connected. The full details on these projects will be included in the relevant Canvas modules.

What goes into the two Portfolios?

Portfolio 1 will consist of four shorter pieces:

  • Info Sheet
  • Correspondence Project
  • Technical Description
  • User Documents

Portfolio 2 will focus on research-based documents, which will be a bit longer and/or more complex:

  • Short Proposal
  • White Paper
  • Progress Report
  • Poster Presentation

So how do the projects connect?

All of the projects will relate to your membership in a fictional business incubator, the Ut Prosim Incubator. The projects you will complete for your portfolios will be documents that you create as a member of this incubator. You will create a business and then write the pieces for your portfolio from the perspective as a starting business owner. You will collaborate with other members of the incubator and contribute materials to the endeavors that the incubator undertakes.

What is a business incubator?

According to “Incubating Success. Incubation Best Practices That Lead to Successful New Ventures” (2011), business incubators are “designed to accelerate the successful development of entrepreneurial companies through an array of business support resources and services, developed or orchestrated by incubator management, and offered both in the incubator and through its network of contacts” (15).

There is much more to what an incubator does and how it works, but for our purposes you just need to understand that it is a place the provides support to help beginning companies succeed.

So what will companies in this incubator do?

Naturally, starting a company is a complex endeavor that involves many decisions, specific legal and financial work, and a significant amount of planning. For this class, we will assume that most of that work is already done. We will generally assume that your company is happily chugging along, doing whatever it is that your company does. That might be making a product, providing a service, researching innovations, and so forth.

You will define the work that your company does, but beyond that you will not need to worry about that part of the scenario. You will focus more on creating some technical writing documents that relate to the company you create.

What makes the Ut Prosim Incubator special?

Our make-believe incubator was founded by some well-established and successful Virginia Tech graduates who wanted to give back to younger graduates by helping them get started in the business world. They have created a program that supports any kind of company with the one requirement that the company participates in the special projects that the Incubator undertakes as a whole.

These special projects relate to the mission of the Ut Prosim Incubator to reach out and work in ways that support others. The founders of the incubator have extended the university’s motto, Ut Prosim (“that I may serve”) to their own mission and motto, “that I may serve through my business.” To clarify, the incubator asks that member companies participate in programs that support causes like sustainability, environmental stewardship, mentorship of young entrepreneurs, and public outreach and education.

How do the writing projects relate to the Ut Prosim Incubator?

Project Short Description
Info Sheet You will create a short information sheet that introduces your company to others in the incubator. There will be a specific list of information to provide, including your company name, what it does, and your company’s typical customers.
Correspondence Project You will create guidelines that your employees will use as they communicate with others inside and outside the company. The goal is to ensure that your company’s letters, memos, and emails have a uniform appearance and style.
Technical Description

You will write a technical description related to your field (such as a tool that is typically used or a process that is part of your industry). The description will be part of a diversity initiative to interest local students in STEM careers (STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The description will relate to a task that local middle and high school students will complete as they shadow someone in your company.

User Documents

You will also write the user document that students will use in the diversity initiative described above. You will provide step-by-step details on how to complete a simple and appropriate task that will help local students learn more about what someone in your career does.
Short Proposal You will write a short research proposal that presents the topic you will explore for your white paper. Your proposal should explain not only what the topic is but how it relates to the incubator goal of public outreach and education.
White Paper

You will write an informational report for non-experts that presents details on a specific issue related to your company and the work that it does. Your white paper will tie directly to the incubator goal of public outreach and education. Specifically, the incubator founders want to provide a library of documents that inform readers about how science, technology, and engineering work.

Progress Report You will write a progress report that updates incubator staff on the work you have done on your white paper.

Poster Presentation

You will design a poster presentation, based on the details in your white paper, that will be part of a poster session that the incubator sponsors for the local community. Like the white paper, the presentation will focus on the incubator goal of public outreach and education. As an extension, additional investors and clients also attend the session, so you have the potential to make critical connections for your business.

So that’s the overarching plan for the term. Everything is in progress, but I’m not far enough along yet to have any feedback from students. I will share more when I do, and next week, I will share the first assignment that asks them to write a memo with the basic details about their companies. In the meantime, if you have any feedback or questions about the course, please leave me a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

[Photo: Incubator-9128 by graibeard on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license]

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

What’s the Story in Your Data Stream?

[This post was originally published on September 25, 2012.]

Your average student has developed a significant collection of digital work. There are Facebook updates, Twitter posts, YouTube videos, and Flickr and Instagram photos. I’ve been thinking about how to use this collection of artifacts since Antero Garcia reminded me that there is a “huge stream of student data to look for growth in.”

[Photo: text message by sffoghorn, on Flickr]

What are positive ways to use all that data? I’m not interesting in mining that data for indications of what strategies do or do not work. Instead, I’d like students to find their growth and changes in that stream of data themselves. Happily, I’ve found inspiration for an assignment that I think will do just that. I simply need to ask students to look for the stories in their data stream.

Oddly, this idea came to me when I read a story in the Georgia Southernalumni magazine. I’m not an alumnus of Georgia Southern, so I almost threw the paper into the recycling unopened. It only ended up in my mailbox because I have donated to the Graduate Research Network (GRN). Curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to skim it in case the GRN was mentioned inside.

Instead, I found a story about Jessica Hines, a photography teacher at Georgia Southern. Hines searched through her own data stream to learn more about her brother Gary, a Vietnam War veteran who took his life. The story from the alumni magazine isn’t online, but you can read more about Hines in My Brother’s War: Professor Acclaimed for Images of War Experience.

Two things caught my imagination from the piece. First, my eye tripped on the title, “Hines teaches students to tell story of themselves through photography.” The grammarian in me either wanted to add the word the, change story to stories, or perhaps both. Still the idea of telling stories with photographs drew me in, since I’ve been searching for multimodal assignments recently.

My interest piqued, I read on and found my second inspiration. Hines talked about her teaching as an introduction to her own search to learn more about her brother:

“I explain to my students that the camera is a device that, by pressing a button, shows them what they are interested in,” explains Hines. “The potential for self-discovery is high if one pays attention.”

What would happen, I wondered, if I sent students off to look through their data stream for their stories with the intention of learning more about themselves and their interests in the process? I knew I had found a positive way to use that “huge stream of student data.”

The assignment I have in mind asks students to look back through their data stream for recurring themes or topics and to compose a text about how their ideas have changed over time. I want them to consider questions like these:

  • Has your interest in the topic or theme deepened over time?
  • Have you slowly lost interest?
  • Have you learned increasingly more over time?
  • What has influenced how you feel about the topic?
  • What have you noticed as you look back at how you’ve documented the topic or theme over time?
  • What stories have you found?
  • What discoveries have you made about yourself?

For now, I’m leaving the medium for the text open. The piece could be a traditional text, but the assignment also lends itself to video, photography, and multimedia compositions. I’ll also leave the places students search for these stories open, rather than limiting the activity to just photographs, for instance.

Finally, I am hoping that I can avoid the Creepy Treehouse effect, since students choose the stories that they tell. They will pull their stories together in an independent piece that won’t require me or the class to visit their private postings. Students will curate the collections only with data they feel comfortable sharing.

In addition to reflecting on their own stream of data, I hope this assignment will also help students learn more about finding and analyzing how images or themes develop in a body of work. The assignment reminds me of the skills that I use when I trace how a poet uses a specific motif through a series of poems or how a novelist develops an image over the course of a novel.

What do you think of asking students to explore their own data stream? Do you have ways to tap the stream of student data? Do you have an assignment to share? I’d love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment below!

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

A Writing Assignment Time Capsule

[This post originally published on November 13, 2012.]

One of my all-time favorite assignments is to ask students to create a time capsule focusing on their writing and themselves as writers. I’m not sure if it’s because of my obsession with archives, my love for scrapbooking, or my fascination with the things that go into writing a text that draws me to the activity. Whatever it is, the assignment helps me learn more about how each student writes while at the same time encouraging students to reflect on their writing and how it changes.

To begin, I explain the basic assignment. The goal is for students to create time capsules for themselves as writers. The audience for the activity varies. I’ve asked students to create time capsules that they will open later in the term or at some point in the future. It can be interesting to do the assignment early in the term and then open the time capsules at the end of the term as part of their final project. I’ve also asked students to create time capsules at the end of a term as a way to reflect on the work that they have done during the course. With students’ permission, I’ve opened some of these time capsules at the beginning of the next course I teach as an overview.

I set up the assignment as early in the term as reasonable. If I wait too late, students may well have discarded artifacts that they would like to include. Most students will understand what a time capsule is, but to be sure, I always kick off the activity with some background. Now that Apple has a back-up solution called Time Capsule, it is crucial to make sure everyone understands what we’re talking about. Wikipedia has a Time Capsule entry, which I use as a basic explanation. I play this YouTube video of the Westinghouse Time Capsule, buried in 1939 and to be opened in the year 6939, to provide a concrete example:

I also share some news articles on time capsules, like these:

The assignment I ask students to complete is not as complex as the time capsules in the news and video nor do students wait as long to open them, but these examples are a good way to review the characteristics important to time capsules. If I have time capsules from a previous course to share, I open them at this point too.

After exploring the examples, we create a class list of characteristics. I like to make sure students understand these details about time capsules:

  • The goal is to show someone in the future what life was like when the time capsule was assembled.
  • It’s not meant to showcase buried treasure or priceless artifacts. Money and artifacts can be included, but they normally are not remarkable treasures at the time when the time capsule is assembled.
  • The items in a time capsule should be long-lasting. They need to survive a long time without decaying in some way.
  • The items also need to be things that will not damage one another and/or they need to be specially packaged so they won’t damage one another.
  • The time capsule can include items that predict what life will be like when the capsule is opened, like letters to a future self or messages to future generations.

I ask students to brainstorm a list of the items in time capsules as well, so that they have a working list of the kinds of artifacts they will gather for their own time capsules. I also review the documentation included with the Westinghouse Time Capsule, and ask students to include similar explanations and reflections with their time capsules.

Beyond these instructions, I like to leave the specifics up to the individual students. They can choose the kind of container and what goes into it. They can include digital artifacts as well as analog materials. I prefer not to dictate requirements like the number of items or the kinds of things to be included. This assignment is very personal, and I want students to reflect on themselves as writers. If I provide a checklist of what to include, the assignment won’t do what I want it to. The only specific item I require is some explanatory, reflective pieces that help identify the items and their importance.

Opening these time capsules is always informative. I learn so much about students every time I use the assignment. It’s tempting too to think about what my own time capsule might look like, as a writer and teacher. If I were in the position to do so, I’d love to ask new graduate teaching assistants to gather time capsules after orientation that they will open at the end of the academic year as part of a final reflection on their teaching.

Do you have assignments that ask students to reflect on the writing they have done in the past? What artifacts do you save from your own writing and teaching? I’d love to hear from you. Just leave me a comment below!

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Create Short Videos with Edify Animaker

Animaker LogoIn my last post, I shared Lumen5, a site that allows you to make short videos by pairing free-to-use images with the text from a webpage or handout. Today, I’m sharing another simple, free tool that you can use to make short videos for the classroom. Edify Animaker offers a suite of tools to create “Animated Videos, Done Right!” The tool boasts an impressive collection of Fortune 500 clients, including Google, Adidas, GE, FedEx, Ebay, and Walmart.

How Animaker Works

Its website describes using Animaker as a straightforward process: “Click and Choose. Drag and Drop. Edit and Play. That’s Animaker.” That overview is a bit of an oversimplification, but the process is relatively easy to master. There are two broad ways to go about creating your video: (1) begin with a template for a specific genre of video, or (2) create a video of your own from a blank project file.

If you choose the template option, Animaker asks you to “Click and Choose” one of ten different video templates:

  • Explainer Video
  • Facebook Video
  • Cartoon Video
  • Advertisement Video
  • YouTube Video
  • Birthday Video
  • Christmas Video Greeting
  • Video Presentation
  • Lyric Video
  • Instagram Video

The alternative option begins with the video equivalent to a blank page. After you “Click and Choose” one of these options, you move on to the “Drag and Drop” portion of the project. Regardless of the option you choose, you next can “Drag and Drop” assets into your video, picking from a variety of included characters, properties, and backgrounds. In addition to the included assets, you can upload your own images and sounds (within certain file size constraints) to use in your production.

Finally, you move on to the “Edit and Play” part of the process, adding transitions, setting how much time the assets spend onscreen, and choreographing the various parts of the video. You can preview the video as often as you’d like. When you are satisfied, you export the video. The free option of Animaker allows you to export to Facebook and YouTube. Once the export is complete, you’re ready to share the video with students.

An Example Video

To test Edify Animaker, I created the video below, which addresses the question, What Is the Grace Period in Your Technical Writing Class?

Most of the copy for the video came from course documents, such as the general explanation of the grace period on the course syllabus. The Animaker video did take a bit longer to create than the Lumen5 video, as Animaker’s tools are more sophisticated. While Lumen5 videos were a simple combination of background images and overlaid text, Animaker videos include options for backgrounds, characters, properties and text. Each of the assets in an Animaker video can be manipulated for time on screen and beginning and ending transitions.

Constraints of Animaker

Most of the constraints of Animaker are clearly outlined on the Pricing Plans page, which compares four plans (Free, Personal, Startup, and Business). The free plan creates only two minute videos in SD quality. Additionally, the free plan limits users to only five exports per month. As a result, if you use the free version, you must be careful to edit and preview completely before you export to ensure that you do not run out of resources.

Educators can take advantage of the Premium pricing on the Edify-branded version of Animaker. The Premium plan costs $ 0.20 / month for students and $10/month for teachers (billed yearly). The Premium pricing model increases the maximum video length to 30 minutes, allowing for Full HD, HD, and SD quality videos. Further, the Premium plan increases the number of exports to 200 (from five on the free version).

As is typically the case with free plans, Animaker’s most basic plan offers only a limited collection of image and sound assets. This constraint can easily be overcome by uploading your own images and sounds to supplement the basic library. The Premium plan for educators includes the highest number of assets (identical to the Business Plan).

While the free version does not allow you to download the video, savvy users can export the video to Facebook or YouTube and then download from either site in order to create a personal backup or edit with another program (e.g., Camtasia). These downloaded versions will not be as flexible as the project files on the Animaker site.

As was the case with Lumen5, students with visual impairments will need a transcript of the text of the Animaker videos. The text in the video is not readable by a screen reader. That said, downloading the video from the intermediary site may be necessary to customize closed captions and transcripts. YouTube can automatically create captions from the audio soundtrack; however, it will not be able to convert text that appears on the screen alone for the visually impaired.

Final Thoughts on Animaker

The free version of Animaker allows users to create more sophisticated videos than Lumen5 does, including the ability to upload a voiceover recording. Naturally, I prefer to use the free version as long as I can. If I found myself needing additional resources from Animaker, the Premium Plan for educators seems like a reasonable upgrade, for only $10 a month.

Much like Lumen5, Animaker is also simple enough for students to use. I would not use Animaker as students’ very first video production tool; however, once students have created some basic videos using their smartphones or animated slideshow presentations, they would have the skills to step up to the additional features that Animaker offers.

I encourage you to take an hour or two to try out Edify Animaker this summer. You should find yourself able to make a relatively polished video that you can use in the classroom, even with the free version of the tool. Once you try Animaker, come back and tell me what you think. I would love to hear what you think about the features that it offers and how you might use the tool to create resources for your classes.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

In Praise of Prickly Men: A Gender Swap Version

The Inside Higher Ed opinion article “In Praise of Prickly Women” annoyed me. Why do women who stand up for themselves have to have the negative connotations of prickly?

The article means well, praising the persistence of these women, but for me, there’s a message just below the surface (if it’s even that hidden) that says, “Hey, you know those bitchy women in your department? They have some usefulness even though they are annoying you.”

Reading the article left me wondering whether this article would even exist if it discussed the persistance of those asshole men in your department who push their ideas through even if it annoys others at times. Probably not.

That’s the reflective moment when I decided to rewrite the article so it’s about men. I can’t take full credit here, since I used the Jailbreak the Patriarchy Chrome Extension to swap the feminine for the masculine. Beyond that, I stripped out a lot of the divs and css, and then I created a reenvisioning of the illustration from the original. Enjoy.

In Praise of Prickly Men

Despite the negative connotations they incite, they have exactly the kind of insight and persistence that higher ed needs today, argue M. Soledad Caballero and Aimee Knupsky.

Original by M. Soledad Caballero and Aimee Knupsky on May 23, 2018, from Inside Higher Ed
Genderswap with Jailbreak the Patriarchy Chrome Extension, with additional changes by tengrrl
(h/t for the Chrome Extension to Writer/Designer)


image created from the original istock/aurielaki background, with man by thethreesisters on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license, and Superman drawing by Matt Leyva on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

You may see them in the men who won’t back down. You may see them in the colleagues who ask “pointed” questions. You may see them as the loud voices taking up all the space in the room.

They are known throughout history as the “killjoys,” the “ice kings,” the “hysterics,” the “ball-busters.” They are the “Prickly Men” — the men who don’t let things go, who stand up for themselves and others, and who question the status-quo of structural inequities and outdated institutional practices. They stick out decidedly among the “sis-hood” of academic administration.

Despite the negative connotations and perceptions they incite, Prickly Men have exactly the kind of insight and persistence needed as the crises in higher education continue to mount. We argue that among the deluge of advice being tossed around to address those crises, one of the most radically simple solutions would be to identify your Prickly Men and listen to them.

They are not the newly minted Ph.D.s, nor are they the “up-and-comers” who bring much needed enthusiasm into the conversation about higher education. Prickly Men have been through the wars. They have seen colleagues fall or be pushed out. They have seen the fast fixes thrown like darts at a wall to see what sticks. They have most likely been among those darts — among those members of underrepresented groups invited to join the hallowed halls of academe only to be left to their own devices

There are many of them, and they are not all the same. They each have their own challenges and battles. They are black, they are white, they are Latinx, they are Queer. They are dads, they are single, they are able-bodied or not.

Their identities intersect in a myriad of ways. They are not always allies nor are they always friends. But if you look around your institution for mid-career professionals, you will find Prickly Men with tales to tell and scars to show. And, you will see they have been systematically silenced — and relegated to do the hard, thankless service work that keeps institutions running.

It is almost redundant at this point to talk about the stereotypical, angry male colleague or leader. The literature is full of evidence to show us that our image of Prickly Men is an entirely constructed one. They are the product of stereotypes that suggest men hold the floor longer than their female colleagues; that they are prone to irrational, emotional outbursts; that they are angry when providing constructive feedback. They are “bossy” leaders, those who incite mistrust should they take on the mannerisms of their female colleagues.

In fact, you may begin to see them as women should their anger be expressed across their faces. They are in a catch-22: if Prickly Men take on the masculine role of care-giver, they are seen as weak and less serious; if they adopt the confidence and “agentic behavior” lauded in their female colleagues, they become bitches. In other words, traditional gender roles deny them access to academe, while betraying those roles relegates them to the sidelines as people worthy of admonition and punishment. In fact, even the crisis in higher education today has been blamed on Prickly Men. A recent article suggests that one reason trust in higher education may be eroding is the number of men who have joined its ranks and obtained success.

But instead of dismissing Prickly Men, we must embrace them. The metaphor itself shows the value of Prickly Men — they are sharp, they cut through the academic bullshit and prevarication that keep higher education spinning its wheels instead of moving forward.

What Prickly Men have to offer is the ability to let go of what is not working, the willingness to try new things, the ability to listen to others without feeling threatened, and the courage to be leaders when needed and followers when inspired. They are keenly aware of their own limitations while still capable of valuing the strength in others. At this point in their careers, they convey and respect vulnerability, the kind that draws unlikely partners together to combat common foes.

Prickly Men on campuses have deep institutional memory and history. They have knowledge of what has and hasn’t worked in the past. They see why shiny, new programs aren’t the answer to your problems; they see what the “boring” time-tested programs have to offer. Prickly Men know who the players are, they know what the games are, they know what the rules are and when and how to break them.

Prickly Men very likely have strong, robust networks of prickly pissed-off colleagues and they know how to engage those networks to get the real work done. They want others to succeed and are good mentors who have “seen it all.” Prickly Men are perceptive; they have vision. Their ideas are informed by the people working anonymously on college campuses. Prickly Men have a strong desire to simplify institutional bloat and to find synergies with what is already working on campus. This desire to synthesize comes from Prickly Men’s voracious reading; they are always on the lookout for scholarship that makes them better mentors, instructors and colleagues.

Prickly Men are not interested in reinventing the wheel, and they are not after your power.

Prickly Men work hard. They are scrappy; they will sacrifice even when given little praise. They still have a lot of time left in the academic gig, and despite it all, they still want your institution to thrive and have contributions to make.

Contrary to popular opinion, they do not have thick skin. They can be hurt. If you mistreat Prickly Men, they may curl up in defensive hedgehog positions and you will lose some of your best unknown, uncelebrated, and un-championed resources. Above all, Prickly Men are full of empathy, passion, and concern for others. They are guided by an ethical compass that we desperately need in the landscape of higher education today.

Don’t grind them down. Don’t ignore them. Make them your allies. Use their sharpness, pointedness, prickliness to your advantage. Don’t fear Prickly Men. Find and engage them.

And, if you are a Prickly Man, find your prickly comrades. Take comfort among their ranks. Build an altar to the feats of Prickly Men everywhere. Persevere.

Convert Handouts to Videos with Lumen5

This weekend, I have been exploring the capabilities of the online tool Lumen5, a web-based tool that you can use to convert any written text to a video. Lumen5 offers to “Transform articles into videos in minutes” on their company website. The end result, Lumen5 explains, is “Social videos made easy.”

How Lumen5 Works

To use Lumen5, you create a project and then begin producing your video. Lumen5 gives you three choices, shown in the screenshot below:

Screenshot of Lumen5 Options for creating a video

As the image shows, the interface is clean and easy to understand. You add the required information by clicking on one of the three options:

  1. You can use an article or blog post by pasting in the link to the document.
  2. You can copy and paste text from any document you have access to.
  3. You can start with an empty video and add text and resources as you go along.

For this post, I am going to focus on what happens when you choose the first or second option. Whether you have pasted in a link or the text for your video, Lumen5 next adds your content to a series of video panes, similar to slides in a slide deck. Each sentence in your content is displayed on a pane. If your sentence is long, it is divided into two panes.

In addition to sorting the text onto the panes, Lumen5 pairs the content with an image (either in public domain or free to use) based on the keywords it finds in the text. For example, if the text talks about writing a paper, Lumen5 will add a photo that shows something related to writing. It might be a photo of a person writing, an image of hands on a keyboard, or a picture of a notebook and pen on a table.

Once the first draft of your video is auto-generated, you can spend time editing the draft by changing the text on the panes and choosing a different image, video, or icon to represent the content. To change the text, you just click on the pane and type. For the images, you choose the media tab, and then you can either search the libraries available in Lumen5 for an image or you can upload media of your own. You can also choose from one of the free-to-use soundtracks or upload your own.

Once you are happy with your video, you click the Render button and wait about ten minutes for the video to process. Once the video is ready, you download the MP4 file and upload it wherever you’d like to share it with your students. Lumen5 even provides a help page on downloading and sharing your video to a various social networks.

A Sample Lumen5 Video

I decided to experiment with a digital handout on my course website that explains the labor-based grading system to students (See Inoue, 2014), paired with a tip-filled infographic on how to do well in the course. The result of my project is the following video:

All in all, I’m quite happy with the results. I spent about three hours on the video, most of which was spent being overly picky about images and the background music.

Constraints of Lumen5

There are some limitations in Lumen5. I used the free version of the tool, which allows you to create an unlimited number of videos in 480p video quality. The free videos do have a Lumen5 logo at the end. If you want to remove that logo or record in a higher resolution, you have to pay a hefty fee of $49/month. For the work that I would do, the free version will likely suffice.

Lumen5 does not allow for voice-over, only the soundtracks as background music. Since the finished video is downloaded as an MP4 file, it is easy enough to open the downloaded file in another program, like Camtasia, if you want to add a voice-over. As there is no voice-over, you do not need to add a closed caption file. All of the text is already on the screen.

Students with visual impairments do need a transcript of the text of the video however. The text in the video is not readable by a screen reader. I created a transcript for my video by copying the text out of Lumen5 and pasting it into a Word document. After applying formatting to make the file easy for a screen reader to navigate, I saved it as a PDF and uploaded it to my own website. Making the transcript took me less than ten minutes overall.

There are some other minor limitations. You have little control over the color of the content on the screen, for example, and it’s difficult to deal with awkward line breaks. Given that the slick tool is free, however, I find these constraints quite bearable.

Final Thoughts on Lumen5

If you are interested in adding some simple videos to your course, I encourage you to experiment with Lumen5. It was a simple enough tool that I would use it with students as well, if you are working on a video assignment. Go visit the Lumen5 website and give it a try; then, please come back and tell me what you think. I’m eager to hear your thoughts about this exciting tool!

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Ten Active Learning Strategies Using Word Clouds

Last week, I reviewed several word cloud generators and suggested a few ways that you can use word clouds in the classroom. This week, I am sharing some ways that you can use word clouds in your classes to engage students directly in the learning process. The ten active learning strategies below ask students to move beyond the absorption of ideas typical of a lecture-based class to deep engagement with the ideas and development of relevant content area and critical thinking skills.

1. 25-Word Summaries

With 25-word summaries, students summarize (or otherwise discuss) their reading in 25 words or less. Students must concentrate their ideas and make every word count. Once students submit their summaries, combine them in a single document, and generate a word cloud that reveals the 25 words that students mentioned most. For nonfiction readings, the resulting word cloud can show the main points of the reading, significant facts that are included, and key issues that stand out for students. For fictional readings, the word cloud can reveal significant features from the reading, such as themes and symbols.

The word cloud below is the collected response to the discussion question “What are the main themes in A Raisin in the Sun?” For accessibility purposes, include the table of word frequency, which screen readers will be able to read.

Word Cloud on the themes in A Raisin in the Sun

Word Frequency
family     21
african     16
people     14
dream     10
dreams     10
abortion       8
act       8
knowledge       7
raisin       7
africa       6

2. Icebreakers with Survey Responses

Choose your favorite icebreaker question: What’s your favorite food? What’s the last book you read? What kind of texts have you written in the workplace? Ask students to respond with online survey software, like Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter. Both of these tools allow you to present the survey responses in a word cloud, so you do not need any additional software. The cloud appears on the survey website as the responses are added.

3. Directed Paraphrase

Check students’ comprehension by asking them to paraphrase the most recent lesson or activity that the class has completed. Encourage students to put the content of the lesson into their own words, rather than parroting back what they have seen or read in the class. Collect all of the responses in a single document, and generate a word cloud of the most commonly repeated words. Share the cloud with the class and ask them to consider why certain words showed up and why others were missing. Be sure to ask them to comment on how well the word cloud represents the lesson or activity they paraphrased.

4. Prediction

Before students read the next section of an article or chapter of a book, ask them to suggest what they think will happen next. As with other activities, gather the responses in a single document and create a word cloud, which will identify the most popular predictions. Ask students to discuss why certain predications were popular, connecting to the available evidence from the reading they have completed.

5. Muddiest Point

Ask students to write down whatever is most unclear about the lesson, in a word or two, before leaving the classroom for the day. Collect students’ responses and assemble them into a single document, from which you can build a word cloud of the points that most students noted. Open the next class session with the word cloud, and address the concepts that students have identified.

6. Focused List

Build a focused list by asking students to respond to a question about a topic. This strategy can be used to stimulate prior knowledge by asking a question such as “What have you learned about the topic already?” Give students time to brainstorm a list of concepts that they recall, and create a word cloud of the ideas they have shared. Use the word cloud to extend discussion of prior knowledge by asking students to explain the concepts that appear in the word cloud.

7. Version Comparison

As part of a research project, ask students to find two articles on their topic, ideally two that focus on different perspectives. Have students make a word cloud for each of the articles and then compare the two clouds. Specifically, ask which words that the two versions have in common as well as what their most significant differences are. Have students determine which of the most frequently used words communicate facts and which communicate opinion. If there are terms in the word clouds that students have not found elsewhere in their research, encourage them to examine these words further as they relate to the topic.

8. Role Play

Again, set up a survey using online survey software, like Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter, but this time ask students to answer from another perspective. In literature courses, you can ask students to answer as they think one of the characters would respond. The activity can be used as a Prediction activity (#4 above) by asking students to predict what someone in a reading might do next or a decision the person would make. For any reading that students complete, they might respond as the author would. If you are studying argument, students can answer as someone on a particular side of the issue might. These role-playing surveys will result in interesting word clouds that reveal how well students understand whatever they are reading or studying.

9. Quiz-Style Games

For this activity, you create the word cloud yourself. You could choose keywords from a text and manufacture a cloud, or paste in the text of a reading to create a cloud. Ensure that your cloud does not include the title of the piece or other words that would make the source immediately obvious. The word cloud above for A Raisin in the Sun would work for this activity. Use the resulting word clouds to quiz students: By looking only on the cloud, can they identify the piece that the cloud represents? Students could work individually or in teams to propose their answers, similar to a game show. This activity would work particularly well as a review exercise before an exam.

10. List-Cloud-Group-Label

With this modification of the List-Group-Label strategy, you can stimulate prior knowledge as you introduce a reading, a unit of study, or a course theme. Write a word or phrase related to the subject area on the board. For instance, if the course will explore popular culture, you might focus on the word popularity or the phrase popular culture itself. Have students brainstorm related words and phrases using online survey software, like Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter (or in an open Google Doc). Make a word cloud of students’ responses. Next, arrange students into small groups, and ask each group to examine the word cloud closely. Groups can add or remove words or phrases as well as decide on whether particular items on the list should have been larger or smaller in the word cloud. Once they have considered the words, ask groups to arrange the words into several related subtopics and to provide a label for each subtopic. Have groups present their subtopics to the whole class and explain their arrangement. The whole class can compare the different subtopics that groups have created. Later in the course, after you have begun your exploration of the reading, unit, or theme, ask students to return to the labeled groups of words and consider how well they relate to the topic as it has evolved during the course.

Final Thoughts

As you can see from these ten ideas, word clouds can be a versatile tool in the classroom. They can be used for analysis, description, summary, and more. Perhaps my favorite thing about these uses of word clouds is that the results are always different. Although my classes may study the same topic or readings from one term to the next, the way that they create and analyze word clouds is always unique—and every so often, they reveal an idea that surprises me.

What are your thoughts on word clouds now that you have seen some ways to use them? Do you have additional strategies to try? Would you complete one of these active learning strategies in a different way? Tell me your thoughts in a comment below. I can’t wait to hear from you.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Updating Your Word Cloud Tools

Word clouds can give writers helpful information as they revise their work. As I explained in my previous post Word Clouds as Revision Tools, “Word clouds highlight the most frequently used words in a text, using larger font sizes for the words used most often and smaller sizes for those used less often.”

Using Word Clouds

In the writing classroom, word clouds can help students identify words that they have overused or identify themes in their writing. In technical writing classes, I ask students to create word clouds from their job application materials and then evaluate whether the words that they use the most project the image that they want potential employers to see.

In classes that focus on reading, students can use word clouds to analyze passages from poetry, essays, fiction, and other readings. The resulting word clouds can help students identify themes and symbols in the texts, just as a concordance might. Here’s the word cloud for the 50 most frequent words in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

Word Cloud for T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

Once a word cloud like the one above is generated, students can talk generally about the frequently-used words, and then search for the words in the original text to see how they are used.

Problems with the Most Commonly Used Word Cloud Generator

So word clouds can be a fun tool to use in the classroom; recently, however, I have run into trouble when assigning word cloud activities. My go-to tool, Wordle, is no longer working consistently. When I follow their troubleshooting instructions, I end up finding this Java error:

Java error: The Chrome browser does not support NPAPI plug-ins and therefore will not run all Java content. Switch to a different browser (Internet Explorer or Safari on Mac) to run the Java plug-in.

Wordle has been my favorite and the tool that I have seen other teachers use most frequently, but with the end of Java support, I can’t rely on Wordle anymore. I need to find tools that students can use easily and reliably.

Word Cloud Alternatives to Try

After testing several options, I found three alternatives that seem useful:

These three tools create word clouds easily, giving the user the same basic settings. Word Cloud Generator (for Google Docs) is limited in the ways that you can manipulate the layout of the words. For instance, to switch to the landscape layout shown for The Waste Land example above, I had to open the image in Photoshop and rotate it. It’s not a hard change to make, but it is an extra step. Word Cloud Generator includes the unique ability to add a table of the most frequently used words and their frequency of use to the end of the analyzed document. To share this add-on with students, use the How to Create a Word Cloud in Google Docs video and instructions.

Pro Word Cloud (for Microsoft Word and PowerPoint) does allow you to change the layout of the words, giving you a range of options that includes Higgledy Piggledy. I love anything that offers me the chance to make things “Higgledy Piggledy.” This Word add-in falls short, however, since it has no option to exclude words from the cloud. There is a check box to “Remove common words,” but no option to customize the words that are removed. To share the add-in with students, you can use the Create a Word Cloud in a PowerPoint Presentation video and instructions. The instructions are generally the same to install and use the add-in in Microsoft Word.

WordClouds (for web browsers) is the best choice if the source text for your word cloud is a web page or PDF. You can upload a file or enter a web link, and the tool will make a related cloud. WordClouds also includes the largest number of options of the three tools. In addition to the customary settings for the color, font, and the layout of the words, you can change the shape of the cloud (e.g., a heart, an apple, a cat), set the distance between words (or the gap size), and add a mask. The shape option includes not only basic shapes, but also the ability to choose a letter or number as the shape of the cloud and the ability to choose a colorful icon (such as a rainbow). There’s even a sneaky way to track multi-word phrases (e.g., writing center). Just add a tilde (~) between the words (i.e., writing~center). While there is no page of instructions for WordClouds, students can use the Wizard on the site to get started and find the answers to any questions on the FAQ page.

Final Thoughts

I am always looking for more ways to use word clouds in the classroom. They are so easy to create, and they quickly reveal keywords and themes in the analyzed texts. I am working on some additional word cloud activities for next week’s post. If you have an activity to share, please leave me a note below, and be sure to come back next week for those additional assignments that use word clouds.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.

Crowdsourcing Your Video Captions

Ideally, every video that I upload to YouTube has closed captions and a transcript. Unfortunately, things are not always ideal in my world. When I have time, I have been using Screencast-O-Matic to add captions to the videos that I make for my students. Here’s an example video that I made to show students how a new blog commenting system works.

Viewing Tip
Click the closed caption icon that is shaped like a box with lines of text in it, in the lower right band where the controls are, to see the captions on this video. The icon is shown in the image below, all the way to the left.

To make the captions on this video, I used the speech-to-text capability built into Screencast-O-Matic Pro. Unfortunately, you do have to upgrade to use the speech-to-text tool, but the cost is an economical $18 annually. The tool created a rough draft of the captions, but I had to go through and edit them by adding words and phrases that it missed and correcting things that it misheard.

The whole process took a little over an hour, which may not seem bad until you consider the length of the video. The video is only 3½ minutes long, so I spent about twenty times the length of the video to make the transcript. Now extend that time commitment to a 10 minute video, and you need to plan at least three hours. That’s quite an undertaking for something that will only result in 10 minutes of curriculum material.

Fortunately, YouTube includes a setting that allows a video creator to crowdsource the captioning for the videos that she uploads. From my perspective, it’s the most important setting on YouTube. Just follow the instructions to Turn on & manage community contributions and anyone can add captions to your video. The system allows you to review, change, or reject the captions.

I already have an assignment that invites students to crowdsource transcripts. This YouTube setting facilitates their contributions to the course smoothly, and as a bonus, it reduces the work I have to do since the captions are added directly to the videos. In addition, students can contribute by adding to existing captions if they notice a correction is needed. I still plan to create captions for all my videos, but it’s nice to know that these alternatives exists.

Do you have suggestions for improving the process of providing transcripts and captioning for video and audio content? I would love additional ideas and assignments. Please tell me about your ideas by leaving a comment below.

This post originally published on the Bedford Bits blog.