Monday, September 15, 2014

Abe Feuerstein on writing to reconcile educators’ experiences with theories about assessment and accountability

Associate Professor of Education Abe Feuerstein

What writing project(s) are you working on right now?

I’m currently in the middle of a project that is examining department chairs’ views of academic assessment in a local college.  Academic assessment has become an important focus in higher education as some educational leaders have begun to question whether students are really learning what we think they are. This was a subject that I worked on a lot over the last 4-5 years as an associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, and now I’m trying to take a step back from that direct involvement and understand better the experience of those individuals who have the direct responsibility for implementing various systems for assessing student learning within their departments.

What do you love about it?

I have enjoyed talking with the chairs about their work. Through our conversations I have been able to get new insights in the challenges posed by assessment and the various ways that departments have sought to address those challenges.  I like the way the project is forcing me reconcile the experiences of the chairs with more overarching theories that seek to explain the growing emphasis on accountability in organizations ranging from schools to prisons.

What about it (if anything) is driving you nuts?

The analysis of the data itself can become fairly tedious.  Looking at the transcripts of my interviews for common themes takes a long time, and I sometimes find myself losing focus. So, while I like knowing what people think, having to characterize that thinking in a systematic and defensible way is a really tough job.

How would you describe your writing process?

Generally, I’m someone who likes to start with the general and work toward the specific.  In my writing this sometimes means spending a lot of time considering the general context of the issue that I am trying to write about before getting to the specific question that I want to explore. While this is really good for my thinking, it doesn’t always work for a typical chapter or journal article, so I end up cutting a lot of that material later in the process after I’ve clarified the focus of the piece.  

What kind of feedback on your writing do you find most helpful?

I’ve really benefited from reading my work out loud to someone (often Peg Cronin in the Writing Center) who is willing to listen and ask questions. The questions asked by a listener often show me where I have left my audience in the lurch and have more explaining to do.  This is particularly true with transitions, where I am prone to jump from one topic to another thinking that the relationship between the ideas is clear even when it’s not. Having a listener say that she doesn’t understand how I got from point A to point B is helpful because it makes me think more clearly about that relationship and how to explain it.   I also find that reading things out loud helps me to think more about the overall structure of the article and helps me to find grammatical errors and typos.

What would you like students to know about you as a writer?

I would like students to know that I work very hard at my writing because it does not come naturally to me. When I was in college, I received some really mean- spirited feedback about my writing from a professor, and I found it to be paralyzing.  Since then, I’ve learned how to parse mean-spirited feedback from feedback that is meant to help my writing and my thinking improve, and I focus on the latter. I think students would be well advised to take a similar approach -- try to focus on what is actionable in the comments provided by your professors.  Try to pay attention to what the reader thinks could be made better (even if it is hard to hear) and let the mean-spirited comments go.


Abe Feuerstein studies issues related to local educational politics, interest groups, and school reform. He started teaching at Bucknell University in the fall of 1996. After gaining tenure in 2002,he served for six years as chair of Bucknell’s Education Department. He then served as Associate Dean of Faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences between 2008 and 2013. He holds a Ph.D. and M.Ed. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from the University of Virginia. Prior to teaching at Bucknell, he worked in both private and public schools as a chemistry teacher and school administrator.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Assistant Director of Development Rhonda K. Miller: “writing…can take a person anywhere”


What writing project(s) are you working on right now?

I’ve been writing faculty profiles for Bucknell’s Web site. I interview new or newly promoted faculty, then write their story on a freelance basis. Sometimes I interview long-term faculty who haven’t had a profile published. These are 300-400 word vignettes that often present challenge since the faculty are extremely accomplished. It forces brevity. For my full-time job, I write campaign proposals, pledge forms, endowment agreements, donor letters and other more technical pieces related to fundraising at Bucknell. Personally, I am reworking a story I filed about three years ago in Robert Rosenberg’s advanced fiction course. I’m rethinking the entire approach, while trying not to overthink it. I hope to publish a version of it someday.

What do you love about it?

I’ve been writing nonfiction professionally for 26 years, and my favorite part is learning about topics that I wouldn’t have picked on my own. One of the first stories I published was about a grocery story that doubled as an opossum museum in an obscure part of Texas. I’ve done news stories on pretty much everything – interviewing a local farmer who grew a 75-pound zucchini to recounting the last days in a 22-year-old’s life prior to his brutal murder. When I worked for the New York Times Magazine Group, I traveled around the country reviewing fancy tennis resorts, and I wrote about the fitness routines of players such as Steffi Graf. I’ve written about tennis equipment, small town government, industrial chemical fires and the benefits of nap rooms for employees. I’ve worked at local newspapers and national magazines – what I love about writing is it can take a person anywhere. Think: Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

What about writing drives you nuts?

I usually dread starting, but it’s always worth it.

How would you describe your writing process?

When I worked in the news business, there wasn’t time to ruminate over stories. You went out, got the story, came back, wrote and filed by deadline. I was only concerned about meeting deadline with an accurate account of what I was reporting. I realized years later that I might have missed some flavor – describing local personalities or including more of my own voice instead of just the cold, hard facts. By my own voice, I’m not advocating a writer’s opinion in a news story but rather taking more time with turn of phrase. Now I mentally process stories longer than I used to, meaning I think about them for days, sometimes a week, depending on my deadline. I find that my writing flows better. Then I rewrite.

What kind of feedback on your writing do you find most helpful?

I want to know if the story makes sense to the reader. I want to know if it has accomplished the assigned mission. Other sets of eyes are always good.

What would you like students to know about writing?

Take time to listen for stories – stories are everywhere! Be willing to try all forms of writing: business, creative, journalism, sports. Read. Two of my undergraduate faculty gave me this advice: 1. Take risks; 2. Have a notebook and pen strapped to your person at all times.


Rhonda K . Miller is an Assistant Director of Development in Development & Alumni Relations. She’s written for Tennis Magazine, Human Resource Executive Magazine, the New York Times Magazine, the Norwalk Hour, Fairfield Citizen-News, the Knox Alumnus and Bucknell Magazine, among others.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Sue Ellen Henry: “I need to believe that my reader wants me to succeed.”

Sue Ellen Henry, Associate Professor of Education and Director of Bucknell's Teaching and Learning Center

What writing project(s) are you working on right now?
I finished a book manuscript over the summer, and now I’m analyzing some data and writing a journal article based upon this data. I’ve also spent a good bit of time re-writing my syllabus for a course I’ve taught for the past decade, which is a very different sort of project.

What do you love about it?
All three of these projects have an openness to them. While writing them, I didn’t actually know how they would turn out until I had a draft. Then, I reflected on the draft and asked myself some questions: what am I pleased with in this draft? What does this draft not quite do yet for my anticipated audience? What haven’t I discussed that my audience will need to know? In the writing process, until send it to the editor, put it on the photocopier, or post it to Moodle, it’s still a work in progress. The promise that revision can make a piece of writing more clear, more eloquent, more efficient – more beautiful – is there until you submit it as your “final” version.

What about it (if anything) is driving you nuts?
Well, of course all this openness means that you can tear yourself up inside revising. I learned this idea that writing was revising very late in life as a graduate student in my masters program. I was failing at writing. I’m not exaggerating here. Everything I turned in came back with my favorite professor’s characteristic “Ugh!” in the margins. I was struggling and couldn’t figure it out. Then I enrolled in a writing workshop, which altered my thinking about what writing was. Prior to this workshop I thought that a paper for a class was a document that I produced after I had read and thought about the topic in absence of writing. Instead, the workshop advanced the idea that rather than something one did at the end of some other thought process, writing itself was the (thought) process—and the means of this process was called rewriting. Our instructor, in an introductory set of remarks, held up Moby Dick in front of him and said, “One thing all of you should recognize is that this book, as famous as it is, could be rewritten today and it could be better than it is right now. This does not mean that it shouldn’t be a classic in its current form, only that a commitment to rewriting is essential to the creation of any classic, to anyone’s best writing.” The thought that Moby Dick could be rewritten was astounding to me. Now I understand that at any particular moment when I seek to do my best writing, sometime later I will be able to improve on the previous session’s writing. This improvement comes about because by writing the first draft, I discover more about what I know (and what I don’t yet understand) and can then attempt to communicate it more clearly in subsequent drafts.  As E.M. Forster is credited with saying: “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?”

Does this drive me nuts? Sure. Does it make me feel more in control of the process? Absolutely.

How would you describe your writing process?
I tend to think first about the big sections and the organization of these sections, relative to the audience I’ve imagined for the writing piece. I often make a diagram or outline the major chunks, trying to get a sense for the arc or arrangement of the argument. I then think about what kinds of evidence I’ll need to reach my audience and support this organizational structure. In general, I start writing by thinking through and making notes about the expository elements of writing: audience, purpose, organization and evidence.

It’s also probably obvious that I start early with diagraming and note-taking, giving myself substantial time for revision. Rushed work = crumby work, in my experience. I almost always re-read rushed work and see organizational or sentence-level problems that would be easy to fix.

What kind of feedback on your writing do you find most helpful?
I need to believe that my reader wants me to succeed.

I can take nearly any sort of negative feedback on my writing if it is framed in a constructive manner. In graduate school, I once had a reviewer say to me, “I am intrigued by your argument, but I just can’t do anything with your writing.” This feedback paralyzed me. Also in graduate school, my academic adviser would often rewrite in his own words the first 4-5 pages of a draft of mine followed by an ellipse with the marginal comment, “more like this.” This was also not helpful. Helpful feedback frames the critical comments from the reader’s point of view. For example, noting something like, “I was confused at paragraph 5 because in paragraphs 1-4 I thought you were advancing argument X, but in paragraph 5 you seem to use evidence that would support argument Y.” In essence, I need feedback to be framed as a conversation with my document, so that I see the reader’s perspective, which by definition directs my future work as the author to reach that reader with my words.

What would you like students to know about you as a writer?

I continue to struggle with writing, but with practice I am becoming better able to imagine what my audience will need to understand my arguments clearly. Three central questions: 1) Who is my reader? 2) What is the purpose of this piece? and, 3) What does the reader need to achieve this purpose? are useful for any piece of writing, be it a short email or a book-length manuscript. I use these questions as a check on all my official writing. Asking these questions tells me I am a writer.


Find out more about Sue Ellen's work as a writer and as a teacher.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Xiaoying Pu '17 writes about the possibility of using freshwater mussels to monitor water contamination related to gas shale


Xiaoying Pu ’17 (right) and Sean Reese, Aquatic Biologist with Bucknell’s Environmental Center, collecting freshwater mussels.  Advised by Prof. Carl Kirby, Xiaoying examined freshwater mussels as possible biomonitors for barium and strontium associated with flowback water from hydraulic fracturing.  

What writing project are you working on right now?

This summer I have been doing research in the Geology Department with Professor Carl Kirby. It is a feasibility study on using freshwater mussels to monitor possible contamination by barium and strontium. These elements have very high concentrations in flowback water, one of the many environmental concerns from Marcellus Shale gas development in the area. I analyzed for barium and strontium concentrations in mussels’ annual shell layers. The report that I am working on is a summary of the field and lab work; I am also trying to discuss whether the chemistry in mussel shells could be interpreted as a temporal record of water chemistry, thus the bio-monitoring aspect.

What do you love about it?

I was very excited to be part of this project right after my freshman year, and learned everything about mussels and much more from scratch. Using freshwater mussels for flowback monitoring would be a novel approach, and I have been curious to see how it would work out. Only after I looked into the records did I realize how little we actually know about river water quality and these benthic animals. Also, this report has been something very different for me, because part of the materials includes my own observations and data.

What about it (if anything) is driving you nuts?

Since I was trying to correlate elemental concentrations in mussel shells to water chemistry records through time, I hoped to be able to determine which growth ring in the shell layers corresponds to which year. After digging around in the literature, it occurred to me that it is not conflicting opinions that were frustrating, but  confident claims that a certain method would work, while the specimens that I had suggested otherwise. Ultimately I decided that the best thing to do was to simply write down my observations and avoid over-interpretation.

How would you describe your writing process?

Though a ten-week research project seemed to be long, I was advised to begin writing from day one. I had an outline at an early stage, and then I made the figures and tables as I gathered data. These preparations were very functional in planning to write and in the actual writing. When I was not dissecting mussels or doing something else, I wrote the body of the report section by section.

What kind of feedback on your writing do you find most helpful?
Besides the report I also did a poster presentation. When talking to people outside the project, I was constantly surprised at how to-the-point some of their questions were. The interest in shale gas and mussels also confirmed the significance and promise of my project.

What would you like students to know about you as a writer?

As a true novice in scientific writing, I feel so lucky to find it rewarding and meaningful, and I look forward to future challenges.


Bio: Xiaoying Pu '17 majors in Computer Science and Engineering. Her hometown is Shanghai, China.