All posts by Caitlin Larracey

Now I See It: Standardized Testing vs Experimental Learning

Entering high school, I had a choice between two tracks in the Math department: the traditional path (Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, and Advanced Placement Calculus) or the Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP). According to our guidance counselors, IMP encouraged group work and problem-solving that emphasized critical thinking over individual memorization of mathematical skills. You started with IMP I and then moved through the following three levels, each of which integrated mathematical concepts into “real-world” and technical applications.

I chose Geometry.

What would, to Cathy Davidson (and to me, today) seem like the much more exciting option was by far the more worrying. I was more comfortable with the traditional classroom where you were evaluated on your own individual work through homework and on exams. I wasn’t alone either. IMP was widely considered by my peers as the program for those students who weren’t “smart enough” to succeed in the traditional path.

I can’t say, however, that I regret the decision I made, even if I recognize the problems with my (my peers’, my schools’, etc.) previous thinking. It wasn’t only that I was scared to break out of the traditional mode. It was more that it seemed like that class would work against me. Because Math was not the most interesting subject for me, I wanted the skills for one primary reason: testing. Not only for the more familiar testing that came with the average math classroom, but also for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). And not just MCAS, but the SAT’s. And, finally, the AP exam and college placement tests. Passing the MCAS was a graduation requirement, and scoring within the top 25% of your high school class led to free in-state tuition at state universities. Passing a certain threshold for the SATs was necessary for many universities, and the AP was crucial for the more prestigious colleges. Doing well on placement exams (along with AP credit) meant I wouldn’t have to take as many math courses at the college level.

All of these tests were built around a traditional understanding of mathematics. So, what would be the point of IMP? I didn’t see one at fourteen, and the tests certainly did not (do not) support the type of interactive, immersive learning IMP promised. As Davidson argues in Now You See It, although the job market today requires “attention to surprise, anomaly, difference, and disruption” (77), the educational system relies on standardized testing geared toward college preparation (75).

What I want to draw attention to in addition to this, however, is something beyond Davidson’s point about tests failing to consider new ways of learning among children, but how students are blamed for perceived failure. I’d like to take a look at this clip from Boy Meets World

Boy Meets World “Quiz Show” Clip (Full clip posted by KillerRhino)

This episode of Boy Meets World, “Quiz Show,” aired in 1997, still eight years before I would begin high school  (Episode Information). In the episode, Cory, Topanga, and Shawn participate in a knowledge game show that moves from testing traditionally academic knowledge to pop culture trivia.  On the one hand, I can understand Mr. Feeny’s frustration as the quiz show begins as this:

Quiz Show 1

And becomes this:

Quiz Show 2


Yet, I am more interested in how the instructor blames the students for pursuing the wrong knowledge and using technology for the wrong reasons. At the same time the students are accused of wasting their time playing Mario (a game, which I’m sure Davidson would point out, encourages collaboration in many versions), the classroom is empty of any technology. The games that they play would lead to Davidson’s call for surprise (as did the transformed game show they participated in). Feeny’s classroom, however, doesn’t suggest any technological advancement, and as far as I can recall, computers weren’t featured on the show until the characters are in college. There may have been a website published every six seconds, but at no point is there a class project encouraging students to use those resources.

Mr. Feeny goes on to say to the class, “Shame on you. You deserve what you get.” I remember seeing a rerun of this episode a few months ago, prior to reading Davidson’s work, and my initial feeling was one of guilt, being a part of the generation fairly ruthlessly criticized.

The educational system blames students for its own failings – just as the standardized tests poorly designed to evaluate student learning point blame toward students instead of reflecting their own inadequacies. It’s not surprising that Feeny’s lecture opens by lamenting students’ supposedly declining verbal and mathematical skills. More than 15 years later, the situation is remarkably similar. My sister (who is 10) has to take many more standardized tests than I did. And IMP has been discontinued at my high school.

The Many Sides of Tumblr: An Internet Coffee House

Resident Tumblr ambassador here, this time drawing a connection between Tom Standage’s discussion of coffee houses as centers of social media and Tumblr.

At first, I thought that Tumblr is more akin to the Devonshire manuscript (Standage 65). A post is “reblogged” across the site among users with varying degrees of anonymity that can add to it however they want (with images, audio, video, capitalizing, quoting and italicizing, quoting and bolding, quoting and italicizing and bolding…and capitalizing…). What intrigues me about Standage’s description of the coffee houses, however, is his observation that different coffee houses were the home of different subject areas: science, literature, law, sailing, and so on. It is this description that brought Tumblr to my brain as site users have “divided” the community similarly.

Tumblr science side(Source on Tumblr)

I see the “science side of tumblr” most frequently. (For a more scientific science side post, see: Shape Memory Alloy). Not being all that well-versed in science, I never know immediately whether the information is accurate (but there’s Wikipedia for that). All the same, users who want to find a funny, often irreverent, and generally speaking fairly accurate update on something to do with science can explore the science side tag or follow the ever-increasing number of blogs devoted to the science side. There is also always the fact-checker side of Tumblr. They arrive on a post about science, history, politics, you name it, and are often accompanied by a .gif from Mythbusters.

Users expand and transform these informational posts through creative use of images, audio files, and video. One post always comes to mind when I think of digital writing and audio:

Origin of the American Southern Accent

A disclaimer here: I have no idea how right or wrong this post is, especially since the original poster’s blog has been deleted at some point over the past few years. What interests me about is that it does something that the written word simply cannot do and is highly persuasive – at least, to someone that is not a linguist and knows nothing about the origin of the Southern accent. I imagine that a written essay to describe the same point would either be overly simplistic (the LA accent is a French accent slowed down) or incredibly complicated (with a lot of linguistic jargon and symbols or accent marks of some sort). Less than two minutes of audio convincingly accomplishes what would take paragraphs of text to do to a lesser degree of success. Tumblr as a collection of coffee houses intrigues me because users can easily speak to one another through a variety of forms on one single platform.

This is not to say that the “sides” of Tumblr, the various coffee houses, coexist peacefully. Tumblr users also divide themselves by primary interest – the main division being the “hipster” side and the “fandom” side. Every few months I will see a post by fandom blogs for fandom blogs that remind users not to criticize the hipster side, but to let them reblog pictures of rainbow hair colors and leggings with galaxy patterns in peace.

Related to my post last week about marginalized voices and social justice on Tumblr, there is also a tension between the “social justice” side and the broader site.  Gavia Baker-Whitelaw writes about the friction on the site: “While Tumblr’s userbase tends to skew younger and more politically liberal than, say, Facebook, SJ Tumblr has gotten a bad rep for being reactive and obnoxious. Accusing someone of being an SJ blogger is the Tumblr equivalent of calling someone a hipster: You may fulfill all the necessary criteria to be one, but nobody wants to own the title.” (“Meet the Trolls and Hoaxers of Social Justice Tumblr“).  Her larger piece discusses one Tumblr user, forfuturereferenceonly, that ran a blog for about a year that mocked SJ Tumblr. I followed the blog during its run (it has been deleted) and never could call if it was an overblown social justice user or if it was a troll.

Being on the internet, and being difficult to search through efficiently, Tumblr is difficult to divide into neat sectors, and I don’t think it should be. I do think, however, that the ways in which users discuss the divisions have led to an interesting parallel between the site and Standage’s coffee houses.

(As an aside – I’ve been collecting a bunch of posts that pop up on my personal blog in a separate tumblr dedicated to this class for convenient perusal:

An Infinite Frontier

How we write on the Internet is different from how we write in print. But who is writing (and what they can write about) has also changed.

In A Better Pencil, Dennis Baron continuously talks about the “frontier spirit” associated with Internet interactions (2). He argues, “The internet is a true electronic frontier where everyone is on his or her own; all manuscripts are accepted for publication, they remain in virtual print forever, and no one can tell writers what to do” (25). This frontier is “rough and uncivilized” (139), or at least seemed to be, in terms of both online authors and their unique style of writing.

What interests me about the frontier, however, is the historical significance that immediately comes to mind –the frontier as something to be conquered and standardized after a period of lawlessness. It was a place, at least in the US, where difference was ruthlessly eradicated and a standard culture implemented. I think, in a sense, Baron is correct in associating the Internet with the American frontier.

(Manifest Destiny)


(M4nif357 D357INY) 

To a large extent, we have adapted to online writing; we’ve moved past l33t, at least. My iPhone autocorrects “ttyl” to “Talk to you later” (and I use “autocorrect” as a verb without a redline appearing in my Word document – though WordPress is not convinced). Most everyone with access to technology uses that technology as a digital author, whether they compose e-mails, post on Facebook, or run a blog.

Yet, I think we can adjust our understanding of the Internet as a frontier if we look at who is writing, not just how they write. As you will very likely hear from me several times over the course of the semester, I use Tumblr. I recently saw this written in a post on my dash:

 Once upon a time there was no internet. You kids know about this, sure. But you don’t really know. There was no way to learn all the things you should have learned. And when you were alone, you were really really alone. (Rubyvroom)

Anonymity and identity are tied up with authorship in the digital age. Oftentimes, this is worrying. More often, as Standage will point out in Writing on the Wall, it leads to the new type of internet troll that tirelessly posts comments playing up all types of prejudices. Despite that, because “no one can tell writers what to do,” marginalized voices (and cultures) have reemerged onto the electronic frontier. I talk about Tumblr specifically because there are more teenagers, people of color, women, and LGBT-identified individuals than other platforms, leading observers, like Tom Ewing of Freaky Trigger,  to say of the website,

What looks to dim outsiders as some kind of obsession with ‘social justice’ often just springs from people talking about themselves, their lives and the shit that happens to them. (All Our Friends)

Tumblr user Me-ya-ri remarks of this changed landscape, “I remember all to [sic] well what it was like to not have any words” (Me-ya-ri). When we think about the words we use online, how we manipulate them with fonts or colors or how we replace (or augment) them with images or videos, we should also consider the access to them that the Internet grants us.  It is, I think, a truly untameable frontier.




tumblr rhetoric – all about BREAKING the rules

As I’m interested in how things are rewritten, I am naturally interested in how rhetoric has changed in a digital format. What immediately comes to my mind is Tumblr. On Tumblr, people (of nearly any background you can think of) will often post a mix of written thoughts. They are often personal, but they are also often academic, political (based on reactions to legal changes, scientific discoveries, any and all pursuits). While some of these posts put forth the academic style I am most familiar with when I read about, say, a recent Shakespeare adaptation, more posts employ vastly different rhetorical strategies, born from the web and raised on tumblr. A piece in Shakespeare Quarterly will likely employ a highly formal, academic tone. It will generally be free of charged emotions. You know the deal.

A Tumblr post is different. On Tumblr, you might get the same or nearly equivalent message (thesis – argument – project). What you will also get, however, is maybe an embedded video clip, more often a gifset, or a captioned photoset. Spelling is unimportant. Capitalization is even less important. In fact, a post with proper spelling, grammar, and capitalization looks suspicious on the site. It’s much more common to see (in all caps) “OMFG LET ME TELL U ABOUT THIS FILM. so it starts off….” The tags will take the emotions to the next level. The nuanced analysis stays the same. There is the same focused attention to detail based on argument, but these are personal blogs. And the personal elements remain.