The OC (Week 8)

This post is part of an ongoing series.

The Anxiety Persists
So, I’ve been through this often enough now that I can make a pretty good analysis of the situation. Early on it seemed like my pre-class anxiety was getting less and less as it moved from a weeklong problem to one that only took up a couple hours.

With only really one exception, though, I’ve realized that the total severity of the anxiety remains constant, regardless of the duration. That is to say, as my downtime has decreased, it has gotten worse and worse. I spent two hours before class today confident that I was about to die.

Then one o’clock rolled around, I cut off their chatter with a relatively quiet, “Okay,” and I felt fine. Really every week since the first has gone like that. I don’t have any trouble talking to them anymore, it’s just waiting for class to start that gets to me.

National Novel Writing Month
Of course you knew I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to promote NaNoWriMo while teaching a writing class, but I refrained from offering extra credit. Enough of my students have expressed an interest in writing novels, though, that I felt pretty confident making the plug. I started the class out with that, and mentioned that it had “about as much to do with Tech Writing as that conversation about DeBord’s grading practices.”

Still, I recommended it and wrote the URL on the marker board. Incidentally, that’s the first time I’ve used the marker board.

From there I went to the lecture, and my big point for the day was that Tech Writing is about more than just writing down information. Information is more available than ever, but most people have trouble using information. The role of the Tech Writer is to convert existing information into a usable form — and often to convert the same information into multiple forms.

On that last point, I titled the lecture “Repurposing Documentation,” and I described my work environment to them, where every little change to the system requires us to document the status quo, the proposed change, and the predicted effect of the change according to a very specific standard. Well, no, seven very specific (and very different) standards. An Engineering Study requires all of that information in five to ten pages, whereas a Safety Risk Management memo requires it in one short paragraph.

And, I pointed out, until they hired me five years ago, it was the engineers and programmers on my team who were writing those seven different documents for every single project. That point probably hit home. My major focus for the last several assignments has been on finding best practices to minimize the effort of properly formatting documents, which really comes in helpful when trying to repurpose information from one project to the next.

Doing It with Style
I followed that up with a brief demonstration. I pulled up my tutorial for Thursday (“How to Write a Resume”) with no real formatting to it. Everything was reduced to Word’s Normal style. I asked them to identify it, and they said, “It’s instructions on how to write a resume.” I waited for a more specific answer, and someone said, “It’s poorly-formatted instructions on how to write a resume.” I didn’t really get a better answer than that.

So after a moment I said, “This is actually your tutorial for Thursday–” and I got a wave of surprised realization from them. That…wasn’t really how I expected that to go. I use exactly the same wording in the introductory paragraph of every tutorial, so even without the formatting it should have been pretty clear. I guess it made the point better that way (how much of an impact formatting has), but it wasn’t what I expected.

I went ahead, though, and asked them to help me format it. They’ve seen five tutorials now, all with consistent styling, so they were able to tell me where I needed to add spaces between paragraphs, where I needed to bold or change font sizes or change font styles…and after a little while I revealed to them that the document already had custom styles in it, so I could show how easy it was to go through the document and apply those styles.

Then, in the end, I brought up the original, unformatted document and showed it side-by-side with the one we’d just styled for comparison. It was a pretty stark difference, and that worked well.

The whole demonstration didn’t, though. I’m not sure if I failed to set it up properly, or if I misjudged how familiar they would be with my tutorials, or what. I didn’t feel like they engaged with it, though. Something to remember for next time, if there’s a next time.

Playing Games
It didn’t take terribly long, though, which was entirely my intention. As I was pointing out the differences between the two documents, I mentioned that once I had the custom styles designed and once I knew my basic template, it became just as easy to make the good tutorial as it would have been to make a crappy, unstyled one — and look how much better the results were!

And they all agreed. So I looked around the room, and said, “Hey, remember back in week two when you guys made tutorials?” Immediately I got good-natured groans.

That was the time I divided them kindergarten-style into three groups, so today I made them return to those groups. Then I showed them where to find my Tutorial template (with embedded styles), and where to find their week two tutorials on the class’s BlackBoard page. Just as they were about to get started, though, I said, “Now, before we start, we’re going to make a little change. This [pointing to group two] is now group one. That’s two, and that’s three.” Essentially, each table got assigned the document produced by the next table to the right.

Someone said, humorously pathetic, “I don’t like this game!” They did a fantastic job, though. It’s remarkable how much different their tutorials look now, after just a few weeks of training.

Microsoft Word 2007 for Mac OS X
Most of the time they were working on their activity, I was working one-on-one with one of my English majors who has been having a lot of trouble with the tutorials. Turns out (and I learned this about a week ago, when I got a frantic email from another student) Word 2007 on Windows doesn’t really look anything like Word 2007 on Mac.

That’s a problem I should have foreseen, but absolutely didn’t. In the last couple weeks, their tutorials have gotten increasingly involved in the nuts-and-bolts of how to make Word apply specific style formatting, and a lot of my advice was worthless to the Mac users.

Now, their laptops can all dual boot to either OS X or Windows Vista, and the girl who initially emailed me just ended up switching to Windows to do the assignments (which, she said, ended up making the projects a lot easier, so it was worth it). Still, that’s something I’m going to have to keep in mind in future tutorials, and try to find some good solution for.

We started on time, and though I released them on time, I had students in the classroom for another fifteen minutes afterward — most of them trying to finish their activity. I probably could have cut the on-screen demonstration entirely, and they would have had more time for rewriting and formatting. I’m not sure how well that would have flowed, though.

More next week.