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Positive or negative writing feedback… what’s the optimal balance?

 

Recently I asked my students what they considered to be a healthy ratio of positive-to-negative feedback on their writing. The general consensus emerged from four sections of FYC that a 1:1 ratio seemed fair and healthy, the “norm” or even ideal. Then I introduced them to the Losada ratio and research by Gottman, which suggests that a 1:1 ratio is a recipe for traumatic experience.

 

To be clear, “negative” feedback is a broad term. We often hear phrases like “constructive criticism,” “critical thinking,” “critical examination,” or suggestions that we frame critical responses as questions like: “Maybe add more description here to improve this sentence?” Those of us who have built our careers within a context of critical discourse have created a lexicon to soften the blow of criticism and what is often perceived by students summarily as “your writing needs improvement” and “this sentence needs work.” That is too often what they hear when we write in the margins or in the comments window: “Maybe reword this sentence to bring in more evidence to support your claim?”

 

When we operate from a system that prioritizes critical examination, we are starting from an assumption of “this needs improvement”  – a deficits model for viewing students – rather than “this has outstanding strengths and virtues” (i.e., a positive, strengths-based model). And it permeates so much of what we do in K-12 and postsecondary education.

 

No wonder so many students find schoolwork drudgery (or worse). We have inherited a model that emphasizes – hell, it assumes as common sense (the most oppressive of forces) – a need for improvement disproportionate to that of highlighting students’ strengths and virtues.

 

Gottman’s research was centered on marital stability, and he discovered through a career of data collection that a ratio of 5:1 (positive-to-negative comments) was optimal for a healthy, strong, and loving relationship. Barbara Frederickson at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has spent more than a decade furthering research centered on the Losada ratio in many contexts, including education.

 

What her data suggests is that those of us who adopt a positive-to-negative range in our daily lives between 3:1 and 7:1 tend to flourish. If we fall below that, we tend to suffer and fall into toxic patterns. Interestingly, if we are too positive, the benefits begin to fall off as well. There is an optimal window within which humans tend to flourish.

 

So how does this apply to the writing classroom?

 

I am moving toward a positive, strengths-based model for FYC, a model of teaching writing that improves student well-being (and my own quite frankly), and I’m beginning to consider if this is a direction the field of writing studies itself might explore through practice, discourse, and research.

 

How to Emphasize Positive Emotions and Well-Being in a Writing Class

This semester I asked students to write a gratitude letter, and then to plan a surprise visit to read their gratitude letter aloud to its recipient. The level of heartfelt, authentic, and mature positive emotions I’ve seen is profound. Tears have been shed. Good tears.

 

One student read his letter to his grandmother who parented him the last seven years after his mother died, and he asked his grandmother to be at his mom’s gravesite as he read his letter to her. Another wrote a gratitude letter to her dad who completed substance abuse treatment three years ago. One student wrote hers to her mom with never-before-expressed gratitude about the experience of riding along with her mom while she went from one business to the next trying to find work, persisting and loving her and her sisters while on the verge of homelessness.

 

Students are saying this is the most meaningful writing project they’ve ever completed. They’re saying things like, “You can’t B.S. a letter expressing gratitude to the one person who knows and loves you better than anyone else.” Some have even suggested they are finding meaning in life by writing and reading these letters.

 

Throughout this unit, we completed reflective writing activities that asked students to consider their strengths and virtues and the strengths and virtues of the people around them, to practice using those strengths and virtues in new and different ways. I’ve asked students once per week to complete an activity called “Three Good Things,” wherein they are to write down three good things that have happened to them in the past day or two, to consider the causal explanations of the good things, and then to share those with the class as a whole.

 

As letter writing practice, one day in class I asked students to write a letter to themselves four months from now with self-compassion, complimenting the achievements they will have made by succeeding this semester. They then read their letters aloud in class filled with hope, compassion, and kindness. One students’ letter to herself read: “By the time you read this letter, you will have weathered your parents’ divorce which, as I’m writing this, I just learned about a week ago, and you will be stronger and happier and enjoying summer camp.”

 

The response has been like nothing I’ve ever seen in twenty years of teaching writing. Students who truly believe they’re not good writers are talking about their strengths and about the people in their lives to whom they would like to express gratitude. They’re finding meaning and purpose in life, and they are authentically questioning what happiness is and how to achieve it through writing, positive emotions, engagement, and building positive relationships with others.

 

_____

 

In closing, think about three good things that have happened to you in the past day or so. Maybe even write them down. Then ask yourself, how does it feel to think about those three things? How does it feel to think about what went well?

 

Economics has risen above its reputation as the "dismal science,” but it still may not seem like a lively topic for a composition classroom. However, in the spirit of inviting our students to grapple with meaningful material, let’s remember that our composition students are already thinking about economics in the form of student debt … and it feels deeply personal. While a composition class is certainly not Econ 101, a writing course devoted to understanding the ways experts make meaning is a (perfect) opportunity to empower students with tools for analyzing the financial context of U.S. education. 

 

Ask your students what they think about student debt, and they’ll have plenty to say. (I hope you will, and that you'll share their responses, below.) At my public university, where many students are first-generation, the conversation tends toward two directions: 1) Student debt terrifies them and they try not to think about it, and 2) They don’t understand why education costs so much, whether it's worth it, and how anyone could pay it all off. Why bring this negative energy and confusion into your writing classroom? Because understanding is power, and you have the tools your students need to make sense of an issue they know will affect the course of their lives.

 

I recommend assigning portions of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream (2016), by Sara Goldrick-Rab, a self-described “scholar-activist” with a backgrounding sociology and education policy. Stuart Greene and I include her engaging writing in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing, precisely because she models, with verve, the “habits of mind of academic writers” we cultivate in our classrooms. I will focus on two of those here:  

 

  1. Inquiring 
  2. Seeking and valuing complexity  

 

In our headnote and the “Reading as a Writer” topics that guide students in analyzing Goldrick-Rab’s writing, we dig into her questions about the history of student loans, shifting attitudes about the necessity of a college degree, and problem-solving examples of states investing in “first degree for free" programs in order to “reinvest” in communities (746). Goldrick-Rab invites us to explore the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, where the concepts she presents are being tested in innovative, scholarly ways. In Goldrick-Rab, students see an academic mind at work, using your course’s tools to understand a problem that matters to them. Goldrick-Rab sides with them:

 

         The first step in addressing the college affordability crisis is taking the problem seriously. Money matters. Lack of          financial resources is keeping students from succeeding. Suggesting that low-income students merely need to          learn how to live more frugally is usually a misplaced recommendation — and an offensive one, to boot. As Oscar          Wilde wrote, “To recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is          starving to eat less.” (747)

 

When even the musical our students are humming, Hamilton, suggests punching the Bursar, your composition class has the opportunity to inspire students to apply the skills you’re teaching to an issue relevant to them – to flex their academic “habits of mind,” rather than their fists. Plenty of instructors, also burdened by student loans, will find Goldrick-Rab’s insights timely, too. 

 

 

Image source: “student loan” by airpix on flickr 6/23/16 via Creative Commons 2.0 license

 

Yes, it's that time of year again: time for Super Bowl Semiotics, advertising division. And as I contemplate this year's rather uninspiring, and uninspired, lineup, I find myself realizing that the ads were more significant for what they didn't say (or do) than for what they did—like Sherlock Holmes' dog that didn't bark in the night. Here's why.

 

To start with, one dog that didn't bark this time around was a real dog: that is, after a couple of high-profile puppy-themed ads in the recent past (Budweiser's "Puppy Love" ad from Super Bowl 48 was a hit, while GoDaddy's parody the following year was a disaster—you can find complete analyses of both in the 9th edition of Signs of Life), Madison Avenue decided to let this sleeping dog lie for once, along with the ever-popular cute animal theme overall. I expect to see it come back next year (or soon thereafter) however: cute animals are good salespeople in America.

 

Of course, there was a fair share of comedy in the lineup (yuks sell stuff too), and the consensus appears to be that the comic ads from Tide took the prize for Best Ads in a Sponsoring Role. The Tide ads, of course, borrowed a page from the Energizer company, whose Energizer Bunny ads—first aired in 1989—employ a sophisticated advertising strategy that is essentially self-reflexive, parodying existing campaigns for other products, and, in so doing, appealing to an audience that has been so super saturated with advertising gimmicks that it has become skeptical of advertising in general.

 

But the big story of Super Bowl 52 was the relative lack of politically themed ads. Given the way that social politics—from #oscarssowhite to #metoo—have been playing such a prominent role in America's popular cultural main events recently, this may appear to be a surprising omission, but not when we consider how the NFL has been witness to an entire season of political protests that have tied it up in the sort of controversies it is not well equipped to handle. And given the ruckus that an immigration-themed Super Bowl ad made last year, one can see why politics was not on the agenda.

 

Not taking the hint, however, the ad folks at Dodge thought that they could enter the political fray in a way that would make everyone happy . . . and fell flat on their face with their Martin Luther King, Jr. spot. Dr. King, as at least one critic of the ad has put it, wasn't talking about trucks. In fact, as some careful readers of the actual MLK speech that Dodge appropriated have noted, King was warning his audience precisely against the power of advertising. Um, maybe a little learning is a dangerous thing.

 

In my view, the ad folks at Dodge tripped up in yet another way during the night, though I don't think that anyone else has noticed this. I refer here to the Vikings-take-Minneapolis Ram truck spot, which took a group of actual Icelanders—dressed up as medieval Viking raiders—from Iceland to Minneapolis in a thoroughly juiced-up journey, all set to Queen's "We Will Rock You." Now, some Minnesota Viking fans have taken the ad as some sort of dig at the football team, but I think the real story parallels what I've been writing here about the Thor movies. All those ferocious blondes, cruisin' for a bruisin' . . . . I don't want to press the matter, but I don't think that this is really a good time to so aggressively display what can only be called a demonstration of raw "white power."

 

Perhaps the biggest story of all, however, is that no ad really made that much of an impact. Oh, there are (as always) lists of favorites to be found all over the Net, but nothing really broke through the ad clutter in any big way. At five million dollars for thirty seconds of exposure (the cost seems to go up by a tidy million every year), that's something of an anti-climax, but perhaps that's as it should be. After all, there is still a football game somewhere behind all this, and, as games go, it was quite a good game.

 

 

Credit: “2018 Super Bowl LII Minnesota Banner – Minneapolis” by Tony Webster on Flickr 1/27/18 via Creative Commons 2.0 license.

 

In a New York Times op-ed piece, Thomas B. Edsall asks “Is President Trump a Stealth Postmodernist or Just a Liar?” Intrigued by the question, I scrolled through the article, finding that writers on both the left and the right have linked Trump to postmodernism. For the left, Jeet Heer connects Trump’s appeals to nostalgia (“Make America Great Again”), his fragmented and fragmentary tweets, and his conflation of make believe and reality as “the perfect manifestation of postmodernism.” And on the right, David Ernst sees the rejection of truth and embrace of relativism as clear signs of postmodernism at work.  

 

While it’s impossible to imagine Trump reading about—or knowing anything about—postmodernist thought (impossible!!), the popular understanding of postmodernism as positing a rejection of objective truth and as agreeing that “anything goes” or “everything is relative” is widespread and featured in various bouts of culture wars in the last couple of decades.

 

Edsall notes that “scholars of contemporary philosophy argue that postmodernism does not dispute the existence of truth per se, but rather seeks to interrogate the sources and interests of those making assertions of truth.” Had Edsall consulted scholars of contemporary rhetoric and writing studies, he might have learned much the same. Kenneth Burke spoke (and wrote) out repeatedly against what he called “vulgar relativism,” all the while showing how humans together make or construct or build truths that can be accepted as “true,” but “true” without a capital T. Rhetorical theory offers doxa as a useful way to think about knowledge and opinion, presenting doxa as that knowledge that can be taken for granted, or that is widely agreed upon. For Aristotle, doxa was a useful early step in the path to knowledge, a place to begin constructing what can be assumed true through the process of argument and counterargument. As such, doxa is important to the working of a democratic society.

 

Later in his article, Edsall notes the work of Lyotard, who defines postmodern as “incredulity toward metanarratives’” rather than as an abandonment of any semblance of objectivity or truthfulness. He also refers to Andrew Cutrofello, a professor at Loyola University Chicago, who says that “In the present political climate truth and power have become uncoupled to a certain extent” so that it’s natural to wonder whether the notion of truth has been undermined. But Cutrofello suggests instead that rather than losing the category of objective truth, we are mired in “a battle over who has objective truth on their side.”

 

Which brings me back to the President and his seeming indifference to truth and to the norms that have guided writers and speakers for generations. As E. J. Dionne, Norman Ornstein, and Thomas Mann put it in One Nation after Trump, we’ve never had a president

who aroused such grave and widespread doubts about his commitment to the institutions of self-government, to the norms democracy requires to the legitimacy of opposition in a free republic, and to the need for basic knowledge about major policy questions and about how government works. 

 

Rhetoric, so often maligned as “just hot air,” is the discipline and art that helps us to understand how norms develop, whose ends they serve, and how they can be used in the pursuit of knowledge and action that come as close to truth as it’s possible to get. As a rhetorician, I took the lessons of postmodernism that made sense from a rhetorical perspective (that truths are constructed, that our understanding is often flawed and fragmentary, and that grand narratives and essentialism are dangerous roads to travel). But I did not give up attempts to build knowledge that aims at truthfulness, that tries to establish common ground on which people with opposing views can stand, and argue, and counterargue. 

 

While President Trump seems to understand, viscerally, how to say what he believes people want to hear, and while he employs some rhetorical techniques effectively, he does not do so in the pursuit of truthfulness. He does not use doxa to build toward such informed and agreed-upon knowledge. So perhaps rhetoricians would agree with Johanna Oksala, professor of social science and cultural studies at the Pratt Institute, who wrote in response to Edsall’s question, “I don’t think Trump should be called a postmodern president, but simply a liar.” For all his power, neither should he be called a rhetor or a rhetorician.

 

Credit: Pixabay Image 166853 by PDPics, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Reichsstraße 135 number.svg by 3247's Image Wizard, on Wikimedia CommonsLast week, I wrote about Online Identity Revision Plans [link needed]. Today, I want to share a focused activity that fits online identity revision as well as revision in any writing classroom. This activity is modeled on the 1–3–5 rule used in planning and to-do lists. The goal is to change revision from an overwhelming challenge to fix everything into a targeted plan to improve the document.

The 1–3–5 Rule for To-Do Lists

Using the system, you divide your to-do’s into three categories:

  1. Simple tasks that are easy to complete.
  2. Medium tasks that take a little more work.
  3. Large tasks that take more time and require more effort.

As this Post-It Note article explains, “A small task might be washing dishes after dinner, while a large task might be preparing your garden for spring.” After you prioritize your tasks, you create a to-do list for the day that includes one large task, three medium tasks, and five simple tasks. The Muse shares a simple template to structure the to-do’s in their article “A Better To-Do List: The 1-3-5 Rule.”

Applying the 1–3–5 Rule to Revision

It’s fairly straightforward to adopt the 1–3–5 rule as part of a revision activity:

  1. Ask students to prioritize their revision tasks into the three categories:
    1. Simple tasks
    2. Medium tasks
    3. Large tasks
  2. Choose tasks to complete: one large task, three medium tasks, and five simple tasks.
  3. Focus on those nine tasks in your revision.

Easy-peasy, right? Students determine what counts as simple, medium, and large, and then they follow their plans to revise their drafts or online identity. As teachers, we know that what is simple for one writer may be quite large for another, so this system works well for differentiated instruction. Students are in control, choosing what fits their needs. With the same structure as the to-do list version of the rule, students can even use The Muse template (above) as a handout.

Customizing 1–3–5 Revision

If students in the writing classroom need more structure than the open version of 1–3–5 Revision provides, you can easily customize the activity to fit your course. Rather than simple, medium, and large tasks, describe kinds of revision. For instance, focus on the difference between surface-level changes and deep revision with this 1–3–5 Revision schema:

  1. Conceptual Change: Think about changes to your overall idea and development. You might change your thesis or supporting paragraphs. This change will require working throughout the draft to change the way the ideas are conceived.
  2.  
  3. Structural Changes: Consider how the document is put together. You might rearrange ideas or work on how sentences work together. For instance, you might set a goal to work on sentence variety in your introduction.
  4.  
  5. Surface Changes: Focus on style and mechanics. You might look at word choice or a particular comma rule.

Another option for 1–3–5 Revision activity focuses on where the revision effort is centered, like this example:

  1. Paragraph Level: Think about changes you can make to your paragraphing that will strengthen your draft. For instance, you could think about a way to unify your paragraphs or about a strategy that improves paragraph openings.
  2.  
  3. Sentence Level: Look at how sentences work together to improve the draft. For instance, you might set a goal to work on sentence length by combining sentences, or a goal to make the phrasing concise and direct.
  4.  
  5. Word Level: Examine the individual words in your draft with a goal to increase their effectiveness. You might consider whether the words in your draft are concrete and specific, and make changes to improve the phrasing, such as deleting filler words.

These custom versions simply help students with the process of prioritizing their revision plans by showing them which kinds of revision are valued and the amount of effort that they should apply. Surface changes should be simple tasks while conceptual change should be a large task. Like the 1–3–5 Rule for To-Do Lists, the specific attention to prioritizing according to guiding categories should increase the effectiveness of students’ revision plans.

Keep Revision Active and Specific

No matter what kind of 1–3–5 Revision strategy you try, encourage students to keep their 1–3–5 plan active. ProfHacker’s “3 Ways to Makeover Your To-Do List” begins with the suggestion to “Start Each Task With a Verb.” This strategy stresses the action involved in the revision task rather than the end result or a need that should be met. Rather than adding “details” as the one large revision task, for instance, begin with a verb that says what to do about or with details. The actively-phrased task on the 1–3–5 plan might be “develop concrete details in the body paragraphs.”

Active phrasing has to be paired with specific and well-focused ideas. A writer might list “work on concise phrasing.” While that idea begins with a verb, the writer still has to figure out how to “work” on that phrasing. What exactly is she going to do? She could strengthen her revision plan by specifying exact strategies to apply to the draft, such as “delete unnecessary filler words, such as really and very.”

Final Thoughts

The 1–3–5 rule structures revision in a way that asks students to think more deeply about the work they need to do on their drafts. The strategy requires that students move beyond the idea of making corrections. It requires them to choose tasks that are more than simple editing and proofreading. While making the revision process move beyond surface errors in concrete ways, this 1–3–5 activity also makes the revision process specific and manageable. There are just nine tasks to complete, and at the end of the activity, the student should have the satisfaction of a checked-off list of to-do’s.

What do you think of this revision activity? Are you willing to give the 1–3–5 Revision strategy a try? Do you have revision activities that work well with students? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

 

 

Photo credit: Reichsstraße 135 number.svg by 3247's Image Wizard, on Wikimedia Commons, used under public domain.

 

President Trump’s recent State of the Union Address was the 95th annual state of the union message delivered in person by a President to the American people. (In the past, some were written messages.) The State of the Union Address is an event shaped by rigid protocol. It is also an event colored by symbolism, especially this year, when members of Congress used their attire to make silent statements about the state of our nation.

 

Anyone who had watched recent awards shows already knew that this is the year of wearing black as a statement against women’s abuse by men, particularly in the entertainment industry. The #MeToo Movement gave a solemn tone to events like the Academy Awards red carpet, where both men and women wore black clothing and pins declaring “Time’s Up” for the abusers. The members of the Democratic Working Women’s Caucus decided to wear black to the address, according to Representative Lois Frankel, one of the group’s chairs, in solidarity:  “We want to show solidarity with the #MeToo movement, really to first basically thank the victims of sexual harassment who have had the courage to come forward. To have solidarity with…folks who are fighting for a cultural shift that enables men and women to work side by side in safety and dignity free of sexual harassment.” All members of Congress were invited to wear black.  “We’re not trying to make this partisan,” Frankel said. “Sexual harassment knows no party.”

 

When President Trump addressed Congress last year, the Democratic Working Women’s Caucus wore white, a visual link to the women’s suffrage movement.

 

This year, a number of members of Congress, most of them members of the Congressional Black Caucus, used a different look to make their symbolic statement. They chose to enhance their formal wear with items made of kente cloth, a colorful type of silk and cotton fabric native to South Ghana.  They were protesting President Trump’s recent offensive remark about underrepresented countries in Africa and Temporary Protective Status nations, including Haiti, whose people he condemned as the type of immigrants not wanted in this country.

 

Republicans were encouraged to wear red, white, and blue as a symbol of patriotism. According to USA Today, “A female member emailed her colleagues saying it was an idea from a constituent ‘to show our support for the flag, and the country and the troops and to be a contrast,’ Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., told USA TODAY . . . . McSally was the first female fighter pilot to fight in combat and said that the State of the Union should be a celebration of ‘the accomplishments of the past and a vision for the future and I think it’s something we should all be honoring and participating and be positive about as opposed to turning it into some sort of partisan spectacle.’”

 

The one outfit that has drawn the most attention and the most speculation as to symbolic meaning is the cream (not white—not after Labor Day) Christian Dior pantsuit worn by Melania Trump, who arrived separately from her husband. Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times termed it “the final piece of what appeared to be an unprecedentedly politicized use of dress during a State of the Union.” The contrast with what was worn by most others in attendance was noticeable, especially given the white suits worn the year before, and by Hillary Clinton. Some interpret the First Lady’s choice of outfit in light of recent stories about her husband’s infidelity with Stormy Daniels just months after the birth of the Trumps’ son. Friedman continues, “But given that clothes became a symbolic dividing line during this State of the Union like seemingly never before . . . it’s hard to believe that the potential (and, indeed, probable) interpretations of her choice escaped the first lady. And especially given the almost elated reception that greeted her decision to wear a bright pink pussy bow blouse for an appearance during the campaign after her husband’s previous public sexual shaming, the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape in which he made vulgar remarks about women. If she has paid any attention at all to public reaction (or if her team has), she cannot be ignorant of the fact that when she seems to use clothing as a subversive tool to suggest what she presumably cannot say, it provokes a groundswell of support. Though it was unclear at the time whether Mrs. Trump really understood the implications of that blouse choice, wearing a white suit to the State of the Union indicates that, indeed, she did.”

 

Though Trump delivered this year’s State of the Union, the symbolism of attendees’ attire ensured that their voices, too, were heard.

Recently, New York Times reporter Jonah Bromwich asked “Why Are All Our Words in Bubbles?” In a brief article appearing in the Technology section of the Times, Bromwich notes that Twitter and Facebook introduced “softer and rounder elements” in redesigns of their bubbles late last year because showing comment threads in bubbles seemed “a more conversational way to comment on posts.”

 

Interested in this new wrinkle in online communication, Bromwich contacted some design experts, who noted that the shape of the bubble can indicate mood or attitude: for example, a jagged bubble suggests anger or irritation. Scott McCloud weighed in, calling speech bubbles the visual equivalent of “quotation marks.” And Will Eisner referred to them as part of a comics artist’s attempt to invoke sound on a silent print page or screen.

 

The question of how to represent emotion, mood, or stance in a medium without sound is one worth talking about to students. Asking how they perceive such use of rounded or jagged or sharp-edged bubbles—and how they account for these perceptions—can lead to lively class discussion, at the very least. When body language isn’t available, as it is not in lots of social media communication as well as in traditional print texts, it’s important to ask students to think about how they create “tone” in their writing. Word choice, punctuation, even sentence structure all can help to build a certain tone in writing, as can the use of images. Do our students think that the use of speech bubbles might also be helpful, not just to signal dialogue or conversation but to suggest an attitude or emotion: Do round or rounded text bubbles make for a fuzzy, friendly feeling? Do sharp angles to bubbles suggest sharpness of tone, even anger? How might students not just answer these questions but go on to use text or speech bubbles in their own writing?

 

 

Credit: Pixabay Image 3042585 by pencilparker, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

A native of Detroit, Michigan, Dr. Karen Keaton Jackson began her academic career at Hampton University in Virginia, earning a Bachelor of Science in English Secondary Education with summa cum laude distinction. She went on to receive her Master’s and PhD in English Composition from Wayne State University in 2004. While pursuing her PhD, she was awarded a pre-doctoral fellowship at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York, where she taught undergraduate and graduate courses on multicultural literacy. Since arriving to North Carolina Central University in 2004 as an assistant professor, she has become the Director of the Writing Studio, coordinates the campus-wide Writing Intensive Program, has served on the executive boards of the International Writing Center Association and the Southeastern Writing Center Association, and currently serves on the executive board of the Council of Writing Program Administrators. In May 2015, she received a University of North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence. She maintains an active research agenda on the interrelated notions of literacy, race, and identity in the writing classroom, and more recently she has focused on composition instruction and writing centers at HBCUs and on how writing center tutorials can impact student success.

 

When I was a doctoral student, each year I would peruse my Cs convention book in advance (yes, this is when they always mailed them to your house in advance) and excitedly look through the panel options for engaging topics. Specifically, I would look for colleagues from HBCUs. As a proud graduate of an HBCU, Hampton University, I searched for faculty who could speak to the context that helped to shape me.

 

Year after year, sadly I was disappointed, for there would only be a handful of HBCU panelists, and maybe two handfuls of HBCU attendees. As a PhD student, I always wondered why. I could not comprehend why those who teach thousands of African-American students each year would not be at the forefront, or at the very least, actively engaged in this conversation, particularly when many of the sessions were focusing on issues related to race, AAVE, or multiple literacies. In various SIGs and caucuses, I would overhear some PWI colleagues making statements such as, “They’re too traditional at HBCUs,” or “They don’t know anything about new research.”  I never spoke of my concerns out loud back then, but internally I was conflicted.

 

On the one hand, I knew from my experiences at a graduate PWI that the variety of course offerings definitely were much more limited at my HBCU (as compared to offerings at the PWI). While our first-year composition courses at Hampton University (with a student population of about 6,000) did vary a bit from professor to professor, there weren’t nearly as many sections and variations as at Wayne State University (where I was a graduate teaching assistant), an institution with about 40,000 students. 

 

On the other hand, though, I did not like that my HBCU professors (not yet colleagues) were seen as less than or incapable of participating in such conversations. There are multiple reasons why, historically, HBCUs have been less visible at national conferences, including our focus on excellence in teaching over research and less available funding. 

 

In 2018, however, many things have changed. Even though many of us are at HBCUs where teaching is still privileged over research, the demand for us to complete research to obtain tenure, promotion, and post-tenure accolades is rapidly increasing.  The expectation that we present at regional and national conferences is not an option, but an obligation (despite limited travel budgets . . . but that’s another conversation for another day!)

 

What the 2014 HBCU symposium provided was a platform for us to be heard and to dialogue with those who have shared or similar experiences (see A Spark Ignited: What’s Going On with Composition and the HBCU). For me personally, it reminded me that my story was the story of many. It gave me the motivation to reinvigorate my efforts to have HBCU experiences included in more mainstream discourse. Since that time, my current HBCU (North Carolina Central University) was asked to host the 2016 North Carolina English Teachers Association conference. I was asked to be a facilitator at the 2016 IWCA (International Writing Center Association) Summer Institute; I was asked to serve on the editorial advisory board for College English; and I was elected to serve on the executive board of the Council of Writing Program Administrators.  I do not list these things as some sort of “brag list,” because that is not it, not at all. Rather, I include these accomplishments to say that I am certain my activity surged in recent years because I gained energy, strength, and perhaps a sense of authority from my colleagues at sister HBCUs. Other HBCU colleagues have felt that energy, too, for we are being seen and heard even more at mainstream professional conferences. 

 

There are many more HBCU leaders who already exist; in many cases, we just have not had the honor of hearing their voices. So, it is my hope, that at the upcoming symposium at Howard University, someone else will leave there feeling revved up, charged up, emboldened and ready to continue the conversation. (See Wading into Waters: Ruminations on Composition and Rhetoric at the Modern HBCU). There’s still lots of work to be done. Let’s get it!

How can we help students deal with challenging readings—especially scholarly readings—in our ALP and IRW classrooms? Many composition programs require students to use scholarly sources in researched essays, and far too often, the result is a quote culled from the abstract or first paragraph of a peer-reviewed paper, inserted perfunctorily into student papers without context or clear syntactic connections. Students have checked the box and “used scholarly material,” but far too often, they have not read that material. 

 

In their investigation of student use of source material, Rebecca Moore Howard, Tricia Serviss, and Tanya K. Rodrigue suggest that “students are not writing from sources; they are writing from sentences selected from sources. That leaves the reader with the unanswered question: does this writer understand what s/he has read?” With my students, the answer has often been “no.” They’ve told me so.

 

When I see students try and abandon an assigned scholarly reading, I am reminded of the frustrated questions of non-English speakers when they first enter an English-only classroom: Where do I start? What do I look for? Where is there a connection to what I already know? What’s important—and what isn’t? How can I move forward when I am completely lost?

 

One way to help students answer these questions and navigate the readings is to provide reading guides with comments, questions, and opportunities for reflection. In my classes, I assign peer-reviewed research early (as part of a writing about writing approach), and for the first part of the term, I include a reading guide with each selection. I tell students my guide is like the tour bus that will take them through a foreign city for the first time: I will tell them what to look at, give them some background information when needed, and then invite them to linger and make some memories (maybe even take a selfie or two) along the way. I recognize the reading will not be familiar, but I’m inviting them to get on the bus with me, and we will, in a sense, work through it together.

 

This semester, my students read “Texts of our Institutional Lives: Studying the ‘Reading Transition’ from High School to College: What Are Our Students Reading and Why?” by David Jolliffe and Alison Harl. My reading guide for that assignment first walked students through the sections of the article, including the introduction, the literature review, methods, results, discussions, and recommendations for future research. Then I asked them to go back and focus on specific sections. Here’s a piece of that guide:

 

 

Other parts of the guide suggest where to skim and where to read closely. 

 

Reading guides have provided a way for my students to engage in difficult readings through scaffolded support. There are two dangers in providing students with guides such as these. First, the guides may reinforce students’ belief that reading is about getting something right or saying what the teacher expects them to say (as discussed in Cheryl Hogue Smith’s “Interrogating Texts: From Deferent to Efferent and Aesthetic Reading Practices”). A second concern is that students will not transfer, internalize, or repurpose the conceptual knowledge of the guides for future reading.

 

Four classroom practices can address these concerns:

  1. Revisit readings multiple times. The guide is an introduction; students should be invited to return to readings throughout the term, and when they do, they should have the freedom to adjust the focus, ask questions, or challenge initial interpretations. Students can also create their own guides or propose revisions to what the instructor provided initially.
  2. Invite students to apply, connect to, and synthesize readings in ways that extend well beyond the instructor’s initial guide.
  3. If students are conducting their own research, have them create reading guides for scholarly texts selected for their projects. Discuss the general principles underlying the construction of a reading guide, and invite students to assume the role of “tour guide” for the articles they choose.

  4. Finally, extend the reading guides to scholarly texts students might encounter in other courses. Invite instructors from other areas to contribute to the development of a guide, or have students interview faculty and create the guides for themselves.

 

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Several years ago, I developed a revision plan assignment, based on information I first found on Kristin Arola’s website and that is also discussed in Writer/Designer, the textbook I was using for a multimodal composing course I was teaching at the time.

In my version of the activity, students wrote a revision plan for their websites instead of rewriting the sites. I certainly believe students benefit from rewriting and revising, but there are situations where it’s not practical or even possible to have students revise a project. This week, I want to discuss using this strategy to ask students to evaluate their online identity and make a plan to improve it.

Why Plan Instead of Revise?

In the case of online identities, students won’t have time to demonstrate concrete improvements to their online identity beyond simple and cursory changes. It takes a while to remove problematic photos, eliminate troublesome websites, and delete questionable social media accounts. The Internet has a long memory unfortunately.

Further, cleaning up your online identity requires an ongoing process, so students need to develop a plan to continue monitoring their online identities so that they can take action when necessary. Creating a long-term plan will be more useful than making a few short-term fixes.

Why Does Online Identity Matter?

Chances are that students already know that their online identity matters. If students completed the project to research a public figure’s online identity, they have already had a chance to think about how what they post online and what others post online about them shapes what people think about them.

You can use the infographic (full-size version) on the right, from kbsd, to review the importance of establishing a strong, positive online identity. Sections 1, 2, and 3 directly address why online identity matters and how it can affect a person’s career.

Once students understand the goal for the revision plan, they’re ready for the assignment.

The Online Identity Revision Plan Assignment

  1. Ask students to begin by assessing their online identities. If they mapped their online identities, they can return to their maps as a starting place.
  2. Have students explore their identities by using the tips in the “Stay on Top of Things” category of Section 4 of the infographic. The class can brainstorm additional online spaces to check.
  3. Encourage students to gather all evidence they find—the good, the bad, and the neutral. Everything they find will contribute to the plan they make.
  4. Provide the following brainstorming questions to help students gather ideas for their revision plans:
    • What are the strengths of your online identity that you want to be sure to keep?
    • What aspects of your online identity are problematic, and how can you change them to improve your reputation?
    • What is the balance among good, bad, and neutral information about your identity? What can you do to ensure there is always more good information than bad?
    • How secure are your accounts? Do you need to make changes?
    • What personal information is online about you that shouldn’t be?
    • What positive achievements have you made that you can add to your online identity?
    • How much is your online identity affected by family and friends? Do you need to work with others to improve your identity?
  5. Once students have assessed their online identity and worked through the questions above, ask them to write a revision plan that outlines how they will work to improve and/or maintain their online identity.
  6. Discuss possible organization structures as a class to help students get started, such as the following:
    1. Go site by site (e.g., Facebook, then Twitter, then Instagram).
    2. Arrange the plan chronologically, focusing on immediate plans, short-term plans, long-term plans, and so forth.
    3. Organize the plan by kinds of information, like factual information on profiles, images, and subjective information in blog posts and status updates.
  7. Share expectations for the project with students to ensure they understand the project. Students are probably more familiar with actually revising projects than with creating revision plans. Emphasize these ideas:
    1. Students are writing a revision plan memo. They are NOT actually revising their online identity (though obviously, you should encourage them to take that next step in their own time).
    2. The best submissions will go beyond providing a cursory answer to the brainstorming questions. They will show a concerted effort to rethink their online identities and improve them.
    3. The best responses will talk not only about what changes are needed, but specifically how to change things.
    4. Students can include whatever makes sense for their revision plans (e.g., mock-ups, a revised online profile, a chart showing a new design or structure).

Any Ideas to Add?

How do you address online identity? What concerns do students share? Do you have activities to encourage students to pay attention to how they are represented online? Please leave me a comment below with the details. I’d love to hear from you!

 

Image credit: Infographic created by kbsd on the Visually site. Embed code and larger image available on Visually.

Today's guest blogger is Kim Haimes-Korn, a Professor in the English Department at Kennesaw State University. Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning, critical digital literacies and focuses on students’ powers to create their own knowledge through language and various “acts of composition.” She likes to have fun every day, return to nature when things get too crazy and think deeply about way too many things. She loves teaching. It has helped her understand the value of amazing relationships and boundless creativity. You can reach Kim at khaimesk@kennesaw.edu or visit her website Acts of Composition.

When I ask students what they read on the internet, inevitably they say that they like, read, and share memes.  Although memes are texts with which students are very familiar, I find that they have not really studied or contemplated their significance or rhetorical form.  Memes represent cultural ideologies and operate through the rhetorical relationship between the author and the audience. They are participatory in nature and involve dialectic conversation as they move into virality. Rather than dismiss them as insignificant or taboo texts that operate outside of our classrooms, I have found ways to incorporate them through meaningful, multimodal activities.

Background Readings and Resources

What the Meme? – Assignment Steps

  1. Study the theory of memes – Memes actually have an interesting history and theorists have studied the related rhetorical concepts for ages. I introduce students to Richard Dawkins, who coined the modern term that identifies memes as cultural transmission and is “primarily associated with specific internet artifacts or viral online content.” I also work to look back and connect this definition with other theorists who reflect upon and define the meme, memetic behavior and rhetorical concepts.
  2. Understanding the enthymeme as a rhetorical form – In particular, I draw upon the idea of the enthymeme to demonstrate the relationship between form and content and the ways ideology is shaped through commonplaces that spread through culture. The concept, originally introduced by Aristotle and extended by Lloyd Bitzer (and others), defines the enthymeme as an “‘incomplete syllogism’ that is, a syllogism having one or more suppressed premises –the speaker does not lay down his premises but lets his audience supply them out of its stock or opinion and knowledge” (p. 407). The effectiveness of the enthymeme and ultimately internet memes depends on the kairos of the situation along with cultural knowledge and visual recognition.  It is getting students to understand this unstated premise and the kairos that gives them the concepts necessary to analyze and create effective memes.  I assign selected readings, and students discuss the varied ideas and definitions related to the subject.
  3. Meme Analysis – Students go online to analyze existing internet memes. They can start with image searches or can go right to some of their favorites.  I ask them to then choose a particular meme and research its history and the ways it has transformed throughout its iterations and modifications of text and image.  The site, Know Your Meme (an internet meme database) is an excellent, comprehensive resource for searching and understanding the context, history, and background of particular memes.  Students compose an interpretive analysis of their meme in which they incorporate the rhetorical concepts and the ideas from the readings. They are required to embed and source the memes as part of their writing. I have them post this analysis to their course blogs, but you can modify it for other modes.   
  4. Create an Original Meme – Next, I challenge students to create an original meme that they embed as part of the analysis along with a context statement in which they explain their rhetorical choices, ideas, context, and purposes. Students can use an existing meme and rewrite the text or image or, for an added challenge, create one completely from scratch (and strive for its own virality).  They can choose to compose their meme through open-source available software or go to a Meme Generator site that offers templates for this kind of composition. 
  5. Presentation: One Minute Memes – The last step of the assignment is to have students present “One Minute Memes.” For this activity, each student creates a Google slide as part of a collaborative presentation.  The slide should include their original meme (image) and a brief explanation of their rhetorical choices, visual analysis, its cultural context and “unstated premise.” Students get one minute to present and explain their meme to the class.

Reflection on the Activity

Students love this activity because they love memes.  They find it interesting that they are not the first generation to consider these concepts and that memes have a significant cultural impact.  The rhetorical analysis allows them to forge strong interpretations and research theory and history. The original meme gives them an opportunity to realize their ability to participate in this type of cultural conversation.  I have included a few of samples: two modify existing memes (Labor Day and Parking Kermit memes) and two newly created—original text and image—(Dog Socks and Generation Meme).

 

 

 

References

Bitzer, L.F. (1959) Aristotle’s enthymeme revisited. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 45(4), 399-408.

Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (original work published 1976 -  accessed through Chandler, 2013).

 

Students generously consented permission to include their work.

"It is idle to fault a net for having holes"I’m using Maggie Nelson’s award-winning memoir, The Argonauts, as the central text in an essay course I’m teaching this semester. We’re reading five to ten pages a week, moving slowly through Nelson’s genre-bending reflections on gender-bending relationships. The ostensible subject of the memoir is Nelson’s evolving relationship with Harry Dodge, an artist undergoing gender reassignment, but The Argonauts is actually a 140-page meditation on language and whether “words are good enough” to capture the complexities and the impermanence of human experience.

 

So far, it’s safe to say that the students are baffled by Nelson’s prose and by the practice of reading I’m asking them to try. They are used to reading assignments that are much longer; they know how to find credible online summaries; they’re good enough at the gist. But reading five pages twice? Three times? Five times? Tracking down what Nelson’s referring to when she describes her ambivalent response to Prop. 8; going from her citations back to the original sources; trying to make sense of her use of italics—which sometimes signify a direct quotation from a published work, sometimes a rough gloss of what was said, sometimes a passing remark by an artist or friend: these are not ways of reading familiar to my students. Indeed, one of them has already declared—twice!—that Nelson’s not a good writer.

 

It’s a little early to come to that decision, I say. And besides, this isn’t a course about whether or not Nelson is a good writer; this is a course in learning how to use writing to have a big thought.

 

I’m starting each class with a quiz. Right out of the gate, I made a mistake. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I made the mistake teachers are prone to make when teaching a new group of students: I made unwarranted assumptions about what the students knew how to do as readers. If I told you these were honors students, what assumptions would you make?

 

The first quiz, composed on the assumption that the students had read and re-read the first eight-page assignment with care and that they’d stopped to look up unfamiliar terms, figures, authors, and texts, was a bust. Most hadn’t paused to find out about Wittgenstein or Barthes or to track down Dodge’s film, By Hook or By Crook, or to look up Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting, or to seek out definitions of unfamiliar terms. Those who did no meaningful research had no credible way of describing what their research illuminated and so they defaulted to some variation of this empty claim: “I now understand her point better.”

 

Clearly not.

 

It is idle to fault a net for having holes, my encyclopedia notes.”

 

So says Nelson.

 

I’ve searched in vain for the source of this quote. There’s something about it that just seems, well, fishy to me. Nelson doesn’t tell her readers which encyclopedia she’s using. And it’s hard to imagine under what entry these words appear. Snappy aphorisms? Sayings found in fortune cookies?

 

This quote or “quote” appears on the first page of The Argonauts. Is Nelson telling us language is a net with holes? Is she showing us how her mind works? I’ll have to get back to you on this. For the moment, I’m stuck. I haven’t figured out the right question to ask that will take me to Nelson’s source. (I thought—The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy! But, no.)

 

Not one student had a tale of research that led to a dead end or research that confounded things, making Nelson harder to understand than before. Even though these, surely, are the experiences at the center of curiosity-driven research.

 

Because of the quiz, I’ve got a better idea, now, of what my students don’t know how to do as readers or as writers. I know because you can’t fake intellectual experiences you haven’t had. So, the quiz, though technically a failure, has helped me to see how to start over tomorrow, which is what writers do.

File:MLK mugshot birmingham.jpg

 

I often discuss with students the rhetorical power of using both images and text to help readers understand the nature and stakes of a given problem, and to move readers to action. Civil rights activists have long understood this lesson, particularly Martin Luther King, Jr., whose “Letter from Birmingham Jail” underscored the importance of challenging unjust laws. These laws were designed to disenfranchise black people in their struggle for racial justice and the full rights of citizenship. It’s hard to forget the words that rang out from his cell: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” But equally hard to forget are the images of police using fire hoses and dogs to disperse youth marching peacefully at the Children’s March in Birmingham in 1963, images which moved JFK to promise passage of a Civil Rights Act.

 

To further understand the power of words and images, I invite readers to listen to a National Public Radio interview with photojournalist Matt Black, who describes his experiences traveling across the United States. Black captures images of poverty, now included in an exhibit called “The Geography of Poverty.” It is one thing for Black to speak about the abject poverty he has witnessed at a time when, he explains, many of our nation’s leaders have expressed their confidence about economic recovery, low unemployment rates, and tax cuts. It is quite another thing to view photographs of the lived reality of the people left behind.

 

In one of Black’s photographs, a black woman peers out from her kitchen. She stands next to a battered stove in a shack in the Mississippi Delta – an area which was the site of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s aggressive efforts to register black sharecroppers to vote in 1961. Sharecroppers risked their lives in order to have the right to vote and access to all of the opportunities citizenship affords.

 

The image of a black woman living in a tiny shack among rusted paint cans offers an arresting sense that a dream has been deferred. This image underscores the level of poverty that exists, even as the nation celebrates Dr. King’s dream and our leaders tout economic achievements. Black’s words add power to the image when he observes in the interview, “Many of the benefits of that era and of that movement went elsewhere.” And the images he has captured make his words all the more powerful in an argument that economic recovery is not evenly distributed.

 

In teaching writing, I want students to consider the types and forms of argumentation that might benefit from being presented visually. The power of an image inheres in its ability to make us aware of the gravity of an issue and convey its force, strength, and urgency. But how does a visual image contribute to arousing emotions in readers and motivate them to act?

 

An image of children may very well be an effective means of conveying a sense of urgency to readers about hunger in America, while using a map communicates different information. A map tells a story of where food insecurity exists, its prevalence, and perhaps how food insecurity correlates with other problems, including lack of employment opportunities and residential segregation among different racial and ethnic groups. With numerical data in the form of tables and graphs, students can create a powerful narrative, conveying a sense of immediacy, urgency, and importance.

 

I ask students to think about the following questions in developing a visual argument.

  • What is my purpose for including an image, such as a chart, map, graph, or photograph? What trends or patterns do I want to emphasize?
  • What story does the image help me tell?
  • How does this image complement or highlight my written argument?
  • How do I want readers to respond to this image(s)? What ideas and emotions do I want to evoke?
  • What sort of caption should I include to help readers understand the context and meaning of the image?

 

These are the kinds of questions that place rhetoric at the center of the students’ decisions about the best way to present their argument – if, and how, images can help them fulfill their goals as writers.

 

In From Inquiry to Academic Writing, April Lidinsky and I provide the following practice sequence as they read and then begin to compose their own essays.

  1. As a class or in small groups, discuss the strategies authors use to integrate image and text in the readings in this section.
    • When does using a map make sense? What about a photograph?
    • Are there instances when the authors might have combined strategies to fulfill their purpose as writers?
    • Are there some best practices you can come up with for telling stories that ensure readers understand the importance, immediacy, and urgency of an argument?
  1. Given your own purpose for writing, write down how you would follow the steps for integrating visual images in a written argument.
    • Identify your purpose. What is the story you want to tell?
    • Analyze your audience’s values and knowledge base to determine how they might react to different kinds of media.
    • Evaluate which kind of images will create a sense of importance, urgency, and immediacy.
    • Question the source of the data you want to use. Does the source of data tell us anything?
    • Integrate the text you have written and the image(s) you include. What conclusions can readers make from what you might include?

 

I encourage students to use their voices to share what they know. I want them to capture the humanity of people and places that matter, much in the way of Humans of New York.

 

Given the different models of writing instruction that appear in Bedford Bits, I wonder: what strategies do others encourage students to use to challenge persistent problems; writing strategies that move others to action?

FrogIn earlier posts, I’ve mentioned an assignment I frequently use that asks students to translate, or to repurpose, an academic text (in this case, a scholarly journal article) for a public audience. One of the overarching aims of the assignment is to help students see how - even when the topic discussed and information shared are pretty much the same - a text changes according to the needs of its audience and an author’s purpose for writing it. I want students to see how rhetorical situations shape a writer’s decision-making.

In this post, I wanted to share a related lesson I use in my first-year writing class to reinforce students’ understanding of the rhetorical nature of texts. This one involves tracing the journey of an academic article as it makes its way from an “insider” audience of other academics to a wider, more popular audience. I refer to this journey as an article’s “publication trajectory.” Of course, not all academic articles will make this journey, so article selection is key to the lesson’s success. But the results of this lesson have been pretty inspiring so far. Months after the lesson, I’ve had students tell me that they continue to investigate the relationships between news articles they encounter and the academic sources on which they are sometimes based, and students have repeatedly shared their excitement with me when they’ve stumbled upon the academic source for a news article.

 

Stage 1: Academic Article

First, we explore an academic article. Depending on where we are in the semester, the article could originate from any number of fields of study. But here’s an example from natural science:

 

Frogs use a viscoelastic tongue and non-Newtonian saliva to catch prey

Alexis C. Noel, Hao-Yuan Guo, Mark Mandica, David L. Hu

Published 1 February 2017. DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2016.0764

 

No doubt, students tend to read for content, and the article has much to teach them about frog tongues. However, students’ engagement with the article at the level of content is also an opportunity to teach them something about how communication is fashioned within the community of scholars for which the article was written. As we explore the article, I try to help students identify conventional moves and other features typical of this form of communication among scholars in the sciences. We may explore the article’s organizational design, its reliance on passive voice constructions in particular sections, or the ways sources are documented, just to name a few.

 

Stage 2: Press Release

In my experience, this stage really piques students’ interests. In it, I share a press release linked to the academic study we’ve just discussed.  A press release written to accompany the publication of the study on frog tongues, for example, can be found in the News Center at Georgia Tech University’s website: 

 

Reversible Saliva Allows Frogs to Hang on to Next Meal  

 

Having read the study on which a press release is based, students are generally pretty eager to see how the writers of a press release refashion the presentation of scholarly research in light of a new audience of journalists. Very quickly, they notice the visual elements of the press release, along with the additional videos and links provided as a part of it. They also see, for example, how the structure of the content shifts to move the reporting of research conclusions to the beginning of the press release, along with how careful the authors of the press release are to define jargon for the new audience. Noticing these changes is an important step in their own developing rhetorical sensitivity, I believe.

 

Stage 3: The News Article

The research is published, and the press release is out. So what’s next? In the ideal situation, you’re able to continue to trace the publication trajectory of an academic article’s journey to show students how the press release itself is repurposed (or at least how it influences) the productions of a news article, written for an even more general readership. The research on frog tongues was translated for a number of popular audiences, for instance. News articles on the research appeared online in The Atlantic, Popular Science, NPR, and Smithsonian.com, where the headlines read as follows:

 

 

Obviously, there are many ways to go about fostering students’ growing rhetorical awareness, but I’ve never encountered students more enthusiastic about conducting research for themselves than when I have asked them trace the publication trajectory of ideas in a research article that have made their way to a news article. And I’ve never seen my students more able to analyze their rhetorical situations and craft well-conceived texts in response to them.

 

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Since the publication of the first edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A in 1994, semiotics has become a popular instrument in promoting critical thinking skills in composition classrooms. With such a broad variety of semiotic methodologies to choose from, however, I find it useful from time to time to clarify the precise semiotic approach that is presented and modeled in Signs of Life: hence, the title and topic of this blog.

 

To begin with, the methodology of Signs of Life reflects a synthesis of some of the most effective elements to be found within the broad history of semiotic theory. To describe that synthesis, I need to briefly sketch out just what history I am referring to. It begins, then, with Roman Jakobson.

 

Arguably the most commonly known approach to technical semiotics, Jakobson's ADDRESSER – MESSAGE – ADDRESSEE schema has constituted a foundation for generations of semioticians. A fundamentally formalistic approach to communications theory as a whole, Jakobson's model was modified by Stuart Hall, who introduced a political dimension into the equation with his notion of "dominant," "negotiated," and "oppositional" readings of cultural texts (like television programs)—readings that either completely accept, partially accept, or completely challenge the intended message of the addresser. In essence, both Jakobson's and Hall's views are involved in the Signs of Life synthesis.

 

Before getting to a more precise description of that synthesis, however, I need to describe the role of three other major pioneers of semiotic thinking. The first of these figures is Ferdinand de Saussure, whose description of the constitutional role of difference within semiological systems underlies the fundamental principle in Signs of Life that the "essential approach to interpreting signs of popular culture is to situate signs within systems of related semiotic phenomena with which they can be associated and differentiated" (13; n.b.: the principle of association is not explicit in Saussure, but is implicit in his notion of the conceptual "signified").

 

The second pioneer is Roland Barthes, whose notion of semiotic mythologies underpins the ideological component of cultural semiotic analysis that Signs of Life explores and teaches.

 

The third essential figure in the synthesis is C.S. Peirce, whose sense of the historicity of signs, along with his philosophical realism, has provided me with an antidote to the tendency towards ahistorical formalism that the tradition of Saussure has fostered. And it was also Peirce who introduced the principle of abduction (i.e., the search for the most likely interpretation in the course of a semiotic analysis) that is critical to the methodology that is described and modeled in Signs of Life.

 

I will now introduce into the mix two new terms which, to the best of my knowledge, are my own, and are to be found in the 9th edition of Signs of Life. These are "micro-semiotics" and "macro-semiotics." The first of these terms describes what we do when we set out to decode any given popular cultural phenomenon—like an advertisement or a television program. In this we more or less follow Jakobson, analyzing the addresser's message as it was intended to be decoded. The macro-semiotic dimension, on the other hand, builds on the micro-semiotic reading to take it into the realm of cultural semiotics, where Hall, Saussure, Barthes, and Peirce all come into play, with Hall and Barthes leading the way to oppositional (and even subversive) re-codings of cultural texts, while Saussure and Peirce give us the tools for doing so, as briefly described above in this blog.

 

Now, if you are unfamiliar with Signs of Life in the U.S.A. all this may sound rather too complicated for a first-year writing textbook, and I can attest to the fact that when its first edition was in development, the folks at what was then simply called Bedford Books were plenty nervous about the whole thing. But while there are a few technical points directly introduced in the book in the interest of clarifying as clearly as possible exactly how a semiotic interpretation is performed, the text is not inaccessible—as the existence of nine editions, to date, demonstrates. The point, for the purpose of this blog, is that the semiotic method, as synthesized in Signs of Life, has a solid and diverse pedigreewhich is something that you could always explain to any student who may wonder where all this stuff came from.