Skip navigation
All Places > The English Community > Bedford Bits > Blog > 2015 > April > 07
Steve Bernhardt

Look it up!

Posted by Steve Bernhardt Expert Apr 7, 2015


This blog was originally posted on January 27th, 2015.


Working on some medical texts last week, I was continually impressed with the ease of looking up unfamiliar words. Pretty much without fail, if I right-clicked on a medical term, Adobe Acrobat would drop a box with the last choice being Look up “xxx”:

From that choice, I could click through to a screen like this one:

Pretty handy! Two clicks from term to definition and pronunciation. The entry continues with alternate forms, etymology, a British dictionary entry (Collins), and a medical dictionary entry (American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary).

Maybe a Latinate compound like immunogenic is too simple, since a reader can practically figure it out from the two root words. However, as I kept using the Look Up feature, it was rarely stumped. Here are the main entries, for dacarbazine and lysine:

Wow, an Unabridged Random House Dictionary entry on decarbazine, complete with a clear pronunciation and the chemical formula. And a Random House Dictionary entry on lysine., according to information on their Web site, is part of a Nasdaq-listed company (IACI), located in Oakland, CA. Their site is literate, sprinkled with interesting quotes about words, and it portrays the work environment of a lively Bay Area culture, with their mission being to “to delight and inspire anyone using the English language by being the most innovative and comprehensive digital source for everything related to words. We provide resources that help people accurately define, pronounce, and apply words in the moment.” They manage to do so supported by fairly non-intrusive on-screen ads.


That provides these resources for free with such easy access “in the moment” makes a superb resource for writers who wish to help themselves. The threshold is now so low for looking up words in the dictionary that individual inertia is no longer a concern.

Similar look-up functions exist with a right-click in Microsoft Word, though not quite as slick as those in Acrobat:

The MS Word allows a Bing search on the term, along with access to several Microsoft proprietary tools, like Encarta. But what you don’t get is immediate access to two of the English language’s best dictionaries,Random House and American Heritage. Too bad, because this is where “in the moment” help is really helpful.


As we work with students to help them become independent learners, the tools under right-click are worth exploring.

This blog was originally posted on Decemer 2nd, 2014.


One of my college professors started our last day on A Farewell to Arms with a one-question quiz: “What is the last word of the novel?” I had finished the novel a week in advance, but did I remember that the last word of the novel was “rain”? Of course not.


I’m still angry about that failed quiz decades later; so when the idea of reading quizzes comes up, I remember the “rain” and vow to never, ever impose such nonsense on students. Nevertheless, the issue is bothering me again: Should I give reading quizzes? In a writing course? Specifically, a technical writing course? Even more specifically, in an online technical writing course? I am no longer so sure of the answer.


Instead of quizzes, I have been asking students to do short writing activities that apply ideas from the readings, like responding to real-world scenarios or analyzing an existing document. In face-to-face classes, I knew that students were referring to the textbook because I saw them doing so.


In the online classes I teach, I do not know whether students are doing the readings. I point them to specific pages that should help them with their projects, but their writing sometimes suggests that they haven’t looked at the details carefully. I worry, too, that I don’t give students enough feedback on these weekly writing exercises. I know that I’m always behind in tracking who has answered which questions and whether those responses were on time.


Could quizzes be the answer? I know several others in the department use reading quizzes in tech writing classes to ensure that students do the reading. Our CMS can respond immediately to multiple-choice quizzes so they will grade themselves. Students would get immediate feedback.


Bedford/St. Martin’s even has quiz questions I can import directly into our CMS. I do wish that there were fewer True/False and fewer “all of the above” questions, because they make randomizing the answers impossible. I would like more questions overall as well. The first chapter has only eight questions, for instance, and doesn’t seem to cover everything in the chapter. It’s not my ideal, but it could work.


As I compared my options recently, I decided to ask my colleagues on Facebook what they do. In particular, I wondered if avoiding quizzes disadvantaged students who actually do well on that form of assessment. My friends came back quickly with encouragement. They use quizzes at times and offered useful tips to help make them effective. Joanna Howard “call[s] them quick assessments and explain[s] that they help a reader understand what she has just read.” Judi O’Reilly Kirkpatrick confirmed my belief that the CMS would take care of the feedback once it is set up. Dawn Fels urged me to follow my instincts.


Shelley Reid explained that she uses quizzes “not as assessment but to encourage students to try to *recall* key concepts because recent research shows that simply the *effort to recall* even if the answer is wrong helps move knowledge to long-term memory.” She also emphasized the importance of connecting the quizzes to the course goals and using the information in class to help students understand the relationship between the quizzes and the other work we were doing.


Susan Naomi Bernstein suggested that “Quizzes seem to support closer reading” and agreed that reading quizzes might well help some students more than my writing exercises. She reminded me of a recent New York Times article, “Studying for the Test by Taking It,” which discusses the ways that self-testing and quizzes can improve learning. She echoed my concerns about including more differentiation in learning strategies for the course.


I think I’m sold. I am teaching an online technical writing course during the Winter term. In those three overloaded weeks, I would rather have students focus on their projects than on short, informal writing exercises. Quizzes may help all of us: students will read more closely and get immediate feedback, and I can focus more on explicitly tying the readings to the writing they do. I’ll report on how the quizzes worked in late January, once the Winter term is over.


I would love more suggestions as I set things up for the Winter term. What is your advice? Do you use quizzes in writing classes? Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.

Last month, I considered the strategy of including Quizzes in a Writing Class Essentially, while I hated pop quizzes as a student, I thought I might be shortchanging students who do well as test takers. I decided to try quizzes in the online technical writing course during Virginia Tech’s Winter Session.


Now that the course is over, I have to admit that the quizzes seemed useful and effective. Logistically, the system was simple to set up.The companion website for the textbook included quizzes that were ready to import to Scholar (our campus installation of Sakai). I had to edit the quizzes in order to randomize answers where possible and remove the requirements for written rationales for some questions. Otherwise, they were ready to go. I just used what was available.


In course materials, I described the assessments as “reading quizzes.” I explained that my goal was to help students find the key information in each chapter. The quizzes were open book, and students had as much time as they needed to complete them. The only restrictions were that they had to complete the quiz in one sitting and that they could not retake the quizzes.


Scholar automatically graded students’ work, giving them immediate feedback. Their averages on these quizzes were high. Nearly everyone earned 100% on every quiz. Occasionally, someone missed one question. The only truly low grades were people who received zeros for not taking a quiz at all before the deadline. Because of the built-in analysis tools in Scholar, I was able to look at statistics and item analysis for each question; so it was easy to notice any questions that students had trouble with.


Anecdotally, students seemed to include more key terms from the text in discussions than in my previous classes. I haven’t analyzed the data to see if the numbers bear out that observation, but I think it makes sense. Previously, I relied on students reading the text and learning the material. I typically pointed out the key terms and guidelines in class in an attempt to help them focus on the significant details.

With these quizzes, I asked students to take an active role in finding, and often applying, the information from the text. They weren’t in the passive role of absorbing a reading or listening to me point out the details. They had to find the key information themselves and use it to pass the quiz. That difference between active and passive learning may be significant in this case.


So back to the title question: “Quizzes Work: True or False?” I’m going with True. In my circumstance, they seemed to help students identify key concepts, but I was able to set things up in a way that didn’t punish students. I am convinced enough that I am using reading quizzes spring semester again in my technical writing course and adding them to my writing and digital media course (a multimodal composing class). I use Practical Strategies for Technical Communication in the former course and Writer/Designer in the latter, for which there are no ready-made quizzes on the companion site. I will have to write my own, but my experience during the winter session was good enough though that I think the effort will pay off. We’ll see as the term unfolds, and I’ll share the details.


What is your experience with quizzes in writing classes? I would love to hear your advice. Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.


This blog was originally posted on January 26th, 2015.


Today’s guest blogger is Kim Haimes-Korn.


When I first started using blogging in my classes it was in an advanced writing class as a specialized genre, presented as an extension of the classical essay form. This was easy to demonstrate to students because of the particular characteristics:  the desire to discover, the conversational tone, the writerly movement between the specific and the universal, the strong sense of audience engagement.   I also have students create electronic portfolios in many of my classes. The portfolios provided a place for students – as working writers – to revise their writings and showcase their work in public arenas.


This past semester, I deeply integrated blogging into my first year composition class.  It was through blending these ideas that I realized the amazing potential of this genre for student writers in our digital age. It is not a question of merely integrating digital assignments into our classes.  These student blogs were not just a collection of random thoughts written journal-style. The blogs my students composed gave them opportunities to create and manage their online identities while also creating a working portfolio for their developing academic careers.


In this class, I had students look deeply at their digital identities and connect rhetorically – through text and image – with larger audiences. Although some of them had blogged before, this particular blog had students creating spaces to explore their own interests while at the same time shaping serious academic writings and projects related to their areas of study.  Although they sometimes questioned me along the way about the ”academic”  nature of this writing, it is clear to me that the lessons learned were some of the most academically rich I got from students in years.


Here are just some of the goals and skills students took from this engaging project:

  • Rhetorical awareness (audience, purpose, situation, context)
  • An understanding of the relationship between text and visual
  • The importance of contextualization as meaning-making function
  • A sense of ownership and responsibility as a communicator
  • An understanding of genre, format and conventions


The Assignment:  Creating and Organizing the Blogs

  • I have students use WordPress because it is easy and accessible.  It doesn’t require too much prior tech-knowledge and has flexible templates that allow for modification and customization.
  • Although students have some freedom to choose the direction and emphasis of their blog, I do have assigned categories that must appear in all of them. See my Revising and Shaping your blog Assignment) for details, categories and criteria. The common structure and expectations allow students to create both particular digital assignments and purposeful curation spaces.
  • I assign students a series of digital assignments (See Literacy Timelines, LifehacksComposing Visually and Mapping for examples from previous MM posts) to give them heuristic practice using online tools and generating online compositions.
  • I do my best to communicate to students that the blogs are “acts of composition” that draw upon many rhetorical strategies and writing skills. See my Revising Your Blog assignment for guiding students to identify the rhetorical situation, format and categories and rhetorical criteria expected for evaluation.
  • I present the blog and its contents as a continuous act of deep revision. Students often engage in feedback sessions through small group work, full class workshops and weekly online commentary. They return to their blogs and reshape them and building them through these interactions.

Reflecting on the Activity
Although students initially struggled to fit the blog into their vision of what happens in writing classes, they eventually came to understand the connections through the semester. Their blogs started out lacking content, rhetorical awareness, organization, and visual components, but many students felt the rewards at the end of the term as demonstrated in their final course reflections:

Probably the most impactful responses involved students’ increased sense of rhetorical awareness through a stronger emphasis on audience and purpose.  Nick says,

For me, overall this term I learned a vast amount of knowledge about writing. This course taught me to look deeper into subjects, and that grabbing the reader’s attention is important but keeping it is crucial. I learned different writing styles through the digital assignments and the blog and how they communicate a theme or purpose better than other styles. I realized that especially when I was writing my feature article because the writing style depended on keeping the reader’s attention and relating it back to them. With all of the lessons combined, I can confidently say that I am a better writer because of this course.


Or consider Savannah’s response as she reflects on her changes throughout the course,

As I look back into the first half of the semester and compare it to the second half, I see that my engagement with the audience has increased drastically.  I found out that digital literacy is more than just writing, but composing and being visually literate.  This correlated well with my work on my blog in that I eventually made it for myself.

Savannah and others repeatedly refer to a strong sense of ownership that was new to them within a classroom/assignment context.  Although there were common categories and assignments, I encourage students to choose their exploratory blog posts and additional categories that might suit their particular interests, areas of study or future needs.

Phillip says,

I feel as though these blog posts allowed me the opportunity to fully express myself, which was something I haven’t been able to do in the past. The beginning assignment posts were open-subject blogs that granted me the freedom discuss things that were important to me.


Phillip chose subjects such as a painting analysis and translation of a Hispanic artist, an examination of a peculiar object in his neighborhood, a critical examination of the purpose of  blogging, a restaurant review of theSlice of Life Pizza, and his feature article on the design process that an architect typically follows when working on a project.

Or as Ty puts it,

everything you put on your blog is because you wanted it there – not something that you followed or found but something that you created.  This is the place where your digital identity comes true — although I used Facebook and other things on the internet I never had a digital identity until this class.


Perhaps the most satisfying, for me as a composition teacher is that the project helped them create a space to continue their writing beyond the scope of the class.  The way that this particular blog was designed opened spaces for them to collect and share work from their future classes and areas of study, their own place for critical reflection and a way to shape their digital identities and share their ideas with others.

Cam appreciates the fact that this is the “only place on the internet where I have my own domain, so I was proud of that.”   Or, consider Savannah’s plans to use her blog in the future to store and reflect on her work as an architect (something she might use in a future portfolio) and also as a place to share her paintings and illustrations.  She has come to see all of these projects as part of her digital identity and understands the importance of representing herself online.   She says,

I plan to continue my blog further to where I have an active audience. I also plan to further my learning in composition for specific audiences through my blog; Relevancetome This course has taught me so much and can easily prepare for many online writings in my future. With how most of the world is now turning towards technology, I’m thankful this course used technology in each of the writing assignments. I will push my blog further with posting of new artwork and sharing my blog on my social media sites. I feel my blog has come a long way from the beginning of the semester, but has so much more to be done. A goal of mine would be to have many followers who love to view my artwork as well as read my compositions.


I have linked to some of my students’ blogs-in-progress and the Revising and Shaping Your Blog assignment. Check them out along with other multimodal assignments on my Acts of Composition website.


Guest blogger Kim Haimes-Korn is a Professor in the Digital Writing and Media Arts (DWMA) Department at Southern Polytechnic 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. This week, Kim shares her blogging assignments and student responses to the activities. You can reach Kim at or visit her website:


Want to collaborate with Andrea on a Multimodal Monday assignment? Send ideas to for possible inclusion in a future post.

This was originally posted on January 22nd, 2015.


Surprisingly (to me at least), Merriam Webster announced “culture” as their Word of the Year for 2014, noting that it was the single most-searched-for term during the last twelve months, coming in ahead of “nostalgia,” the second most-searched-for word. Over at Oxford, they pronounced “vape” the word of the year, in a nod to the e-cigarette movement. And went with “exposure,” related to the fears surrounding Ebola.


Of these words, “nostalgia” makes the most sense to me, given that so many 50-years-after events, such as passage of the Civil Rights Act, came to mind. But after I read Dennis Baron’s year-ending post on his Web of Language blog, I sat down to think again. Baron selects “torture” for his 2014 word of the year because, he says, “it’s the epitome of what went wrong, not just with counterterrorism, but with everything.” He has a point. Given the series of beheadings, abduction and massacre of children, and ongoing unspeakable atrocities of ISIS, “torture” seems like a pretty good choice. The argument raging around this word is, of course, partially a definitional one: are “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding “torture.” For now, the answer in the U.S. seems to be a resounding yes, despite former Vice President Dick Cheney’s avowal that he would “do it again in a heartbeat.” (Check out Baron’s entire posting here.)


But I believe there are alternatives to “torture” as the word of the year for 2014. Among the many signs of such alternatives, I would spotlight a young Pakistani woman, shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating schooling for all children. You know her already—Malala Yousafzai, co-winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize (presented jointly to Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi for their “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education”).

Malala Yousafzai


What’s the word I would choose to characterize Yousafzai? Many come to mind, but to me, “perseverance” comes closest to what she represents to me—her absolute refusal to give in to murderous attacks and intimidation, her absolute perseverance in pursuing the cause of education for all. That word also captures the heroism of doctors and nurses across the African nations most affected by Ebola. And the voices of all those this past year who have protested against oppression and for social justice for all. Perseverance.


I wonder what your word of the year might be—and even more I wonder what your students’ word of the year is. I intend to ask this question in the coming months as I visit colleges and universities around the country. For now, I’m sticking with “perseverance.”


[Photo: Malala Yousafzai photo by K. Opprann from]

Jack Solomon

Getting Covered

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Apr 7, 2015

This blog was originally posted on January 22, 2015.


Perhaps someday books will no longer have covers, but until then the physical packaging by which a book is presented to the world remains an interesting, if rather specialized, topic for semiotic exploration.


Some book covers are famous—like the original artwork for The Great Gatsby, which actually influenced Fitzgerald’s composition of his novel.  Others are notorious, like those that adorn the covers of Harlequin Romances.  Sometimes covers are designed simply to let the reader know what to expect, but more often they are marketing devices intended to appeal to a reader’s interests, curiosity, aesthetic tastes, or desires.


With the publication of the eighth edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A., I thought I’d describe an insider’s view of some book covers.  I have fifteen now, beginning with a book published in 1988 called Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age.  It’s the only cover I had much of a role in designing.  The book jacket is a deep blue, with large block serif lettering on the front, presenting the title in a kind of gold/brass color, and my name in white.  I was driving for a “classic” effect: restrained but (I hope) elegant.


I had no say whatsoever in the covers of my next book.  Also first published in 1988, The Signs of Our Time has three different covers: the first for the hardcover edition, the second for the paperback reprint, and the third for a Japanese translation.  The hardcover’s dust jacket is an eye-catching magenta, with large white block letters for the title.  A band of square images bisects the cover about two thirds of the way down, containing artist’s renderings of the Eifel Tower, Andy Warhol, a teddy bear, an apple, and a “no littering” sign.  Each of these images is a visual allusion to a semiotic topic taken up in the book, thus indirectly conveying something of its contents.  While a lot blander in blue with yellow lettering, and featuring a circle of images surrounding a human eye looking out at them, the paperback cover attempts something like that of the hardcover jacket, though I do not like it much.


The Japanese translation, for its part, is rather unusual to American eyes.  A pocket-sized paperback with a dust jacket, it presents a white cover with Japanese characters in black, while across the bottom are the images of three yellow cheetahs in running stride.  The characters present a new title for the book (The True Face of America: The Mosaic Pattern Which Can Be Seen in the Culture)—clearly something for Japanese readers curious about America—but I don’t know what the cheetahs signify.  I rather like the cover as a whole, but it really doesn’t convey much at all about the book’s contents.


This takes me to the covers for Signs of Life in the U.S.A.  Finding good covers for each edition of this book has always been a lot harder than Sonia and I expected.  We’ve never cottoned to covers with celebrity faces on them, and have always wanted something artistic but not garish.  A book on popular culture would seem to demand a Pop Art cover, of course, but a lot of Pop Art is either garish or rather obscene.  Our editor for the first two editions, Steve Scipione, twice hit pay dirt in the Pop Art vein, however, by finding two different paintings by Tom Wesselmann.  The first edition was represented by Still Life #31, which features an image of everyday life that includes a television set, a mountain landscape as seen through a kitchen window, a still-life table setting, and a portrait of George Washington hanging on the kitchen wall. The second edition sported Wessselmann’s Still Life no. 28, which substitutes an image of Abraham Lincoln for Washington, and a green color theme for the grey-blue theme of Still Life #31, but which is otherwise quite similar to #31.  We thought we were in business for the life of the book until we discovered that there are only two Wesselmann paintings in this vein, and that while there are plenty of other Wesselmanns out there, they aren’t for us.


We’ve never been able to find any other Pop Art that works for us, so every cover of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. has taken a lot of work.  The art department at Bedford/St. Martin’s introduced a square block, reminiscent of a Rubic’s Cube, filled with square images of common items from everyday life for the fourth edition.  And ever since then, the basic design theme for Signs of Life in the U.S.A. has been one including squarish rows of ordinary objects intended to evoke the world of everyday life.  While I shudder to use the word, that appears to be the “brand” image that now identifies the book, and that, too, is part of its significance.


Simon Evans, an artist based in England but born in America, has provided the cover for the eighth edition of the book.  An artwork called “Everything I Have,” containing some 34 horizontal rows of tiny images of the artist’s personal possessions (everyday items like blue jeans and kitchen ware, for instance) on an off-white background, takes up the entire book cover, with the exception of blocks for the book title and authors’ names.  Expressing a kind of understated grunge aesthetic, it appeals to us both thematically and aesthetically.

And this, perhaps, takes me to the final semiotic significance of book covers.  A printed book can also be something of an objet d’art, with each element, beginning with the cover, designed for aesthetic effect.  I’ve always valued that, but should the e-text ever completely replace the printed book, I won’t complain.  As the Lorax would say, the digital book is better for the trees.