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2710245262_2ccb0a3a14_mThis blog was originally posted on August 2nd, 2011.


700 messages! My blood pressure shot up, and all I did was look at that image on the right. Usually, I can keep my Inbox well below that threshold, but during the semester when students are emailing me, it can certainly feel like I’m trapped in the world’s fullest Inbox.


The size of my Inbox can be even more daunting when the students writing me aren’t using the best strategies when they write their messages. Nod if any of the following sounds familiar:


  • Your Inbox is full of messages with vague subject lines like “Writing Assignment” or “My Paper.”
  • You have no idea who is, so it’s impossible to reply with the homework for the next session.
  • You have messages that send you to Urban Dictionary just to figure out what the writer is talking about.


You probably encounter those scenarios every semester. The problem is how to deal with them. I’ve never had the luxury of teaching a class that was actually focused on e-mail. The goal of the course is always something else, from first-year comp to visual rhetoric or from professional communication to American literature. There’s little time to spare for long discussions of effective e-mail practices. Still, to survive the influx of messages, you have to spend some time talking how to write about effective email messages.My solution is to keep a collection of resources handy, my own English Teacher’s E-mail Survival Kit. Below are links to resources and news articles that address the challenges of e-mail in the classroom. Just send the relevant link to a student when an issue arises. Ask them to read the piece and apply it to their work, just as you would point them to a grammar rule. Discuss the issues at more length if the situation requires.



These links should take care of most of the content problems that arise in the classroom. I’m not yet the super-emailing teacher described in the recent Atlantic article, “Composition 1.01: How Email Can Change the Way Professors Teach”; but I’m sure the only way to aspire to that level of interaction with students is to have clear guidelines and tips ready to share.


What strategies work well for you? If you share a resources or suggest a tip, leave me a comment below.


[Photo: spam_meets_inbox by mobology, on Flickr]

This blog was originally posted on April 6th, 2015.


Today’s guest blogger is Eric Detweiler, a PhD candidate specializing in rhetoric at The University of Texas at Austin, as well as an assistant director in UT’s Digital Writing and Research Lab. His interests lie at the intersections of rhetorical theory and writing pedagogy, and his dissertation puts those two in conversation with the rhetorical ethics of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. He also produces a podcast called Rhetoricity and is a student and practitioner of odd puns. More details about his work are available at

From 2011-12, I helped plan and implement Battle Lines, an alternate reality game (ARG) designed to teach multimodal literacies in an undergraduate rhetoric and writing course at The University of Texas at Austin. In most cases, ARGs require players to work collaboratively in order to solve clues and puzzles, shifting back and forth between digital and physical environments as they do so—in our case, students moved from hidden wikis to campus landmarks, from scrambled video files to the Texas Capitol. For example, using a computer program to discover a muted track in an audio file led students to a poster in an on-campus music venue. That poster, which promoted a fictitious Janis Joplin concert, included QR codes that took students to the sinister-looking website of a secret society called the Friends of Texas. And so on and so forth.


The design, implementation, and results of that game are described and demonstrated in an article that theBattle Lines team—a group of graduate students working in The University of Texas at Austin’s Digital Writing and Research Lab (DWRL)—composed for Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. That piece,“Crossing Battle Lines: Teaching Multimodal Literacies through Alternate Reality Games,” is also available in the Parlor Press anthology The Best of the Independent Rhetoric & Composition Journals 2013.


Since the article itself provides explanations and examples of the game’s various challenges, I won’t rehash them here. Instead, I want to suggest something a bit more ambitious: having students design their own ARG level. Let me clarify that I’m not suggesting students design and implement an entire ARG. From idea to article, Battle Lines took over three years and hundreds of hours of work (the article alone had nine coauthors). But designing an individual clue, perhaps within the framework of a preexisting game, provides students with opportunities to think about procedural rhetoric, audience, the relationship between physical and virtual environments, and a variety of other rhetorical variables.

Sample student work from Battle Lines


While such an assignment might be especially relevant for courses focused on games and/as rhetoric (cf. Dr. Justin Hodgson’s Rhetoric, Play, & Games or Battle Lines project leader Chris Ortiz y Prentice’s Rhetoric of Video Games), it could also be a relevant part of first-year writing courses that incorporate multimodal assignments (cf. this lesson plan that the DWRL’s Lily Zhu developed for an introductory rhetoric and writing course).


To provide students a situated, collaborative opportunity to explore the rhetorical possibilities and constraints of multimodal composition.


Advance Preparation
This assignment particularly depends in a thoughtful consideration of audience (and predicting audience challenges and habits). Ask students to plan by reading relevant content from your handbook:


Have students familiarize themselves with an extant ARG: in addition to Battle Lines, the ARG that preceded the release of the film The Dark Knightas well as the one that occurred between the second and third seasons of the TV show Lost could provide useful and particularly robust templates. Guide students’ attention to procedural questions about the game:

  • What technological or other resources does this game require or presume on the part of players?
  • How or to what extent does the game lead players from one step to the next? How much room does it leave for error, confusion, or misinterpretation—whether intentionally or unintentionally?
  • In what ways does the game require collaboration, and/or to what extent could players proceed individually?
  • How does the game try to keep players invested and invested? In other words, how does it try (successfully or un-) to persuade and affect its players?


The following could unfold either over the course of a class period or as an assignment between course meetings.

  1. Divide students into groups of 3 or 4 (given the collaborative ethos of ARGs, as well as the challenges of designing them, a multitude of voices can be both appropriate and useful).
  2. Assign or have students pick a particular point in one of the ARGs with which they’ve familiarized themselves.
  3. After reminding students of the questions listed above, give them the remaining class time to design a clue for insertion at that point in the game. This could be a side quest that departs from the game’s primary trajectory, or it could be an extra step added between two of the game’s extant challenges. Students don’t necessarily have to execute their clue (given the complexity and temporality of ARGs, this could be a time-consuming if not impossible task)—just explain it. This could be as simple as a step-by-step written description, or include storyboarding and other multimedia and/or digital components.
  4. At the start of the next class meeting, have each group offer a five-minute presentation on their clue. (If time doesn’t allow, they could also read each other’s outside of class or present their clues on the same day they design them.) You might prompt them to address the questions from the Advance Preparation section above.


After all groups have presented, give students time in their small groups to revisit their clue. How does it differ from the other groups’? What particular strengths or weaknesses are they noticing now that some time has passed? (Again, this could take place inside or outside of the classroom, written or orally.) What limitations or affordances—technological, temporal, etc.—influenced their process and product?


If this is as far as you want students to go with the ARG assignment, have them explore connections between their ARG clue and the other modes and media in which they’ll be composing. For instance, in what ways might the degrees of freedom or constraint that their clue allowed players inform the relative flexibility they’re willing to grant the audiences of other texts they compose—even the level of explication or ambiguity they might allow in an essay or research paper?


In a games-oriented course, the assignment could be taken further: students could actually make their clues playable, or—if you’re willing to make it a major collaborative project—students could design and/or implement an ARG for their classmates, the student body, or other communities of which they’re a part. There are a host of pedagogical and ethical considerations that come with such an assignment—accessibility issues, the extent to which players and non-players might misread game elements as real dangers—which, depending on specific course goals and the scope of the assignment, could be worth addressing in advance.


For more on the pedagogical, academic, and rhetorical possibilities at play in ARGs, see the work of Jane McGonigal or Frostburg State University’s Jill Morris, this blog post by Henry Jenkins and Jeff Watson, or Ian Bogost’s book Persuasive Games.


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

Jack Solomon

What... So What Then?

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Apr 10, 2015

This blog was originally posted on April 2nd, 2015.


In my last blog I discussed the importance in critical thinking of precisely establishing what, exactly, one is thinking critically about.  As I continue to ponder the essence of critical thinking—both as co-author of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. and in my current role as assessment director for my university—I am experimenting with ways of conveying, to both professors and students alike, what, exactly, critical thinking itself is.


My task is not made easier by the fact that a lot of what passes for critical thinking is really critical reading—as when a critical “thinking” assignment is to unpack the argument in an assigned reading.  Critical reading, of course, is an essential skill for college students, who must master it both for their collegiate careers and for their lives beyond, and it does bear a close relation to critical thinking, but it is not the same thing.  Critical reading, one might say, is the equivalent to establishing the whatness of someone else’s text; critical thinking goes beyond that—often to the expression of one’s own argument, but before getting to that argument (which is a rhetorical act) one has to do some critical thinking.


I put it this way: critical thinking is a movement from what  to  . . .   so what then?  It enlarges upon the recognition of something (an argument, a phenomenon, a problem) and reflectively seeks a further significance, or, in the case of a problem, a solution.


Let me take a simple example from the business world (I choose a business example because that is the world towards which most of our students are destined, and because business surveys consistently complain that new employees can’t think critically).  So, imagine that you are in the soft drink business, with an emphasis on selling sweetened sodas, but your sales are falling.  The reduction in sales, in this case, is your what, which is also a problem demanding a solution.  To solve the problem you need to do some critical thinking, and the first thing is to find the cause for your drop in sales.  This can involve testing hypotheses—for example, “Is it because our product doesn’t taste good anymore?”  Some research is likely to show that sweetened soda sales are down across the board, so taste probably isn’t the cause of the problem.


So, a second critical question would be “Is there something wrong with sweetened sodas?”  Here, you can situate sweetened sodas into a larger system involving public health, wherein sweetened sodas are receiving a lot of blame for America’s obesity problems.  You might jump at this point to a solution: “OK, we’ll crank out some new diet soda products”—which is exactly the sort of thing that has happened a number of times in the history of soft drinks.


Except this time, further critical research will show that diet soda sales aren’t doing so well either due to a growing concern about health implications of artificial sweeteners.  So maybe another diet product isn’t the solution to your problem.


But what about naturally flavored soda waters?


I think you can now see what I’m doing here: essentially, I’ve reverse engineered something that has clearly taken place in a lot of soft drink manufacturing boardrooms recently, because America is currently awash in naturally enhanced flavored soda waters, with more varieties appearing practically every day.  That didn’t happen by accident.  It happened because a lot of business people went through a what to so what then? critical thinking process.


In an era of information overload, when just about everyone is accustomed to receiving enormous amounts of information without thinking much about it beyond tweeting it here, or pinning it there, this simple, yet profound, movement from what to so what then? needs to be pointed out.  As I play with the idea (writing this blog is a form of playing with it) I am hoping to solve a problematic what that especially afflicts assessment: the fact that while just about everyone agrees that “critical thinking” is an essential university skill, no one can agree on what, exactly, critical thinking is.  Will I solve my problem with a what .  .  .  so what then? explanation?  I don’t know yet, but I have arranged a test of my hypothesis to see what happens.


I just hope that it doesn’t end in .  .  .  you know, whatever.

This blog was originally posted on March 31st, 2015.


I receive a lot of email from students. Sometimes it’s messages that I have requested, like links to their work. Other times, students are asking questions about assignments or telling me why they will miss class.


More often than not, these messages are not students’ best writing. I don’t care that the messages are informal. That’s fine with me. At times, however, they wander into telling me far more than I need or want to know. Worse yet, the messages can leave out the crucial details or attachments that would have made the message successful.


What’s a teacher to do? Well, to begin, I have My English Teacher’s Email Survival Kit that I can use to talk about effective email messages. I also like Molly Scanlon’s assignment on Multimodal Mondays: Introducing the Academic Environment with Email and Diantha Smith’s activity on rhetorical analysis of email messages.


My favorite resource though is a short, humorous overview I have created, which I call “Sassy Email Responses.” The slides in the presentation include a slightly revised version of a message that a real live student has sent and the sassy reply that I wish I could send back in my reply. Here’s an example:


For extra fun, after working through the slideshow, I ask students to write a horrible excuse for missing class, and then we read the most original messages together in class. This activity always results in laughter—and much better email messages from students for the rest of the term.


How do you talk with students about effective email messages? What strategies and resources work for you? I would love to hear your ideas. Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook orGoogle+.

This blog was originally posted on April 9th, 2015


OK.  If you have been completely out of touch for a couple of weeks, you’ve missed the CCCC meeting and thus Adam Banks’s 2015 Chair’s Address:  “’Ain’t No Walls Behind the Sky, Baby’: Funk, Flight, Freedom.”  And you’ve missed the thousands of tweets and postings commenting and celebrating it that have populated social media space ever since.  From his opening allusions to George Clinton and Bootsy Collins’s “I’d Rather Be with You” to his final “Thank you CCCC 2015,” Adam held the packed-to-the-rafters ballroom rapt—and with lots of response: the standing ovation was thunderous, and prolonged.  Since then, the presentation has been the subject of much admiration and debate on the WPA listserv.  So right now, whether you were there or not, go watch Adam’s performance (here or below).  It bears re-hearing and re-seeing.  And you may want to chime in on WPA with your thoughts.





As I wrote at the time, the talk mixed rhythms from Jazz and Hip Hop with echoes of the African American sermonic tradition, theorizing with personal anecdote, high-falutin’ academic language with oral vernacular, and a whole lot more.  It was in my view a bravura performance, embodying the themes of funk, flight, and freedom, arguing that “funk is worthy of scholarly attention” because it speaks of “honest expression and exertion,” of sweat and steaminess necessary to such exertion.  “Respectability will not save us,” he continued, not in our scholarship or our classrooms, nor will it save our students. “Intervention comes from those who are irreverent,” who are “wild,” from those who resist the tidiness and staying-in-the-lines of the traditional academy and fly free, beyond boundaries and boxes.


In one memorable moment, Banks paused to address “the essay,” saying that on this day, he declared it “retired” (long and loud applause).  Speaking directly to the retiree, he said that the essay could keep its office on campus and that we would even “continue to give awards in your honor.”  But as of this day, it was now the essay emeritus/a.  In doing so, Banks harked back to the work of Winston Weathers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and to his insistence that what he called the “Grammar A” of school writing was not the only kind of good writing out there—and he gave plenty of examples of Grammar B alternatives (An Alternate Style: Options in Composition, 1980).  Along the way, Banks alluded to the groundbreaking Students’Right to their Own Language (1974) and to the foundational work of Geneva Smitherman and others who have done so much to document the power of African American English.


Banks’s speech featured a liberal mix of Grammars A and B in putting the traditional school essay taught by Miss Fidditch and her colleagues as the be-all and end-all in its place.  But what most impressed me was the remediated essay that Banks performed, one true to the historical goal of the essay as a “try” or “attempt” and one emblematic of the essay as it lives and breathes and jibes in today’s discourse.  “The essay is dead,” I say:  “Long live the essay.”


We have work to do in understanding, describing, and embodying these deeply performative essays.  So I’ve been very glad to see teachers writing posts about assignments that ask students to listen to Banks’s Chair’s address, to respond to it, to analyze its parts and the sources of its power, and to try their own hands at such a composition.


Beginning around 2002, I began teaching a course I called “The Language Wars, a class that moved from studying the struggle over vernacular languages in Europe and around the world and the debate over what the language of the new United States would be (some argued it should be German)—and eventually to what should count as “good writing” in college today.  We read some of the scholars Banks referred to in his talk (Smitherman, Keith Gilyard) as well as June Jordan, bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, Lee Tonuchi, Gerald Vizenor, and many others).  Now I’m thinking I would like to teach this course again, this time beginning with Banks’s 2015 Chair’s address.  At the end of his talk, Banks said “Thank you, CCCC 2015.”  I would add, “Thanks to you, Adam Banks, for the inspiration.”

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


I’m just back from Tampa and the 2015 CCCC meeting—what I always think of as “the other March Madness.”  If I’m counting correctly, this was my 45th Cs, consecutive except for 2012, when I was on a round-the-world Semester at Sea adventure.  The earliest meetings I attended were quite small and relatively brief:  it truly did seem as if everyone there knew everyone else.  This year, over 3000 scholar/teachers coursed through the Marriott Harborside and Convention Center from Tuesday evening through Sunday morning.  I felt as though I’d been there a month as I rushed from session to session and met with friends and former students from across the country.


Joyce Carter’s program was especially rich this year, each time slot offering at least a dozen sessions I desperately wanted to attend.  Thanks to Joyce’s leadership and planning, the whole conference was extremely welcoming to newcomers and had a very conversational feel:  dialogic sessions replaced the traditional plenary “featured speakers,” multiple round tables left more room for discussion and sharing of ideas.  And there were highlights, of course, a method in all this madness:


  • The Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, now in its 21st year, was a tour de force, organized by the group’s intrepid chair, Jenn Fishman.  This year’s event featured a “New Work Showcase,” with eleven scholars presenting poster sessions of their exciting new work.  This format helped establish the conversational tone I mentioned earlier, as attendees drifted from one display to the next, talking with the authors and trading sources, anecdotes, and methods. I was especially impressed with Tamika Carey’s “‘I Apologize’: What Rhetorical Missteps Reveal about the Risks of Contemporary Black Feminist Discourse,” which revealed that when a Black woman makes even a small misstep, the consequences can be quite severe, ruining careers and blocking further advancement.  These sobering findings indicate how badly we need research like Carey’s. Another fabulous presentation was Patty Wilde’s “Cross(dress)ing the Mason Dixon Line: Recovering Rhetorical Histories that Disrupt Narratives Notions of Gender,” a study of some of the five hundred to a thousand women who crossdressed in order to participate in the Civil War.  The fascinating and very complex stories of some of these women were illustrated with archival photos showing them as women—and as men—and raised questions about the way gendered identities can and do shift over time and circumstances.  This showcase was a veritable feast of exciting new research!


  • And all this before the conference even opened! That happened Thursday morning with the General Session calling the meeting into being, presenting various awards, and featuring Adam Banks’s Chair’s address.  These addresses, in my experience, are always more than worth the price of admission, giving the current leader a forum to discuss the issues he or she sees as most salient to our organization and ideals.  Over the decades, I have heard marvelous Chair’s addresses, but Adam’s talk—“Ain’t No Walls behind the Sky, Baby:  Funk, Flight, and Freedom”—took this difficult and challenging genre to a new level.  Mixing hip hop, funk, and jazz elements of African American sermons, personal stories with analytic critique, lyrical incantations with bullet-point lists, and great wit with great passion, Banks asked everyone there to join him in meditating on three key words:  “funk, flight, and freedom.”  His talk was a brilliant embodiment of all three concepts, eliciting the longest and loudest standing ovation I’ve ever seen at our annual conference.  I can’t wait for this presentation to be published—and to be posted on the CCCC website and/or on YouTube. Do not miss it!!


  • I attended a number of standout sessions, including a very informative panel on current issues of intellectual property and their implication for writing and the teaching of writing, and a terrific set of talks on the history and mission, working conditions, and successes and challenges of HBCUs. Listening to Faye Maor, Dawn Tafari, Hope Jackson, and Karen Keaton Jackson reminded me once again how instrumental these institutions are to higher education in the United States and to the lives of their students.  BRAVA to all.


I could go on and on about all I learned at this conference and how good it felt to be with this group of people.  When I got back to California, Jaime Mejia wrote to me about his experiences, saying that CCCC simply “feels like home.”  It does indeed, and for thousands of us.  But it’s a home full of challenges and wake-up calls, including Adam’s injunction that we not be too tidy, not too antiseptic and proper, but that we take to heart the lessons of funk—to be a little messy, a little way beyond the lines and boundaries, a little “wild.” As Emily Dickinson puts it, “A little madness in the Spring / Is wholesome even for a king.”  If this other March madness is good enough for Adam Banks and Emily Dickinson, it is certainly better than good enough for me.  So I plan to heed this call and to bring some of that madness, that wildness, into my thoughts and actions.

This blog was originally posted on April 8th, 2015


Though we have diverse approaches to teaching writing, my experience suggests that one of the commonalities we all share is some sort of peer feedback. Whether we call it peer revision or peer editing or something else, there seems to be wide agreement that seeking feedback is an important part of making writing better. The creative writers in my department would perhaps call this part of the “craft” of writing.  We are more likely to call it part of the writing process.  Regardless, in this series of posts I want to riff a bit on that notion of “craft” by sharing some peer revision strategies I use that are “crafty.” These exercises are all class-tested and Barclay-approved.  I have some theories on why they tend to work so well, which I will share in a later post. For now, though…highlighters!


In my office I keep a bag of inexpensive highlighters in every color I can find—at least thirty or so.  It was a modest investment at the office supply store but it’s paid wonderful dividends.  At least once a semester I bring that bag in for students to use during peer revision.  Here are some of the things I do:


  • Have peers highlight the argument and each key sentence related to the argument in a paper.  Peers tend to read the paper with more care to locate these moments, giving them practice in doing the same sort of work when reading the essays of the class; authors see whether or not readers are able to follow their arguments, where particular moments of support might be missing, if sections of the paper are just “fluff,” and how what they wrote reflects what they wanted to say.
  • Have peers highlight each quotation used in one color and all analysis of quotation in another; alternatively, have peers highlight all analysis one color and all summary another.  Authors can immediately see if there is a particular imbalance, if they just sprinkle quotations without working with them, and if particular parts of their paper are under-supported.
  • When papers include multiple readings, have peers highlight work with each reading in a different color.  Authors will be able to see immediately if they tend to use one reading too much or another not enough.
  • Have peers highlight each transition.  Authors will be able to see where they are missing or where they are so ineffective that readers can’t see the transition.
  • Have peers highlight any patterns of error so that authors can see how frequently they make it.


I’m sure you can imagine more uses for this general technique.  The key is that highlighting highlights particular parts of the paper, allowing students to visualize parts of it instead of just seeing lines of black that blur together.


And, well, it’s fun too.

This blog was originally posted on March 25th, 2015.


There is one more approach to sequencing you can use.  I don’t tend to use because, well, I think you’ll see…


We’ve included nine sequences in Emerging, many with options built in for alternate readings and assignments.  So a third method of making your “own” sequence is to modify one of the sequences that’s in Emerging.(And I don’t use this method because it’s not really modifying when I wrote the sequence in the first place [g].)


This might be a particularly good option if you just want to try this approach to teaching or if you’re getting your feet wet with sequencing.  We’ve already figured out what readings work together, which themes emerge from them, and what kind of work students might be able to do.  In turn, you can tweak individual assignments or the whole sequence based on your experience with teaching and your understanding of your students.


There’s a bonus to this method.  You cut down, I suspect, on plagiarism.  I imagine there are many papers floating around out there on the Interwebs that respond to the standard sequences.  Changing just a few aspects of the sequence encourages students to work without that virtual help.


Even if you don’t use or modify one of the existing sequences, I think they can still be useful in terms of inspiration and modeling.  Reading through them might give you ideas about sequences of your own.  Seeing how we’ve fit them together offers a useful model for how to sequence your own assignments.

This blog was originally posted on March 18th, 2015.


Last post I talked about why I choose to sequence assignments.  In the next several posts I’d like to offer some techniques I’ve found useful in designing sequences so that you can create your own.


One of the methods I use is reading centered.  I start with a reading I really want to teach and then I build out the sequence from there.  Given the shape of our semester we can usually cover four readings.  I like to use the following pattern for assignments:


  • Paper One on Reading One
  • Paper Two on Reading One and Reading Two
  • Paper Three on Readings One, Two, and Three
  • Paper Four on Reading Four and one other reading of the student’s choice


You might select a different pattern but I will say that having students work with more than one reading offers good opportunities for analysis, synthesis, and critical thinking.


So, before the semester I will skim the table of contents and think about a reading I’d really love to teach because it’s interesting or has good ideas or would work well in the classroom.  The quick annotations in the table of contents of Emerging can help with this part of the process if you’ve not experienced a reading before.


For example, let’s say I select Michael Pollan’s “The Animals: Practicing Complexity.”  From experience I know that students love this essay.  I love it because it deals with complex adaptive systems, which I love thinking about.  I know it works well in the classroom so it’s a good choice.


My next step is to jot down all the ideas and themes in Pollan’s essay. Emerging offers a number of tools for this, from the tags in the table of contents, to the questions accompanying the reading, to the thematic table of contents, to the existing sequences, to the Instructor’s Manual.  All of these tools help me see what Pollan does and what readings connect easily to his. My list might look something like this: organic farming, food, holons, ecosystems, education, agribusiness, industry, nature, economics, systems, health, eating, animals.


That last term, animals, is appealing to me. I’ve never taught a sequence with that focus so I think I will pursue it this time.  My next step is to use all the same tools to look for readings that have some connection to the idea of “animals.”  That list might look something like this: Dalai Lama (genetic engineering with some discussion of animals), Hal Herzog (ethics and animals), and David Foster Wallace (ethics and animals again).  I broaden the list to include useful counterpoints; in this case what it means to be human: Brian Christian (humans and artificial intelligence), Patricia Churchland (genes and behavior), Francis Fukuyama (genetic engineering and what makes humans human), and Richard Restak (brains and technology).  Finally, I look for “universal” essays, ones with ideas that apply to just about everything: Kwame Anthony Appiah (how change happens) and Daniel Gilbert (how to be happy).


Now I have a list of possible readings to use in the sequence.  The complete list looks like this:


  • Appiah
  • Christian
  • Churchland
  • Dalai Lama
  • Fukuyama
  • Gilbert
  • Herzog
  • Pollan
  • Restak
  • Wallace


I know I am going to use Pollan.  I want to also use Wallace because he’s so fun to read.  Herzog is a natural match because his ideas work so well with the other two.  I sometimes choose a final reading from what seems to be left field, one that picks up on something entirely new and offers students completely new perspectives.  In this case, I might choose something about education.  But instead I am going to stick with the emerging theme and select Fukuyama, who talks about what it means to be human and why, for example, we don’t eat grandma.


See the readings together, there’s a clear theme: the ethics of eating.


Now I consider the order.  I’ll start with Pollan.  He has a few ideas but also a lot of narrative.  For my second essay I will want something with more ideas in it.  I’ll go with Herzog.  It’s brief but has a good central idea about ethics.  Wallace will work well as third since it’s so cohesive.  Fukuyama will end to open it up to larger issues about what it means to be human.

Final step is to write the assignments.  I’ll write the first two, perhaps, and then see how they go, adjusting later assignments as needed.


I wrote recently about the intellectual work of sequences.  I think it’s distinctly pleasurable work.  Hope you will give it a try.

This blog was originally posted on March 24th, 2015.


Have you ever asked students to brainstorm without words? Thanks to a recent discovery, I’m imagining new possibilities for visual collaboration and sharing using Padlet.


Padlet is a free, online white board tool, which can be used anonymously and collaboratively. I typically set up a board for each class, and students then brainstorm ideas related to recent projects or readings.


Padlet isn’t limited to words however. You can post links, videos, and images. I used the feature last fall when my students used Padlet to brainstorm about a project on Talk Like a Pirate Day. I had included an image to make the Pirate Translator easy to find. I just never thought about the implications until recently.


First let me explain logistics, and then I’ll share some ideas for using this feature. Students can upload an image or add a link to a video. A thumbnail of the image or video shows up on the Padlet. You can grab the corner to resize the image, or click on it once to open the image or video in its original size. You can click on videos to play them.


With Padlet, then, students can post images and videos all on one screen, and you can then compare the thumbnails and explore each item in more detail. There’s no need to open a file or page for every student in class. One page has everything you need.


So, next, how can you use this feature? Here are ten things you could ask students to post using the image or video sharing capabilities of Padlet:

  1. Brainstorm using images found by searching for the topic online.
  2. Share digital badges for simple class presentations and discussion.
  3. Upload images of students’ writing spaces or tools and discuss similarities and differences.
  4. Post signs from campus or the local area for writing inspiration.
  5. Share “getting to know you” videos.
  6. Post word clouds for the class to discuss.
  7. Upload Writing/Learning Memes students have created.
  8. Create a classroom film festival by posting videos on a related topic.
  9. Post revision doodles and discuss the varying definitions of revision.
  10. Share some Do-It-Yourself Visual Appeals.


Essentially, anytime students have images or videos to share, you can do so on a Padlet to simplify the process of gathering links or texts. You can then compare the thumbnail versions and talk about first impressions, or you can work though the images or videos one-by-one and discuss what you find. I can’t wait to try this feature out in the classroom.


How could you use the image and video sharing abilities in Padlet? Please share your ideas with me. Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.

This blog was originally posted on November 20th, 2013.


When I left the classroom for the world of educational software and web development in the mid-90s, classroom brainstorming was either done on the chalkboard or in Daedalus InterChange. Those two options were the only way to collect student ideas in one place that everyone could easily access. Both, of course, came with their limitations. Chalkboard notes were (and are) fleeting things that someone has to transcribe, and InterChange discussions scrolled quickly up the window, leaving students and me unable to see all the ideas on one screen.

Image link to Padlet homepage.

In the intervening years, I have recommended Padlet (which used to be named Wallwisher) to many teachers as a perfect tool for class brainstorming. Just last month I mentio
ned the site in my post on Blue Sky Thinking. Ironically, however, I hadn’t had the opportunity to try it out in my own classes.


This week, I decided to give Padlet a try. Students are beginning their fourth and final assignment, persuasive group oral presentations. Their job is to create a 5 to 7-minute oral presentation—much like a public service announcement (PSA) or a commercial—aimed at persuading college students at Virginia Tech to do something. Before they got into their groups to choose topics, I wanted them to brainstorm some possibilities as a class. I had them all visit a Padlet page I set up for the activity, and within five minutes we had a screen full of possibilities, as shown in the partial screenshot below:



Brainstorming phrases in white boxes on top of a grey background.

You can see the full screen of ideas from my 9 AM class and ideas from my 8 AM class on Flickr. Granted, there are some silly ideas listed. I’m personally entertained by the 8 AM class’s juxtaposition of the ideas “Give blood” and “Join the Rugby team.” They’ve been reading their bumper stickers. Alongside a few comic suggestions, there are a number of quite strong ideas.Encouraged by my success, I played around with Padlet and found the ability to post images and videos in addition to traditional words and phrases. As I think about incorporating Padlet in classes next semester, I have a vision for multimodal brainstorming that I want to try out. I haven’t figured out all the details, but I imagine students building a screen full of images rather than words to express their ideas. Thank goodness I finally got around to trying Padlet out!

This blog was originally posted on March 23rd, 2015.


Jessie Miller is a Master’s Candidate in Written Communication at Eastern Michigan University, where she teaches first-year composition and consults in the University Writing Center. In her Master’s project, she uses discourse analysis to analyze the language First-Year Writing instructors use in assignment sheets where they ask their students to compose digitally. Her research (and her Master’s degree) will be completed in April 2015.


Since I began teaching, I have been increasingly interested in the role technology plays in the composition classroom. Last year at Cs, I presented a digital pedagogy poster on how I engaged with social media and technology in my classroom. For one of the large projects of the semester I assigned a multimodal transformation of my students’ research essays. They had to re-envision their essay on a social media platform of their choosing (i.e. Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.). As I worked through this assignment with my class, I found myself negotiating the affordances and limitations of each platform with my students. Digital multimodal projects, I had realized, could easily become unwieldy.


So this year, I decided to thematize my first-year writing class around “new media” and its role in composition. Instead of having one large multimodal project at the end of the semester, I integrated several multimodal elements on an incremental basis throughout the semester, one of which I want to share with you today: “The Prezi Presentation,” a multimodal version of an annotated bibliography.




The goal of this assignment was to get students to see source use as an engaging and active practice.




For the second unit in my class, my students write an 8-10 page essay I call “The Rhetorical Research Argument.” In it, they pick a topic under the theme of “new media” and contribute to the discourse (or debate) surrounding that topic. Since their arguments must be rhetorically compelling, we naturally spent several weeks discussing effective source use before they began writing their essays. This discussion built up to “The Prezi Presentation,” a low-stakes in-class presentation conducted in small groups. Instead of completing a traditional annotated bibliography, I had my students use Prezi to visually map the relationship between their sources.


The guidelines for the presentation were as follows:


  1. Introduce the topic you plan to discuss in your essay
  2. Provide your specific thesis statement
  3. Discuss/Integrate the 7 (on a minimum) different sources you plan to integrate into your essay (you have creative freedom with how they introduced the sources, so this could be done in a number of ways)
  4. Provide a brief explanation of how you plan to use these sources to support your essay’s claims

         1. This should include some specific examples from the source’s text (i.e. Direct quotes or paraphrases)

   5.  Provide a brief explanation of how the sources relate to one another

          1. For example, which sources support one another? Which sources disagree?


I told my students that they had creative liberty over the design of the presentation and the way in which they introduced their information (ex. Reading a quote versus pasting it directly into the Prezi). I also asked that they try to stay under ten minutes, but that was a loose estimate.


Instead of grafting a quote or two from a source, my students used a visual display of information to map out the interplay between their sources. I chose Prezi as the platform for this assignment because it does not have to be constructed linearly. In an essay, students won’t necessarily use sources in a linear way; instead, many sources have relationships to one another—they “talk to” one another. I wanted my students to use Prezi to help illuminate those connections for them.


In-Class Preparation
I introduced this project two weeks ahead of time. One the day I first introduced it, I provided laptops for my students and showed them how to use Prezi. Then, for homework I had my students write a journal entry in their Google Drive folder in which they responded to the following questions:

  1. Write down the title of each of your sources and provide the URL if it’s an online source.
  2. Write a 1-2 sentence summary of each source, then provide two paraphrased passages, and finally provide two direct quotations.
  3. At the end of the journal entry, write a paragraph in which you answer: How do these sources relate to one another? How will I use them in my essay?


This journal entry provided much of the framework for their Prezi.


During our next class period, we had an in-class workday where my students got feedback on their works-in-progress. Then, on the presentation day, I put students into groups of three or four, and each took turns presenting their Prezi while the other students graded them based on a rubric created from the assignment guidelines listed above.


Here are some student samples:


Internet Linguistics by student Keinan Slater


Citizen Journalism by student David Finquelievich


Children Learning from Apps by student Andrea Murphy

As I walked around the classroom while my students were giving their presentations, I was surprised to see how interactive my students were. Instead of sitting there silently during a presentation, students in the group often asked questions and offered feedback during the presentation itself. Likewise, the presenters would explain their sources, while also asking for help or direction as needed. As an instructor, I played little part in this final presentation day. I let my students work independently, which built their self-efficacy and helped shape their peer-to-peer relationships.


I am pleased with the results of this assignment. After the Prezi presentations, my students wrote a half draft of their essay, and in them they are already demonstrating a strong command of their sources. I am excited to see how their writing will progress from here.


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

Jack Solomon

What Color is This Dress?

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Apr 10, 2015

This blog was originally posted on March 19th, 2015.


A few weeks ago the Internet was lit up by one of the most earth shaking questions of our times:  Was a widely disseminated photograph of a woman’s dress an image of a blue- and-black or of a white-and-gold garment?  A lot of A-list celebrities weighed in on this weighty matter and the outcome was a lot of clicks on a lot of story links that certainly resulted in a lot of successful data mining.


But while a semiotic analysis of the power of celebrity Tweeters could ensue from this story, (you may find the beginning of such an analysis here) that’s not what I want to explore.  What I want to look at is a far, far deeper problem that this amusing little episode points to.  I will call this problem the question of “whatness.”


“Whatness” refers, if I may use a fancy term, to the fundamental ontology of something: what, basically, something is.  Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?  But as I contemplate the problem of defining, and teaching, the nature of critical thinking, I am increasingly coming to realize that it is precisely the difficulty in defining, much less agreeing upon, what something is that poses the greatest challenge to critical thinking, and to anything resembling social harmony.


Let me try to put it in semiotic terms.  A semiotic analysis characteristically moves from the denotation of a sign to its connotation—that is, from a description of the sign (or its referent) as an object to an interpretation of the sign as a subjectively constituted cultural signifier.  This movement, which involves the situating of the sign into a system of associations and differences, is what semiotic analysis is all about.  But as the blue/black or white/gold controversy trivially indicates, deciding exactly what we are talking about can involve an act of critical thinking prior to that which takes us from denotation to connotation.  If this sounds unnecessary, consider the recent kerfluffle over whether or not Governor Rick Scott did or did not order state workers in Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection never to refer to “global warming” or “climate change,” whereby both thewhatness of the prohibition and the whatness of global warming and climate change are both put into question.  In other words, determining denotation gets us caught up in connotation as facts get tangled up in values so badly that it can be very difficult to decide just what one is talking about.


I realize that we are looking here at a potential deconstructive mise en abyme—that is to say, an endless series of prior interpretations before we can get to the interpretation we wish to conduct.  But I do not want to counsel such despair.  Rather, I simply want to point out the need to think critically and carefully about the whatness of a cultural semiotic topic as an essential part of its analysis.  It would be nice to take facts for granted, but that, in this profoundly divided world, is something that we cannot do.


[Image source:]

Andrea A. Lunsford


Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Apr 10, 2015

This blog was originally posted on March 19th, 2015.


On March 9, I had the great good fortune to visit Colorado State University, where my friend and former student Sarah Sloane has been directing the writing program. Her graduate seminar on composition studies was meeting that evening from 4:00 to 7:00, and since they were reading an article of mine, I got to drop in on the class as a “special mystery guest.” Then I got to hear about the work these grad students are doing—on everything from disability studies to multimodal projects to curricular design. They were GREAT. While I was there, Professor Tobi Jacobi said, “I have a present for you,” and handed me a slim volume of writing published by incarcerated men and women. I didn’t have time to do more than thank her—but later that night, on the long flight back to San Francisco, I read every word. I was heartened by the words of these writers, who for the most part had rejected nihilism and negativity in favor of hope and commitment to a better future. But they weren’t sugar-coating anything: their experience in prison had marked them deeply, and these pieces of writing reflected that reality as well.


This was a gift I will treasure, and it reminds me once more how many teachers of writing across the country are doing similar work: going into shelters, half-way houses, prisons, and community centers to engage people in writing about themselves, their lives, their hopes, their dreams. These efforts—almost always done “on top of” a full load of teaching and administrative work and scholarship—are a hallmark of work in rhetoric and writing studies, a sign of how much teachers care and how much they believe in the power of writing and reading (and speaking out!) to change lives for the better.



When I got home, I ordered Jacobi’s book, Women, Writing, and Prison:  Activists, Scholars, and Writers Speak Out (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014).Edited with Ann Folwell Stanford and with a preface by Sister Helen Prejean, this volume introduces the project and the narratives from prison that follow. Now that I’ve read the pieces printed in We Make Our Future: SpeakOut!,the gift from Tobi, I am looking forward to getting this volume and studying it as well. Check it out for yourself—and let me know other similar efforts you may know of.

This blog was originally posted on March 25th, 2015.


Last time I talk about forming a sequence around a particular reading, but one of the things I love most about this approach to my teaching is that it allows me to respond to things going on in the world right now.  And so a second approach to sequencing is to start with a current event or topic and then build a sequence that explores that issue.  Not only does this method help students to see how what we do in the classroom connects to the world around them but it also offers me the chance to bring in any number of small supplemental texts from the media.


I’m writing this soon after the Oscars.  I was struck by racial discussions around the awards ceremony as well as racially inflected comments about Zendaya’s hair on the red carpet.  If I were assembling a sequence right now, I might choose something on this topic.  I think I would title it “Hollywhite: Race and Media.”


Having a topic in mind, I use many of the same steps I use when starting with a reading.  I start by locating all the readings that relate to the topic, including readings that are near to the topic and readings that are “universal.”  Emerging offers a number of tools to help in this process: quick annotations of the readings, tags in the table of contents, questions accompanying the reading, thematic table of contents, existing sequences, and the Instructor’s Manual.  When I’m done I would end up with something like this:


  • Alvarez (ethnic identities and economics)
  • Appiah (mechanism of social change)
  • Fukuyama (what makes us human)
  • Gilbert (determining happiness)
  • Muñoz (assimilation)
  • Nathan (education and diversity)
  • Olson (the persistence of race)
  • Pozner (race and media)
  • Savan (race and advertising)
  • Yang (racial stereotypes)
  • Yoshino (civil rights and assimilation pressures)


Last time I went for really obvious pairings.  This time, however, I think I want students to think about this issue from a few different angles.  I would want to use Yoshino because he mentions the ways in which Hollywood stars have changed their names to “cover” their ethnicity.  Muñoz would be a good pairing since his whole essay is about Anglicization of names.  Pozner talks explicitly about race and television so I would want that.  And then I think Appiah so that students could think about how to make changes to the situation.


Of course, I could also see Savan / Olson / Yang / Alvarez or Fukyama / Olson / Nathan / Gilbert or Pozner / Savan / Yang / Yoshino.  The essays I select are determined by my sense of where I want the sequence to go, as well as some sense of which offer ideas that students can work with.


Having selected my readings, I would then spend some time thinking out the order of the assignments.  For me, this is almost an exercise in narrativity.  That is, I am assembling a series of causes and effects in order to locate a central “story” about race and media.  This central narrative then offers a spine upon which students can build their own structures relating to the topic, based on their interests and their critical thinking.


In this instance, my central narrative would revolve around pressures to conform, the power of negative stereotypes, and the possibility of change.  Having determined that, then it’s a matter of writing out the assignments, leaving some room for adjustments along the way and perhaps building in assignments that allow students to bring in current events.


I like both approaches.  I’m not sure which I tend to use the most since I feel like both offer me good advantages.  I will say, if you’ve not written your own sequences before, I hope you will consider giving it a try.

This blog was originally posted on March 17th, 2015.


What do you do when a class you are teaching has to be cancelled at the last minute? Maybe you are sick or your car’s battery is dead. Perhaps you are dealing with a family emergency or a foot of snow. Even the best planners among us sometimes find at the last minute that we cannot (or should not) meet students in the classroom. So how do you let students know?


That question inspired discussion on the Writing Program Administrators Discussion list (WPA-L) last week. The conversation began with a question on how to deal with a student prank. A student wrote a “Class cancelled” message on the board, and others in the course, who arrived later, believed the message and left. The question was how to deal with the absences and missed work for the students who were pranked.


The discussion list, as usual, replied with some great advice, and you can check the messages in the list archive to read more. For me, the conversation led me to two realizations: (1) I have been lucky, and (2) I need to add a policy to my syllabus.


Luckily, I set a policy to avoid class cancellation confusion. On the first day of class, I tell students about the importance of checking email before they come to class each day, as that is how I will let them know if anything out of the ordinary has happened since we last met. If I’m sick or the like, I try to let them know the night before and give them an alternative assignment; but I do tell them about a morning last fall when I got up to go to school and found that my mother had fallen, so I had to send out a cancellation/new assignment just an hour before class met. I do not announce last-minute class changes in any other way.


The conversation, however, made me realize that I need to add that policy to my syllabus. It’s common for a student or two to miss the first class meeting or to add the class after that first meeting. I’ve been lucky that none of those students ever became confused about class meetings. I’m not a fan of legalistic syllabus, full of policies, but I am convinced that I need to address this issue.


How do you handle cancelling or rescheduling class meetings at the last minute? What strategies work for you? I’d love to hear from you. Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.

[Photo: Today Has Been Cancelled Pillowcase by Wicker Paradise, on Flickr]

Today’s guest blogger is Jeanne Law Bohannon.



As I wrote in my recent post, this semester has been a reflective opportunity for me, in terms of re/vising multimodal writing assignments and how we can apply multimodal composition across genres and contexts.  In keeping with my theme of re/mix, I want to discuss how a multimodal composition looks when applied to a graduate school context.  Most of us have taught or currently teach first-year writing.  Accordingly, we discuss our pedagogies that apply to those classes, which provides a wealth of sharable information for our peers. Too often, however, I think we anchor composition pedagogies to first-year experiences only. This week, I offer a re/mix of multimodal blogging, contextualized for an online graduate course in information design. The re/mixed blogging project could also be easily re/vised to work in most writing or technical communication courses.


Online courses offer their own rhetorical challenges for certain, and an online graduate course frequently compounds them.  As praxis-ioners of critical composition, however, we can still employ many of the strategies from our face-to-face teaching.  I also believe that students in these online spaces are grateful for multimodal writing opportunities that have “real-world” connections to their lives.  I teach a mix of students, some digital natives and some who are return-to-college learners.  Our motley crew, as one of my students dubbed our online community, sometimes requires additional resources to engender success in digital literacies.  The entire crew, however, appreciates and even seeks out multimodal writing opportunities because this type of assignment stimulates critical thinking and critical production of public texts.


A DIY blogging assignment that encourages students to construct multimodal technical writing (how-to and step-by-step posts) in digital spaces, using rhetorical cues from composition praxis


Assignment Goals and Measurable Learning Objectives

  • Apply multimodal composition strategies to technical writing
  • Use multimodalities as rhetorical delivery devices
  • Synthesize meaning through critical production of digital texts on-screen


Background Reading for Students and Instructors
Acts of reading and viewing visual texts are ongoing processes for attaining learning goals in democratic, digital writing assignments. Below, I have listed a few foundational texts. You will no doubt have your own to enrich this list.


Before Class: Student and Instructor Preparation
I run this project early in the semester.  Prior to starting this project, the class reads, responds to, and discusses multimodalities of texts that we produce across digital discourses. We read Bohannon’s Multimodalities for Students, Popular Media Writing Tips, Writing Better Blog Posts, Rhetorical Considerations for Blogs to prepare us to build our blogs.


In Class and/or Out
“In-class” is an interesting experience in an online learning environment.  In my online courses I blend asynchronous discussion forums with synchronous class meetings.  Many of the Handbook readings for this assignment are reviews for both content and rhetorical strategies that many of my graduate students need to re/mediate.  In most cases, we read, respond, and discuss, either in Blackboard Collaborate or on our class forums.  Our online community requires members to post an initial 500-word response to my thread by the third day of each class week, with ensuing 100-word posts at least once to each course member by the end of the week.  Our motto is “post early and post often.”  By the end of each week, students have written more than 1,000 words!

We spend one week (module) reviewing rhetorical terms and applying them to our course objectives.  Then, in the next weekly module, I introduce the blogging assignment. We talk in our forums and in Collaborate, providing each other with additional resources and rhetorical support.  We read draft posts and offer feedback based on organization, content, ideas, syntax, and style.


After using our drafting exercises as sites for collaborative feedback, students take the next weekly module to finalize and publish their four blog posts, each containing at least one visual and/or audio component per post.


Next Steps: Reflections on the Activity
This assignment asks students to balance rhetorical invention with public technical writing.  When my students reflected on this writing opportunity, here’s what they said:


“I enjoyed making this blog. It gave me a chance to take a big part of my real life, and share it with others. I really had to think about my writing, and how it corresponded with some of the multimodalities included.”

– Allison Feldman, Allison’s DIY Wedding Blog


“[The] assignment definitely allowed for creative expression. Not only were the ideas flowing, but I had to work with different technologies, and to make them work properly. I love the fact that this assignment pushed me to think about how effective blogging can be. I’m hopeful to use these strategies to drive traffic to the site.”

– Jeffery Jackson, Jumper Jacks Essay Contest


My Reflection

This assignment works especially well in graduate courses, where students evaluate and compose rhetorics for professional portfolios. I have found also that graduate students often need to review composition conventions, for which “how-to” blogs serve as excellent, low-stakes writing opportunities.


Across courses and academic levels, students are far more likely to engage in authentic rhetorical performances, if they feel that they can exert their agency to improve their writing and meet learning outcomes.  For us as instructors, a vital part of our teaching is our ability to let go of our authority and guide students towards enduring understandings of content, which they research, design, and construct. When we re-focus our efforts around digital, authored performances in these environments, we facilitate rhetorical growth for our students, helping them develop informed voices as they become fluent in multiple discourse communities.


Try this assignment and let me know what you think. Please view/use the project guidelines (edit as you need) and view student samples here: DIY Blogs


Also, please leave me feedback at


Guest blogger Jeanne Law Bohannon is an Assistant Professor in the Digital Writing and Media Arts (DWMA) department at Kennesaw State University. She believes in creating democratic learning spaces, where students become stakeholders in their own rhetorical growth though authentic engagement in class communities. Her research interests include evaluating digital literacies, critical pedagogies, and New Media theory; performing feminist rhetorical recoveries; and growing informed and empowered student scholars. Reach Jeanne at: and

This blog was originally posted on March 12th, 2015.


Bedford/St. Martin’s editor extraordinaire Carolyn Lengel and I have been interviewing student writers as we’re working on a new edition of The Everyday Writer. We haven’t met these students; all we knew is that they had used Everyday Writer in one of their writing classes. As we talked, the students told us when and why they used the book, what they thought it had been helpful for, what about it they liked—or would like to see improved. But we were also interested in HOW they used the book. So we asked them to walk us through one time when they wanted to find information in their handbook—step by step. What they did first, and so on. To our surprise, several students said they began by looking at the words on the tabs to see if it looked like one or more of them contained the information they wanted. A couple of other students said they started by looking at “that list in the front of the book,” a.k.a. the table of contents. Finally, we asked a student if he had checked the index to help him locate what he was looking for. “So, where’s the index?” was his response.


Back in January, I resolved to spend more time introducing students to their indexes, and here was an ideal opportunity. We subsequently asked all the student writers about the index, and most seemed only vaguely familiar with it. The online sources they go to, they pointed out, don’t have indexes. These students, bright and generally school savvy, are not completely savvy about print book conventions. “So, where’s the index?” is a question worth listening to.


I’ve always urged teachers using one of my textbooks to spend class time early on getting the students into the book, showing them what’s there (these books are packed absolutely to the gills with what I’ve learned about teaching writing over 40+ years, so I know they can seem dense!) and how to find information. When I teach with one of these books, I use it frequently, often kicking off my course with the chapter on “Writing to Make Something Happen in the World.” I want students to read this chapter, to hear about the students featured in it, and to ask themselves how they define good writing and how often their writing makes something happen in the world. (I’ve found that students have fabulous stories to tell about such writing!) So we talk about writing as a performance, as active, as something that makes things happen. That’s writing, I find, that they can be committed to.

Keep your handbook close at hand so your students learn to do the same!


I also love to focus some class time on style, using chapters on sentence structure, on language, on word choice, and so on as a platform for workshopping some of their own work. I love working on sentences, taking one from each student and working together to make that sentence “sing.”


What I’ve learned over the decades is that if I want students to get the most out of a textbook, I have to bring it into class on a regular basis, showing them how to make it a valuable friend to their writing and their writing processes. And now I know not to take anything for granted! So early on I’ll ask a series of fairly abstruse questions and ask students to work together to answer them, using their handbook to help. Then we map the processes they used to find the answers, including false starts and missteps as well as successful moves in locating the needed information. And along the way, I make sure to ask, “So, where’s the index?”


[Illustration by GB Tran from the instructor’s edition of The Everyday Writer, fifth edition. Tran’s art will continue to be an intrinsic, exciting part of the forthcoming sixth edition.]

I chose a sequencing approach to the assignments in Emerging.  I thought it might be useful to talk a little bit about why I made that decision, so over the next few posts I hope to offer you an introduction to assignment sequencing—and also some tips on how to make your own sequences.


Sequenced assignments are a series of assignments in which each new prompt builds on the work that was done in the previous assignment.  Students start by working with one essay in one assignment but then return to that same essay as well as a new one in the second assignment and then return again to those readings in the next assignment and so on.  Most sequences are organized around a central idea or theme and students develop their understanding of that idea or theme by working with the different readings repeatedly.


Deciding to use sequencing in Emerging was a bit of a natural choice for me since it’s the approach I learned when I started teaching—I’ve always sequenced assignments.  But I think there are very good reasons for taking this approach:


  1. Critical Thinking. I like the way that sequencing allows me to help students develop their skills with critical thinking.  By using different readings to examine a central theme, students are offered a variety of tools to explore the ideas of that theme.  Sequencing also allows students time to develop more mature understandings of the ideas of a reading since they work with that reading multiple times.  And sequencing presses students to think critically about how they understand readings.  They may feel one way about an author after first reading an essay but by placing that essay in the context of other essays, students are often forced to reconsider their understandings.  Bringing new ideas into play constantly prompts them to think more critically.
  2. Coherence. Sequences bring coherence to my class by establishing a central theme for the semester.  Students spend the class exploring that theme and developing their ideas around it.  It offers them help in terms of writing their assignments, since there emerges a common vocabulary drawn from the readings.  It also then serves as a kind of touchstone for us to consider the world outside the classroom, as current events often reflect and rebound on the theme we’re working on.
  3. Depth. Students develop a depth of understanding because they spend weeks working on the same readings.  Often, on the first assignment working with a reading, students “flatten” the ideas to their simplest dimension.  But as they continually return to and reread the essays they are forced deeper into the ideas of the essay, as well as their limitations.
  4. Scaffolding. I imagine that as they enter their disciplines, students will be expected to produce writing that works with multiple authors (perhaps as a researched assignment but perhaps also just in the context of a final exam).  Sequencing offers them some scaffolded experience with this skill.
  5. Springboard. Similarly, sequencing can serve as a springboard to researched writing.  Students develop two kinds of skills that will serve them in contexts of research.  Not only do they learn to draw from multiple sources in support of their arguments but they also gain experience with sustained work, both within a paper and across the semester.


I don’t think sequencing is for everyone.  And I can tell you now that it has some drawbacks too.  Students, for example, become quite tired of some readings as the semester progresses, though I offer them options in later assignments so that they can jettison works that they have chewed through thoroughly.  Still I do feel that this approach serves students well.  For me, it remains the right choice in my teaching and for Emerging.


Next post: some tips on making your own assignment sequences.

Word clouds highlight the most frequently used words in a text, using larger font sizes for the words used most often and smaller sizes for those used less often. The word cloud below, created with Wordle, highlights the most frequently used words in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

These word clouds can become analytical tools as students look at the words used most frequently and notice which ones stand out.

In my technical writing class, I had students create word clouds using the text from their job application materials (like the example below), and then asked them to think about whether the words that stand out lead to the impression they want to make.

Students noticed some obvious repetition, like the university’s name and cities where they had lived and worked. They also identified words that they repeated too frequently. In the image above, for example, the word enjoy was larger so the student checked her job application materials to decide if she should revise for more variety. The analysis can also help students recognize use of buzzwords or jargon.


Want to try word clouds as revision tools in your classes? Here are the instructions that I gave students. Just adjust them for your students.


  1. Go to the Wordle site and read a bit about how the tool works. Wordle is a free, Java-based tool that can make a word cloud out of any text that is pasted into a form or by using the text on a webpage. It includes some choices for formatting, so that you can change the color and layout of the words. You can also omit commonly used words. The final cloud can be printed or saved.
  2. Click the Create link, and you’ll end up at a form where you can analyze some text.
  3. Go to your job application materials and copy the text. You might copy your résumé and cover letter or the information from your LinkedIn profile, for instance. Ideally, do not copy your name, address, or other contact information to protect your privacy.
  4. Paste what you’ve copied into the form on the Wordle site.
  5. Click the Go button, and the site will present you with a Wordle word cloud, using a random format.
  6. Use the commands under the Layout menu to create a design you like. In particular you might want to change the maximum number of words and whether they words show up as horizontal, vertical, or both.
  7. Use the Color menu to modify the color palette if you’d like.
  8. Get a copy of your Wordle word cloud that you can share by using one of these methods:
    1. Take a screenshot and crop it to just the word cloud.
    2. Print a PDF of the word cloud.
    3. Save to the Public Gallery and grab the URL to your word cloud. If you included your name in the word cloud, this probably isn’t the best choice.
  9. Look over the word cloud and evaluate what you have found: Which words are the largest? Are they the words that you want a recruiter to notice? Does the word cloud inspire you to make any changes?


I had students post their word clouds and observations in the online discussion forum for our class. Once they posted their own word clouds, they reviewed the clouds of their classmates and let them know what stood out in the clouds.


Overall, it was a simple and successful way for students to see their drafts from a different perspective. Do you have a revision strategy that helps students see their drafts from a new point of view? I’d love to hear from you. Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.