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I don’t know how or why it took me so long to find this book, but once I did, I read it straight through (even though it’s nearly 450 pages long). It’s Peter Elbow’s latest work, and surely some of the best work he has done in his long and brilliant career. Check it out!


As you no doubt know, Elbow published Writing without Teachers way back in 1973, making a case for allowing students to write freely as a way to find their voice. He is an ardent and eloquent proponent of freewriting (a term coined by the late Ken Macrorie), and this latest book (published, like Writing without Teachers, by Oxford UP) carries on this tradition, but now with a decided twist. The subtitle of the book is “What Speech Can Bring to Writing,” and his answer is summed up in two words: “a LOT.” From the introductory part, in which he distinguishes between speech and writing before demonstrating the very large areas of overlap, to his closing meditation on the future, when he believes (and I agree wholeheartedly) that vernacular eloquence will be fully recognized and that writing in vernaculars will be accepted and valued in schools and out, he held my attention. This text is pure Peter Elbow: while reading it, I felt as though I were in a spoken conversation with him. He writes clearly and lucidly, examining his subject from one angle, then another, patiently surveying all perspectives and acknowledging counterarguments while still sticking to his guns.


I am perhaps most impressed with the breadth of the scholarship that underpins this book. Now I’ve been studying the history of writing and literacy for decades, and for about 15 years I taught a course on this subject. I always began the course (which I titled “The Language Wars”) with the struggle for the vernacular in Europe, tracing how ever so slowly the “high” languages eventually made way for the low vernacular, as in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or in Dante’s masterful Divine Comedy. Along the way we looked at other struggles—over the English Only movement in the U.S., over African American vernacular, for example (the great Ebonics brouhaha in Oakland included), and eventually over what constitutes “good” writing in the academy today. We read Lee Tonouchi writing in pidgin Hawaiian, Geneva Smitherman switching from formal academic discourse to African American vernacular to create powerful connections with audiences, Warren Liew explaining the struggle over “Singlish” in Singapore—and a whole lot more.


While reading Vernacular Eloquence, I found that Elbow had apparently read everything I ever read on the subject of literacy and vernaculars, that he had gone back to Janet Emig’s early work differentiating speech and writing and carefully analyzed and responded to it and other work  it inspired, that he had read deeply in anthropological literature (starting with Goody and Watt’s influential text and apparently everything Shirley Heath has written), that he was thoroughly versed in the debate over orality and literacy carried out in the works and careers of Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, and others, that he was in conversation with Suresh Canagarajah, Vershawn Young, and others who write about “code meshing” and “code switching,” and that he was ready to talk about all this work in the most straightforward, clear way possible.


Note that I said “talk,” rather than “write.” For Elbow’s book talks the talk and walks the walk: it is itself a demonstration of his subtitle—what speech can bring to writing. As I wrote to Peter after reading his book, I agree with him about the deep relationship between speaking and writing, especially in this digital age, and about the power that speaking strategies can bring to writing (one immediately recognizable strategy is the use of repetition for special emphasis, but there are lots of others).


Some years ago, two of my former students and I did a directed reading course on the question “How is writing performative?” We spent ten weeks reading, talking, and arguing, and in the end we came up with a list of ways in which writing can be a performance, from the obvious performing for the teacher to syntax and word choice. In fact, one student used the list of features we came up with to create a software program he called the “performativity rater.” It looked for things like repetition, images and figurative language, action verbs, rhythmic patterns, and four or five other elements, all of which create a sense of movement, of action, and of performance. I think Peter would love the performativity rater!


So Bravo to Peter Elbow for this learned, provocative, and forward-looking book. Just say “yes” to vernacular eloquence!

TED Talks are great teaching tools.  Each is visual, engaging, focused, and contemporary.  I think they make excellent supplements to the readings in Emerging, particularly because many of the text’s authors have been TED speakers.  And the interactive transcript is a bonus feature, letting students work with the text of each talk.


In this series of posts I want to highlight some particularly useful TED Talks and suggest some of the ways to use them in the classroom.




Why It’s Great: Thomas Friedman’s “The Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention” is another very popular essay in Emerging.  On its face, his argument feels quite intuitive—the notion that global supply chains have sointerconnecTED countries as to promote geopolitical stability, though these same supply chains are used by terrorists.  Ghemawat argues against the idea of a “flat” world, using persuasive evidence.  He thus usefully complicates Friedman’s argument.


Using It: Friedman’s “Dell Theory” is predicated on a deeply interconnected and globalized world.  If Ghemawat is correct in claiming that our perception of an interconnected world is “globaloney” then on what grounds, if any, does Friedman’s argument still stand?  If globalization doesn’t account for political stability then what other factors might?

Traci Gardner

Mentoring Resources

Posted by Traci Gardner Expert May 26, 2015

This week, I want to share the resources I developed, with help from some colleagues, for mentoring new attendees at the 2015 Computers and Writing Conference in Menomonie, Wisconsin this weekend. Even if you are not going to the conference, I think you’ll find resources that could be helpful to you or someone you know.


We built a website, Computers & Writing Conference Mentoring, which features a collection of resources for first-timers and mentors. The site includes tips and advice, first-timer stories, and suggestions for documenting participation at the conference. The information covers a variety of areas, such as basic writing, professional communication, writing centers, writing across the curriculum, and writing about writing pedagogy.


The pages for online resources and social media links have pointers to professional organization websites, journals, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and related materials. The definitions & acronyms page explains all those terms, current and historical, that may be unfamiliar to someone new to the field. When you visit the site, if you have suggestions for resources we can add or link to, please use the Contact Us form to send your suggestion.


We are also matching first-time attendees with experienced conference-goers. If you will be at the conference, please fill out the C&W 2015 Mentoring Sign-Up if you are a first-timer or would like to be a mentor.


Mentoring is such an important part of what we do as teachers. Even if all we do is point a new colleague in the right direction, we can make an important difference. How do you mentor colleagues and students at your school or online? If you have ideas for improving the resources we have collected or just want to share a success story, please leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+. And if you will be at Computers and Writing this weekend, be sure we find each other.

For a crowd-sourced blog post for “Beyond the Basics, ” I invited participants on the Council on Basic Writing Facebook page to respond to the following question: What one piece of advice would you offer to new teachers of Basic Writing? Why?


The responses clustered around three main themes:


  • Create classroom community
  • Draw on compelling pedagogy
  • Offer compassion, empathy, and transparency


While this advice may be especially helpful for new teachers, all of us can benefit from the ideas presented here, and the range of experiences suggested by the respondents.  I have not imposed separate categories, since these themes intersect as tributaries meeting at the same wide ocean.  Through deeply embodied pedagogy, the respondents theorize practice and emphasize the passion necessary for our work together with students.


Participants were self-selected and their contributions are listed in alphabetical order.  Thanks to everyone that responded, and please follow the Council on Basic Writing Facebook page for additional opportunities to participate in other crowd-sourced posts throughout the summer and in the next academic year.

Ann Amicucci Teaching basic writing means teaching writing confidence. Students need to be shown (or reminded of) what they’re capable of as writers. We can give them opportunities to develop writing confidence by crafting situations in which students write on topics they care about and are genuinely interested in and in which they have the chance to explore ideas through words without the fear of being told those words or the ways they’ve used them are wrong.


Elizabeth Baldridge Get to know your students, and respect and care about them as human beings. That is the most important work I do every semester.


Andrea Dickens Asking each student to set one writing goal for themselves each term allows them to start to think of themselves as capable of guiding their own learning. It allows them to move beyond passively accepting their writing abilities or lack thereof as being fixed, and lets them start to feel empowered about improvement.


Traci Gardner Allow for multiple modes of communication and multiple languages in your assignments and activities. Basic writers may struggle with the linguistic mode of expression in academic situations, but they are fluent readers, writers, and creators in many other scenarios. Find activities that let them demonstrate their understanding of visual composing by including photos, cartoons, mind maps and similar visual elements. Invite them to bridge from the languages they are best at to the language of the classroom with activities that focus on dictionary writing and definition. Respecting students’ existing communication skills is key to expanding their capabilities.


Ann Etta Green RE Commenting: less is more. RE Writing: more is more.


Nicole Hancock This is really basic, but learn students’ names on the first day of class and make sure they know what you would like to be called. It is especially important for Basic Writers to know that you see them each as individuals with stories to be told, and learning names is a good first step. Also, take the time to go over bits of the syllabus that are less intuitive: how office hours work, what we mean when we say the book is required vs. recommended, how the grading will work, how to read your assignment calendar. Instead of covering the entire syllabus at length in the first day, spread it out across the first week and reserve class-time for getting them writing and talking as soon as possible. This, more than anything else, will show students what the class is supposed to be.


Dale Katherine Ireland We teach best when we meet our students where they are. Because our students in basic writing classes arrive with differing skills and strengths, the basic writing class thrives in a student-centered learning frame; our students benefit when they teach to learn and learn to teach. Meeting our students where they are means we can invite them to teach and advance their strengths as they develop new strengths. When we join our students as co-learners, we help make learning transparent, including the benefit of failing, taking risks, and trying again.


Joanna Howard I would add patience to the mix— and the ability to be patient while holding high standards. That is, patience during those times the students are trying something new, and are frustrated with their progress and results. That’s the moment to reassure them that they will get there. Because they will.


Cara Minardi Be kind. Allow students opportunities to use writing as healing themselves of past intellectual hurts.


Lynn Reid All of the above AND: Experienced writers have internalized many things about writing that are implicit and implied. Make these things visible to your students as often as you can. Provide model texts that highlight the difference between successful and less-successful attempts at the assignments you have created so that students can see the contrast. When you model, help students to see not only the structures of a text, but also the thinking that underlies those structures. Always ask students to explain the logic behind the way they structured their own papers because, however it might look, they almost always had a plan in mind. Listening to what it looks like from their perspective will tell you a lot.


[Dale Katherine Ireland (I just had to respond to Lynn) Lynn Reid, yes to all you say, especially this: "When you model, help students to see not only the structures of a text, but also the thinking that underlies those structures." It's important that we help students understand their writing moves as choices. Asking students to consider the choices other writers make helps make the concept of choices more transparent. This thread has lifted me today. Thank all of you very much.]


Kristen Ruccio Give students rights to their own stories and language. Our basic writing students often expect the system to fail them–because it has in so many ways. Don’t begin your relationship in that punitive vein. Most importantly, these are not basic people, so don’t lower your expectations for them.


Lynn Buncher Shelly Build community within your classroom (I learned this from Ann Amicucci)


Bradley Smith Imagine: year after year, having to face of English teachers giving you bad grades, marking up your essays with errors in convention, telling you it’s not good enough. Understandably, a lot of basic writers don’t like writing all that much—or at least what they write in school. A basic writing instructor’s job is to get such students to enjoy writing, to get them invested in the class. Once you have accomplished that feat with some (you won’t reach them all) those students can be proud of their work, critically assess their writing, and begin to work on their issues.


Jessi Lea Ulmer Do not treat the students like they are stupid. Most students in my basic writing classes are more than capable of writing full out essays, but have come to dislike writing since they were forced to write paragraphs or five-paragraph essays over and over. If you take the time to walk students through the process of writing, you will be amazed at what they can produce, even at the very beginning of the semester!


Chris Vassett Maintain high expectations, avoid grammar instruction (it is insulting to begin the college experience with such hegemonic soul crushing instruction), assign college level reading, and read Patrick Sullivan’s, “A Lifelong Aversion to Writing: What If Writing Courses Emphasized Motivation?”–Teaching English in the Two-Year College v39 n2 p118 Dec 2011.

In March, I attended the 55th reunion of my class at Ketterlinus High School in St. Augustine, Florida. There were perhaps 25 of us there, out of a class of around 100, which seemed pretty darned good to me. Being with people I hadn’t seen—some for 55 years—was, well, bracing. To my surprise and delight, I recognized my BFFs and had a great time catching up with them and trading stories about our classes and teachers (including our elderly Southern belle English teacher, who praised us to the skies but never put anything but a grade on our papers, and our tough-as-nails chemistry teacher, who could raise welts on the arms of those who didn’t do their homework). We looked at old photos of our young selves and reminisced about our grand class trip on a bus all the way to New York City, where we got to see a real Broadway play, my first: Auntie Mamestarring Rosalind Russell.


On my way home, I thought of our school, with its small and poorly stocked library, its single football (for boys only; no girls’ sports then), its austere classrooms, and its lack of language or any other labs. Yet we read and wrote and learned—and many of us somehow made it in to college. I went on to teach high school (11th grade was my fave) before I returned to graduate school, and during my college teaching career I’ve spent as much time in high schools as possible. And, oh my, how things have changed—and not changed. I still visit schools with very limited facilities, with small and out-of-date libraries, and with very poor funding. But even as legislatures have fiddled away fortunes, teachers and strong administrators have been working for students—and sometimes even bringing legislators along with them. When I had a chance to spend a day at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, I found a very diverse and vibrant community proud of its public high school, and proud of its history of having integrated just a few years after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling. Here’s the plaque I saw just outside the main office celebrating this history:


Plaque at T. C. Williams High School


I walked the halls lined with photos of students who have won awards and scholarships, of graduates who have gone on to colleges, graduate schools, and careers. “Titan Pride,” they say. I saw the spacious cafeteria with its many choices, the expansive gymnasium, the big, bright library, computer labs, and—be still my heart—the Writing Center, where Laurel Taylor holds “write ins” for teachers to bring their classes in to write on the spot, and where some graduates serve as consultants. And I visited the room of English teacher Sarah Kiyak, filled with posters, photos of authors, and student artwork and writing. The school day was over, but students kept drifting in to Ms. Kiyak’s room, talking with her, asking questions, giving her news, and getting hugs. When the teachers arrived for our seminar, the students were still talking and were reluctant to leave. I chatted with five or six students, who were full of dreams of college. Later, Sarah told me that this school (3,500 strong) had been labeled “poorly performing” for years. But somehow the powers that be in Virginia were persuaded to provide some additional funding—enough to hire more teachers, lower class sizes, and update some equipment. And lo and behold, graduation rates and scores steadily improved. Titan pride.


Titan Pride!


I left feeling uplifted, as I always do when I’ve been with teachers and students. So BRAVA/BRAVO T. C. Williams, where they are living out the motto of the National Association of Colored Women: “Lifting as we climb.” I saw plenty of climbing at T. C. Williams, and plenty of lifting, too.

Jack Solomon

Mad Men: The Finale

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert May 21, 2015

I swear that I am not a fan of the now finally concluded television series, Mad Men (indeed, my returning to it provides an example of how popular cultural semiotics is not driven by what one likes but by what one finds significant), and danged if the much-anticipated final episode hasn’t proven to be strikingly significant.


I refer to the Esalen-like experience that concludes the episode.  Don Draper, it appears, has found peace and enlightenment at Big Sur.  He’s found his inner AUM. Peace, man.


But not so fast.  After all, there is also that reprise of one of the signature advertisements of the era (Coca Cola goes countercultural) that has all the Mad Men-ologists agog.  Is the whole point that mellow Don is going to return to Madison Avenue and create that ode to smarminess after all?  That he hasn’t changed a bit?


That’s one theory at least.  And it makes a lot of sense, because whether it’s what Matt Weiner had in mind or not, the cultural implications of the final episode are perfect.  For Mad Men ends just where the cultural revolution of the sixties got overtaken by commerce—when thecounterculture began to morph into the counter culture, erstwhile Aquarians transforming themselves into entrepreneurs, selling everything from organic cereal to Apple computers, and Esalen found that its 120 acres of priceless shoreline could command (at a recent estimate) as much as $6750 for a week-long workshop.  Or, to put it the way Thomas Frank has put it, here is where the “commodification of dissent” really began to get into high gear.


So, Mad Men ends just at the point that the spirit of the sixties began to swerve towards the America that we know today: a place of ever-growing socio-economic inequality, neoliberal ideology, and where the billionaire businessman is a culture hero (can you spell “Elon Musk”)?  It didn’t happen all at once.  Yuppies didn’t appear until the mid-seventies, the fetishization of Wall Street wealth was an eighties thing, and it wasn’t until the nineties that “business plans” really got cool.  But by 1971, the 180 degree shift away from everything that the Age of Aquarius thought it stood for was detectable—especially in the signals sent by that over-the-top advertisement for a sugary beverage that sought to equate drinking a Coke with a children’s crusade to save the world.


Exactly the sort of thing Don Draper would come up with.  Count me with the skeptics:  Don hasn’t found enlightenment; he’s found the next new wave in American consumer capitalism.

TED Talks are great teaching tools. Each is visual, engaging, focused, and contemporary. I think they make excellent supplements to the readings in Emerging, particularly because many of the text’s authors have been TED speakers. And the interactive transcript is a bonus feature, letting students work with the text of each talk.


In this series of posts I want to highlight some particularly useful TED Talks and suggest some of the ways to use them in the classroom.


The Talk: Kwame Anthony Appiah: Is Religion Good or Bad (This Is a Trick Question)




Why It’s Great: Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Cosmopolitanism” and “The Primacy of Practice” are in some ways at the heart of Emerging because they encapsulate ideas that run throughout the text: we lived in a deeply interconnecTED world and so we had better find a way to get along. In this talk, Appiah explodes the very idea of religion while focusing on what people do. This discussion of practices (and the ways they can be misinterpreTED) makes for a useful supplement to his reading in the text.


Using It: In what ways is religion a collection of practices? What role do values have to play in religion? Which has primacy in people’s lives and which has primacy in the ways in which we think about religion?

While the students I teach are typically adept at personal uses of social media, they often need to learn how to use digital tools for professional purposes as they prepare for their future careers.


This week, I had a personal experience that will make a great discussion starter to talk with students about audience and social media. It all started with my decision to replace my three-year-old phone while keeping my unlimited data plan. I went into the Verizon store and said I needed two things: I wanted to buy a new phone at full price, and I did not want to change my contract in anyway.


When I got home and checked my account online, I found that they had dropped both my unlimited data plan and my mobile hotspot. I sent out a couple of complaints to the customer support accounts on Twitter:


No one was minding the corporate Twitter feed, so I decided to deal with the problem in the morning. I woke up to these two responses on Twitter:

Someone at Verizon probably thought that was a cute, stress-reducing response. To me, it felt patronizing. Some Verizon support employee was patting me on the head and treating me as if I had a booboo that needed kissed to make it all better. Um, no.


Sprint, on the other hand, took advantage of the situation to encourage me to change carriers. Their reply was opportunistic, but at least they weren’t belittling me. They wanted to engage in a professional conversation with a potential customer.


These two replies make perfect discussion starters for talking about audience and social media. I’ll ask students to compare the two responses and discuss about how they would respond as the customer and on behalf of the company. After some discussion, I’ll set up an in-class exchange among three or four groups of students:


  • Group 1: The wronged customer
  • Group 2: The customer’s service provider (e.g., Verizon)
  • Group 3: An alternate provider (e.g., Sprint)
  • Group 4: Another alternate provider (e.g., AT&T)


I would pitch a similar scenario to the group representing the wronged customer while the other groups did some fast research on the company they represent. The first group would share their complaint, and the other groups would respond. Groups can post their proposed Tweets on a Padlet, so that we can avoid creating one-time use Twitter accounts. I would encourage them to think about the role of time as they come up with their responses as well. I’m eager to see what they can come up with, in 140 characters or less.


Do you have favorite social media examples? Have suggestions for teaching students about audience and tone in social networking? I’d love to hear from you. Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.

Kelly_Pic cropped.jpgToday’s guest blogger is Caitlin L. Kelly, a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology where she teaches multimodal composition courses using 18th- and 19th-century British literature and serves as a Professional Tutor in the Communication Center. Alongside work on the intersection of religion and genre in British literature of the Long Eighteenth Century, she is also interested in exploring applications of a multimodal approach to composition to traditional literature pedagogy.


One of the most difficult assignments to teach is the one at the heart of most college composition courses: the research project. Taking students from brainstorming a topic to a polished argument over the course of a semester is daunting; in the composition classroom, we are tasked with teaching—under very inorganic circumstances—a research process that should evolve organically. And one of the most challenging parts of that process for many students is learning how to engage with sources once they have found them. This is where the listicle comes into play in my courses.


The listicle provides a dedicated space where students can explore the many different arguments that they can make with the sources they have found in researching their topics. It can then become a form of multimodal outline and first draft. The listicle can also help to emphasize that any presentation of research—written, oral, visual, and multimodal—has a narrative and tells a story. In this way, it has much in common with Andrea Lunsford’s Storify assignment in which she harnesses the affordances of that multimodal platform to collect evidence and “pull all the pieces together to see what results.”


What’s a Listicle?
A listicle is a hybrid genre, an article in list form. While listicles can be found in a variety of print and digital publications, the genre is best known for its use on the websites Buzzfeed and Cracked. As a result, listicles are often not considered as “professional” and appropriate for “serious” subjects. Slowly, however, that view has been changing, and that is good for composition teachers. Not only does it make the genre more accessible to us as educators but also it allows students to participate in its evolution.


As defenders of the listicle have pointed out, the genre is responding to our need to deal with the ever-increasing multitudes of data that are readily available to us. Listicles give us a tool with which to “curate” that information, and they provide “additional ways to interact with [it]” and act as “jumping off points” for further research. As Maria Konninkova explains in the New Yorker, listicles do the “mental heavy lifting of conceptualization, categorization, and analysis” at the outset. In a digital environment, this improves the chances that readers will indeed read—and understand.


Learning Objectives
Jessie Miller, writing about her multimodal annotated bibliography assignment, describes the way that using “a visual display of information to map out the interplay between their sources” can be an effective way “to get students to see source use as an engaging and active practice.” The same can be said of listicles. Additionally, in composing a listicle, students gain:

  • a space to explore the many stories their research can tell,
  • a chance to focus on how the parts of their argument relate,
  • an opportunity to explore communicating specialized, academic topics in a way that is accessible for wide audiences,
  • a better understanding of copyright, and
  • practice in attributing sources in a digital environment.


The Assignment
After spending the first 4-6 weeks of the semester reading and exploring potential research topics, students first put together a robust annotated bibliography. Using those bibliographies, the students remix the information into a listicle. In the process, I also make a point of discussing how the structure of the listicle maps onto more traditional writing assignments. Assigning readings on drafting, constructing arguments, and revision from texts like The St. Martin’s Handbook are all options, depending on your students’ needs and how you are using the assignment. Chapter 1 of Everything’s An Argument would be a particularly good pairing if you want your students to identify a specific type of argument that they want to make in their listicles.


In terms of what platforms the students use to present their listicles, I leave that up to them to determine. They have found that free website builders like Weebly, Wix, WordPress, and the like are good options for this project. With its emphasis on images, Tumblr can also be an effective platform. A few students have even posted their work on Medium and on Buzzfeed Community. Each platform presents a different range of affordances, so students also have a chance to reflect on the ways that various platforms inform their composition strategies.


The assignment also affords students with a unique opportunity to practice using images alongside textual evidence in their arguments. An effective listicle uses images to advance its argument and to connect with a wider, nonacademic audience. These are vital skills for students, particularly those in STEM fields. Images can be used to present evidence, help readers to visualize complex concepts, or to demonstrate significance or perspective. Students can even create images to use by taking their own photographs and creating their own graphics. Determining what permissions are required to use these images and the appropriate ways of attributing them provide invaluable lessons in applying traditional methods of citation to digital environments where the rules are still emerging.  I have included sample assignment instructions, and below is a template showing the first section of a listicle and the defining characteristics of the genre.

Kelly_MultimodalMondays_5.18.15_draft 2 template.jpg

Finally, because the listicle is such an exploratory assignment, reflection is an especially important part of the process. That reflective work can be done formally by making reflection an explicit part of the assignment or, as I have done, reflection can occur in the course of peer review. I schedule two class sessions for peer review. In the first I ask students to bring several copies of the written parts of the listicle–the title, section titles, and short paragraphs for each section. Then, they cut those up and have classmates reassemble them. Many students find that the story they are hoping to tell is not the one that their readers anticipate or find engaging. So, in drafting their listicles the students have taken the first step in determining what it is they want to say; in giving a fragmented draft of the listicle to their peers, they get to see how readers would use the same sources in different ways. The next step for students is reconciling those different views and determining which path it is that they want to take—how they want to enter the conversation. For the second peer review, then, the students bring a draft in which they have assembled all of the parts of the listicle in the media they will submit it in. Here, they refine the presentation of their research narratives and the emphasis shifts to tone, style, design, and attribution.


Concluding Thoughts
One of the most exciting things about incorporating a listicle assignment in a composition class is its newness as a genre and its flexibility. A listicle might be one step on the way to a larger project or it might be the larger project itself. A listicle could also be formal or informal, left in draft form or polished, composed offline or online—depending on the instructor’s needs and learning objectives. An emphasis could be put on research, genre, public writing, digital writing or any combination thereof. There is plenty of room to develop the listicle as a genre and assignment for a variety of purposes, making it highly accessible for composition teachers at all levels and institutions.


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

Last week I wrote about the urgent necessity to teach students to listen rhetorically, that is, to try as hard as possible to hear what the other person or group is saying—from their point of view. Listening has dropped out of the curriculum in most college classes, but it seems to me we have never been in more urgent need of people who can listen openly and fairmindedly.


Then this week I picked up a book I’ve been looking forward to for some time, the published version of Nick Sousanis’s Columbia dissertation, the first done entirely in comic book format. The book is called Unflattening and it is just out from Harvard University Press. (I first mentioned this book here.)


I heard Sousanis discuss his dissertation, now book, when he visited Stanford’s Graphic Narrative Project a year or so ago, but I hadn’t had time to take a real look at it until a few days ago. And what a literal eye-opener it is! The book opens with a visual/verbal meditation on how we have been taught to see only in “flat” ways—that is in cookie-cutter, unidimensional, static ways. The images are plodding along, eyes cast down, unseeing:


Page from Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening


Another page from Unflattening



The figures all “stay in line,” as though there were “a great weight descending, suffocating and ossifying; flatness permeates the landscape,” and “so pervasive are the confines, inhabitants neither see them nor realize their own role in perpetuating them.” Cogs in a machine, seeing through narrow, narrow blinders. Seeing becomes “standardized” and “boxed into bubbles of our own making: (5, 8, 14). This condition comes, Sousanis argues, from the division of mind and body (think Plato) that becomes reified in Descartes’s “I think; therefore I am.” These thinkers led the way to “flattening” our vision by turning ever inward, to the mind or the eternal truths.


Sousanis sets out to unflatten our ways of seeing, and he does so in a stunning merger of images and words. As he says, images are what IS; words are always ABOUT. But the two together can open new vistas of imagination for us through unflattening, which he defines as “a simultaneous engagement of multiple vantage points from which to engender new ways of seeing” (32). The rest of the book explores this possibility, showing how we can see things one-at-a-time and all-at-once, as we do an image. We need both images and words to get not only to new ways of seeing and apprehending but to new ways of knowing and being in the world. I could not stop reading this book—and I will be returning to it again and again as I try to teach myself to be unflattened.

Jack Solomon

My High Wire Act

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert May 14, 2015

Several weeks ago I promised in one of my blogs that I would share the results of an exercise in critical thinking that I was preparing to conduct with faculty in my role as Director of Assessment and Program Review at my university.  Since the outcome of this exercise is equally relevant to the teaching of critical reading and writing—not to mention popular cultural semiotics—I am glad to be able to keep my promise here.


Let’s begin with my premises and anticipations.  My fundamental premise is that there is an elemental core to all acts of critical thinking, no matter what the academic discipline or real world context.  As I mentioned in my earlier blog, I call this the what .  .  . so what then? basis of critical thinking.  That is, in all instances, critical thinking constitutes a precise identification of a problem or topic (what) and moves from that to an exploration of its ramifications, meanings, or (as in the case of a problem) possible solutions (so what then?).


Now, I anticipated (and will continue to anticipate) some objections to this claim.  Its worst feature is its claim of universality, which is a frequent characteristic of definitions of critical thinking, including those that are currently most influential in the teaching and assessment of critical thinking in this country.  Most standardized tests of critical thinking, for example, lean heavily on the traditional philosophical definition: that critical thinking constitutes the ability to spot—and formally identify—logical and argumentative fallacies.  I happen to agree that such an ability is necessary to effective critical thinking, but I also think that it is too narrow a definition, and, more importantly, too passive.  It enables one to identify a fallacy in somewhat else’s thinking (critical reading) but it does not describe how to think critically (and creatively) oneself, beyond pointing out what to avoid.


A second extremely influential definition of critical thinking in assessment circles is based in educational psychology, and centers on something called Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is a hierarchical description of the cognitive functions that take place in the course of critical thinking.  Once again, I have no quarrel with this approach, but it, too, is rather narrow, and, more importantly, too abstract.  I mean, when thinking critically one doesn’t say, “now I am going to use my knowledge,” “now I am going to comprehend,” “now I am going to apply,” “now I am going to analyze,” and so on and so forth.  Critical thinking is a lot more like riding a bicycle: when you are doing it you are doing it, not consciously isolating each muscular and mental component in your movement.


But what about the what  .  .  .  so what then? descriptor?  What I wanted to demonstrate to my faculty is that that is precisely what is going on in their minds when they are engaged in critical thinking, whether their initialwhat is a problem to be solved in business and marketing, or a topic to be taught and analyzed in an ethnic studies course.  I was way up on the high wire without a net in trying to do this, but I didn’t fall, even when business/marketing and ethnic studies examples were volunteered from the participants in the session.  In fact, those two examples, serendipitously proposed by my faculty colleagues, served as the core examples for our discussion and helped establish the fundamental continuities between otherwise widely diverging acts of critical thought.


One of the key elements of the movement from what to so what then? in our discussion was the importance of the analysis of assumptions (this is one of the features of critical thinking that you can find on the VALUE rubric for critical thinking)—in cultural semiotics, this analysis is called the evaluation of cultural mythologies.  Another point that a faculty member brought up was the importance of considering alternatives in thinking critically—in semiotics, this is referred to as the overdetermination inherent in semiotic analysis.


For my part, I stressed the importance of being very clear on the what (in semiotics, the denotation of the sign) before moving to the interpretativeso what then? (in semiotics, the connotation of the sign).  I also noted how the movement from what to so what then? required historical and situational contextualization (in semiotics, the construction of systems of association and difference.)


In other words, the semiotic model worked as a fundamental descriptor of what we are already doing when we are thinking critically.  This was even the case when a colleague who is a composition specialist noted that in rhetoric one is concerned with a who, not a what.  But when I pointed out that a who stands in the place of the what that a rhetorician must first identify before moving to a persuasive strategy, we were able to agree that whos are whats, too.


OK, I know that I’m starting to sound like Dr. Seuss.  The point is, my exercise worked.  The complete practical description of how to teach, and perform, critical thinking according to this model can be found in Signs of Life in the U.S.A. 

TED Talks are great teaching tools.  Each is visual, engaging, focused, and contemporary.  I think they make excellent supplements to the readings in Emerging, particularly because many of the text’s authors have been TED speakers.  And the interactive transcript is a bonus feature, letting students work with the text of each talk.


In this series of posts I want to highlight some particularly useful TED Talks and suggest some of the ways to use them in the classroom.


The Talk: Daniel Gilbert: The Surprising Science of Happiness



Why It’s Great: Daniel Gilbert’s “Reporting Live From Tomorrow” is a particularly agile essay since its ideas about our future happiness can beconnecTED to any number of essays in Emerging.  Gilbert has a few TED Talks (see also this one and this one) but this particular talk intersects most usefully with “Reporting Live from Tomorrow.”  In it Gilbert elaborates on his work with happiness, showing how “synthetic happiness,” in which we end up happy even though we don’t get what we want, is just as real as “natural happiness.”  The talk is useful for expanding students’ understanding of what it takes to make us happy.


Using It: Gilbert concludes by saying that “our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.”  Synthesize this conclusion with his work on surrogates. What role do surrogates play in synthetic happiness?

Last Thursday, Here and Now’s story on “Social Media Buzz” included a discussion of livestreaming and stormchasers. The story started on a positive note, discussing how posts on social media sometimes reach people with word of an impending storm more quickly than news updates and the National Weather Service. Yay! Social media helps people!


Then the perspective changed. Host Robin Young talked about how stormchasers sometimes continue to film a storm when they should be taking cover. She commented, “Social media drives people to do things they might not otherwise do.” Boo! Social media is the devil!


Sigh. No. Social media is not driving people to do anything. People do not say, “Oh, I have social media so I have to do this.” You can blame the love of attention, a desire for approval, and perhaps an adrenaline rush. The motivations in this case are similar to those that a daredevil or actor might have. Yet, as an example, I don’t recall anyone ever saying Evel Knievel was driven (pun intended) to jump a canyon because cars encouraged him to do things he might not otherwise do.


Social media may help stormchasers reach an audience in ways that bring them attention, approval, and an adrenaline rush, but social media itself isn’t doing anything. Unfortunately, stories that blame Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram are quite common, despite their basis on causal fallacies. I wasn’t even looking, and I happened upon “Woman: My Facebook obsession caused divorce” from my local television station.


My colleague Kathy Fitch found a more developed example in an ESPN article that seems to blame Instagram for the suicide of a student at that University of Pennsylvania. Alongside an image of the student, the article explains, “The Instagram account of Madison Holleran seemed to show a successful and happy college freshman. But behind the scenes, the University of Pennsylvania track athlete was struggling with her mental health.”


As Fitch responded, “Suicide and depression thrived in the days before social media. Did it have a role in her distorted view of life? Yes, of course. Causal? No.” My response to the story was a bit more literary: A person wandering through the world. Everyone thinks everything is fine. Some even envy the person. Um, “Richard Cory,” anyone?


So what’s my point, beyond having a rant? If I can borrow Nick Carbone’s hashtag, media stories like these seem #worthassigning. They raise questions about cause and effect, the role of social media, and the ways we communicate. How would you use these readings in the classroom? Do you have an example reading that blames social media for what’s wrong with the world? I’d love to hear from you. Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.


[Photo: Cute Lil Devil by Crystal Agozzino, on Flickr]

Today’s guest blogger is Jeanne Bohannon.


I have written several posts this semester about how to re/mix traditional writing assignments into meaningful, multimodal compositions. Today’s post is my last for the semester, so I want to wrap up with one last re/mixed mission from a traditional research essay and then yield the post to my students to share their thoughts about “doing” multimodalities.


For me, democratic learning must include students’ buy-in to a project, from the building of the assignment parameters to the learning outcomes.  Making these digital endeavors meaningful to students’ lives is also vital to engendering rhetorical writing.  Projects that center on building meaningful digital literacies also enhance authentic engagement and meet the same learning outcomes as traditional “Dear Teacher” essays. But you don’t have to take my word for it.  Hear it from my students, who have worked with multimodal assignments throughout a semester at a large, state comprehensive university:

“Multimodal pieces should be fun and engaging to read. Breaking up long stretches of text with other kinds of media is like giving the readers a short break. It’s less taxing, and the readers will be more likely to devote their time (which they are very protective of) to reading what you wrote. – Matthew Russell


“Multimodal writing deals with being able to communicate through a digital space. Whether it be Facebook or WordPress, writers need to be able to communicate effectively in these spaces.” – Anon.


“Multimodal breaks the mold of standard, mind-numbing assignments.  Especially at the end of a course, multiple papers in the same format can hinder creativity.  Multimodal assignments give the student a chance to write in a new field and reinvigorate the mind.” – Anon.


This public text construction comes at the end a course, after students have drafted a series of micro-studies, demonstrating their understanding of language conventions in digital spaces.  This blogging re/mix further affords students opportunities for peer feedback and self-assessment.


Throughout the course, students practice applying grammar and syntactic structures in unconventional ways across digital platforms in social and public media.  Blogs are spaces that incorporate these elements into a rhetoric of content creation.


Multimodal blog posts providing spaces for self-assessment and peer comments, re/imagined from a traditional, academic essay that was originally a series of analytical studies.


Goals and Measurable Learning Objectives

  • Apply composition strategies to an electronic writing space
  • Create blogs as rhetorical, content-management devices
  • Synthesize content-meaning through critical production of digital texts


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
First, choose a previous research assignment.  Our original assignment was a series of micro-studies, in which students chose an aspect or element of digital linguistic discourse and analyzed it through a the lens or race, gender, or class.  In the past, I have also used annotated bibliographies.


My students and I run this writing assignment late in the semester, as a re/mix of a previous one.  Prior to starting the process, the class reads, responds to, and discusses multimodalities of texts and content management across digital discourses. We read UNC’s Blogging Tips andPopular Media Writing Tips.  We also peer review each other’s original micro-studies and offer ideas for relevant topics and avenues for re/mix.


In Class and/or Out
For the re/mixed mission, students take one aspect of their writing from each micro-study or other research project, and re/vise it as blog posts to include at least two multimodalities (Bohannon’s Model) in addition to text.  Students construct four blog posts and provide feedback on at least three posts from their coursemates. Every semester, I crowd-source assignment details with the whole class, so each semester the assignment looks different based on students’ input. The basic requirements are

  1. Three 500+ word multimodal posts on a WordPress or Edublogs site based on     research this semester.  Incorporate at least two multimodal elements for each post in    addition to text, with at least three tags per post.
  2. Read the posts of at least three coursemates.  Comment on their blogs in >100 words, using the rhetorical analysis tools you have gained so far in our     discussions. Submit the following in the Discussion Forum — “Blogs:’
      • Link to your blog so colleagues can read your posts
      • Comments to your colleagues (as new threads under their posts)
      • Reflection on your work IN GENERAL (initial post)
      • If you get to a blog that has at least TWO comments, go the next blog.

Students complete part 1 of the assignment outside of class; part 2 requires students to comment on their own and each other’s work, so some of it is completed in-class.  I ask students to set their blogs to “moderate comments,” to ensure that they read their colleagues’ observations.  To corral the large number of blogs and comments, I also require students to post links to their blogs and comments on coursemates’ blogs in a discussion forum, embedded in a learning management system (LMS) such as one provided by your university or Canvas.


Student Examples of Re/Mixed Multimodal Blog Posts


The Joy of Multimodality – M.Russell














Instructions for a Multimodal Portfolio — A.Obrentz





















Wydopen: The Rhetoric of Baltimore Mothers — S. Roberts












Next Steps: Reflections on the Activity
I think this assignment would work well across topics and courses as a WAC assignment because it doesn’t teach content but rhetorical behaviors. It draws both self-assessment and peer interaction, which engenders authentic engagement. Instructors could re/mix their own topics to meet the specific needs and interest of their students. I would love for folks outside of our field to try it, so please share this post with others!


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


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

“You need to take this class because you’ll be a better writer at the end of the year. And at the end of the year, being a better writer will mean more to you than it does now.” – Stretch Writing Cohort 2014-15


Advice for new first-year college writers often can focus more on neat and complete products rather than on the process itself. For instance, these 10 Ways to Ruin a College Paper seem appropriate for preparing a final product, but such tips do not account for the messiness that often accompanies a writer’s first efforts at composing.


Indeed, in following such a checklist, students risk reducing writing to its most surface features: thesis, support, and correctness. While necessary for a finished written product, these features do not include the hard work of the physical act of writing.


In other words, even if they know these features by heart, their knowledge of the list does not guarantee that students can generate a perfect written product for each new set of audiences, purposes, and settings. Additionally, with the transition to college writing and the more analytic requirements of academic essays, as well as new social situations and time management issues, new college writers may feel disappointed with the outcomes of their first completed essays.


With that said, the best teachers for new students may be students that have recently experienced and survived these frustrations. Who better to address new students’ immediate concerns than writers that have recently dealt with similar circumstances—and survived to tell the tale?


On the final day of April and the last day of classes, writers in the second semester of a yearlong Stretch class offered their insights to next year’s Stretch students. These now-seasoned writers propose that writing remains not only a skill set but also a practice of learning and doing. Indeed, writing involves several intersecting practices, such as reading, working with verbs, choosing difficult topics, and participating in class. Unlike a checklist of basic skills, these writers’ suggestions demonstrate the amount of time and energy that students need to devote to the writing process itself in order to create a satisfying written product.


From the Students
The following descriptions from my students offer a compelling record of now-former Stretch students’ best practices for becoming better writers.

USING BOLD VERBS: Using bold verbs that make a statement gives the text more depth and makes the text sound smoother in some ways. I used this process in Work Project 2 to give my writing more detail and to be able to easily relate passages from the text to the golf course. An example of using a stronger verb is instead of saying “the metal was heated until it was red”. I could say “the temperature of the iron immensely increased till it gleamed a vibrant red”. This is also an example of giving more detail to make the text more interesting.

READING: Once English 101 comes to an end I am going to have to continue to get better not only as a writer but a reader as well.  I am going to have to continue to write papers, letters, what ever the case may be to get me more comfortable with putting things on paper.  Other than writing, I also want to start reading more.  I believe most of the problems I face [with] writing come from my lack of reading.  If I started to read more I could expand my knowledge of plots, vocabulary, transitions, main ideas, etc.  And these are what will bring my writing to the next level.

CHOOSING DIFFICULT TOPICS: I learned to choose harder topics rather than the easier ones. I would always choose the easier ones not because they had easy topics to understand, but it would also create an easier thinking process while writing the paper rather than struggling the whole way through. Now I choose the harder topics because I realized that I could actually write about the harder topics and get better grades with them because of how well they were written.

PARTICIPATING IN CLASS: I found that participating with these three strategies really brought my writing together as well as helped me create the best papers I could for each project:

  1. If I prepared myself to write in class for the whole hour of workshop, then I would get further with my writing. As opposed to just coming to class and not really knowing what to expect because then I’d be side tracked or concentrated on other stuff I had to get done.
  2. Contributing to class discussion or small groups also made a huge impact in my learning. When things were discussed in class some stuff that other classmates said instantly clicked and helped bring together my paper. Also, adding in my personal thoughts and sharing helped me figure out whether I was on track or not.
  3. I definitely think communicating with the teacher really made a difference. I made sure to always go home and read through what I had to do, and prepare questions for the next time I was in class. I made sure to always ask questions if I was unsure even if my questions seemed to be silly I still asked.
Donna Winchell

Beyond Our Classrooms

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert May 8, 2015

All teachers hope that their students will make use of the knowledge and skills taught in their courses–in spite of the students’ protestations that “I’ll never use this after the class ends!” One example from a writing course:  ”I’ll have a secretary to catch grammar and punctuation errors for me.” I must admit that I don’t see either of my sons ever using the advanced math they were learning by the end of high school. But as teachers of writing, we can rest assured that more of our students will make use of the skills we teach than will ever make use of imaginary numbers. As teachers of critical thinking, our hope is that all of them will take that skill out into the world and put it to use as workers, voters, parents, community members, and just as people alive in the world.


I focus in this space on how our students can learn to look at today’s headlines and the stories behind them as critical thinkers. I may not use that term regularly, but whenever we ask students to look as dispassionately as possible at the stories behind the headlines, we are not asking them not to be passionate. Not at all. We would be less than human if we could read about the evil and injustice that exist in our world without passion. We have seen too often recently, though, the consequences of letting passion rule over reason.


Michael N. Di Gregorio explains how Aristotle identified anger as “the distressed desire for conspicuous retaliation; passion necessitates a reaction. Unfortunately, it is not a clear-headed, rational reaction but one taken under ‘mental and physical distress,’ and we are presumably prone to overreact or react mistakenly.” Aristotle identifies “a kind of ‘pleasure’ that ‘follows all experience of anger from the hope of getting retaliation..’We tend to dwell on this hope for retaliation until its pleasure swells in the mind so as to become dreamlike: We do not necessarily want to retaliate because it is deserved, or justifiable, but because we take pleasure in imagining ourselves carrying out the retaliation.” We have seen passion overcome reason in Ferguson, and more recently in Baltimore. Looters in Baltimore went beyond protest to seek the pleasure of material gain.


We want our students not to replace passion with reason, but to see the rational behind the passion. We would hope that the jury members deciding not to press charges in the Ferguson case were looking at the facts. We would hope those making the opposite decision to press charges in Baltimore were as well. If nothing else, we want our students to learn to look at more than one side of an argument, to understand what different parties in a disagreement are supporting, what support they are offering, and what sort of values underlie their reasoning. We want them to have a vocabulary to use in discussing disagreements. In our world they need that. We all get into arguments. Part of being educated is being able to back away from the argument and analyze it. Headlines from around the world daily give our students and us opportunities to practice this skill.


[Photo Source: Christopher Sessums, "UF Norman Hall Classroom Desks Old Norman Orange and Blue"]

Just a few weeks ago, Freddie Gray—a young African American man in Baltimore—died after being injured while in police custody, precipitating a rash of protests expressing anger, frustration, and rage. Then just a few days ago, the six officers involved were charged by State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby with crimes ranging from assault to second-degree murder. This series of events is the latest in a string of unnecessary deaths of black men at the hands of police, and it’s one that teachers everywhere need to think carefully about.


You have probably been following this case and reading a range of responses and analyses, as I have. But the account I have been most touched by is a Facebook post from Julia Blount, reprinted on April 29 on Salon.


Blount is a middle school teacher, educated at Princeton, and as she says in “Dear white Facebook friends: I need you to respect what Black America is feeling right now,” a person of color who has led a privileged life (for which she is grateful). But her privilege has not shielded her from violence or from the feelings engendered by it. So she writes to white America: “To those rushing to judgment about what’s happening in Baltimore: Please stop and listen.”


Blount reminds all of us of the importance and power of listening—really listening—listening rhetorically, as Krista Ratcliff describes it. Blount continues:

Every comment or post I have read today voicing some version of disdain for the people of Baltimore—“I can’t understand” or “They’re destroying their own community” or “Destruction of Property!” or “Thugs”—tells me that many of you are not listening. I am not asking you to condone or agree with violence. I just need you to listen. You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, but instead of forming an opinion or drawing a conclusion, please let me tell you what I hear: I hear hopelessness. I hear oppression. I hear pain. I hear internalized oppression. I hear despair. I hear anger. I hear poverty.

Blount’s challenge is one all teachers, and especially teachers of writing, need to address. We need to teach rhetorical listening as part of what it means to communicate effectively and fairly, and we need to practice that kind of listening in our own classes. As Blount says,

If you are not listening, not exposing yourself to unfamiliar perspectives, not watching videos, not engaging in conversation, then you are perpetuating white privilege and white supremacy. It is exactly your ability to not hear, to ignore the situation, that is a mark of your privilege.

I spend time in all my classes talking with students about engaging “unfamiliar perspectives” and doing so in an open, invitational way. But actually doing this kind of listening and engaging is far easier said than done. I have often found myself hard-pressed to listen fully to a student who is expressing views with which I deeply disagree. In one of my classes, a young man (white and from a rural area) wrote an essay called “The Little Grey Squirrel,” about a moment in his life that had taught him an important lesson. In the essay, he tells the story of going out to check traps on his father’s property, where he finds a “little grey squirrel” caught in one of them. The squirrel has a broken leg and he describes kneeling down next to it and looking into its eyes. Then he takes out his gun—and shoots the squirrel. The lesson he learns, he says in his conclusion, is how to kill animals: this is his first. To say the very least, this writer had misjudged his audience (he had also built up sympathy for the “little grey squirrel”).


This story caused a near riot in my classroom, as students accused the writer of everything from insensitivity to murder. They turned on him so passionately that he quickly fell silent; in this event, everyone else was talking, even shouting: no one was listening. Our class never really recovered from that episode, in spite of my efforts to look for some common ground we could all move forward from. It occurs to me now that I wasn’t really listening either: I was more occupied with calming things down and getting that particular class over with. As a result, I didn’t truly hear either the writer or the protesting students.


I have thought about that incident for years now, as we often do when we wish we could replay—and change—past events. I’ve thought about how very differently people see and hear, and about how very difficult it is to see and hear from another person’s point of view. But that’s just what Julia Blount is asking me, as a white woman, to do. Her compelling message is going to stay with me, challenging me to live up to the best of my rhetorical training and always to listen—truly listen—before I draw a conclusion, and to engage my students in doing the same.

TED Talks are great teaching tools.  Each is visual, engaging, focused, and contemporary.  I think they make excellent supplements to the readings in Emerging, particularly because many of the text’s authors have been TED speakers.  And the interactive transcript is a bonus feature, letting students work with the text of each talk.


In this series of posts I want to highlight some particularly useful TED Talks and suggest some of the ways to use them in the classroom.


The Talk: Michael Pollan: A Plant’s Eye View




Why It’s Great: If you like teaching Pollan (and it’s one of the essays in the book that students respond to most) then this is a fantastic talk to use. Pollan discusses Polyface Farm near the end of the talk, but part of what makes it so great is that when he does, he ends up he situating his argument in “The Animals: Practicing Complexity” within his larger intellectual arcs.  Students can see how writers’ ideas evolve by listening to the way in which Pollan’s arguments across his books are interconnected.  In doing so, he also reframes his argument in “The Animals” by casting it in light of his prior book, The Botany of Desire.


Using It: In the talk, Pollan uses Polyface as an example a non-Cartesian system of growing food, which is “based on this idea that we bend other species to our will and that we are in charge, and that we create these factories and we have these technological inputs and we get the food out of it or the fuel or whatever we want.”  How does what he writes in “The Animals” complicate this notion of Polyface?  Does he suggest that there are Cartesian elements?  Is Joel Salatin in charge?

Wednesday morning, the Virginia Tech community woke up to find a Crime Alert emailed by the campus police department, giving us these details:

Last evening at approximately 11:15 p.m., a statement appeared on Yik Yak which read “Another 4.16 moment is going to happen tomorrow. Just a warning”.


For us, this was more than a generic threat, even if the police had indicated that there was no evidence this was “a credible threat.”


We marked the eighth anniversary of the April 16 shootings on our campus not quite two weeks earlier. While few of the current undergraduates were on campus that day in 2007, they are all quite aware of what happened and they join in as we mark the anniversary each year.


After receiving the Crime Alert, my students were understandably anxious. They chatted nervously, conjecturing that the absences that day were because people were staying away from campus “because of that message.” They weren’t talking about it explicitly. I can only guess they thought that not mentioning the threat might make it go away.


Every time the door opened, heads whipped around to check who was coming in. Normally, we leave the door propped open so latecomers can slip in quietly. That day, they wanted the classroom door locked. One student even went outside the back door to double-check that it was locked too.


The class seemed to relax a little after the doors were locked. We were busy with project presentations, and students appeared to be paying attention. I admit, though, that I watched the hallway through the window in the door just in case, and I mentally rehearsed what I would say and where I would tell students to hide if something did happen.


After class was over, I told students to stay safe, and most of them left. A handful remained since their next class is in the same classroom. Their conversations about the threat started up again. When I left the classroom, they wanted me to leave the doors locked. They said they would let people in as they saw them.


Later that afternoon, we received a new Crime Alert that told us the police arrested a student who turned himself in. By Friday, class was back to normal. At the beginning of class, I asked if they wanted the door locked. They answered no, and we went on with class.


I have many goals as a teacher. I want to help students become stronger writers and more effective communicators. I hope to help them become more confident about their abilities. Rarely do I think about keeping them safe and calm in times of danger.


Last week’s events reminded me that, too, is part of my job. Looking back, I’ve realized that I was trying to give them control. I let them decide about the doors. I asked two students to let people into the classroom who arrived late. Students secured the back door. They decided to keep the door locked after class was over.


I wish I could say I made conscious decisions, but I was just going with what felt right in the moment. I’ve always believed that student choice is crucial to good writing assignments. Apparently giving students some choice and control matters when there are scary times in the classroom, too.

This was originally posted on April 15, 2014.


At CCCC last month, I found myself in my room one night, reflecting on all the wonderful sessions I’d attended and ideas I’d heard. In one session, Elisabeth Kramer-Simpson from New Mexico Tech and Elizabeth Tomlinson from West Virginia University inspired me with their discussion of internships and open writing assignments in the technical writing classroom.


As I thought about their presentations, I realized that I wasn’t content with the project I was planning to introduce the Monday after I returned from the convention. I had an odd desire to go into the classroom and say, “Let’s scrap the plan for the rest of the term. What do you want to know about technical writing this term?”


I knew it wouldn’t be the most responsible plan, but I was tempted. If students would engage, it could lead to a great series of activities. I wasn’t sure that they would engage though, and I feared that the more structured activities we had completed before I went off to CCCC would clash with such a completely open plan.


I found myself searching for a middle ground. The next project was to be job-application materials. The assignment I had always used was to ask students to find a job posting and write a cover letter and resume to apply for the job. I wondered, though, what would happen if I asked them all to write their own assignment for the project.


I began wondering how opening the assignment to more choice would customize it to what the student truly needed or wanted. If the student was trying to get a summer job, she could write the application materials the job asked for. If she wanted to establish an online portfolio, she could write the texts for that. If she was trying to network with people interested in the same discipline, she could write the documents that would help her do that.


I imagined that the deliverables for the assignment could include all of the following:

    • a traditional resume and cover letter
    • an application essay
    • a personal website
    • a cleaned up public Facebook profile
    • a Linked In profile
    • a GitHub repository and profile
    • an profile


The more that I thought about the options, the more I found myself wondering why I should be the one to define what they need as job application materials. Why not let them tell me what they needed?


So I scrapped my original plans and created a new, open assignment that let students choose the project they would work on. The result? Students actually smiled when I explained that they could do whatever job application materials were appropriate for what they wanted to do in the near future. I had students who excitedly told me they never had time to work on GitHub, and that they were so glad that they could do so as homework now.  Other students told me that their academic advisors had been urging them to set up a LinkedIn profile but they hadn’t gotten to it. Now they could.


We wrapped up the project last week, and it has been one of the best activities I’ve taught. There was enough overlap in what the different tasks they chose called for that we had plenty to talk about and work on in class. At the same time, they have all had the chance to work on documents they needed and wanted to work on. Why didn’t I choose this option before?


[Photo: Jobs Help Wanted by photologue_np, on Flickr]

This blog was originally posted on May 4th, 2015.


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Today’s guest blogger is Jason Dockter, who teaches first-year composition at Lincoln Land Community

College. He recently completed his Ph.D. in English Studies at Illinois State University, with an emphasis on rhetoric/composition, with a specific interest in multimodal composition. His dissertation is entitled Multimodality, Migration, and Accessibility in Online Writing Instruction.


One of my initial goals within my first-year composition course is to expand students’ perception of writing. My students often enter FYC with rigid views of what it means to write, what writing looks like, and how writing composed within a school setting differs from writing they interact with and compose on their own outside of school. Multimodal composition projects provide an opportunity to push against these divisive perceptions of writing while increasing students’ rhetorical knowledge and their ability to transfer that knowledge to new contexts. Text design, especially, is a rhetorical element that is challenging to address in essay-based writing assignments. However, my multimodal interview project, outlined here, provides a prime opportunity to focus on text design by emphasizing the spatial mode, among others.



  • To increase rhetorical knowledge through the use of purposeful multimodal assets and text design.
  • To expand students’ definition/conception of what ‘writing’ means by developing a text within a genre that differs from writing they’ve often done in previous English or writing classes


My FYC course is taught online at a community college, and my students range widely in terms of age, rhetorical knowledge, and even computer proficiency. The course is divided into learning modules, with each module focusing on a particular genre of writing, which we study collectively at first and individually later. Within each module, students become acquainted with a specific genre through an exploration into its conventions, by locating and analyzing examples of the genre, and later by developing their own text within the genre.


The Assignment
Students conduct an interview with a person (or people) associated with a topic they’ve chosen to research. Students use that interview as the content for the multimodal text they’ll design based on the interview genre.


Background Reading
Ask students to plan for the interview project by reading relevant content from your handbook or rhetoric:

  • The St. Martin’s Handbook, section 11e, “Conducting Field Research”; Ch. 16, “Design for Print and Digital Writing”
  • The Everyday Writer, section 16e, “Conduct Field Research”; Ch. 9, “Making Design Decisions”
  • Writing in Action, section 13e, “Conduct Field Research”; Ch. 8, “Making Design Decisions”
  • EasyWriter, section 37f, “Field Research”; section 2f, “Designing Texts”
  • Writer/Designer (Arola, Sheppard, Ball) Chs. 1, 2, 3, 6, 7


Module Design
My approach for genre instruction begins with anexplicit genre pedagogy, then moves to an interactive genre pedagogy (see more discussion of this from Anis Bawarshi and Mary Jo Reiff, in chapter ten of Genre: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy).


  1. I provide students with interviews to review from print publications such as Rolling Stone, TIME, Esquire, and various online sources.
  2. After studying those sample texts, students identify and explain conventions of the interview genre that they value. Students post this list to the discussion board, followed by brief explanations of the importance of those conventions.
  3. Shortly after students post these lists, I combine them to identify the most agreed-upon conventions, which becomes the basis for a rubric that students use to complete a follow-up discussion board activity. There, students locate an interview of their own choosing in its original context, and explore the rhetorical aspects of the genre with our co-created rubric as their guide. Through a Rhetorical Genre Studies approach – considering the rhetorical and social purposes of the text through the design decisions of the writer – students contemplate why the writer made the rhetorical choices she did in the development of this text and how those rhetorical moves affect the interview and its ability to accomplish its intended purpose.


Following these initial genre-familiarization assignments, students shift to brainstorming the development of their own interviews.


  1. On the discussion board, students write a brief overview of their thoughts at this point towards their own interview, exploring the media they want to use, the potential questions they’ll ask, what modalities they’ll incorporate into the text, and other design determinations they may have made about how they will create this text.
  2. Shortly thereafter, following the interview that students have conducted, they submit a more formal proposal / mock-up of the interview they intend to create. This provides an opportunity for the instructor (or peers) to provide feedback to help students align their design plans and use of modalities and media choices with the collaboratively developed rubric.


After students submit the Interview Project, I ask them to complete a reflective writing, intended to provide students with space to explain their vision for their interview. At this stage, I hope to learn how the composing of the interview went, along with how their rhetorical decisions impacted that text design. Specifically, this is where I get to hear from students about why their interview turned out as it did, their purposeful emphasis of specific modalities, and their media use within the text, helping me to better understand why these design decisions were made.


Student Projects

Here are a couple of my excellent student submissions (used with permission):



Why This Assignment?
This project, as my students often interpret it, emphasizes the spatial mode, through the design of the interview on the page. Students become focused on design in ways that they are often unable to do when writing essays, where the format is often rigid. This is one of my favorite assignments within my FYC course because it shifts the emphasis from the content (writing) students will create for the text and emphasizes the design of the text, specifically considering how unique multimodal elements can be used to enhance the (often) alphanumeric text of the interview itself.


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

If you’ve been teaching for some time, I wonder if you’ve seen some of your favorite assignments evolve or change over time. I’m realizing that a number of mine have, almost without my noticing. Right now I’m thinking of my much loved “long sentence assignment.” I started giving this assignment to break up the lengthy research project my students all do, and in particular to focus for a bit on syntax and style. It’s a low stakes assignment, much like finger exercises on the piano, meant for fun and practice, though I do assign a few points to it.



Here’s how it started out: I asked students to write a “perfectly punctuated, 250-word sentence,” providing some models for them from Martin Luther King, Dylan Thomas, Will and Ariel Durant, and others over the years. We spent some time analyzing the structure of the model long sentences—King’s sentence, for instance, is a periodic sentence, built up of a series of dependent clauses and holding the main clause, “Then you will know why we can’t wait,” until the very end. That gave me a chance to introduce the concepts of paratactic and hypotactic structures and give a brief history of English syntax.



Students were horrified at the assignment, saying that it can’t be done. But of course then they found that it can be done and were quite proud of their results, which we also analyzed in class. Then we returned to the research project, looking at some individual sentences and seeing how they could be made more effective. After some years of working with this assignment, I went a step further and asked students to rewrite the 250-word sentence into precisely 25 words. That turned out to be quite a challenge, but fun too, and we worked together to analyze those shorter sentences and to debate which was most effective—and why.



Then came Twitter, and I decided to ask students to take another step and turn their sentences into Tweets. Now we had three sentences on the same subject matter but with radical differences that we could explore together. Most interesting to me were discussions about when and where each sentence might be most appropriate: students had strong opinions about that! Best of all, I could see them paying closer attention to all their sentences, realizing that their rhetorical choices mattered and that their sentences were definitely connected to how an audience received their work.



And today? I now add a fourth challenge: take either the 25-word sentence or the Tweet and illustrate it. I was inspired to make this addition by the animated sentences on Electric Literature. Some of my students do indeed have the skill to animate their sentences, but those who don’t or who don’t want to do so can illustrate in any other way, using crayons or colored pencils, cutting and pasting, or creating digital illustrations. Now we have an added layer of visual rhetoric to analyze and think about, and I find that students especially like rising to this challenge.



So that’s how one of my tried-and-true assignments has morphed over the years, one layer at a time. I’d love to hear how some of your assignments may have changed!