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Bohannon_Pic.jpgToday’s guest blogger is Jeanne Bohannon (see end of post for bio).  This post was guest edited by students David Hanberry, Matthew Harlos, and Jordan Jackson.


My mini-theme this semester, both in teaching and writing, has been the idea of  comfort zones (Multimodal Mondays: Finding Our Comfort Zones in the New Year...and maybe even breaking out of them!)Multimodal Mondays: Finding Our Comfort Zones in the New Year...and maybe even breaking out of them!.  Too often, those of us who practice digital pedagogy in writing studies take up our pom-poms and cheer loudly for every new tool that comes across our radar.  We loudly proclaim the multiple benefits of digital tools, sometimes at the expense of our students and colleagues, who may not share our unabashed endorsements.  When we get to the crux of the matter, however, those tools are just that – utensils that we employ. How we work with our students and colleagues to develop shared production of knowledge(s) is, I think, more important than the tools we use to initiate the invention in the first place. 


What follows is a reflective assignment that might shine a light on meaningful, multimodal re/mixes of research and writing, produced with an old school tech tool, our good friend the BLOG.  By looking backwards in our multimodal composing practice, I think we can encourage colleagues to experiment with tools within their own comfort zones.


Context for Assignment

My technical communications majors and I are currently working on primary research that begins in the archives.  So far, we have discussed situating ourselves as writers within discourses, beginning with our home communities. Our first major writing task was to research artifacts from a personal archive, which we defined as any depository of artifacts from an identified community with which we ourselves are connected.


Measurable Learning Objectives for the Assignment

  • Combine visual and textual elements to tell the story of your personal archive
  • Synthesize content-meaning through collaborative, dialogic review
  • Create shared-meaning in digital writing spaces for specific audiences


Background Reading for Students and Instructors

Acts of reading and viewing visual texts are ongoing processes for attaining learning goals in dialogic, digital writing assignments. Below, I have listed helpful text from Lunsford handbooks. You will no doubt have your own to enrich this list.


Assignment Guidelines

We crowd-sourced the following task list.  We would encourage other instructors and students to do the same to make your project unique to your class.

  1. In a whole group discussion, students examine their roles as researchers and writers in various communities.
  2. Students choose a specific community (family, school, social, etc.) and investigate various customs and their associated artifacts within that community.
  3. Select one artifact based on individual or group research.
  4. Break-down sensory rhetorics, such as visuality and tactility for the artifact, providing a rich description and backstory.
  5. Tell (narrate) the artifact’s story based on experiences within a specific community that students self-identified for the assignment.
  6. Re/mix the story in a digital environment using meaningful digital tools.  We used blogs, but others might find wikis, forums, e-books, or even social media platforms relevant.
  7. Publish the text for audiences both in and outside of the classroom and reflect on comments received by individual writers as a contemplative group activity.


Reflections on the Assignment from Our Group

Click on the hyperlinks to go to the blog posts for each writer’s archive


Bohannon_group 1.jpgJordan's Personal Archive: I researched unmasking ceremonies among Pan-Hellenic Greek Councils.  As a member of the Greek community, I was interested in discovering artifacts and the backstories behind specific fraternity chapters’ traditions regarding these masks.  The method I used to create this project was definitely an in-depth research process. It allowed me to open my eyes a lot more to the often-overlooked traditions that create community among social groups like fraternities. Having been able to locate the conceptualized mask within my specific chapter has only driven me to go out and view other masks, with the hopes of gaining insight to those who wore them.


Bohannon_group 2.jpgMatthew’s Personal Archive: When writing this project I was forced to look at my possessions in a much different light. I had to see that the objects that I once only considered curiosities or trinkets were in fact histories of myself. The object that I chose for the project was a 1943 silver half-dollar that was given to me by my grandfather. He had carried the coin for years when he was in the military during the 1950’s, stationed in Alaska in defense of any attempted Soviet aggression. So while this coin doesn’t have much historical or monetary value, it does have great symbolic value to me as a connection to my grandfather, and therefore, to my family as a whole.


Bohannon_group 3.jpgDavid's Personal Archive: The process behind this project was a very enlightening experience for me as a writer. Through the research of my family’s archive I found an 18th-century tome describing the history of Geneva from the early 1700s. As it turned out, this book happened to be gifted to my grandfather by Pope John Paul II at an International gathering of religious leaders. It’s interesting to think that so much history was just sitting alone in a dusty basement at my parents’ house.




Bohannon's Reflection on Doing the Assignment:
As English and Writing Departments navigate the digital wave that has defined our growth for at least a decade (see McGrath: Negotiating Access to New Media), we need to keep in mind that our students' voices should count in decisions regarding how we work through digital invention heuristics and collaboratively – democratically –  make meaning in our texts. Researching and writing for multimodal environments using personal experience as invention creates meaningful opportunities for student-scholars to grow their rhetorical prowess.  This type of assignment also gives them the power to write their personal stories and share them with digital publics, providing a value that students want others to enjoy.


From our group: "We invite instructors and students to modify assignment instructions, tag us in the Macmillan Community, and let us know how your project goes!"



Jeanne Law Bohannon is an Assistant Professor of English at Kennesaw State University. She believes in creating democratic learning spaces, where students become stakeholders in their own rhetorical growth through authentic engagement in class communities. Her research interests include evaluating digital literacies, democratic pedagogies, and New Media practices, while growing informed and empowered student scholars. Reach Jeanne at: and


Jack Solomon

The Answers

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Feb 25, 2016

In my last blog (Some Popular Cultural Critical Thinking Flash Cards) I sketched out three critical thinking "flashcards," with suggestions for exploring the semiotic implications of the outsized importance of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, the El Niño Deluge (that still isn't), and the endless parades of celebrity gowns on red carpets during pop culture awards season.  So I thought that this time, in the spirit of the Sunday Times Crossword puzzles, I would give the "answers" to these flashcards, interpretive analyses that can lead us beyond the superficial play of ordinary experience into the more profound regions of human and cultural being.


So let's start with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries.  There were three questions on that flashcard.  To wit: 1. Why do candidates running for their party's presidential nomination make such a big deal about Iowa and New Hampshire in the first place?  2. Why do the mass media make such a big deal about Iowa and New Hampshire?  And, 3. Why do consumers of the mass media continue to read, watch, or click on news stories about Iowa and New Hampshire? To these questions I added a few clues: consider the innate human desire to know the future now, thus making any sort of tea leaf reading an irresistible draw.  Consider also the inertial power of sheer tradition in presidential politics.  And, finally, consider what could be done to disrupt this tradition. 


So, the answer to number 1 is, quite simply, candidates make such a big deal about Iowa and New Hampshire because those events are given enormous amounts of media attention, attention that includes a certain ritualistic mythology that claims that these two electoral occasions have some sort of magical power to winnow the field and even determine the nominee. This answer explains numbers 2 and 3 simultaneously.  That is, the mass media make such a big deal out of Iowa and New Hampshire because they know the draw of that mythology, the innate human curiosity to see whether the magic will happen again. 


To put this another way, there is a fundamental human desire to know the future.  This desire goes beyond mere curiosity into the deep need human beings have for a sense of security, and the magical promise of fortune telling, of seeing the future, is an ancient expression of that need.  So, with the desire for tea leaves (augury) and the power of tradition (ritual) driving audience behavior, the media can be sure that people will pay attention to their onslaught of Iowa/New Hampshire stories, and thus, that there will be a large audience (market) for the advertisers and data miners that pay the bills and provide the profits.  You might say that it is all a matter of profisy.



Now to the weather. There too I proposed three questions: 1. What is this mass of high pressure doing here for such a long time at this time of year?  2. With global warming throwing both the atmosphere and atmospheric science completely out of whack, is a reliance on past El Niño performances quite justified? And, 3. What does the deluge of news reports about deluges—and their absence—have in common with the Iowa/New Hampshire phenomenon? 


The answers, of course, are pretty straightforward. Questions number 1 and 2 share the implication that it is time to realize that the old weather certainties, hard won through years of meteorological research, are crumbling in the face of a complete changing of the game through rapid climate change. Always an uncertain activity, predicting the weather has become more uncertain than ever before.  Global warming doesn't mean hot weather everywhere at the same time: it means unprecedented and unpredictable extremes of heat, cold, drought, and deluge.  But the mass media don't like to talk about that unpredictability much, partly through fear of conservative backlash (it is still a tricky business to even talk about global warming: I once moderated a science-oriented website wherein the conservatives who ran the place would not allow anyone to discuss global warming), and partly because it is more profitable to pretend that the tea leaves are still in play, that the weather's fortune still can be told.  And thus, the answer to number 3: the whole matter has a lot in common with the Iowa/New Hampshire phenomenon.  Weather related fortune telling attracts readers, which itself attracts advertising and marketing dollars—especially if the tea leaves auger death and destruction in vast floods (Watch out! Here comes El Niño!—we're still getting a lot of that here in Southern California, complete with pathetic fallacy and infantile personification).  In short, more profisy.



And finally, celebrity gowns on red carpets.   There too, I proposed three questions:  1. Why, we can ask, is this happening?  2. What can we learn about ourselves by thinking critically about it?  And 3. What does all the attention paid to celebrity gowns on red carpets have in common both with El Niño reporting and the Iowa/New Hampshire phenomenon?  


And the answers are: it is profitable for both celebrities and the mass media alike to stage and broadcast this ritual because audiences respond to it, thus attracting advertising and marketing dollars.  What we learn about ourselves is that, while we think of ourselves as a democratic and egalitarian nation, we are fascinated by wealth and privilege, and pay lavish homage to it.  Some watch the red carpet parade vicariously, and dream of being on the red carpet themselves, or at least of having a dress like that (haute couture usually makes its way to the department stores eventually).  Others watch simply to ogle the ever-more-exposed bodies of the women (it is virtually always only women who are featured on the red carpet), and sex, of course, is perhaps the deepest instinctive driver of them all.  And so the red carpet report has something in common with the weather and with Iowa and New Hampshire after all: not as profisy but in the way that the mass media profit by playing upon our deepest (and often most primitive) fantasies and desires.



Altogether, our three flashcards point to signs not of hyperreality but of hypercapitalism: of a society that runs on the profit motive, even to the point of contradicting proclaimed values and broadcasting misleading information.  The interesting thing about this is that it is an historically unprecedented form of hegemony, because the subjects of that hegemony don't have to participate.  The whole show—profisy, money worshipping voyeurism—would end if the audience refused to watch.  In the sixties a popular slogan was "what if they gave a war and no one came?"  We could (more realistically) ask today, "what if they staged a red carpet fashion show and no one cared?"  Or an Iowa/New Hampshire election, and no one tuned in?  Or ran a screamingly headlined weather story that no one read?


I'll leave the answers to those questions to you.

Andrea A. Lunsford

Visiting HBCUs!

Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Feb 25, 2016

I’m a fan of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and have been ever since doing some research on colleges and universities in Florida (when I was teaching at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa). My research led me to Bethune-Cookman University, which was founded by Mary McLeod Bethune in Daytona Beach, Florida in 1904—with $1.50. Originally a school for “literary and industrial training” for African American girls, the school developed into a normal school and then into an Institute, a junior college, a college, and eventually a university. Through the decades, the development of Bethune-Cookman stood as testimony to the vigor and determination of one woman.


Well, that was in the 1960s, but it started me on following HBCUs, such as Ohio’s Wilberforce University, near Columbus where I taught at Ohio State for many years.  Wilberforce was founded in 1856 and says of its mission, “As the Underground Railroad provided a route from physical bondage, the University was formed to provide an intellectual Mecca and refuge from slavery’s first rule: ignorance.” While I was at Ohio State I got to visit Wilberforce and to conduct a series of campus exchanges. As always when I visit a historically Black college, I learned about fascinating people, like Hallie Quinn Brown, who attended and later taught at Wilberforce and represented the United States at the International Congress of Women in London in 1899. (You can read about Brown’s teaching of rhetoric, writing, and speaking in Susan Kates’s “Activist Rhetorics and American Higher Education.”)


I was fortunate during my time at Ohio State to become friends with Beverly Moss, who has taught me a great deal and who talked with me about her undergraduate education at HBCU Spelman College (and neighboring Morehouse). I got to know more about Spelman as I worked with graduate students who had attended those schools, and later at Stanford I was able to help one of my undergrads spend a term at Spelman, a term she said deeply influenced her education and her ways of thinking.


So it probably goes without saying that I jump at every chance to visit an HBCU. My most recent opportunity came a couple of weeks ago when I traveled to Tallahassee to visit Florida A&M University. I’ve read quite a bit about the founding of FAMU in 1887 as a normal school for African American students—and I’ve followed the ups and downs and ups of their fabled marching band. But I had never had a chance to spend time on the campus. I arrived too late to go to campus but went the next morning in time to stroll around the grounds a bit before conducting a workshop on teaching writing with faculty members in English. There I met a vibrant group, from a brand new member fresh from the Ph.D. to a person who had taught FAMU students for 59 years (!), and all of them committed and connected to the 10,000 strong student body there.



After the workshop, I had a couple of hours free, so I headed over to the Black Archives Research Center and Museum and learned about many alums, including tennis great Althea Gibson  and Effie Carrie Mitchell Hampton (right), the first African American physician to practice in Florida.


I also saw original panels of early comics artist Richard Outcault’s “Pore Lil Mose,” the first comic in the United States to feature (and positively) an African American character. As someone who routinely taught courses on comics and graphic narratives, I certainly knew about Outcault—but did NOT know about Pore Lil Mose, which is quite remarkable to me.



I also visited FAMU’s bustling Writing Research Center, directed by Professor Veronica Yon, to meet some remarkable tutors, and to see the center in action. The place was absolutely humming, almost every table taken up with tutors and students working on writing.IMG_3358.jpg




One thing I always appreciate during such visits

is the extraordinary openness and friendliness of the students, and this visit to FAMU was no exception. On my walks around campus, I was welcomed by a number of students, who recognized me from a poster announcing the public talk I was to give that night: I even got a big hug from one beautiful and bright first-year student! So I wasn’t surprised at the warm welcome I got at the Writing Center, but I was delighted when one of the tutors identified herself as a member of a spoken word group, Voices, and who volunteered to perform some poetry at a reception scheduled before my talk. True to her word, she and another Voices participant showed up at the reception and performed two wonderfully rich and provocative poems, with energy and grace and poise. Wonderful!


IMG_0027.jpgWhen the time for my own talk came, I tried hard to draw on the energy and poise of those student poets. I talked about the opportunities students now have to inhabit multiple literacies in ways that could hardly have been imagined even two decades ago, and later I enjoyed a lively Q and A session. The audience included faculty from FAMU and several other nearby universities, as well as many FAMU students. As always at HBCUs, I received very direct and often tough questions (“What made you want to write?” “How do you nurture creativity in academic writing?” “How did you first get published?” “Have you ever been misunderstood in your writing—and what did you do about it?”) Their own answers to some of these questions went well past anything I might have said.


When I got back to my hotel, I realized I’d been on campus, going nonstop, for 12 hours. Yet I felt I had enough energy to run around the hotel more than once. Indeed, I did take a walk, just to think back over the day and to take in all I had seen and learned.


So many thanks to my generous and gracious hosts at FAMU for a truly remarkable couple of days. Now I’m looking forward to my NEXT visit.

For this post I wanted to highlight just one reading from the new edition of Emerging. For this week I’ve selected Sandra Allen's “A World Without Wine.”


Allen was a last minute addition. In fact, I think it was the last essay we selected, turning to it after we found out we couldn’t afford the permissions costs for one of the other readings. I think it’s a nice piece of serendipity, as I really enjoy this essay.


Allen is writing about global climate change—a pressing issue for students to consider—but through the lens of one unexpected and potentially devastating impact: the loss of the world’s great wine-growing regions. As it turns out (perhaps not surprisingly), wine grapes are quite delicate and require a very specific environment. If it’s a bit too hot or too cold or too wet or too dry an entire vintage can be impacted. Scientists now believe that shifts in global weather patterns will cause a concomitant shift in viticulture, devastating historical wine-growing regions, like France and California.


I love it because it takes something abstract, scientific, mocked, and vaguely threatening (global climate change) and phrases it through something specific and concrete, relatable, interesting, and compelling. That is, students may not care much about global climate change but there’s a better chance that they will care about wine. It’s that specific effect that raises awareness of the larger issue.


Allen’s essay was originally published on Buzzfeed, the internet site that offers news and quizzes and recipes. I struggled with taking an essay from such a “non-academic” source, but in the end Allen’s ability to communicate the effects of climate change so compellingly won out.


It’s one of a few essays we’ve added to talk about the environment and it also works within our existing essays about food and agriculture. It’s also great for thinking about science and technology. In the end, I think it’s a bit versatile and I hope you will check it out.


Want to offer feedback, comments, and suggestions on this post? Join the Macmillan Community to get involved (it’s free, quick, and easy)!

Last spring, I posted a Bits blog on peer groups in the writing classroom (Peer Groups in the Technology-Enabled Writing Classroom) . I’d like to extend that post here, with a focus on collaborative writing.


My guess is that most writing teachers use peer review as a primary instructional strategy. I imagine many fewer teachers use collaborative writing or team-based assignments. I see the strategies as related, particularly in first-year composition. Though I have always taught first-year writing, my research and professional interests, from dissertation onward, have focused on scientific, technical, and medical communication. In all such contexts, documents tend to have multiple authors. These authors must plan, draft, and revise documents as a collaborative process. My work in various industries (computer, health, pharmaceutical, government) has convinced me that ability to write in teams is a critical workplace skill. And having to perform as a group member is increasingly typical of many college classes.


When I teach first-year writing, I import instructional strategies that have proven productive over the years in my tech or business writing classes. So while I begin the term with an individual writing assignment, with peer review, I then move to a second assignment, where pairs of students work together to produce a single text. Writing with a partner brings process issues into open discussion:

  • What are we trying to do?
  • What do we know or need to learn?
  • How do you want to manage this assignment?
  • What’s our timetable?
  • Should we meet and work together or pass the draft text back and forth?
  • Can we simply divide the text into parts, compose individually, and then fit them together? (Probably not, at least not without sufficient planning.)


A third assignment places students in teams of four, by combining two pairs. I am lucky to teach in spaces that support teamwork with tables and shared monitors (seeClassroom Design and The Writing on the Wall ). By this point, I’ve seen individuals and pairs perform, so when I match pairs, I can try to spread talent and motivation evenly across the teams. Students have the advantage of knowing another’s habits and talents, while the challenge of collaboration is ratcheted up.


Working with three other people is much more difficult than working with one other person. I ask for a written team plan, based on a clear task description, indicating roles and responsibilities, providing a schedule, and allocating hours among team members. Explicit planning helps me know what is going on in the teams, and it helps teams coalesce around shared goals. Teams allocate time for research, drafting, reviewing, and revising, with the goal of bringing an explicit process to their collaborative efforts.


Throughout this work, I stress commitment to team members. Students must notify their teams if they are going to have to miss a class. Students are coached to discuss team issues and individual performance on a regular basis. With five or six teams in the room, I can easily visit each team each period, so I know how things are going. Team members formally evaluate each other on performance, in writing and orally, at project midpoint and in a debriefing at the project closeout, where we reflect on how the teams have performed. Teams know they will share one grade.


In the final third of the course, individuals pursue independently researched projects related to their majors. They stay on their teams, so they have a forum for discussing their projects, and so they have trusted peers to review their work. The pacing of the course, from individual to pairs to four-person teams, and then back to individual performance gives a nice rhythm to the course, and it allows grades to be assigned as a combination of individual and collaborative performance.


If you are someone who values peer review, I would challenge you to extend your practice to collaborative writing. If you already use collaborative assignments and writing teams, I’d welcome your comments.

Gardner_Feb23_213.jpgLast week, I heard from a colleague in South Carolina who had visited one of my technical writing course websites and wanted more information on the discussion forum activities that I ask students to complete. As I replied to her email message, I realized that there was a lot that I do with online forum discussions that I haven’t ever written down. I didn’t have any links to point her to!


Today I plan to fix that problem by sharing the details on how I set up online discussions as a participation activity, how I manage students, and how I assess their work in these discussions. Next week, I’ll share the three kinds of discussion that I ask students to participate in.


Setting Up the Discussions

I require participation in the discussion forums as a part of my course, mentioning the requirement on the syllabus and on the course’s assignment overview page. Since the course I am teaching is 100% online, there is no classroom discussion. I use the Discussions tool in Canvas, our CMS, as a substitute for the interaction and conversations that would typically take place in a face-to-face class.


I don’t bother with much discussion of netiquette. All work and participation in the course is already governed by the Undergraduate Honor System and the Virginia Tech Principles of Community, so troubling behavior is already covered.


Along with those two documents, I use relevant information from Chapter 3 of the textbook I use, Practical Strategies for Technical Communication by Mike Markel. This chapter discusses how social media and other electronic tools such as messaging technologies, wikis, and shared document workspaces can be useful for collaboration in the workplace. I ask students to read that chapter in the first week of the course to address other issues of appropriateness and professionalism in online communication. Further, this overview of digital collaboration gives the class’s online discussion additional relevance as preparation for the workplace.


Arranging Students into Groups

In the face-to-face classroom, many of the discussion questions I use work well in a full-class discussion. Online, however, students have a harder time engaging with 21 other students in a full-class discussion. The long, scrolling list of replies creates a giant screen of text, with 22 students repeating one another’s points either because they haven’t read what has already been posted or because posts have been added while they are writing.


The best solution I have found is to arrange students into small groups of five to six students each. Canvas allows me to limit students to discussing with the members of their group only. It’s much easier for a student to have an engaged discussion of ideas with four other people than it is with 21 others.


There are ways to set up a similar situation with other CMS or discussion forum tools. Before I used Canvas, I set up copies of the same prompt with the group name in the subject line (e.g., Group One Biography Discussion, Group Two Biography Discussion). I assigned students to groups in a post on the course website, and then students were able to discuss the ideas by simply choosing the right subject line.


Assessing Online Discussions

Admittedly, all the discussion questions I use require a lot of reading and grading on my part. I typically grade discussion participation based on whether the student did the work and the amount of effort that went into the task. I consider the forum posts as first draft writing, so I do not mark errors in spelling or grammar. I do ask students to focus on a professional presentation of ideas, and I contact anyone who is being too informal privately to correct the situation.


At the end of the term, I ask students to write a Completion Report that reviews their participation in the forums by looking at the frequency of posts, reviewing the best posts, and providing an overall assessment of their work during the term. Their self-assessment in this final project gives me all the details I need to determine their participation grades for the course.



If you use online forums in your class, whether it’s face-to-face, hybrid, or online, please tell me about the strategies that you use in the comments below. How do you manage the discussion? What assessment strategies do you use? I want to hear from you! And be sure to come back next week for my post on the prompts I use for online discussions.



[Photo: Detail from University Life 143 by Francisco Osorio, on Flickr]

Blindspot_three_cars_illus.svgThe Multimodal Mondays series proudly features pedagogy, activity ideas, and assignments from guest bloggers, instructors who are teaching multimodal composition with great creativity and resourcefulness. We've made it a goal to feature a variety of approaches and modalities, including

And those are but a very few highlights of all the great advice and assignments we've seen--and all the possibilities!


Some assignments and approaches pop up more than others, likely because they're easier to manage in the classroom and because both we and our students might be more familiar with them: assignments built on social media, blogs, etc. But is there a certain modality you've wanted to try but don't know how to approach? A software program that holds possibility but you'd like to know more? A new idea for using images so you don't keep recycling the activity you've done for the past four semesters?


Let me know in the comments below so we can feature that activity assignment you're looking for. Or, if you have a great assignment you'd like to share as a guest blogger on Multimodal Mondays, we'd love to have you. Just send a message to Leah Rang with your idea.

4838586990_67cecb4b9d_b.jpgHeadlines almost any day of the week give us ample material to practice writing claims on argumentative topics and to explore the differences among the three types of claims featured in the Toulmin model: claims of fact, value, and policy. It may help to think of the claim as the thesis of the argument, but the term claim puts a bit more of an argumentative slant on the subject, in the sense that you are claiming, or asserting, that something is true, but you may have to provide evidence to convince others that it is.


A claim of fact is different from a fact in that you must convince an audience that it is true, usually by providing factual support such as statistics, examples, and testimony. Claims of fact may need to be proven because people interpret facts differently, because interpretation may depend on the causal relationship between facts, because facts can be used to make an educated guess about the future, or because new data is available that changes interpretation. A claim of fact is worded as if it were a true statement, but labeling a statement a claim of fact does not make it true.    


Consider these claims drawn from recent headlines:

  • The results of presidential primaries so far this election cycle suggest that voters are supporting “outsiders” with little or no experience in elected office.
  • School shootings are more frequent in the United States than in other countries.
  • The primary results in Iowa and New Hampshire are not necessarily an accurate predictor of the outcome of primaries nationwide.
  • African-American voters will have more of an impact on the outcome of future primaries than they have had thus far.


The first three examples could be supported by facts or statistical support. The fourth is a prediction about the future, but one that could be supported with statistics about the relative numbers of African-American voters in Iowa and New Hampshire compared to South Carolina and the states voting on Super Tuesday.


Claims of value are judgment claims. They express relative worth or merit, approval or disapproval. Some statements are simply expressions of personal opinion: I prefer Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton. Statements of personal opinion or taste do not have to be proven, even though, in this case, interested voters may spend considerable time defending their preferences or even working for a candidate of their choice.


Consider these examples:

  • Experience as a U. S. senator is better experience for serving as president than experience as a governor.
  • Students are safer with armed guards on school premises than without.
  • The process for selecting Academy Award nominees is unfair to minorities.


Words such as better, safer, and unfair make these statements judgements, or claims of value, rather than claims of fact. How convincing an argument in support of the first would be would depend on establishing the standards by which one type of experience is deemed by our society to be better than another. The second would depend on how the term safer is defined and how convincing a case can be made that armed guards in schools would provide that increased safety. The third, again, depends on what standards are used to judge whether a process is fair or not and how convincing a case can be made that the process violates that standard.


Claims of policy address what should or should not be done in the future. They tend to be the most difficult claims to support because usually you have to prove that a problem exists and then to build a convincing case that the solution you propose would solve that problem.


Consider these examples:

  • The Electoral College should be replaced by popular vote as the means of electing the U.S. president.
  • Schoolteachers should be armed.
  • Schoolteachers should not be armed.
  • Purchasing guns should require more careful screening.
  • American citizens must preserve their rights to own guns.
  • The process for selecting Academy Award nominees should be revised.
  • Hillary Clinton should be elected.
  • Donald Trump should be elected. . . .


The list could go on and on. Obviously even this short list highlights groups that are diametrically opposed and thus who may never accept one another’s arguments. The role of the arguer is to build as convincing a case as possible. Any single day’s headlines or any single hour of any news program provides ample material for practice in identifying all three types of claims.


[Image Source: U.S. Department of State]

In 2008, I had a chance to choose the three books that Stanford would send to all incoming students. It was abooks-1082942_960_720.jpg task I relished, and I remember the tall stack of books I had in the office: so many choices! I ended up choosing Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (luckily, this was before Diaz won the Pulitzer for that book; I don’t think we would have been able to get him after that!); Z. Z. Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, and Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons! I had help from the Dean of Students’ office in arranging for the visits (and talking the three authors into coming for a very small honorarium!), though I was in on the planning enough to know how difficult the logistics were. But the books went out to all the frosh that summer and eventually the big day arrived. I wrote about it at the time as a kind of wild, rock-star-concert atmosphere in the auditorium as the students waited for the event to start. They were doing cheers and chanting the authors’ names over and over, so much so that Barry, Diaz, and Packer were more than a little taken aback.


When they finally took the stage (sitting in comfy chairs with me at the mike), the students just went nuts. But they finally calmed down and we spent an hour and a half in Q and A with the authors. The questions came fast and furious—and all three of the authors were magnificent, answering at length and engaging each other in conversation as well. I had been to several of these events but this was definitely the most successful: students seemed to have read all three books and wanted to talk, talk, talk about them. At the end of the event, they went back to their dorms where faculty from the writing program led them in continued discussion. And all that year I ran into students who remembered the night and came up to tell me that they “really liked” one or more of the books.


Stanford still carries on this tradition and in fact the 2015-16 books were chosen by Stanford’s President, John Hennessey: The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and Cane River by Lalita Tademy. From what I read about the event, the students were fired up again, and they especially loved being in conversation with President Hennessey as well as the authors. I wonder which of the books they found most appealing and why. And which they will remember.


I think of events like this when I heard that students no longer read. I don’t think that’s true: students are reading all the time, especially on social media. And the students I talk to want to read more; I often meet students at our writing center—or a writing center on another campus—where students tell me they want more time for reading—“just for fun” reading.


So when I heard from a student who was at the three books event in 2008, saying he was working in San Francisco, I jumped at the chance to catch up with him. I met this student his first year, and while he was a science/technology major, I served as an informal mentor throughout his years at Stanford. We had a long reunion over brunch, and while he was telling me about his job (in computer design), he suddenly stopped and said “Oh wow, I just remembered the three books.” He went on to “remember” them in detail, dwelling especially on Oscar Wao. With a family from the Dominican Republic, he said he “felt proud” to be reading a book by a Dominican author and he talked at length about not just the Spanish in the book but the Dominican Spanish: “I wondered how all the other students were dealing with that language gap?” he said. We ended up making a list of books he wants to read (including Brian Selznick’s The Marvels and background reading on Hamilton). He’s a busy guy—but he says he spends at least one evening a week reading.


I think this former student is not alone. After all, story is at the heart of who we are as humans. People, I believe, yearn for stories. And so they read!

In the last edition of Emerging, we were able to include some visual texts as well as some material in the introduction on thinking and writing about visuals. I really enjoyed the visual texts we chose: a collection of PostSecret postcards, some moving watercolors about war by artist Steve Mumford, and a collection of infographics. The problem is that it’s really hard to use visual texts in a course that’s not entirely devoted to visual texts, and especially to use them instead in a course that’s about working closely with textual sources in support of academic argument. We’ve taken all of those readings out of the third edition but we’re still thinking about the role of the photographic and the visual on our world today. So, we’ve added three great new essays that speak to and/or include visual elements BUT also have the kind of textual elements that work well in the kind of FYC classroom we imagine for Emerging.


I think Torie Rose DeGhett’s “The War Photo No One Would Publish” is particularly powerful. DeGhett is writing about a disturbing image taken during the Gulf War by Kenneth Jarecke, one so disturbing that many venues refused to publish it (we did manage to get the rights to include it in Emerging and, yes, it is quite graphic). DeGhett’s essay speaks to the power of the image as well as the politics of censorship in the press. But what I love about this essay (as with so many essays in Emerging) is that it’s also about war and our ability to see and respond to it. So while it’s great in a series of assignments about photography or media, it’s also great in a series about censorship or war.


Tomas van Houtryve is also thinking about imaging technologies and war in “From the Eyes of a Drone.” The essay is composed primarily of a series of images van Houtryve took with a commercially available drone, inspired by and reflective of images taken by drones used in areas of war and conflict. Van Houtryve thus goes one step further than DeGhett but, looking directly at the weaponization of photography and so similarly works across a range of sequenced assignments, including anything on visuals/images of war, with sequences on technology as well.


Finally, Nick Paumgarten’s “We Are a Camera” examines the GoPro phenomenon and the implications of point-of-view video. Paumgarten is driven by the story of the GoPro but his essay also has the most philosophical overtones as he muses on the impact that video mediation has on our experience and memory of events. There’s also a great bit near the very end that hints at the kind of surveillance culture that Peter Singer discusses in “Visible Man: Ethics in a World Without Secrets.”


All of these essays include or reference visual texts (Paumgarten points to several famous GoPro videos on YouTube) but they also offer students context for reading and understanding the visuals as well as ideas for thinking about how visual texts impact our world today. I love them all and think they’re all fine additions to Emerging.


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Gardner_Feb16_213.jpgWhenever possible, I use texts written by former students (with their permission, of course) to talk about the expectations and strategies for writing assignments in my classes. Sometimes, however, using student texts may limit my current students. My solution is clowns. Seriously. Clowns. But let me give you some background first.


When I am teaching professional and technical writing courses, I ask students to write about their majors and career paths. If I share a student text for one major, I fear that I put students in other majors at a disadvantage. Logistically though, it’s impossible to share an example for every possible major and minor represented in a class, let alone every possible career path those majors and minors may take.


At the same time, I worry students in a major that matches the model will not think beyond the example. The cookie-cutter mentality can take over, and students will adopt the same format and approach that the model text uses. They won’t even try to find unique ways of presenting their information.


In some classes, I might use my own writing as an example by sharing my CV or website. That approach also comes with challenges. An English teacher’s job application materials aren’t very relevant for engineering students. Even if I am teaching some education majors, the materials of a veteran teacher are probably out of reach for pre-service teachers.


Those worries are what brought me to clowns. None of my students aims to become a clown. I may have a few class clowns. There could be a student or two who can juggle. These students want to be Android developers, mechanical engineers, and veterinarians—not clowns. So I began using clowns as my example career, creating model texts written by a fictional clown (stage name, ROFL the Clown) who aims to become a professional performer. Along the way, she is creating the various texts that a student in one of my professional and technical writing courses would compose.


Here’s an example of the strategy in context. For their job application materials, students research the options for their career path and then write a Proposal for the Job Application Materials they will create to meet their goals. For instance, an Android developer might propose to create an online portfolio of her completed projects with details on her qualifications. A chemical engineering major who wants to pursue graduate education might propose to create an academic profile on LinkedIn with a well-developed CV. The work students do is driven by choice and their own goals. I originally talked about this assignment in a post from April 2014 on Choice in Writing Assignments.


Students working on this assignment use ROFL the Clown’s Example Proposal to see the kind of information to include in their proposals. In her proposal, ROFL explains that she wants to apply to attend Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. In this excerpt, ROFL explains the decisions she has made and the work she intends to do to create a showcase video to include in her application:


I will review my existing performance videos, combining the best excerpts into a two-minute showcase video that demonstrates my qualifications. I will add subtitles or screen text that indicates when and where the performances took place, to show the breadth of my experience. I will show some work with props (in particular, balloon animals), but I will emphasize clips that show me connecting with the audience and enjoying what I do. I want to use clips that show my “heart,” as Ringling Bros. Director of Talent David Kiser calls it.


Although the topic is lighthearted, the content is quite serious. ROFL explains her decisions and even relates them to the research she has conducted. To create the example, I had to do a bit of research on clown college and then fold that information into the fictional scenario I was creating. Admittedly, I found some parts of the task dull, but in the end, it had the additional benefit of helping me better understand the assignment. As I was writing my fictional example, I found myself going back to modify the assignment itself, to add clarification and details that I realized were missing when I tried to follow its instructions.


All in all, creating my fictional clown and having her complete the course work has been a great decision. Students have examples that they would not have otherwise, and no one gets an extra advantage or disadvantage. Beyond that, I have to admit that I had a lot of fun making up the world of my fictional clown.


How do you handle example texts in class? Have you written responses to your own assignments? Did the process work for you? I’d love to hear how some others have tried this strategy, whether you use clowns or not Please leave me a comment below and let me know.


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[Photo: Detail from Internet! Here is some clown by tengrrl, on Flickr]

Stacey Cochran

Reflective Writing

Posted by Stacey Cochran Expert Feb 12, 2016

If you had to pick one learning goal for students in the writing classes you teach that is most important, which would it be?

  • Rhetorical awareness?
  • Critical thinking and composing?
  • Knowledge of conventions as it relates to genre, purpose, and audience?
  • Something else entirely?
  • All of the above?


Of course any approach to a question like this absolutely hinges on a deeper philosophical question at the core of composition studies. Simply stated: what is the purpose of a writing class?


I’m a novelist. My wife is a scholar. Many of our dinner table conversations (arguments? debates?) can be traced back to this very question.


At its heart, the seven years she and I and Roy Stamper spent co-authoring An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing (or “IGAW,” as I like to call it) was a quest of sorts to answer this question. We asked scholars from across the spectrum of higher education to talk about writing. We searched within our own experiences in the classroom, drew from examples of student work, asked ourselves tough questions regarding our own teaching philosophies. I know Susan constantly thinks about the place of first-year writing in the broader mission of a university and as part of public discourse as a whole.


I’ve come to realize if you don’t process what you’ve studied, if you don’t pause to make meaning from experience and knowledge gained, can you ever truly say you’ve learned anything?


When I’m working on the draft of a novel, I keep a file running with my notes in it. In the earliest stages of my process, this file often takes the form of a section simply titled “Notes” at the end of a working draft. The audience for the “Notes” is me. It’s where I try to make sense of what I’m doing. Sometimes I’ll freewrite for five or ten minutes reflecting on what a character has done previously and what that might suggest about her motivation and the decisions she’ll make later to come in the novel.


It’s a messy bunch of scribbling, but it’s kind of beautiful in its way, too, because it is where logic is pressed, where optimism and pessimism battle, where life and death and who I am and why I am here vie for attention. And no one else will ever read those notes other than me.


So why do I do it? Why do I scribble and sketch and believe that it somehow matters?


Because it does. It makes me better. It contributes to completion and happiness. The act of reflecting on what I’ve written and what I’ve learned and what I should do moving forward is the most important way – I’m inclined to argue the only way – that I can see that I can improve my writing. It’s what I’ve tried to do book after book: examine my life and the choices I’m making and how those choices reflect in the prism that is a novel.


We’ve all heard published novelists espouse the belief that you can only get better by reading and writing a lot. And it’s true. Reading and writing exhaustively is essential.  But the cognitive process that contributes most to improvement during the act of reading and writing is reflection.



In the writing classroom, reflection takes many forms big and small. This semester I’m book-ending my English 101A classes at the University of Arizona with a literacy narrative as the opening project and an end-of-semester reflective essay at the course’s conclusion.


In between, we’ll examine writing in the disciplines via a research topic proposal, a primary research logbook, and an academic poster session. All of these will be supported by rhetorical principles with a keen eye on the WPA Outcomes Statement along the way.



Susan asked me last night for a quotation about writing. It was a Tuesday night, and she was working on something important on her computer. The kids were in bed, and we had a fire burning in the fireplace of our living room.


“I need something fairly famous that is inspiring,” she said.


“Well, I don’t know about famous, but you can quote me on this: Writing is life.”


She snorted. It might’ve been a guffaw. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t overly impressed.  I should have quoted something pithy by Mark Twain, perhaps.


But the reality is, to me at least, writing is life. The two are inextricably linked like the threads and dyes that make a tapestry. To examine and reflect on your writing is to examine your life.



When I began my professional career as a teacher of writing, I used to dread reading student evaluations. It hurt. Students can use those things to vent. Over time my views of student evaluations have changed. I look for consensus. I look for ways to improve. I confess to my students on Day 1 that I will try to learn at least as much from them as they’ll learn from me (and from one another) in the semester to come.


And every semester I do learn. I add an activity or an article I’ve discovered or a lesson plan or, best of all, an unanticipated exchange with a student to the three-pound synaptic storm residing between my ears. I write in discussion forums alongside my students in low-stakes reflective ways throughout the semester. I’m sometimes encouraged to write a blog about it.


And through it all I think I’ve improved. I think my craft and voice as a writer and as a teacher have seasonally aged into something approximating worth and value.



Yesterday in my afternoon English 101A class I asked my students how many of them had ever kept a journal or diary. Only one hand shot up.


We’d been discussing an article titled “Reflective Writing: a Management Skill” that reported the findings of an empirical study measuring reflective writing against a list of eight outcomes using a statistical model of analysis. The data was pretty clear. Reflective writing contributed to development of students’ skills with the outcomes.


I had one of those moments where I realized reflective writing was not something my students had practiced much. Too often first-year students view academic writing as a singular genre: a five-paragraph essay, a thesis statement, a few citations thrown in for good measure. What else is there to learn?


I said to them, “I think the big take-away for me from reading this article is just how rich and varied reflective writing is. It’s a skill just as much as any other, and the more you practice it, the better you’ll get.”


A few heads nodded.


“So what I want you guys to do for today’s discussion forum writing is take a look at the list of outcomes discussed in the article and choose one you feel you will improve on the most by way of writing your literacy narrative. What does the outcome mean to you? And why is that particular outcome the one you feel you’ll improve on the most?”


It took them a couple of minutes. They had to read over the list closely and really think about what the outcomes meant. Things like critical review, actual self-development, knowledge of one’s own mental functions, decision making, academic learning, empowerment and emancipation.


I could see in a few of their eyes a sort of fixed gaze as their brains considered what the outcomes meant. Some of them froze there for a moment as if reflecting on a spot on the wall ten feet away.


And then they began to write.





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Stacey Cochran is the bestselling author of Eddie & Sunny. He has taught First-Year Writing for nearly twenty years at East Carolina University, Mesa Community College, North Carolina State University, and most recently the University of Arizona. He lives in Tucson with his wife Susan Miller-Cochran and their two kids Sam and Harper. He is currently at work trying futilely to overcome his impostor syndrome.

I just read a fascinating essay in the December 2015 issue of College Composition and 494px-Lavery_Maiss_Auras.jpgCommunicationAmy Robillard’s“Prototypical Reading: Volume, Desire, Anxiety.”  Robillard opens the essay by recalling an article she had written in 2006, one in which she commented on the trend in composition studies to refer to students whose writing we examine by first name only—or anonymously, thereby subsuming their writing under our own pedagogical practices. A few years later, she picked up an article by Mariolina Salvatori making much the same point, though it had been written three years before Robillard’s 2006 piece.  “I might have caught myself plagiarizing,” she writes, and she goes on to argue that, rather than being a crime of writing, it is rather a crime of reading: of not reading enough, of not being thorough enough.   What follows is a detailed discussion of the prototype of “writer” and “reader,” which finds that the identity of “writer” is still associated with literature (we might claim to be technical writers or print journalists, but if we call ourselves “writers,” it still points to literary production).  “Reader,” however, does not designate a profession at all:  when asked what one does, she says, the response “I’m a reader” would not suffice.  “Reader,” then, is more available as an identity than “writer,” though this definition, too, assumes the reading of literature.  Claiming such identities is, for Robillard, anxiety-producing, entailing a lack. 


I’ve oversimplified this article here—and recommend that you check it out and read the piece in its entirety.  But I want to pause to question the assumption that writer and reader are still inevitably connected with literature.  Indeed, Robillard traces the attempts to dissociate the terms.  For years, I have asked my students whether they consider themselves “writers” and “readers,” and some of the most insightful discussions in my classes have followed from this question.  Early on, my graduate students especially associated these acts with producing and consuming literary texts.  When I simply began, however, with this question: “please call out your metaphorical associations with writing and with reading,” what emerged was a striking ambivalence.  These students almost always associated writing with positive acts of construction, birthing, building, revealing, etc. They had negative associations with reading:  “like torture,” they said, or “like falling off a cliff.”  These responses made sense at the time: their reading practices were dictated by the graduate curriculum and they felt little control over what they had to read, or why.  With writing, however, they still imagined themselves to be in some kind of control (though that assumption was certainly questionable). 


Over the decades, however, writing doesn’t seem to carry the strong association with literary production that it once did.  Now when I ask students to define writing, hardly anyone mentions writing a novel or short story.  Rather, they see “writer” as someone who uses language for particular ends—across a huge range of genre and media.  Unlike a decade or so ago when the Pew Foundation reported that students did not identify social media writing as “real” writing, today’s students seem to have changed.  And their understandings of reading seem to have broadened considerably as well: they know that they are spending a large amount of time reading online (and especially on social media) and increasingly see that reading as “real.” 


I want to re-read Robillard’s essay with these movements in mind, and I expect it to enrich my understanding of both reading and writing.  In the meantime, I spent some time with elementary school kids recently and asked them how many were “writers” and “readers.”  Every hand went up.  I hope soon to interview some of these youngsters about just what they associate with those two endlessly fascinating and provocative words. 

One of the most fundamental barriers to effective critical thinking about popular culture is the tendency to take everything as it is for granted, and so fail to question how things have come to be as they are, and what their being that way can tell us about ourselves and our world.  One of the major purposes of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. is to help students learn not to take things for granted, and how to think critically about them through the agency of cultural semiotics. And every one of my blogs here is written to illustrate what it looks like to think critically about the most ordinary things.


In this post I want to continue in this enterprise, but a little differently.  Rather than writing a brief essay that conducts an analysis of a popular cultural topic complete with a conclusion, I want to present a number of recently appearing phenomena in the news that really could use some thinking about.  I encourage you to ask your students to do so.  You might call the following topics "critical thinking flash cards."


24397320205_bffeb97d49_b.jpg1. The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Every four years there is the same hoopla over, and punditry complaints about, the outsized influence that Iowa and New Hampshire have on the American presidential campaign.  We see the same analyses—pointing out, for example, that Iowa and New Hampshire actually don't have all that hot a record in predicting who the nominees will be, and that Iowa and New Hampshire are demographically unrepresentative of America as a whole—not to mention so small in relative population as to render their influence disproportionate in the extreme. We can also read that both parties have tried to do something about this, but have always been thwarted by the states themselves, who cherish their quadrennial moments in the sun.  There is always a good deal of hand wringing about the situation, but that only tends to contribute to the problem rather than solve it. By asking three related questions, however, we can see what is really perpetuating the Iowa/New Hampshire phenomenon, and thus a potential path to amending it.  These are:

  1. Why do candidates running for their party's presidential nomination make such a big deal about Iowa and New Hampshire in the first place? 
  2. Why do the mass media make such a big deal about Iowa and New Hampshire? 
  3. Why do consumers of the mass media continue to read, watch, or click on news stories about Iowa and New Hampshire? 

As clues for thinking about these questions, consider the innate human desire to know the future now, thus making any sort of tea leaf reading an irresistible draw. Consider also the inertial power of sheer tradition in presidential politics. And, finally, consider what could be done to disrupt this tradition.


Outlook_map_Precip_2015_2F_2000.jpg2.  The El Niño deluge that isn't (so far). Well OK, this is really only of local interest for Southern Californians, but after months of media hoopla about the terrible deluge we in So Cal are in for because of a monumental El Niño condition—a deluge which, we have been told, would burst upon us in January and February— Southern California will have received only about 4-5 inches of rain by the time this blog appears in mid-February.  This dearth of disaster is now spawning a new swarm of news articles explaining why the forecast is still correct, with reporters quoting the same meteorologists who point to the same high pressure ridge that has been keeping the really big storms from So Cal, and who also promise, on the basis of past El Niño performance, that the deluge will come (maybe in March); we just have to be patient.  And it may come, after all.  But it still behooves us to ask some questions.  These include:

  1. What is this mass of high pressure doing here for such a long time at this time of year?
  2. With global warming throwing both the atmosphere and atmospheric science completely out of whack, is a reliance on past El Niño performances quite justified?
  3. What does the deluge of news reports about deluges—and their absence—have in common with the Iowa/New Hampshire phenomenon?


3.  Celebrity gowns on red carpets. Now that the movie industry awards ceremony season is hard upon us—deluging us, one might say, with a flood of stories that are a lot more predictable than the weather—it is impossible to avoid the endless parade of images of celebrity women in their celebrity-designer gowns preening themselves on endless miles of red carpet. 

  1. Why, we can ask, is this happening? 
  2. What can we learn about ourselves by thinking critically about it? 
  3. What does all the attention paid to celebrity gowns on red carpets have in common both with El Niño reporting and the Iowa/New Hampshire phenomenon?


The answers to all these questions can tell us a great deal about the kind of society we live in.  I invite you to have a try.


Image source: "Election 2016" by DonkeyHotey on Flikr; "U.S. Winter Outlook" by

One of the readings we took out for the third edition of Emerging was Malcolm Gladwell’s “Small Change.” I liked the piece quite a bit and I’ve wanted something from Gladwell in the book since the first edition because I’ve always considered him an important public intellectual. The challenge with Gladwell is that while his ideas are always awesomely complex, those ideas tend to be diffused across his writing and illustrated more with anecdote than with the kinds of evidence we might want students to use.


Power of Habit.jpg“Small Change,” one of his standalone essays, was a good compromise. In the essay, Gladwell takes on the notion that “the revolution will be tweeted,” arguing that real change requires strong ties (illustrated by the close bonds of those who took part in the civil rights movement) rather than the weak ties promoted by social media tools like Twitter. That notion of strong versus weak ties formed the core argument of his essay, but as an argument it ended up feeling just a bit weak.


Fortunately, we were able to add an essay that works with the same ideas and offers a bit more depth, Charles Duhigg’s “From Civil Rights to Mega-Churches,” from his book The Power of Habit. Duhigg traces the same forces at work in the Civil Rights movement as Gladwell does, noting the role that strong ties played in the Montgomery bus boycott. Like Gladwell, too, Duhigg uses quite a bit of anecdote to make his point—which is great because those stories make the reading quite engaging. But unlike Gladwell, Duhigg also grounded his argument, looking at the origin of the notions of strong and weak ties. He goes on to connect these social forces to peer pressure, expanding that concept by looking at the explosive growth of the Saddleback Church. The end result is an essay that engages many of the same concepts as Gladwell’s work but with more depth.


Duhigg would be great for any sequence of assignments on social change. I can see using his essay in conjunction with Appiah or Epstein or Yoshino. I hope you will consider using it and I hope to walk through some of the other new readings we have in the posts to come!


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Version 4.jpg“Let’s consider beginning the writing process not with the introduction, but with drafting body paragraphs,” I suggest to students in the third week of class.  “Imagine that you have taken the same route every day in your commute to school. But one day the city announces a long-term construction project on that route. So you need to change your public transit stop, or you must leave the freeway before your usual exit, or you have to come down a different path to reach this classroom building. At first this difference may feel unusual or awkward, or even very uncomfortable. In a sense, I am inviting you to do just that, to change your route to writing, to learn new practices to move from process to product.” Indeed, some students responded as if they had encountered just such a roadblock, one that is not just inconvenient but disorienting, and were feeling frustrated with an unanticipated change of plans.


Adam Grant, in his essays on creativity in the New York Times Sunday Review, has explored similar roadblocks. In “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate,” Grant considers that the right kind of procrastination can lead to “divergent,” and more creative thinking. Most of Grant’s examples in this essay focus on experienced writers, such as graduate students or professionals. Andrea Lunsford’s January 26th Bits post On Procrastination summarizes the reactions of respondents on the Writing Program Administrator’s listserv to Grant’s thoughts on the topic.


However, in a subsequent essay, “How to Raise a Creative Child: Back Off,” Grant points to another issue that has recently arisen in my introduction to academic writing courses: the problem of too much practice. “The more we practice,” Grant offers, “the more we become…trapped in familiar ways of thinking.” The insights that Grant gleans from recent research seem especially pertinent to observations of my students’ writing processes over the last several years.


That is, many students now insist that the introduction and the thesis must be composed first before the body paragraphs can be written. The students’ prior knowledge of the writing process seems to have become a kind of checklist to complete in lockstep, even as they are presented with new strategies for writing, and even when the old process no longer worked for them.


As students undertake the difficult work of preparing for standardized testing in writing, they may have had all too much experience with practice in using a checklist or formula to shape their writing processes. By the time they reach our classes, students’ writing processes may resemble the format of the written product: introduction and thesis must be completed first, followed by the body and the conclusion. If students encountered a roadblock en route to completing their introduction, they often would stop writing completely, relying on procrastination and the pressure of deadlines to force their essays to completion. Students resist not for the sake of resistance, but from a deeper sense of cognitive dissonance and frustration. Some students made the difficult discovery that this practice of procrastination did not lead to their best work.


So this semester, we are experimenting with taking a different road. I posted a letter to students on my course website, offering the following suggestions for reconsidering the differences between the processes and products of writing in our classroom:


  • Do not expect to write five-paragraph essays on conventional subjects. Instead, expect that your writing will develop in bits and pieces—sometimes fast and easy, other times slow and challenging.


  • The projects are designed for complex thinking and writing, so that your subject unfolds over several weeks. If you attempt to begin with a perfect thesis and introduction, you may find yourself struggling much more than necessary.


What is the point of all this? If you have seen Star Wars: Episode VIIThe Force Awakens, think about what appeals to you about the film. Characters? Plot? Setting? Special effects? How much effort was involved creating this appeal? Think about the length of time and the number of difficulties that the originators of the Star Wars series have faced since the mid-1970s, when the first film began production. Despite those setbacks, in 2015 The Force Awakens was released, and record-breaking audience attendance followed.


Also consider the work of Marin Luther King, Jr. and the historic figures and everyday people who created the US Civil Rights Movement. King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Fanny Lou Hamer, and many others endured deep resistance from a majority of Americans and faced deadly violence from a strong opposition. The Movement’s defeats outnumbered the victories. Yet history celebrates those victories, and the victories offer inspiration for working toward achieving human rights in our current time.


Later in the term, we will consider one of King’s most stirring refutations of his opposition, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” For the moment, as a class, we are experimenting with a change of practice, drafting the body first instead of the introduction. As this unconventional process takes hold, the hope is that students will gain comfort from having multiple strategies for approaching their writing.

Dockter+Jason_Thumbnail.jpgToday’s guest blogger is Jason Dockter  (see end of post for bio).


When I teach the first semester of first-year composition, I include a few larger multimodal writing projects (one project was the subject of another post: Multimodal Mondays: Composing the Multimodal Interview). In the four years that I’ve been teaching these projects, one of the constants from year to year is the uncertainty that students have for thinking about writing as anything other than words on the page. When we begin to consider what it means to compose with an abundance of media, tools, and genres, students’ uncertainty becomes more apparent. They struggle with the idea that it is okay to include other images or other elements in their writing, let alone develop an entirely different sort of text in a composition class. This, of course, is one of the reasons why teaching multimodal projects is important. This in-class activity aims to help increase comfort and rhetorical thinking.



To give students in-class, guided experience in using modalities beyond the linguistic to communicate an idea(s), helping students to gain comfort with multimodal composition.


Background Reading

The selected readings below span a range of topics, including rhetorical thinking and choice, composing multimodally and with other media, and design. This activity encourages students to think beyond satisfying the teacher’s expectations and instead, considering a specific audience and how to better communicate the message to  that audience.


  • The St. Martin's Handbook - Ch. 16: Design for Print and Digital Writing; Ch. 18: Communicating in Other Media
  • The Everyday Writer - Ch. 22: Making Design Decisions; Ch.24: Communicating in Other Media; Student Research Essay (pages 509-18)
  • Writing in Action - Ch. 8: Making Design Decisions; Ch. 6: Multimodal Assignments
  • EasyWriter - Ch. 4: Multimodal Writing
  • Student Research Essay (from your own class or the student essay from David Craig in The St. Martin's Handbook pp. 441-9; Everyday Writer pp. 508-518; or Writing in Action pp. 444-53)


Class Activity

Bring an argumentative text to class that someone has published, and ask students to find supportive materials in other modalities to enhance the argument. For this activity, using a sample student text, such as David Craig’s research essay “Messaging: The Language of Youth Literacy” can work well, as it communicates through a single media and emphasizes the linguistic mode (found in Lunsford’s Everyday Writer on page 509). You could also decide to use a student-written text from another class, or create your own. Divide class into groups, giving each group a specific supporting point of the argument to work with. Ideally, this activity would take place within a computer-classroom, where students have access to the Internet so students can find online resources to complete the activities. I envision students working in small groups so they can easily discuss the rhetorical choices inherent in the class activities discussed below, helping each other consider how a different compositional choice may result in a different experience for the audience.


How this is actually done can vary quite a bit. But here are some possibilities for adapting the assignment to your course goals:


  • Limit the types of media or the specific modalities that students should locate/use to support the written argument. You might choose to limit them to images, audio materials, or video segments. What can students locate that can help to support specific ideas that the author has developed?
  • Take the same argument in the activity above and recreate it using different modalities. Discuss the advantages/disadvantages of the multiple modalities used.
    • For instance, how would this argument change if the author emphasized the aural mode and relied heavily on sound?
    • Or if the author used the spatial mode to design the text differently, how would the argument change? What aspects might be improved? Would any be weakened?
  • This text is written to a general audience, but what if the audience was specifically concerned parents, or school administrators, or local politicians? Consider this argument (or different aspects of it) aimed at one of these specific groups. What multimodal elements can students find to enhance the argument to that audience? How do these elements add to the argument? Why this modality/these elements for this specific audience?


While these are just a few possibilities of how a teacher might frame this sort of activity, the hope for this activity  is that students can focus on the work of communicating a specific message without the usual pressure of developing the message. By inserting students into an existing argument, aimed at a specific audience, students can focus on the choices of how alternate materials and modalities can help a reader to make meaning from the text and how different compositional choices can result in different readings of a text. In that way, this classroom activity serves as an excellent scaffolding exercise, leading to a full multimodal assignment that allows students to focus on their own message and rhetorical delivery.

Jason Dockter teaches first-year composition at Lincoln Land Community College. He completed his Ph.D. in English Studies at Illinois State University. His research focus is primarily on rhetoric/composition, with specific interests in online writing instruction and multimodal composition.

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I just returned from a visit with grandnieces Audrey (11) and Lila (8) and, as always, I loved observing what they were up to regarding literacy/ies. They had a two-day holiday from school, so in all, we had three days for fun. We started by seeing the new Star Wars film, which they judged to be “way too long” but engaging; they were outraged by the death of a favorite character, and they loved Finn. They also deftly pointed out several product placements, showing that their critical antennae are up at least part of the time.


The next day we had rain and even some snow, so that meant—reading! We have our own book clubs when I’m not there: each girl chooses a book, and we read two chapters and then have a text or FaceTime talk about it. I am constantly impressed with their reflections and with how they anticipate what may happen next (and why). This day, though, we could read together. Lila chose one of Frances O’Roark Dowell’s Phineas L. MacGuire books, and over the course of the day she read the entire volume to me out loud. She has a wicked sense of humor and a very soft heart, so we had to pause and laugh or commiserate often as the adventures piled up. Once she misread, saying “He rode his book” rather than “He rode his bike” and got so tickled that she lost her breath laughing—and then rode around the room on her book. She also took to correcting Phineas (known as Mac), who is prone to refer to “Me and Marcus.” Lila silently changed this to “Marcus and I,” nodding disapprovingly as she did so. This book’s lessons are pretty obvious—compassion and kindness win out over obnoxiousness and selfishness every time—so we talked about that and about experiences she had had with both in her second grade class. Eight-year-olds have a lot on their minds, as this reading experience reminded me.


And so do eleven-year-olds.  Audrey and I took turns reading the third book in Lois Lowry’s Giver series. Since we’d already read the first two books in our typical book club way, we spent some time talking about what had happened in The Giver and Gathering Blue, including a meditation on “utopian” and “dystopian” and the role these words played in the series. Then we plunged in to The Messenger, which Audrey soon said “cut to the chase” better and more quickly than the first two. She picked up right away on the word “trade,” saying “there’s something going on with this word!” And she was right, as the plot turns on an ominous Trade Mart that comes to threaten the village. We stopped often to reflect on events and talk about our expectations and hopes for the characters, our assessment of the story (“really gripping!”), and words (“Wow, ‘subtle’ has a ‘b’ in it. How cool!”). We didn’t finish the book in one day, but did so in the car on the way to the airport. Now we are embarking on the fourth and last book in the series, Son, and I look forward to many text messages and emails and phone calls about it.


After a day of reading and with the weather still bad they turned to building. They each had a Roominate kit (started by girls and meant for girls—and boys—who want to build things). The kits come with four pieces of plastic (about 10” by 8” ) meant to serve as three walls and a floor—and then a bunch of other smaller plastic parts that can be fit together in different ways, colored paper and felt, and a few other things. There are some pictures but only bare-bones instruction:  “just build whatever you imagine!” they say. Lila quickly announced she was going to build a restaurant called Avery’s. She papered the walls, built four tables for two, fit them out with napkins, menus, and candles, and set up a serving station. She made a big menu board (ice cream sundaes for $4; chicken tenders for $3; grilled cheese sandwiches “on the house”) as well as a “daily specials” board, a welcome sign, and a tipping policy (“give a lot”). 

February 4 2016.jpg

Audrey took more time to think but then decided to build her ideal cabin for Camp Kanata, where she and Lila will spend two weeks this summer. If you can enlarge the photo below, you’ll see how intricate the work is: the stack of tiny felt t-shirts on the top shelf of a cupboard, next to a dress hanging on a paper hanger; the two bunk beds with quilts and pillows and signs for the girls assigned to them (Eva, Audrey, etc.); the windows, broom (made with a cut-off pencil) and paper dustpan; the bedside table with its candle (“really, really hard to make”) and The Giver on it; a bookshelf (Smile is there, along with Moby Dick); and what she called “signage”—Cabin Clean Up Score Card, Camp Rules, Chore Chart, even a fan (top right) that she rigged up with batteries (it works!).

February 4 2016a.jpg
Audrey and Lila worked all day on these construction projects, chatting away, often to themselves, about challenges and problems they had to solve and the effects they were trying to create. Since they were working with very small items like candles, a lot of hand-eye-brain coordination was called for, along with concentration and focus. I had a hard time getting them to take a break for lunch! They graciously let me join the team and I was sometimes allowed to help out (“Aunt A, would you cut another circle just like this one?”).


So the maker movement—and reading—are alive and well in Chapel Hill. And on these two days, while both girls used the Internet to look up things they needed (definitions of terms, how to do this or that), they were not as tied to the iPads as they are sometimes wont to be. For now, I’m starting our next “book club” books and watching for additions and improvements to the Roominates!

Surely it was the first time in the history of American presidential elections that a candidate had made such a statement: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” The American public has heard so many outrageous statements from Donald Trump that this recent one wasn’t even the lead story on the evening news. In fact, it produced hardly a ripple in the press. Even though the statement is a bit of an exaggeration, Trump’s comment comes closer to the truth than some might like: He can at least say such a thing and not lose voters. Why? What has happened to the classical definition of a rhetor as a good man skilled in speaking? What has happened to the notion that a successful argument is a blend of logos, pathos, and ethos?



Some fact-checking organizations have claimed that 75% or more of what Trump says is not true. Facts—or lack thereof—would be a large part of the logical component, or logos, of his argument. A Washington Post article near the end of 2015 posed “4 theories why Donald Trump’s many falsehoods aren’t hurting him”: 


  1. People simply believe him—or at least want to.
  2. People don’t care that he’s not accurate.
  3. It’s Trump’s word against the media’s.
  4. People just aren’t paying attention.


Others can analyze Trump’s veracity compared to the media’s. Considering the fourth theory, people who just aren’t paying attention and thus haven’t decided whom to vote for, or just won’t vote, are not being reached by any argument by any candidate. Those who are paying attention but who say they will vote for Trump anyway are responding to the pathos and/or the ethos of his argument, which is the basis for the first two theories in any case. People who simply believe a candidate based on who he or she is (or appears to be) are responding to how that candidate presents himself or herself as an ethical being. Those who don’t care if a candidate is accurate or not are responding emotionally and not logically. Books will be written in coming years about the emotional hold that Donald Trump has over a diverse segment of the American public. It would take an examination of the American psyche to explain what needs Trump fills for which of the various groups who flock to his rallies and who indicate they plan to vote for him. Trump has shaken up American politics for the very reason that he has an emotional hold over American voters that outweighs reason.


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In my last post I discussed some of the challenges of WAC/WID in the FYC classroom as well as the tools the new edition of Emerging offers to help you meet some of those challenges. In this post I want to think about research, which can be just as challenging to teach in the FYC classroom.


I touch on one of these challenges in the introduction to Emerging:


Research is also an important skill of critical thinking. But “research” is a much trickier term than it used to be. It used to be that research involved looking up specific subjects on little cards or ponderous indexes of journals in the library and then hunting down books in the library stacks or finding articles on microfilm. It required a good deal of training to do well. For most of us today, though, the basic methods of research are nearly instinctive. If you were given a blank search box, you would know what to do — just type in some search terms and start looking at the results until you find what you need. And in fact we often do this kind of research every day: researching what school to attend, or information on your favorite band, or where to get the best tattoo.


But academic research is very different from this kind of research. When you research on the Web, you gather and summarize existing information. When academics do research, though, their goal is to produce new information. (21)


I think this problem—life in a search culture—is compounded by some of the work students do before they reach our classrooms. In high school, my sense is that often writing a “research paper” means “read a bunch of sources and summarize the information,” which is exactly what I don’t want students to do in my classroom.


These challenges around research, or perhaps more properly “researched writing” or “researched arguments,” are further compounded by the same WAC/WID issues I discussed in the last post. That is, students won’t really learn how to research until they enter their disciplines, and each discipline has its own rules for research governing how to conduct it, what counts as evidence, and how to present it.


Rock, meet hard place. On the one hand, I feel the need to teach students how to break out of the “research paper means summarizing sources, which is what I do in a search culture all the time” mold, but on the other hand, I can’t really teach them how to research in ways that will remain meaningful as they journey into their majors and careers.


The approach I tend to take is to boil academic research down to its barest form. It’s an approach I’ve taken when teaching research to graduate students as well. And it comes down to this:


Is(S) = Kn


If you’ve ever been exposed to my Super Secret Formula for connecting readings (now, of course, not so secret) then you already know I have a fondness for formulae, mostly because 1) they are so alien to writing processes and thus force the mind into new modes of thinking, but also because 2) they provide good, simple, concrete scaffolds for work.


In this case, the formula is meant to express my sense that all academic research involves taking Ideas About Stuff (Is) and applying it to Stuff (S) in order to create New Knowledge (Kn). What I am expressing here is nothing new, really. Ideas About Stuff might be recast as secondary sources, or theoretical knowledge, or paradigms, or frames. Stuff is really just a more generalized way of saying primary sources, or practice, or cases. What I find useful about my more abstracted approach is that sometimes secondary sources can serve as primary sources—one could, for example, do a Marxist analysis of feminism. But the central points are that 1) academic research produces new knowledge and 2) that happens by moving between theories and examples.


A biologist might take ideas about DNA replication to develop a new drug for cancer. An engineer might take ideas about energy efficiency to design a new engine. A business person might take ideas about economic trends to predict the stock market. In all cases, academics take ideas about how the world works and use them to predict or change what happens.


The revised introduction to Emerging introduces this approach to students. It also covers the difference between having sources and using sources, as well as the need for understanding how research happens in the disciplines. We went even further with this edition, though, by providing two assignment sequences specifically about research. Both use the readings from the book as a starting point, to help students acquire the basic skills of making arguments and working with sources, and then invite students to locate their own sources to extend the conversation. It’s a kind of deeply scaffolded introduction to research.


I don’t know that Emerging is the ideal text for a course solely devoted to researched writing, but if those kinds of assignments form part of your FYC course then we’ve offered new tools for you to use. I hope you enjoy them.


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profile-image-display.jspa?imageID=2353&size=1000Today's guest blogger is Kim Haimes-Korn (see end of post for bio).


For teachers straddling both sides of this paradigm shift in our field, multimodal composition is about transformation. We have one foot firmly planted in what we believe about writing and rhetorical effectiveness while our other foot is stepping into digital and interactive spaces. The field is large with changing language, definitions and uncharted territory. All we can do is take it one class at a time – one assignment at a time . . . and then reflect. I have worked over the past year to reflect upon and transform my rhetoric class to include digital tools, forms, genres and resources along with new ways of thinking and communicating through digital literacies. I have shared some of the assignments from that class along the way in my earlier posts (for instance, check out Everyday Rhetoric and Cultural Ideologies).


Today, I want to share the final project for that class, the Visual Rhetorical Analysis. This isn’t a particularly new assignment or tool but its freshness is in the way I integrated it into this class as an evolution of ideas and concepts. Instead of looking narrowly at argument as related primarily to conflict, I present visual argument as analysis to encourage students to find a voice and a perspective and include it as part of a larger conversation on their subject.


Overview of the Assignment

Students can choose a rhetorical analysis of a particular discourse community or take on a specific rhetorical subject for analysis. The only guidelines for choosing their subject are that it is somehow related to rhetoric and language, that they incorporate visual rhetoric in their article, and that they create an accompanying Visual Rhetorical Analysis in the form of a video or interactive, self-running slideshow. In this culminating part of the assignment, students take the ideas generated through their article version and create a visual argument/analysis version that includes text and images to communicate the most important ideas to a virtual audience.


Background Reading for Students and Instructors

Acts of textual and visual design using multimodal elements are on-going learning opportunities for instructors.  Below, I have listed a few background readings.  I encourage teachers to add to and enrich the list.


The Assignment

  1. Proposal: Have students propose ideas as they find a subject for rhetorical analysis.  For this class we have looked at the rhetorical tradition as a way of understanding our ideas about thought, language, and communication. We also investigated the ways visual and digital rhetoric have distinct characteristics and attributes. This project uses these ideas as a framework for the subject. There are many possible ways of interpreting this assignment, and part of the students’ task is to define what it is they want to do.  The subject is, broadly, rhetoric.
  2. Draft and revise a feature article to include visual components – images, context, and document design  for peer workshop
  3. Introduce students to rhetorical concepts that help them transition their work towards a visual analysis.  Sean Morey, in his upcoming book, the Digital Writer (2016), reminds us that “words aren’t the only way to make arguments” (77).  He presents traditional rhetorical concepts and demonstrates the ways that images and visual composition can do the same thing.  He speaks of the ways students, develop claims, support evidence, conduct research and shape communication through introducing them to a range of classical rhetorical argument strategies and appeals. Some particularly useful concepts I like to introduce are explicit arguments – that directly state a claim and implicit arguments (that include images) that “use more indirect means of persuasion to place an idea in the viewer’s mind.” I find these criteria useful as I communicate the goals of the assignment to students.  We also talk about other rhetorical concepts that can be applied to visual production such as metaphor, juxtaposition, analogy, anchorage and relay.
  4. Research and analyze other visual arguments/analyses online. As a class, discuss rhetorical and visual criteria that make them effective.  Have students critically examine the ways visual rhetoric communicates meaning and ideas and the ways that authors’ perspectives persuade, question and analyze perspectives. Discuss and display examples in small groups or as a full class.
  5. Create the Visual Rhetorical Analysis in the form of a video or self-running slideshow that students can embed on a blog or post to a YouTube channel.  The analyses include audio, text, and image to communicate their purposes, main ideas and perspectives on their subjects. Projects should be between 2 – 4 minutes in length.
  6. Discuss and construct criteria for feedback on the visual analysis genre and conduct peer workshop sessions. Have students revise and post to blogs or other sites for sharing with others.
  7. Reflect by writing on the processes involved.


Reflections on the assignment 

Students did well with this project. The key is having them develop their ideas in writing before moving to the visual version. It presents them with the tasks of selection and contextualization, which are important when composing visual texts.


Student Work

I encourage students to use whatever tools they want. Some shot and edited videos in a storytelling format while others worked with slide and animation software. Below are two student projects that show the blog post, article version, and the visual rhetorical analysis.

  • Sam’s project, Painting the Face of Education looked at the ways rhetoric is used in public education in relation to the concept of creativity. Her subject covered some educational research along with her own educational experiences.  In her Visual Rhetorical Analysis she takes these ideas, states her claims, and adds a call for action for educators to recognize and include creative strategies in their curriculum.
  • Kendra chose to take on the question of the impact of street art in her project, I Paint, Therefore I Am. She explores and analyzes urban activist art from a rhetorical perspective. She reviews and defines different categories of street art and actually engaged in her own physical journey to collect and describe urban activist artifacts from her own community. 


Both of these student projects show the ways that the assignment encouraged them to rethink their ideas in terms of visual rhetoric and a digital audience. They had to select the most important ideas from their longer documents and choose a perspective to promote. The assignment asked them to repurpose their ideas for different rhetorical situations –important transformative skills for content creators in digital spaces. 


Reference: Morey, Sean. Digital Writer, Chapter 3: Digital Argument, Fountainhead, 2016.


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