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Today's guest blogger is Kim Haimes-Korn (see end of post for bio).


Students sometimes hesitate to take on multimodal projects because they place them in the category of “creativity.”  When asked, they often assert that they do not consider themselves “creative” and feel that these efforts come from an entirely different part of their brain that they are unable to access.  They see creativity in narrow terms and feel as if it is something they either have or not.  We also tend to see creativity in terms of origination – a goal that feels nearly impossible in this world where everything has been done before. 


Students have heard the term, déjà vu – a feeling that we have when we recognize an experience as something that has happened many times before and feels familiar.   We can flip this idea and teach students to make the familiar strange (like cultural anthropologists and ethnographers) and present them with what creativity theorists refer to as vuja de, a way of thinking in which we can see old things in new ways (this term is attributed to comedian, George Carlin who first coined it in one of his routines).   


When we ask students to engage in multimodality, we are, in fact asking them to be creative and to see things in new ways, engage in design thinking and create something that goes beyond words on a page.  Multimodal composition even harkens back to notions of rhetoric that employ right brain activities such as philosophical inquiry and invention and left brain activities such as techne (technique) and problem solving.  When students switch back and forth between these kinds of activities, they elevate the possibility of creative thinking.  When students develop rhetorical awareness and remix ideas this act of genre switching and visual representation engages them in creative acts of composition.


I find it increasingly useful to include classroom activities that engage the both the right and left brain and expand notions of creativity for students.  As teachers, we do plenty of left brain activities in our classes, but I believe that it is productive to include right brain activities side by side to engage both sides of the brain.  There are many online resources for these kinds of activities (as it has a history in educational psychology) but I list some (digital, tactile, aesthetic and kinesthetic) below:


Some Ideas for Engaging the Right Brain

  • Image Searches
  • Open ended art – painting, drawing/doodling, coloring
  • Engaging both hemispheres – write with non-dominant hand – write words backwards
  • Incorporate movement – walk backwards, stretch
  • Music
  • Play-dough, sculpting
  • Meditation
  • Blind drawing – object w/out looking at paper
  • Photography – Digital Stories


Although students eventually compose in digital spaces, I like to start them out with tangible acts of creativity that potentially push boundaries. For this particular activity, I introduce students to 4 different kinds of creativity (Gibson and Hodgetts, 1986) that push the definition beyond origination. 

  • Innovation
  • Synthesis
  • Extension
  • Duplication


It is also helpful to include opportunities for non-structured, intellectual play that opens up possibilities for creative thinking. 


Assignment: The Pipe Cleaner Activity - Engaging the Right and Left Brain

I call this activity This is not a Pipe [Cleaner] after Magritte’s famous image of a pipe in which he reminds us about the difference between representation and reality (another important concept for multimodality).   You will need an abundant selection of craft pipe cleaners that come in different colors and designs so that students.

  1. Distribute Pipe Cleaners and allow students to create without boundaries (right brain)
  2. Introduce 4 types of creativity (left brain).
  3. Compare pipe cleaner creations and discuss kinds of creativity (right and left).
  4. Connect ideas to what we do as multimodal composers (left).


Reflections on the Activity:

Although this might seem simplistic, it gets interesting when you see what students create and the ways they come to understand creativity through the process.  I generally conduct this activity with college students or with colleagues at conferences and I am always encouraged by their delight at just seeing the pipe cleaners as a long forgotten activity of their youth.  It brings them back to a time when unstructured play felt more acceptable and when they were able to see possibilities before limitations. 


Some participants make functional items such as glasses, or pen holders.  Others make miniature versions of larger things.  Some make full scenes while others shape animals or characters. Still others create conceptual structures that represent universal ideas or symbols.  Throughout this process they engage in innovation, synthesis, extension and duplication and come to see familiar things in new ways. For example, in what I call a Tale of Two Flowers (first image below), a student picked up the pipe cleaners and immediately constructed a somewhat predictable flower with petals, stem and leaves.  Another student tossed off her pipe cleaners in frustration because she felt the idea was “already taken.”  This gave us a great opportunity to discuss the concepts of duplication and extension. We talked about how the first student didn’t own or invent the concept of flower and in fact there are many versions and varieties of what we call flowers (both real and imaginary). At this point, the first student went back to his work and extended it through creating a scene (second image below) in which he synthesized the concept of flower into the larger context of its place in the world. As student present and discuss their creations with others they are additionally inspired through their classmates’ responses.




The most difficult thing about this activity is getting students to stop.  They ultimately want to keep creating.  Many create, dissemble, and start again.  Some keep adding on and elaborating beyond their first creations. The activity opens up an excitement and an agency for them as they begin to see the possibilities for themselves as multimodal composers who can shape and reshape their ideas through different lenses and mediums.


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.

Today’s guest bloggers are Maureen McBride, Writing Center Director at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Meghan Sweeney, Assistant Professor of English at Saint Mary’s College of California.


We love teaching writing—the opportunities that we can share with students to bring their ideas and voices into the world provide an internal sustenance for us. What we did not realize when we started out is that we would need to be teachers of reading to be effective teachers of writing. We have found that this is nowhere more evident than with students enrolled in basic writing.


To teach reading, we begin by asking our students questions about what they read and how they read: What do you enjoy reading? Are you a fast reader? When we asked our students some of these questions and created assignments that required us to teach reading—and not just assign it—we realized there are many reading-writing disconnects our students are required to muddle through in isolation.


Our quest to support our students led us to use versions of Marolina Salvatori’s difficulty paper, which asks students to discuss reading difficulties in writing to prepare them for more advanced discussions about the texts or more advanced writing about the text.


Using the difficulty paper allows us to help students avoid getting “stuck” on difficulties and failing to engage with texts. In our research using the difficulty paper assignments, we found that our students identified a wide range of difficulties with the texts we assigned:

  • length (e.g. reading the complete article)
  • understanding unfamiliar vocabulary
  • identifying the thesis/purpose
  • finding relevance for detail/development
  • understanding norms of different genres
  • engaging with assigned texts


What has emerged from our research more than anything else is that students see a distinct mismatch between what we ask them to write and what we ask them to read. Our research also highlighted how some of our students were using assigned readings in ways that we didn’t always intend, such as using a text intended to create a more informed context as a model for an assignment (“Difficulty Paper (Dis)Connections: Understanding the Threads Students Weave between their Reading and Writing.” CCC, vol. 66, no. 4, June 2015).


Some of the great benefits of asking students to identify reading difficulties are the discussions the difficulties open up, such as how to shift from reading like a writer to reading like a critic to reading like a peer reviewer. Essentially, the difficulty papers made the reading process visible in our classrooms and since then have inspired us to create the following additional assignments that do the same:


Ideal College Reader Reflections

We use informal assignments to have students discuss what they think ideal college readers (and sometimes readers and writers) do and what their processes are, which can be very enlightening in terms of understanding how our basic writing students identify with the tasks we are asking them to complete. It helps students discuss dis/connections with their own reader-writer identities and lets instructors open up discussions about some of those myths/misconceptions.


Disciplinary Representations of Reading

After introducing students to the concept of disciplinary literacy, we invite advanced students from other disciplines to assign a genre that is common in their discipline. The advanced student then teaches the class for a day, discussing the questions they commonly ask, the perspective they strive to maintain, and the practices they employ when reading. Students ask these advanced students questions about their reading, then reflect on the experience. This process helps students realize that their reading processes and approaches may change after they leave the basic writing classroom.


In the end, what this means for teachers of basic writing is that we need to be more intentional about teaching our students how to read and what to read for. Students have often had many experiences with teachers modeling writing process, but they lack similar experiences of having instructors model reading processes for difficult texts that vary in genre and purpose. We may have achieved making the writing process more visible to students, but somewhere we stopped modeling how to approach texts; we just fell into patterns of assigning readings and then wondering why our students were not engaged readers.


Our take-aways for other teachers of basic writing:

  • Scaffold reading expectations, specifically purpose
  • Require reading process assignments
  • Provide class time for discussions of reading
  • Avoid summarizing the text for students during class discussion
  • Be more intentional about text choices
  • Create time and context for discussions of difficulties
  • Leverage difficulties to promote connections between reading and writing
  • Make a place for reading instruction in our composition classrooms.


Our hope is that our identities have shifted from writing teachers to reading-writing teachers and that our shift will support students to see themselves as reader-writers or to at least see the connectedness.

What role will argumentation play in students’ studies after they complete first-year English? What role will it play in their lives outside the classroom?  


In discussing the research assignment (see Argument and the Research Assignment), I mentioned before that I asked my students to speculate early in the research process how they could write a claim of fact, a claim of value, and a claim of policy about their topic. It is interesting to ask them as an exercise or even as part of a final exam to do the same with a topic in their major field. They may or may not have even thought about the controversies in their majors, but it is good for them to see the link to what they have been learning about argument. Having learned the concepts of claim, support, and warrant, of logical fallacies, of appeal, and of middle ground, they can apply them to essays they will have to write both in their major and in general education courses. Having learned the language of argumentation, they are ready to look at subjects in a range of content areas with a more critical eye.


In Elements of Argument and Structure of Argument, we try to keep the readings current so that students can put theory into practice as they read and write about contemporary issues. Each edition brings major updates in the readings. This blog is meant to supplement the readings by applying theory to issues that may not even have been at the forefront of national or world consciousness when the last edition went to press or that have become of increasing concern since that time. Theories of argumentation are as old as Aristotle and as new as the daily headlines.

During a recent visit to the writing program at San Jose State, I had a chance to see the outstanding work they are doing – reevaluating, streamlining, and updating the curriculum for their writing courses and getting an ambitious, directed self-placement program underway. So no more “remedial” courses at SJSU. Rather, students choose to enroll in one or two semesters of writing (this is a “stretch” course that students can place themselves into). Then they will take a second-year course (English 1B) on critical writing, a course that may be taught from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.


Richard McNabb, who heads up the composition program, Tom Moriarty, who is in charge of Writing across the Curriculum, and Cindy Baer, who coordinates the “stretch program,” are all excited about the possibilities for students taking on more agency, more responsibility for their own learning and about the changes they are making to their curricula.  And they, wisely, plan to follow the students carefully, monitoring the progress of those who elect one course and those who elect two. By this time next year, they hope to have a rich data set to share and to compare.


SJSU is also, wisely, working with the two-year and other colleges in the area that send students to them. In fact, the day I visited there were teachers from five area schools, all sharing information and eager to learn about what SJSU is doing. So if their work with the revised curriculum and directed self-placement is successful, it will surely have a ripple effect on other schools.


I’m wondering what other schools have similar programs, especially since directed self-placement has been around for quite a long time and research supports its efficacy, if implemented carefully and well. In the meantime, I’m impressed with colleagues and students at San Jose State.

Nancy Sommers

Thank you, MLA!

Posted by Nancy Sommers Expert May 25, 2016

Dear Friends—let’s welcome the 8th edition of the MLA Handbook, published April 1, 2016, a simpler and more flexible system for students to learn and for us to teach. Most importantly, it is a system that allows us to focus students’ attention on why writers use sources and how documentation extends a research conversation. WritersRef MLA Update.PNGThe emphasis of the 8th edition is not on rules; rather, it is on making documentation useful to readers and on helping writers to participate in an academic community—a community in which the exchange of ideas requires a system.


As composition teachers, the ones in charge of introducing our students to MLA, we approach these seismic changes in the MLA system with some trepidation. We need to learn a new system and be comfortable and conversant with it in time for our September classes. Yet we understand, too, from our students’ confusion in documenting digital sources, and our own challenges in teaching an overly cumbersome system, why the 8th edition is needed.


Here are the problems the 8th edition addresses:


(1) In its attempt to keep up with the rapid evolution of sources, the 7th edition presented models for each source type or format. As the editors of the 8th edition write, “we need a system for documenting sources that begins with a few principles rather than a long list of rules.” The 8th edition shifts attention away from models for each source type to documentation principles that can be applied across sources.


(2) Sources have become less stable and more mobile. Publications “migrate readily from one medium to another,” and are no longer contained in simple categories. An idea might start as a blog, for instance, develop into a TED talk, be published as an article, and reposted on a Web site. The source might be located or viewed in a format very different from its original publication, so guidelines are needed to account for that sort of migration.

Enter the 8th edition of the MLA, with its relaxed, more flexible approach to documentation. The 8th edition focuses attention on “simple traits shared by most works” that run across all sources:


  • Author
  • Title of Source
  • Title of Container
  • Other Contributors
  • Version
  • Number
  • Publisher
  • Publication Date
  • Location


These simple, core traits are recognizable to us as writing teachers, except for the new one, “container.” Here’s how to understand the container concept: A container is any larger work that contains or holds the source cited. A container might be an anthology, a print journal, a podcast series, an online discussion board, a Web site, and so forth. Containers can be nested: If a container is itself part of some larger container, such as a journal located in an online database or a photograph collection in a digital archive, then information about the second container--the online database or the digital archive--becomes part of the documentation to help readers locate it.


As writing teachers, we encourage students to enter a research conversation by engaging with the ideas of other writers who have explored and studied their topic. We urge them to look for debates, areas of disagreement, so that they can find gaps and entry points for themselves in this conversation and gain authority by consulting a wide range of digital and print sources. The guidelines in MLA’s 8th edition make it easy for us to extend documentation as part of a research conversation between writers and sources and between writers and readers. Rather than teaching documentation as a series of rules to memorize, we can teach it rhetorically, as decisions made by writers to guide their readers quickly and unobtrusively to the source of a quotation, a paraphrased or summarized idea, or other kind of borrowed material used to support an argument.


All of the Hacker/Sommers handbooks will feature guidelines and models based on the 8th edition of the MLA Handbook. Look for “2016 MLA Update” stickers on the covers.

Miriam Moore

All's Well That Ends Well

Posted by Miriam Moore Expert May 25, 2016

Ends of semesters can be fraught and frenetic, both for students and for faculty.  My students are completing final revisions to projects begun earlier in the semester, and they are preparing for a final assessment.  I, in turn, am managing feedback in multiple modes and for multiple classes.  As Roy Stamper pointed out in his blog post The Endings of Things: A Couple of “Capstone” Assignments The Endings of Things: A Couple of “Capstone” Assignments, we are trying to review and reflect, knowing “there’s still work to be done.”  I am tempted each term to engage in “pedagogical cramming,” whereby I endeavor to introduce and review any concept I might have neglected or glossed over during the semester.

But cramming, pedagogical or otherwise, rarely yields the results I want.  I’ve sat through countless sermons and lectures during which speakers couldn’t seem to “land the plane,” circling above their distracted audience with facts and pleas and suggestions and invitations and reminders and just-one-more-thing and let-me-just-add.  What is crammed into those final minutes is also the very information I tend forget before I’ve made it to the restroom after finally being dismissed.

So, as we enter finals week, I am resisting that urge to cram and stuff, even if there are some boxes that will remain unchecked in my mental list of things to cover.  Instead, I will give the students an opportunity to reflect on their own writing and the threshold concepts underlying all the assignments I have given them.  Stamper calls such reflective opportunities “capstone assignments,” and he offers two examples.  Here is my own version:

This week, I gave my students the following list of concepts, which I called my “basic principles.”

  1. All writing involves choices that affect meaning: words, structures, details, punctuation, and organization.
  2. Effective writing pays attention to the needs and the knowledge of a reader.
  3. As writers, we seek feedback and use it to revise (not just edit) our work.
  4. People’s words and ideas are valuable; we must handle them with accuracy and care when we write about them.
  5. We can never out-write our reading ability. (Adapted from Cheryl Hogue Smith)
  6. Uncertainty, difficulty, and confusion are normal parts of our growth as writers.
  7. Specific writing tasks require us to follow the conventions of a discourse community.
  8. Reading and writing demand thinking and make us better thinkers.

I then asked the students to select any three of these principles.  For the final paper, they will write a letter to future students in our class, explaining and exploring the three principles that they chose.  Their exploration might include any of the following:

  • An explanation of the principle in their own words
  • Examples of how they have improved, developed, or changed their writing, based on this principle
  • A specific example from a paper they have written this term which illustrates this principle
  • A specific example from a comment I made or handout I gave which illustrates this principle
  • How this principle will influence the way they write for future classes or for a future job
  • Advice for future students, based on the principle

My hope in this assignment is that the explicit statement of principles and the associated task will help students reflect and review more deliberately, without the pressure and pace associated with an in-class review session.  Each suggested strategy for developing the assignment also reviews a course concept or skill:  paraphrase, self-awareness, levels of specificity, interpretation and use of feedback, planning for concept transfer, and recognition of progress.

I have lost a few students this term; employment changes, financial challenges, and family situations have kept some from completing.  But I believe those who have stayed with me to the end have grown in ways that neither they nor I would have imagined back in January.  Four began in ESL classes with me last August; you would be hard-pressed to match their initial, tentative pieces then with their researched-essays today.  I hope that when I receive their final letters next week, I will find that they, too, are celebrating their progress.  I’ll let you know what happens.

In this series of posts (see also Teaching the Election: Intro and Teaching the Election: Appiah and Teaching the Election: Gilbert) I’m talking about how to teach the election without promoting a single political point of view or allowing students to get stubbornly stuck in us vs. them political positions. The last reading I want to offer is Arora. If you’re using the third edition of Emerging, you might want to select Duhigg instead.


Namit Arora’s “What Do We Deserve?” takes a close look at several models of economic justice in order to answer his titular question. Given that so much of any election revolves around questions of economics (both in terms of the national economy but also government spending and budgets), Arora’s essay can help students to figure out which model of economic justice resonates best with them and then use that to think about the various presidential candidates. One of the great things about Arora is that the models are clearly spelled out and defined, making them easy to acquire concepts that students can use with some facility.


If you’ve moved to the third edition, I would recommend instead Charles Duhigg’s “From Civil Rights to Mega-Churches.” Duhigg is looking at the effects of strong and weak ties on social change but, more fundamentally, he is looking at the ramifications of peer pressure. Using Duhigg in the context of the elections does double-duty: it helps students to think about mechanisms of social change and it also invites them to consider the various peer pressures exerted upon them in relation to voting and the election.


Ultimately, I feel compelled to teach if not the election itself then at least the issues that surround it. And I feel compelled to do so in a way that will equip students to make their own reasoned choices, to vote, and to become fully participating members in the political process.


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

This week I want to share a fun and free tool that you can use to talk about how HTML code works while playing around with remix. Mozilla X-Ray Goggles claim to help users “Remix Any Page on the Web” by revealing and then editing the text and code on target pages.


To use the tool, you drag a button to your web browser’s toolbar. Visit the page you want to remix, and click the button to activate your X-Ray Goggles. Next, click on areas of the page and an editing area appears at the bottom of the page. You can change the text or the related HTML code. If you want to save your remixed page, create a Mozilla login and you can save the text to Thimble (Mozilla’s free web hosting site).


This KQED Education video provides an overview and shows how the tool works in more detail:



The tool is meant for a younger audience. If you look at the activities at the bottom of the X-Ray Goggles page, you’ll notice that the age-level is 8 and up. That is a bit low compared to your basic college student, but the tool is very versatile. Don’t let that age range put you off. What matters is how you use the tool.


Want your students to learn how to structure a particular document for online publication? Find a model and have them remix it with new content using X-Ray Goggles.


Want to talk about the code behind web pages before you ask students to create their own websites from scratch? Use X-Ray Goggles to explore the different tags and attributes behind a variety of pages.


Want your students to talk about how design matters on the web? Challenge them to all recreate a basic page by manipulating the code behind that content using X-Ray Goggles.


Want students to create parody websites? Have the students visit the sites they will parody and use X-Ray Goggles to create their parody content in the format of the original site. Consider how simple it would be to create fake news sites or to turn that assignment around, to take fake or flawed site and create a more truthful and fact-checked version.


You get the idea. The tool helps students see the HTML code in context of real, working pages, and it has the additional benefit of giving them a simple way to borrow and remix code and content. Do you know of other free web tools that can help in the classroom? Please tell me about them by leaving a comment below.

Jack Solomon

Pop Goes the Election

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert May 19, 2016

As pioneers of the analysis of popular culture, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno don't pull very much weight these days, especially among the followers of such writers as Dick Hebdige, Simon Frith, and Stuart Hall, who, one way or another, have embraced a "populist" approach to cultural studies, characterized by the conviction that, rather than being a top-down mode of social control, popular culture is actually a site for working-class "resistance" and "subversion."  But if certain contemporary events can be trusted, it appears that while the populists are right about the subversive potential of pop culture, that subversion can be startlingly reactionary rather than revolutionary.  Because in the curious march of Donald Trump towards the Republican nomination for the presidency, we can see how the uses of popular culture can lean to the right just as much as they can to the left.  Let me explain.


As I have been saying for many years in Signs of Life in the U.S.A., America today is an entertainment culture—that is, a society in which the old lines between high culture and low, work and play, the "serious" and the "non-serious," have been blurred, or even abolished.  In an entertainment culture, everything is expected to be entertaining, and while this has been the case for quite some time in American politics, the rise of Donald Trump signals its full coming of age.


One could say, of course, that Trump's RTV-style candidacy was anticipated by the cheerleader's campaign of Sarah Palin.  And before Palin there were Reagan and Schwarzenegger.  But the real foundation for the Trump campaign lies in the legacy of such call-in radio and television talk show hosts as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.  A volatile synthesis of talk radio (there's an element of Howard Stern in the mix too) and shock-schlock TV (think Jerry Springer), Trump's candidacy has been expressing the frustrations and anger of working and lower-middle-class Americans who feel left out of the conversation.  Giving them a voice, Trump has created the apparently oxymoronic spectacle of a multi-billionaire carrying the banner of a populist revolt.


In such circumstances, I would hardly be surprised if the Donald—in an effort to shore up his support among evangelical Christians—were to choose Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty as his running mate.  And why not?  For when politics and pop culture have become one and the same, what should be surprising about a Donald/Duck administration?

Recently, I’ve been leading a month-long discussion on Stanford’s Book Salon, an online group started by the late great Diane Middlebrook. Diane was the noted biographer of Anne Sexton and Ted Hughes as well as of Billy Tipton (The Double Life of Billy Tipton chronicles the life of the jazz pianist who, for over 50 years, “passed” as a man—check it out!).


Diane was also a brilliant and supportive colleague and teacher; students literally lined up to get into her seminars. And she was a big fan of memoir. I’ve now hosted two of these salons, and each one has given me a chance to remember Diane and also to engage participants in reading and exploring graphic memoirs. The one we are currently working on is Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?


That’s Chast on the right, facing her parents, George and Elizabeth, to whom the book is dedicated, as they insist that they will talk only about “pleasant” things, among which are not death and plans for their very late years.


I find that graphic narratives work extremely well for memoir: the combination of words and images allow Chast to speak in her own voice and, through speech bubbles, allow her parents to speak for themselves; her drawings of them etch them firmly in readers’ minds. Especially haunting is the series of sketches of her mother that Chast drew during the last day of her mother’s life. No words needed there.


What has struck a chord with the people participating in the book salon is Chast’s unblinking honesty in describing her parents’ long decline and the part she played in their lives. An only child, Chast got more support/empathy from her father than her mother, who was the one IN CHARGE of the family in just about every way. Chast seems a lonely child, one left alone every day after school and often ignored, especially by her mother. When she married and moved away, Chast didn’t visit her “deep” Brooklyn home much, but that changed when her parents reached their late 80s and 90s and obviously needed help – though they would never admit it. As Chast describes it, they were “a unit,” timeless and everlasting, without a need for any other person at all.


Chast perseveres, however, though she hates doing it and hates not doing it: and that is the dilemma readers react very powerfully to. Many have found themselves in similar situations with aging parents: it’s not easy and it’s not pretty, yet children want and need to do what they can, while loathing many aspects of the work. Chast brilliantly captures the tensions, contradictions, and ambivalences in her own encounter with her parents’ last years.


She also manages to capture the absurdness of aging often in hilarious ways. Her father, moving slowly into dementia, moves in with Chast while his wife is in the hospital—and he becomes obsessed with a bunch of bankbooks back in his apartment (most of them acquired on a special “deal” that, for depositing $100, gets George and Elizabeth a “prize” of some kind—a toaster, blender, etc.). Convinced that evildoers are trying to break in and steal the bankbooks, he talks endlessly of them as if they are themselves survivors of some dreadful ordeal.


I have taught graphic memoirs since shortly after Art Spiegelman’s Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and I realized that I should be paying a lot more attention to comix, as he termed it. I’ve never had a student who was not moved by Maus: in the early days, when they had never heard of the book, some were dismayed that the Holocaust was the subject of a comic book. As soon as they entered the world of the narrative, however, they were captivated: over the years, a number of students told me they had disliked history until they read that book. I also loved teaching Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons!, a coming of age memoir, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother? And of course there are so many others: Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese; Belle Yang’s Forget Sorrow; GB Tran’s Vietnamerica—I could truly go on and on.


But I do not teach these works in literature classes—but in writing classes. I have found that college-age students are drawn to memoir and that the image/word combination resonates especially strongly with them. So we analyze the panels and gutters, studying how they carry the story forward silently, and we look at the structure of the entire work and imagine “translating” it into a research-based essay or another genre, looking at the rhetorical strategies at work in each version. Inevitably, we do some drawing too (I am the worst in the room at this!), and several students have gone on to create graphic memoirs of their own and to publish them online.


What I absolutely love about all the possibilities open to writers today is the freedom it offers students as they literally write/draw themselves into being. College is a time of self-representation, of identity-creation, of learning about who you are. To me, graphic narratives in general and graphic memoirs in particular make a perfect vehicle for exploring these questions.

As I’m working this evening, I am humming songs from Hamilton and reflecting on sessions from the Cs in Houston in April and NADE in Anaheim back in March — threshold concepts, transfer, critical reading in the writing classroom, IRW, accelerated programs, calls for action.  These professional meetings energize and inspire me to have “a mind at work,” and I always return to campus full of ideas and projects and research proposals, amazed at “how lucky we are to be alive right now…”  (Hamilton has come up on Pandora again).

But how do I translate that energy for my students at this point in the semester?  Back in my classroom this morning, I heard myself saying, “If you take nothing else away from this course, remember that …”  Over the years, that phrase has come to signal discussion of the threshold concepts that define and structure my classes; in fact, I was framing my courses in this way well before I knew what  a threshold concept was, much less how such concepts might shape disciplinary conversations or a writing program. 

With only two weeks left in the semester, I face pedagogical angst:  have I made the points clear?  Have I created the opportunities to invite students into liminal spaces and encourage them to experience threshold concepts for themselves?  Have I paid attention to their comments–have I listened well enough to recognize their tentative efforts to deal with the confusion which inevitably accompanies our initial encounters with threshold concepts? How can I revise the text of my classroom (as Donald Murray’s revision checklist always comes to mind)?

I find myself preaching the concepts (as the wife of a preacher, pulpit-talk comes easily to me), whispering them in conferences, jotting them in the margins:  If you take nothing else away from this course, remember . . . you are writing for readers who will make their own meaning based on your lexical and grammatical choices.  If you take nothing else away from this course, remember . . .that you are a textual matchmaker, introducing your readers to your sources; in that position, you have both tremendous power and tremendous responsibility.  If you take nothing else away from this course, remember that language–and writing–reflects our identities and discourse communities.  If you take nothing else away from this course…

These threshold concepts may seem simple, but they are not.  They are much harder to acquire than a paragraph template, a comma rule, or pattern for writing introductions, in part because they require agency and self-efficacy (one of those words I heard at the Cs) — stances which my students have rarely been asked to take (or, in some cases, actively hindered from taking).  More than once, weary eyes have met mine:  “Professor Moore, just tell me what to say and I will say it.”  Ahh, at this point in the term, how easy that would be.  And how terribly unfair and cruel to these readers and writers. 

I’ve got just two weeks left in the semester.  Two weeks to craft responses that illustrate these threshold concepts.  Two weeks to resist asserting control over student writing.  Two weeks to invite students to experience the exhilaration of revision and the mot juste.  Two weeks to assure them that composing is hard work, even for their teacher…
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton gets it.  I may not be “just like my country,” “young, scrappy,” or “hungry,” but I’ve got two weeks left.  And I’m not throwing away my shot.


In this series of posts (see also Teaching the Election: Intro and Teaching the Election: Appiah) I’m talking about how to teach the election without promoting a single political point of view or allowing students to get stubbornly stuck in us vs. them political positions. Another great reading to help with that is Gilbert.


Daniel Gilbert, in “Reporting Live from Tomorrow,” looks at how truly awful our imaginations are at predicting our future happiness. And really that’s what any election is all about: which candidate will lead in a way that offers me the most happiness for the next four years? Answering that kind of question, Gilbert shows, is anything but easy.


Unless you use surrogates. For Gilbert, surrogates are people who are living an experience you hope to have. For example, if you want to find out if you’re really going to be happy as a doctor, then you should talk to someone who is a doctor. I think you could have students explore this concept, and its limitations, in relation to the election. What kind of surrogates might we locate to help make our voting decision?


Of course, Gilbert also points out that people are loathe to use surrogates, believing that they are so special that in no way could someone else’s experience predict their own future happiness. That’s something for students to explore as well, considering the challenges to using surrogates in election decisions and life more generally.


Critical thinking often lies, I believe, in complication. Thinking about future happiness in the context of the presidential election is a wonderful way for students to work on complicating Gilbert’s ideas. In the process, not only will they become more adept at working with ideas in general but perhaps they will, if nothing else, examine their own thinking processes in relation to their political choices.


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Last week, Virginia Tech published Dear Professor ..., a short video that focused on three students thanking three teachers who had made a difference in their education. The video is set up as a surprise for the teachers, but rather than summarizing it, let me ask you to watch it:



It’s a nice tribute to the three teachers and to teachers in general; but once I reflected on it, I realized that it made a nice video assignment for a writing course. Students could mimic the video itself, inviting teachers in and surprising them with their letters.


Such an assignment could be complicated, however, if students would like to salute teachers who are not geographically near or able to meet with them for the surprise filming. I compiled this list of alternatives that would also work:

  1. Create a video letter to a teacher, reading the letter as the students in the Virginia Tech video do.
  2. Tell a favorite anecdote about a teacher in a digital storytelling project.
  3. Collaborate with other students to honor a teacher to create a video letter, each reading a different part of the letter.
  4. Film artifacts from the class and relevant to the teacher, with a voice-over explaining the significance.
  5. Compose a list of great things about a teacher (like a top ten list), and then film a video that presents the list.
  6. Describe the lessons a teacher taught you or the most important thing a teacher taught you in a video tribute.
  7. Interview students who were also taught by the teacher about how the teacher has influenced them.
  8. Create an endorsement or testimonial video that explains why someone should take a class with a particular teacher.
  9. Compose video diary entries that reflect on significant classroom experiences with a teacher.
  10. Create a video that defines why teachers matter, with examples from a specific teacher you want to honor.


In all the videos, students could film themselves with their phones, tablets, or computers or they could find images and piece still images together with a voiceover. After publishing the videos, students can send the honored teachers the links.


These thank-you videos can be used for many other scenarios, of course. With some slight changes, the list could be used to thank any significant person the student knows (like a family member or coach), to show appreciation for a coworker, or to honor graduating students.


Do you have suggestions for using video thank you messages? Want to share another video project? Let me know by leaving a comment below

Gaddam.gifToday's guest blogger is Amanda Gaddam (see end of post for bio).


At CCCC 2016, I had the privilege of attending a session titled “New Thoughts on Writing and First-Language Teaching,” in which Dr. Deborah Holdstein raised questions about the politics of privileging digital rhetorics over sustained reading and writing. In her presentation, she made me think about whether or not we’re living in a post-composition-class world and whether the move toward multimodality in writing assignments means that we’re leaving other important things behind. 


As I reflect on this talk and consider the ways in which I incorporate multimodal assignments into my first-year writing classroom, the question of whether I’m taking care to properly ground each task in pedagogical theory and asking students to engage in genuine rhetorical inquiries keeps popping up. The in-class assignment that I created to accompany my varied multimodal assignments reassures me that no matter the prompt, I always try to get students to think about the choices that they’re making and the effects these choices have on their audience and the meaning of their texts.    



The following worksheet and in-class activity can be used as accompaniment to a large variety of multimodal assignments that you’re already using in your classroom.  This works well with any project where students are asked to consider how their arguments can be most effectively communicated visually to a specific audience. 


1. Introduce and complete the Visual Rhetoric Reflection Worksheet. In the planning or revision stages of a multimodal project, ask students to fill out the Visual Rhetoric Reflection Worksheet, which can be downloaded at the link provided and edited to replace or revise questions in order to fit your specific needs and assignments.  This worksheet asks students to detail their choices for visual elements in their multimodal project and articulate a strategy for communicating arguments to an outside audience.  Students can complete this at home or in the classroom, but I find it useful to have students fill this out on a computer and have access to an electronic version during class so that they can add examples of their selected colors, images, video, and audio directly into the document.   


2. Break class up into groups of 2-3 students for peer review.  Ask one student in each group to read everything on their Visual Rhetoric Reflection Worksheet aloud to their small group except their argument and purpose.  The listener(s) should take notes on the information read aloud; after the reader is finished, the listener(s) should review their notes and try to identify what the speaker’s argument and purpose are based on the details given.  In many cases, listeners are able to identify the general topic of a speaker’s project, but they may have trouble discerning how the colors or images or typefaces help to complement or communicate the nuances of the speaker’s argument.  Upon revealing the intended argument and purpose of the multimodal text, the speaker and listener(s) should discuss how the visual choices might be revised to more effectively express an argument to the intended audience.  It’s the speaker’s turn to take notes; he or she should write down concrete steps for revising their visual elements before submitting their project. 


3. Reflect on the process.  In writing or in a class discussion, ask students to talk about the changes they plan to make, the challenges of articulating their visual strategies, and how their classmates’ feedback influenced their writing and revision process.  The discussion underscores the value of getting outside feedback on writing, whether it’s traditional written text or visual or digital rhetoric. 



I use some version of this worksheet with nearly every multimodal assignment that I introduce because I want students to take time to consider the effectiveness of their non-textual choices and how those choices read to an outside audience.  It works particularly well with end-of-the-term ePortfolios because instead of treating the assignment like a receptacle where they stuff all of their writing from the course, students reshape their conception of the ePortfolio assignment when they have to articulate an argument and purpose for the project.  The final products have cohesive themes, the final reflections are more focused, and students engage in authentic visual rhetorical analysis and collaboration in order to create these texts.  Most importantly, they can see how the work that they’re doing is connected to the course goals—they’re not just “decorating” their writing.


Guest blogger Amanda Gaddam is an adjunct instructor in the First-Year Writing Program and the School for New Learning at DePaul University. She holds a B.A. in English with a concentration in Literary Studies and a M.A. in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse with a concentration in Teaching Writing and Language from DePaul, and her research interests include first-year composition, adult and non-traditional students, and writing center pedagogies.

red pens_teacher feedback.png

There’s been a very interesting thread on the WPA listserv about feedback recently. All the posts have been very thoughtful:  some argued that too much negative feedback is not helpful to students; others said that we live in an age when “the student is never wrong” and are afraid to give tough criticism.  Jerry Nelms reminded everyone that neither positive nor negative feedback can be helpful if students don’t understand it or have a chance to respond to it.  Maja Wilson quoted Peter Elbow to illustrate the kind of exploratory

response she finds effective: 


I felt something interesting going on here. Seemed as though you had the assignment in mind (don’t just tell a story of your experiences but explain a subject)—for awhile—but then gradually forgot about it as you got sucked into telling about your particular day of fishing. (You’ll see in my wiggly lines slight bafflement as this story begins to creep in.) The trouble is, I like your stories/moments. My preference would be not to drop them (“Shame on you—telling stories for an expository essay”) but to search around for some way to save it/them as part of a piece that does what the assignment calls for. Not sure how to do it. Break it up into bits to be scattered here and there? Or leave it a longer story but have material before and after to make it a means of explaining your subject? Not sure; tricky problem. But worth trying to pull off. Good writers often get lots of narrative and descriptive bits into expository writing. (in Rick Straub and Ron Lunsford’s 12 Readers Reading, p. 338)


This discussion got me thinking about my own research on teacher feedback (or response).  In the 1980s, Bob Connors and I assembled a large random sample of first-year student writing and wrote a series of articles based on our analysis. One of them was on teacher response, and what we found was a clear preponderance of negative commentary, some of it well meaning, some of it downright mean spirited.  (See “Teachers’ Rhetorical Comments on Student Papers.” College Composition and Communication. 44.2 (May 1993): 200-223.)  Over 20 years later, Karen Lunsford and I attempted to replicate the study Bob and I did, and while we focused on an analysis of formal errors in the large sample of writing we gathered, we also took a close look at teacher feedback. Once again, we noted a great deal of negative commentary, though we were glad not to find the ad hominem slash and burn comments I had seen in the 80s.  (We wrote about this study in “'Mistakes are a fact of life': A national comparative study.”  College Composition and Communication. 44.2 (May 1993): 200-223.)


Over the decades, I’ve experimented with all kinds of response:  for a while I was so worried about intruding on students’ texts that I wrote all my comments on post-it notes.  I’ve taped my oral feedback, used email for extensive commentary, and talked with students about what seems most helpful to them. Eventually, I found that what seemed to work best for me and my students was for me to give my most extensive response on drafts:  this I provide in a running commentary on the draft, noting what is working well, what I don’t understand, what questions I have, what I might suggest for the next go round.  Such responses are in writing—but they are a prelude first, to the student’s response to my comments, given to me in the form of a memo, and second, to a conference where the student and I focus together on the draft and simply talk through the ideas in it and brainstorm about what to try for in the next draft (which is often the final one).  This mixture of writing and talking leaves a lot of leeway for the student and allows for, I hope, frank interchange, ideally the kind of “dialogic interaction” that students in the Stanford Study of Writing identified as moments when they learned the most. 


As always, I benefit from reading the postings on WPA and think back to how often that group has been of tremendous importance to me and my students—and to our field.  I wonder if any of you read this thread and, if so, what your responses were, and what mode of feedback seems most effective to you.


[Photo via: Marcin Bajer, on Flickr]

In this series of posts (see also Teaching the Election: Intro) I’m talking about how to teach the 2016 presidential election without promoting a single political point of view or allowing students to get stubbornly stuck in us vs. them political positions. One great reading to help with that is Appiah.


Time and again I’ve advocated Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Making Conversation” and “The Primacy of Practice.” And with good reason. Appiah’s ideas are fairly central to the thinking behind Emerging. They are also incredibly flexible, able to be applied to any number of situations, including the upcoming presidential election.


Two of Appiah’s ideas are extremely useful here. The first is cosmopolitanism. Appiah explains in “Making Conversation” that we just don’t have the luxury any more of pretending other kinds of people don’t exist. The world is too crowded and too interconnected. Instead, the central challenge is how to get along. The way I see it, that’s the challenge in this deeply divisive election as well. When it’s all said and done, no matter who wins, we’ll still need to find a way to get along with each other. Weekly I see friends on Facebook announcing that they are defriending this or that or those or these friends because of their political postings. But defriending someone changes nothing. Those people still exist in the world if not in their lives and, ultimately, we will need to find a way to get along with them.


The second idea from Appiah that I think is useful in this context is his analysis of the primacy of practice. Appiah points out that we can agree to take certain actions even if our reasons behind those actions, even if our values, differ. That gives me some hope for us in the post-election world. I don’t have to agree with the values of those who don’t hold my political leanings. It’s still possible to agree on actions.


Appiah is a great reading to get students thinking about the polarization of politics and how to move past that in the aftermath of the election. Really, I think that’s the more crucial question here—not who will win but what we will do when that candidate does win.


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Gardner_May10_225.jpgAs students were working on a Narrative Branding Remix assignment recently, I asked small groups to review example videos and compile a list of strengths and weaknesses. The group discussion strategy wasn’t groundbreaking. What was new for me was the technique I used to ask groups to report on their findings.


Most often I ask students to simply choose someone to be the presenter, and that person summarizes the group’s observations. I usually ask each group to email me the notes with their names so that I can compile the ideas into a single document and share the notes with the entire class.


That process meant extra work for me, however, and often delayed getting the notes to students who were absent or needed a notetaker. I began trying ways for students to gather their ideas into one document themselves, so that they would all have immediate access to the notes. We tried using Padlet, which I have used for class brainstorming (see Using Padlet for Class Brainstorming), but it was too distracting to have the different groups all on the same screen. Further, screen space became an issue, since the class was limited to one screen.


I switched to asking groups to write their notes in a shared Google Doc. We then read and scrolled through the Doc as groups shared their observations. The shared Google Doc solved the problem with everyone writing on the same screen, but it introduced difficulties with scrolling and formatting. Even when I added a linked table of contents, groups had problems finding the right section of the document for their notes. If they wrote extensively, one group might end up creeping into another group’s page. Last, when groups turned to present their findings, I had to attempt to quickly reformat the entire document to make the text large enough to read on the screen. The process was better, but still not ideal.


When it came time for the class discussion of example videos last month, I was reluctantly preparing to set up Google Docs for the groups to use when inspiration struck. Suddenly it occurred to me that I was using the wrong Google tool. Students were going to present their observations, so I should be using presentation software, not word processor software. I created a Google Slides file with a slide for each example video and placeholders for students to fill in, like this example:



I was nervous when I introduced the idea to the class the next morning, but I worked to convince myself that the students in my classes all had the experience to make it work. They knew how to use slide presentations, and they had worked in collaborative Google Docs earlier in the term. I was just asking them to combine skills they already had. I told students that it might sound crazy, but we were going to give it a try. Happily, I can report that it was a grand success. Here are their slideshows:


Once the groups finished gathering their ideas, I projected the slideshow and groups reported their observations while I clicked through the slides with the remote. It was easy to focus on each video as the groups analyzed them. I was free to move around the classroom, instead of being tied to the teacher workstation to scroll the Google Doc. The slide format helped students write more concise comments than they had with Google Docs.


There was one significant change that I need to make. I had numbered the example videos (from 1 to 10), but I had included a title slide in the Google Slide files. That meant that Example Video #1 corresponded to slide #2, Example Video #2 corresponded to slide #3, and so forth. There was a bit of confusion, with some students ending up on the same slide. It was easy enough to sort out, but I could have avoided it by listing the slide numbers rather than simply numbering the list. I will know better next time—and I will definitely be using this technique again!


Have you used collaborative composing in your writing classes? Do you have strategies that work or success stories to share? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.


[Top Photo Credit: Cropped from Duke Ellington DNG 349, by US Department of Education on Flickr, used under CC-SA-BY 2.0 license]

Bohannon_Pic.jpgToday’s guest blogger is Jeanne Bohannon (see end of post for bio).


This semester has been all about comfort zones for me and for my student-scholars, both in how we connect with diverse audiences and also how we participate in my own writing. We have written about archival research assignments and collaborated on public writing opportunities. As our final act of semester-long partnership, we brainstormed a low-stakes reflection assignment—a memo—that we felt could encourage invention and ownership of any democratic learning space. We offer this assignment as easy, do-able composition across different degrees of critical, multimodal learning from technical and business writing to visual representations—perfect for the end of a semester.


Context for Working Assignment
My students and I practice recursive, democratic learning, so for us that means the some writing assignments, prompts, and topics move between courses and grow from semester to semester. Our model of learning works well with community writing and service learning concepts, which are both also vital parts of discovery.  The reflective memo assignment is a means for current student-scholars who have worked on specific initiatives to influence how these community writing exemplars will develop and be cultivated by future writers.  No matter how you arrange your assignments throughout the matter what form these assignments take for you...there is room in the reflective memo to provide you with useful feedback for further innovation and to allow your students to gain stakeholder rights over the work they have completed in your class.


Measurable Learning Objectives for the Assignment

  • Practice reflection strategies for one's own writing and engagement
  • Synthesize content-meaning through collaborative review
  • Create texts for a specific audience and invention heuristic


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 a few foundational texts. You will no doubt have your own to enrich this list.


In-Class/Out-of-Class Work

A great feature of the reflective memo is that it can take limitless forms, adapting to each instructor's rhetorical focus. Students can use free apps such as Piktochart to create visual memos or post their work on public blogs or wikis. This assignment can also be as simple as posting memos in LaunchPad or another LMS for later PDF-ing and distribution to future classes.  My student-scholars have even offered to come to a future class as guest lecturers, to narrate their experiences in person.  The basic guidelines, designed by my student-scholars, are here.  Please feel free to do what Andrea calls "annotate and detonate" the guidelines below:

  • Parameters: 500+ words and at least one multimodal element of your choice (audio/image/hyperlink/video)
  • Craft a brief reflection of your experience with the writing assignment, answering questions like "How did I engage with the assignment? What could I improve on? What did I succeed with? Why did I make choices?"
  • Provide a list of 3-5 bulleted feedback points for how your instructor could improve or innovate the assignment.
  • Give two pieces of advice for future student-writers on how to successfully work through the re/mixed assignment(s).
  • If you want your work shown to future students and the opportunity to guest lecture in a future class, give your instructor permission in writing!


Reflections on the Assignment – Students
Except from a memo:

"Please take care of our hard work as we are passing it on to you now. I will admit that when I started this project, I wasn’t 100% thrilled about doing it, but out of all of the options that were given to us for our collaborative work this seemed like the best option. However, as we continued to research and write about our findings, I became attached to the work and genuinely wanted it to succeed. Continue what we started and give it your best. Who knows, maybe you’ll actually enjoy it!" -- Samantha Crovatt, Technical Communications Major.


My Reflection
I am always excited to take Andrea's idea of "writing to the world" and collaborate with student-writers to give them voice and choice in their own compositions and the writing of future scholars to come.  The reflective memo assignment counts for me in terms of multimodal composition because it provides a digital record of students' rhetorical reflections on their own invention and serves as an electronic invention heuristic for others to cultivate as they embark on their writing excursions.


Related Posts:


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Jeanne Law Bohannon is an Assistant Professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Kennesaw State University. She believes in creating democratic learning spaces, where students become stakeholders in their own rhetorical growth though authentic engagement in class communities. Her research interests include evaluating digital literacies and critical engagement pedagogies; performing feminist rhetorical recoveries; and growing informed and empowered student scholars. Reach Jeanne at: and

At last month's CCCC 2016 meeting, I participated in a workshop devoted to assignments and activities that help integrate a Handbook into our teaching.  I learned a lot from those who were there—they were full of great ideas for imaginative ways to engage students in becoming friends with their Handbooks.


Lunsford Handbooks.PNG

I kicked the session off with a couple of my own favorite strategies, one of which I call “Tools of the Trade.”  As I compose my syllabus, “Tools of the Trade” appears at least once a week, notifying students that on that particular day they are to come to class with any and all questions they have about the writing they are doing—and with their Handbook.  I allot between 15 and 30 minutes for this session and I (or a student) put the questions on screen as students call them out.  We then work in pairs, with our Handbook, to answer the questions (for the last few years, many many many of their questions have to do with documentation—no surprise there given the proliferation of kinds of sources!).  The team that comes up with the best answers in the shortest amount of time explains their search method, and I usually give a silly prize of some kind.  I find that after just one or two such sessions, students really loosen up and ask more and better questions—and get more and more familiar with their Handbook. A second idea I shared was what I call an “annotated and detonated bibliography.”  When we are working on research projects, students follow the guidelines and advice in their Handbook to prepare a brief annotated bibliography—usually of three sources that they find most useful to their projects.  But some years ago, I added a twist, asking students to also write an annotation for one source they decided NOT to use:  that’s the “detonated” bibliographic entry.  In explaining why they decided that this source was not appropriate or helpful for their project, they do some good critical thinking—and sometimes, after their analysis, find that they were wrong about this source and that it deserves a place in their project after all.


Jeanne Bohannon from Kennesaw State shared some other good ideas.  She asks her students to do an analysis of several pieces of their writing—early in the term—and to identify at least five problem areas for them. (To help prepare for this, she has students take the diagnostic quiz associated with the “Top 20” mistakes in my Handbooks.)  They then write a blog post describing their own problem issues—and keep it at hand throughout the term, using it to check against drafts as they go.  Jeanne’s students also use their Handbook in working on collaborative projects, including a Women in STEM wiki


Stephanie Vie from the University of Central Florida had still other ideas.  Given that I’ve spent a lot of time lately studying and understanding the new MLA guidelines for documentation, I especially liked the approach she takes in asking students to compare citation styles and to ask how those systems reflect the values of particular disciplines.  Why does the date come up front in an APA citation, but not in an MLA one?  This and other questions lead students to see that documentation systems are not simply arbitrary “rules,” but that they embed the ideology/values of their fields within them.  After this discussion, Stephanie challenges her students to a contest:  working in teams, they see who can “translate” an APA citation into an MLA—and vice versa—the fastest and most accurately.  Winners get a “free homework” slip for a prize, which students covet!  I also loved Stephanie’s “bad presentation slide” assignment. Students use the guidelines for how to prepare effective slides in their Handbook to create the very worst slide they can possibly come up with.  These become the source for a lot of fun and laughs—and also as examples of what NOT to do in the slides they prepare for their own presentations. 


There were lots of other ideas tossed out by participants, and I came away impressed with the thoughtfulness of everyone involved. It took me years to learn to teach with my Handbook rather than simply “assign” and then ignore it.  The teachers in this workshop had all made this transition, and I expect they did so a lot faster than I did!

Readers of the late (and unquestionably great) Umberto Eco will recognize the subtitle of this blog as an allusion to his classic analysis of Casablanca, “a very mediocre film,” in his opinion, but one that achieves “Homeric” proportions in the sheer quantity of its clichés.  “Two clichés make us laugh,” he remarks, a “hundred clichés move us .  . .  it is a phenomenon worthy of awe.”  And so, by this standard, one might say that Gareth Edward’s version of Godzilla (2014) is pretty awesome.


I came to this film at the direct suggestion of a colleague of mine at CSUN, who is also a member of the Macmillan Community: Eric Dinsmore.  Eric was curious to see what I would say about it, and, as it turns out, there's quite a lot to say, but I will restrict myself to one major angle as a guide to how to approach semiotic analyses of popular movies with obviously indicated “messages.”


220px-Godzilla_%282014%29_poster.jpgSo, I won’t belabor the fact that Godzilla exploits just about every Hollywood cliché in the book, from the handsome (but sensitive) young warrior hero trying to save the world, to his joyous reunion with his beautiful wife and adorable child in the end.  I won’t pursue the film’s allusions to everything from the Roswell conspiracy theories (this time the government is concealing not extraterrestrials but what could only be called “intraterrestrials”), to the apocalyptic images seared into our memories by the 9/11 terror attacks.  I won’t dwell on the fact that the female MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) in the story looks suspiciously like Shelob in The Lord of the Rings, nor that all the MUTOs look like the Alien crossed with a pterodactyl.  Nor will I spend any time on the way that the film exploits the Fukushima nuclear meltdown and the tsunami that caused it.  No, I’ll just concentrate on the movie's obvious, and superficial, theme, because Godzilla is exactly the kind of "movie with a message" that you might want to assign to your students as a popular cultural semiotics topic, and if it is not approached carefully the result could be nothing more than a restatement of what can be found on Wikipedia, or even on the jacket of the DVD. 


First, a quick plot summary.  Though it takes some time for all this to become clear to the audience, the story concerns the discovery of a prehistoric species of subterranean monsters (the MUTOs) who thrive on nuclear radiation.  The dawning of the atomic age has drawn them to the surface to snack on all the nice nuclear goodies that can be found in such facilities as atomic power plants and nuclear waste dumps, and the main action of the film begins with the MUTO's destruction of a Japanese nuclear reactor, which just happens to be under surveillance by a shadowy international research organization called Monarch.  In a not very convincing plot complication, Monarch has also been monitoring a heretofore dormant Godzilla, who has apparently been sleeping under the same reactor, and whose awakening also contributes to the plant's destruction. After trashing the power plant, the MUTOs take off to invade the U.S. mainland (after a catastrophic stopover in Hawaii), and a young U.S. Naval lieutenant, who happens to be the son of the head engineer of the now defunct Japanese reactor, gets caught up in the mess and joins the resistance.  As the U.S. military helplessly attempts (and fails) to stop them, the MUTOs create a nest for hundreds of soon-to-hatch MUTOs (enough to destroy the Solar System, it would seem) in San Francisco.  But in a weird reversal of the tradition, it turns out that Godzilla—who is somehow able to hear and understand the MUTO’s “language” as they communicate with each other (across the Pacific Ocean no less)—decides for reasons of his own (yes, Godzilla is a “he” this time around for some reason that would be worth a separate analysis) that he should pursue the MUTOs and destroy them. Which, in the end, he does, and then swims off into the sunset as the survivors of a devastated San Francisco cheer him on: the Lone Ranger as reptilian monster.  It is true that Godzilla himself does a lot of damage in the course of all this, but hey, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.


Now, the movie goes out of its way to interpret itself for us through the words of a Japanese Monarch scientist, who tries to explain to an American admiral that since human “arrogance” against nature is responsible for the MUTO mess, only nature (in the form of Godzilla) can restore the “balance.”  In case we miss the point, the copy on the DVD jacket says straight out that this “spectacular adventure pits Godzilla, the world’s most famous monster, against malevolent creatures that, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence.”  And if that isn’t enough, Wikipedia says the same thing.


So it would be all too easy to write a semiotic analysis of Godzilla arguing simply that the movie’s “meaning” is that nuclear technology (and science too) is bad, and that nature is both good and self-restoring.  For what it's worth, that is the movie's self-conscious "message."  But that isn't really what the movie signifies.


The key to the matter lies in looking not at what a movie says about itself but at what it does.  And this is what Godzilla does: it depicts a symbolic creature of the nuclear age (Godzilla=Nature) destroying other creatures (the MUTOs), who are no less "natural" (and no more nuclear) than he is.  Thus, the film's final image of the joyful reunion of the Naval lieutenant and his family, which Godzilla has made possible, is fundamentally reassuring.  Because the real “message” of the movie is that no matter how much of a mess human beings make of the world, nature itself (the Japanese character in the movie explicitly calls Godzilla a “god”) will fix everything up.  It’s like saying “don’t worry about global warming, because the earth will repair itself before everything gets completely out of hand.”


I mean, for Godzilla’s sake!


If the movie were more honest, the MUTOs would have won—just as On the Beach and The Day After show us the real outcome of total nuclear war. And, Godzilla, as a creation of the nuclear age, would have been on their side.  Making Godzilla the hero (the movie’s creators call him an “antihero,” but he’s a hero all right) is simply wish fulfillment.


But if the movie had done that, it wouldn’t have grossed three quarters of a billion dollars, and that’s the real significance of this thing.  For when doing popular cultural semiotics, one must never lose sight of the fact that popular culture exists to produce profits, and uplifting artifacts produce much higher profits than downers.  An apocalyptic image of Godzilla and the MUTOs teaming up to trash the world (which would been more consistent with the stated "theme" of the movie) would be quite a downer indeed, so Godzilla instead panders to its audience’s desire to see the characters it most identifies with live happily ever after, while reassuring everyone that while humanity has messed up the planet, ultimately benign forces (somehow, somewhere) will take care of everything in the end.


Now that’s science fiction.

I remember back when I was in speech class in middle school our teacher told us there were two subjects one should never discuss in polite company: politics and religion. I’ve mostly stuck to that precept and it has served me well. But in the classes I teach I want to prepare students to participate in the world outside the classroom and this year that most definitely means participating in the upcoming presidential election. And that’s a challenge.


It’s not just that I want to be excessively polite in the classroom. It’s more that I don’t think it’s my duty (or right) to impose my own politics on students. The way I’ve pitched this when training new teachers is this: whatever politics you hold undoubtedly you believe it’s the position any rational, critically thinking individual would adopt. Thus, I don’t have to teach my politics; I just have to teach students critical thinking. Theoretically, if my political positions are simply the most obvious to any thinker, then my students will end up endorsing them through the skills I teach them.



Another reason I tend to eschew politics in the classroom is evident every day in my Facebook newsfeed: politics too often leads to polarization rather than discussion. Even with friends who mostly hold the same general political leanings as I do, there are posts every day not simply promoting Candidate X but also bashing Candidate Y of the same party as well as Candidates A, B, and C of the other party. I’ve found something similar happens in the classroom. Rather than engaging in a synthetic discussion that progresses in meaning and understanding, students, I find, tend to adopt a single view and feel the need to prove it’s right and, what’s worse, prove that every other view is wrong. In the process, all positions get flattened into simplicity and congealed as well. (If you want to foreground this process for your students, James Surowiecki’s “Committees, Juries, and Teams: The Columbia Disaster and How Small Groups Can Be Made to Work” discusses theories of group dynamics that explain how this happens.)


So, on the one hand I want students to be empowered agents in the public sphere and specifically the political process. On the other hand, I don’t want to talk politics since my experience suggests that doesn’t really get anywhere. And on the other other hand, I also don’t want to impose my political leanings on students.


In the next three posts I’ll look at some of the readings in Emerging that offer you the ability to resolve this thorny challenge. I’ll be working from the second edition, since my guess is that’s the one most people are using right now, though I will try to point to some good substitutes for those readings that didn’t make it into the third.


In the meantime, have you encountered this problem? What strategies do you use to negotiate this dilemma?

Last week, I focused on using Instagram Scavenger Hunts in the Writing Classroom. The general idea is that students post photos that illustrate or extend concepts they study in class. Like any digital tool however, Instagram brings some challenges to the classroom. This week I am addressing the three biggest issues that I anticipate: the digital divide, the creepy treehouse, and the workload.


The Challenge of the Digital Divide

Gardner_May03_224_1.jpgMost of my students have smartphones, but not all of them. I obviously cannot require that they own smartphones for the course, so I have to provide them with alternatives. Instagram requires that photos are posted from phones, so students cannot simply upload things from their computers.

While I like the streamlined nature of only using Instagram, possibly the best solution is to offer other places students can post their contributions to any Instagram activity if I have students who do not have phones. The same general activities could be completed using Flickr uploads with hashtags or posting images with hashtags to a Facebook page for the course. The library and InnovationSpace loan cameras to students, so these alternatives could work.


I am not sure that I like the necessity of waiting to see what resources students have before I can set up these activities, but that may be the fairest solution. If you have suggestions, please share them.


The Challenge of the Creepy Treehouse

Gardner_May03_224_2.jpgThe Creepy Treehouse effect is a strange feeling students can get when we ask them to use the social media that they use to connect with friends to connect with us and the class. The idea is that these practices can intrude on students’ privacy and ultimately feel fake or even creepy.


No one wants to blast out their homework to every friend on Instagram. There’s an old ProfHacker article that proposes some ways to avoid or lessen the Creepy Treehouse effect, but it is fairly clear that any time a teacher asks students to use their personal social media accounts for classroom projects, things are going to be weird.


The students I am teaching report that they already use Instagram. In the survey I use at the beginning of the term, 73%–85% have indicated that they use the site over the four terms that I have asked. If random homework assignments start showing up on these students’ Instagram accounts, people will notice.


The best solution is to encourage students to make a separate Instagram login for course work. By creating student personas, students can easily keep their personal network private. Instagram allows each user up to five accounts and has documentation on how to switch between accounts. Students will need to provide the usernames for these personas, but that would have been the case if they used their personal accounts as well.


The Challenge of the Workload

Gardner_May03_224_3.jpgUncovering and tracking all these student posts to Instagram means a lot of work. Specific and unique hashtags can help. Even with hashtags however, you may miss some student posts. That’s okay for class discussion. I am comfortable with focusing on whatever shows up as recent. Missing posts is not okay, however, for assessment purposes. If students are being graded for participation, I need to know I found everything.


I will return to the idea behind my post on Self-Assessment as Final Exam. I will ask students to track and report on the posts that they have made. They can point to their posts two or three times during the term and add some self-assessment by identifying best posts or those they would change if they could. The workload shifts from having to find and assess everything to evaluating a curated list. The process is immediately more manageable as a result.


Final Thoughts

Having worked out solutions for these three challenges, I am eager to add some Instagram activities to classes. They should provide an engaging way to extend the classroom conversation onto social media while taking advantage of tools that students are already using. Do you have suggestions for using Instagram? Is there a challenge I haven’t thought of? Let me know by leaving a comment below


[Photos all from Flickr: Phones—Old school, January 2013 by Rnddave, Treehouse—SDIM0321 by Genta Mochizawa, Workload—Pile of papers by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier]