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IMG_4287 (1).JPGI’ve been teaching off and on at Bread Loaf – a graduate program associated with Middlebury College that grants MA degrees, primarily to teachers—since 1990.  To my mind, this is the best professional development program in the world for teachers, who spend four or five summers on “the mountain” reading, writing, talking, and learning together.  I’ve seen lives and classrooms transformed here, and my own teaching and learning have been powerfully impacted by the experience.  This summer I am team-teaching—with Dixie Goswami and John Elder (with visits from Oskar Eustis, Bill McKibben, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and others) a course called Writing and Acting for Change.  I will write more about that class, which is off to a tremendous start, soon.


Two days ago, Bread Loaf opened with a reception for new and old students, a dinner, and opening “ceremonies,” where Director Emily Bartels and Middlebury President Laurie Patton spoke to the faculty and 263 students enrolled here this summer.  Then several faculty members added brief remarks.   Here’s what I had to say:


It’s more than fair to say that we’ve had a hard month in this country; indeed, a hard year, with no respite in sight.  A massacre in Orlando based on hate of anything “different”; a dangerous buffoon running for President; a deadlocked, dysfunctional Congress beholden to lobbyists and special interests; more lives lost at the hands of police.


We are in need, at a time like this, of being together, of each other.  As I drove up the mountain on a glorious Vermont night, I could almost feel the tensions begin to fade, if ever so slightly.  And when I arrived, I realized that I feel as much at home here as anywhere I’ve ever been.  I love this PLACE.  And I love the IDEA of Bread Loaf—the idea that teachers and scholars reading, writing, talking, learning, and working together can do things that none of us could do alone.


As we all know, this place is very special:  its natural beauty—the forests, lakes, streams, this mountain—provides a spiritual grounding, a place for contemplation, a place for reflection, a place for peace.

But the idea of Bread Loaf is equally special:  a commitment to make the worlds of our classrooms and communities better, better places to live and learn and grow.


So while we are bound by emotional and intellectual ties to this magnificent place, we are also firmly tethered to our other places, our home communities, and to the effect we can and must have there.  It’s the synergy between the two that, to me, makes Bread Loaf unique.  The work we do here energizes and renews the work we do at home—and vice versa:  the work to create spaces of tolerance and inclusivity, of love and understanding, of respect and openness, spaces where a million different flowers can bloom and be themselves.  Together.

This summer I am revising some course documents to make my syllabus more engaging. So far, I have  rethought how I show the grade distribution, (see: Converting to a More Visual Syllabus) and last week, I demonstrated how I am redesigning the list of required resources. Today, I am taking on the course schedule.


I usually arrange the schedule in a table, with a column for the class session date and another for the readings and work due that day. Above the table, I include the standard warning that the information is tentative and subject to change. It’s essentially the same arrangement that I have used since I began teaching.


It isn’t an ideal system because the schedule always changes. I have never managed to design a perfect schedule. Student needs sometimes lead me to allow more time for an activity or to add some extra readings. I may get sick and have to cancel a session. The university may cancel classes for a snow day. Something can and always does happen, and I end up having to revise the schedule completely.


I’m also skeptical that students use the schedule information. They  see the information on the first day, but few return on a regular basis to track what we are doing. The various due dates and assignments are all available on the course website and on a calendar in our course management system, so there is no reason to return to the syllabus for the details.


Still, I like  to include  basic scheduling information on the syllabus so that students can see the overarching plan for the course and get a feel for the work that they will be doing. I decided to focus on the specific information that I wanted students to know from the beginning of the course and remove all the other extraneous information. That decision freed up a lot of space, so I was able to redesign the schedule as a timeline that marks the major activities.


Here is the mockup that I have designed with Canva, a web-based graphic design program. Click on the image below to see an enlarged version of the mockup:


I like this timeline version so much more than the original table version. The icons that I use on the schedule are also used on the assignments themselves, to visually connect the schedule across the course documents.


The challenge of this version, however, is that as it stands, this mockup  is not accessible for everyone. Since the text is part of a graphic, I would have to either duplicate the information on the page in a long description or add a separate long description webpage with the information. Ideally, I will redo the timeline in HTML5 code with accessible features. Fortunately, Karl Stolley’s Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative posts on Image Accessibility, Part I: Beyond alt Attributes and Image Accessibility, Part II: Beyond src Attributes tell me exactly what I need to do to improve the revision.


There is more work to do, but I am happy with the progress so far. What do you think? Would a timeline of the major projects work for your course syllabus?  I would love to hear your thoughts, so please leave me a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.



[Icons are copyright © 2015–2016 Hand-Drawn Goods and were purchased by the author.]

In contributing to Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s Naming What We Know: Threshhold Concepts of Writing Studies, I tried my hand at discussing the performative nature of writing:

Students are sometimes puzzled by the notion that writing is performative.  Yet some discussion usually clarifies the concept as students quickly see that their writing performs for a grade or other reward for an audience of academics (mostly teachers).  In these pieces of writing, students adopt the role or persona of the “good student.”  But writing is performative in other important senses as well.  Kenneth Burke’s concept of “language as symbolic action” helps explain why.  For Burke and other contemporary theorists, language and writing have the capacity to act, to do things in the world.  Speech act theorists such as J. L. Austin speak of “performatives,” by which they mean spoken phrases or sentences that constitute an action:  saying “I now pronounce you husband and wife” actually performs the act of wedded union, as does the judge who says “I sentence you to X. . . .

But we can see other ways in which writing performs:  from The Declaration of Independence to the petition that leads to a change of policy or a Kickstarter site whose statements are so compelling that they elicit spontaneous donations, writing has the capacity to perform.  At its most basic, saying that writing is performative means that writing acts, that it can make things happen. This is the meaning students in the Stanford Study of Writing, a longitudinal exploration of writing development during the college years, meant when they told researchers over and over again that “good writing is writing that makes something good happen in the world”. . . .

I have been thinking about this “threshold concept” recently as I re-read some of Peter Elbow’s work on voice (his edited Landmark Essays on Voice and Writing) is another very rich source for thinking through this difficult and often problematic concept. Elbow is an eloquent proponent of voice in writing, arguing that its attention to voice can help students improve their writing and actually enjoy their writing; moreover, voice in writing helps captivate and guide readers.


I don’t want to join the debate for or against “voice,” partly because Elbow has already tracked that debate pretty thoroughly. Instead, I’ve been thinking about whether describing writing as “performative” might get at some of the same qualities Elbow and others extol in good writing.  A few years ago, a student challenged my claim that writing was performative:  “I don’t see how you can say that. The writing I do in college doesn’t perform anything.  It’s just lifeless prose I turn in because it’s assigned.”  This student later decided to spend a term exploring the claim, and we spent ten weeks debating and looking at examples of writing he felt was “like a performance, like doing something.”  Many of the examples he brought in to discuss came from speeches, particularly those by Martin Luther King.  These speeches seemed to him clearly to be performances – to be performative. 


So then I challenged him to figure out, concretely, what that meant.  By the next week, he had a list of characteristics he said helped to make a text performative, “and it didn’t take rocket science,” he said, “to figure it out.” At the top of the list of features was rhythm, followed by repetition (and even rhyme).  Vivid images, strong active verbs, concrete, specific nouns, metaphor and other figures of speech, and direct address followed in quick succession.  These are some of the elements that make a text come alive, that make it “speak.” Now I’m wondering whether the individual choices writers/speakers make in deploying these elements can account for a good portion of what we think of as “voice” in writing.  My guess is that the two are strongly connected—and I plan to follow up with some students this summer to push a little further into this exploration. 



Maureen McBride and Meghan Sweeney recently wrote a blog post presenting strategies to help basic writers read complex texts (see A Place for Reading Instruction in our Writing Classrooms).  They described, for example, the difficulty paper, which they have adapted from the work of Mariolina Salvatori.  McBride and Sweeney note, “Using the difficulty paper allows us to help students avoid getting ‘stuck’ on difficulties and failing to engage with texts.”  In their book The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, Salvatori and Donohue make this claim: “If [student readers] move away from those difficulties, or opt for someone else solving them for them, chances are they will never know the causes of the difficulties, and the means to control them” (3).


I have included difficulty paper assignments in my first semester composition course since the fall of 2015, and my summer students are working through a difficulty paper now. As I presented the concept to my students this term, I realized that difficulty forms the heart of academic work; willingness to grapple with difficulty—those thorny and intractable questions that keep us awake at night—is required for an academic vocation, and most certainly in the scholarship of teaching and learning. Sadly, with heavy teaching loads and service responsibilities, many of my fellow two-year college English instructors neglect scholarship after their own graduate studies, despite the fact (and also because) we encounter pedagogical and practical difficulties regularly, difficulties that invite—perhaps even demand—exploration and scholarly inquiry.  


Inspired by the work of Joanne Giordano and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin Colleges, I see a path forward for two-year college English faculty who wish to engage in scholarship and counter distorted narratives and policies imposed upon us: we need to give ourselves difficulty assignments.  In the context of our departments and classrooms, we must identify difficulty, engage with it, discover its causes, and to the extent that it is possible, refuse to pass responsibility for dealing with it to those who do not have a background in composition, reading, linguistics, second language writing, or basic writing.


An exploration of difficulty could occur within a single class, across multiple sections of a course, or across a program.  One instructor could initiate the process, or like-minded faculty could pool resources, research, and insights to collaborate on an investigation.  All it really takes is a perceived difficulty and the tenacity to engage with it.


One difficulty that has presented itself to me recently is a comment, repeated often by faculty within my department and outside of it:  “I don’t see how _____ got into this class.  They can’t even write a sentence.”  As part of a state-level system, my college has no local control over placement.  This reality presents us with multiple difficulties and frustrations, not to mention a sense of helplessness.  Sensing what “we can’t” do, we groan at what “they can’t do.”  Across my office threshold, I hear it again and again:  “I don’t know what to do.  They really can’t even write a sentence.”  


What does it mean to say that they can’t write a sentence?  Are we describing a reality, or are we expressing the same resignation as students who mutter “I don’t get it” when facing a daunting text—students who then cross their arms and mentally check out of the conversation?     


This, then, is my difficulty assignment.  When I am tempted to say those words, or when I hear them, I will ask questions to probe this difficulty.  What is it, really, that we are saying when we claim “they can’t even write a sentence”?


Multilingual writers, for example, may be writing sentences that appear to be “word salad” – content words without (or with inconsistent use of) function words and grammatical suffixes.  Grammatical function words guide experienced readers to construct coherent interpretations; working through a sentence which lacks these markers can be disorienting. But does this mean that multilingual writers aren’t composing sentences


Let’s not shut our thinking down by asserting they can’t write sentences. What else could be going on?  Did I or a colleague pass a student who really wasn’t ready to move to the next level? Let’s look at that possibility.  Are the students actually wrestling with content-based difficulties, with a subsequent lapse in attention to some linguistic features?   They might very well be able to control the latter once they have gained some experience in the discipline in question.  Or perhaps the writers are homesick, heartsick, homeless, afraid, or ashamed. We need to do some digging.


Other students may compose “sentences” lacking all marks of what we might call standard academic prose: clear boundaries, attention to agreement, and logical connections. With native speaking students, absence of these markers could stem from lack of experience, both in writing and reading. Contorted prose may well be a student’s attempt to grapple with reading material for which they are unprepared, and as such, that prose may actually be evidence of learning in process.  But let’s not dismiss the issue as an inability to write sentences.


Or perhaps students are assuming voices they believe we want to hear, without much success.  These “non-sentences” could also reflect apathy or doing just enough to get by, a hope that putting enough words on paper will suffice to jump through a hoop.  Maybe these students have never had their words and ideas considered seriously before; as a result, they have no experience writing for engaged readers who can give thoughtful feedback. We can dismiss their difficulties with a peremptory declaration about their abilities, but that will not help them move forward.


The combination of 5-5 teaching loads, lack of local control over placement, and changes in student characteristics stretches and challenges faculty at two-year colleges.  As we advocate for change, we must include scholarly inquiry about the difficult realities we face in our classrooms.  If we choose not to engage, we will cede control of our difficulties to political forces beyond our institution and the profession as a whole, leaving us stuck with challenges that we lack the means—or the will—to address.



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


Summer time is prep-time for many of us. We write; we plan; we explore multimodal assignments that will  [hopefully] compel our students to engage and find their own voices as they produce various kinds of texts. So, I'm going to craft my summer posts on Andrea's channel as a series of digital drop-in assignments, both from me and my writing studies colleagues, complete with templates and deliverables for readers to edit and use as they want.  As one of my colleagues put it, "let's get a jump start."


Context for Assignment #1: Student Voice and Choice
Often, the first weeks of class can be an interesting combination of awkward, "getting to know you" moments. This assignment uses democratic teaching methods and multimodal options to give students opportunities to showcase their voices and share them with their coursemates. By using the Scholar's Choice template, and editing it to suit their individual needs, instructors invite students to write their personal introductions as blogs, video essays, podcasts, or e-posters. Students use the first-person Grading Criteria to formatively assess and reflect on their own work.  As a final nod to choice, students may present their digital pieces for the class to introduce themselves to the community.


Measurable Learning Objectives for the Assignment

  • Practice digital writing strategies across multimodalities
  • Reflect on self-choice in one's own composing
  • Create texts for a specific audience and invention heuristics


Digital Deliverables for Classroom Use


In-Class/Out-of-Class Work

Bohannon_6.20.16_1.pngBased on the assignment template, students may choose to introduce themselves to the class by composing blogs, video essays, podcasts, or electronic posters.  They write and design their personal introductions based on the general and specific criteria in the grading checklist.  For example, blogs are a more conversational genre of writing, so students should write less formally, inviting dialogue with readers with elements such as embedded audio/video/images and tags (Pictochart is a good resource).  When writing video essays, students should attend to elements of voice, design effects, and sound.  Likewise, they must attend to sound and cover art when recording podcasts.  With e-posters, made usually from PowerPoints or Prezis, students should make sure to emphasize arrangement.


Bohannon_6.20.16_2.pngAn adaptive feature of this assignment is that it provides students with their choice of genre and can be modified for each instructor's rhetorical focus.  This assignment also lends itself to digital, democratic learning, because students choose their methods of composition, reflect on their process, and have the opportunity to present their work to their peers. 


Students' Reflections on the Assignment 

"Choosing how I wrote this assignment was intimidating at first, because I've never had a choice in what genre I got to write in. But, this choice helped me engage with my work in a way that I have never done before." -- Anon


"As a Computer Science major, I need to make my writing courses applicable to my major.  This assignment nailed it!  I did require more explanation, but if a professor is accessible during office hours, you will not have any issues." -- A.G.


My Reflection
I think that this spin on class introductions reaches out to student-writers to give them voice and choice in their own compositions. The Scholar's Choice Introduction Assignment counts for me in terms of multimodal composition because it provides a digital artifact of students' rhetorical reflections on their own invention and affords them opportunities to use their digital texts to connect with their classmates. Please try this assignment and let me know what you think!


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Jeanne Law Bohannon is an Assistant Professor of English 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

Andrea A. Lunsford

The Age of Agnosis

Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Jun 16, 2016

During the early 70s, James Moffett—distinguished author of Teaching the Universe of Discourse, Active Voice, Coming on Center, and other books devoted to education and to educational reform—developed a progressive textbook series for schools in West Virginia, a series that in 1974 became involved in a knock-down-drag-out censorship battle. In 1988, Moffett wrote a book about this galvanizing experience: Storm in the Mountains: A Case Study of Censorship, Conflict, and Consciousness. It is still a timely and informative read, as Moffett traces the history of the conflict, delves deep into the psychology of those who so violently objected to the textbooks, and along the way takes a close look at his own assumptions and biases.


But I think of the book today because of its focus on what he sees as one of the roots of the key problem in West Virginia, which he identifies as agnosis. From ancient Greek, “a” (against) and “gnosis” (knowledge), agnosis refers to culturally constructed or willful ignorance, what Moffett calls the will NOT to know. It seems to me that today, the U.S. is awash in agnosis, as citizens resolutely refuse to accept facts (that President Obama was born in the United States, for example) and rather believe what is “culturally constructed” for them by the loudest and most headline-seeking media. Agnosis seems to be at the heart of Donald Trump’s success, as millions take part in a mass willful and willed ignorance. I see agnosis at work in other campaigns as well, though none as startling and dangerous as in the case of Trump.


In such a time, it is more imperative than ever that teachers of writing engage our students in understanding agnosis, finding and tracking it in ourselves as well as others, analyzing its powers, and, most of all, looking for ways to address the fears that often underlie agnosis and to provide concrete alternatives to it. Which is all to say, we need to teach students to practice rhetorical thinking, and to do so consciously and systematically.

This past April, at the Council on Basic Writing’s Wednesday Workshop at 4C16, Houston’s Writers in the Schools teaching artist Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton offered a session on writing and movement.  In the late afternoon of a very long day, Deborah had teachers of Basic Writing out of our seats and striking pose after pose. The purpose of this exercise was twofold. First, we learned how and why to use movement to break the frame of classrooms generally tethered to desks and often glued to screens and social media. Second, we learned to apply our learning to facilitating a more embodied and physically present writing situation for our students.


The directions for the exercise are simple, and that simplicity allows students to understand complexity from a kinesthetic perspective:

  1. Invite someone to strike a pose.
  2. Ask the audience to describe the pose.
  3. Have someone else interrupt and change the pose.
  4. Discuss with the audience what changed and why the change was significant.


I brought this activity back to class when we were working on analysis. The students asked for a bit more direction, so I invited them to strike a pose that has to do with the writing process. At the end of the semester, we were actively seeking motivation to regenerate writing for a strong finish.


One student took a water bottle and enacted an exaggerated scene of partying, pretending to imbibe the water as if it were a magical elixir.


—What does that have to do with the writing process? I inquired.


—It’s why we’re having trouble writing, someone suggested. Too many distractions.


—Okay, I said, someone change the scene. Make it productive.


Students shifted a bit in their chairs, while the student holding the water bottle tried to stay still in the pose. Finally someone stood up to transform the scene. The second student held the water bottle up to their eye, as though it were a telescope. The first student sat down. All of us applauded.


—But what does that have to do with writing? we wondered.


The conversation that followed focused on turning around stereotypes and expectations. In the ninety-degree heat of the desert in April, one might think that all students would prefer partying to studying. Yet the movement activity showed how easily someone could break the frame. The water bottle, first an instrument of leisure, became an illustration of extreme focus, a necessary part of the writing process.


—Does the scene also show resilience? I asked.


We had discussed resilience quite a lot in class, about finding the strength to carry on when dealing with the contradictions and frustrations of student life in 2016. How was it possible to create quality time for writing in the face of gatekeeping first-year classes and full-time jobs to pay high tuition and fees?


—Yes, the students answered, the scene shows resilience. It shows that it’s possible for us to stop partying and go back to studying when we need to.


Additionally, I used this scene to discuss the idea of rebuttal. Some people complain, I said, that all students want to do is party. However, as you have suggested, that assumption is incorrect. Students need balance in their lives. After taking time away from their studies, students are better able to focus. The two scenes illustrate these seemingly opposing views by showing how an instrument of distraction becomes an implement of deep concentration.


Strike a pose.jpg

By the next class period, I knew I wanted to write a blog post about this idea, and I asked the students to take photos as I reenacted their poses from the day before (above). Doing this work helped me to remember my own experiences as a teaching artist with Writers in the Schools, just after the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed in 2002. Some of the second graders that I had taught during that time had already graduated or were about to graduate from college. I remembered the movement activities from our time together and how much those activities contributed to our focus on writing.


NCLB was repealed in 2015, and the world has changed a great deal in this last decade and a half as these children have grown to maturity. Perhaps we are more apt to argue for the importance of screen time and multimodalities to facilitate writing. But movement also is a modality, and we need to remember the significance of breaking the frame. For these reasons, I remain grateful for Writers in the Schools and Deborah Mouton’s work with the Council on Basic Writing. She reminded us of the potential of movement as an inseparable step in the deeply transformative process of writing.

reading_June 9 post.jpgImagine a really, really tough inner city school, where students are often out of control. Imagine a classroom of students of color, seemingly waiting to drop out. Then imagine them reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

That’s what happened in Bronwyn LaMay’s classroom, where she worked with a class for two long, arduous years. Resistant to writing and reading, and (rightfully) suspicious of school and what they saw as utterly meaningless assignments, these students were a hard sell. But Bronwyn is a master teacher—tough and street smart and full of conviction that her students are bright and ambitious. So she designed a curriculum aimed at maximum engagement. She designed five assignments around the theme of love—and then introduced the students to Morrison’s work. It wasn’t quick or easy, but the students slowly responded to the first assignment—a personal essay on “what is love”?  While the students couldn’t define “love” precisely, they all felt its power in their lives, whether they embraced or rejected its principles. As one student writes, “the love’s there, it might be hard to find, but it’s one thing that can keep us together.” Others insisted love didn’t exist—or that it hurt too much. Or that it was always denied. Eventually they read Morrison’s magnificent work—page by page—and debated the kinds of love they saw at work in it.


Now LaMay has written a book about this group of remarkable students and their journey through and beyond Song of Solomon (or SOS, as the students called it, without apparent irony). Writing Love and Agency in the High School Classroom, is a richly theorized look at how students disaffected from school can become engaged. With love at its heart, this book introduces us to Hazel, Diego, Kylie and others who come to life in its pages. Throughout, LaMay shows that as the students begin to learn about narrative structure and other literary elements that animate SOS, and as they explore various meanings and forms of love, and as they begin to write—and write—about these issues, they begin to rethink their relationship to school. Eventually, they begin to rethink their life stories, again through writing and reading.


While personal narrative is key to this journey, it would be a mistake to read Writing Love and Agency as grounded only in the personal or concerned only with personal stories. Rather, LaMay shows how deeply intertwined personal stories and academic writing can be. We meet Kylie, for instance, a student diagnosed with a learning disability and a quiet, unobtrusive presence in the class who didn’t participate and who rarely did any of the work, especially writing. The “love narrative” got a response from her, however, and she wrote all the assignments, both personal and academic. And as she wrote, LaMay notes that her “personal and academic writing began to inform one another in ways that were representative of many students in the class.” The flexibility of the five core writing assignments, LaMay’s steady but non-directional guidance, her steadfastness, and her intense and careful listening all helped students to connect to this “school writing” on their own terms in ways that allowed them to grow and, potentially, to change. As their personal narratives and their academic explorations of a literary text intertwined, their sense of agency grew.


It may go without saying that choosing Morrison’s novel was a gamble. At first, many students resisted; they would not read. But as LaMay began to read the book aloud, they came closer, and then closer. The characters and their life stories emerged as real, living people, people whose stories and counterplots in some cases matched those of students in the class. And then they read. They read this book with what I call a “fine tooth eye,” exploring, questioning, investigating, pushing to dig deeper into the narrative and to find both meaning and truth. They argued passionately about “Milkman moments” and about whether the characters had agency or were simply acted upon. They returned to scenes over and over, searching for deeper understanding. And most of all, they connected this book and its stories to their own lives. Together, these students stand as a testament to the power of Morrison’s imagination and to her concept of “generous love.”


Writing Love and Agency is a book about what really matters in school. And what really matters is courage to know ourselves as teachers, with all our biases and flaws; love for ourselves as teacher/learners and love for our students as people as well as students; openness and listening and respect that open the doors for strong relationships; and time to commit to the effort.


LaMay’s book is in production now, being published by Teachers’ College Press. I believe teachers of writing everywhere will gain as much from it as I have. And, yes, love has everything to do with it.


[Image: Reading by Sam Greenhalgh on Flickr]

Miriam Moore

A Time to Reflect

Posted by Miriam Moore Expert Jun 8, 2016

This week I am giving myself a reflection assignment.  In my last post, All's Well That Ends Well, I described the final assignment I gave to my first semester composition students, who were co-enrolled in either a standard or ESL-focused co-requisite course.   I wanted to provide students with space and language to analyze, question, and evaluate their writing experiences, in hopes that such reflective articulation would enhance writing skills for transfer into later courses.  Given the obligations of their lives outside of the classroom, most of the students would not initiate this sort of reflection on their own.   I cannot fault them for this; after all, with my 3-course summer teaching schedule, departmental responsibilities, a new QEP project, and a joint research project, I find myself relegating reflection to a low spot on my list of priorities—hence, my self-imposed assignment: review and reflect on how students in ENG 111 theorize reading and writing, as demonstrated in their final essays.


Theorizing reading and writing isn’t just for teachers, after all.  In her 1997 article, “The Role of Reading in the Composition Classroom,” Nancy Morrow argues that students need to “compose a theory of reading,” just as James Thomas Zebroski recommends that they construct a theory of writing.  Looking at just six of the essays my students composed for this assignment, I must ask whether there is evidence that my students are indeed theorizing reading and writing, and if so, how.  


The assignment could be construed as an exercise in matching:  I gave the students my core principles, and I asked them to explore them in reference to my comments and class activities during the term.  Four of the six students approached the essay primarily in that “matching” sense:  they took concepts and matched them to specific comments I made during the term. This exercise is not without value; it is important that students recognize how specific feedback is derived from an underlying principle about writing.  It is also gratifying for me to note that students frequently selected comments which were conversational in nature (“Does your reader know this context?” or “I’m confused.  What does ‘it’ refer to?”), as opposed to directive comments (“You need a citation here”), as helpful to their writing and their understanding of core ideas. Nonetheless, illustrating principles, while necessary and valuable, does not constitute theorizing, as I understand it. To theorize, students must include personal adaptations, expansions, or revisions to my core concepts. 


In fact, two students moved beyond illustrating my principles to drafting their own.  One student, for example, took two ideas and combined them to create his own precept: a writer can learn to give himself feedback by reading carefully, and such self-feedback can lead to improved composition. A second student, who has given permission for me to quote her work, theorized the role of mistakes in writing, as well as the role of reading in writing development: “Every time I see the comments, I am aware of the importance of reading every day. The more mistakes we make, the more important things we notice. The more writing we do with a lot of mistakes, the more focusing points we can find. So, forget embarrassment. Write out what you want to say. Don’t write usual or ubiquitous things!”  This student, who is originally from Japan, took advantage of my comments on English usage in her writing to develop attentional skills in reading and build confidence in her own expression.  She theorized “mistakes” as evidence not of failure, but of progress.  (Of course, her use of “ubiquitous”—the focus of a class discussion one day--brought a smile, too).  


All six of these students could find evidence of my core principles at work in comments and in class activities, and all six celebrated progress and specific achievements as part of their reflective writing.   And my own reflection suggests that this assignment is worth keeping, although I will surely hone it for future semesters.  But my reflection also leaves me with a question: how can I encourage more students to theorize reading and writing for themselves in future semesters?  That question lingers in the back of my mind as I design my summer syllabus.  If you have suggestions or assignment ideas, please share them in the comments. 


I’ve completed my reflection assignment.  I must remember to give myself more such tasks in the future, when the constraints of the job conspire against time for thoughtful review.   Maybe if I attach this blog to my faculty evaluation form, I might even get a good grade. But that’s for another post.   


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I’m spending time this summer revising some course documents and creating some new resources. Right now, I’m trying to make my syllabus more engaging. Some aspects of the syllabus are easy to convert, like shifting to a pie chart to show the grade distribution as I demonstrated in that previous post, Converting to a More Visual Syllabus.


Other portions of the syllabus offer particular challenges. There are certain policies and details that have to be included, like details on the honor code and our departmental assessment. These policies feel a lot like the Terms of Service agreements: no one reads the details; we all just scroll to the end and click the Agree button.


My goal this summer is to increase the readability of my course documents so that students resist the urge to invoke the TL;DR response (“too long; didn’t read”). To get there, I want to break up the information, add more color and negative space (e.g., white space), and revise the test to use a friendlier tone.


I will share several of these revised sections with you this summer. To get started, I’m working on the required resources section of the syllabus, the place where I list the books and websites that students will need for the course. Here’s the old version of the section on the resources as it appeared in the Spring 2016 syllabus:



Required Resources



It’s a customary arrangement, but not very interesting. The bulleted list makes the different resources obvious, but they still appear as a giant block of words.


To improve the section, I broke the information into two lists, one of free, online resources, and the other of things they need to buy (or have). I added some icons to highlight those two sections. Now that the textbook is in the second edition, I want to be sure students get the right version, so I included an image of its cover. To balance the other section, I added the cover of a free guide from our campus career center. I also added line breaks to make the list more open. Here’s how I’ve revised the section so far:


Resources to Bookmark



Resources to Buy, Borrow, or Find


That’s what I have so far. What do you think? Is the new version easier for you to read and use? How do you think students will respond? Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below. I’d love suggestions as I work to revise other portions of my course documents.


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Eight years ago, Stanford’s Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education established an award in my name for students’ multimedia presentations growing out of their 2nd Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) course, taken in their second year. I am still astonished and humbled when I remember the day of this announcement—for once in my life, I was absolutely speechless!


Now these awards are very much a part of the fabric of our Program, and though I am retired I look forward to this occasion every year, when I get to meet the year’s six winners and hear some of their presentations. It has been instructive and inspiring for me to see how much the student presentations have improved over these years—and that means, of course, that our instruction has improved. When we first started teaching “multimodal composition,” we were making it up as we went along. But now there’s a robust body of literature on the subject and students everywhere are getting into the action. This year, I was particularly impressed with the students’ use of slides, which was minimalist in that the slides were understated but so much more powerful for being so. One student’s presentation focused on research he had done on how Stanford students spend their time, using interviews, surveys, and observations to determine that, while students regularly declare themselves to be “crazy busy,” they in fact have more time at their disposal than they realize. In some of his interviews, students found that with a little mindset adjustment they even had time to read for pleasure. Another student’s research focused on the My Lai massacre and the attempted cover-up. Again, she used photographs sparingly but powerfully: in this case, one picture was indeed worth a thousand words. In every case, the student presenters were poised and perfectly at ease. While the presentations did not seem “memorized,” none used notes of any kind, nor did they rely on their slides to guide them. Rather, they spoke as what they clearly are: experts on their subjects!


I compare these presentations to those from some years back (like these: The LOPRA Awards!) and am impressed. PWR has archived all these presentations, and so I’ve enjoyed going back through the years and comparing. For these students, the oral/aural mode is one they embrace, as does our curriculum and our program in general. As a result, all of us are much more aware of ourselves as speakers, as presenters, as performers—than we were even a decade ago. 


Here are some of the winners and a very happy member of the audience! 

Jack Solomon

Digital Addiction

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Jun 2, 2016

Ever since the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland conducted an experiment in 2010 on student digital usage, it has been pretty well known that there is something quite literally addictive about life in the cloud.  Reporting that students who were asked to refrain from accessing their digital devices for only 24 hours experienced physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms usually associated with opiate drug addiction, the investigators provided some of the first hard evidence that all that time spent updating Facebook pages and posting to Snapchat is a lot more than a matter of communication and convenience.  More recent reports (like this one or this one), citing the emergence of such phenomena as digital addiction rehab programs, indicate that the problem is only intensifying as mobile technology use becomes nearly universal.  But lest you fear that this blog is going to turn into one of those "kids these days" rants, have no fear: adults are almost equally likely to be addicted to their digital devices (just watch your colleagues, or yourself, at a faculty meeting some time!).  So the matter isn't generational; it isn't even cultural: it's human.  And it begs for some semiotic attention.




Not that the affects of digital technology on people haven't been getting a whole lot of attention already, especially on the part of the corporate players who have made, and stand to make, practically inconceivable sums of money by exploiting whatever it is in human nature that draws people from around the world, regardless of cultural origin or condition, to the same apparently irresistible gadgets.  Finding, for example, that people will do almost anything to get a lot of "Likes" tallied up on their digital contributions, web administrators everywhere have adopted the Facebook model, itself adapted from MySpace, and have applied it to their sites.  Heck, you can even "like" this blog (as if).


Indeed, any semiotic analysis of digital addiction would do well to begin with an analysis of the hegemonic role that corporate profitability has played in creating and encouraging the phenomenon, for in a postindustrial economy dominated by digital capitalism, it should hardly be surprising to see the psychographic techniques originally applied to advertising now transferred to the world of smart phones and social media.  Think of it as The Hidden Persuaders Move to Silicon Valley.


Still, there's hegemony, and there's hegemony, and whatever hegemonic forces are at work in the proliferation of digital addiction, they would be largely ineffective if there wasn't something in us all that makes us ripe for manipulation.  But what is it?  MRI scans indicate that specific pleasure centers in the brain light up when we log on, but that doesn't take us very far.  Of course there is something pleasurable about the matter, but not only are there quite a number of non-addictive experiences that also light up the pleasure centers, digital addiction also involves, paradoxically enough, a certain measure of pain as well—as the much-cited misery factor in Facebook usage can attest.  Indeed, what makes digital addiction so puzzling is the way that, when we think about it closely, it is constituted by paradoxes all the way down.


Consider, for example, the social/anti-social nature of the Internet.  On the one hand, it seems to be irrefutable that part of the universal appeal of life in the cloud lies in the essentially social nature of human beings.  In short, we like to commune with each other, and digital devices enable us to be in constant contact with literally innumerable numbers of people from all over the world.  Such predecessors of mobile technology as the telephone, television, and even Ham radio anticipated this capability, but not at anything like the same scale.


But at the same time, for all the socializing that takes place in the digital hive, there is not only a whole lot of anti-social behavior to be found (I hardly need to provide examples of that), there is also the mind-boggling phenomenon of digital desensitization—that is, the declining capacities for emotional empathy experienced by many who have been brought up in the social network, along with a certain atrophying of the ability to handle simple face-to-face socializing.  Couples on dates staring not into each other's eyes but into their smart phones, groups of people sitting together, but not together because they're sending text messages and posting to Instagram, gamers who have trouble talking to other human beings .  . .  the list of paradoxical anti-social digital affects is practically unending.


Then there is the paradox that digital technology is simultaneously a means of democratic access to media control and a major agency in the ongoing economic redistribution of wealth upward as such corporate giants as Apple, Google, and Facebook enjoy a top-down relation to billions of Net-addicted consumers whose every move they can track and monetize.


Indeed, there are so many paradoxes involved in the question of digital addiction that it is impossible, at this still early stage, to fully assess what is going on.  But if there is one thing that you should be telling your students these days, it is that they would do well to give the matter a good deal of thought, with as much self-awareness and objectivity as they can muster.  And to do that, they will have to log off for a while, because the kind of critical thinking that the digital era requires is best conducted when not under its spell. 


[Image Source: Duncan Harris on Flickr]