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Michelle_Obama_2013_official_portrait.jpgLike many Americans, I stayed close to a TV on July 26, listening to the prime time speeches during day one of the Democratic Convention, just as I had done a week before during the Republican Convention.  I knew there would be protests, that Sanders supporters were set to make a stand, and that Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Michelle Obama, and Bernie Sanders would speak.


I expected all the speakers to do well—to deliver their messages with pride and passion.  And they did.  But from the moment the first lady stepped onto the stage, I sensed a change in the convention hall.  She was radiant in deep blue, with that wide smile and direct way of looking at her audience.  As she began to speak, the raucous crowd quieted; all eyes on her, and then she delivered what to me was the most impressive speech of either convention so far.  In roughly 1500 words, she supported her husband’s legacy, showed why Trump would be an inadequate president at best (without ever mentioning his name), explained why she supports Hillary Clinton (and why it’s important that girls everywhere think of it as routine for a woman to be President), and underscored her (and Clinton’s) focus on children and families.  This brief speech packed a powerful yet subtle punch. 


I took a closer look at the speech today, and came away impressed again with our first lady’s ability to connect to audiences and with the strategies she uses to do so.  Of the roughly 1500 words in this speech, 43 of them are “we” “our,” or “us”—and another 35 are words that refer to young people—“kids,” “daughters,” “sons,” “children,” “our children,” and so on.  The repetition of these key words hammers home her message: that the decision we make in November will affect how our children are able to lead their lives. And in this endeavor—this focus on the good of our nation’s children—Ms. Obama aligns herself with Secretary Clinton, as mothers who care above all for “our children.”


So repetition is one key to the power of this speech, but alliteration and parallelism also work to make the words very memorable:  “the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation”; “character and conviction”; “guts and grace”; and many more.  And the use of simple word choice and syntax underscores and amplifies sentences like “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” 


So this is a speech to savor, and to save.  I plan to use it in classes, asking students to read it and then carry out their own mini rhetorical analyses, then to watch the speech as Michelle Obama delivered it, noting her pacing (flawless), her pauses, her facial expressions and body language.  My guess is that students will learn a lot about how they can improve as speakers and presenters. And that they will have more insightful and thoughtful responses to the message the speech sends from having done so.


[Image: Official portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama in Green Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy.)]

Ten or so years ago, a student I know wrote an essay on Wikipedia in which he coined the phrase “authorless prose.” He argued that the “people’s dictionary is written, rewritten, edited, and re-edited by so many hands that authorship is no longer a salient feature." Hence, authorless prose.


I’ve thought a lot about this concept, and of course questions of authorship have preoccupied me ever since Lisa Ede and I did the research that led to Singular Texts / Plural Authors, where we—in the 1980s—assailed the concept of radical, individual, originary authorship.


And I thought of it again during the Republican National Convention, after Melania Trump’s keynote and the subsequent revelations of its use, sometimes word-for-word, of a speech Michelle Obama gave at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.


Leave aside the exquisite irony of the Trump campaign declaring Obama and his administration of every social ill imaginable while simultaneously approving a speech that “borrowed” from his wife’s language. And leave aside the debacle that followed: Melania Trump saying she wrote the speech herself, campaign operatives saying it was the work of speech writers, and campaign manager Manafort and Trump doubling down on their insistence that the words Melania Trump used were “common” words used by many. “No big deal,” they seemed to say, when the speechwriter eventually stepped forward and admitted the “mistake.” No need to resign: “innocent mistakes happen.”


It would be fascinating to follow the development of that speech from beginning to end—and news agencies have been at work to track that history down. The speech was probably “authored” by several people, including Melania Trump. Again, authorless prose. What interests me is not the ownership of the words, the “authorship,” per se, but the veracity of them. Were the words in Melania Trump’s speech true and accurate? We may never know, since she is not likely to be giving more speeches any time soon, much less interviews.


But what of her husband’s words—and the words of the larger campaign? Trump tweets almost daily—if not hourly—about “lyin’ Hillary,” and his entire campaign so far has been made up of a thin tissue of un-truths: about his “huge” business success, about his so-called university, even about his own background.


In the meantime, “lyin’ Hillary” faced three investigations and something like 13 hours of often hostile grilling by a Congressional Committee that could find no proof of wrongdoing on her part. In fact, Clinton has been the subject of numerous investigations, some of them clearly political vendettas, yet none of which has found her guilty of breaking laws. Nevertheless, Trump and his followers—loudly and insistently—claim that she is guilty of murder and that she should be jailed—or even executed.


Saying something over and over again doesn’t make it true. But it does make its way into public consciousness as if it were true.


Plato famously said that a speaker needed not only to tell the truth but to appear to tell the truth. In this campaign, we are witnessing the nominee of a major political party doing neither. And still being supported—rapturously—by millions.


It’s a sad day for truth, for veracity, for credibility. In such a time, writing about authorship and arguing over plagiarism seems a lot like trying to lock the barn door after the wildly irresponsible horse is already out.

My oldest daughter graduated from college in May; she will begin an M.A. program at a public Midwestern university in the fall. She will fund her graduate studies by teaching in the university’s first-year composition program. I watch her and wonder if this teaching will be a means to an end, or if she will settle into this role, integrating composition pedagogy into the professional identity she is constructing for herself.


I certainly didn’t see composition instruction as central to my career when I came to graduate school at the University of South Carolina in 1989; I had settled on theoretical linguistics as a career path. At least some teaching would be required, however, since appointment as a TA provided a much needed tuition waiver and stipend. Given that I chose a focus on second language acquisition, my first assignment was a sheltered ESL section—or “B section”—of the first-year composition sequence. I pushed myself into a basement classroom one hot August morning, and faced students whose names I could not pronounce, some of whom were older than I was, and who trusted, implicitly, that I could teach them.


After a few weeks, I settled into this classroom role comfortably enough, managing the requisite balance between my own coursework and the demands of lesson preparation and grading.  I saw the balance, unfortunately, as management of disconnected and disparate identities, with my coursework fully privileged over the work of the classroom.


Two semesters later, Professors Nancy Thompson and Rhonda Grego invited me to join them and three other graduate students for a directed reading and research group investigating pedagogy through action research. I accepted. I had taken “Teaching College Composition” the previous year, but the focus there had been on practical classroom organization and management strategies—surviving, in effect, the first year of teaching. As a theoretical inquiry, I did not know that “writing studies” existed.


The research group unsettled me and my sense of a disciplinary identity; I was troubled by concepts and theoretical frameworks that were completely new to me. Members of the research group adopted Elbow and Belanoff’s text, A Community of Writers, for our students, and we tackled a number of additional readings for ourselves, including Peter Reason’s Human Inquiry in Action, Marie Wilson Nelson’s At the Point of Need, along with articles from Mike Rose, Peter Elbow, Michael Polanyi, Janet Emig, Ann Berthoff, Mina Shaughnessy, and many others. Contrasted to theoretical work in second language acquisition, lexical semantics, and syntax, this was, for me, a foreign language. Each reading and group session raised more questions, and suddenly, my sense of identity didn’t seem settled any longer.


Christie Toth has coined the term “transdisciplinary cosmopolitanism”—a convergence of multiple areas of expertise and professional interests—to describe the particular identities of community college English instructors. Participation in the research group invited me to settle in a new “academic home,” and although I could not have foreseen this outcome at the time, it prepared me for my role as community college instructor.


I recently found my journal from that practicum, buried in a filing cabinet. I see in it now the first inklings that composition pedagogy, applied linguistics, and theory could connect and enrich each other, that pedagogical research could be theory-driven and just as intellectually rewarding as traditional linguistic inquiry. My research project, in fact, examined the relationship between reading and writing, using two case studies: a basic writer and an ESL writer. 


I think, at times, we assume community college instructors—especially those who have been through standard doctoral training—have had bad luck; they’ve “settled for” a community college teaching position because, for whatever reason, a university post hasn’t opened for them.  They do the drudge-work of teaching composition; they are disengaged from more lofty academic inquiry.


I disagree. I did not settle “for” this identity; I settled “into” it. “Into” implies both a bounded space and a movement; the space may be bounded, but it is not static. I’m not “stuck” teaching basic, ESL, or first-year writing at a community college; I am doing intellectual work—work that I love—in my own “laboratory.” I attend conferences and read journals in composition studies, developmental education, reading, TESOL, and linguistics.


At the moment, I am also doing background research on threshold concepts in information literacy for our college’s next QEP; this new work is a privilege, not a burden, because it challenges and expands what I do in the classroom.  I teach writing at a community college; I practice “transdisciplinary cosmopolitanism.” I wouldn’t settle for less.


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I’m just back from ten days of team teaching at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont’s Green Mountains. With legendary teachers Dixie Goswami and John Elder, I’m teaching a course called Writing and Acting for Change:

This course will explore ways in which learning about both writing and acting can enable students to work for equity and sustainability in their communities as well as in the larger world.  The class will begin gathering writing (by themselves and their students or communities) that makes something good happen in the world, writing that will eventually comprise a portfolio of such writing/acting that can be taken back into classrooms or other organizations. Our goal will be to learn how the power of language and rhetoric can shape learning and affect public policies through effective advocacy. We will start with a study of rhetoric, as reflected in the writing of Ida B. Wells.  We will then focus on environmental writing and action that emphasizes health and equity, looking closely at questions of food justice and security as well as climate change.  Among the writers and activists whose work we’ll look at will be Ladonna Redmond, Winona LaDuke, Gary Nabhan, Vandana Shiva, Bill McKibben, and Laurent Savoy.  We will also read Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical ‘Laudato Si’.  The course will involve a team of Bread Loaf faculty, plus guests, including Jacqueline Jones Royster, Bill McKibben, Oskar Eustis, Brian McEleney, and Laurie Patton.  In the final week, students will present the projects they have developed to the entire Bread Loaf community.


July 7 post.png

We came up with the idea for this course nearly a year ago and were delighted when sixteen students (fifteen teachers and one employee of a children’s book publisher; and we limited the class to 16) signed up as soon as the courses were advertised.  Clearly , we had hit a nerve as these students recognize the perilous times we live in and want—along with their students—to tackle some very big challenges in their schools and communities.  Like hunger.  Like diabetes.  Like poverty. Like school policies that do nothing to help kids really engage with learning.


Our discussions of Ida B. Wells’s Anti-Lynching pamphlets (edited by Jackie Royster) were animated and intense, with class members analyzing Wells’s brilliant rhetorical strategies and then connecting her work to the Black Lives Matter movement and to many pressing racial issues in their schools and communities.  Is it any coincidence, asked one participant that the states with the highest number of lynchings are also the states with the highest number of executions — often of Black men?  Our blog space quickly filled with postings and responses, and responses to responses, as we explored the need to write and act for change to racial, economic, and educational injustices close to home.


July 7 post_2.pngThe blog, as well as Twitter and email, are helping me keep up with the class while I’m away.  This week Dixie, along with Shel Sax and Tim O’Brien (both of whom work in educational technology), will be meeting every day (no holiday on the 4th for them!) with our class, listening to a talk by Royster and reading parts of her Traces of a Stream, and fashioning the projects they will take back to their schools at the end of the summer.


Then John Elder will return to lead the class for two weeks, focusing on environmental and food justice, with a visit by Bill McKibben and a skype session with Laurent Savoy (check out her latest books).  Along the way, Oskar Eustis (Director of the Public Theater in NY) will lead a workshop for our class on hip hop as acting for change (Oskar developed the mega-hit Hamilton at the Public).  And Brian McEleney (from Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company and the artistic director of the Bread Loaf Acting Ensemble) and members of the ensemble will work with our class to prepare for four joint presentation/performances they will give on the last two days of class.  Acting for change indeed!


By then I’ll be back on campus to rejoin the class in real time and to learn from all of the work the students have done this summer.  I’ll be reporting on these events here, so please watch this space!

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


As I wrote in my last post, I have spent time this summer exploring the idea of creating digital drop-in assignments complete with templates and deliverables for readers to edit and use as they want.  I want these assignments to disseminate and grow, with my colleagues making them better as they use and edit them.  This week's digital drop-in is a visual analysis assignment that affords both instructors and students opportunities to create memes and share them with their class community.


Context for Assignment #2: Visual Analysis and Meme Crafting
As we get to know our first-year writers, we can connect with them by participating in the same activities we ask them to do. This assignment uses democratic teaching methods and multimodal options to give students opportunities to showcase their thoughts on trending cultural issues and share them with their coursemates. A good place to start with memes is Vice Media's History of Memes article.  Also check out Linda K. Börzsei's article in New Media Magazine for your own background. Free meme creators for instructors and students: imgur Meme Creator; Meme Generator; and lots of apps for phones from iTunes and Google Play.

Bohannon_Multimodal Mondays_7_05_16_Pic1.png

Measurable Learning Objectives for the Assignment

  • Apply visual analysis criteria to memes
  • Analyze memes as visual texts
  • Reflect on self-choice in one's own composing
  • Create digital texts for a specific audience and invention heuristics


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.


Digital Deliverables for Classroom Use


In-Class/Out-of-Class Work

Bohannon_Multimodal Mondays_7_05_16_Pic2.jpgAfter reading about the history of memes and visual rhetorics in their handbooks, students choose a meme for visual analysis. Then, working in teams or groups, students help each other find meaning, critique design, and evaluate timeliness of topics in their memes.  Use Elements for Visual Analysis.  To scaffold learning, students can then also use the Meme Criteria Checklist to formatively evaluate themselves and their classmates on their understanding of memes. Finally, students create their own memes, in a culminating assignment that demonstrates their synthesis of the genre.


An adaptive feature of this assignment is that it provides students with their choice of Bohannon_Multimodal Mondays_7_05_16_Pic3.jpgtopic within the meme genre and can be modified for each instructor's rhetorical focus.  Some instructors have used the theme "Re/Meme-ber This," which consider popular culture trends from specific time periods overlaid with students' assignment feedback responses.  The examples I have included here are from that theme. 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. 


My Reflection
Bohannon_Multimodal Mondays_7_05_16_Pic4.jpg
I think that this spin on class introductions reaches out to student-writers to give them voice and choice in their own compositions. The Meme Visual Analysis 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

I am writing this post on July 4, shortly after writing to the class called Writing and Acting for Change that I am team-teaching at Vermont’s Bread Loaf School of English.  Though it’s a national holiday, Bread Loaf classes meet on the 4th, and though I am not on campus physically right now I am in touch with the class through e-mail, Twitter, and our private class blog.

Happy 4th of July to all.  I'm about to re-read, as I do every year this time, Frederick Douglass's "What to the Slave is the 4th of July?"  Or I may listen to James Earl Jones reading it.


When I got up this morning, a student in the class had added a similar but much more eloquent post:

"I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs."

- Frederick Douglass

For the last few years I have made it my tradition to read this piece on the 4th of July. I am in awe of Frederick Douglass and his rhetoric-- what an incredible example of writing and ACTING for change. Would anyone want to read this together out loud at some point today? Perhaps after class? I find the above quote particularly powerful and relevant in an era of hashtag activism and "Pray for Orlando" &"Pray for Paris" Facebook filters. A good reminder of the need for embodied action.


A good reminder of the need for embodied action indeed.  In our class, we are reminding ourselves every day that we must go beyond talk to ACT if we intend to create any real change.  Thanks to Frederick Douglass for providing a brilliant example and for giving us food for thought on every 4th of July.

July 7 post_3.png

[Image: Frederick Douglass, by Political Graveyard on Flickr]

Traci Gardner pointed out in her recent post (See Revising for a More Visual Syllabus: The Schedule)  that summer is the time many of us re-think and revise syllabi.   This work may seem peripheral to our teaching, since it is relegated to summer break, but it is not.  As Barclay Barrios pointed out in his reflections last year (See What’s a Syllabus?) , when we compose syllabi, we make “visual essays/arguments/statements” about the courses we are preparing to teach. Our syllabi, in essence, embody a number of critical course concepts:  rhetorical choice, multimodality, and documentation (as Gardner’s visual syllabus elements illustrate), or discourse communities, among others.


As we write a syllabus, we wrangle with previous failures and successes, we experiment, and we comb through conference handouts and sticky notes on journal articles, pondering theory and borrowing from the work we have seen our colleagues doing.  This composing work is energizing; we imagine what is possible and what we might be able to accomplish with our students.  “This time,” I tell myself, “I will get it right.”


Two years ago, in an effort to improve my syllabi and lay some groundwork for feedback and revision in my courses, I gave the following instructions to students on the first day of class:


  • With the members of your group, review the syllabus critically.  Consider the following questions and write your comments on the discussion board in Blackboard.  Make sure that you include all group members’ names:
    • How would you reformat the syllabus to make it easier for a student to read and understand?
    • Would you change any of the following to make the syllabus easier for a student to read and understand?
      • Order of presentation
      • Language used
      • Medium (i.e., print vs. digital)
      • Design
      • Text features (font, font size, layout, etc.)
      • Anything else? 
  • What questions do you have about the CONTENT of the syllabus?  Make a note of these.


I had multiple goals for this assignment, including establishing a sense of community, getting students to read the syllabus carefully, and inviting reader-response early in the term.  After the activity, I reviewed student responses and revised my syllabus; I made significant changes in arrangement of content, moving much of the boilerplate material required by the college to the end of the document and making the schedule of assignments more accessible.  I also created a “Where to find it” box for the first page to direct students to page numbers or digital resources for information they would most likely ask about during the term.  The next semester I repeated the activity and added sidebars with advice and frequently asked questions. 


In both semesters, students were surprised when I returned to class with a revised syllabus; I don’t think they expected me to consider their feedback seriously.  A discussion of the choices that I had to make to meet both their needs (as my primary readers) and the requirements of our college and its accreditors (a secondary but significant audience) helped me introduce key course concepts, and it also highlighted some very real quandaries I faced as a writer. 


For example, my students were put off by the language of the official course description and learning outcomes, and they recommended that I change them; in fact, students quickly came to relish their position of authority as my intended readers, assuming a directive stance in their feedback.  We talked about some options:  could I re-word that particular section?  (No, the official language is mandatory.) Could I create two syllabi, one for students and one for the official record? (Possibly, but I am required to make the official version available to students, and writing two versions seems like unnecessary work.)  Could I include the official jargon and provide footnotes with definitions of terms? (Yes, but would students really read a footnoted syllabus?)  We decided there was no great solution, but in response to their ideas, I did move that section of the document to the end, and I created “so what” sidebars to paraphrase key points. 


After two semesters, I abandoned the syllabus feedback activity.   I was satisfied with the syllabus revisions, and I didn’t give too much thought to the pedagogical potential of continuing.  But now, looking back, I see that this activity engaged students, in a preliminary way, with the threshold concepts around which I structure my courses, especially in my upper level ESL and co-requisite IRW courses. 


It might be time to resurrect the syllabus feedback activity for the fall, especially as I am reworking my course to emphasize difficulty, writing about language, and multimodality. These will be threshold concepts, strange and troubling for my students. If I invite them to explore points of difficulty, linguistic choices, and the effects of visual design (and perhaps even audio design, as I experiment with screencasts of my syllabus) on the first day, I can establish a tone and a framework for the weeks that follow.


And perhaps the syllabus review belongs at the end of the class as well.  I could revise the end-of-term reflection assignment I described in a previous post to include a rhetorical analysis of my syllabus and the concepts contained in it (See All's Well That Ends Well).  It would be interesting to see how students’ perceptions as readers of my syllabus change after fifteen weeks of instruction and practice.  


I doubt the first and last day syllabus review activities will yield exactly what I envision, but I’ll have next summer to tweak them again.


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Destiny– Version 5.jpg

What can we do to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for our students? How can we connect writing and reading instruction with our students’ concerns? The following reading lists offer links to short takes on a variety of topics that cover issues such as course design; pedagogical terms and frameworks; racial, linguistic, and cultural identity; and suggested readings for course syllabi. The heading for each list is briefly annotated.


Photo: My cat Destiny, in search of a good read.


Transitions to College

As students transition to post-secondary education, they face new academic and social situations that present challenges, but also offer opportunities for growth as writers. Whether students transition directly from high school or military service, or are returning to college after a hiatus of many years, the sources in this first list focus on creating equitable classrooms for first-year students from a variety of backgrounds. The final item on the list shows the results from a recent survey on the expectations of high school teachers, college instructors, and employers in core content areas, including writing. The differing results offer a starting point for discussion about the purposes of post-secondary writing courses, as well as the needs and expectations of recent high school graduates attending college for the first time.


Pedagogical Frameworks

These sources offer lucid and succinct explanations of terms and frameworks that are frequently presented as keywords in post-secondary writing courses. The first two links are comprised of goals crafted by national organizations that shape our field. These lists can be shared with colleagues interested in national standards for first-year writing programs, which can and should include Basic Writing in their scope. The last two links offer a brief introduction to rhetorical concepts, and a revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy.


Moving Beyond Self/Other

Many of us teach in communities that are new to us, or work with students whose points of view and learning needs initially seem far removed from our own.  At the same time, we can create a classroom environment that offers respect for all students and gives them opportunities to grow as writers. The links on this list offer suggestions. 


Addressing Racial, Linguistic, and Cultural Identities

Students claim identities from many intersecting racial, linguistic, and cultural contexts. Although students should not be required to represent their particular identity groups, we as teachers can benefit from learning more about how and why students’ perspectives may have been shaped in previous schooling and in experiences beyond our classrooms. The readings in this section come from a variety of academic sources and can help to inform our understandings of the world in which all of us live.


Course Planning: Recent Readings on Contemporary Issues

In the last several years, local, national, and global catastrophes have disrupted our lives, whether directly or indirectly. Educators have compiled a series of syllabi with books, articles, films, and other multimedia that address four of these traumatic events. These syllabi were published on the web in response to killings of people of color and LGBTQ people in the United States in the cities of Ferguson (2014), Baltimore (2015), Charleston (2015), and Orlando (2016). Individually and collectively, the syllabi offer readings and approaches that inspire a wide variety of writing topics, which may, in turn appeal directly to students contemporary concerns and interests.