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An article on last week was entitled “Scott, Castile and the Women Who Filmed Their Final Moments.” Millions have seen the video that Rakeyia Scott took with her phone as police killed her husband, Keith. In July, Diamond Reynolds streamed live on Facebook the moments following the fatal shooting of her fiancé, Philando Castile, at the hands of police.


Both of these women, as they watched the man they loved die, turned on their camera phones and took video. According to CNN, “In both cases, the viewers of the videos commented on how unnaturally calm Rakeyia Scott and Diamond Reynolds were  in the midst of the deadly situations.” Why, under the circumstances, would the women turn on their cameras? Why would they even think about doing that?


All of the time on television and in movies we see where a strategically-placed surveillance camera helps the police capture criminals. We have seen snapshots and videos lead to the capture in real life of criminals in cases like the Boston Marathon bombings and the recent bombings in New York. I don’t know when the first bystander turned on a camera to film the police, but the 2016 indictment of Michael Slager for the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina, following a stop for a broken taillight, showed that the cameras could be turned not only on, but against the police. "I can tell you that as the result of that video and the bad decision made by our officer, he will be charged with murder," North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey told reporters. Scott’s family and others have expressed hope that the indictment will be a turning point. 


Recent history has made us rethink what constitutes convincing evidence in a case of deadly force by police. The officer’s version of what happened is no longer accepted at face value. Verbal testimony has come to be seen as reflective of racial division, and cases of black men killed by white officers have raised a cry for police officers to be equipped with body cameras. The ethos of police officers has been damaged for the many ethical officers by a few unethical or allegedly unethical ones. There is a contemporary backlash against the time when blacks in America could not testify against whites, and a more recent time when the word of a white police officer was taken to have greater value than the word of a black civilian. Videos are not irrefutable evidence of what happened. In the case of Walter Scott, the early moments of the encounter were not filmed, but the image of a white man shooting an unarmed black man in the back five times while he was running away was enough to lead to Slater’s indictment. The video of the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott leaves questions unanswered. What was in his hand? Was it a gun on the ground? Was the gun there throughout the video? It is significant that the outcry for the police video to be made public was so great that the police gave in to that demand.


So why did Rakeyia Scott and Diamond Reynolds turn on their cameras? Did they have enough foresight to think that in an American court of law their word would not stand up against that of the police? It is chilling to hear Mrs. Scott scream over and over, “He doesn’t have a gun! He doesn’t have a gun!” When her screams turn to “Don’t do it, Keith! Don’t do it!” did she foresee the shots that killed him seconds later? Neither her video nor that taken by the police car’s dash cam tells the whole story. Ms. Reynolds turned on her camera only after the police asked her fiancé for identification and then shot him four times after he informed him that he had a permit to carry a gun and had one in the car. She felt she had to get what followed on video because it would be her word against that of a policeman. Each woman knew that she needed visual and audio evidence. An attorney could, in all three cases, argue that key seconds of the incident are missing or that the angle does not provide incontrovertible evidence of the sequence of events. I have to wonder if, as white woman, I would have reacted as these women did. The point, however, is whether I, as a white woman, would have needed to.


Credit: "Smartphone - Lovebot Toronto" by Joseph Morris on Flickr

Ann and I like our assignments to have titles that tell students exactly what we expect from them. So, our syllabi don’t say, “Paper #1 due . . . ,” and “Persuasive Essay due . . .”  Who could get excited about anything so formulaic?


Our “Be Interested” assignment, for example, which is the first step in a longer project, asks our students to demonstrate their interest in anything that touches on the world of ideas. Pursuing their interest should ideally involve going someplace that’s new to them: they can attend a scholarly lecture or an artistic event on campus, or they can go to a city planning meeting or sit in on a court trial. What they choose doesn’t matter to us; what does matter is that they are actively interested in what they’ve chosen. Being interested is a habit and we want them to get in the habit of having new experiences and encountering new ideas.


The assignment explains how we want our students to make their interest visible to others:

In advance of attending the event you’ve chosen, do preliminary research that puts you in a position to ask a good question once you get there. After the event, write up an intellectually engaging account that introduces the event’s central problem, concern, or question. Write your way to a question that the event raised for you, one that can’t be answered with basic information alone but that requires thought and research beyond the time you put in before the event.


Then begin to do the research required to address the question the event raised for you. We expect you to begin with informational sources and to keep digging until you find two sources that advance your thinking in significant ways. We are interested in the two sources that you find after you’ve moved beyond the basic background information.

All the students we’ve had do this assignment have experienced some level of difficulty completing it. Most of our beginning students have never voluntarily attended a lecture or gone to a gallery or attended a civic meeting; most don’t know where the university publicizes events that are free and open to the public. Some students haven’t found any of the available options to be of interest and have asked to be allowed to watch a lecture on the Internet or visit a Web site. And we’ve had more than one student come to class empty-handed, saying they’ve been unable to find anything out there that interests them.


Being interested, it turns out, is a lot harder than it seems at first. To get our students practicing, we begin by teaching them how to exhibit the habits of the interested mind: ask questions, do research that drills down past the first link, ask more questions, follow details, and locate original sources. Being interested is not the same as being entertained; it’s an active endeavor and to get there, you have to work at it.


In one of our classes, we had a graduating senior who declared that she couldn’t do the assignment. This wasn’t an act of resistance; she had spent all of her time at the university preparing for future employment, she explained, and was focused on her internship and building her resume. She had tried her best. She’d gone to a lecture about mass incarceration; she’d poked around on the Web. Nothing clicked.


All those classes, all those credits stacked up, standing at the threshold of her college education’s conclusion, this student was telling us, “Be interested? I don’t have the time . . . or the interest.” There are many ways to respond to such news: as a depressive, despair is my first sensation, but that isn’t pedagogically useful.


A better response is to see that students, in general, struggle with being actively interested in their own educations because their own educations don’t teach them how to be interested. They’ve written research papers; they’ve generated arguments and they’ve tried to be persuasive; they’ve had topics and topic sentences: they’ve produced the outer trappings of interest, but most have never actually had the inner experience of being interested as a habit of mind. This is different from being into rock climbing or being a news junky or being obsessed with gaming: interest as a habit of mind is question-driven; it is the lived practice of being curious. Teaching them that being interested is a practice and getting them to engage in that practice is our job. Then, when they’re faced with a more traditional writing assignment, they’ll be prepared to make themselves interested because they’ll have learned how to use writing as a technology for thinking new thoughts.


Where to begin, then? By looking at how writers show interest on the page.  Our students come to class expecting to discuss the argument in the assigned reading; they attend lectures and seeking out the speaker’s main point. We want them to learn to ask: what is the question that drives this work? Without the animating question, arguments and main points are just context-free factoids. What motivates a research project? A question that nags, that haunts, that refuses to be settled or dismissed. 


What’s the question that drives Habits of the Creative Mind? In its most general form: what is creativity and can it be taught? These are questions without definitive answers, but that’s as it should be: the practice of engaging with the unanswerable is the essence of humanistic education.


Next: The follow-up assignment: Be Interesting!

This week I had the great pleasure of doing an hour-long Google Hangout with fifty 9th and 11th grade students at a high school in the Bay Area. They were full of interesting observations and great questions: Did I ever struggle with writing? When and why did I decide I wanted to teach writing? What can I suggest to overcome writer’s block? What tips can I give for doing a good job on timed writing tasks? How do I define good writing? Several students asked about analysis, since they were currently working on rhetorical analyses, first of a passage from an article or memoir and then one of an entire piece. “What is analysis for?” they asked. “What does a good analysis do?” “How is analysis related to our everyday lives?”


We spoke the day after the first Presidential Debate, and so that subject came up, and gave me a very good way to talk about what analysis is and why I think it’s so important today. It’s sometimes hard to analyze spoken discourse: you really need to record, to watch over and over, or to take notes. But spoken discourse—and especially discourse associated with presidential aspirations—demands analysis: the results of that discourse will leave the U.S. with one kind of president or another, so the stakes are particularly high.


I talked at some length about how to go about analysis: “with so much information coming at us, it can be overwhelming, and we often don’t have time to really pay attention, much less analyze,” I said. So the first thing to know about analysis is that we need to SLOW DOWN for it. We need time to think carefully through whatever we are analyzing. “Look for the major claims,” I urged, “and then break the discourse down into those major claims; then look for support offered for each claim as well as for the way the speaker is appealing to your mind and heart. If you can’t find support for the claims, or if the support is weak, ask what the speaker has in mind in leaving it out.”


I didn’t talk specifically about Donald Trump’s or Hillary Clinton’s debate performances, but I pointed out that body language, facial expression, tone, and style have a big impact on listeners/viewers and that those things need to be included in an analysis. And I reiterated that analysis is absolutely necessary if voters are going to make sound choices.


I have a lot of fears around this election; it seems to me the most dangerous one in my lifetime, and that’s saying something. What I fear most, however, are voters who seem incapable of analysis, who seem to base their decisions on something as vague as “Trump tells it like it is!” (Really???) or “I feel like he’s got my back” (almost surely not) or “he’s tough and will make us great.” (How, exactly???) What I HOPE is that teachers and students all over the country are analyzing such claims—and that they will know when those claims are without support, or indeed, even without truth.


We have never needed analysis more than we do right now!

I just finished drafting a vocabulary quiz for the co-requisite section of my ALP (Accelerated Learning Program) freshman writing course.  Vocabulary instruction has long been a challenge in developmental English, integrated reading and writing, and basic composition courses. I think we would all agree that contextualized vocabulary instruction is the way to go, but how do we actually make that happen in the classroom?


This week I watched my students struggle to paraphrase key points in an assigned text, and a lack of requisite vocabulary appeared to be the source of the problem: words in our target passages were unknown to the students, and they searched, often unsuccessfully, for “their own words” to explain the point. “Use your own words” is the standard advice from texts and websites in explaining paraphrase. “But what if I don’t have the words?” That is the student response which drives me to work on how I teach vocabulary.


How do I approach vocabulary instruction? My students’ previous experiences were often limited to word lists and tedious worksheets. Some had to write their own sentences using target words. I have tried that exercise as well, but besides the fact that it is divorced from either a realistic context or audience, it also invites plagiarism (just Google “Use _____ in a sentence”).  Quizzes, flashcards, bonus points for use in essays (which generally results in contorted prose) – I’ve employed all of these at some point.


My current strategy begins in context: I select a limited number of words from assigned readings. Our initial introduction, in the context of close reading, focuses on a traditional analysis of meaning and word parts: we talk about definitions, roots, suffixes, pronunciation, spelling, and whatever anecdotes or examples I can think of.


Next, I endeavor to make sure students hear and see the words again – in additional close reading exercises, in paraphrase practice, on our Blackboard page, in emails, in course handouts, in discussions. I weave the words in wherever it makes sense to do so, reminding students that these words live outside of the text where we originally encountered them.


I also make time to talk about collocations, using frames and editing exercises: Someone succumbs TO something, not FOR something or ON something.


And, in traditional fashion, I mention parts of speech. At the outset of the term, honestly, most of the students don’t see any point in learning that “flagrant” is an adjective or “perpetuate” is a verb.  But I will offer sentences such as these for consideration:


The left tackle flagrants his illegal blocks.

He gave a very perpetuate response.

Oh my! That was a flagrant if I've ever seen one.


Student responses to these vary at first: some look at definitions only and will mark such sentences as logical and well-formed. Others recognize problems, although they cannot identify the nature of those problems. But gradually, they begin to employ a grammatical metalanguage: “flagrant is an adjective, but this sentence puts it in a noun spot.” I can push them on this: “How do you know it’s a noun slot?” “It has ‘a,’ and that indicates a noun.” We test and we probe; we try different variations and we edit. Students explore questions – is there a noun form of “flagrant”? If not, how could I adjust the sentence?


These discussions emphasize that the context of a word includes more than semantics: words have syntactic, lexical, and discourse contexts as well.


We also talk about language change: students are very aware of functional shift, although they might not know the term.  We talk about “adulting,” (which my computer just auto-corrected to “adulating”), and they see that –ing suffixes are one piece of evidence that a word has been “verbed.”


Most importantly, however, we talk about vocabulary as something they already have and that they can get more of; in fact, they have a right to it. Like most forms of capital, vocabulary as linguistic currency provides a measure of power, and it has not been distributed equally. My instruction should make it accessible to them. And, as proprietors of the language, they too can be instrumental in creating new vocabulary and fostering language change.


I would love to hear from other developmental English and basic writing instructors: what’s your approach to vocabulary?

Yana Mazurkevich, a student from Ithaca College in New York, has created a powerful photo series about sexual assault in the wake of Brock Turner’s release.  It’s Mazurkevich’s second project in relation to Turner; her first was called Dear Brock Turner.  Both are visually powerful, if not in fact disturbing.


I’ve been thinking about how to bring these images into the classroom, and I think the first place that I would start is Torie Rose DeGhett’s “The War Photo No One Would Publish,” which is centered on a similarly powerful and disturbing image and its censored circulation.  I want students to be acutely aware of the power of images, their circulation, and the ways in which they are carefully controlled.  I would pair DeGhett with one of the essays that touch on feminism and sexual assault, probably Julia Serano’s “Why Nice Guys Finish Last,” which most directly addresses rape culture.


I think this would be a productive and potent pairing.  You might want to consider exploring it for your class.

Picked up a fat stack of paper from my previous tax person, by Alper Çuğun, on FlickerSo far this fall, I have focused on what I am doing to increase participation in my classes. This week, I want to turn to another one of my goals for the new school year: giving students more choice.


I have always supported choice in student writing activities, both to increase student engagement in learning and to encourage student ownership and agency in the writing process. This year, I want to make choice the cornerstone of the courses I teach. Students should have the opportunity to choose the best kinds of projects to work on to reach their goals as writers and professionals.


I started on the path to this more open approach two years ago when I opened up the job application materials activities in my technical writing course to give students the opportunity to write whatever they needed for their particular situation. This term, I am increasing that kind of choice by asking students to choose several of the projects that they write for the course, based on their investigation of writing in the field.


I’ll share more about the assignment I am using next week, after I have had a chance to read students’ related proposals. For now, I’d like to talk a little about the process I have used to set up the activity. After completing their classification tables on writing in their fields, I wanted students to return to that information and reflect on the kinds of writing. Just telling them to reread and reflect didn’t seem adequate. I needed to frame their reflection to have them do the kind of critical thinking that would help them make the best choices for the rest of the course.


I decided to ask students to reflect on their classification project and respond to this list of superlative categories:


  1. Your intended career field
  2. Longest kind of document someone in your field writes
  3. Shortest kind of document someone in your field writes
  4. Most frequent kind of document someone in your field writes
  5. Most important kind of document someone in your field writes (and why)
  6. Most difficult/challenging kind of writing in your field (and why)
  7. Easiest kind of writing in your field (and why)
  8. Biggest surprise about writing in your field
  9. Favorite thing about writing in your field
  10. Hokiest thing you have done (that you can talk about in class)


The answer to the first item helps me understand their decisions, and the final question (focusing on school spirit) is just for fun. I posted the activity in the course discussion board, telling students that their answers should help them decide which kinds of writing to focus on for the remainder of their coursework.


The activity felt a little risky. I was afraid students might give short, matter-of-fact responses, but those I have read so far have been marvelous in demonstrating that students thought carefully about their answers. Here’s an example:

Favorite thing about writing in your field - Code commenting! It makes me feel much better knowing that the next person who looks at my code won’t be completely lost.

Notice that I didn’t ask for anything but the favorite thing, but the student went on to explain why she chose code commenting. Her answer reveals a thorough understanding of how audience and purpose impact the writing she does. With this level of insight into the kinds of writing in her field, I expect this student to make great choices as she proposes her work for the rest of the term.


I’ll share more on those choices next week, when I share the assignment for the coursework proposals that students are currently working on. In the meantime, if you have any questions or suggestions, please leave me a comment below.



 Credit: Picked up a fat stack of paper from my previous tax person, by Alper Çuğun, on Flickr, used under CC BY 2.0 license

As I prepared for my fall classes, I grappled with questions that students often ask on the first day of the basic writing course: “Is this course remedial? Is it a review of high school?” In the past, I had always responded with an emphatic “no.” But this year, my hope was to offer sound rhetorical reasons for how and why this basic writing course would be different from high school.


I remembered the last basic writing course that I taught in graduate school, in an abbreviated summer session. That summer, back in the 1990s, we were still many years away from federally mandated testing for No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core. We also did not have widespread access to the internet. All of the students in that course were six weeks out of high school. Many of them were away from home for the first time in their lives, and all of a sudden, the students found themselves in an environment that tested the limits of their knowledge, but had not been part of their high school curriculum, such as national politics and birth control. These subjects, first addressed in their lives outside of basic writing, became the critical materials for their reading and writing that summer.


In other words, the course introduced students to academic writing and to rhetoric, to considering their purposes and audiences for writing and for reading. To survive as students in an environment with rigorous educational requirements, and a plethora of social distractions, the students would need to become scholars inside and outside the classroom.  The main challenge of this work was the time-honored prerequisite of learning to “think outside the box.”


As I planned for Fall 2016, I wanted to develop a means of tapping into the lessons of that long ago classroom. But it was not nostalgia for a pre-social media world that moved me most, or even nostalgia for milder summer sunshine, or teaching and learning under the apple trees near the agriculture building where we often worked together that summer. Instead, I hoped to offer a course in which students would have opportunities to stretch their own learning as writers and readers, and to process their thinking and writing to shift their learning forward.


Such a process can best be described through another commonly used expression. I hoped that students as writers would learn to go outside their “comfort zones.” Leaving the “comfort zone,” moving beyond the familiar, often offers any of us the best opportunity to flourish and grow as writers. But how to explain this concept to students who had come of age in an era shaped through social media? How to translate my twentieth-century students’ risk-taking efforts in twenty-first century terms?


Reader, I began with emojis, and at first I drew them by hand on the board in our classroom. Here is the first photo:



In the above explanation, I incorporated Facebook emojis because I wanted to illustrate the differences between the deeper thinking of academic writing, and the often more impromptu responses of social media. But in emulating Facebook, I had forgotten to include the “ha-ha” emoji, the symbol for laughter. Additionally, Facebook has no symbol for “questioning.” The emoji I tried to draw in its place, with question marks for eyes and a squiggly mouth, looked more like confusion than inquisitiveness.The information for our textbook, 50 Essays, also was incomplete.


In the revision, pictured below, I used Google’s gumdrop-shaped emojis, and found two images of the kind of questioning I had in mind: deep, contemplative, and not frequently uncomfortable. I also demonstrated how to use internal citations from our textbook, and included a Work Cited section.

At this moment in the term, we are learning to develop less formulaic approaches to thinking about writing and reading. We read videos as well as non-fiction essays, and experiment with moving from in-class writing to think-pair-shares to class discussions to journals, to still more in-class writing, back to journals, and to developing journals from drafts. The process is slow and not always deliberate, and there are always questions that address the worries of this new and much slower process for creating an essay. I look forward to reporting the results of our work together in a future post.

This past April, I was fortunate to be able to attend the Writing Across Institutions Conference at Appalachian State University. As part of that conference, I listened to Prof. Allison Harl of Ferrum College remind her audience of writing teachers that we should be sure to consider reading transfer an essential part of the experiences we offer our students, and that reading transfer should be an important part of our discussions and explorations of writing transfer.

Prof. Harl’s reminder compelled me to spend time thinking, with a sharpened focus, about the ways I incorporate readings and the functions they serve in my own first-year writing course. I began this consideration of readings in my WID-based first-year writing course by examining where readings are located in my most recent course syllabus, and by outlining the various purposes they serve in my course design:


  • To introduce students to particular disciplinary ways of thinking: My first-year writing course is currently organized into a series of units that focus on the reading and writing that takes place in various academic communities: the humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences, and the applied fields. I routinely incorporate a scholarly reading or two at the beginning of each of these units to support my introductions to these academic arenas.


For example, at the beginning of my unit on the natural sciences, I ask students to read Marazzitti and Canale’s “Hormonal Changes When Falling In Love” (Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2004; on pp. 356-362 in An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing). In class, we spend time discussing the reading with a particular focus on the kinds of topics the researchers explore, the kinds of questions that guide the researchers’ inquiry, the kinds of evidence they tend to rely on, as well as the kinds of conclusions they reach. My focus on these broader considerations is designed to allow students an experience of professional research within a particular academic domain. Over the course of the semester, I hope my students are able to develop a more sophisticated ability to identify similarities and differences among the various domains we explore.


  • To introduce students to some of the conventions of writing specific to particular disciplinary domains: Each of my units of study also includes specific attention to the conventions of writing that characterize particular academic domains, and I use readings to highlight these conventional practices. In my unit on reading and writing in the humanities, for instance, I ask students to read Kish’s “’My FEMA People’: Hip-Hop as Disaster Recovery in the Katrina Diaspora” (American Quarterly, 2009; on pp. 565-579 in An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing). In addition to considering Kish’s larger argument and its persuasiveness, we spend time in class exploring the text’s structural, reference, and language features—the presentation of a thesis, the means of creating transitions, the strategies for incorporating textual evidence, and the documentation of source material, for example. By examining how professional academics build texts, or the strategies professional writers employ, I hope to offer opportunities for students to see how the rhetorical decisions these writers make reflect--and sometimes complicate--what it means to conduct inquiry in a particular academic community.


  • As a means of introducing students to conventional features of particular genres: I also assign readings as models of particular genres. One of the major writing projects I assign in the social sciences unit of my class is the literature review. In addition to exploring models by students for both their strengths and weaknesses, I also ask students to read professional models, like Gregorowius, Lindemann-Matthies, and Huppenbauer’s “Ethical Discourse on the Use of Genetically Modified Crops: A Review of Academic Publications in the Fields of Ecology and Environmental Ethics (Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 2012; pp. 478-499 in An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing).


We spend time in class exploring the strategies the professional writers use to execute the demands of the genre. We consider, for instance, how the writers build topics and subtopics, how they introduce sources, how they organize their review of scholarship, how they engage and present their syntheses of source material, how they document their sources, among others considerations. Whether my students are producing a literature review, a research proposal, or a memo, providing access to and opportunities to analyze professional models of specific genres underscores a writing project’s value to students, even as it offers insight into the strategies professionals use in the construction of such genres.


These are the ways, and some of the reasons, I use professional models in my writing course. I’d love to hear how you use readings in your courses. Are there other ways/reasons that you incorporate readings into your course? What specific functions do the readings serve in your own course design?

Jack Solomon

The Fox Phenomenon

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Sep 22, 2016

The non-objectivity of the nightly news has long been a topic for cultural studies, and it has certainly never been any secret that the Fox News Network, with its Limbaugh-to-Beck-to-O'Reilly-to-Hannity lineup, has long been a poster child of ideologically positioned news broadcasting.  But the recent fall of Roger Ailes—the man who made it all possible—is still a potent topic for classroom analysis, not simply for the purpose of exploring exactly what happened at Fox, but also for the much larger purpose of revealing what Fox effectively did to the news itself.  Because by illustrating the power and profitability of not even pretending to abide by the traditional standards of journalistic objectivity, Murdoch's men have effectively changed not only the way the news is broadcast in America, but also America itself.


This is a particularly important topic today for popular cultural studies, especially because most of your students are highly unlikely to have much contact with any of the traditional news media, getting their news instead from such digital sources as Twitter and Facebook.  Eschewing radio and television news sources, they may think that their own news consumption has been entirely unaffected by the face-off between such unabashedly partisan networks as Fox and MSNBC.  But the fact is that the new news model, centered in social media, has much in common with the model that Ailes created—is, in fact, almost an extension of it.  Let me explain.


As always in a semiotic analysis, we need to begin with a little history.  For the purposes of this blog, that history can begin with the radio, and subsequently television, career of CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.  While I don't want to give the impression that Murrow was some sort of godlike creature who, alone among mere mortals, was able to present the news with perfect objectivity, he certainly did much to earn his enduring reputation as a man who at least stood for the principle of principled and objective journalism.  This mantle of journalistic integrity was inherited by Walter Cronkite, who, while being no more superhuman than Murrow, at least was believed to be a benevolently neutral purveyor of the news.


All of this began to change (at least noticeably change) with the accession of Dan Rather to the CBS throne.  Widely accused of being a sort of left-wing shill, Rather inaugurated the journalistic era that is taken for granted today: that is, one in which it is assumed that news broadcasters, and the corporations they work for, are politically biased and operate with a palpable agenda.


So when Ailes took over at Fox News and openly crafted the network as an organ for conservative politicking, he was bringing into the open a historical tendency that had already begun.  Going all out in this direction by lining up such conservative luminaries as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity, Ailes found that he could not only generate enormous profits for Fox News, but that he could also transform Fox into a major player in American politics, harnessing the allegiance, and votes, of millions of Fox consumers who, in turn, would drive Ailes's Republican party ever further to the right and facilitate the rise, first, of the Tea Party, and then of Donald Trump.


The left responded with comedic ridicule (The Daily Show, The Colbert Report) and ideologically positioned news broadcasting of its own (MSNBC).  The result has been a news landscape that plays out like an unending WFC smackdown: the news as political entertainment.


But there have been more profound results.  The explicit politicization of the news has contributed in a crucial way to the increasingly unbridgeable gap between two Americas, a gap that will remain, and fester, no matter who wins the approaching presidential election.  This gap is only being widened by the echo-chamber effect of what I'll call "the social mediacization" of the news, wherein, just as with the Fox phenomenon, consumers of the news "tune in" only to those sources that tell them what they want to hear.  And while it is fair to say that Fox started it, the condition has now become well nigh universal, with Americans from all over the political spectrum becoming hardened  in both their political positions and in their entire apprehension of reality, because, in effect, they are living in different realities.


And so, as everyone wonders how we ever came to the predicament in which we now find ourselves—both generally and with respect to the presidential campaign— we can see that while Roger Ailes helped get us here, no amount of finger pointing will resolve the problem, because the pointing is now in every direction.  Simply recognizing this dismal fact will not change anything of course, but we can't even begin to address the problem without illuminating its manifold sources.  And that, finally, is what popular cultural semiotics is for.

Most teachers of writing have no doubt read—or read of—the letter written by University of Chicago Dean Jay Ellison and sent to the incoming class of 2010 telling them that the University is deeply committed to free speech and that they should expect to encounter controversial material in their classes as a matter of course; no trigger warnings necessary. In Ellison’s view, giving such warnings and establishing “safe places” are a threat not only to freedom of speech but to intellectual development.


The topic of trigger warnings has been a hot one for some time now on campuses across the country, and it has been exacerbated, in my view, by a rise in the number of colleges and universities that have “open carry” laws: students packing guns to class may, some argue, be in a position to do more than complain if they encounter views with which they disagree or find threatening. I expect that you’ve been engaged in conversations on your own campus.


At any rate, the Ellison letter drew quite a bit of response, starting on his own campus with a letter in response, signed by 150 professors, challenging the sweeping condemnation of trigger warnings and safe spaces. While those signing the letter say they hold a wide range of views on these issues, they are in agreement that a more nuanced approach is necessary.


What interested me more than this faculty letter, however, was one written by a University of Chicago senior, Sophie Downes, and published in the editorial pages of the New York Times. Downes takes exception to the Dean’s letter, arguing that the Dean’s letter misrepresents both “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” In her view, the letter is a “public relations maneuver” that shifts attention away from other pressing issues. As she says,

the administration has refused to meet with student groups who have asked to discuss these issues, and it has threatened to discipline students who staged a sit-in protest. The university even hired a provost who specializes in corporate crisis management and dealing with "activist pressure." While the university accuses students of silencing opposing voices, it continues to insulate itself against difficult questions.


It seems to me that these letters offer a rich resource for teachers of writing and our students and that they would make for an excellent exercise in analysis: students could bring the lens of Toulmin rhetoric, especially to the Dean’s letter, where the “warrants” carry great weight. Or they could examine the use of personal experience along with ethical and emotional appeals. Such an analysis could lead to deep engagement with the issues raised. It could also lead to strong student writing, in letters to editors, blog or wiki postings, or letters in response to the Dean, the faculty, or to the senior student.


As writing teachers, we have a real advantage in terms of getting to know our students: we are likely to know when and if trigger warnings would be beneficial, and we are expert at creating classroom communities that value listening and respect for all as well as freedom to speak truth to power—and to one another. We remember—even if those embroiled in the current discussion do not—the culture wars and Mary Louise Pratt’s important elaboration of what she called the “contact zone” and its corollary, the safe house. In it she provides a description of Guzman Pomo’s 1200 page letter to Phillip III, written in 1613, along with a brilliant analysis of how the writing and illustrations in this letter turn Spanish norms on their heads and establish a very productive “contact zone” between the two cultures. It’s worth looking up Pratt’s original essay just to read about this amazing letter, but after that analysis, Pratt applies the concept to her own courses, showing the ways in which they function as contact zones but also arguing for “safe houses” to balance that contact. Those arguing about trigger warnings today would do well to return to Pratt’s analysis. Or to the long tradition of “hush harbors” where slaves could gather to exercise religious freedom and to practice literate acts. In fact, the civil rights movement in general provides another very good example of the necessity of both contact zones and safe houses.


So as this academic year gets under way in earnest, writing teachers across the country have an opportunity to engage students in some exploration of these concepts, to help them trace forerunners of the concepts, and most importantly, to craft their own definitions, ones that can serve as a set of guiding principles for building a strong and effective, a daring and respectful classroom community.

Barclay Barrios

Emerging and Genre

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert Sep 21, 2016

I was just talking with a colleague about possible new directions for the writing program at our school and one of the things we started thinking about was genre.  As the content and apparatus for Emerging might suggest we’ve traditionally focused on academic expository writing in our classes—the class argument-driven academic paper.  But it occurs to me that Emerging does offer entry points for those interested in exploring some different genres.


Roxane Gay’s “Good Feminist?” is a good starting point and an interesting model for students.  One might call Gay’s work an autobiographical essay, but it’s one that engages the writing of others and makes a strong argument, as well.  But I think it also models for students one way to engage in autobiography that moves from simple narration to a kind of positioning.  After all, Gay is interested in her relationship with feminism (or with what is considered being a “good” feminist) and her essay offers an interesting model for students to positions themselves within and against other markers of identity or political positioning.  Dan Savage’s and Urvashi Vaid’s “It Gets Better” and “Action Makes It Better” are also useful for thinking about genres that bridge the personal and the political.


For something that moves towards the multimodal, Tomas van Houtryve’s “From the Eyes of a Drone” is a good bridge for thinking about the visual essay.  Throughout his essay, the images and the text work together to form an argument.  That use of text in conjunction with image might be particularly useful in getting students to think about the visual essay or in working in the visual essay to a more traditional writing classroom.


Finally, there are some essays that are, classically, essays.  David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” is probably the stand out example, but you might also consider Michael Pollan’s contribution.  I think Yo Yo Ma’s essay is a particularly good example of the genre, especially as it is written from someone not only outside academics but within the music profession, as well.


Ultimately, of course, if your class is all about genre-based writing, then this probably isn’t the text for you.  But it’s interesting to think about the small moments of flexibility allowed by this reader and interesting as well to imagine where one might go with it.

Question Mark Sign by Colin Kinner, on FlickrLast week, I wrote about my goal to increase participation by having students track their contributions to discussions and in small group work. My hope is that by making the participation assessment more transparent, students will be more likely to engage in class discussions and activities.


Another of my goals for the new school year is to improve students’ communication with me. Too often on our campus, we hear stories from students in online courses who are surprised that there are real people behind the courses. They’re so used to automated modules and robograding that they are shocked when a real person responds to their questions.


I decided to try something that would let them know that I’m real from the first days of the course. I had already emailed them a “welcome to the course” message, and I included biographical details on the course website to tell them about myself. I’m not sure any of them ever read that information, though. I wanted something catchier, something more engaging.


I decided to add an AMA discussion forum in the CMS. AMA stands for Ask Me Anything,” a kind of discussion popular on Reddit. Typically a celebrity or an unusual or interesting person hosts the AMA session. Readers post questions, and the host replies. It’s something like a personal interview conducted by the public.


To introduce the discussion on our course CMS, I shared this list of ten things about myself with the basic instructions for the discussion:

Inspired by the AMAs on Reddit, I'm here to answer any questions you have. Since we are in Canvas instead of Reddit, this discussion forum will be open through Monday, August 29.


If you see a question from someone else that you want me to answer, click on the Like button. I'll answer your questions (within reason, of course). This forum isn't graded, but it counts toward your participation grade.

To get started, let me tell you a bit about myself.


  1. I graduated from Virginia Tech with a B.A. and an M.A. in English.
  2. I worked at a small educational software company in Austin, Texas, doing documentation, tech support, and software design.
  3. I next worked as a website manager, coding and writing content for sites used by English teachers.
  4. I blog about teaching and writing on my own sites and in a textbook publisher's online community.
  5. The first computer programs I wrote used punch cards. 
  6. When I was in high school, we had a computer in the math classroom with a telephone modem, and when we finished our work we could log on and play 21 against the computer.
  7. I like to make handmade cards and study how technical writing works among cardmakers and scrapbookers.
  8. I am a life-long Girl Scout and have been working locally with the nut and candy sale in the fall and the cookie sale in the winter/spring.
  9. Since I was 7 years old, my family has always had at least one poodle. We currently have three.
  10. I love stickers and washi tape.


I chose the facts that I shared purposefully. I wanted to share details from my work experience that demonstrate my qualifications to teach technical writing, as well as my experience with technology. The idea was to create some shared experiences with the class. I ended the list with some personal information unrelated to the class or technical writing.


About a third of my students asked me a question in the forum. Some questions were meant to clarify or expand upon the information I had shared. For instance, I was asked how many poodles we had had overall and what technical writing had to do with scrapbooking. I was also asked questions about what I like to read, restaurants I like, and how campus had changed since I was a student. By the end of the discussion, I felt that I had engaged students in a way that I hadn’t in previous courses, and I knew I had found a strategy that I would use again.


How do you connect with students so that they see beyond their stereotypes and assumptions about English teachers? How do you demonstrate that you are more than a robograder? I would love to hear your strategies. Please leave me a comment below!



Credit: Question Mark Sign by Colin Kinner, on Flickr, used under CC-BY 2.0 license

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


This election season, though at times seemingly interminable, is nearing its end, and for most of us, Election Day falls in the middle or near the end of our terms.  While “election fatigue” is a very real phenomenon, it’s difficult for me to imagine an Autumn Quarter composition course that doesn’t address the unique and sometimes shocking rhetoric spilled on the political battlefield each day.  In my WRD 103 Composition & Rhetoric I course at DePaul University, weekly readings from the New York Times and the current political climate fuel class discussions about audience, context, and purpose, as well as genre and visual rhetoric.


This term, I’m spending a good deal of time talking with my students about the ways in which social media are employed in political campaigns and how such social networks have changed how politicians reach their target audiences, as well as how audiences react and respond to these communications.  Twitter has been an especially important, if sometimes fraught, medium for politicians during this election cycle, and as such, it makes for an especially relevant and rich area for discussion and exploration for composition and rhetoric students. 


Background readings

The St. Martin’s Handbook, Ch. 2: Rhetorical Situations, and take the opportunity to point students to the Index:




The following assignment and associated in-class activity have been developed to work with Twitter, but there are certainly other social media networks that could be used instead, e.g. Facebook or Instagram.  I have this assignment scheduled after students have completed a rhetorical analysis of a candidate’s stump speech, so they are already somewhat familiar with audience analysis and strategies of political rhetoric. 


1. Provide examples of famous and infamous tweets from presidential candidates and ask students to perform rhetorical analyses in pairs or groups. Ask students to think about the characteristics of each tweet’s intended audience, the use of media (gifs, memes, images, links, etc.), the language, and the tone. Students should think about the rhetorical strategies employed in crafting and publishing each tweet, determine the purpose and context for the tweets, and they could evaluate the rhetorical effectiveness of each one, as well.  This makes for an excellent in-class activity, but it could be adapted as a homework exercise for instructors trying to conserve class time. The tweets below are just a few of the many interesting tweets ready to be unpacked in class discussions.



Clinton’s tweet provides for interesting discussion about the adoption of social media jargon and whether or not it’s effective or appropriate for a presidential candidate.



This Trump tweet came under fire for the multiple misspelled words. Students might debate how the tweet itself and the following scrutiny and criticism affected his target demographic.



Jeb Bush’s social media team tweeted this image in a “meme war” between Clinton and himself.  Students could analyze this image and others in the exchange to evaluate their rhetorical effectiveness.


2. Students select a candidate to represent on social media and become the Deputy Digital Director for their chosen campaign. In this new role, they will create actual Twitter accounts for their candidates and publish five tweets using a variety of complementary media. In order to prepare for this role, they should spend time reading and analyzing how their predecessors (the real-life campaign digital directors) use Twitter to sell their candidates to their followers. Students may choose to continue or diverge from the current social media strategy when they create their own tweets, but they should be prepared to explain and defend their choices in a reflection essay, to be completed after the creation of the Twitter account. Tweets should reveal consideration for audience and purpose through the careful selection of language, tone, and content, and students should take advantage of the opportunities that Twitter provides for adding video, images, and gifs to help communicate their messages.  


I have built in class time for students to workshop their tweets with their peers before submitting their final five with their reflective essay, which gives students a chance to see how their tweets are resonating with real voters. Students submit their Twitter handle to a class list so that I and other students can view their works in progress.  Instructors may also require that students use a specific hashtag for each tweet, but that requirement will use up characters that students may need.    


3. Students complete a short reflective essay explaining the rhetorical choices they made and defending their approaches for each tweet. In this piece, students should discuss the purpose of each message and the ways in which they employed ethos, pathos, and logos through text and media to achieve those purposes. Each essay should also offer students an opportunity to evaluate Twitter as a medium for political campaigning—in what ways did the social media platform complement and/or complicate the message and ethos that the student was trying to communicate to the intended audience? The entire project, including the tweets and reflective essay, is evaluated based on students’ clear consideration of their rhetorical situations, application of textual and visual rhetorical strategies, and demonstration of their commitment to the process, including peer review.  



The character limits and genre conventions of Twitter provide unique challenges to students as they attempt to think through the most effective ways of reaching followers across the country and the world for a specially defined purpose, but the real appeal of this assignment to me as an instructor is the way it asks students to identify and reach out to actual audiences. Though instructors try, to the best of our abilities, to create real and meaningful exigences for writing assignments, we’re often challenged by the fact that we are the primary, and often only, audience for these assignments.  First-year composition students are part of the audience for politicians’ social media posts and are part of the voting public, in many cases for the first time, and this assignment allows them to explore the ways in which they are targeted by political campaigns and how textual and visual rhetoric play into campaign strategy, and it asks students to employ those rhetorical principles to reach out to real audiences, as well.   


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.


Want to be a guest blogger on Multimodal Mondays? Message Leah Rang for more information.

The elements of argument can be applied to issues we read or hear about daily in the news. Although the term warrant is not a familiar one, the concept of the warrant, or the assumption underlying a claim, can help to explain why a writer or speaker believes in that claim.


Consider the heated controversy surrounding gun control. Many in the United States would like to see more government control of gun ownership. Why? What is the assumption on which they base that claim? They believe that stricter control would lower the number of shooting deaths in America. As support for their claim, they offer statistics about the lower rate of homicides in countries where gun ownership is not so widespread. The assumption is that if there were fewer guns around, fewer people would get shot.


What about those who disagree? They do not argue that lowering the number of guns on America’s streets would lower the number of gun deaths. They hold that having guns to protect themselves and their families gives them a fighting chance against those who threaten them. They offer anecdotal evidence of individuals or families who protected themselves successfully against criminals with guns because they themselves were armed. They argue that if owning guns were made illegal, only criminals would have guns and law-abiding citizens who gave up their guns would be at their mercy. They see a slippery slope, however, toward something they fear even more: They fear that if government took away their guns, there would be nothing left to protect them from their government. They bring up the specter of Hitler’s Germany, where unarmed citizens were helpless against the armed military. Those who favor gun control question why it has to be legal to own guns that seem designed more for the military or for criminals than, say, for hunting, but gun advocates see taking away any of their rights where guns are concerned as the first step toward losing them completely.


Both sides in this bitter debate are guided by their fears. Those fears are just different. The assumptions behind each side’s stand on the issue determine what claim they support. The Second Amendment is brief, but complicated by the fact that the wording suggests that Americans have the right to bear arms in order to be a part of the nation’s militia. Ironically, those who most strongly support the Second Amendment do so because they fear the modern form of America’s militia.


Source: Jon S, Newspaper colour, on Flickr

When Ann and I started writing Habits of the Creative Mind, we were motivated by a desire to represent writing as creative engagement with the world. There’s no best place to start and there’s no predetermined end point when it comes to making sense of the world; you just dive in. But, it’s in the nature of textbooks to impose linear order on their contents: any subject is made to appear to have a beginning, middle, and an end. This isn’t a problem when the subject at hand is best taught in a linear fashion. But the thing about creativity is that it’s not the result of a linear process. There’s no equation A+B+C that, when followed in order, produces creative output.


When we say creativity is a habit of mind, we mean that it only comes about through regular, deliberate practice. And that practice has many different forms, such as paying attention, exploring, connecting, revising, and so on. One doesn’t practice paying attention exclusively; nor does paying attention always precede exploring, despite what the layout of our Table of Contents suggests. Even beginning doesn’t necessarily come first! All the habits wrap around one another; they refer to one another recursively; each one pulls, dialectically, towards a sense of a coherent whole, on the one hand, and a focus on the smallest of details, on the other.


Imagine, instead, a circular book where you could enter at any point.




You start somewhere. You keep moving. You return and start again. You practice and practice, but you are never done. (Ann has written at length about how she started one course using Habits. That essay starts on page 4 of a pdf that may be found here.)


A course syllabus reproduces the linear distortion of what creative engagement with the world (i.e., writing) entails.  Before our students are even seated, before we have any idea who they are, university policy requires that we have a document for them with deadlines and peer review days, a document that makes it look like all that lies ahead for them is the drafting and revising of papers.


But a syllabus, like a pre-draft outline, is best understood as a provisional itinerary.


SO, if a course is a journey, what do we put on our syllabi?


In our classes, attendance is required. You can’t practice if you’re not there.

You have to bring the book and the required readings to class with you. Every class.


You have to check the class website and your email regularly: plans change, assignments get revised, alternate routes emerge. Class meets twice a week, but your education takes place 24/7.


We have our students hand in their papers in digital form in folders that are shared with all the other members of the class. (You can do this pretty easily with Dropbox or Google Docs.)


Grading Policy

Our essay, “On Evaluating Student Writing,” is devoted to the discussing how to assess the work students produce in response to assignments drawn from Habits. We recommend making the grading criteria explicit on the syllabus. We tell our students that we are looking for work that:

  • asks genuine questions or poses genuine problems;
  • works with thought-provoking sources;
  • shows the writer’s mind at work making compelling connections and developing ideas, arguments, or thoughts that are new to the writer;
  • explores complications (perhaps by using words like: “but,” “and,” “or”);
  • is presented and organized to engage bright, attentive readers;
  • and makes each word count.


Grading Percentages

We think that it’s important to have the syllabus convey the fact that the achievement of intellectual creativity requires steady, sustained practice and that progress in this realm is not necessarily uniform or linear.


So, we take into account:

  • Attendance and participation in class discussion;
  • Timely submission of drafts and revisions.


And, for each student, we weigh these with:

  • The best work each student has submitted.


This means that all assignments are recorded and that the final grade for the course represents an assessment of each student’s sustained level of achievement.


Paper Assignments

You’re likely to have these prescribed by your program or department. So, you can say that there will be X number of papers required and produce a calendar with dates. But we recommend describing this work in relation to the overarching goal of Habits: by the end of the semester, we want our students to have produced their best writing to date and for them to leave the class with evidence that they can ask a real question and that they can follow that question wherever it leads.



We think that the idea of plagiarism is best handled as an object of inquiry so, in our syllabi, we direct our students to our essay, “On Working with the Words of Others,” which considers citation and creativity together.


And then, as the semester unfolds, we spend our time together exploring what is entailed in using writing as a technology for thinking new thoughts.

I’ve written several times in the last few months about style and especially about the crucial importance of style to effective communication today (see “Writing as performance”). In an age of instant and constant information bombardment, what we attend to—what we can even try to attend to—is that which gets and holds our attention. So far from being the forgotten canon of rhetoric that style (along with delivery) became in the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, it is now front and center of what it means to be able to “get a point across.”


I was thinking about style a week or so ago when I was in Eisenstadt, Austria, to attend a Kronos Quartet concert at the Esterhazy Palace, home to many of Haydn’s compositions. In this truly magnificent setting, one so ornate and gilded that its beauty could easily have drawn attention away from the music, I watched and listened as Kronos made the space their own. Their eclectic and deeply international program, which included works by artists from Serbia, Mali, Canada and the high arctic, Scotland, China, and Azerbaijan, brought together rhythmic traditions from around the world: in one piece, the cellist stomped her foot at irregular intervals; in another, the violist tapped an ankle wrapped in bells; in yet another, the rhythms were punctuated by drumming. Like the rest of the audience, I was caught up in these rhythms, so much so that I felt I was drifting above the palace floor, keeping time with the quartet. I came back to earth with a rhythmic bang during the two encores: Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and the iconic bluegrass “Orange Blossom Special.” Talk about rhythm: I could not keep my feet from tapping along.


Reflecting back on the concert, I remembered a statement made by Eric Havelock, a great historian and theorist of ancient Greece: rhythm, he said in one of his works, is at the base of all human pleasure. I have often asked students to think about that claim and to see how it applies in their own lives. We talk about the rhythms of the year, of the day, of our lives; we talk about music as a universal language of rhythms; we talk about sexual pleasures – and much else. Usually, students begin skeptical of Havelock’s comment but end up thinking he has at least an arguable point.


And rhythm, of course, is at the basis of writing as well, as a UC Irvine student surely intuited when he asked me, “How can I make my sentences sing?” Writers make sentences sing through word choice, of course, through images and strong verbs. But beyond those characteristics lie the structure of the sentences, the rhythm that they establish, break, re-establish. Students today have a strong sense of rhythm’s importance: rap, hip hop, spoken word poetry—all deal in rhythms that make the poetry “sing” and make us remember it. Some have clearly perfected the rhythmically effective Tweet (though many have NOT). It’s up to teachers of writing, I think, to help students see and understand the importance of rhythm—and reading everything they write is one good way to begin. And once they start playing around with rhythms, trying out various “beats” to their sentences, I think they will love it. My bet is that their writing will get stronger as well!


[Photo: Kronos Quartet by Radek Oliwa on Flickr]

Frenetic.  That was the word I taught my ESL and co-requisite freshman writers during the second week of our 15-week term.  The pace of the first two weeks had left them frazzled.  In nine hours of face-to-face class time, we completed diagnostic writing, learned how to log in to the online program that accompanies the text, practiced creating and sharing Google Docs, and figured out how to access course materials in Blackboard.  In the midst of those technical preliminaries, students selected a general writing-about-writing focus for a course-long research project, and we began the hunt for source material, learning to evaluate potential sources, summarize a strong source, and reflect on the reading and writing process.


I have arrived in the classroom for each session harried, distracted by combination locks on a laptop cabinet, and ready to “get it done”; at the same time,  I’ve been working on two book revisions, a review of  dual enrollment syllabi for my department, a draft of our spring schedule, and our QEP.


Frenetic, indeed.  In the last class, I glanced at a student from West Africa, who sat staring at the screen (where we had sorted some new vocabulary) with a look of befuddled consternation.  There was lively conversation in groups throughout the rest of the room, yet this young man was silent.  After class, he spoke to me about the pace of the course.  It was just too fast for him; he wanted to read and write more slowly, not because he lacked skill, but because he wanted to think.   “But,” I protested, “we don’t have time…there is a schedule we must keep.” 


Perhaps, I thought, the student is operating from a culturally-constrained pace or conception of time.  He will have to adapt to our understanding, I reasoned – and perhaps my class could help him do that.  But then I came across two articles that made me re-think that hasty assessment.  One article, which addresses William James and his notion of attention, appeared in my Facebook newsfeed. I was struck by this quote from James:  “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”  The second article was Mulhouser, Blouke, and Schafer’s fascinating look at #kairos through the lens of Star Wars.  The opening section of that article, aptly titled “Episode 1,” refers to Richard Lanham’s work on the “attention economy,” where value is determined by the degree of attention given – and to one’s ability to catch and hold the attention of others. 


Perhaps the crux of the issue is not so much time (or the lack of it), but attention.  The student from Cameroon had chosen to attend to our vocabulary study, thoughtfully, but I pushed students to turn their attention to a group activity instead.  My goal was to retain the attention of the native speakers in the class, who (I assumed) were socially conditioned to demand constant shifting of attention.   Ironically, my efforts to make the class engaging may have thwarted the dynamics of attention that engendered learning for this student—and others. 


In some languages, there is no root verb meaning “teach.”  Rather, teach is a causative variant of the verb “learn.”  So teaching is crafting the context or experience that allows for learning, and while attention cannot be forced, it can be impeded.   In other words, our classroom practice should encourage—not obstruct—attention, so that students experience threshold concepts of our field.  


My frenetic pace works against this goal.


Later that same day, a student from the Dominican Republic knocked at my office door.  “I know you are so busy,” he said, “but tell me when you might have a little time for me.”

This student needed my attention, not just my time.  His deference shows respect, but it also suggests an underlying reality that I see in many of my students:  as members of an “attention economy,” they value my attention, and yet they don’t perceive themselves in a position to ask for it.   Marginalization exists in troublesome ways in this economy of attention.


Even in my own speech I may enforce such marginalization:  I often ask students to pay attention to various things:  parts of the text, details of the assignment, my instructions.  “Pay” – this is what we do for things that have value.  And yet my word choice sometimes changes when I am approached by students:  “I will see if I can give this a little attention.”  “Give,” not “pay.”  I may be overthinking this, but I sense an implied arrogance here:   I give attention, but I demand that students pay.  To affirm their value in this economy of attention, I must pay attention to them, not just my syllabus; they are relevant and worth the price of my attention. 


Frenetic is derived from the Greek; it suggests insanity, a mind that is out of control.  Attention, in contrast, comes from a Latin root; it suggests extending, stretching towards something.  After a frenetic two weeks, it’s time to attend more thoughtfully to the pace of my class.  I need to slow down and pay attention to the students and their learning – trusting, in turn, that they will stretch themselves towards the learning that is before them.

The presidential election offers any number of opportunities for writing students to practice critical thinking while examining the ways in which rhetoric, argument, and evidence circulate (sometimes loosely) in the world.  One opportunity I’d like to think about this week is the “Taco Trucks on Every Corner” meme.  In case you missed it, the meme comes from an interview on MSNBC’s All in with Chris Hayes in which Marco Gutierrez of Latinos for Trump made the comment while talking about the problems his culture can bring to the country.  Twitter, in turn, had a field day and “taco trucks on every corner” quickly become an Internet meme.


As a meme, it represents a complex intersection of teachable moments, with elements of politics, race ethnicity, social media, viral media, and more.  In this post I wanted to discuss some of the essays in Emerging that you can use to help student unpack that intersection.  Given the nature of memes, “Taco Trucks on Every Corner” may be dead and gone by the time we’re able to post this, but these same readings can be used for similar memes which will no doubt still spring from what promises to be a contentious election year.


For starters, any discussion of memes is most usefully framed by Daniel Gilbert’s “Reporting Live from Tomorrow.” Gilbert discusses memes in the context of super-replicating beliefs; his discussion of surrogates is also useful given the increasing use of campaign surrogates in this election (Gutierrez, for example, is considered a surrogate).  Students might find it useful to apply Gilbert’s definition of the term to the rather different deployment of it within the political arena.


But of course this meme from this surrogate is centrally concerned with stereotypes around race ethnicity.  Jennifer Pozner’s “Ghetto Bitches, China Dolls, and Cha Cha Divas” is a great essay for getting students to examine the ways in which media use stereotypes; Maureen O’Connor’s “Race, Ethnicity, Surgery” and Steve Olson’s “The End of Race: Hawaii and the Mixing of Peoples” can both be used to deepen discussions around race and ethnicity.


Soulforce at Gordon College - PDR by Zach Alexander, on Flickr My goals for the new school year include both increasing participation and asking students to track their own work. I’m hoping that putting those two goals together will help me succeed in checking them off on my list.


I have always had trouble with grading student participation. I like the elementary school options for kidwatching with sticky notes or forms, where you have a place to take notes about each student’s participation and work. The strategy doesn’t seem practical at the college level however, so I need to find something that works for me.


Part of the challenge is that students rarely understand what counts as participation, and, as a result, they don’t know when they need to step up their efforts. I found some tips in David Gooblar’s post, “ISO: A Better Way to Evaluate Student Participation.” My favorite strategy is Tony Docan-Morgan’s “participation logs.” I immediately knew I wanted to try them out in all the classes I am teaching.


Based on Docan-Morgan’s model, I created my own spreadsheet templates, using Google Sheets,  with details on what students needed to log. In my fully online Technical Writing course, I created tabs in the spreadsheet for each of the following:


  • Class Discussion
  • Small Group
  • Other Participation
  • Self-assessment & Reflection


On the Participation Log page on the course website, I provided an overview of the goal, details on how to make a copy of the template, and suggested how to log the work that students had done in the course so far.


My Writing and Digital Media class meets face-to-face, so I explained and demonstrated the template for their course in class. It includes the same tabs as the technical writing template, with the questions rephrased to fit the classroom and the course. I’ll add an explanation page to their site before midterm so that they have everything they need for a midterm self-assessment.


In addition to giving students the templates, I tell them what the work they are assigned would count for. For the Technical Writing course, I added a simple table, which had links (removed here) to the discussion activities to date in our CMS:


If you posted in this DiscussionList it on this sheet of your log
Questions about the Syllabus and/or Course LogisticsClass Discussion
I am Traci — AMA (short for "Ask Me Anything")Class Discussion
Introduce Yourself with a Short Professional BioSmall Group
Ethical Poster DiscussionClass Discussion


For the assignments that I have given since we went over the logs in my Writing and Digital Media course, I have been including a note that tells them how their work counts with the assignment. The multimodal dig assignment, for example, ended with a note about the end of the grace period and this sentence: “This activity is graded Pass/Fail and counts as part of your participation grade as a class discussion.”


So is it working? It’s still too early to tell. The Technical Writing students have only had their logs for a week, and the Writing and Digital Media students for a few days beyond a week. Their response in the face-to-face class to the logs seemed positive. The most positive sign for me, however, happened after a small group discussion of students’ design journals in the Writing and Digital Media class. As I was circulating among the groups, I overheard one of the students reminding the others in her group: “Don’t forget to add this to your log.” I’ll take that as enough of a success for now.


How do you encourage participation in your classes? What strategies do you use to track how students participate? I would love to hear from you in a comment!




Source: Cropped from Soulforce at Gordon College - PDR by Zach Alexander, on Flickr, used under CC-BY 2.0 license

Think about a time—maybe as a student, a teacher, or another environment—when you had to write something in a genre that was new or unfamiliar to you.

  • What did you do?
  • How did you figure out what was expected?


I’ll never forget how out of place I felt in my first graduate seminar in applied linguistics. I had done my undergraduate work in literature, and I didn’t have the first clue about how to structure a graduate seminar paper that reported data I had collected. I tried to write something that looked like the thesis-driven essays I had learned to write as an undergrad, and I was stunned by the grade on my paper and the comments about cryptic things like “a literature review,” “a methods section,” and “limitations of the current study.” I was a fish out of water.


Many of our students will experience this feeling at some point in their undergraduate careers, or perhaps in their professional lives after they leave our classes. Yet, as Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak point out in their book Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing (Utah State UP, 2014), students who have been successful writers in school are reticent to change up what they’ve been doing. If it’s worked well thus far, why change course?


My goal as a writing teacher is to make sure that my students have a set of effective tools to help them figure out what to do when they find themselves in unfamiliar writing territory. But if they haven’t yet realized that they will be called upon at some point in the near future to write things that don’t look much like five-paragraph essays, my first job is to help them discover what professionals write in their areas of interest.


When I taught a first-year writing course this summer using An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing, I asked students to do a couple of assignments at the very beginning of the course that introduced them to writing in their majors and future professions:

  • An interview. I ask students to interview an upper-level undergraduate or graduate student in their field of study to ask them about the kinds of writing they do and how they learned what was expected. I used to ask students to interview a faculty member, but sending dozens of first-year students out to interview faculty across campus can make you unpopular quickly, even though you have the best of intentions. Students learn a great deal from speaking with others in their field of study, and their interviewees have an ethos that you, as a writing teacher, don’t necessarily have.
  • A rhetorical analysis of an article. One of the major projects in my course is always a rhetorical analysis of an article written by someone in their field of study. I ask students to try to find a piece written by one of their professors. I encountered an interesting challenge this summer with a student of dance, who couldn’t find a scholarly article by one of his faculty members. We found several reviews and other pieces they had written, though, and so he was able to think about the various kinds of writing his faculty members do. He also made exciting connections between dance and the composing process.
  • A rhetorical analysis of other writing assignments. I also like to have students analyze writing assignments they are completing in other classes. They can learn a lot by looking at the expectations of assignments in different fields of study and by comparing what they bring to class with the assignments from their classmates. I wrote more about this activity, introduced to me by Rachel Buck, in “Low Stakes Writing in a WID-Based Curriculum.”


Giving students the opportunity to hear about writing from professionals in their fields of study is invaluable. Of course, hearing from faculty members on their own campus is very effective, but it can be time-consuming to build partnerships with colleagues across campus. The videos that accompany An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing in LaunchPad Solo give you the opportunity to introduce students to writing in different fields from professionals who do that writing on a regular basis.


What are some other ideas you have about helping students understand the different contexts in which they will be asked to write in college and beyond? What are the biggest questions and concerns that you have about trying a WID approach? If you’ve tried it already, what are some of the strategies you have found to be most effective?

It's a bit amusing to read the reviews of Britney Spears' performance at the recent VMA awards ceremony.  As far as I can tell, the two main complaints appear to be that Spears is not Beyoncé,  and that she is stuck in a 1990s time warp.  Well, it's a relief to hear that the event wasn't a twerk-fest this time around. 


The particular details of Spears' not-very-overwhelming comeback attempt are not of especial semiotic interest, of course, but they do get me thinking about some things that are.  And one of these is what it means to live in a youth culture.


American culture—especially its popular culture—is so grounded in youth worship that it is very easy to take it all for granted, but the whole thing probably began just under a century ago in the Roaring Twenties, when Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were the self-appointed idols of a youth movement that swept America for a delirious decade—complete with a reverence for the latest in popular music, daring women's clothing fashions, and (in spite of Prohibition,) lots and lots of alcohol—until the Great Depression and the Second World War ended the party.  Not until the 1950s would America's march towards a fully-evolved youth culture be recommenced.


Of course, with a good deal of help from such outliers of their parents' generation like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, it was the Baby Boomers who completed our evolution into an all-out youth culture in the 1960s.  "Don't trust anyone over thirty" was a popular slogan for a generation that is now in its sixties and seventies.  "Will you still need me/Will you still feed me/When I'm sixty-four," sang a man who is now seventy-three.  "Hope I die before I get old," the surviving members of The Who still declare. 


This is something worth remembering for Boomers as we see ourselves castigated by Millennials for ruining their world.  I mean, we started it.  And since we started it, it is probably only well, you know, our karma that now that we aren't young any longer in a culture that patronizes old age (at best), or sneers at it, or neglects it, no one really cares about what lessons we may be able to share about what life holds for the young.  If every generation in traditional societies that have reverence for old age has managed to repeat the errors of their parents, why should our youth culture be any different?


But as I watch all the tittering at poor 34-year-old Britney from the vantage point of sixty-two, I can think of a few things that never get said in a youth culture that I rather wish had been said to me—not that I would have really listened, probably.  The first is that, believe it or not, though your body changes with the years, you don't—at least not all that much.  Others may not recognize you, but you do, and if, as Wordsworth said, "the child is father to the man," there is a remarkable amount of that child still around, even as the years go by.


But time is not the same, no matter how much of the child remains.  I recall very well what time was like when I was young.  Though it passed very slowly compared to the way it passes for me now, it also was packed with change.  I look back on my late youth and young adult years and am amazed at all that happened.  It seems to be squeezed together in some way.  The flow of time now, though faster in its way, is also more regular, steadier, more evenly paced. 


The change in one's experience of time is something a youth culture doesn't prepare you for, because, in effect, a youth culture has no past or future tense.  Grounded in an eternal present in which youth is expected to last forever (or until thirty, the age at which a twenty-something Scott Fitzgerald pledged he would commit suicide by .  .  . until he reached it), a youth culture ignores not only the fact that you get old, but that being old is a far longer stretch of life than is being young.  The popular culture that a youth culture creates only exacerbates this by insisting that one's life should be a constant series of excitements and diversions, "burning with a hard gemlike flame" (as Pater put it), or insisting that "it is better to burn out than to fade away" (as Neil Young put it when he was still young).


But no one is "Nineteen Forever," as Joe Jackson's rather remarkable song warns.  Perhaps someone should tell that to Britney Spears, or to whoever is running her life these days.  There are some rather interesting life stages that we go through past the early ones, but you won't hear much about them in a popular culture wherein now is somehow always forever—literally the last word. 


But it never is.  After all, believe it or not, someday even Beyoncé will get old.

Work has always been a significant factor in my life, and I have counted my blessings every day for the work of teaching. Growing up, I watched members of my extended family engaged in hard physical labor—working in the fields, caring for animals, making clothes, cooking, cleaning. On it went from early morning until sundown. Now our society tends to think of “leisure activity” as involving some kind of physical activity: for my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, “leisure” meant getting away from physical activity for a while; it meant sitting on the porch in a rocking chair telling a story or two before bedtime. 


This week I’ve been trying to observe all the work and workers around me, taking note of all those who make others’ lives easier through their labors. I watched closely as the post office clerk climbed a tall ladder to retrieve packages; I listened in as a young waiter took orders with a smile; I observed workers on a wayside cleaning crew scouring the area for litter and trash. I marveled at the teachers pouring back into their classrooms, ready for another year with their young charges.


Work, as we know, comes in all colors and flavors: Mike Rose has written eloquently on the dignity of work in The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker (which includes a chapter on Mike’s mother, who waited tables.) We also know that work can be grinding – beating people down to exhaustion and beyond. 


Still, at least in this culture, we seem drawn to work, in part perhaps to help give our lives meaning. I think it’s worth taking time to talk with students about their conceptions (and preconceptions) of work—what they think it is and what they think it is for.  I often introduce such discussions with a favorite poem, like this one by Marge Piercy:


To be of use

The people I love the best

jump into work head first

without dallying in the shallows

and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

They seem to become natives of that element,

the black sleek heads of seals

bouncing like half-submerged balls.


I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,

who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,

who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,

who do what has to be done, again and again.


I want to be with people who submerge

in the task, who go into the fields to harvest

and work in a row and pass the bags along,

who are not parlor generals and field deserters

but move in a common rhythm

when the food must come in or the fire be put out.


The work of the world is common as mud.

Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.

But the thing worth doing well done

has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,

Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums

but you know they were made to be used.

The pitcher cries for water to carry

and a person for work that is real.


On this Labor Day week,  I’m grateful for work that is real – and for all those who labor.

Barclay Barrios


Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert Sep 7, 2016

I’m just barely getting over a cold as I write this post on this the day that my next batch of posts are due.  It’s my third (fourth?) cold of the year and it has me thinking a lot about the complex nexus (what I am sillily calling the “complexus”) between health and the classroom.


For starters, consider the problem of presenteeism in the classroom.  Presenteeism, or working while sick, only spreads sickness and keeps you sicker longer.  I speak from experience.  I am pretty sure I got this cold from my boss, the Dean, (who came to work while sick) and the last time I had a cold I am also pretty sure it lasted over two weeks because I insisted on continuing to come into the office.  This time I decided to just be home and be sick, except when it came to teaching my class.  Certainly we have a local culture that believes you should never ever ever cancel class and getting sick at the end of the week with a class on Monday gave me little time to work out a substitute teacher and lesson plan.  But I am also wondering to what extent teachers of writing, particularly perhaps more vulnerable populations like contingent faculty, are pressured to continue teaching when sick with something like a head cold.  I’m institutionally positioned in such a way that I could have missed my class (maybe should have missed it) but I’m curious about the climate in your local writing programs or your own experience as a teacher.  What are the implicit or explicit expectations for teaching when you have something like a head cold?


I guess it just struck me that while I felt it not just OK to cancel all my work meetings, but, in fact, good for my health and the health of others in my workplace. Something about the classroom setting felt too pressing.  The lack of time in a semester?  The fragile bond with students so early in the semester?  The uniqueness of my curriculum?  I’m not sure, but it got me thinking.


I’m also thinking about my own reactions when students are sick.  Our program has a strict attendance policy that we call predictive rather than prescriptive.  Based on our experience, students who miss a lot of class don’t pass.  All of my personal experience in the writing classroom affirms this as a general truth: what students learn they often learn in the classroom, through discussion and group work and writing practice—none of which is work easy to replace.  To what extent, then, am I fostering a culture of presenteeism?  To what extent do I have to, given the necessity of attendance to progress?


I’ve never really questioned my attendance policy before, but being completely sick of getting sick from sick people who are sick at work, I am ready to rethink it.  I imagine there must be a compromise that allows students to be absent when they’re down with a head cold (saving the health of everyone else), that allows that to be verified (and wow, a whole other issue that I wouldn’t believe a student, right?), and that then allows some way to make up the work that was missed.  Supplemental instruction, maybe?  Office hours? Writing Center?


It’s probably the cold meds, but I feel like I am being dense, like there’s an obvious solution that I just can’t see.  If you have it, please share it.  I’m really curious how people deal with presenteeism both as a worker and with their students.


An important New York Times article circulated a couple of years ago that focused on questions of persistence in college. The lessons of the new lines of research as represented in this article are important for those of us who teach writing to first year students (and the link still works).


Many years back, Stephen Brookfield in The Skillful Teacher identified what he called “the imposter syndrome,” the belief held by many students that they don’t belong, that others are smarter or better suited to a particular school or program. I used the imposter book chapter to great effect with new grad students at New Mexico State U when I was teaching in the PhD program in Rhetoric and Professional Communication. Everyone related to the feeling that others were better prepared and more likely to be successful. Crassly, others were just naturally smarter. The reading allowed us to talk together about such concerns, to focus on what was under our own control, and to develop both the self-confidence and scholarly habits that would lead to excellent performance. I’ve seen the imposter syndrome invoked in many settings; it garners continuing attention in psychology, learning theory, and elsewhere. It’s obviously a concept with resonance.


The news as represented in the studies cited in the Times piece suggest that feelings of inadequacy strongly affect performance and persistence, and such feelings disproportionately affect lower-income students. Students may fit the institution’s admissions profile—they are smart enough and sufficiently prepared to do well. But they are often confused about how to be successful and afflicted with self-doubt.


The good news is that schools can take action to improve persistence and success for low-income students. The Times article details University of Texas programs that treat the target group of students as high achievers and leaders, providing challenging intellectual enrichment experiences. The program has had great success.


But we don’t need to think only about big programs and initiatives. The article also calls attention to the research of David Yeager. From the abstract of his article on interventions, we learn that “Seemingly ‘small’ social-psychological interventions in education—that is, brief exercises that target students' thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in and about school—can lead to large gains in student achievement and sharply reduce achievement gaps even months and years later.”


I don’t think there is a better place for such interventions—where students begin to affirm their identities as successful college students—than introductory composition. We have the interpersonal closeness, the small class setting, and the focus on writing that make our classrooms a natural fit for such brief interventions. Peer interaction and class discussion can bring out the shared feelings—the fears, uncertainties, and doubts—that affect many college students, allowing them to see that what they feel is widely shared. Yeager’s work is exciting in part because he demonstrates that very brief exercises of 25 minutes or so can have lasting effects on performance.


What might some brief writings or activities focus on? I’d suggest such topics as these:

  • Can you improve your thinking? Can you become smarter? How?
  • Talk to a successful junior or senior. What have they done to be successful at college?
  • Suppose you get a bad grade on a writing assignment. What’s your next step?
  • Write an email to a friend who is still in high school. Based on what you’ve learned since coming to college, offer your friend advice on how to be successful.
  • What are some common stereotypes that might affect how you or your classmates perform in college?
  • Are you smart? Write about a situation where you behaved in a really intelligent way.


I would not make these huge assignments, just brief writings. Depending on the class climate, students might post in the class forum or exchange writings in small groups. Yeager’s findings suggest it is simply the process of engaging in these types of thinking that leads to changes in behavior, so it is not necessary to spend a lot of time drawing out all the complications.


Some of these writings might lead to more extended pieces, perhaps drawing on primary or secondary research. If real interest surfaces, for instance, on getting smarter through brain training, there are plenty of recent articles out there in brain science that show just how malleable an organ it is. But that is not essential. What’s essential is helping students develop the self-confidence and sense of identity that lead to success in college.

Near the beginning of the semester, once my students have had time to digest the syllabus, the assignments, and my teaching style,  we engage in a file card discussion. The activity unfolds in five basic steps:

  1. Each student receives a blank file card.
  2. Students are requested to write down their questions, comments, concerns, suggestions, and complaints regarding the course.
  3. Students are asked to turn in the cards anonymously.
  4. I collect the cards and shuffle them, so as to rearrange the order in which the cards were returned.
  5. I read the submissions on the cards and begin a discussion with students regarding course design, including the syllabus and assignments.

I often make revisions to the course design based on these discussions. Even as standard outcomes and assignments must be maintained, I can adapt course activities that appear to be a better fit for the needs of the students in the course. In other words, the File Card Discussion helps to facilitate revision of course delivery to achieve goals stated in the syllabus and the assignments.

The file card discussion also works for community building, as the center of class discussion becomes dispersed. The questions of students who would rather not speak in a larger group receive the same attention as students who enjoy talking in class.  Additionally, as they hear their own written questions repeated again and again, students realize that their classmates share common concerns.

As the facilitator of this activity, I have an opportunity to address questions and to listen for for the repetition of questions. Repetition indicates to me that either I have not explained a policy or in sufficient detail, or that I may need to tweak the assignment to create a better fit for the needs of the students in the classroom.

Perhaps teachers may prefer the distance of a course management virtual discussion board. A virtual discussion board can be read at a more leisurely pace away from the possibility of direct confrontation in the classroom. But, unless teachers fear for their safety, the file card discussion offers more fulfilling opportunities for us to offer compassion and support for the worries that students may feel more comfortable expressing anonymously.

While the virtual discussion board offers anonymity,  the process of submitting questions may unfold quite differently. For example, students can easily see if another classmate has already asked the same question. The incentive to repeat that question may disappear, and neither students nor teacher would experience the critical mass of their classmates’ shared concern.

Even as the questions are written individually and the writers remain anonymous, our face-to-face classroom environment offers the potential for students to create a collective and embodied community voice. Often, as the file card discussion moves forward, and their comfort level increases, students may decide to speak aloud with elaboration or additional questions. Face-to-face, as their teacher, I can learn more about our community, clarify confusions, and address suggested changes in the syllabus or our assignments in real time with immediate feedback.

Afterward, holding the material evidence of anonymous questions and suggestions in my hands, I can begin to contemplate equitable and informed responses based on the file card discussion.

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


I know the semester has started when my Twitter feed fills with colleagues sharing innovative assignments alongside anxious reports of other conversations, mainly about "what counts as writing?"  Just last week Andrea responded to a tweet about one such interaction:



There are so many of us who flinch when we read tweets like this one, and my voice is but one among those many; but, I would like to use my space this week to offer a mini-bibliography of the important multimodal work folks are doing with their classes and posting in the Macmillan Community.  I also want to introduce other voices into this conversation: students.  After all, their growth as professional writers is why we do this, right?


What do Writing Students Say about Composing Multi-Modally?
When we design and implement multimodal writing assignments in our classes, we understand that we are also trying to measure students' learning and rhetorical growth.  But do students understand this impetus, and more importantly, do they agree that multimodal composing prepares them for that growth just as well or even better than traditional essay writing?  Last year I conducted a couple of IRB-approved case studies in multimodal-writing driven courses with upper division students (in-major) as well as with first-year writers (STEM majors) at my large public, state university.  Here are snapshots of their attitudes towards multimodal writing and why they think it's an important skillset to practice in college and beyond.


Upper-Division Students:

Six out of eight (75%) students preferred digital writing (blogs, wikis, social media, videos, podcasts) to print writing.  The two who reported as neutral cited lack of exposure to multimodal writing in their responses. 


Students reflected on their responses:


" In today's world we [are] destined to write in digital spaces.  There are so many different places in our field dealing with digital spaces that [it] is very important to be able to access and utilize these places."


"Writing in digital spaces is growing to be the main way to communicate both professionally and socially. To be heard properly, you need to know how to communicate in a digital space. I want to be the best I can be and get my message across as clearly as possible."


" I recognize the trend and appreciate the practical necessity of adapting the art of writing for digital spaces."


Seven out of eight (88%) students answered that they believe multimodal writing prepares them for careers after they leave college.


Seven out of eight students agreed or strongly agreed that they would enter into a job market where multimodal writing skills were valued.



Six out of eight students agreed or strongly agreed that they would enter into a job market where multimodal writing skills were necessary.


Students' overall reflections on the practicality of multimodal writing assignments:


" I think is it necessary to include multimodal writing in college courses.  Print used to be the main guideline for writing, but in today's world it is essential to be able to communicate through multimodal elements."


" I think is it necessary to include multimodal writing in college courses.  Print used to be the main guideline for writing, but in today's world it is essential to be able to communicate through multimodal elements."


First-Year Writers:

Responding specifically to vlogs as writing assignments, 15 students answered as follows:


100% of students reported that producing vlogs met the same learning outcomes as writing traditional essays


87% believed that vlogging made them interrogate their writing practices more intently.


Across three overarching questions about learning in a writing course focused on multimodal writing, students answered:


My Reflections

These reported student voices just add to the plethora of empirical and anecdotal research that instructors have done over many years of encouraging multimodal composing in writing courses.  I hope that the student voices from my studies do encourage colleagues to try-on multimodal writing opportunities and develop their own to share in our community. Together, we can continue to make the case for the value of multimodal writing across courses, grade levels, and workplaces. 


Get Involved!

Inspired by Carolyn Lengel's post, How We Write Now, that recounts Andrea's literacy and writing research spanning decades, as well as Traci Gardner's post on Social Media Re/Mix, I want to re/share posts with measurable writing assignments from this blog and invite community members to try them out, then get a conversation going about what worked and what didn't to make them better.  I want us together to be able to argue  "what counts as writing" using evidence from these outcomes-based assignments.  One of my favorites is Amanda Gaddam's Visual Rhetorics Analysis, where she invites students to develop visual writing skills through political discourse.  Caitlin Kelly's post on Listicles for Information Literacy provides students with opportunities to demonstrate critical source-finding skills using a trending genre in new media writing.  I have also shared composition assignments from my classes on this blog since 2014, many of them crowd-sourced with students.  Some of the most-read posts include: Twitter as Writing Invention; Re/Mixing Academic Essays as Youtube Videos; and Student's Choice Multimodal Writing Drop-in. You can find countless more robust assignments by searching the Macmillan Community or even just Googling "Multimodal Mondays."

Please try out these assignments and tag me back to talk about them.  Or send me your own and lets talk about those!

For more information on the two cases studies I mentioned, tag me in the Community, via Twitter @drbohannon_ksu, or email


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


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: mailto:jeanne_bohannon@kennesaw.eduand

Donna Winchell

Changing Conventions

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Sep 2, 2016

Aristotle defined a rhetor as a good man skilled in speaking. What we are teaching and you are learning when you study argumentation is rhetoric—the use of words to move listeners—or, in this course, to move readers. Aristotle taught the concepts of logos, pathos, and ethos, and we still do.


Campaign season is usually a good time to look for timely examples of speeches that illustrate logos, pathos, and ethos. The presidential campaign of 2016, however, has rewritten the rules about balancing the three appeals—logical, emotional, and ethical.


Few would deny that Trump has won supporters through the power of personality, or ethos. In classical times, a speaker won over an audience in part through the ethos he projected, convincing his listeners through his demeanor and his words that he was a good man and thus should be believed. Ironically, Donald Trump has stood that idea on its head by winning supporters by being brash, rude, and crude. His supporters are sending a message that the relative decorum of past campaigns is a part of the political system that they would like to see dismantled. The fact that Trump has gone from being entertainment to being the nominee of his party shows just how effective his unorthodox tactics have been. His most recent campaign manager has clearly tried to get him to use a teleprompter rather than talking extemporaneously, but the jury is still out as to whether coming across as more reasonable and thoughtful will lose more supporters than it will gain. (And as to whether Trump can change that much.)


Analysts covering the two political conventions this summer were quick to point out the difference in tone between the two, and what they were discussing was pathos. Pathos is appeal to the emotions. It was quite noticeable that Trump was using fear tactics, painting a dark picture of all that is wrong with America. In order to sell the slogan “Make America Great Again,” you have to prove that it is not great now. He played on his audience’s fear of terrorism, crime, and illegal aliens. Clinton took the opposite approach and had an upbeat convention, stressing what is already great about America.


Trump has been criticized for lack of substance in his speeches. Before, during, and since the convention, he has depended on fear to replace detailed plans. One of the most specific proposals he has offered is the wall he would build between the United States and Mexico. The promise of a wall to block the arrival of illegal aliens and the crime that he attributes to them is enough to make his supporters forget to ask how he is going to make Mexico pay for this wall, which he has consistently said that he will do. He plays on the fear of terrorist attacks when he proposes to deport hundreds of thousands of “bad dudes,” even if these “bad dudes” are American citizens. The harshest criticism he has received the whole campaign came when he criticized the parents of a Muslim soldier who died in battle. Even then he tried to turn the attention away from what many saw as disrespect for a dead soldier and his Gold Star parents (and the threat of taking away rights of immigrant groups) to say that what he was fighting was the type of people who killed the son.


There is no denying that Trump’s tactics have worked amazingly well. Back when more than a dozen candidates were competing for the Republican nomination, few took him seriously. Hillary Clinton has had to take him very seriously because many Americans find what he has to offer appealing. Some tried-and-true means of predicting political success just haven’t worked this time because Trump has broken from what is expected—and it has worked.


Source:  Anthony Majanlahti, Cicero, on Flickr 

Richard E. Miller

Into the Thicket

Posted by Richard E. Miller Expert Sep 2, 2016

When offered the opportunity to have a sustained encounter with the limits of one’s own understanding, most people would politely decline. But, if you think about it, that’s what the act of writing really is—an open invitation to be dragged off into the thicket of the unknown, where hours disappear in a haze, the blank screen concealing sentences half-started, half-revised, then abandoned. Experienced writers learn how to keep at it and even come to enjoy the struggle that precedes any new insight. Most other folks run screaming in the other direction.


When Ann and I set out to write Habits of the Creative Mind, we were motivated, in part, by the desire to help our students unlearn their fear of the thicket. We wanted to give them the chance to see writing not as a tool for keeping the unknown at bay, but rather as a technology for thinking new thoughts.


Why do our students fear the thicket? Our students—and yours—are the most tested generation in human history. They have spent over a decade filling in bubbles, providing short factual answers, and writing formulaic “arguments” that prove that doing A is better than doing B. In such a world, one doesn’t say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t think doing A or B really addresses the root of the problem.” One learns, instead, to avoid questions and ideas that resist conversion to readily-understood bullet points. So trained, our students stick to clichés and allow their thoughts to be contained by the sluicegates of the commonplace.


We see ourselves working against this test-driven vision of learning and the incurious culture of checklists and clickbait it leaves in its wake. And we propose, instead, that it is the teacher’s job to model a version of intellectual curiosity that delights in questions and complex problems.  The rallying cry for our pedagogy could well be, “To the thicket!”


For beginning students, the thicket is never far off.  So, they don’t so much need help getting there as they need help learning how to stay there, so they can develop a greater tolerance for the encounter with the unknown, the unfamiliar, the ambiguous.


Take a simple problem: you assign an online reading and the students come to class saying they couldn’t do the reading because they couldn’t find it on the web. They’ve “tried” and failed and now they look to you for guidance. What to do?


We understand that the natural response in such a situation is to revert to what is familiar and manageable—to print out copies of the reading in advance, say, or to stick with assigning the readings included at the back of the book. But teaching Habits is about teaching students how to improvise in a world overrun with information and teeming with possibilities. And we believe that the only way to do this is for the teacher to model, in matters big and small, an openness to the inevitability of having to revise, rethink, redirect, and refocus all semester long.


If your students say they can’t do a Google search to find the reading online, what are they telling you about their creative resources? If this hurdle is too high for them, how well has their past education prepared them to survive in our information-rich economy? Curiosity is a habit and it’s acquired through practice; so, too, is learned-helplessness.


And this, to our way of thinking, is precisely what makes teaching writing so intellectually stimulating and emotionally rewarding: you get to help students come to see thinking and writing as lifelong activities whose value extends well beyond the walls of the classroom and the confines of a college transcript. To get our students to make thinking creatively a habit, to make being curious a habit, to make improvising a habit, we self-consciously design our classrooms to be learning environments that promote creativity, curiosity, and improvisation.  So, while our goals as writing teachers remain constant, the details of our syllabi are always implicitly provisional; they’re just sketches of how the course might go and are subject to revision as soon as the journey into the thicket begins.

Teaching students to understand genres and how they work has become a central goal for many writing teachers. For those of us who teach writing about writing, it is difficult to imagine explaining key concepts like rhetoric and discourse community without explaining genre. However, Doug and I (and the teachers we’ve worked with) have had a hard time finding readings about genre that are both comprehensible and accessible to students. While scholars like John Swales mention genre in passing, that has not been enough for our students. Other scholars, like Carolyn Miller, explain genre in a way that can be difficult for first-year students to grasp.


Of course, looking to other textbooks for examples about how to talk about genre has been historically pretty frustrating. Even though our field generally agrees on a view of genres as flexible responses to recurring rhetorical situations, textbooks often take the most formulaic view of genre possible. Students like rules and instructions, and first-year writing textbooks are often all too happy to provide them, even if the result is teaching students inaccurate concepts about how genres work—concepts that are not usefully transferable to new and complex writing situations.


In my own classroom, I have always spent a lot of time on genre, but have produced my own definitions and examples for students to work with. In the third edition of Writing about Writing, available this November, we decided it was time to explain genre ourselves, in the way that we explain it to our own students.


In a new first chapter, we talk about conceptions of writing and introduce students to both the idea of threshold concepts as well as some particular threshold concepts about writing that are important to all writers. We then introduce students to two threshold concepts that will help them use the book most effectively. One of these is about genres (that writing responds to repeating situations through recognizable forms) and the other is about rhetorical reading (that texts are people talking), which Doug will describe in Bedford Bits in September.


In the genre discussion, we introduce students to the idea of genres as “recurring text-types, which are ‘typified rhetorical actions in response to recurrent situations or situation-types.’” To illustrate, we draw on many examples from students’ own experience to illustrate how this works (for example, syllabi and text messages).

We provide some heuristics for thinking about how texts work, drawing on Sonja Foss and John Swales, among others. For example: what conditions call for this type of text? What content is typically contained in this type of text? What form does this type of text typically take?

We ask students to engage in some reflection about their own experience. For example, what do specific instances of genres they commonly encounter (like syllabi) have in common, and what changes across individual instances?

We end by providing some specific ways for students to think differently in all of their classes, and as they use the Writing about Writing textbook. 


 We are excited about this new addition to Writing about Writing, and look forward to hearing about your experiences using it with your students.



Another summer almost over: grandnieces Audrey and Lila start school in just over a week (7th and 3rd grades respectively—a very big deal), and frosh are starting to pour onto campuses across the country. My favorite time: a new school year.


This summer, though, I’ve had the exhilarating experience of teaching Writing and Acting for Change at the Bread Loaf Graduate School of English, and so it has given me a jump-start on this school year and on thinking more and more about how important it is for students to have an opportunity to use writing to make things happen. That is a definition of “good writing” that emerged from a five–year longitudinal study of writers I and colleagues did at Stanford. As the students progressed, they turned away from instrumentalist and reductive definitions of writing and began to say, over and over, that good writing gets up off the page and marches out to make something good happen in the world.


I’ve taken that lesson to heart, and thus try to provide opportunities for such expansive public writing in all my classes. And it certainly proved true in my summer Bread Loaf course. Reading/viewing/listening to the final projects left me breathless, from high school students and their teacher in Vermont working with brand new immigrant youth through a new course on media literacy; to high schoolers in Illinois taking on a narrative action project aimed at using podcasts to document the construction of a digital archive for the Mother Jones Museum; to the development of a new spoken word project at a Massachusetts high school where students will use poetry to act as teachers, advocates, and agents of positive change; to Kentucky teachers and students creating a new course—Cooking 101—that will introduce students to planting and gardening and harvesting skills as well as to cooking what they grow and studying its economic and environmental footprint, to . . . well, I could go on and on. These projects are the epitome of assignments that make things happen in the world, and that keep on giving gifts to the students who carry them out. I can hardly wait for the report that should begin to trickle in as the year begins and the Bread Loafers put these projects into place.


So I was thinking a lot about the wonderful bounty of good and purposeful writing for change during a recent visit to the University of South Carolina’s writing program. There I met with faculty and graduate student instructors who were preparing for the first days of class and working on curricula. The two first-year courses they teach allow for writing that makes good things happen, and while some brand new teachers will take it slow, all seemed committed to the idea of fostering writing that is active and engaged. I spent a delightful day talking with the teachers about the major issues they face in the classroom: too-large classes, too little resources provided from upper administration, and all challenges of turning a disparate bunch of college frosh into a learning community. They were full of brilliant ideas and, as I always am at this time of year, “fired up and ready to go.”


On my way out after a day of meetings, the Associate Director of the program, Nicole Fisk, gave me a gift, a book written together with the students in her first-year class, which had taken a service learning turn. The students and their teacher had gotten to know a displaced Syrian student, a refugee, studying at their university, and they had talked with her about her experiences. Out of these discussions grew their project: they would study the refugee crisis in Syria and would try their hands at writing a children’s book to raise awareness of the war(s) in Syria and the suffering of countless children. I Had a Home in Syria is the result of their collaboration; together, they wrote it, worked with an illustrator, published it (Grog Blossom Press in Columbia, SC), sold the book online, and mounted a GoFundMe campaign. All proceeds went toward the tuition of the Syrian student they had gotten to know. One of the students who worked on the project later said, “I was somewhat opposed to helping refugees before taking this class, just because that’s what the status quo was, but once you meet a refugee face to face, everything changes.” That’s writing and acting for change . . . and using writing to make something good happen in the world. When I think of all the projects like the ones I’ve described here, happening all over the United States, it gives me cause for hope and reaffirms my belief in all our students.


[photo: RGA Classroom by LLLEV on flickr]