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Six or seven years ago, I threw in the towel on academic publishing. The precipitating event was a ridiculous argument I had with an editor over an article I had been invited to write that I ended up withdrawing from consideration. This debacle happened to coincide with equally ridiculous developments in my home department. It wasn’t a particularly well thought out decision. I was tired of all the emptiness and I needed to head in a different direction if I was going to keep on writing at all.


What I didn’t realize at the time I made this decision was that I was also tired of me—the author-function me, the me who thought X, argued X, wrote about X, could be counted on to say X. If I found the academic arguments I got predictably pulled into boring, I had to admit it was because I already knew what I was going to say and what the critique of what I was going to say was. I didn’t want to give up writing, but I also didn’t want to keep on writing the same thing, making the same argument, pounding my head against the same wall. Moving to writing exclusively for the screen solved this problem for me, but not in the ways I had expected.


I wanted to move beyond what I can now call the paper-based world, its institutions, its commonplaces, and to see what writing full-time in the screen-centric world entailed. When I would speak about this decision publicly, invariably someone would say, “Fine for you—with the luxury of tenure. But what about for everyone else?” And, like that, the conversation would move back into its familiar ruts. For me, this wasn’t a question of getting published or going on a busman’s holiday; it was a question of survival. I had always written about issues that were vitally important to me—trendiness or tenure be damned. And then I found myself feeling that none of it mattered very much. If you’re just publishing so as not to perish, my feeling was you’d been conned into sacrificing what is most important about having a job with writing at its center: the opportunity to think new thoughts.


I knew nothing about how to begin writing online: how to get a web address; how to get a hosting service (or what that service did); how to code in html (or whether that was even necessary); or pretty much anything else about the technical side of writing in and for the screen-centric world. I figured, though, that these things had to be learnable. After all, by the time I was entering the game, there were already a gazillion websites in existence, a fact that suggested to me that the learning curve couldn’t be that steep.


I stumbled along, starting a Google blog with the address critical_optimist. Back then, though, a Google blog couldn’t accommodate more than text and images and all the blogs looked pretty much the same on the screen, so I graduated to getting my own address and committed myself to learning how to think outside the template. As I was coming to understand it, as I sat at the keyboard, I didn’t just have the alphabet to compose with anymore; I had everything that was available on the web: music, videos, interviews, lectures, libraries around the world, image banks, maps. It was more like sitting at a giant pipe organ than at a typewriter; and more like producing an illuminated manuscript than typing out my thoughts as they made their way into language.


It turned out, though, that for me the most momentous part of changing venues really had nothing to do with the shift from paper to screen; it had to do with assuming a new writing personae, an option that had been available all along in the paper-centered world. In my previous writing life, I was Richard E. Miller; in my new writing life, I was text2cloud. Putting some distance between myself and my history, text2cloud became a way for me to think new thoughts, to try on new sentences, to call on a different vocabulary, to explore a world of concerns that fell outside the frame of my other writing life. And text2cloud gave rise to Professor Pawn, the central figure in a graphic narrative I composed about the absurdities of working in a world where the university had become an afterthought of the athletic program. The pseudonyms proliferated: Hieronymous Paunch, a big data humanist and founder of Sadness Studies; and most recently, the anonymous voice for the Tales of the White Knight, a Facebook page diary about the three presidential debates that ended up being a mashup of Don Quixote, King Arthur, King Lear, Monty Python, and the Marx Brothers.


Somewhere along the line, the liberating effect of writing pseudonymously also led to writing a book, with Ann Jurecic, on how to make creativity a habit. In that book, there’s a collaborative pseudonym that made it possible for us both to re-think our futures as teachers of writing: “we” became a way of allowing the sentences’ authors to write not as a unified, coherent entity, but as dialogic energy, animated by the desire to get beyond the template, the formula, the step-by-step approach to making sense of the world.

Currently, I’m rerouting the screen-centered writing I did as text2cloud on the end of privacy to a text-only manuscript that I hope to get into print. And I see myself returning to the classroom after my sabbatical is over with an open invitation to students to write under a pseudonym, one that allows them to escape, for a moment, writing and thinking as they always have, writing as if—as if they could be passionate about ideas without embarrassment; as if they could follow their thoughts wherever they might lead, instead of guiding them ever safely back home; as if their very lives depended on it.

Stasis theory has become popular in recent years as a way of exploring controversial issues and arriving at claims about them.  In the age of classical Greek and Roman rhetoric, stasis theory provided citizens preparing a legal case a means of exploring the case and of achieving stasis, or arriving at agreement as to the point at issue.


Consider first how a series of questions could provide a structured way of thinking about an alleged crime:

  •         Questions of Fact or Conjecture: What happened? Did the accused do it?
  •         Questions of Definition: What crime was it?
  •         Questions of Quality: Was it right or wrong? Was it justified? What was the motivation?
  •         Questions of Procedure: What should be done about it? What is the proper court to hear the case?

These questions have been recast into more general questions that can be applied to any issue about which there is disagreement. It is important to achieve stasis in order to argue effectively because you have to know precisely what is at issue. For example, the term “gun control” is so broad that it is necessary to define the term before trying to argue for or against it. If one party is arguing in favor of taking all guns away from all American citizens, that party will not agree with someone who is arguing that “controlling” guns means enforcing stricter laws about the types of guns that can be sold or about the waiting period for buying a gun. There is a difference between which guns are controlled and how gun ownership is controlled that will make formal debate about the issue pointless until some definitions are clarified. A starting point could be to decide, for example, whether or not American citizens should be allowed to own semiautomatic weapons, but even then, the definition of “semiautomatic” would have to be agreed upon.


The stasis questions are frequently used in writing courses as a means of exploring a subject. Used as a means of invention, the stasis questions can generate a wealth of information. You will most likely use only a portion of the ideas generated by the invention exercise, but you may also discover ideas that you might not have thought about otherwise.


The American Electoral College is a critical part of the election process and may receive increased scrutiny in light of the upcoming election.  See what ideas might come to mind in applying four typical stasis questions to the Electoral College:


Questions of Fact: What are the facts about the Electoral College?

How did the Electoral College come into being? On September 6, 1878, the Constitutional Convention approved a proposal to create a group of Electors to select the President and Vice-President of the new United States. Each of the fifty states has a number of Electors equal to its number of members of Congress, and the District of Columbia has the same number of Electors as the least populous state. There are now 538 Electors. Since the 1880s, all states except Maine and Nebraska pledge all of their Electors to the presidential candidate who wins the most popular votes in that state. A majority of 270 electoral votes is needed to elect the President. When Americans cast their votes every four years, they are actually voting not for a candidate but for Electors representing that candidate.


Questions of Definition: What is the meaning or nature of the Electoral College?

What is the Electoral College? It is not a place but a process—the process by which the President and Vice-President of the United State are chosen. The Constitution refers to Electors, but not to a college of Electors. The concept was written into federal law in 1845 as a “college of Electors.” The Electoral College was originally a compromise between the election of a President by a vote in Congress and election by a popular vote of qualified citizens. The question of what constituted qualified citizens was complicated in the eighteenth century by the existence of slavery in some states.


Questions of Quality: What is the seriousness or value of the Electoral College?

Some question whether in the twentieth century the Electoral College is preferable to popular vote as the method of choosing President and Vice-President. Is a procedure fair if it is possible for a candidate to win the popular vote but not win the election because of Electoral College votes? The writers of the Constitution felt that a small group of Electors would make a wiser political decision than the general public. Small states also feared the power of larger states. Would states with a small number of popular votes be largely ignored if popular vote were used? Are some states currently disadvantaged by the winner-take-all system in 48 states that can make almost fifty percent of voters feel that their votes are wasted because all of that state’s electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the majority of the popular vote?


Questions of Policy: What is the plan of action about the issue?

Should the Electoral College be abolished? Should it be replaced by popular vote? Should the Electoral College continue to exist, but the winner-take-all method of distributing electoral votes be abolished?


The stasis questions can help lead to decisions regarding what to say about a topic. Each of the four questions leads most directly to a certain type of claim, or thesis statement, and a certain type of argument.


Questions of Fact           lead to       Claims of Fact             and              Analysis.

Questions of Definition  lead to       Claims of Definition    or                Definition Arguments.

Questions of Quality      lead to       Claims of Value            or               Evaluation Arguments.

Questions of Policy        lead to       Claims of Policy         or               Proposal Arguments.


Keep in mind that many arguments are not a pure form of any of these types of argument. Establishing facts and definitions is often a part of building a sound evaluation or proposal argument. Evaluation is often a part of establishing the need for a proposed change.



Drew Cameron joined the Army in 2000, right out of high school, and served as a Sergeant in Iraq. In an interview, he says he realized fairly early on that what was happening in Iraq was all wrong and that “we shouldn’t be here,” but he served his tour of duty anyway. When he came home in 2006, he sought ways to express his experiences, without success, until one day, he said, he put on his uniform and then began cutting it off his body.


Thus was born his Combat Paper Project. As Cameron puts it, “Language to articulate the complex associations and memories wrapped up in military service can be a mountainous task. Starting with a non-verbal activity, with the intention of exploring those places, is a phenomenally empowering act.” An artist and paper maker, Cameron took his cut up uniform and began transforming it into handmade paper, which he then painted or drew or wrote on. Slowly, he began to contact other veterans who wanted to take part in this process, who were interested in fiber art and in how “we might transform [materials] into a narrative that illustrates our collective stories.”



I first met Cameron a year or so ago in Chicago, where he was exhibiting his work in connection with the world premiere of composer Jonathan Berger’s “My Lai,” which tells the story of Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who tried to stop the My Lai Massacre, who was reviled and ostracized for his actions and only 30 years after the fact recognized with a Soldier’s Medal for bravery. Sung by Rinde Eckert (with lush and moving libretto by Harriet Chessman) and performed by The Kronos Quartet, “My Lai” is one of the most gripping and memorable musical works I have ever heard. It was after the haunting performance that I met Cameron, along with one of the two 18-year-old crew members who was with him during March 16, 1968 (the second young soldier died in battle three weeks later). I believe that this work will be touring the country for the 50th anniversary of this tragedy: if you and your students can possibly see it, do so.


Recently I encountered Cameron again, this time at UCLA where he was leading papermaking workshops with first-year undergraduates (and others). Students were bringing in all kinds of materials: some, of course, were veterans themselves, with uniforms and other materials from their service; others had relatives who had given them articles, like the young woman whose grandfather had given her parachute cloth. Together, they were learning to create a remix, a mashup, as they turned the cloth into pulpy fiber and then learned to make sheets of handmade paper with it.


What struck me during this encounter was how Cameron spoke about the stories that these artifacts tell, and about the stories that they elicit from the people who work with them. Somehow, he says, this process of unmaking and remaking seems to release the words necessary to share experiences further, as a visual art leads to a verbal one and back again. Some of the paper makers have gone on to write blogs, articles, essays, even books. And continue to make visual art as well.


I left wishing that every college in the country could have a visit from Drew Cameron and his Combat Paper Project. He has conducted them from coast to coast and is currently engaged in teaching others to carry out similar projects. The college frosh who either drop in or sign up for these workshops may never have heard of My Lai, may have thought very little about war, about the way war is inscribed on the bodies of those who are caught in its vice. But they leave with new knowledge, as well as with the experience of having made something good and strong and real out of the materials of war.


You can read more about Combat Paper on PBS News hour’s “The Rundown” from April 30, 2012. 

Today's guest blogger is Mark Blaauw-Haraa Professor of English and the Writing Program Coordinator at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, Michigan, where he has taught for seventeen years. His interests include transfer theory, threshold concepts, developmental education, student retention, and adult learning pedagogy. See more of Mark's biography at the end of this post. 



Not a lot is being said about how the writing-about-writing approach might play out at a community college, so in this post I hope to provide a window into the experiences of using Writing about Writing at a two-year school.


For the past year, we’ve been scaling up the use of a writing-about-writing curriculum at my school (a rural Midwestern community college, where I teach English and coordinate the writing program). We started in F15, when a part-time faculty member with an MFA in poetry looked through the three textbook options I’d provided and settled on Wardle and Downs’s Writing about Writing. She liked the book’s focus on writing as a subject matter, not just a skill, which, she said, meshed well with how she had learned to approach writing in her MFA.


She ended up being thrilled with it. The reading was challenging, she said, but the book inspired better discussions about writing than she’d ever experienced. Encouraged, one of our full-time faculty adopted the book for S16 and had a similar experience: the book supported a deeper level of engagement with writing, more thoughtful discussions, and more interesting papers. Three more of our faculty—including me—tried it over the summer in face-to-face and online sections and were equally impressed.


As a department, we decided to make Writing about Writing the default text for our FYW sequence, which meant that new instructors (and those who didn’t submit their book adoptions on time) would have to use the text. We developed sample syllabi, including sequences of readings and assignment prompts, and advocated for the book’s widespread adoption during departmental meetings. This semester, about half of our writing instructors have been using the text.


To be fair, the book can be challenging for both teachers and students. Its organization is quite different from that of most other FYW texts, and frankly, the readings can be challenging to instructors without a background in rhetoric and composition. Much of the concern about the book that has been voiced in department meetings is tied to the idea that the book assumes a certain familiarity with scholarship in rhet/comp—a familiarity that many two-year college English faculty do not have. But out of our first five instructors who used the book, only two had degrees in rhet/comp: one had a MFA, one had a MA in lit, and one had a MA in English education. To us, that indicated that the book would work for teachers of different backgrounds.


Additional concerns about writing-about-writing pedagogy have centered on the fact that many students at the two-year college are academically unprepared. Around 60% of our incoming students end up placed in developmental coursework, a number that is common at community colleges across the country. Over the past few years, our writing program has brought an accelerated-learning program (based on the national ALP model begun by the Community College of Baltimore County) to full scale, and we retired the lowest level of developmental writing. This means that every incoming student takes our college-level writing sequence right off the bat; those who place into developmental writing have an additional co-requisite course that is designed to support their success in the college-level writing course, but all students work through exactly the same curriculum. Some instructors were still concerned that even with co-requisite support the material in Writing about Writingwould be too difficult for our developmental students.


Time will tell how these concerns play out. However, those of us teaching in ALP have been pleased so far. Certainly, my developmental-level students have needed some extra support with the readings, but our co-requisite course structure allows time for just such support. And they have grabbed hold of the concepts in the readings and responded better than most of the courses I’ve taught in the past. This reinforces the contention that while some students may be “pre-college” in their writing or reading skills, they are still adults who respond well to weighty ideas. Many books that are written for a developmental audience feature readings that tend to be simplistic; I have found that developmental writers are eager to discuss big ideas. This may seem obvious—again, we are talking about adult learners, after all—but many developmental courses are not very intellectually challenging and focus instead on skill-building. To be sure, developmental writers can improve their skills, but they need a rich intellectual environment in which to do so.



Mark Blaauw-Hara earned his Doctorate in English from Old Dominion University, with specializations in writing-program administration and pedagogy. His dissertation focused on supporting military veterans in their transition to the community college. He received his Master’s in rhetoric and composition from Arizona State University, and his Bachelor’s from Michigan State University. Mark currently serves on the Executive Board of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, he is the Reviews Co-editor for Teaching English in the Two-Year College, and he is a manuscript peer-reviewer for the Journal of Veterans Studies. Mark’s writing has appeared in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice, Teaching English in the Two-Year College,Community College Week, and Writing Center Journal, and is forthcoming in Composition Forum and the edited collection WPA Transitions.

Joseph Teller recently authored a provocative piece titledAre We Teaching Composition All Wrong?” in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The article criticizes trends in composition pedagogy which focus on process (as opposed to product), engage students in the exploration of complex social issues, and integrate reading and writing instruction.  The article generated a number of comments and (occasionally snarky) exchanges about what it is we do as composition instructors, and a number of bloggers from the composition world have responded in detail (see, for example, this post from P.L. Thomas).


One line in Teller’s piece, in particular, stood out to me: “How can students make effective rhetorical choices if they do not know what choices exist?” Yes, indeed. And I would add this: How can they make effective rhetorical choices if they do not know that there are choices to be made, and that they have both the right and the obligation to make them?


In short, rhetorical choice is a threshold concept in composition, one which many students—convinced that there is a single, right way to write—struggle to understand and internalize. And while Teller rightly points out that background knowledge and context are critically important for reading comprehension, I would argue that fact does not diminish the importance of teaching reading in a writing classroom: close reading trains students to recognize the existence and range of rhetorical choices available to writers, as well as understand the impact those choices make on a reader. Moreover, instruction and practice in close reading make students better readers of their own work. (One wonders if the lack of student revision witnessed by Teller stems from poor rhetorical reading ability; it’s certainly a possibility worth investigating).  Finally, readings (and reading instruction) supply a context for lexical and grammatical development (and situates both vocabulary and grammar as rhetorical choices to be made).


Teller also criticizes theme-based composition courses, suggesting that the content in such courses swallows instruction in “writing at the nuts-and-bolts” level, and that most composition instructors are “not academically qualified to be teaching disciplinary content…with any semblance of expertise.” This objection to theme-based reading is also addressed in a seminal article in the Writing about Writing movement, “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies’” by Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle. The answer for Downs and Wardle is to make writing itself the disciplinary focus of the course, an answer which addresses both of Teller’s concerns. In a Writing about Writing approach, course readings address scholarship in composition, reading, and language, reinforcing concepts (such as rhetorical choice) while providing multiple opportunities for practice.


Several commenters took issue with Teller’s rhetorical choices, which included derogatory and sarcastic words to describe certain composition pedagogies. The title, for example, while including the author in its first person “we,” nonetheless hints that an entire field may be ineffective—and in fact, wrong. The paper ends with the author’s “manifesto,” a term that suggests the need for a paradigm shift.


There is much for compositionists to discuss in Teller’s article, and I suspect we will do so by making a variety of rhetorical choices of our own. But I think we also need to make some room for “pedagogical choice” as a foundational concept in the composition classroom: just as there are multiple possible rhetorical choices, some more effective than others, there are also multiple pedagogical choices we can make, some more effective than others—in our specific pedagogical/rhetorical situations.  Perhaps rather than suggesting that those whose choices are different from our own are doing it “all wrong,” we can analyze the effectiveness of our various pedagogical choices in the specific contexts in which they occur. I suspect most of us aren’t convinced our pedagogies are right all the time; after all, we are constantly revising and editing what we do in the classroom.


The fact that we make such changes suggests to me that we do in fact know what we are doing—and while we may not be “all right,” surely we are far from being “all wrong.”

I imagine that I’ve made things seem pretty sunshine-and-rainbows in these last few posts, as I have shared my discoveries from discussing peer commenting practices in FYC and creative writing with my colleagues.  And while I may have noted some logistical challenges in adapting creative writing workshop practices to the FYC classroom, the truth is that there may be a far more fundamental challenge: student creative writers care about their writing in a way that student FYC writers generally don’t.


I discussed this challenge with both Becka and Papatya.  Both suggested that perhaps a piece of personal writing early in the semester might move towards solving the problem in the FYC classroom.  My experience as a teacher of writing makes me dubious, although Papatya did note that’s precisely how FYC was taught at one of her previous institutions.  I suspect, though, that the required nature of FYC would be the fundamental challenge.  I often feel like students walk into my classroom wanting to be anywhere but there, wanting to take a course that they do care about (which generally means something within their majors).  I work hard at making my classroom fun to counter these feelings and, generally, I think I am successful.  But I don’t know that I can resolve that core issue.


Becka, I think, put it best: “Creative writing students are more invested in their writing because they think it comes out of their souls.”


Of course, I usually want students to produce writing that comes out of their thinking and not out of their souls.  After all, one of the basic things I feel I need to teach in my FYC class is critical thinking.  But surely there is a way to bridge this gap, to help students invest in their critical thinking and the writing that comes from it.


Honestly, though, I don't have an answer today.  But it’s a question I will carry forward as I continue these explorations of peer practices in different disciplines, so you can expect we will be discussing it again.  In the meantime, if you have a way of getting students to care about their writing in your FYC class, please share it in the comments here.

Traci Gardner

Digital Design Journals

Posted by Traci Gardner Expert Oct 25, 2016

Cigarette ad, claiming that smoking will keep you thin.Every week this term, students in my Writing and Digital Media course have turned in short Digital Design Journals that share a multimodal text and provide an analysis of how it works. Students have turned in things like commercials, ads, Twitter updates, documentaries, and public service announcements. Some of the texts are recent and born digital, and some are older and simply shared digitally, like the cigarette ad on the right.


Dànielle Nicole DeVoss’s Visual Rhetoric & Document Design syllabus provided the inspiration for the activity. DeVoss asks students to build a document design collection of texts, good and bad, and that they refer to in-class discussion as they work on projects in the course. As I have customized the assignment, it is essentially like a reading response journal, but the readings are student-selected texts of any genre that are shared on digital sites. The assignment in our LMS is straightforward:


Provide a link or an upload of a digital design that connects to what we have been talking about in class. This week find a still design, like an image or photo (not a video or audio). You have lots of options: ad images, catalog photos, magazine/news images, charts or graphs, and more!


You can use the embedding tools on the toolbar to embed images. Your design can relate to the topic for your major projects, but it doesn't have to.


After you give the link, explain how the design demonstrates or violates one of the design principles we have talked about in class, and then provide some analytical commentary.

I added the assignment primarily because I wanted a regular activity in the course outside of the major projects students work on. I didn’t want to develop reading quizzes for this course since that kind of testing clashes with the kind of creativity and student-centered, self-paced learning that I foreground in the course. In past semesters when I have taught the course, I relied on in-class writing activities. Students typically provided status updates or commented on class activities or readings. While those in-class writing activities were okay, they didn’t stand out. They felt more and more like busy work, and less and less like a useful learning strategy.


Weekly design journal entries have given students the chance to talk regularly about rhetorical choices and document design. The student who shared the cigarette ad discussed the audience for the ad, the choice of the model, and the spatial arrangement of the ad. She discussed how the font use distracted from the appearance, and she questioned the claim that cigarettes would help you lose weight. Analyses like this are a far better choice for these students than the in-class writings that I was using in the past.


In addition to these weekly entries, every student gives a presentation on one design journal, another idea borrowed from DeVoss. At the beginning of every class session, a student shares her digital document, describing it, pointing out rhetorical strategies, and discussing its design. During the presentations, they engage the class in discussion by asking questions and encouraging classmates to share observations and reactions. Not only are they writing about these digital documents every week then, but students are also talking about at least one digital text every class session.


This journal strategy is definitely a keeper. I have worried for some time that while students created wonderful projects for the course in the past, they still had difficulty at the end of the term talking about rhetoric and design. They were aware of the concepts and they seemed to apply them; however, they couldn’t talk about them comfortably. We are just past midterm in the semester, and I would say students have gone beyond just talking comfortably about the concepts to discussing them fluently.


I’m so pleased with the way these journals have worked that I am now thinking of how I might use similar design journals in the technical writing and business writing classes that I’ll be teaching in the Spring Semester. I could ask students to share various texts that matter to professional writing and to analyze how they demonstrate (or don’t) concepts like clarity, readability, accuracy, and accessibility. If I ask students to look for kinds of writing that they will ultimately write in their careers, they can build a collection of models that they can use in the class and beyond. I’m still considering logistics, especially since these classes are 100% online, but I think they could be far more useful than the quizzes I have been using.


Have you used design journals of this kind in your classes? Do you have suggestions to help me succeed with them in an online course? I would love to hear from you in the comments. 

This post is dedicated to all of us who, at midterm, amid a wide variety of distractions, grapple with catching up on grading and class prep, keeping track of meetings and  social media (including email), and research and writing for forthcoming presentations. My memory tracks back to a Free Empathy sign I saw at Occupy Wall Street five years ago. Yes, I think, free unconditional empathy would be most helpful for all of us at this particular moment. Sowith this particular rhetorical situation in mind, I offer fragments of recent teaching and learning experiences for anyone in need of free empathyteachers and students alike!



At Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park (October 2011), a white sign with large black font reads: Free Empathy. Photo by S.N. Bernstein



First Meditation: On Growing as Writers and Human Beings

originally posted on Council on Basic Writing Facebook page

This is my quilt, completed yesterday: "2016In Hope and Sorrow." While it's not specifically basic writing content, it is basic writing related. Many of the students I've taught over the years (as well as this year) are artists and musicians. At one institution, these students were not allowed to take art or music courses because their test scores placed them in "remedial" courses. My own ACT scores would undoubtedly have placed me in "remediation," if it had existed in the time and place of my undergraduate education, and my GRE scores could have kept me out of graduate school if those scores had mattered as much then as they do now. In other words, we need to eliminate the label "basic writer." It essentializes students, and it limits how institutions understand the potential of students enrolled in BW classes. Many of us would not be where we are now if we had been called "Basic STEMmers" including me. Even my English ACT score was below average, because the ACT did not measure my quirkiness, my proclivity for "thinking outside the box"what is now called "innovation." Apologies for the length of this, and for sharing what doesn't conventionally fit the category of basic writing, but which, for me, is deeply connected to the continued efforts of students and teachers working hard toward growing as writers and as human beings.


To be continued...

I’ll never forget how I felt the first time I had to write a paper on the results of an empirical study in graduate school. Even though it was a small-scale study, I had never written anything like that before. I had all kinds of questions: What is a “lit review”? What do they mean when they say to “write a methods section”? Am I really supposed to talk about limitations of the study?


Take a moment to think about a time when you had to write something in a genre that was new to you or unfamiliar to you:

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

Our students often experience this unfamiliarity, too. My goal as a writing teacher is to find ways to help them successfully respond.


One of the best tools I’ve found to help students ask the right questions as they enter new writing situations in school and beyond is to help them explore the writing of different disciplines and professions. And if students are learning about writing in the disciplines and asking questions about the rhetorical context of their writing, this helps them develop critical literacy.


Critical literacy encourages students to analyze and question what they read and write, consider multiple perspectives, and understand how an author’s values, subject, position, and purpose shape a text. When students understand how to analyze the rhetorical situation of a text, they begin to ask questions that develop critical literacy.


From its roots in the work of Horace Mann, John Dewey, and Paulo Freire, a major component in critical literacy has been to create more access to education. The work of teacher-scholars in community colleges and open admissions institutions—exemplified by Mina Shaughnessy’s ground-breaking work in the CUNY system in the 1970’s—has shown us that we not only have to consider how to increase access to education, but we must also consider what we do in the classroom once students have access. The traditional model of teaching writing as a way to help students fit into the status quo and become more “cultured,” which emerged at Harvard in the 1800's, is inadequate. It grew from an elitist view of education.


But as Ira Shor (1999) reminds us: “Standard usage, rhetorical forms and academic discourse make democratic sense only when taught in a critical curriculum explicitly posing problems about the status quo based on themes from the students’ lives (and experiences).”


If we are to teach students about the rhetorical situations of their writing (and the writing of others) and to embrace writing as socially situated, we should examine in depth with them the academic literacies we are asking them to practice and master. We don’t do them justice if we only ask them to challenge the status quo (culturally) while writing within a status quo (academically). I’ve become increasingly convinced that this is what we do when we teach a politically or culturally themed course that asks students to question power dynamics and political processes but requires them to do so in “standard” academic forms without asking them to question and analyze the ways they are writing and the choices they make as writers.


Teaching a WID-based approach can take many forms, however. Two popular ones are to either have students write about and analyze writing in a range of academic disciplines and professions, or to have students practice writing in varying disciplinary genres. I generally focus more on the first approach but mix in a little of the latter.


Of course, no pedagogy is neutral. And in my years of teaching a WID-based approach, I’ve seen WID become a bit authoritarian by treating disciplinary writing as fixed and genres as templates for writing. In many ways, this isn’t any different from formulaic current-traditional approaches to writing. By contrast, when teachers use a critical approach to WID, they ask students to:

  • Explore their own experiences and make connections to the writing they are analyzing
  • Investigate disciplinary conventions and values, including how they change, how people learn them, and how to identify expectations
  • Question expected academic norms, understanding where they come from and why they exist


So, what might this look like? What are some assignment ideas you have for helping students develop this kind of critical literacy through WID? 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?

Jack Solomon

Creepy Clowns

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Oct 20, 2016

So now it has come to this:  Ronald McDonald is on administrative leave.  And the funny thing is that I can assume that you already know exactly what I am talking about.  Yes, the creepy clown invasion: the next best thing since zombies.


Because that's really what it's all about: people, as Halloween approaches, looking for the latest in camped-out pop cultural horror.  Not that creepy clowns are going to have anything like the staying power of zombies (this is a fad, not a trend), but the clowns bear a family resemblance to these popular humanoid monsters (vampires belong to the clan, as well) and appear to be part of a larger fascination with the macabre in contemporary American culture.  Except that there's a lot more to it than that.


Because unlike zombie walks and costume vampire fangs, the creepy clown phenomenon does not have its origins in pre-existing stories and entertainments.  Vampires are an ancient part of our lore, and even zombies (of the walking dead variety) have a lengthy genealogy.  Creepy clowns, by contrast, are a newly minted product of the instant-fad-creating potential of the Internet.  And more importantly, unlike vampires and zombies, they're real.  Zombie walks shouldn't frighten anyone.  Vampire events are pure camp.  But frighted-up clowns coming at you in the dark with real knives are quite something else.  A certain amount of not-so-make-believe terrorism is going on here, so the semiotic question must be: what on earth does this signify?


It's best to begin at the beginning with such a question.  So, the whole business apparently started in August, down in South Carolina, when someone in some sort of clown suit was spotted trying to lure children into the woods.  This may have been a "prank," or a real case of predatory pedophilia, but the key to the matter is that it got reported, and the report went viral.  In no time, it seems, doing oneself up as a maniac clown became the prank of the town.


Creepy clowns, then, are signifiers, at least in part, of the enormous power of virtual technology to stimulate actual behavior—a kind of postmodern case of "monkey see, monkey do" on a truly mass scale.  You know, "I saw it on the Internet so it must be cool."


Not that faddish behavior itself  is anything new, of course, especially in a mass consumer society.  Hula hoops, Cabbage Patch dolls, pogs, the original Pokemons, mutant ninja turtles - all of these instances of what I shall call "sudden mass hysteria syndrome" percolated throughout America (and the world) without benefit of social media.  The Internet just makes the process a lot faster, generating an endless stream of ice bucket challenges, twerking events, flash mobs, and, yes, creepy clowns.


But, as in any semiotic analysis, we must look at the crucial (one might say diacritical) difference that sets the creepy clown fad apart from other such fads, in order to arrive at its most profound significance.  And this difference can be found in the really sinister nature of the thing.  Confident in the anonymity that a mask provides (there is a compelling connection here to the phenomenon of anonymous online trolling), the prankster-clown is genuinely frightening people.  In an era of daily terroristic threats, and when parents (alas, for good reason) no longer allow their children to go trick-or-treating unaccompanied, this is no joke.  The fact that a growing number of "clowns" think that it is only a joke, or do not even stop to think of the effects that their "fun" may be having on other people, is what is really significant here.  A lot of otherwise ordinary people in the digital era are apparently losing their capacity to empathize with the feelings of other people.  Traditionally, this has been the hallmark of the psychopath, but there is a growing body of evidence that the Net is behind this new expression of social anomie, fostering what might be called "mass psychopathology."


Happy Halloween.


Source: Why Are You Laughing? by davocano on Flickr, used under CC-BY 2.0 license 

Recently, I visited a second-year writing class (Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric 2), where students were in a class on “A Rebel with a Cause” and, on this day, reading and analyzing Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in a case related to 4th Amendment rights. The students were quick to note (and praise) Sotomayor’s writing: “Wow, I can actually understand what she is saying,” and “She is speaking directly and clearly to me, not just to legal experts,” and “I am so impressed with how she uses everyday analogies to help us understand her points,” and “At first I sided with the majority, but she was so clear and compelling that I changed my mind.” They noted, too, how skillfully Sotomayor built her credibility and ethos, through careful and consistent citations and through reminding the audience, subtly, that she has long personal experience in the area under consideration.


This discussion led to further analysis of how clearly Sotomayor introduces her dissent, how she captures and holds attention and states her major points. Then the students were challenged to brainstorm the first 30 seconds of an orally presented research proposal (the research project will be the main work of the term, which is now in its second week). They had about eight minutes to do this task and went to work with a will, keyboarding and talking and jotting down notes seemingly all at once. When they were through, I expected the instructor to ask them to share with the rest of the class.


Instead, she first pulled up a video of a graduate student’s introduction to a research proposal. The student clearly had a plan for research, but the delivery was rapid fire and hard to follow, so the class stopped to analyze this effort. After looking at what went not-so-well in the videoe presentation, the instructor sent students out of the classroom with their smart phones, asking each of them to record the draft 30-second introductions they had written. Nervous laughter. And then a lot of action.


When they had their recordings, the instructor introduced them to the idea of an “earprompter,” something you may already be familiar with, but the students were not. Asking them to hook an earpiece up to their phones, she then directed them to present their introductions: they hear their own voices through the earpiece and repeat what they are hearing, with a couple of seconds delay.


If you watch this YouTube video on how to “build” an earprompter, you’ll see that the person presents use of the earprompter as a way to avoid having to memorize or learn a presentation by heart. But that’s not how the instructor in this class used it. Rather, as the students experimented with their presentations aided by earprompters, they discovered that they were speaking much too quickly (or in one case much too slowly), that they were stumbling over words, cutting off phrases, and skimming over words that should be lingered over or emphasized. Their assignment: keep experimenting with their homemade earprompters, listening to themselves, practicing with one another, and working on their pace, modulation, and tone.


The students seemed delighted with this new tool for improving presentations, and I’m invited back to see how it will work for them in a week or so. In the meantime, I’m doing some investigating of commercial earprompters—and I’d love to hear from anyone who is using these in their own classrooms.


[Photo: Your gadgets by Serge Seva on Flickr]

In my last post, I talked about the oral workshop in the creative writing classroom, drawing from my conversations with my colleagues in creative writing here at FAU, Papatya Bucak and Becka McKay.  But both of them also use an out-of-class written critique to complement the oral workshop.  In this post, I want to share some insights about that element of peer critique in creative writing.


The first thing that strikes me about Becka and Papatya’s instructions on commenting is the level of personal investment, something I struggle to ignite in the FYC classroom (a topic that I will discuss in detail in the next post).  Given that struggle I took special note of the small ways in which both of them encourage students to care about each other’s writing.


For example, both Becka and Papatya ask students to sign their written comments, a practice I’ve never tried in the writing classroom and one that I think I will, as it makes the process more personal and conversational between the students.  Asking students to sign feels like a small move, but I am betting it will reap some interesting rewards in the FYC classroom, particularly in terms of investment when it comes to both writing and commenting on writing.


Another practice I noticed in the handouts they give students is a direct encouragement to students to not only do their best, but also to be their best.  In referencing commenting on manuscripts, Becka’s handout states: “I am always very disappointed when students do very little commenting on each other’s poems. Be the person who does better.”  Papatya’s handout does something similar: “Don’t be the person who hands the writer an unmarked manuscript.”  Implicit in these evocations to be better is not only an invitation to be the best student / person / commenter but an understanding that students can be the best student / person / commenter.  It’s an affirmation of the students’ potential that I think I might find useful in the FYC classroom.


Both also use what I might consider a “sandwich” type approach; I use something similar when I comment on papers and I often incorporate it into many of my peer revision worksheets.  This much, at least, we share across our disciplines.  The “sandwich” in their handouts consists of praise or neutral comments first then subjective comments second; my “sandwiches” are similar, consisting of praise and then critique and then a final slice of praise. Becka’s handout also makes clear why we use this order: “the neutral comments should come first and the criticism should come last—writers receive information better that way.”  Papatya adds a great insight that I think I will incorporate: “Since we are reading in-progress manuscripts, they should be treated as such—that means delicately and respectfully, but also critically.”


It’s wonderful to see these common elements of peer commenting across disciplines and also to see the small moves both of my colleagues make to remind students that they are capable of great commenting, and thus also expected to provide great commenting.  Both of them read student comments to hold them accountable and to offer feedback on commenting, a practice I often do as well.


I love one instruction that Becka included, which I will definitely steal: “It’s fun to read other people’s writing.  Don’t forget that.” Indeed.  I am delighted to remind students that even FYC can be fun.  And I shall duly so so.


In the next post, I will turn to some of the challenges I discussed with my colleagues but, in the meantime, if you have insights to share on what I’ve posted here, comment away!

Jennifer Hewerdine teaches composition at Arizona Western College and is a Ph.D. candidate at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.  Her scholarly interests include digital literacies, writing center practice, collaboration, and low-stakes writing.  You can reach Jennifer at



When I hear of composition instructors assigning public service announcements PSAs, it is often in the form of radio or video PSAs. However, when teaching students multimodal writing, it can help the composing process to begin with the visual mode before revising the PSA for an audio or audiovisual mode. Visual and audiovisual PSAs also require students to consider design and the ways in which visual elements communicate messages. Therefore, before students compose a video or audio PSA, I assign a poster PSA to help them conceptualize how image and limited wording communicates a message to the audience.


Students see PSAs often: on billboards, television, fliers posted around campus, and in radio advertisements. They may not, however, consider the means by which PSAs attract and speak to an audience. Prior to beginning their PSA, I ask students to locate and analyze other PSAs for audience, location, and rhetorical effectiveness. Students are also taught about establishing an authorial ethos through the ethics of fair use, copyright, permissions, and Creative Commons.



  • Develop an awareness of audience, purpose, and visual modes of rhetoric
  • Understand the ethics and implications of fair use
  • Locate, edit, and use images for a rhetorical purpose
  • Enhance understanding of rhetorical appeals


Background Reading

These texts from Andrea’s handbooks are useful introductions to multimodal writing and rhetorical choices:



  1. In preparation for the PSA, students should locate PSAs about a variety of topics and then choose one or two to rhetorically analyze, preferably one that is a static image and another that is audio or audiovisual. I find that students are more successful when they first analyze in a small group and present their analysis to the class. Questions students may address include:
  • What is the purpose of the PSA? What is the designer arguing for?
  • Where is the location where the PSA would be seen or heard? What considerations does the designer need to make based on location?
  • For visual PSAs: Describe the use of images. What appeals are the images meant to invoke? What does this communicate to you as a reader?
  • What is the balance of white space, image, and text?
  • How do readers navigate the PSA?


  1. Once students have analyzed PSAs, each student should consider the purpose of the PSA they will create and the audience they are targeting for their PSA. Students can brainstorm or compose a freewrite or mockup of their PSA with multiple versions of wording and/or ideas for images that will appeal to their intended audience.


  1. Following their analysis, the students are asked to discuss citation, creative works, fair use, and copyright in regard to images. The class also has a discussion of the four licensing types offered by Creative Commons. For their PSA, students can either use images they may have created and/or locate images in the Creative Commons database. As a class, we discuss the conventions seen in PSAs such as the limited use of text and text dedicated to providing a location to learn more about the topic.


  1. Once students have completed a draft of their PSA, the class can then rhetorically analyze peers’ PSAs and/or submit a rhetorical analysis of their own PSA as a means of reflecting on the rhetorical choices they made while creating the poster.


  1. After creating a visual PSA, students can revise their PSA to turn it into a radio announcement and/or a video announcement, thereby asking them to reconsider the audience, design, rhetorical appeals, and location. Before doing this, students can use their poster PSA to present a brief PSA before the class. Students may also want to consider publishing their PSA.


Sergio Garcia, the designer of the PSA below, chose to discuss air pollution in Mexicali, Mexico, and the effects it has on residents. As a resident of Imperial Valley, California, just north of Mexicali, Sergio has experienced the effects of air pollution. When making his PSA, he was faced with a unique rhetorical choice. Because he was targeting an audience with both Spanish and English language users, he had to decide the language to use in his PSA.    



The first draft of a PSA by Sergio Garcia about the effects of air pollution



When students submit their PSA, I ask that they write a short essay about their design and audience choices as well as other rhetorical choices they made as they created the PSA. I then ask them to reflect upon how those choices change when they consider a new audience or a new location. If students revise to create an audio or audiovisual PSA, the reflection can include the differences in rhetorical choices from one mode of communication to the other.


Want to collaborate with Andrea on a Multimodal Monday assignment or be a guest blogger? Send ideas to Leah Rang for possible inclusion in a future post.

by Daria / epicantus, on FlickrSince students in my course are choosing their own projects, every student is on a different schedule at this point. Some are working toward the midterm. Some are working on the Genre Analysis Report. Some are working on open projects. Because they are all working at their own pace, it’s not possible to set up peer review activities for the projects. There’s no way to guess who will have a draft ready when.


From this point on, then, I have asked students to work in online writing groups to share whatever they have and provide accountability for one another. To keep these groups organized, I set up a general schedule with expectations for each student to post several times in the course forums each week. In face-to-face classes, I ask students to create their own guidelines and schedules, but my experience with these online students is that they need more definite structures. Without spaced-out expectations to post and return to reply, they frequently wait too long to engage in conversations with their classmates.


I set up the schedule below, but I did indicate that groups can adjust this schedule as necessary:


By 11:59 PM onYou should
  • Check the previous week’s discussion to make sure all questions have been answered.
  • Post details in the current week’s discussion on where you are on your projects, even if you haven’t made much progress. See details below.
  • Include any questions, challenges you need help with, or drafts that you have at that point.
  • Read and reply to the messages that have been posted. See details below.
  • Add peer review comments on any drafts that have been posted.
  • Make any requests for additional information (e.g., if a reply leaves you with a question),
  • Check out everything that has been posted.
  • Add any additional replies or requests for more information.


Writing Group Wednesday Activities

Here are some things you might share with one by Wednesday in your weekly discussion:

  • Status/progress reports on what you are doing/have done since last Wednesday. 
    (Check Markel, Practical Strategies for Technical Communication, Chapter 12 for help with status and progress reports. Your updates can be informal.)
  • Rough drafts of your projects.
  • Revisions of your projects.
  • Small chunks of your projects, if you want feedback on something very specific.
  • Success stories.
  • Challenges you encounter.
  • Questions that you have about your projects.


Writing Group Friday Activities

After sharing, you can reply by Friday with any of the following:

  • Provide supportive feedback and advice, like that shown in the No One Writes Alone video.
  • Work together to solve any challenges or answer any questions.
  • Collaborate on projects (be sure to credit your helpers if someone provides significant input).
  • Plan for future discussions.


Final Thoughts

This week will be our first time to try out the writing groups. I'm excited about the possibilities for these groups. It's a strategy that I am looking forward to developing and using again next term. I will report on how it works. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. I can always use advice.


 Credit: by Daria / epicantus, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY license


Can offensive language sabotage a whole election? It would be an understatement to say that language has played a critical role in the presidential campaign recently. Parents had to rethink letting their children watch the second presidential debate—educational value aside—because language that most parents never want their children to hear was at the heart of a controversy about whether a man who used such language is fit to be president. The candidates avoided using specific offensive words during the debate, but the conversation still had the potential to raise questions that parents would be uncomfortable discussing, and on CNN at least, a single offensive word was not bleeped out, and the audience heard it over and over and over throughout the day and night. It immediately became the basis of jokes, memes, and late-night monologues. Donald Trump dismissed the sexual language both on- and off-stage as mere “locker room banter.” Those who withdrew their support for his campaign saw it differently, calling it a verbal description of sexual assault. Anderson Cooper, one of the debate moderators, bluntly clarified what Trump had said on tape and what it meant: “You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” Two commentators on CNN later got into a heated argument when Trump spokeswoman Scottie Nell Hughes asked Republican spokeswoman Ana Navarro not to use Trump’s word because her young daughter was watching—this in spite of the fact that the tape of Trump using the word had been played repeatedly.


A number of people on social media and elsewhere have pointed out that the one word that did not describe their reaction to the Trump tape was “surprise.” Trump has made a habit of using derogatory terms to describe women, immigrants, POWs, and racial and ethnic groups, and being the Republican nominee for president has not slowed him down much. His hours of “locker room banter” with Howard Stern took place over seventeen years. In response to the recently released tape, he presents himself as superior to Bill Clinton because where he only used words against women, Clinton acted. Hillary Clinton was guilty of using offensive language when she labeled half of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables,” a phrase that has come back to haunt her over and over again. In the second debate, Trump attacked her for being unwilling to use the words “radical Islamic terrorists,” pointing out, “To solve a problem, you have to be able to state what the problem is or at least, say the name. She won’t say the name. . . . And before you solve it, you have to say the name.”


There may have been more acrimonious presidential campaigns in the past, but there has never been one more carefully documented or one that has spawned so much discussion on social media. Words take on a life of their own as they get recorded and shared in ever-expanding ripples. The written and digitalized record of this campaign is not one that any of us as Americans can be proud of.


Credit:  Stockicide, by stock78, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

In the last post, I discussed our “Be Interested” assignment and I argued for the value of giving assignments titles. So, what comes after an assignment entitled, “Be Interested”? “Be Interesting!”


This particular sequence emerged in a class Ann and I were team-teaching to work out the ideas in Habits of the Creative Mind. We’ve both had the not uncommon experience of thinking things were going well in a writing class because of the quality and tone of the class discussions and then finding ourselves with a stack of boring papers written on auto-pilot. With this assignment, we hoped to accomplish two things:


  1. To establish that you can’t be interesting, if you’re not yourself interested.
  2. To initiate a discussion of what “being interesting” looks like on the page.


Here’s the assignment:


Engaging with the sources you’ve found, use your writing to show your mind at work on the question, problem, or mystery that has emerged from your encounter with your sources. Begin with your interests and then be interesting: use your writing to create an experience for your readers that is designed to generate interest in what you’ve discovered.


We invite you to use any of our common readings as a model of how to move from being interested in a given question to creating writing that makes that question interesting to others.

This assignment generates in its wake further discussions about whether it really is possible to determine if a writer is interested or a work is interesting. And this is exactly as it should be: for our students to succeed in producing writing that is interesting to others, they need to spend time thinking in concrete terms about what interesting writing does.


An example will help to clarify what we value in interested and interesting student writing.


Let’s look at the first page of a breakthrough piece of writing by Donald, a sophomore communications major. Donald switched topics between the “Be Interested” and “Be Interesting” assignments because, in the act of completing the first assignment, he found that he wasn’t actually interested in what he had chosen to write about. (We view this as a way of successfully completing the first part of the project: creativity always proceeds via experimentation, and experimentation, by definition, always includes the possibility of failure.) Having pursued a dead end in the first assignment, in the “Be Interesting” assignment Donald turned to an experience that was haunting him.


I had just recently come back from what I was telling people was “the best experience of my life.” Over my winter break at Rutgers University, I decided to try something different and embarked on a ten-day trip sponsored by a Korean organization called the Good News Corps that eventually brought me to Monterrey, Mexico, where I participated in the IYF (International Youth Fellowship) English Camp. The camp aimed to teach English to Mexican students of all ages over the course of three days. The whole trip only cost $300.


The memories were still fresh in my mind: the laughing, the dancing, the singing, the half-dozen girls holding me crying, thanking me for coming. Except now all these warm fuzzy feelings were being replaced with something else, something much more unsettling. I was having trouble processing what I was reading on my computer screen.


It was an article about the trip that made the front page of, titled “Traveling to Teach English; Getting Sermons Instead.” [It was] sent to me by another student who went on the trip. The article details the account of two students who went home early in the trip while we were still in Dallas, Texas, for four days of “training” in preparation for teaching in Mexico. They felt they were victims of a scam, and were unhappy with how much of the camp centered on religion and the “Mind Lectures” of the program’s leader, Ock Soo Park. This wasn’t surprising, as I had met plenty of kids there who were upset for the same reasons, myself included, but most of us toughed it out for the sake of being able to go to Mexico. It was the comments section that was causing my state of disbelief.


“Evil. Creepy and Evil.”

“Sounds an awful lot like the bad parts of Jonestown.”

“While editorial concerns must have precluded Mr. Dwyer from calling a duck a duck, we all know these unwitting students got trapped in a recruitment session for a cult.”

“Typical cult strategies.”

“This sounds like the Moonie cult from years ago.”

“This organization is essentially considered a cult in South Korea, known as ‘Saviorists.’”


And they went on.


“This can’t be right,” was all I could think. Different flashes of my trip started replaying in my head. The mass baptisms in the hotel pool. The two-hour mind lectures. The lack of sleep. My moment of revelation. Could it be true? Did I willingly drink the Kool-Aid? Did I become part of a cult recruitment session for ten days?

When we have students read each other’s work (which is something we do constantly), we don’t ask them to say what they liked or didn’t like about what they’ve read. Rather, we ask them to use our rubrics to guide their assessment of the work the writer has done.


In this instance, they’d read Donald’s draft and considered the following questions:

  • Does it ask a genuine question or pose a genuine problem?
  • Does it work with thought-provoking sources?
  • Does it show the writer’s mind at work making compelling connections and developing ideas, arguments, or thoughts that are new to the writer?
  • Does it pursue complications (per perhaps by using words like but and or)?
  • Is it presented and organized to engage smart, attentive readers?
  • Does it make each word count?


Although we’ve only provided you with the first page of Donald’s essay, we think there’s enough in this sample to suggest that he is on his way to producing work that meets the criteria for being interesting, as we define the term.


The writer is trying to figure out whether he, an ordinary guy who is well grounded and content with his life, came close to getting caught in a cult. While Donald doesn’t present much research on this first page, you can definitely see his mind at work on a problem. He actively pursues complications in the shift he makes from his unsurprised response to the newspaper article to his shock at reading the readers’ comments. We don’t have enough to go on from this sample to say much about how he works with sources, and we can’t say that every last word counts, but there’s no doubt in our minds that Donald has done a great job of drawing readers into his predicament.


You can read the rest of Donald’s paper here.

We’ll return to this paper in the next post. But if, in the meantime, to read Donald’s paper online, you’ll see that it has garnered over 50 extended comments from readers around the world. It is one of the most visited pages on Donald has cleared the bar for producing interesting writing: he has attracted readers who aren’t paid to read his work (like his teachers).


Next up: How to evaluate whether a work is interesting or not.

One reason I started using writing-about-writing emerged in coordinating research instruction in my university’s library. Our assignments demanded that students locate and engage peer-reviewed journal articles as their main sources, but it wasn’t actually happening. Students would dutifully find the minimum number of scholarly sources and, as Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson’s Citation Project has demonstrated, paraphrase a sentence or two from the first couple pages. Then they would move on to the real sources on whatever Issue of Social Import they were writing on, Newsweek or Esquire or Billy Bob’s Emporium of Deeply Learned Opinions on Everything website.


Not only was it tough to get students to truly engage scholarly sources, students didn’t understand the nature of those sources. What is a scholarly article? Where does it come from? Why is it? And how come it’s not written in “normal” English?


The problem wasn’t even just that we and every other college composition program in the country was requiring students to do the kind of reading they least liked—pages after repetitive page of nothing but words. It was that we were failing at explaining the whole thing, the entire knowledge-making enterprise that leads to this mysterious thing called “scholarship.” Yet if you can’t understand this, you’ll have the wrong idea about what higher education is to begin with, and you certainly won’t attain the oft-stated FYC learning outcome of coming to understand academic argument as writers taking turns in ongoing conversation for the purpose of constructing new knowledge through cooperative argument.


I have only ever found one way of helping students grapple with this incredibly stubborn set of threshold concepts around the nature, origin, and function of scholarly texts: Hand them scholarly texts and explain the whole system. While learning the nature, origins, and function of scholarly texts in their comp courses, students discover

  • How the people who write such texts tend to read (Scholarly writers, for example, tend to read “around” articles rather than straight through them.)
  • Context is as important to meaning as the text itself. Professional readers know through experience, or to take specific steps to find out, where a piece appeared and thus who its intended readers/users are, what the writer’s motivations for creating the text were, and what gap (in the research) the piece fills, its exigence.
  • A scholarly text really is a turn in an ongoing conversation (which they are aware of).


Understanding reading this way is hard for students in part because they lack the experience on which these kinds of readings strategies are intuitively based. Few scholars can actually articulate Swales’s CARS model of research article introductions, but most know it instinctively. We want writing students to know it explicitly in order to help make up for their inexperience.


Recognizing this need, in the 3rd edition of Writing About Writing we’ve developed “assist tags” for some of the most difficult or essential readings. The tags help map for students moments in the texts those CARS and other moves in scholarly conversation are happening. Students see not only genre conventions being used at key moments in the piece, such as arguments being extended from previous conversation in the field, but also behaviors professionals might use such as looking ahead or returning to read later.


The more we can show students such genre and behavioral moves, the more success we’ll have with FYC’s mission of helping students engage with scholarly conversation.


Here’s a sneak peek at one of the genre assist tags, featured in Deborah Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy.”


I’ve been reading Xiaoye You’s Writing in the Devil’s Tongue: A History of English Composition in China and, as you might imagine, learning a lot in the process. In the past, I often taught a course on “The History of Writing,” but it focused primarily on Western systems of writing, since those were the ones I knew best. But during those years I did learn something about the origins of writing in different cultures: for example, whereas writing in ancient Greece was associated from very early on with practical matters of trade, early Chinese writing systems were importantly linked to rituals that led to the way (dao). My interest in feminism led me to Enheduanna, Sumerian high priestess who wrote in Cuneiform and whose texts in praise of the Goddess Inanna date to the 23rd century BCE. And I was thrilled when I read Damian Baca’s Mestiz@ Scripts, which traces early pictographs back as far as 50,000 BCE, and when I learned more about the Mayan glyphs, the earliest (some say the only) writing system developed in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.


And now in You’s fascinating book, I am learning more about writing in ancient China and, later, in schools which required writing in English. You notes that learning to write in China came with “heavy ethical burdens.” Confucius stresses over and over again how “gentlemen” will develop through following traditional rituals that will “align them with symbolic act that reflect the true spirit of the Way” (18): as Confucius puts it,

Let a man be first incited by the Songs, then given a firm footing by the study of ritual, and finally perfected by music” (Analects 134).


Eventually, this educational plan was institutionalized in the Chinese Civil Service exams, which held sway from the early 7th to the beginning of the 20th century. The preparation and the exams themselves “instilled in students unique rhetorical sensibilities with a Confucian conscience,” according to You’s analysis (21).


Reading You’s work and revisiting Baca’s has made me think a lot about how much, if anything, we teach our students about the history of our subject, writing, and especially about writing systems in other cultures and the values embedded in those systems. In our multiethnic, multilingual, multicultural country, even with its ongoing tolerance for “English only,” writing teachers can and should take the lead in making sure our students understand that writing itself is a serious subject of study, that writing systems differ dramatically and thus carry differing value structures, and that pluralistic approaches to and understandings of writing seem necessary in the 21st century.


[Image: Confucius Temple in Taipei by edwin.11 on Flickr]

In this series of posts I’m thinking about what teachers of writing can learn from the implementation of peer feedback practices in other disciplines and departments.  While my goal is to explore these practices broadly across the university, I’m going to start very close to home in our English department.  English at FAU encompasses literary study, creative writing, and rhetoric/composition. Our department is deeply collegial, with each of the areas respecting and supporting the others (I know, sadly, that cannot be said of all departments).  I was thus delighted to chat with two of our creative writing faculty, Papatya Bucak (who also blogs for Bedford) and Becka McKay, who is currently running our MFA program in creative writing.  Both are super colleagues—accomplished, smart, funny, and generous.  I sat with both of them to talk about how workshopping happens in the creative writing classroom and each also shared with me handouts about workshopping that they use in their own classrooms.  Based on all of that, I’ve made some observations I hope are worth sharing.


 “I use it on all levels,” Papatya shared, referencing both undergrad and grad workshops, “because I think it works,” a sentiment that Becka echoed.  Though the shape of workshopping can vary across creative writing classes, one common element that struck me is that it tends to contain two components: a written one and an oral one.  That oral component (and its particular shape) feels somewhat unique to me.  When workshopping happens in class, all of the students comment on one author’s work; the author generally stays silent throughout.  Papatya’s gives her grad students a handout that explains: “the class covers strengths, intentions, and suggestions while you listen.  Writer has the option of asking questions or making comments at the end. Writer can interrupt discussion if they have an urgent question or believe some major misunderstanding is occurring.”


I’ve occasionally done something similar in my writing classroom, when working with a sample paper or when placing students into peer revision groups.  But when I use sample work I tend to do so anonymously and when students discuss their work in group, each author is usually getting comments from only the other two people in the group.  I’m starting to think about what it might mean to adopt this structure in the writing classroom.  It would not be without logistical challenges (both of them noted the smaller size of the creative writing workshop and Becka also observed that it’s easier when she is teaching poetry) but nevertheless I think it’s worth exploring a significant and sustained oral component for peer revision.


Having an oral workshop isn’t without challenges even for creative writers.  When I asked Becka what would make a workshop disastrous, she noted that “a workshop needs trust and respect so if students do anything to break that or are disrespectful, then it’s a disaster,” going on to say that breaking trust can take a few different forms, from students in the class not doing the work of careful reading and so having nothing to say, to attacking the writer instead of critiquing the writing, to the author displaying defensive body language.  Anything that threatens the “circle of trust,” as Becka named it, would in turn threaten the value of the workshop.


But when it works, the students in the class form a community that becomes very nurturing.  More than that.  Papatya noted that the goal of the workshop is to find your reader and that “having someone who’s a good reader of your work is a holy grail.”


Scaling this practice up to the writing classroom feels daunting even as I write this—but not impossible.  And that sense of community feels quite seductive.  If you’re thinking about exploring a sustained in-class, oral peer review for your students here are some tips I’ve cribbed from Paptya and Becka that you might want to adapt:


  1.          The oral component is accompanied by a written critique.  Since I usually have students do that writing during peer revision in class, incorporating an oral component means a written critique outside of class.  And while both noted that workshopping will work with only one of these components, both also regularly use both together.  (I’ll talk more about what that written component looks like in my next post.)
  2.          Both Paptya and Becka offer detailed guidelines for all components of workshopping, particularly for their undergrad students.  Otherwise, as Becka noted, it’s “the blind reading the blind.”  I imagine most of us scaffold written peer revision with some sort of handout or worksheet but you may want to do the same if you attempt an oral critique as well.
  3.            Even when everything works, students need a good model for what good writing should do.  Both Paptya and Becka noted that students are inclined to say “this is nice” because they genuinely believe the writing is.  Papatya commented that what students think good writing should do sometimes isn’t what Papatya thinks good writing should do.  Becka also commented that often students new to workshopping are too eager to praise and that she ends up having to walk them back from that.  Offering models of what good writing does is one way to counter this inclination.  I love the way Becka put it: “You would think they just want to be stroked and told what great writers they are, but once they read the stuff we give them and they see what great writing is and they know we can show them a path that gets them there, they want to learn how to do that.”


Maybe the oral workshop model is one way to get them there.


Next week, I’ll look at some of the unique elements of written workshop comments.  In the meantime, if you’ve ever used an oral workshop mode of peer review in your FYC classroom, please share your experiences with us.  How did it work logistically?  How did it work for students?  What might you change?


IMG_1760 (Sign seen in Santa Cruz) by Robert Couse-Baker, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 licenseAs I responded to students’ coursework proposals this week, I concluded that giving students more choice, as I explained in last week’s post, has led most of them to choose meaningful projects that connect directly to their career goals. Generally, it seems like a good assignment, but I have realized that I need to make some changes before I use it again.


Add More Explanation and Examples

In the original assignment, I included this explanation of the requirement for the proposals students were writing:

Write a proposal that outlines the three major projects you will compose to complete the requirement for five major projects in this course.

Beyond that statement, I added this basic advice:

Think about your career goals and the kinds of writing that are critical to your future plans. If there are particular kinds of writing that you know will be important to your success, they may be your best choice(s) for the work you will complete.

Students needed more information to understand their goal. Looking back now, I’m not surprised that about a third of them emailed, posted in the course forums, or came by during office hours to ask for more information on the assignment. If anything, I’m surprised that there weren’t more questions. Next time I will add more details and include some examples, like the computer science student example I included in last week’s post.


Address Audience, Purpose, and Context

I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t fully realized the rhetorical demands students would face when they worked to choose their own projects. The challenge became clear to me as I responded to students’ work. The strongest proposals were written by students who wanted to focus on real-world writing projects. These projects related to things students were already involved in, such as clubs, Greek organizations, internships, and philanthropy activities. These students had a clear sense of what they wanted to write, why they were going to write it, and who would read it when they were done. Additionally, they were engaged in the projects. They had a real reason to complete the work, beyond getting credit in a course.


Students who struggled with their proposals had to determine not only the genres of writing to explore but also come up with their own audience and purpose for the activities. Their contexts were sometimes completely fictional. I read only a few such coursework proposals before I concluded that I hadn’t given students enough support for defining the rhetorical situations for their projects. Even if I encourage students to search out clients or engage in service-learning style activities, I am sure there will still be students who cannot find a real-world focus for their projects.


I’m still trying to decide on the best way to deal with this challenge. I can certainly urge students to propose projects that connect to real situations, but there will always be students who will not have a way to connect concretely with their fields. I could offer a range of situations and clients for the tasks, but I want the activities to be students’ choices. I cannot possibly create an assignment for every possible kind of writing students might choose.


I can and will spend time directly discussing concepts like audience, purpose, and context. Students could benefit from expanding the simple identification of audiences and purposes from their investigation of writing in their field. Asking students to create profiles for each category of audience (e.g., coworkers, managers, clients) should be a useful step between identifying general audiences in their field and proposing to write something for a specific audience of readers.


I have more thinking to do obviously. I do like this assignment and the choice that it gives students as they learn about writing in their fields. My challenge at this point is determining how to give students the support and information that they need to do their best work as they make their choices. If you have a solution, please share it with me. I could use some help here.



Photo Credit: IMG_1760 (Sign seen in Santa Cruz) by Robert Couse-Baker, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

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


We often think about multimodality in terms of the end result – the products that students can produce through multimodal composition. But I have found interesting ways to use multimodal composition for invention as well. Images are great for brainstorming and getting students to see things in different ways than they have seen them before. For example, I often ask students to use key words to conduct image searches that expand their ideas on a subject or brainstorm on research projects.  


Recently, I was teaching a unit on digital stories. (The full assignment is explained in detail in one of my earlier posts on Digital Storytelling where I provide the theoretical framework for the overall assignment.) In this post, however, I concentrate on a new, earlier step in this assignment that engages students in multimodality as part of the process.


This early assignment gives students practice in composing through images and digital rhetoric and provides invention space where they can try out and select their best possible story ideas before fully engaging in the assignment. It is at this time that students are coming to understand the genre of the digital story and trying to figure out exactly what story they want to tell.


  • To teach composing skills with images and the ways visual, rhetorical choices impact communicated meaning.
  • To introduce invention strategies to engage students in a full range of composing processes.
  • To practice skills such as selection, abstraction and summary.
  • To understand audience awareness and engagement through peer response.




Assignment Steps

Step 1: Have students read the resources on Digital Storytelling. Discuss purpose and which stories are worth telling and which stories they want to tell. I encourage them to look around their environment and lives to find stories. I offer the following prompts:

  • think about things that you have noticed in your everyday life
  • think about your own past and ideas that have stuck with you
  • think about the ways people behave,
  • think about your ideas and worldviews
  • think about your relationships to others
  • think about things that are confusing
  • think about things that feel clear
  • think about how things relate to other things
  • think about people you know
  • think about what you imagine
  • think about what you know and believe
  • let the stories find you


Step 2: Next, students create a brainstorm list of at least 10 ideas for stories that incorporate the expectations discussed in the video: 7 Elements in 4 Minutes. I refer them to composing techniques to create 10 interesting, representative images that match their brainstorm list –each representing a different story idea. They don’t have to tell the whole story but should suggest something about its direction – a preview or peek into the idea or ideas.


Step 3: Then, they choose their top 5 story/image/ideas to post on a gallery page to share with their classmates. They give each one a working title and a short paragraph -- that gives readers an idea of the story and possible perspectives. I have them include why they think this is a story that needs to be told and the point of view they are considering.


Step 4: Students share story/images with classmates for peer response. Students use this session to talk with a potential audience about what might engage them and to select a story that their audience might want to hear. Audience members also pose questions that give authors opportunities to elaborate and expand their ideas in purposeful ways. I use Lambert’s first three points (the others come later) that encourage students to engage in 1) point of view, 2) dramatic question and 3) emotional content.


Step 5: Once students choose story (with the help of their peers) they move to a storyboarding phase. I supply a blank storyboarding template that engages them in the planning and arranging their chosen story.


Step 6: After students complete the full draft of the digital stories, they embed them in their blogs along with a purposeful context statement that includes links to their invention stories and storyboards



When I first came up with this activity, I thought it would just act as an invention piece that might not be part of the project. In some ways, it turned out to be interesting in and of itself. Students liked the broad sweep that showed several stories, defining moments and ideas that were part of their identity and worldview. As I reviewed through them, I also found them engaging, and I realized that I would like to incorporate this as part of their final projects as well.  This gives their audience a sense of their processes should they follow the links and reveals an interesting series of story possibilities.


In addition this activity teaches students how to use images to brainstorm and how to create representative images. It also teaches the valuable skills of summary, selection and abstraction. The peer response early on in the process allows authors to gage audience engagement before they enter the production phase of this multimodal project. This is just one of the many ways we might consider using multimodal composition as invention – for both process and product.


Check out some student samples of this assignment:


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

Don’t be afraid.


These are the words I’ve been telling myself often this semester. You’d think after twenty years of teaching first-year writing I’d find a way to reduce my anxiety in and out of the classroom, but it still hits me every day. I envy teachers brimming with confidence and enthusiasm. I really do. I marvel at the layers of skill that my colleagues who teach have mastered. I think I’ve gotten okay. Maybe even pretty good. But there is still a deep and nearly omnipresent fear that every lesson plan, every classroom exchange, every attempt to motivate students toward authentic and original thought could go terribly wrong.


I’m beginning this semester with a literacy narrative, a genre I’ve come to appreciate fairly late in the game as first-year writing faculty. I guess I should nod in the context of this blog post to the fact that the literacy narrative is one of the projects we discuss in An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing (p. 14).


I can’t know how many of you have taught this genre, and that frustrates me, so I would just like to talk about how I’ve overcome my fears so far this semester teaching such a beautiful, delicate, vulnerability-inducing genre and how I think it contributes to shaping me as a teacher and the students who teach me every day.


The diversity of students I teach at the University of Arizona are unlike anywhere else I’ve taught: Navajo, Apache, Latino, Black, White, affluent, poor, middle class, West Coast, East Coast, Midwest, Southwest, Southeast, Northwest, International students.


Building relationships and trust in order to create a safe space wherein students can reflect on and articulate the experiences that shape their identities in front of total strangers who look only alike in age has proven awkward and at times shocking.


But reflect and articulate they have. Stories of abandonment. Stories of having a paper torn in half by a high school teacher and thrown in a trashcan. Stories of drive-by shootings and murder. Of parents and families on the brink of collapse. Drug addiction. Abuse. Neglect. Previous teachers who don’t really care seems to be a common theme in FYW literacy narratives.


It’s a lot to process.


There’s a tendency to see students as “students.” Like some generic group of automatons who write papers for us to grade and correct and believe we somehow improve with our degrees and experience and comments in the one-inch margins surrounding their text. But it’s too bureaucratic, if you see it that way.


Students learn best when the agency of knowledge comes from within. I’ve always mistrusted “authority” figures and mistrusted even more systems where authority is rigidly structured.


I suspect, if you’re reading this blog post, you likely believe that writing has the power to improve your life. In the classroom, this only works if students believe you care about them, are sensitive to their experiences and identities, and are willing to embrace the awkward, painful, and uncomfortable moments in a classroom with compassion, openness, professionalism, and enough humility to learn from the very people we are supposedly teaching.


I love the literacy narrative because it sets the stage for the rest of the semester. It reveals character and truth, and if done well, encourages students to be courageous, open, curious, willing to learn, motivated, reflective, metacognitive. It teaches them about who they are, why they are here, and how they can move optimally forward in a complicated world.



What follows is a set of activities I employ to teach the literacy narrative.


We begin the semester by talking about our student learning outcomes. I think it’s good practice that students know 1) we have goals for achievement in this class, 2) what those goals are, and 3) where they come from.


A table in the preface of An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing illustrates how the book aligns with the WPA Outcomes Statement. The FYW course goals at the University of Arizona arise from the WPA Outcomes Statement and the Framework for Success, so I think it’s wise to acknowledge that with my students.


Activity 1 – Generating Ideas for a Literacy Narrative

One process-oriented group activity I use in the class to connect our outcomes to the literacy narrative is cluster mapping.


Students select one of our four outcomes and put it in the center of the cluster map on the white board in our room. They branch out and make a list of subtopics that include activities, genres, processes, or past writing projects that may have contributed to their development with that outcome.


One of our course goals is the development of reflection and revision processes.



The point is to get them thinking about our goals and the kinds of writing they’ve done in the past in order to generate ideas for what they might write about in their literacy narratives.


Activity 2 – Analyzing Sample Literacy Narratives

I usually follow this activity by introducing the project assignment sheet for the literacy narrative. I provide students with at least four samples of a literacy narrative. I prioritize developing group dynamics, and so one activity I’ll use is to ask students to read one of the sample literacy narratives, and then as a group they use a grading rubric to assess the sample. They have to negotiate the point values they would assign to all the criteria, and they present their sample literacy narrative and discuss how they graded it.


Activity 3 – Brainstorming and Drafting a Scene

It’s at this point that I try to highlight the unique features of a literacy narrative and point out how different it is as a genre than a research paper or a thesis-driven argumentative paper. This semester I’ve asked students to develop three scenes using sensory detail that follow a narrative arc representing a beginning, middle, and end to their narratives. We spend a day brainstorming potential scenes from their past experiences as writers and students, and then I ask them to draft one scene using sensory detail.


I give them a prompt I call “When I walked into the room I saw ________” and I ask to make use of at least three different sensory descriptions (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) in writing five to seven sentences that describe their scene.


Generally students love this kind of writing. It’s creative and reflective and often a new genre for them. That said, a good number of students fall back on summarizing too heavily, and so I’ll use the drafts (usually done in an online discussion board) to point out the differences between effective use of sensory detail and summarizing events.


Activity 4 – Developing Dialogue in a Literacy Narrative

We spend a day on dialogue. I point out the unique features of dialogue attribution, paragraph breaks for each new speaker’s line, punctuation around dialogue, and stylistic nuances regarding effective dialogue.


I’ll ask students to draft a dialogue-rich continuation from the sensory detail scene they composed the previous day, and then I’ll ask them to act as directors and choose actors to perform their written dialogue. Some students love to act. Moreover they generally find it exciting to hear their dialogue come to life in a performance by their peers.


Activity 5 – Five Objects, Mood, and the Final Scene

Near the end of the unit, I ask the students to brainstorm a list of potential final scenes with which they might conclude their literacy narratives. Once they have three to choose from, I ask them to select one. For that one scene, I ask them to write down the setting (time and location), characters featured in the scene, and the main idea or insight they want readers to understand about them by reading their literacy narratives.


We discuss these points. I offer feedback. Then I ask them to make a list of five objects that appear in the scene and to describe the mood they want to convey.


A student might write: library bookshelves, the table, my notebook, the clock on the wall, and flashcards. The student may write about the mood she wants to communicate. She may say she wants to convey the stress she felt or the anticipation of her final high school exam.


We discuss this stuff. I push them to explain how the mood of their final scene aligns with the main idea or insight they want readers to understand about them by reading their literacy narratives.


Then I ask them to write their final scenes using the setting, the characters, the five objects, and the mood they’re trying to convey.



I would love to hear back from y’all on this one. What activities or strategies have you used to teach the literacy narrative? What has been most helpful in the classroom?


As always, please like and share this post, if you found it meaningful. Thanks so much, everybody! Peace.

I've been reading James Knowlson's big biography of Samuel Beckett, Damned to Fame—an experience that not only transports me back over forty years to the days when I was writing my undergraduate Honors Thesis in English on Beckett, but also sets me to contemplating again the relationship between "high" cultural creation, and "low," or popular, culture. While Beckett's incorporation of such popular cultural materials as vaudeville-style slapstick and Charlie Chaplin's tramp into Waiting for Godot undoubtedly helped to erode the traditional barriers between high and low culture, his own lifelong devotion to the highest of the elite arts (classical music and literature, philosophy, and fine art) also comes through very powerfully in the story of his life.  Though in rapid decline even within his lifetime, the "cultural capital" of high art still stood for something in Beckett's formative years in a way that is almost unimaginable in an era when the Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, and VMA awards (etc.) are effectively our society's supreme expressions of esthetic taste.  And this, paradoxically, is why the semiotic analysis of popular culture is itself an activity of high cultural importance; for if we are to come to an understanding of who and what we are as a society—which is one of the more profound aims of esthetic creation—we have to look at what really matters to us.  And for some time now, what really matters has been pop culture.


In saying this, I am going against the grain of such cultural theorists as Lucien Goldmann, who believed that social knowledge comes through the study of "high" cultural creation.  Perhaps that was once so; it certainly isn't the case today, however, when traditional high culture is on life support.  While there has never been a mass audience for the elite arts, what has changed has been the economic basis of esthetic creation: the centuries-long shift from a system of aristocratic patronage to one of commodity capitalism in a market economy.

Chaucer, that is to say, paid the bills by living in the palace of John of Gaunt, and Michelangelo sought commissions from the Church.  Today, "high" art poets must seek out teaching positions to survive because poems have little commodity value, and painters hope for the kind of awards and critical reviews that will attract wealthy speculators to their work in a kind of fine art stock market. 


An apprehension that the economics of artistic production was changing everything was behind the rise not only of Modernism, but of Romanticism as well, as artists began to feel alienated from their audiences—no longer coteries of patrons and friends, but a mass market of anonymous consumers—and so, in defiance, they turned away from seeking popularity to create generations of avant-garde art that only helped to reduce what audience for high art ever existed in the first place.  The result has the been the creation of what I have called a "museum culture," as high art has retreated to ever more beleaguered bastions of cultural preservation, while popular culture, with its seemingly limitless market potential, has flourished.  (I know, you may have attended the opera recently, or a symphonic performance, and that you may spend your free time rereading War and Peace, rather than The Arkham Asylum, but even so, you cannot have missed the signs that those are unusual choices today.)


Cultural semiotics doesn't complain about this shift in cultural tastes (history, after all is history); and it doesn't attempt to apply the critical standards of high art to works of mass culture.  Rather, taking as its basis the recognition that cultural production in a market environment will produce what the market desires, cultural semiotics analyzes that desire itself, seeking its significance.  For therein lies the consciousness of our society, the revelation, finally, of who and what we are.

Each fall, a week or so before classes start, the instructors in Stanford's Program in Writing and Rhetoric hold a retreat of sorts, during which they review the principles that guide the program’s theory and practice, give presentations on what they see as major concerns of the year, read and discuss articles pertinent to the program and its students, and enjoy one another’s company. It’s one of my favorite times of year.


During this year’s sessions, the question with which I open this post came up. Actually, someone first asked “Is writing white?”—and some discussion focused on the nature of academic writing followed. Both are good questions. In many cultures, early writing systems were the province of a small group of elites; moreover, writing was a means of regulation used by those in power to control those who weren’t. This is an oversimplification, to be sure, but one that holds a good bit of truth, especially in the U.S. where it was a crime to teach slaves to write (and read) and where written laws served to disenfranchise millions.


So in the sense that writing was aligned with power in this country, and power had a very white face, writing could be considered “white.” Ebony Coletu has written ( ! ) powerfully about what she terms “forms of submission,” demonstrating how the strictures of forms, such as those associated with welfare, led to submission to the system itself. In 1974 when the Conference on College Composition and Communication adopted the Students’ Right to Their Own Language resolution that later appeared in a pamphlet by that title and in a number of other publications, the organization recognized this long history—and the danger that such linguistic racism engendered and supported.


The passage of that resolution marked an important milestone for me and many others in the profession. While I passionately wanted writing to serve as a means to empowerment, I saw more and more clearly how often it did not meet that goal, especially and often ironically in school settings. I read Elspeth Stuckey’s The Violence of Literacy and wept.


But then I acted. I put my own assumptions under a microscope, and I asked that students come along with me. For decades, I taught a course called “The Language Wars,” or some similar title, in which we moved from learning about the struggle to establish the vernacular as “legitimate” in a number of other countries to the struggle to legitimate vernaculars in this country. We learned that the structures valued in academic discourse (the tight logic, distanced style, etc.) were not valued characteristics of other discourses. We read Michelle Cliff’s “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write It in Fire” and understood why, after completing a Ph.D. in English literature, she felt she never wanted to write, ever, again. She had gotten sealed in the box of (white) academic writing, but she couldn’t live—or write—there anymore.


Best of all, we identified and traced challenges to “white” academic writing, collecting and sharing our favorite examples (often, of course, by people of color and women) of writers offering exciting—thrilling, really!—ways of writing, from Tillie Olsen to Geneva Smitherman, Lee Tonouchi, and a host of others.


It’s been a long time since that 1974 resolution, and over the decades I’ve taught The Language Wars, our field has become at least a little more inclusive, more open to challenges to such “white” writing, to the use of writing to regulate and control (think of all those exams, of all those college writing samples. . . .), and finally to the hegemony of English itself. Today, scholars are exploring the possibilities of translingual writing and approaches to writing, and they are leading the way in creating an academic discourse that includes and honors varieties of English as well as other languages. So over my 45 years in the field, I can see progress toward more pluralistic, inclusive norms for writing in the academy, helped along tremendously by the rise of social media and other electronic forms of communication. Adam Banks’s 2015 CCCC Chair’s address, originally performed in Tampa and subsequently published in CCC, is to my mind a brilliant example of powerful academic writing. And it is NOT white.



[Photo: Ink and Quill by Denise Krebs on Flickr]

I am endlessly fascinated by the diversity of our discipline.  Biology is, mostly, biology.  I imagine that while introductory biology courses at different schools might use different textbooks and perhaps slightly different approaches to teaching, the “stuff” of biology pretty much remains the same, and so I would also imagine it to be for most content based courses.


In contrast, FYC courses are diversely shaped by a broad spectrum of composition theories and pedagogical approaches, as well as very local contingencies and bureaucracies. For example, FYC at my school, Florida Atlantic University, is shaped not only by my history within the field, but also by various Florida state laws governing the core curriculum within the state university system; by the mandates of our university’s accrediting body, SACSCOC; and by the very local policies of our college and school.  Our field feels almost Vulcan to me, sometimes.


But what’s equally fascinating to me are the near-universal practices of our field that are endorsed again and again, despite our various pedagogical allegiances.  And peer revision strikes me as one of the most universal of these.  Certainly there is a large body of critical literature touching on peer practices (of various names, including peer review, peer critique, peer response, peer evaluation, peer feedback, and more).


Peer review, as we call it here at FAU, has been on my mind lately and for a rather unique reason.  I’ve just spent a year chairing the department of Visual Arts and Art History (through a curious series of events that has much to say about the relationship between writing program administration and academic administration), where I was duly exposed to the practice of critique.  Learning about critique reminded me of the on-again, off-again conversations I’ve had with creative writers in my department about practices of workshopping.  Lately, I’ve been wondering what these related peer practices might have to offer to teachers of writing.


Our diversity is a strength, of that I am sure.  Our broad affirmation of peer feedback is similarly a strength, for I have seen certainly the difference it can make in student writing.  But what if we were to push the boundaries of our diversity?  What if we were to look at our common practices from a standpoint completely outside the FYC classroom?


In this series of posts, I’ll be talking to colleagues across the university to learn about how peer practices take place in their disciplines and to consider what we might learn from those practices and bring back to the writing classroom.


Next week, we’ll start close to home by thinking about how workshopping takes place in the creative writing classroom.  In the meantime, I invite you to initiate your own conversation with colleagues in other departments at your school.  If you should discover a new perspective on peer feedback, I hope you will share it with all of us here.

Choices by Jason Taellious, on FlickrThe students in my technical writing course have just submitted their coursework proposals, which outline the projects that they will complete for the rest of the term. This assignment is a crucial part of my plan to increase the role of choice for students this term.


As I discussed last week, one of my goals for the new school year is to give students more choice in their assignments. Two previous activities have built up to the coursework proposals. First, I asked students to conduct an investigation of writing in their field, reporting their findings in a table that listed the kinds of writing and their key characteristics. Based on that investigation, I asked them to choose writing superlatives for their fields.


In their coursework proposals, students reflect on the information they have gathered about writing in their fields and propose up to three projects that they will complete during the remainder of the term. Specifically, I have offered them these choices for their three projects:


  • Open Projects Chosen from Your Analysis Table (up to three)
  • Genre Analysis Report (counts as two projects, as it is a longer project)
  • Midterm Exam on Readings


The coursework proposal assignment itself follows a customary proposal format, asking students to explain their proposed plan, provide justification for their choices, and suggest a schedule for completing the projects. The proposal gives students the chance to customize the second half of the course to focus on projects that specifically meet the needs of someone in their fields.


Let me provide an example. A student in computer science has explored the kinds of writing that she will likely do as an Android developer. While she has completed an internship and three years of coursework, there are kinds of writing in her field that she has had little practice in doing. She has written internal documentation in the code that she has developed, for instance, but she has never tried creating external user documentation. For one of her three projects, she wants to write a short user manual on how to install an Android app and customize its settings.


My goal with this course structure is to ask students to focus on projects that will make a difference in their future, rather than random assignments that may not connect to them at all. The projects that are right for the Android developer simply aren’t right for everyone in the class. A student in environmental science, for example, may not need to write user documentation, so that student chooses a different path, proposing to write two reports on an environmental study she has conducted—one for other scientists, and one for the public.


As promising as this free-form approach is, there are challenges. In particular, asking students to demonstrate such a high level of agency in their coursework leads to some confusion. Students rarely have much input in what they study in a course, so they have questions about how to proceed. Some students wonder if this structure is some kind of trick on my part, asking me if they can really write what they want to. I realized how much of a challenge this system was for them when about a third emailed me or posted in the course forums for clarification.


Now that students have submitted their proposals, I look forward to seeing how they took advantage of the choices that the assignment offered. I know I will find other challenges to address as read students’ submissions, and I am already thinking of changes to make when I teach the course again. I’ll share more on what I find as I read their work in my next post. In the meantime, if you have a question or suggestion, please leave me a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.




[Photo Credit: Choices by Jason Taellious, on Flickr, used under CC-BY-SA 2.0 license]

Today's guest blogger is Halle Neiderman, a PhD candidate at Kent State University. She teaches College Writing I and II, as well as Writing in the Public Sphere, Writing in Business, and Professional Writing. She previously taught developmental and basic writing, literature and writing, and advanced literature courses. Her scholarly areas of interest include institutional critique, sustainability in composition, and sustainability rhetoric. Her article "Programmatic Perspectives: Weaving the Sustainability and Composition Disciplines" will appear in Decade of Education for Sustainable Development--and Beyond, edited by A. E. J. Wals and P. B. Corcoran. She is also a Bedford New Scholar (2016). 


Teaching at a large Midwestern public university, I often struggle to find course themes utilizing radical pedagogies to keep my students critically engaged. For my sophomore level writing course, I stumbled upon a sustainability theme (after picking up the book No Impact Man). While at first my students assumed they had zero knowledge or experiences pertaining to the subject matter, and that I must be crunchy-granola hippy, it became clear that working with the wicked problems of sustainability engages students bored with other radical pedagogy themes.


I use the term “wicked problem” when discussing sustainability because problem solving for sustainable decision-making includes negotiations with the interdependence of other factors. In sustainability pedagogy, this is a constant weaving of people, profit, and prosperity. The goal is to lead students to dynamic thinking through content and well-developed assignments. As such, I attempt to develop multidimensional, multimodal composition assignments fit for a sophomore level writing course.


Just as composing is discursive and dynamic and involves the reciprocity of learning between teacher and student, the assignment I share here uses sustainability as a bridge to examine and produce multiple spaces of composition.


Student Outcomes

To understand

  • the negotiations necessary within a sustainability framework of people, planet, and prosperity
  • the post-process nature of composition
  • the changing nature of audience and compositions


Why Sustainability?

 Sustainability pedagogy asks learners to consider how (in)actions positively and negatively affect small and large scale social, economic, and environmental situations. The coursework involves ongoing discussions in which students consider the past, present, and future, how they are situated in a given space, and how that space contributes to their behavior, movement, and decisions. These are futures-thinking conversations.


The assignment(s)

Like the wicked issues of sustainability, the following assignment is comprised of numerous parts, composers, and audiences. Its goal is to push students to think critically regarding the multiple issues and effects of a topic, to be able to identify and appeal to multiple audiences using multiple compositions, and to see a composition as a dynamic, living work that changes with each audience and reading.

  1. Students form groups of three and discuss a local/regional sustainability issue they choose to tackle. Though in a group, they must first tackle it individually, each presenting a different aspect of the problem.
  2. Individually, students compose a well-researched argument regarding their individual topic from the group’s decided-upon local sustainability issue.
  3. Student groups compose a video that presents their arguments. The video has no parameters, as they should be making their own rhetorical choices based on the various audiences.
  4. Students are then asked to make the video go viral using social media.
  5. Finally, student groups discuss the material and scaffold in the video in a fifteen to twenty-minute group presentation to the entire class.


Why Go Viral?

This part of the assignment has the least constraints on the students. It simply asks them to create a video that “goes viral.”


Asking students to place videos on YouTube and social media outlets changes the stakes of their compositions. Students can no longer assume only the professor will see and evaluate their work, and they can no longer assume it be viewed only once.


They also must consider how to generate an audience. We get to have conversations of click-bait and other online rhetorical conventions, but we also have conversations regarding the evolving nature of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, and affordances and constraints of the outlets that previous semesters were not able to access.


So What?

Both sustainability pedagogy and multimodal composition should be taught in ways that illustrate problems are dynamic and changing. We all know that multimodal assignments should not simply be a “tacking on” after final products. This assignment allows students to consider how their sustainability argument can be successful in written argument, visual argument, and aural/face-to-face argument simultaneously.


Further, by asking students to publish their work in social media outlets, student authors are able to begin to understand how audiences consume and co-opt their own work, which then allows students to see a composition process in a different way. (A way tangential to “write for my professor; receive grade from my professor; start new paper.”) By asking students to not only compose a digital argument, place it (somewhere, everywhere?) on the Web, and have it do something, students begin to think in different ways what a composition does.