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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.”