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Andrea A. Lunsford

Giving Thanks

Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Nov 30, 2016

Thanksgiving greetings and wishes to teachers of writing everywhere. I am certainly counting my blessings today, as I expect you are. I’m grateful that I’m still here on the planet and that I have sisters, nephews, nieces, and grandnieces to hold close and cherish. And I’m forever grateful to students I have known over some fifty-plus years now, who have taught me so much and shared so much of their lives with me. Just this week I had a chance to visit with a former student, from China, who is now working on a PhD in neuroscience, to break bread with her and to hear about her accomplishments and setbacks, her worries and also her dreams. I hope I remembered to thank her. So here’s to those who teach and to those who learn. And here’s a gift that I come back to regularly when I am giving thanks: Wendell Berry’s haunting, and comforting, “The Peace of Wild Things.”

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

--Openings: Poems, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1968


[Photo: Happy Thanksgiving everyone! by Satya Murthy on Flickr]

In this series of posts I am looking at what we can learn from peer feedback practices in other disciplines. Andy Brown and Sharon Hart talked to me about the studio art critique.


In my last post, I considered the history of critique in the art classroom.  In this one, I’d like to think about its future.


Sharon touched on this topic when she shared with me the challenges of photography in the digital age: “Images are ubiquitous,” she noted. “Why does anyone want to look at yours?” Indeed the rise of the digital is a big question for the Visual Arts and Art History department here at FAU.  In my time as Interim Chair, we wanted to engage with it directly so as to articulate a future trajectory for the department.  Andy suggested that critique needs a new trajectory as well. “Given the complexity and subject of art now the original model doesn’t work too well,” he observed, “We need to find new ways to approach art besides sit in front of it and chat about it.”  For me that also recalled Sharon’s investment in keeping approaches to technique new, fresh, and interesting to keep her and students both engaged in the process.


We might carry these same questions into the writing classroom. Huge swaths of the field are already considering the impact of digital technologies in how we write and in how we teach writing and any number of online peer revision products are available.  But the ones I have seen are simply electronic tools to do what we do in class: sit in front of writing and chat about it.  What it would mean to reconceive peer revision? How do new digital writing practices call forth new digital peer review practices?  I don’t have anything like an answer to that question but I do believe it’s a question worth asking.



Consider Facebook.  It constantly invites peer feedback with a single click and only recently moved past the singular “like” that so troubles art, creative writing, and composition students in the process.  What might it look like to do peer revision in such a context?  What if a paper were just a series of posts on Facebook?  What if it were an Instagram photo, which allows only a heart?


I may not have the answers but the questions aren’t going away.  As students come to our classrooms across the university with a muscle memory of the mind that suggests one click is all peer feedback is, how shall we challenge this reaction or harness it?

Quality Journalism Means an Informed Citizenry, by Mike Licht, on FlickrI grew up seeing sensational stories teased in commercials for the National Enquirer and similar tabloids on television. The claims about UFO invaders, scandalous affairs, and celebrity drama taught me long ago not to believe everything that I read.


Like most writing teachers, whenever I teach research skills, I cover the importance of evaluating your sources before including the information they present in research projects. I have even written a lesson plan on how to conduct Inquiry on the Internet.


I was a little surprised, then, when fake news became such big news after the presidential election. A simple search yields stories covering the influence of fake news like these:



Predictably, these stories and the circumstances that inspired them led to suggestions on how to tell the difference between news and fake news. The NBC News story “How to Outsmart Fake News” (below) features Massachusetts professor Melissa Zimbdar explaining how to identify and avoid questionable news stories:



Zimbdar’s handout on False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources includes the full list of tips. The Washington Post’sThe Fact Checker’s guide for detecting fake news” offers a similar list of suggestions.


Students can use these tips to consider the validity of news sources, but I want them to think about why people believe these stories in the first place by exploring questions like these:


  1. What persuasive strategies make fake news seem to be true?
  2. What topics are likely to be the focus of fake news?
  3. Why are some topics better than others?
  4. What makes a topic a good choice for fake news?
  5. What kind of details need to be included?
  6. What kind of details would probably be left out?
  7. What audiences are likely to believe a fake news story?
  8. What circumstances would make a fake news story more believable?
  9. How does cultural background effect whether an audience believes fake news?
  10. What personal experiences could effect whether an audience believes fake news?


Before using these questions, I would ask the class to discuss some historical situations where fake news had an impact. Fake news has a long history. If you include opinion columns in your discussion, you can point back to Swift’s Modest Proposal and then jump to contemporary pieces. If you want to explore the difference between satire and misinformation, Swift is a strong starting point. Once students think about the situation that led to Swift’s satirical commentary, you might talk about The Borowitz Report, The Onion, and The Daily Show.


I like to start with the hysteria caused by Mercury Theatre production of The War of the Worlds from October 30, 1938 (MP3 recording and broadcast script). For the purposes of classroom discussion, the Wikipedia article on Public Reaction to the broadcast provides adequate details on the extent and causes of the panic that ensued in response to the fake new updates of a Martian landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Because of the distance students have from the events, they usually quickly understand how personal experiences and world events misled listeners who believed the updates were true. Once students explore The War of the Worlds broadcast, I ask them to think about the extent and causes behind the current fake news stories, using the ten questions to get discussion started.


Class discussion can also take up the recent Wall Street Journal article, “Most Students Don’t Know When News Is Fake, Stanford Study Finds.” After considering the reasons that people believe fake news stories, students can have a strong conversation on whether they accept the findings of the Stanford study that the article discusses. With such articles appearing in the press, it’s an important topic for students to explore.


Are you talking about fake news in the classroom? How are students responding? Do you have strategies to share? Please leave me a comment and let me know what you’re doing.



Credit: Quality Journalism Means an Informed Citizenry, by Mike Licht, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 License

The recent presidential election was contentious, blistering in its attacks, and deeply personal in its tone. When the results were finally announced, the sense of division in the country only seemed to be heightened. Protests soon occurred on our streets and on our campuses. And if the election were not a topic in our classes previously, the aftershocks seemed to be a fact most teachers felt a need to discuss. We needed, I believe, to demonstrate the possibility of creating a space where open and honest dialogue could enable the finding of some common ground.


The question we faced as teachers, however, was “How?”


In taking on such work, I believe, we must resist the pull to imagine our classes as mirroring the coarse divisions of the past election season. In each of us resides an inner complexity that too rarely has a venue to be expressed. Each of us carries a sense of what a just world, enriched by such complexity, might allow, and the desire to build such a world exists as a collaborative vision for all of us.  My role as a teacher is to create a space where that complexity is not only expressed, but woven into a common narrative which can allow my class to have difficult, but necessary, conversations.


One of the tools I use to create this space is the “Story of Us” workshop. I learned this workshop through being involved in community organizing – undertaking the difficult work of trying to get individuals to sign on to a common project. By the time the “Story of Us” occurs in the workshop, the participants have shared a story about who they are and what brought them to the workshop. They have practiced forming a common agenda, developing decision making procedures, and soon will move to forming a plan of action. The “Story of Us” is designed to occur just before the “plan of action” and encapsulate what they have learned about each other, confirm the common values they have discovered, and point to work that still needs done.


My class is at a similar moment. My students have shared personal experiences. They have developed a common intellectual agenda and developed a way of talking which helps them decide where the conversation should go. They are about to move to building projects for the end of the term. Yet I believe the aftermath of the election has hurt this hard won sense of trust and collaboration. I am using the “Story of Us” as a starting point to rebuild this sense of community and, as importantly, to help students understand the complexity of their classmates. It is a reminder of the intersecting beliefs that allow action to occur. In fact, in almost all classes I have taught, I have found deploying this workshop to be a powerful way to have students recognize what they have accomplished and what they can achieve together as the term concludes.


The “Story of Us” process is pretty simple - see the linked worksheets based on the work of Marshall Ganz - and results in a set of common values being expressed and endorsed by the class:


Since the worksheets go into minute by minute detail, I will focus on our role as teachers during the workshop.


First, our role is to make sure that the schedule is followed. This ensures it will fit into the class period. (Here it is structured for a 50-minute class.) 


Second, our role is to enact the strong listening required by each student in class. We might do this by telling our own “Story of Us,” what values we have heard the class expect, what work we can now undertake. We might also visit each group, asking questions which help students form their narrative.


Third, our role is to highlight the need for a strong narrative structure. What choice did this classroom (or larger student) community face? What choice did it make? What was the outcome? In my class, which was about politics and race, the challenge was that students often spoke ineloquently about their beliefs. My class had to decide whether to listen literally or to attempt to hear the point trying to be made. They chose the latter and, because of that choice, we built a trusting community that was able to gain a greater understanding of the complexity of race in the U.S.A.


Fourth, when students are selected to share their stories to the whole class, our role is to ask students what values they hear in each speech, writing them on the board. Our role is to then conclude the class with a statement on how these common values can help us continue our work. (We should also make sure that after each speech the students applaud for the speaker.)


Depending on your class, how they best operate, you might decide to pass these worksheets out the day before. This will let them prepare a bit. You might also ask them to look online for “Story of Us Marshall Ganz” which will let them see how individuals in the full workshop have structured their speeches. Those search terms will also provide them videos of the full “Story of Us” workshops to watch, like this one:


Although such background isn’t necessary, I have found this usually helps folks visualize the work. And if you are intrigued by how narrative can help create community, you might find it interesting.  Here I should also add, I talk about Ganz, his workshops, and their role in a writing class in my textbook, Writing Communities.


Finally, if you send me videos of your students’ “Story of Self,” I’ll try to link them to his blog post. (Though we will need student permission.) Also please feel free to comment below or write with any questions.


Let’s begin, that is, to build our own community of “us.”


Contact:Stephen Parks | | @StephenJParks |

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


As many of my colleagues and student-scholars, I have spent the past few weeks ruminating on the culmination of our country's presidential election cycle. No matter where we live on a political continuum, I think we all agree that we need to provide spaces for and mentor all of our students to take their feelings and turn them into scholarly action. Today, I want to invite readers to checkout and contribute to an assignment series that engages students as public, digital researchers with a topic connected to civil or human rights.


Context for Assignment
Our students depend on us, no matter what happens, to provide mentoring and writing that helps them engage at a point of need. By researching historical civil rights movements and then developing digital content curating the rhetorical activities within these movements, students gain a deeper understanding of human struggles and are able to insert their own voices into recovering and analyzing them for 21st century contexts.


Measurable Learning Objectives for the Assignment

  • Investigate a civil or human rights campaign
  • Apply peer review as recursive writing process
  • Create digital texts in a blogging genre for public audiences


Background Reading for Students and Instructors
Acts of reading and viewing visual texts are ongoing processes for attaining learning goals in dialogic, digital writing assignments. Below, I have listed a few foundational texts. You will no doubt have your own to enrich this list.

  • The St. Martin’s Handbook: Ch. 27, “Writing to the World”; Ch. 28, “Language that Builds Common Ground”
  • The Everyday Writer: Ch. 26, “Writing to the World”; Ch. 27, “Language that Builds Common Ground”
  • Writing in Action: Ch. 17, “Writing to the World”; Ch. 18, “Language that Builds Common Ground”
  • EasyWriter: Ch. 17, “Writing across Cultures”; Ch. 18, “Language that Builds Common Ground”


Digital Deliverables for Classroom Use


In-Class/Out-of-Class Work

Students watch excerpts from a Civil Rights History video to introduce them to some key people and places connected to the 1960s movement. As a class group, students then choose two topics connected to the movement. Our class chose the Rich's Department Store sit-ins in Atlanta.


Then, students divide into groups to craft two blog posts per group on people and places connected to your civil rights topic, using the Blogging Guidelines. Drafting blog content can occur outside of class, but revision and editing are best-completed in-class.


Use a Feedback Checklist to maximize effective peer time. If you can't get a computer lab (a frequent occurrence on my campus), host a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) day. Some of my students' best revisions are made on their tablets and phones! Budget at least one revision and two editing sessions, where students collaborate to research and insert tags, refine their conversational tones, design multimodal elements, check for accessibility and even integrate SEO analytics.

 This assignment lends itself to digital, democratic learning and unique contributions across types of classes because students choose their methods of composition, reflect on their process, and have the opportunity to present their work to their peers and publics.


Student Blog Examples



Check More Out...

 Our class took these blogs a bit further and curated everyone's blogs into a website: Anyone Sitting Here. Please also view a sample page: The Rhetorical Activism of Lonnie King. If your students have more content to add to our website, send it along, and we'll help get it published!

Our Reflections

Our class community engaged authentically with this assignment, writing and designing texts both before and after the recent election, which motivated us to continue our public work of civil rights recovery. The work brought all twenty of us together as a group, each person contributing expertise and learning from everyone else. We were even able to bring Lonnie King to campus to help us start a student organization dedicated to this work. As Andrea Lunsford has taught us: our writing is valuable when we share it with the world.


Try this assignment and get in touch with us to contribute to our academic website!


Jeanne Law Bohannon is an Assistant Professor of English in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Kennesaw State University. She believes in creating democratic learning spaces, where students become stakeholders in their own rhetorical growth though authentic engagement in class communities. Her research interests include evaluating digital literacies and critical engagement pedagogies; performing feminist rhetorical recoveries; and growing informed and empowered student scholars. Reach Jeanne at: and

Donna Winchell

Facebook and Fake News

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Nov 25, 2016


The news is bad enough these days without the extra burden of having to deal with fake news. But that is just what Facebook users have been dealing with. In fact, following Donald Trump’s surprise win, some argued that the election was affected by fake news circulating on Facebook. Mark Zuckerman initially denied that fake news could have had that impact, calling the idea "crazy," but since then, he has announced a number of new initiatives to crack down on fake news.


Why would people fall for fake news on Facebook? Some of the stories are outlandish:  “Terrorists are funding 20% of Hillary’s campaign;” “Obama told illegal immigrants to vote;” “Trump Confirms that He Just Googled Obamacare.”  That last example is the title of a satire. Its author, Andy Borowitz, has written more than one satire taken as fact by some readers.  An insightful article by Judith Donath explains why people want to believe what they read. She argues, “Posting fake news stories is a modern form of identity politics.” By that she means that people post and share the news stories that identify them with a certain community with shared values.  Often the fake stories that get circulated the most are the most partisan ones, because they conform to the political beliefs of those who pass them on. Fake news stories actually often gets shared more than factual ones. Donath writes, “Posting any story, real or false, that conforms to your community’s viewpoint bolsters your ties with them. Even if it is false, you have still demonstrated your shared values.”  She goes on, “If  . . . the news you post is fake, outsiders are more likely to be outraged. If you stand by it tenaciously, they may call you a fool or a liar. This infuriated response makes posting fake news a convincing signal for your allegiance to your in-group.” Hostility from outsiders strengthens the cohesion of the in-group. On the other hand, the threat of hostility from outsiders has caused some Facebook groups to go underground by becoming secret groups. There they can share news, fake or otherwise, secure in the knowledge that they are sharing with kindred spirits. This can be reassuring for those who voted against Trump, particularly since he has already been dubbed “Tweeter-in-Chief” and does not shrink from using his tweets to criticize his opponents for exercising their First Amendment rights.


Textbooks have had to try to keep up with students’ use of technology for research. Long gone are the days when students relied solely on print sources. We have had to teach them how to document online sources, but also how to evaluate them. We still have to fight their tendency to believe that one source is as good as another and their inclination to go to the source listed first when they Google key terms. Now it seems we are going to have to teach them to look critically even at what they read on Facebook. One of my friends recently posted on her timeline, “I miss the old Facebook. Just saying.” She misses the days before Facebook got so politicized. Maybe between elections it may go back to being a place where people discuss their personal problems, document their travels, and even post pictures of the meal they are eating—to say nothing of all of the cute cat videos. Even Hillary admitted that she found the cat videos a welcome break from campaigning. Maybe we will never go back to that naïve a time. At least we can never go back to trusting completely everything we read on Facebook, and that is probably a good thing. 


Credit: Facebook by Pascal Paukner on Flickr

In light of recent events, I’ve taken to my bed, hanky across my forehead, a delicate buttercup, as the victors would have it.


Fortunately, my dear friend and colleague, El Burro de Fromage, has agreed to share his reflections on recent discussions of the future of the humanities at my university.


I’ll be back in two weeks, smelling salts in hand.




Education as Experience


As part of the celebration of Rutgers University's 250th anniversary, the powers that be decided to host an all-day discussion entitled, "Why the Humanities Matter." There was an Ivy-league keynoter and a panel of thoughtful respondents, including Habits co-author Ann Jurecic.


It came near the end of a year-long celebration of the university’s birthday, a year-long on the hortatory, on the eternal cheese cube, and short on cake and presents. Oddly, although there were also all-day discussions over those twelve months about the other major areas in the university, those sessions weren't entitled, "Why the Hard Sciences Matter," "Why the Social Sciences Matter," "Why the Biological Sciences Matter," or even “Why Being in the Big Ten Matters.” This was no mistake on the organizers’ part, as the university’s CEO made clear at the humanities event: he was there to be convinced - and, by the end of the day, there was no evidence he had been.


I think framing the question in this way, though, is a category error. We’re not dealing with an issue that yields to the provision of evidence and counter-evidence. Really, it's a matter of experience, so we’d be better off right away if we posed the question rather differently: "Does human experience matter? Does the experience of self-reflection matter? Does the experience of beauty matter? Does the experience of hopelessness and despair matter?"


This past week, the year-long birthday party ended in a hail of fireworks, with well-heeled insiders mingling gaily in a glorious circus tent. And a few days after that, the Chancellor’s Office hosted Scarlet and Black: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History, a presentation of the findings of the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History. Simultaneously, the RU Press released a volume of the same name, edited by the Committee’s chair, Deborah Gray White and Marisa Fuentes, both professors from the History Department. It’s an extraordinary volume that speaks to the historical realities of being an institution that is 250 years old—an institution older than the US, an institution whose history overlaps, intersects and commingles with the history of slavery in this country.


You’d never know from the coverage in the local press that professors, graduate students, and undergraduate students were involved in this project—because, well, we live in an age of miracles! But if you venture into the comment section below the local coverage, you will find it populated by remarks from people who have not experienced either self-reflection or thoughtfulness, though they've had a virtual lifetime of experience being enraged. To them, all this stuff about slavery is ancient history, irrelevant, more blather from the libtards and the buttercups.


El Burro says the humanities matter because they allow us to get beyond the childish need to separate the world into what's "great" and what "sucks." The achievement of Scarlet and Black is one of those instances that shows the vital importance of the humanities—when done correctly, the humanities train you to look fearlessly at the facts, even when all the powers that be tell you to look away.


If you’d like to learn more about El Burro’s reflections on the humanities, friend the old donkey on Facebook.

Miriam Moore

Back to the Beginning

Posted by Miriam Moore Expert Nov 23, 2016

I received an email from a student who could not attend class yesterday.  In the email, she noted that she was having trouble with her glasses and had decided to get contact lenses.  Her lenses arrived the day before she sent the email, and she got them in, but after working several hours, she found she couldn’t get them out.  She had to return to the eye doctor during class time to have the lenses removed. She was told not to drive, even with her glasses.  She ended the note by saying she was looking for a ride for the next day, because she wasn’t sure she could get the contacts back in on her own.


Just last week, this same student expressed fear that members of her family, who are waiting to immigrate to the United States as she has, will face tougher restrictions and delays or rejection in their efforts to come here; she wonders if she and her family will be welcome, if they can be accepted members of the college and the community.  In the wake of that fear, she had not finished the essay assignment I gave last week.


It would be easy to condemn her.  Excuses, excuses.


Ten minutes after our 8:00 class began this morning, she slipped in quietly, exhausted after working the night shift yesterday.  In our ESL grammar class, we were working on the punctuation of essential and non-essential adjective clauses.  I watched this young woman during class as she peered at the screen where I was projecting examples:  she wrote diligently, stopping every so often and wrinkling her head in thought.   Towards the end of the class, I gave the students ten sentences and asked if commas were needed.   On sentence #3, she responded incorrectly; hearing me say “No, that’s not it,” she sighed and shook her head.   Another student pointed out why the commas were not needed, and in turn, I paraphrased explanation, using the grammar terminology I had introduced in class: “Yes, the information in this adjective clause is essential; the readers need it in order to identify which particular group of people the sentence describes.”  After a quizzical glance from the student, I repeated myself, slowly.  I could see her parsing my words, and then she nodded.  She answered all the remaining questions correctly.


This student reminds me of what my community college students—immigrant and non-immigrant alike—are facing.  They want to see, and they know that they need tools and experience to do so.  But some days, the contacts just won’t go in, and the world is blurry and muddled.  As teachers, we can be tough on them (and rightly so, much of the time).  But I also need to remember what it was like to be at the beginning, learning to put my contacts in as a middle-schooler, learning to write and diagram sentences (yes, I did diagramming) in the 8th and 9th grades.  I need to remember a time when I couldn’t make sense of all the pieces, but I had to move forward anyway.  I need to remember a time when I put my work in front of a professor, completely uncertain as to whether or not I had met the standards of the academy – standards I could not begin to articulate.  I need to remember standing outside the English building at Baylor University, drawn by the tall windows, the smell of wood and old books, and the conversations within.  But I was nervous:  at some point, I might be exposed as an imposter.  In my classes, I planned my words and parroted my instructors cautiously; I never had confidence that I could contribute much of substance, even though my mind delighted in the novels and poems we were reading, in the language we were using.


And I was a student from a background of privilege. 


In their work on threshold concepts, Meyer and Land suggest that students are in a liminal state, crossing a threshold and shifting their understanding of the world around them as they acquire disciplinary knowledge.   Some days, the contacts slip in, and the concepts fit together easily.  On other days, the contacts are left at home, and nothing quite makes sense.  In her overview of threshold concepts, Glynis Cousins notes, “Because it is difficult for teachers to gaze backwards across thresholds, they need to hear what the students’ misunderstandings and uncertainties are in order to sympathetically engage with them,” and “there is no simple passage in learning from ‘easy’ to ‘difficult’; mastery of a threshold concept often involves messy journeys back, forth and across conceptual terrain.”  She counsels teachers to “demonstrate that they can tolerate learner confusion and can ‘hold’ their students through liminal states.”


This young woman got adjective clauses today, but she may not get conditionals next week.  I need to stick with her regardless, not blaming her for confusion and not condemning her attempts, however clumsy and uncertain, to make sense of it all.  And when, in the writing class she is also taking with me, she does not apply these grammar concepts with mastery in her essay, I must remember what she has in fact mastered, and how her writing has progressed. 


I need to take myself back to the beginning.  Then I can stand at the threshold and keep the door open.

In this series of posts I am looking at what we can learn from peer feedback practices in other disciplines. Andy Brown and Sharon Hart talked to me about the studio art critique.


Critique in the art classroom has a particular history I found quite interesting.  According to Andy, it emerged out of Modernism and the demise of the salon, with its list of rules for art.  As the definition expanded and art became more subjective, critique became both more complicated and more important.  Sharon’s use of “salon style” in our conversation also underscored for me the particular history of this discipline in relation to the salon.  Andy also explained how the current shape of our Foundations curriculum also emerged from the wider world of art through the Bauhaus movement.


Both indicated a deep knowledge of the extensive history of their fields and the ways in which that history persists in practices such as critique.  It got me thinking about the history of our own field.  In particular, I am wondering about the history of peer revision in composition.  I did some quick and dirty research and wasn’t able to find anything like a clear genealogy for the practice, though it’s clear that we’ve been doing it for some forty years or more.


I’m wondering about how history impacts practice and in particular I am wondering about the history of peer revision within our field.  It’s easy enough to tie it into some larger movements, particularly those that are social-epistemic, but if you should know more about the specific history I hope you will enlighten me in the comments.


Of course, not having so weighty a history may be of great benefit to us as writing teachers.  There is perhaps a way in which we are much more mobile in our understanding, practice, and use of peer revision as we are not so clearly restrained.  I’m not sure, so I welcome your thoughts.

Today's guest blogger is Matthew Bryan, an associate lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida, where he graduated with his MFA in Creative Writing in 2009. There, he serves as the faculty editor for Stylus: A Journal of First-Year Writing and as a coordinator in the first-year composition program. Most recently, he updated the instructor’s manual for the third edition of Writing about Writing.


The longer I teach, the more acute my fear becomes that I will one day enter a classroom and make absolutely no sense. Here’s how I picture it: I’ll be going on about writing processes or rhetorical situations or some such thing, and while students might still nod politely and smile—take notes even!—they’ll know that there’s nothing really behind what I’m saying, the emperor has no clothes, etc. A related fear is that I’ll start to actually believe all of the easy explanations I’ve given my students over the years, when I was some combination of too lazy or too tired to give them a real answer. I imagine the effect would be much the same.


These fears were at the front of my mind when my wife, a writing-about-writing neophyte, began teaching first-year composition this semester. In our conversations about teaching, would I be exposed? Would the carefully constructed lessons and insights I’ve stored in my toolbox over the years be shown for so many jargon-infused bromides under the scrutiny of somebody from the outside?


An early test came when she was preparing a class on discourse communities. She wanted to know why I thought it was useful to teach students about the concept.

            “Well,” I said, “it’s a helpful lens through which they can think about how groups of people use writing to get things done.”

            “Hm.” She wasn’t buying it.

            “Swales defines discourse community in such a way that it becomes a useful, common unit of analysis so researchers can compare how these groups work.”

            “Okay, but why do they need all of these new terms?” she asked. “Couldn’t we just tell students the concept exists—groups of people use writing and they share some of these characteristics? Do they really need to read this whole article to get that?”


This was a version of a back-and-forth I’ve considered myself over the seven years I’ve been teaching using Writing about Writing, and a conversation I’ve had several times with other teachers and, sometimes, students. We talked about how she might apply the concept to her work as a nurse, tracing the characteristics of the different discourse communities who impacted her work on a daily basis, and how she has, in turn, adapted her writing and communication practices in light of these communities. We talked about how students would benefit from hearing these real examples of discourse communities in action. We talked about how they can benefit, too, from reading the dense, scholarly articles about subjects like this, not simply because it’s practice in reading dense, scholarly articles (though it is that), but also because it allows them to see some of the messy work of new ideas being developed—over time, through back and forth with other writers, through constant questioning (“Discourse community wasn’t a thing,” I like to remind my students, “until some people came together and convinced each other it was”). And we talked about, finally, how the way she talks to her students about these subjects would likely be rather different from how I do, but that that’s okay and even valuable. In finding her own way, she’d be able to talk with students honestly, developing her own arguments and explanations for what they should be considering as well as—critically, I think—having room to hear their own perspectives.


I’ve always found these sorts of conversations helpful, serving as a chance for me to learn as well as re-think what I’m doing as a teacher and why I’m doing it. Writing-about-writing is not orthodoxy, as Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs have pointed out many times (see, for instance, here and here). Indeed, a key part of the value (pedagogically) and the appeal (from the perspective of teacher satisfaction) of the WAW approach stems from just how delightfully squishy so many of the subjects we can talk about are. This squishiness presents opportunities for teachers from different educational backgrounds (say an MFA in creative writing, or a an MA in English literature) to leverage the expertise they’ve developed in their specific field; even though English and writing faculty from different disciplines might have different ways of talking about and valuing writing, they all have some experience and perspective to share. And though some students may bristle at the label of “writer” (when I tell them we’re all writers at some point, how many scrunch their faces up with that mixture of disbelief and pity for me in being so naïve?), all of this talk about writing—why we do it, how we do it, what we think about when we do it—gives them places to jump in, too.


WAW has long struck me as an approach to teaching for skeptics: nothing is set in stone, and the chances for questioning and debating are many, if we allow them. While this can complicate assignment sequences and plans for assessment, I’d argue that it’s a productive sort of complication. In framing the key writing tasks as not only chances to apply course concepts, but as opportunities to test, challenge, and extend them, we can invite students into these conversations about writing and encourage their abilities as critical thinkers as well.


And so I find myself, semester after semester, trying to meet each class anew. There’s always the impulse to relax into calcification, to reuse the same old lessons and repeat the same old explanations. But there is also the never-ending self-doubt: am I doing enough to help students? Is this going to prepare them for where they want to go? Is my curriculum engaged enough with the messy, sometimes ugly world beyond the walls of the classroom, and is it preparing them for that, too? It’s in these moments that I relish the opportunity to talk to others new to the WAW approach—students and faculty alike—to hear about what they’re thinking and doing, and to try to see what I’m doing and saying in my class through their eyes.


A new edition of Writing about Writing containing new readings and ideas no doubt occasions similar opportunities for re-visioning a course, and I hope that the new material will be helpful for teachers getting up and running for the first time and perhaps encourage others to give WAW a try—in particular, a new FAQ section in the instructor’s manual and on the catalog includes answers to questions like, “What if my background isn’t in Writing Studies?” and “What are students producing?” Because, for me, my favorite part of teaching has been and will likely always be the conversations it’s opened up about writing and how it works. It seems to me that these conversations can help to keep us honest and to keep us learning, and they only get better as more and more people join them.

Bakken / Dakota Access Oil Pipeline by Tony Webster, on FlickrDuring the last weeks of November, I like to share this quotation from the Autobiography of Mark Twain that focuses on Thanksgiving:

Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for — annually, not oftener — if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it.

When I ask students to brainstorm things that they associate with Thanksgiving before they read this quotation, they discuss things like family, turkey, football, friends, pie, parades, and shopping. When they turn to more abstract concepts, they talk about tradition, patriotism, and thankfulness. Twain’s take on Thanksgiving forgoes all these feel-good ideas and zeros in on some ugly facts about the treatment of American Indians.


Twain’s syntax is complex, so I start by breaking down Twain’s passage and unpacking the words. I ask students to look in particular at the word choice Twain is using to communicate his opinion on the meaning of Thanksgiving:


  • It’s a function, rather than a holiday or celebration. 
  • The pilgrims are “those people.”
  • The function marks “exterminating their neighbors.”


There’s no whitewashing in Twain’s account of Thanksgiving. He uses tough words, and his meaning is clear. Thanksgiving for Twain is not about a harvest festival, family, or the good old days. It’s about “the white man” exterminating American Indians—and constructing a scenario where the Lord approves and should be thanked for this accomplishment.


Currently, American Indians from many nations are coming together to protest the pathway of the Dakota Access Pipeline through the sacred lands of the Standing Rock Tribe. As I consider the protesters’ fear that the pipeline will contaminate their water supply, I have to wonder if Mark Twain would see the situation as yet another moment in America’s history focused on exterminating American Indians. It’s a question that I want students to take up in their discussion by exploring the facts that are reported, those that are not mentioned, and the language that is used to discuss the protesters and their fight to protect their community.


The idea of discussing Mark Twain’s perspective on Thanksgiving is one that I originally explored in a 2010 post from my personal blog. Sadly, his commentary on treatment of American Indians is still on point if the situation in North Dakota is any measure.


How are you talking about political issues and current events with students this term? Please share your ideas in the comments.



Credit: Bakken / Dakota Access Oil Pipeline by Tony Webster, on Flickr, under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

Some forty-five years ago now, I began my college teaching career at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida, where I learned in just a few short months what I did NOT know about how to teach writing. I had an excuse, of course; I had never taken a writing course (exempted, stupidly) and had only figured out how to write papers for my college classes by a kind of osmosis. Still, that first year was one long series of lessons in humility. My students were wonderful; they deserved a teacher who could guide them. Instead, they had me. But I didn’t give up easily, and with their help I began to understand what I needed to do: analyze their writing carefully, systematically, and listen intently to what they wanted to write about, and why they wanted to write about it. By the time I left Tampa to return to school for a Ph.D. (and to learn more about writing and about rhetoric!), I had found some footing, again thanks to my students. Together, we improved.


Today, roughly half of students in college began their work at a two-year school. Yet these institutions get much less funding than their four-year counterparts and hence have fewer resources: year after year, decade after decade, they are asked to do more with less. Yet in my travels around the country, I am regularly inspired and heartened by colleagues teaching at community and junior colleges. They often seem to know their students better, more deeply, than at four-year state colleges, and they care deeply about them. I wish that all those state funders, all those legislators, could visit the schools I visit, talk with the faculty and meet with the students I meet. I think they would be heartened and inspired too. Maybe even enough to make some changes in their state’s funding formula.


Recently I visited Northeast Junior College in Sterling, Colorado, where I met with faculty from across the disciplines to talk about students and about writing. As always, I came away impressed: with the philosophy teacher who had started five or six extracurricular clubs for students and who challenged his in-class students with forward-looking assignments; with the agriculture teacher who started every class with some writing; with the nursing faculty who asked piercingly insightful questions about how to help their students improve as writers and thinkers; with the English teacher who had started a writing center from scratch and made it part of the campus Comprehensive Learning Center. In this small northern Colorado community, this college felt very much like where the rubber meets the road, a no-nonsense, let’s get to work right now kind of place.


I came away wondering how I could make more connections with two-year colleges and how much we would all have to gain if four-year and two-year college teachers of writing made opportunities to work together. I know that some states, such as Oregon, encourage such collaboration, but more often than not, such encouragement comes without any support or funding. But today’s technologies may offer ways for colleagues to work across boundaries with minimum expense: webinars, google hangouts, and other ways of meeting up now abound.


Do you teach at a two-year college or at a four-year college? If so, what ways can you imagine sharing, partnering up, and maybe even fostering some on-line exchanges between students? How can you imagine breaking down the walls between institutions?


In the meantime, here are some photos I took at NJC: what a happy day I had there!


Student writing displayed in the Center.


One room in the Center.


It's always snack time!

Jack Solomon

The Day After

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Nov 17, 2016

Given the immense significance of the outcome of the American presidential election, I awaited its results before writing this blog.  And though I, like a great many other people, was rather taken by surprise by what happened, the overall semiotic outline of the event was clear both before and, now, after it.  So, doing my best to avoid partisanship, I will sketch out that outline here in the shape of a series of fundamental takeaways.


First, as the chapter on cultural contradictions ("American Paradox") in the ninth edition of Signs of Life in the USA explicitly explores in the light of the Trump campaign, America really has split apart into hostile camps, each one, in part through the use of social media, creating its own "echo chamber," largely deaf to the discourse of the other, and lodged, essentially, in its own construction of reality.


Second, when we situate the election into a larger system that includes the British Brexit vote and the rise of populist parties in Europe voicing similar complaints to those in America, we can find signs of the turmoils induced by demographic change in a highly unsettled global context.  Try as one will, there is simply no way of avoiding the racial component of these events, and pretty much every hope of having achieved a post-racial society in the wake of the Obama presidency has been dashed.


Third, Trump's success signifies a highly paradoxical rejection of neoliberalism—paradoxical because such rejections are commonly viewed as a preoccupation of the political left.  But alongside the Sanders campaign (which was explicitly a rejection of neoliberalism), Trump's rejection of the ideology of the global marketplace, which resonated so strongly with working-class voters, is itself a challenge thrown down before all of the global elites whose power and privileges owe much to the neoliberal order of things, no matter which side of the aisle these elites may sit.  In short, this was a mighty challenge to America's socioeconomic elites—Republican and Democratic alike, led, paradoxically, by a member of the elite class himself.  But America has been here before, as when the uprising of Jacksonian democracy in the 19th century was conducted by a plantation-owning aristocrat.


Fourth, the election signifies just how important the Supreme Court has become in a society so divided that neither its Executive nor Legislative branches can govern any more.  A lot of voters (especially Evangelicals) swallowed their disapproval of Trump's personal life to vote, essentially, for future Court justices.


Fifth, and finally, the election has illustrated a point that I often make to my students about the difference between sociology and cultural semiotics.  Both fields, of course, analyze human society, but while sociology relies very much on the measuring of human behavior and consciousness via quantitatively constructed surveys, semiotics simply takes the actual behavior of people (what they do rather than what they say) as evidence.  The failure of pretty much all of the polls to predict what happened despite all of their surveys and quantitative data (just as the pollsters failed in the Brexit vote) indicates that people can be very chary about what they say about their beliefs, especially in the case of this election in which support for Trump was socially frowned upon.  After all, it wasn't only uneducated working-class voters who supported Trump, and the pollsters missed that.   And since semiotics is an interpretive, not a predictive, activity, we can now see just how much louder actions have spoken than words in this election.

In this series of posts I am looking at what we can learn from peer feedback practices in other disciplines. Andy Brown and Sharon Hart talked to me about the studio art critique.


Many differences emerged as I discussed critique with Sharon and Andy.  But I was heartened to note one important similarity across our disciplines: critical thinking.  I generally like to think that critical thinking is at the heart of what I do in the writing classroom.  I acknowledge that students are going to leave our FYC class and go on into their majors.  The specifics of the work we do may not carry forward.  But I would hope that the skills of critical thinking we practice in the classroom will go forward, as those are the skills I imagine students most need as they proceed in their academic careers.


Andy was quite explicit about the role of critical thinking, particularly in relation to the practices of art in an academic context and the myth of talent in the field generally.  He explained that while it’s useful to have an inner spark, art in an academic setting is more about hard work.  I find this to be a useful notion for my writing classes, as well.  Many students think they just “can’t write,” but the truth is that within the FYC context it’s much more about hard work.


Critique assists that work, as does peer revision.  And when it’s good, it’s good.  Both Sharon and Andy had similar descriptions about really good critiques: students are engaged and invested, responding to each other, questioning each other, and carrying the class through their own discussion.  They become thinkers in relation to the work and they also feel empowered to share those thoughts, and perhaps to defend them, with others.  Again, so similar to the processes of writing I hope to encourage.


It feels like students often resent peer revision as a kind of “busy work.”  Perhaps it would help if I were to better contextualize it in the larger work of critical thinking for the class.  What do you think?

Traci Gardner

Talk about Tolerance

Posted by Traci Gardner Expert Nov 15, 2016

tolerance by ambar stefania, on FlickrThe events happening in the United States during the last week motivated me to talk about tolerance and intolerance today by updating a post from November 2010. That post reminded me that tomorrow, November 15, is the International Day for Tolerance.


Established by UNESCO in 1996, the event is based on 1995 Declaration of Principles on Tolerance “to take all positive measures necessary to promote tolerance in our societies, because tolerance is not only a cherished principle, but also a necessity for peace and for the economic and social advancement of all peoples.”


If there were ever a time when we need to promote tolerance, that time is now. One effective, but simple, way to explore tolerance is to look at the ways people talk about the concept during some class sessions this month and then produce projects that share their exploration with others on campus. Here’s one way to accomplish that goal through in-class discussion and collaboration.


Session One

  1. Ask students to record their understanding of tolerance. They can record personal experiences, working definitions, and responses to events in the news. The goal is to create a touchstone that they can return to later. There is no right or wrong answer. Everyone in a community can talk about tolerance for the values and actions of others.
  2. Move to UNESCO’s 1995 Declaration of Principles on Tolerance. Article 1 of the Declaration specifically addresses the “Meaning of tolerance.” Ask students to read the entire Declaration, paying particular attention to that section.
  3. Discuss the definition in the Declaration and how it compares to students’ own understanding. Explore the language that is used in the document specifically. Unpack the complex words, and note how the document attempts to be inclusive.
  4. If class time allows, students can work in groups, each taking one point of Article 1 and rewriting the explanation using less formal language. They can imagine themselves writing for younger students or writing sound bites for a general audience.
  5. After discussion of the Declaration, ask students to record how the document relates to their earlier notes on the concept either in class or for homework.

Session Two

  1. Review the definition(s) of tolerance from the previous session, explaining that the class will spend time this session comparing to the ways that tolerance is discussed publicly.
  2. Share news stories about tolerance, intolerance, and bullying with the class. You can use local examples or these recent pieces:
  3. Ask students to begin by separating objective details and material from subjective details and material. Have them note when objective details are used and when subjective details are used. Talk about how purpose and audience influence the information and the language that is used to present it.
  4. Have students apply their definitions of tolerance to the articles, considering these discussion questions:
    • Do the articles specifically use the word tolerance or intolerance?
    • Are other words used to describe tolerant (or intolerant) attitudes?
    • How does the perspective shift if you rephrase the pieces to use the antonym?
    • How does the discussion in the articles align with the UNESCO Declaration and their own understanding?
  5. Finish the project by asking students to write about how one or more of the articles relates to their own or the UNESCO Declaration’s understanding of tolerance. Ask students to draw conclusions about how tolerance is discussed (implicitly or explicitly) and defined.
  6. Alternately, move the project toward sharing students’ exploration of tolerance outside the classroom. Ask student groups to create a text that explains tolerance and urges others to promote and practice tolerance every day. Check with your school’s office of equal opportunity office, student affairs, or residence life for help distributing students’ work to the campus community. Students can work on projects like these:
    • create posters that are displayed on campus.
    • write letters to the school or local newspaper.
    • produce video or audio podcasts that share their messages.
    • arrange a flash mob on tolerance.
    • design an infographic that presents details on tolerance.
    • create a playlist of songs that reflect tolerance, with notes on why they were chosen.
    • curate a display for the library or student center.
    • assemble a class photo essay to display on digital sign boards on campus.
    • write flyers, pamphlets, or brochures to distribute on campus.
    • post a meme-style campaign on social media, modeled on the photos in the image above.


Troubling actions and disturbing words have been commonplace during the political campaigns this year, and the last week has shown me that students need an opportunity to slow down and think about the issues. Many are scared, uncomfortable, or sad. Creating space and time in the classroom to contribute toward a safe, tolerant campus community seems like one of the best ways we can respond.


What strategies are you using to address students’ post-election feelings and teach about tolerance? Please tell me in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.



Credit: tolerance by ambar stefania, on Flickr, under a CC-BY 2.0 license

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


Today’s post is not all that astounding but I offer it as an easy way to showcase student learning and reflect on multimodal projects.  Reflection is part of all of my classes, and this act of critical reading is more important than ever in digital classrooms.  I believe it is not enough to have students create digital and multimodal projects; it is when students reflect upon and articulate their learning that they benefit the most. 


In the class I am currently teaching, the second in the series of introductory composition classes, we have focused on the subject of digital culture and identity while at the same time composing a series of multimodal projects.  I like the idea of pairing the projects with simultaneous serious, critical reflection on the subject itself so students come to understand the larger context in which their multimodal compositions reside.  In this particular class, students create memes, digital stories, DIY videos and academic blog posts.  Although I have shared some of these assignments in other posts, here I talk about two final pieces from this unit that ask students to reflect and read across these projects and collaborate with their classmates to analyze and synthesize their ideas.


This reflection project has three reflective components: (1) an individual extended academic blog post on Digital Identity and Culture, (2) a Collaborative Slideshow, and (3) a full class reflective discussion and presentation.


The Assignment: Three Reflections


Part 1: Digital Identity and Culture: A Reflective-Crosslinked Blog Post 

This writing is composed after students have completed a series of multimodal projects and asks them to reflect back on these experiences to expand upon what they have come to understand about digital culture and identity.  Although students will use the artifacts from the class, this writing should be a self-standing academic essay that will be engaging for a public audience who is unaware of the subjects and ideas we have covered in the class.  Encourage students to explore how they are reading across their texts and artifacts. They should quote from and crosslink to their earlier blog posts to create a hyperlinked portrait of how they see themselves as a digital writer and citizen in digital spaces. Think of this reflection as both an overview of what is included in their blog and they understand the larger ideas of the class (digital culture and identity).  They should move back and forth between the larger universal ideas and use their specific projects and artifacts to illustrate and extend their ideas.  Here are couple of samples of students’ individual reflections:


 Part 2: Expanding Perspectives and Showcasing Ideas

This second part of the assignment asks students to work in small groups to create a collaborative slideshow in which they incorporate and synthesize insights and ideas.  They start by reviewing and discussing their classmates’ work to look for patterns, connections and significant ideas across their work.  As part of a collaborative presentation, each student creates a single presentation slide that includes a strong, contributing quotation along with an accompanying image from their blog.  Then, as a team, they pull their slides together into a collaborative presentation that includes a title slide and their individual work.  Check out this sample of one team’s collaborative presentation.


Part 3: Class Discussion

Students present their projects to the class for more discussion and reflection.  The structure of the slideshows allows individual students to share their ideas and extend upon each other’s ideas, expanding their understandings of the subject at large. 


Reflections on the Activity

 This activity went very well.  Through the three step reflection, students expanded their ideas about digital identity and culture in ways that felt informed and carefully considered.  I was impressed by the depth of their understanding.  Here are some of the insightful ideas that came out of their discussion:  


  • Students compared their physical identities to their virtual identities and discussed which one was more “authentic” and the ways they overlapped and diverged. Sometimes identity and character get confused in these contexts.
  • They recognized that, although they are “digital natives,” they are still in an “internet adolescence” and that they have been growing up through critically examining it through academic lenses. They realized that, on the internet, we often see things on the surface and that it is really more complicated.
  • They discussed the impact and importance of rhetorical choices for digital writers and realized the importance of audience engagement and the relationship between text and image. They learned that “internet language is distinct” and requires different rhetorical strategies and knowledge.
  • They spoke of realizing their roles as active readers and writers, feeling a new sense of ownership and responsibility to enter the larger conversation in thoughtful ways.


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. 


One type of analysis that plays a role in argumentation is causal analysis. I started trying to do a causal analysis of some of the arguments in the recent presidential campaign, but the cause-effect relationships soon took on the complexities of the New York subway system. I decided to look only at some of the causal relationships involved in the infamous email controversy. That alone shows that we generally err in assuming that one cause produces only one effect.


Consider the letter that James Comey, Director of the FBI, sent to Congress on October 28, 2016. It certainly had multiple effects. It sent Trump into a paroxysm of delight and Clinton into a rage.  Both were understandable reactions. What a difference there was when he wrote his second letter on November 6, 2016, announcing that the “new” emails found (on Anthony Weiner’s computer) had been studied and that they reinforced Comey’s original conclusion  that there were no grounds for prosecuting Clinton.  And the effect on the voting public? That depends. For some, neither letter made any difference at all. In many states, voters heard about the first letter, went to vote, and then heard about the second. The first letter had the potential to affect their vote, but they didn’t find out about the second in time. Those in states with no early voting at least had the chance to know about both letters. Many of those who heard Trump’s explanation of the meaning of the first letter went to the polls believing that the investigation into Clinton’s emails had been reopened.


Let’s consider an example of working in the opposite direction, from effect back to cause. Again, a one-to-one correspondence is often an oversimplification. One news commentator pointed out—and I paraphrase—that Comey’s role in the presidential campaign would not have been an issue if Clinton had not done something that warranted an investigation in the first place: use a private email server. So using a private email server was the effect that caused the investigation into her emails, which was the effect that caused Comey to reconsider his conclusion not to recommend that she be prosecuted for wrongdoing, which was the effect that caused the respective reactions from the Trump and Clinton camps—a causal chain.


Clinton’s use of a private server was often given as a reason for not voting for her. I suspect, however, that that was only a contributing factor. More likely a number of different factors went into a decision not to vote for her. By the end of the campaign, critics were poking fun at Trump for responding to every accusation with a reference to Hillary’s emails. He hammered at that reason for not trusting Clinton, but the intensity of his outrage at what he considered to be crimes for which she should be jailed was probably the result of more than the email issue.


Causal analysis is another means of exploring an issue to discover all of the arguments that can be made about it. With enough time, someone could analyze many of the complex reasons that people voted the way they did in 2016. To oversimplify the cause-effect relationships is to cheapen people’s reasons for voting as they did.


Credit: Clinton vs. Trump 2016 by Marco Verch on flickr

I’m writing this the weekend before the election. So much has already been written about the candidates, the process, the scandals, the lies, the cheating, the intimidation, the vitriol, the ignorance, the racism, the misogyny, the failures of the press, media bias, confirmation bias, the polls and the pollsters, the pundits and their punditry that it’s hard to imagine having anything new or important to add to this tsunami of text that continues to crash, in wave after wave, on the increasingly polluted remnants of what little time we have left on Earth here together.


And it’s even harder for me to imagine what words I could compose just prior to November 8th that will be worth your time when they go live on November 11th.  Whatever happens this coming week, you will have gone to work in one world on Monday morning and you will have finished up teaching in a very different world by Friday.


I just want to draw attention to one data point before I get on to the challenge of imagining what teaching post 11/9 (the day after the day after the election) is likely to entail. When I checked Nate Silver’s this morning, beginning the day as I have every day for the past many months, and found that Clinton’s chances of prevailing on Election Day had continued their decline, I dropped down further on Silver’s page to look at the graph of how his polling numbers had changed, day-by-day, since his first report on June 8th.  (Silver, recall, skyrocketed to fame following the 2008 election by predicting the results in 49 out of 50 states, practically down to the county-level. He experienced immediate Internet fame afterwards, via the hashtag #natesilverknows followed by something impossible—i.e., what you’re eating for breakfast tomorrow.)


Silver’s method grabs all reputable and semi-reputable polls, then models various ways of correcting for bias and reliability to come up with a prediction that has aspirations of neutrality. Silver strives to separate the signal from the noise, aims to provide a constantly updated, clear-eyed vision of what’s more likely to happen than not. And what I saw this morning is that, while the odds of who will win the election has waxed and waned for the past four months, as we slouch towards Election Day, Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning have declined .6% since early June. All the money, all the rage and hatred, all the debates, all the airtime, all the sleepless nights, and all the worry—and that’s it: .6%.


That says a lot to me about rhetoric and about the many industries that thrive on political and social dysfunction.  Does it make sense to talk about persuasion in what is, essentially, a binary system? It seems that very, very few people have changed their minds over the course of this ghastly, grueling crawl through the sausage factory. The maps are red and blue and then shades of each, but when it comes to voting, there’s no gray area, no possibility of registering a qualified, complex, nuanced, contextual, or contingent response; there’s no way to go gray.


And yet, all of the attributes that the act of voting doesn’t allow are attributes of the creative mind, attributes that education is meant to cultivate, encourage, and nourish. They are all attributes that we’ll need after the election is over, regardless of who we voted for, if we are going to be able to promote ways of working together across, around, and through our differences.


Teaching Post-11/9

Ann and I have an essay in Habits of the Creative Mind entitled, “On the Three Most Important Words in the English Language,” where we discuss different ways of making connections between thoughts and observations. “And” is one of the three most important words. It allows us to connect like to like: Clinton is this, that, and the other thing; Trump is this, that, and the other thing. (I was playing with this kind of connecting in the first paragraph of this post.) This is paratactic thinking. It’s our most primal way of making sense of the world: this and this and this and this. It’s the thinking that children do when they’re telling stories about their days: we went here and we went there and I fell asleep and Mommy woke me up and . . . .


The other two most important words in the English language allow us to escape from the flattening sameness of paratactic thought. “But” allows us to qualify; “or” allows us to imagine alternative possibilities. These ways of connecting ring in worlds

  • Of contingency: X won the election, but Y refused to concede.
  • Of uncertainty: Neither X nor Y won the election; they tied (this actually is possible!).
  • Of opportunity: If X wins the election, we’ll have a Constitutional crisis or cooler heads will prevail and we’ll find a way to reclaim the virtues of compromise.

Teaching after 11/9, we need to make sure we’re helping our students—and ourselves—to remember that the future is ours for the making and that, at the mico-level of the individual mind, we prepare ourselves to participate in future-making by practicing complexity, practicing nuance, practicing qualification, and, practicing kindness. I’ve added the last term on this list to my thoughts about the habits of the creative mind after reading Beth Boquet’s new book, Nowhere Near the Line, where she elaborates on the necessity of practicing this way of being in relation to one another:

"Too often we think of kindness as a quality someone either possesses or does not. We admire a kind person as a rare object. We speak of kindness as a random act, something that surprises us precisely because it is unusual, unexpected. Kindness, however, is really a habit, an orientation, something we practice and, indeed, can get better at."

Finally, post 11/9, I think we also need to refamiliarize ourselves with the original texts that have shaped and structured the democratic ideal—as we should have done post 9/11. Ann thinks we should all hit the pause button and spend the next week having our students read and discuss the Constitution. That sounds to me like a really good place to start.

Andrea A. Lunsford

We the People??

Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Nov 10, 2016

I’m writing this post on Election Day, November 9, 2016, as I try to take in what has happened to bring an unexperienced and malevolent person to the highest office in the land. I’m nervous and fidgety and despairing, though trying to do some writing. But I’ve also been thinking back over this interminable campaign, pondering moments that especially stood out for me. One of them came in during Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, when Trump said, referring to “the system,” that no one knows the system better than he does and that “I alone can fix it.” As my British friends would say, I was gobsmacked, stunned at the enormity of those five words, leading off with “I.”


During the last thirty years, I have worked very hard, along with many colleagues, to resist what Lisa Ede and I call “radical individualism,” the constant focus on self, the refusal to recognize that knowledge and art and all our accomplishments are the product of collaboration, of sharing. That making progress will always call for cooperation, for working together, for joining hands and giving up the myth of the solitary “great man” who will act as knight in shining armor. Ask the leading tech companies today and they will agree that a focus on “I” doesn’t hold; even in the Academy, the realization that “we” is more powerful than “I” has taken hold, widely in the sciences and now even to some degree in the humanities, with their still strong individualistic bias.


Imagine my delight, then, when on the eve of the election I found Nick Sousanis’s comic on this campaign/election, expressing what I have been feeling. He too found that the “Only I can fix it” line haunted him and brought him back to thinking of another powerful phrase, “We the people.” We, not I. Our, not my. I could describe Nick’s terrific cartoon, but better yet take a look at it for yourself on Nick’s blog, Spin, Weave, and Cut.


Yet this election shows that “I” has trumped “We,” once again, keeping the glass ceiling firmly in place and offering up a “hero” to save the day. I have read, and reread, W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” written in 1919 in the horrific aftermath of war and asking “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” It’s a question worth pondering today.


Right now, I feel like assuming the fetal position—for the next four years. But teachers don’t get to do that, especially teachers of writing and rhetoric. Now more than ever we must steel ourselves to working harder than ever to teach our students to think critically and carefully, to shape arguments that are deeply resourced and replete with credible and reliable evidence, to continue making their voices heard in all their rich complexity and diversity. So as I grieve for what I see as the triumph of “I” politics and wait to see what a President Trump will actually do, these are the goals I pledge myself to pursuing.

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


Like most first year composition instructors, I talk about audience early and often in my classes. We theorize audiences for assigned readings, we analyze audiences for political speeches, and we talk about the role of the audience for various genres of writing.  When it comes to their own writing, however, my students sometimes ditch the idea of writing for an outside audience because they know that, in most cases, I’m the only person outside of peer review who will read their texts.


The following multimodal assignment framework provides an opportunity for getting students to invest in the idea of audience by selecting their own subjects, defining their own exigences, and determining their own deliverables for their projects.


Background Reading

These texts from Andrea's handbooks are useful introductions to this assignment:

  • The St. Martin’s Handbook: Ch 2e, “Analyzing audiences”; Ch. 11e: “Conducting field research”
  • Writing in Action: Ch 4e, “Analyze your audience”; Ch. 13e: “Conduct field research”
  • The Everyday Writer: Ch 3d, “Analyze your audience”; Ch. 13e: “Conduct field research appropriately"
  • EasyWriter: Ch 1f, “Reaching appropriate audiences”; Ch. 13e: “Doing field research”



  1. Perform a genre analysis on sample profiles of places. Reading profiles is a good way to begin talking or continue conversations about audience, exigence, and context, and there are countless sample profiles available freely on the internet, including “A National Treasure: Wrigley Field Turns 100 Years Old” and “Seeing Trump in Trump Tower.” I like to have students investigate genre conventions in small groups using a handout with genre analysis questions adapted from Bawarshi and Reiff (see also my previous post, Multimodal Mondays: A Low-Stakes Assignment for Understanding Blogs as Genre ). The large-group discussion can and should focus on theorizing the various connections between audience and the genre conventions and contextual conditions they’ve identified.   
  2.  Introduce concepts of multimodality and visual rhetoric. Use print ads, commercials, movie trailers, and other multimodal texts to continue conversations about genre and to focus on how visual features complement and complicate content. This is usually an ongoing, weekly discussion in my classes; we talk about issues of arrangement, imagery, fonts, typefaces, colors, etc. and how these concepts are related to audience, context, and purpose.
  3.  Students choose a local location to profile. They visit the location at least once to conduct interviews, write observations, and take photos or videos. They should bring their notes, photos, and videos to class for collaborative in-class workshops in which their peers help them articulate a purpose, audience, and direction for their projects.
  4.  Students write a proposal detailing their exigence, audience, and proposed mode(s) for the project. This is a good time to check in with students, either via informal feedback on their proposals or in quick conferences to make sure they understand the concepts discussed in class and have a clear sense of how they will be putting those concepts to work in their project.
  5.  Students create drafts of their profile projects for peer review. For assignments where the deliverables vary greatly from one student to the next, it may be useful to have the students design the parameters of peer review: the kinds of feedback they want to receive, the size of the groups, and other logistics.
  6.  Students present revised piece to the class and/or the audience they identified at the beginning of the project. Students might submit pieces to websites, film or art festivals, newspapers, or a number of other places in order to reach a real audience for their work. Submission guidelines are good points of discussion to address during the proposal phase, and having an audience in mind beyond a classroom fosters more buy-in for the project from students.
  7.  Follow up with a short statement of rhetorical objectives (SORO) for guided reflection. Students’ rhetorical choices may not always be perfectly executed or perfectly clear, but the SORO gives them an opportunity to discuss and justify their choices. Understanding what students actually worked on during the project may help instructors provide more helpful and individualized feedback. DePaul University’s Office for Teaching, Learning & Assessment provides a sample SORO that instructors might use for this project or future assignments. 



This project provides a lot of room for customization based on individual course goals and learning outcomes.  Instructors can provide word count requirements or other boundaries for the project as they see fit and/or deem appropriate for their students.


Because of this and the probable variety of projects’ structures, instructors may find it productive to develop a rubric for evaluation with their students, taking into account the components of the project that students worked on the most and focusing on the reflection and process elements for the project.



I’ve done open-topic essays in my classes in the past, but I’ve always run into the same problems with the fabricated or imaginary audiences—students just don’t seem to consider them in any authentic way because they know that I’m the only person who’s going to read their writing, or the audience that I’ve instructed them to write to doesn’t necessarily align with their reason for writing.  Audiences are so closely tied with exigence that it makes sense in an open-topic assignment for students to identify their own audiences once they’ve figured out what they want their work to do for and to their readers.  


Guest blogger Amanda Gaddam is an adjunct instructor in the First-Year Writing Program and the School for New Learning at DePaul University. She holds a B.A. in English with a concentration in Literary Studies and a M.A. in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse with a concentration in Teaching Writing and Language from DePaul, and her research interests include first-year composition, adult and non-traditional students, and writing center pedagogies.


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

On October 27, Tiffany Martinez, a first generation Latina student, wrote a blog post narrating a humiliating encounter with a professor who assumed, based on Martinez’s use of language, that Martinez had plagiarized a paper. The photo at the head of the blog shows the instructor’s handwritten comment on her use of the word “hence”: “This is not your word.” The instructor confronted Martinez with the charge of cheating—in front of her fellow students.


I first saw the blog on Facebook; a friend and recent college graduate shared the post. It struck a chord with a number of students who were on the receiving end of similar comments, or who had seen similar incidents of implicit bias and insensitivity in their classrooms. A couple of days later, faculty forums also began to consider Martinez’s plea to be accepted and in academia (see here for an example).


Much of the discussion that I’ve seen thus far is situated in the context of private and public four-year institutions, where lines between privilege and the lack thereof are often obvious.  That’s not the case where I teach, at a community college in a rural/suburban area. Is there an implicit bias here? Certainly. After all, we are “just a community college,” where the students are not “academically inclined,” and may be “headed straight to the work force, anyway.”  My colleagues and I will admit that we are suspicious when we get a polished paper with strong vocabulary – from any student. And we check that paper for plagiarism. We call that student in for a conference to discern whether the words do indeed come from the student. 


Those of us who teach in two-year institutions have good intentions: we believe in the promise of access and the value of academic support. We also recognize the cultural disconnect that many of our students face when they enter our classrooms, and we struggle to value and affirm our students’ lives and experiences while at the same time inviting them into “our” academic culture. Nonetheless, our biases exist, and we have to address them; otherwise, we put our students in an untenable position. We are asking that they adopt the linguistic customs of our discourse community, and we can be harsh in our denunciations when their efforts to do so are not successful – when their good faith attempts to figure out our rhetorical expectations, use new vocabulary, and make sense of grammar and punctuation rules result in awkward or garbled sentences. And yet when our students produce something that closely approximates the writing we have held up as “good,” we immediately assume that they could not have produced such work on their own. “Either you fail or you cheated” – this isn’t a fair set of alternatives.


So how do we respond? How can I—or my colleagues or students—learn from Martinez’s piece? Perhaps I could share it with my freshman writers, as a way of exploring implicit bias. Many of them have experienced bias, but I suspect they are not familiar with this term (and there’s my implicit bias, again).


But the piece also raises further questions: was Martinez’s response reasonable and appropriate? Could there be another side to the story? The piece illustrates both the value of a democratized Web, where those traditionally without power can call out injustice, and the danger of the open internet, where memes and tweets rule, where context and nuance are stripped, inviting rapid (and sometimes thoughtless) responses. This, too, would be worth discussing with students: what is the process for discerning truth here?


Or perhaps the students and I could approach the post, and the comments which sparked it, in a rhetorical context. The instructor’s comment—“this is not your word”—could be interpreted as an accusation of plagiarism (“I don’t think you wrote this”), but also as a prohibition (“you are not allowed to use this language”). I wonder which interpretation arises first for my students, or if they perceive the comment differently. Approaching the comment in terms of rhetorical choices open to the instructor for the given situation could help students understand that I am also a writer, and I need feedback on the effectiveness of my rhetorical choices, just as I offer such feedback to them.


I am thinking of using the piece as an end-of-term reflection: students will identify a comment I made on their work during the course and write their own blog post in response. They will discuss their interpretation of the comment, the implications of the comment, and the relative success of the comment as a rhetorical choice, given the purpose of my feedback. Such an exercise will reinforce rhetorical choice as a threshold concept in my course, and it will help me understand how my students perceive the feedback I give them—as well as answer a nagging question that arose when I read Martinez’s piece: have I written a comment such as this, not recognizing how it would be read by a student?


And of course, having begun a study of argumentation, we could also analyze Martinez’s post in terms of appeals to ethos (noting her explicit presentation of credentials at the outset), to pathos (a plea to be “loved”), and to logos (contrasting her need to present credentials with those who would not need to do so to be accepted). Ultimately, the piece invites discussion of discourse communities: boundaries, membership, treatment of “imposters,” shibboleths, apprenticeship, appropriation, and the role of language in negotiating each of these. My students are not yet where Martinez is academically, but she has raised the issues in a voice which—I believe—they will find authentic and relevant.


Kudos to her.

In this series of posts I am looking at what we can learn from peer feedback practices in other disciplines. Andy Brown and Sharon Hart talked to me about the studio art critique.




I guess walking into these conversations I expect the emption to play a big role in critique, mostly because of the associations I had with the practice through articles like the one in the New York Times. “Crit” made me think of Yale’s “pit” made me think of students breaking down with ragged sobs from the cruel destructive comments of their peers and professors. This impression was not dispelled by looking at the book about critique that Andy loaned me, The Critique Handbook, which offers some sample comments such as, “The story that you present in this scene is interesting, but your figures are badly drawn” and, “It is very well-drawn but it leaves me cold. Do you even know what this is about or why you drew it in the first place?” (6). From my perspective as a teacher of writing, such comments feel themselves a bit cold. Given the mythic status of critique, I wondered what role fear (and the process of dispelling that fear) played in the undergraduate studio critique? I’ll also admit that one of the reasons I was so interested about fear is that I generally have no idea what students in the classes I teach are feeling, if they feel anything at all. While perhaps not the emotion I would want to cultivate, at least it was an emotion. I wondered what it might add to the process of peer revision, as well.


Actually, my chat with Andy brought the topic to the forefront of my thinking, since it seemed a subtext for many of the things he talked about. For example, he mentioned the importance of setting an environment in critique where students feel empowered to speak because many might be afraid of being embarrassed. Students can simply be afraid to talk. Sharon’s critique handout addresses this explicitly: “Do not be afraid to talk.” Both of them also discussed how they address this in their classroom practices by modelling good critique, reframing student comments back through the vocabulary of the class, asking students direct questions, and offering feedback and assessment on students’ critique comments. I’ve done some similar things in my writing classes, reinforcing peer revision by pointing out good comments from students and offering a larger conversation about the process through the elements of the class and its vocabulary.


In discussing this kind of fear, both Sharon and Andy reinforced for me that peer feedback practices are learned behaviors, ones that need careful cultivation. I feel like peer revision worksheets do a lot of that work in the writing classroom. Students don’t have to be afraid in answering the sheets because they are well-skilled at answering a teacher’s questions. It’s locating methods to empower them to speak in comments on the papers themselves that remains a bit of a challenge for me, though I can’t say if the (de)motivating emotion in the classes I teach is fear or just indifference.


But for art students, there is another side to the fear coin and that is the fear of the artist subject to critique. In this sense, I was reminded of Becka McKay’s comment about creative writing students—that they believe that what they write comes from their souls. Andy explained that at first students are afraid because they don’t quite know what they’re doing yet, or they’re afraid their work isn’t good enough, or they’re afraid of what others might think of them and their work. Sharon emphasized that critique is not about sugar-coating. But it’s not about tearing them down, either. Both emphasized that one of the lessons of critique is that it makes better artists. Sharon went as far as to call critique a luxury: “When else do you have all those eyes looking at your work?” Andy shares his own experiences of harsh critiques and explains how they helped his work, and Sharon told me that when a critique is good (even if tough) it makes you want to work and make and continue.


If the remedy to the fear of offering peer feedback is scaffolded instructions and close moderation with a hefty dose of modeling, then the remedy to the fear of receiving peer feedback is to understand that the process is vital to becoming better. I don’t know if my students believe me when I tell them that peer revision makes writing better, and I don’t know that they are afraid (not identifying as compositionists in the way that art students identify as artists or creative writers identify as writers). But I do know that starting from the question of what we feel offers me a new way to open up all of these questions in my classroom. And I think I will give that a try.


More next time. Don’t be afraid to comment (wink, wink).

I'm not a liar, by Tristan Schmurr, on FlickrWith the presidential election coming to a close today, I want to update a post from November 2010 that offers some great discussion opportunities for the week after Americans cast their votes.


The original post was based on the Psychology Today article “Clues to When CEOs and Politicians Are Lying to You” by Todd B. Kashdan, which summarizes a working paper that analyzes the language use of CEOs and CFOs during quarterly earnings conference calls. The researchers found three ways that language betrayed the truth of the speakers on the calls:


  1. They avoid personal references, using “we” rather than “I,” for instance.
  2. They overuse “over-the-top glowing positive statements.”
  3. They never hesitate. Their language shows “absolute certainty.”


These findings can easily be applied to texts that students read in the classroom or as part of a research project. In the aftermath of the election and the political maneuverings that are sure to follow, students can also apply these findings to the various statements by candidates, their supporters, political action groups, journalists, and pundits.


To try the activity in the classroom, I’d follow these steps:

  • Spend some time discussing each of the clues that Kashdan identifies and brainstorming examples of the kind of language that each refers to.

  • Talk about the audience and purpose of the phone calls in Kashdan's article. While these strategies may point out liars and lying in some rhetorical situations, they wouldn’t be markers for every text. Students could brainstorm rhetorical situations where a healthy amount of plural personal pronouns (e.g., we, our, us) would not necessarily denote lying.

  • Analyze a specific political document for rhetorical indications that the author may be stretching the truth. Students can look at recent political speeches, campaign ads, and media coverage.

  • Ask students, given this context, to consider the practice of live fact-checking, which has emerged as a media strategy this election cycle.

  • To extend the conversation, students might explore any of these articles:


No matter how the election turns out, I’m sure there will be lots to talk about in the classroom. Please use the comments below to tell me about your ideas for talking about liars and lying this political season.



Credit: I'm not a liar, by Tristan Schmurr, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

Jonathan Alexander and Elizabeth Losh are currently at work on Understanding Rhetoric, Second EditionThe following post continues to reflect the journey, even though it was originally posted on February 13, 2012.


For me, one of the biggest challenges of working on a graphic book has been adapting to thinking and composing in a different medium. Indeed, one of the lessons we have learned in the process is that we can’t just think like “text” authors; we also have to begin to think visually. As we sketch out the chapters, panel by panel, we try to provide detailed visual cues for Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon, our fabulous artists–who, in turn, not only modify our initial image directions and augment them beautifully, but have also challenged how we understand and use text in the graphic book form. 


Along these lines, one of the earliest lessons we learned about our use of text is that we were initially relying too much on captioning and not enough on dialogue to carry the instructional weight of each chapter. That is, we were thinking like the text-producing scholars that we are, and not like the collaborative graphic authors we needed to be. We were constantly explaining rhetorical concepts, for instance, while ignoring how images and dialogue—the principal features of the comic form—could be used to convey our ideas about writing. Comparing initial drafts of the first several chapters with their more recent revisions shows a steady move away from captioning to significantly more reliance on dialogue and visuals.


Concomitant with that shift has been a shift in how we think about the project and the processes we have to engage in to maximize our use of the comic form.  For instance, we’ve frequently found ourselves sitting around my kitchen table, reading dialogue out loud to make sure that our characters strike the right—and credible—tones.  Moreover, the dialogue format forced us to focus on the process of understanding rhetorical concepts. We’ve had to show characters, in action, coming to understand concepts such as logos and ethos, or the complexities and recursiveness of the writing process. The format of the comic book allows us—actually requires us—to model, dialogically and visually, what it means to compose. 


I focus on this particular example of how our composing process had to shift because it seems to me a powerful reminder of how different genres call forth different modalities of thinking, as Anis Bawarshi argues in Genre and the Invention of the Writer:

The writing prompt does not merely provide students with a set of instructions. Rather, it organizes and generates the discursive and ideological conditions which students take up and recontextualize as they write essays. As such, it habituates students into the subjectivities they are asked to assume as well as enact—the subjectivities required to explore their subjects. (144)


In our case, our self-inflicted writing prompt—compose a graphic book about composing—required that we assume and enact a different kind of compositional subjectivity.  Put another way, the particular rhetorical affordances of the genre created the possibilities through which we could think about writing and composing differently.


How so? We rediscovered the intensity of the process of writing since we were now writing both collaboratively and visually. We discovered the joys and frustrations of working, not just with each other, but with artists and editors. We talked endlessly with one another and our collaborators about various topics and how to present them. We were constantly negotiating meaning, confronting how the expression of an idea visually might resonate very differently than it does textually. For instance, Liz and I wanted to present ourselves in one chapter as spies rappelling down a skyscraper while uncovering the mysteries of the writing process—but when we looked at the art and realized that it was more reminiscent of 9/11 than of a lighthearted spy caper, we knew the idea had to be reconceived. We learned a valuable lesson in visual resonance—one we could not have encountered had we been working alone with our text. We had to see our words in visual action to understand their potential implications.


The process of learning to write in a new genre has cued us in powerfully to the many sensations that our students must encounter as they sit in our classes, learning new genres, new modes of composing, new ways of thinking. But more than this, the dialogic and visual nature of the genre required that our composing processes shift significantly. Peer review, for instance, became not just a step in the writing process, but rather an integral, nearly weekly negotiation of meaning as we attempted to work through, clarify, understand, and (in many cases) radically revise what we were doing.


Perhaps most importantly, we not only remembered the challenges of learning to compose in a new medium, a new genre, but we have to come to value more highly the importance of thinking across media and genres. Working with the same concepts (in our case, rhetorical concepts) in multiple genres literally allowed us to re-see and to re-vise how we presented them, perhaps even how we have come to think about them. From an essay-like proposal to text-driven chapters to a dialogue-driven script to drafts of visually rich panels, each step in this process offered us the chance to re-examine what we were doing—to refine, clarify, and even discover different ways of thinking about our content. This project has been an excellent reminder of the power not just of the writing process but also of conceiving of that process through and across multiple genres and media.


I’m thinking about how I might provide my own students with the same sense of discovery that we have had with this project….

This post is a continuation of Teaching and Learning at Midterm: Free Empathy (Meditation 1)

Second Meditation: On Creativity and Slow Grading

This semester, the graduate students enrolled in my Practicum course have initiated many thoughtful discussions on the role of creativity in teaching basic writing and learning to write for academic audiences and purposes. For a practitioner/inquiry project devoted to this theme, a participant in practicum developed and guest-taught a lesson for my students enrolled in Stretch. The lesson included a performance by Evelyn Glennie, whose TED Talk “How to Truly Listen” has been a significant touchstone for our writing project.

After we listened to Glennie perform Steve Reich’s "Clapping Music,” our guest-teacher asked us to write in response. In my own graduate school training, we were encouraged to write with students, to experience the challenges of process and product writers ourselves. I rarely write poetry anymore, but this poem emerged as an attempt to gain understanding and empathy for struggles with neuro-diversity. I presented the poem to students as an introduction to my frustrations with slow grading.

Organized Chaos (after Evelyn Glennie's performance of Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music”)

Flow-- breathing in flow--
and sound evolving from the tips of fingers
and the sound beating of a heart

(My brain these days
My sewing in odd moments)

Organized chaos

(Needle pushing through cotton
Quilting pieces
layering cotton over rayon over cool polyester)

creating new offerings from old notes
trying and trying again
organized chaos
the sound of flow

Right now, my brain is moving in pieces and fragments that need quilting together. Glennie's work reminds me of this, of Difference as asset and not deficit. She reminds me how and why art is created. She reminds me of the need to create art, and to remember writing as art and quilting as art, the seaming together of disparate pieces to create larger wholes. I used to write a lot of poetry. Now I write in many forms. Powerpoints are quilts and quilts are 1000-page books of short stories and essays. In my mind, through the tips of my fingers, I clap with Glennie. Organized chaos. I flow.



The practice of Free Empathy comes with its own challenges. For example, I need to constantly check long-held teaching practices and processes for relevance in current contexts. Often this checking happens in the moment, as new and unexpected conundrums arise. But as we move through midterm into the final weeks of the course,  Free Empathy offers the most consistent lesson plan I know for changing times.



Today’s guest blogger is Gene Melton, a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at North Carolina State University, where he teaches courses in composition and rhetoric and in British, American, and LGBTQ literature. In Spring 2017, he will begin serving as academic advisor for the Department’s Literature majors.  He earned his PhD in 19th- and 20th-century American literature at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.


Opening Classical Argument

The foundational assignment for my WID-based first-year academic writing and research course is a classical argument on a topic the students choose based on their individual interests and current base of knowledge. While I do allow students to conduct outside research for this classical argument, I do not require them to do so, nor do I expect them at this early point to be at all aware of academic, peer-reviewed sources. I begin with this assignment because it centers argument as a key intellectual activity on which I can build tothe further work of the course, which asks students to engage with texts from a variety of academic disciplines and to explore the pleasures and pitfalls of conducting research at the undergraduate level.


One of the first challenges this assignment presents is the choice of topic. Students often do not recognize the merit in writing about their very specific interests, initially opting in favor of rather sweeping, “trendy” issues. For example, a student might at first propose a paper on a vague notion of gun control when she is really invested in proposing regulations on hunting in her home state. Indeed, I find that I must conference with the students one-on-one as they are generating ideas to help them see that they can find viable topics within their personal interests and to help them develop the courage to risk doing so. I hope that students take from this part of the process the recognition that their interests can (and should) motivate their academic work and that they need to narrow down any topic to a scope reasonable for the parameters of a given writing situation.


Another challenge the students confront in this assignment is conceptualizing what exactly is at stake regarding the issue/topic they have identified and just how far they can go in supporting their assertions on the matter, given their current level of knowledge about the issue and access to evidence to support their claims. To help students work through their ideas, I ask them to think in terms of articulating a precise claim that does not go beyond the bounds of what they can defend through specific reasons and credible, concrete supporting evidence. We also examine assumptions (especially unstated ones) and consider how to respond to potential opposing views, elements of argument that often seem to have been overlooked or under-emphasized in students’ prior writing instruction. While most of their final drafts still rest on limited evidence and lack fully nuanced understanding of the issue(s) involved, they nevertheless demonstrate an evolving sense of what informed academic audiences demand of serious intellectual inquiry and argumentation.


Integrating Knowledge from Academic Domains

Once the students have completed this first project, they turn next to learning to read scholarly articles from three broad domains of academic inquiry:  humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. As part of this study, I ask the students to practice analyzing the rhetorical features of sample articles I provide and to discuss the similarities and differences in the way scholars in the various domains write about the knowledge they are generating and how those scholars articulate and support their claims in their essays and reports. At this time, the students also begin to explore formal academic research as they develop an annotated bibliography of peer-reviewed articles related to the topic about which they wrote their classical argument. They will also eventually write a comparative rhetorical analysis of two of the articles they collect as part of their research, demonstrating in the process not only their understanding of the rhetorical features in their representative disciplinary texts, but also their own evolving knowledge of argument in general.


Revised Classical Argument

As a final, capstone project for the course, students return to their initial classical argument and revise it in light of the research they have conducted and their increased awareness of the range of rhetorical possibilities available to them. It is rewarding to see students articulate the same argument from a more informed, nuanced perspective, complete with substantive evidence and precise, formal documentation. Equally (if not sometimes more) rewarding are those times when, after having spent three months researching and reflecting on their topic, students adopt a position on the issue that is completely opposite to the one they championed at the beginning of the semester. Either way, I find that the recursive nature of this sequence helps students to recognize their own growth as writers of academic arguments.

Andrea A. Lunsford


Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Nov 4, 2016

I was not old enough to vote for John F. Kennedy in 1960, though I was all in for him, so I cast my first presidential vote for Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 election. That was a wild and crazy election, with Barry Goldwater campaigning far to the right. And I’ve seen some very strange elections since—think George Wallace in the 1968 election and the uproar of the Democratic convention that year. And of course the extremely odd election in 2000, when the eventual president (George Bush) didn’t win the popular vote and the Florida recount was a debacle (to say the least).


But I’ve never been through an election like this one, and as researchers are reporting, I (and millions of fellow Americans) are suffering stress-related effects from the anxiety over it. A friend even has nightmares in which he is attacked by a huge Trump-like figure.


I’m retired from full-time teaching now, but I’ve never wanted more to be in the classroom with young people to hear their thinking about this election and the precedents it is setting. I don’t wear my politics on my sleeve in my classes, but I am honest with students about my reasoning: I encourage them to think carefully through the issues and to make decisions based on the evidence they can gather, which is much easier said than done. So I don’t proselytize, but I don’t hide my decisions if I’m asked, and I spend time in my classes analyzing the rhetorical moves and strategies evident in presidential stump speeches, policy statements, and so on.


This election seems to me particularly important in that regard: I see voters on both the left and the right swayed completely by media representations and misrepresentations and parroting “facts” that have been proven over and over to be anything but. This is dangerous, so dangerous in fact that I think it’s worth devoting time in this next week to the kind of intense rhetorical analysis that can help students cut through some of the noise and get not only to the gist of candidates’ statements but to the underlying assumptions that are often passed over. It’s these assumptions, about gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, and economic responsibility, that are so appalling to many following the Trump campaign.


I’ve already cast my vote—enthusiastically—for Hillary Clinton. And I hope students everywhere are giving her candidacy close and careful scrutiny. But most of all I hope they are going to vote. In writing about early America, de Toqueville said he thought the people of this young country were ingenious and imaginative and capable of great things, but that the focus on radical individualism (a word he coined) might make us sometime in the future susceptible to the arguments of an autocrat or dictator, and that our democracy would depend on resisting those appeals. So whatever else you do today, urge your students to VOTE.


When future generations ask what you did in the election of 2016, what will you say?



[Photo: Vote by Theresa Thompson on Flickr]

Of course it was inevitable that I should turn my semiotic eye this time around upon one of the most significant events in popular cultural history: the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan.  But the question is not whether Dylan deserved the prize (I really really don't want to go there) nor even whether songwriters should be equated with musically-unenhanced poets; no, the semiotic question is, quite simply: what does this award signify?


Let's start with the fact that I am discussing this at all.  How, one might ask, did it come to pass that the posthumous legacy of the Swedish inventor of dynamite should come to be not only the world's most prestigious award, but should also have bequeathed to a small, and rather secretive, committee in Stockholm the power to create and even influence history?  For that is what the prize does: it plays a significant role in determining which scientists, economists, and writers will be most remembered and whose work will be given most authority, and it also, through its Peace awards, has a way of intervening in ongoing human conflicts and, as in the case with the award to Barack Obama, electoral politics.


It is also worth noting (and this should be especially poignant for scholars) how the Prize also has a way of indicating what really counts in human intellectual endeavor: physics, but not mathematics; medicine, but not biology; chemistry, but not engineering; economics, but not political science; literature, but not painting, music, or sculpture; and nothing in the way of scholarship—not history, nor anthropology, nor literary criticism, nor even philosophy (which is why Bertrand Russell was awarded the prize for literature).


So let me repeat, how did the Will, and will, of one man from a rather small country accomplish this?


I can't answer this question entirely, but I can offer some suggestions.  First, it is useful to note that the Prize came into existence just on the cusp of the final transition from feudalism to capitalism.  For where science and art were once the retainers of Crown and Church, whose patronage alone was sufficient reward for early scientists and artists, in the capitalist era individual enterprise and  competition are the motivators for human endeavor.  (It is striking to note in this regard that the Nobel Prize was created by a wealthy industrial capitalist, but the award is handed over by the King of Sweden.)  Competition is what prizes are all about, and as we head further and further into the era of hypercapitalism, we accordingly get more and more competitive awards: more Oscars, Grammys, Emmys, Tony's, Pulitzers .  .   . the list seems endless.


Thus, we might say that the Nobel Prize got there first, was, that is to say, the first arrival in the bourgeois era of competitive achievement.   Itself the title holder in the Most Venerable Award sweepstakes, the Prize is a signifier of capitalism's worship of whatever is biggest and "best," turning even art and science into a contest—with all the "winners" and "losers" that contests entail.


Which takes me to the second signification I see in the Dylan award.  For by giving the prize to a superstar of popular culture, the Nobel committee has not only given its vastly influential imprimatur to a once marginalized region of human creativity, it has signified that the ancient wall between "high" culture and "low" really is tumbling down.  (I've been saying this for over twenty years in every edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A., so I ought to be grateful to the folks in Stockholm for putting some authority behind it.)


But having really, shall we say, dynamited the last remnants of high cultural ascendancy over low, the members of the Nobel committee may have opened a flood gate that they did not anticipate.  For now a host of songwriters, screenwriters, TV script writers, and goodness knows who else that the culture industry has made rich and powerful, will come knocking at their door.  Having everything except a Nobel Prize, they will likely be found lobbying, imploring, schmoozing, advertising     .  .  .  in short going through the whole playbook of competitive awards seeking to gain the one trophy missing from their collections.


I can see it now: laureates on the red carpet.

What can we learn by exploring peer feedback practices in other disciplines? That’s the central question driving this series of posts. I started close to home in my last few posts by considering workshop practices in creative writing, but the truth is that this project was inspired by the art critique.


Before stepping into the role of Interim Chair for Visual Arts and Art History last year, I sat down with each of the department’s faculty members to get to know them and their work. I learned a lot about art—how it functions as a research practice, the considerable costs involved in producing it, and the serious safety risks involved in teaching it—and I was truly impressed by the work my colleagues were doing. I’m blessed to work with such amazing people. I was also immediately intrigued by critique, since it seemed so much like my own use of peer review in the writing classroom. And so I was only too happy to spend more time learning about critique for this series of posts.


My two informants in this case were Andy Brown and Sharon Hart. Andy is the Foundations Instructor for the department. He’s super-duper smart, very easy-going, and just fun to hang around and chat with (we grab coffee on occasion for just that purpose). He’s also an awesome painter. Sharon is an Assistant Professor and the area head for Photography. She’s committed, passionate, and a wonderful photographer and a strong advocate for her area. I sat down with each of them and asked them about critique in the studio art classroom. The conversations were animated and wide-ranging—we just had so much to discuss! But to start I’ll share a little about what I learned from discussing the mechanics and logistics of critique.


For starters, as Andy informed me, there are two basic forms of critique: group and individual. Group critique is analogous to peer review. Individual critique is a one-on-one session between instructor and student and reminded me most of a student coming to my office hours to discuss a paper. In a group critique, students place their work up around the studio, a piece is selected, and the class responds to it. As with workshop in creative writing, generally the artist doesn’t speak until after the critique. Discussion proceeds apace with the goal of getting to as many pieces as possible during the class time. Sharon indicated that in the course of a semester, there will be 5-6 group critiques, which is about how often peer revision happens in my writing classes. There are many variations to this basic formula. Sharon shared that she likes to try out new methods so that she doesn’t get bored; she likes to get excited by the process too. For example, one variation she shared with me involved having students put photos on the wall “salon style” (all next to each other with no space between) and then having students vote for the six images they would want to live with for a year, marking their votes by placing a sticky note on the photo. Then the class talked about the ones with the highest votes and why.


Both of them stressed that in all ways critique is a learning process, which is to say that through critique students learn more about their individual works, studio technique, and the practices of art but which is also to say that students need to learn how to critique. As Andy observed, “A lot of critiquing is about figuring out how to look at things.” To that end, both also referenced readings they use or have used that talk about critique and how to do it. That reminded me of the worksheets I create for peer review but it also made me wonder why we don’t have more readings about peer review for our students. Students in my classes often don’t understand why they’re doing peer review, let alone how. Sharon’s approach was particularly resonant for me in this respect. She has a handout that’s collaboratively generated with her students and that goes over the goals of the critique and offered some practical guidelines. The one I’m most likely to steal for the writing classroom is “Remove the word ‘like’ from your vocabulary during critique,” going on to suggest that instead of saying “I like _____” students should instead say “I think this is successful because _____.” I can definitely see myself bringing that into the writing classroom, as well as more generally generating guidelines on peer revision based on conversations in the classroom.


As with workshops in creative writing, I walk away from this discussion of the mechanics of the art critique with a desire to do more large-scale, class-level peer reviews of student writing—more than a sample paper. I also want to find some readings about peer revision and use those to generate a discussion and a set of guidelines for the class. And I want students to reframe what they like about writing into what they find successful about writing.


In the next post, I’ll talk about the emotive charge of critique and consider its implications for the writing classroom. In the meantime, I welcome your comments.

Log on, by Wesley Fryer, on FlickrThis week, I want to talk about assessment and the Participation Logs Assignment that I posted about several weeks ago. Students have been tracking their participation since September in their logs. They note contributions to online and in-class discussion, paying attention to both small-group and full-class contributions. These logs are a critical part of the final exam assignment, a report that analyzes the participation logs and recommends the grade that the student should earn for participation in the course.


It may seem a bit early to talk about the final exam. We still have six weeks before it’s due, after all. Because the final exam is an assessment of the work that students do during the course of the term however, I think it’s crucial to talk about the Completion Report Assignment now. Knowing the requirements of the final exam should give students the motivation to participate effectively in class and online as well as to track that participation in anticipation of their report.


The assignment is similar to one I have talked about in the past. The overview explains the basic requirements:

For your final exam, you will write a completion report that explains what you have done and provides a self-evaluation of your participation. You will propose the grade you should receive and then use information from your participation log, attendance, and project portfolio to provide data to support your recommendation. In the workplace, this report would be similar to a self-evaluation for a performance review.


To help students find the pertinent information in the work, I have given them this set of guiding questions:

  • What have you done to participate consistently during the entire term?
  • Have you completed all journals and in-class work by the end of the grace period?
  • Which Discussion posts demonstrate that you have contributed high quality work?
  • What in-class discussion and small group actives demonstrate your best contributions?
  • Did you attend all class meetings? Did you provide health services or Dean of Students documentation for any absences?
  • Did you invest your best effort in the course?


Finally, to provide some structure for the report itself, I suggest the information that it should include to meet the requirements of the assignment:

  • details on your overall participation, which addresses the following:
    • your attendance
    • your timeliness
    • your readiness
    • your contributions (in class and online)
    • your effort
  • a comparison of your accomplishments to the course expectations
  • a recommendation on the grade you should receive for the participation portion of your course grade


I think students need this final exam assignment by midterm to do their best work. Sharing the assignment with them so early allows them to see what they need to produce and (I hope) reduces some of the anxiety about the participation grade. The extra bonus for me is that the final exam is already written and posted—no last minute scrambling to get that task done!


Have you used similar self-assessment activities in your courses? What have you done to ensure their success? Please leave me a comment, and tell me about your experiences (or ask a question).



[Photo Credit: Log on, by Wesley Fryer, on Flickr, used under CC-BY-SA 2.0 license]