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An Insider's Guide to Academic Writing: A Rhetoric and Reader, 2016  MLA Update EditionI’ve received a few questions from faculty interested in using An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing about recommended assignment sequences, so I would like to discuss two possible plans I believe might work well in First-Year Writing.


Assignment Sequence #1

The assignment sequence I currently use emphasizes a rhetorically-based approach to writing, reading, and research with a central focus on active learning. It asks students to engage in primary resource data collection (quantitative and qualitative) appropriate to their intended academic majors.  

  1. Literacy Narrative
  2. Research Topic Proposal
  3. Primary Research Logbook
  4. Academic Poster
  5. Portfolio Reflection

Assignments 2, 3, 4 scaffold, building from one to the next. That is, in Project 2, students propose a research topic they would like to investigate, and they begin to brainstorm a research design they might use to answer their research question. Project 3 then follows, and students collect primary resource data appropriate to their academic major in order to support or refute their hypotheses based on their proposed research questions. Project 4, the academic poster, then gives students a context for thinking critically about their methods, results, and their results’ meaning from Project 3 in order to represent their findings in a poster.


Assignment Sequence #2

Another possible assignment sequence I’ve begun to draft that might work well for faculty using An Insider’s Guide emphasizes a rhetorically-based approach but doesn’t engage as deeply with primary research methods. As a result, it be more suitable for someone teaching a WID-based curriculum for the very first time.

  1. Literacy Narrative
  2. Project Assignment Sheet Analysis
  3. Faculty Interviews
  4. Comparison/Contrast of Interviews
  5. Portfolio Reflection

This assignment sequence emphasizes reflection in Projects 1 and 5. Project 2 would be an analysis of a project assignment sheet that the students have from a different course. It could be an assignment sheet from a course the student is presently taking or from a course they have previously taken. I would ask the student to perform a rhetorical analysis of the assignment sheet, assessing the sheet’s rhetorical context (specifically focusing on purpose and topic).

Project 3 asks students to engage in qualitative research by interviewing two to three faculty members in their academic majors. These interviews could be written or multimodal (perhaps asking students to use video, audio, or some other technology). I propose asking students to focus their interview questions on the types of writing and research faculty in their academic majors engage in and the expectations faculty have for student writing. Project 4 would then follow up by asking students to perform a content analysis of the interviews and describe the results of their analyses in the form of a comparison and contrast paper assessing the interviewees’ responses from Project 3.

What I like about this assignment sequence is that it asks students to begin to investigate the kinds of writing and research that might be expected of them in their academic majors. The Project 2 Assignment Sheet Analysis paper serves a practical purpose of encouraging students to read closely the sheets they might have for another course. It also serves the purpose of giving the instructor a sense of the kinds of writing students may be required to do for other courses, which has the potential to improve transfer of skills and create a dialogue about disciplinarity and discourse across the university.

Perhaps you have another assignment idea that could work well in asking students to engage in qualitative or quantitative data collection for the very first time. As always, if you have comments, feedback, or suggestions, I would love to hear from you in the comments section below!

When it’s time to get back to the basics—as I think it is right now—a little dose of George Orwell is always a good place to begin. Indeed, the specter of 1984 hangs heavy these days, so it seems more than worthwhile to reacquaint our students with that novel, and especially with the concepts of Doublethink and Newspeak. Explaining doublethink, Orwell says it is


The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them... To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. 


Newspeak is the fictional language Orwell created for the dystopia of Oceania: it makes use of English but is so highly circumscribed and limited that it allows only authorized forms of expression common to IngSoc (English Socialism), suppressing free thought and speech as well as agency. Much of Newspeak, as Orwell points out in 1984, means exactly the opposite of what it says.


The National Council of Teachers of English combined these Orwellian concepts in creating its annual Doublespeak Award in 1974, as a way to “honor” public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.” Last year’s “winner” was—of course—Donald Trump, who may well receive a second award at the end of this year. (The deadline for nominations is September 15, 2017, and I hope teachers of writing across the country will challenge their students to come up with the person most deserving of the award and the very best example of Doublespeak for 2017). Certainly, learning to recognize, analyze, and unpack Newspeak, Doublethink, and Doublespeak must be a major aim of our courses in the coming semesters and years.

Oxford English Dictionary, printed dictionaries, row of hardcover booksTwo other concepts are worth considering as we build pedagogies and curricula for students to use in becoming critically literate citizens. One is “semantic gravitation,” which I learned about from Joseph Bentley and his article “Semantic Gravitation: An Essay on Satiric Reduction.” Bentley’s essay is an analysis of Aldous Huxley’s work, but we can see semantic gravitation atwork in everyday life as well. Basically, Bentley shows how association among words works to exert “gravitation” upward or downward on a particular word or cluster. I saw semantic gravitation at work decades ago when the Oxford English Dictionary first came online in searchable form. Just playing around with it one day, I typed in “woman,” and found—not surprisingly, of course—that this word appears quite infrequently in the OED, which fairly brims with “man.” I extended my search to ask what words were most often found accompanying “woman.” Can you guess what number one was: OLD. Downward semantic gravitation at work. Ask your students to look around today to see which words are “raised” or “lowered” through their association with certain other words. Once they start looking, they will find this force field at work everywhere.


I.A. Richards’s concept of the interinanimation of words is also worth discussing with students. Richards invents the word “interinanimation,” which is one key to his context-based theory of meaning. In one instance, Richards famously says that in any particular sentence, the meaning is what is NOT there. That’s because the meaning grows out of the “interinanimation” of the words in the sentence, which depend on one another to mean. As Richards says, "I conclude then that these expressive or symbolic words get their feeling of being peculiarly fitting from the other words sharing the morpheme which support them in the background of the mind." So it’s very important for student writers to look closely at what words cluster together, at how they “consort” with one another. (Think of “old” and “woman” here.) Meaning for Richards arises out of the context surrounding words; words do not have fixed or absolute meanings but develop meaning in context.


Teachers of writing can use these concepts to generate discussion in class and to create exercises that will help students investigate how they are at work today, and every day. They can choose almost any current topic and gather texts about that topic as data they can analyze. Interested in the Environmental Protection Agency? Gather statements about the agency from its website and from its advocates and opponents, from social media to carefully vetted newspapers. Then see what words are most often associated with the Agency and how they work together to create certain meanings—and evaluations—of the EPA. The same exercise will work for texts on any other topic.


Over the years, I’ve found that students gain agency and empowerment from such exercises, that they are excited to put their minds to work at tracing how meanings build up or accrue. Part of the joy of our jobs is helping them acquire such agency as they learn that, indeed, words matter!


CreditFlickr Image “Oxford English Dictionary” by mrpolyonymous, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License

Critical thinking, I like to believe, is at the core of what I do in the writing classroom. One of the reasons I love to teach with Emerging is that the readings place ideas front and center.  Students learn critical thinking in my classes by first finding the ideas, then understanding the ideas, then using the ideas.


Finding the ideas is the first step and doing so takes careful reading of the essays.  We go over how to annotate while reading so that students can mark critical quotations and parts in the argument of the essay.  I reinforce this work in class with group exercises where students locate the most important concepts and their meaning in a particular reading.


Understanding those ideas is the next step.  Group activities are again very helpful.  Groups can work to explain the ideas and offer examples from outside the text, ideally by looking to other readings.  That work of locating examples is then the first step in using the ideas.


Using the ideas, I like to say, doesn’t mean swallowing them whole.  Part of the work of critical thinking is figuring out when a concept doesn’t work and why it doesn’t, often prompting students to offer a development of the concept and thus offering new knowledge as a contribution to the conversation.  I find that working connectively across multiple readings (2 or 3 work best) is a great way for students to develop facility in testing and modifying concepts.  Along the way they start to develop concepts of their own, and that for me is the most exciting part of critical thinking.


How do you use readings in your class to develop these skills?

When Your Grades Are Based on LaborI have been working this year to shift my assessment practices toward grading students less on error and more on the labor that they bring to their writing for the courses that I teach. Ever since I heard Asao Inoue’s plenary on “Racism in Writing Programs and the CWPA” at the Council of Writing Program Administrators Conference last summer in Raleigh, North Carolina, I knew that I wanted to give the strategy another try.


It is a pedagogical tactic that I have been developing on and off since my first year of teaching. At this point, I am in an in-between place: I am currently blending in some of practices that Inoue describes, and I am developing resources for a more complete conversion by the fall.


Recently, I have been focusing on that ways that the grading system is discussed. The contract that Inoue used at Fresno State is long and, well, contractual. It’s a three-page document that outlines everything about how the work in the course is assessed, beginning with the approach and ending with details on requirements and logistics. As you would expect of a syllabus-style discussion of course requirements, it is explicit and detailed.


Obviously, courses need this kind of document, but I wanted to break the explanation up into a series of shorter pieces. To begin, I wrote When Your Grades Are Based on Labor, a webpage that introduces the key aspects of the system from a student’s perspective. As I explained last month, I have been using Infographics as Readings in an effort to align course materials with students’ reading styles, so I also created the infographic on the right to present the ideas.


My goal is to list the basic details in the infographic, with additional information explained on the webpage. I would love to get some feedback on whether I’ve succeeded in the comments below.


Additionally, if you would like to know more about this assessment strategy, read Inoue’s publications on anti-racist assessment and on grading students’ labor on his page.



Credits: Infographic was created on Icons are all from The Noun Project, used under a CC-BY 3.0 license: report by Lil Squid, Fluorescent Light Bulb by Matt Brooks, analytics by Wilson Joseph, aim by Gilbert Bages, Switch Controller by Daniel, and Gym by Sathish Selladurai.

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


This week I have an important assignment for multimodal composers. When we have students work in digital spaces as content creators, there are often questions about ethical citation and usage practices and how to share content. Although we have many great resources, these notions are complicated when students share content, post images, and embed links on blogs or within other projects. Digital writing involves remixing and sharing content, but it complicates issues of plagiarism and ethical use. Even when you look for examples, you will notice that there is disparity and a great variety of possibilities. It is by no means an exact science.


I like the idea of having students create a Style Guide for Digital Citation and Usage that becomes the class reference for these practices. In addition to their handbook, I start them with some readings that address the subject. I also show them sites like Creative Commons and other ways to find copyright-free images that are in the public domain or labeled for reuse. It is also important to show them that large blogging sites have usage guidelines that are specific to their situation. In order to be a good digital writer you have to have the knowledge and motivation to dig a little deeper. For example, the site Hubspot has plenty of content to share and is happy to have people use it according to their Content Usage Guidelines. These guidelines explain usage and permission rights along with expectations defined by the group.


It also gets complicated when you want to share data or ideas that have been repurposed multiple times. It is important for students to critically read these sources to try to get to the original source rather than citing the last place they found it. In the worlds of digital writers there is a term, newsjacking (coined by David Meerman Scott), in which authors pull stories trending in the news and add them to their own sites for marketability. Basically, it is a way to draw on the Kairos of an existing situation to boost and enhance your own content.


The Assignment
Images are essential to successful online content. Students need to know not just how to cite them but where to find them. This exercise asks students to share copyright-free image sites and other strategies for understanding the usage guidelines. For example, when you conduct a Google Image search, you can go to the tools menu for a drop down list of usage rights where student can choose from a list of suggestions. When they choose, “labeled for reuse,” Google filters those images that fit the category. The internet has a lot of information on these topics, such as this infographic created by the Visual Communication Guy, Can I Use that Picture, which provides a visual representation of these concepts. It is useful to have students go to these different types of sources (textual and visual) to try to make sense of and enter the conversation. This assignment helps them to think critically about the choices they make as content creators.

  • Have students read and review online sources (articles, infographics, blogs) for citation practices and usage guidelines.
  • Put them in small groups to discuss what they found, looking for overlaps and distinctions. Discuss the ways these definitions are communally constructed. Ask each student to summarize a source on a presentation slide and present it to the group.
  • As a group, assimilate the information and create a collaborative style guide slide that simplifies and defines the citation and usage practices for the particular classroom context from the summarized sources. Place this slide at the front of the presentation for easy future access.
  • Share the presentation with the class – revise and shape through feedback.
  • Publish the style guide in a place where students can access it for reference for future writings in the class.


Reflections on the Activity

It is always easier for students to remember information when it is communally constructed on their own terms. This exercise allows students to critically explore these issues in relation to their own real needs and expectations. The assignment defines a consistent methodology for these practices within a single classroom but also makes students aware that these practices are fluid and constantly changing. The class style guide invites them into the conversation and makes them aware of their ethical responsibilities as digital writers.


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 or visit her website Acts of Composition.

I recently returned from the National Association of Developmental Education (NADE) annual conference in Oklahoma City, and I then headed to Portland for the CCCC annual meeting. On the plane to Oklahoma and back, I was able to catch up on some much neglected scholarly reading. I attended the 4Cs with three colleagues, and we took advantage of the coast-to-coast travel time to discuss some of the thorny issues we have been grappling with as a department – issues for which there is never enough time in our regular schedules. Participation in regional and national conferences, for me, is the best and most effective professional development available, keeping me connected to the discipline, to colleagues, and to my identity as a scholar and teacher; it is development I bring back to my local context.


But even as I write this, I am aware that many of my colleagues teaching composition in two-year colleges do not take advantage—cannot take advantage—of this professional development. For many, there is no travel budget for national or regional conferences. For others, there is no time amid teaching schedules that may require 5, 6, or 7 courses per semester. For some, there is no incentive to attend, for top-down, completion-driven agendas prevent faculty from being agents of innovation, research, or change. At NADE, in fact, only one other faculty member from the Virginia Community College System attended, and he and I discussed and lamented barriers to involvement in professional communities.


The sessions I attended at NADE stimulated and challenged my thinking: Peter Adams, for example, explained the local context that led to the development of the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) at the Community College of Baltimore County and traced its evolution over the past 10 years. Jennifer Ussery and Christine Moore of Phoenix College challenged participants to update CSU-Chico’s CRAAP test to reflect the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy as well as local and disciplinary contexts – a great exercise for my own college, which is currently developing a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) targeting information literacy. Cheryl Burk, Lori Dees, and Laura Kalbaugh of Wake Tech Community College offered a rebuttal to a working paper from the Community College Research Center (CCRC), providing a local context from which to question the research methods and conclusions presented in that paper. Alexandros Goudas presented a careful review of data on accelerated learning programs and questioned the wisdom of mandating variations of ALP which have not been subjected to rigorous study.


In all of these sessions, I kept coming back to two words: disconnect and local. The sessions I attended revealed a number of disconnects which affect community colleges: disconnects between theory and practice, policy and theory, policy-makers and practitioners, faculty and researchers, faculty and librarians, those whose research focuses on developmental education and those whose research addresses composition and rhetoric.


These disconnects frustrate teachers and researchers, and perhaps none is more irksome than the disconnect between talking points from national think-tanks and local, institutional voices. Those local voices are critical. ALP, for example, grew out of a very specific local context, and it was implemented by a local faculty cohort who controlled the structure and content of the courses. Phoenix College’s revision to the CRAAP Test was the result of a local faculty and library partnership. Wake Tech Community College’s response to the CCRC working paper arose from faculty questions about the extent to which research methods and conclusions reflected local curriculum and teaching practice. Finally, TYCA’s White Paper on Placement Reform emphasizes the need for local context and local control.


NADE members at the Friday plenary were urged to reconsider the narrative they tell about the work they do. That narrative must speak to national trends and policies, of course, but it must also, ultimately, be a local story. In order for two-year college faculty to have a platform for shaping and telling that story successfully, they will need professional recognition, recognition which includes power to make locally-informed decisions, as well as support for participation in state, regional, and national professional organizations. When that recognition is afforded to two-year college faculty, they may overcome some of the disconnects highlighted at NADE and change the narrative at the local level.


Tune in next week to hear local stories from my two-year and four-year colleagues at the 4Cs in Portland.


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Flying home to SFO after this year’s CCCC gathering gave me time to reflect on this conference and its long history as well as on its evolution. Bigger than ever (I gave up trying to count the number of sessions) and replete with poster sessions, think tank sessions, and caucus meetings, the program offered more than any attendee could possibly say grace over. Yet in spite of the profusion of panels, I missed some of the excitement I used to feel in looking through the program for sessions of particular interest to me. There was very little on history or historiography, very little on rhetorical history, theory, or practice, few student voices. In recent years, at least as near as I can tell from looking at CCCC programs, our field has turned away from rhetoric as our foundational discipline; and for that, I am sorry.


Still, I came away very glad to have been in the company of so many smart and dedicated scholars and teachers and, as always, I learned from inspiring work. I will write more in another posting about some of the great sessions I attended, but today I want to share just one presentation that taught a powerful lesson. The presenter was Dion Simmons, from the University of Kansas, and he spoke (with eloquence and passion) about what he termed “interrogative feedback,” starting with its importance to his own learning. He told of his experiences at a primarily white institution, where, as a beginning undergraduate turning in essays for his composition class, he fell back (as we all do) on familiar and comfortable ways with words. He remembers that he had an affinity for the phrase “I just feel like,” which helped him get started, to get into a topic, or to sum up a response. This phrase was his, and he liked it, though he hadn’t thought much about it. But his teachers didn’t agree, responding with comments such as “Your feelings don’t matter” or “This is opinion; I need facts.” These comments told Simmons, loud and clear, that this wasn’t a good phrase, that he should not use it.—but nothing more. Then, as I recall the story, he moved to an HBCU, where he once again turned in an essay including this familiar phrase. This time, however, his instructor did not offer criticism or warnings but instead one simple word: WHY?


red pen and essay, essay with edits, copyediting, proofreadingThat one word, that “interrogative feedback,” led him to think hard, not only about why he felt a certain way but why he used that particular phrase, and subsequent discussions with his instructor, who went onto become his mentor, led him to understand that he was trying to get his own voice into his writing, to use it to establish some authority, however tenuous. He kept asking “why” as he grew as a writer and thinker and as he completed his undergraduate studies and began pursuing his Ph.D. Now he is teaching students of his own, asking them questions and using these questions to help students learn why they make the choices they do, where those choices come from and what implications they hold.


This was a lesson I can never learn too often, especially because it’s an easy one to forget: rather than leveling a criticism, why not ask a question that will allow student writers to explain what they are doing and why? Looking back, I realize I first took this lesson to heart when I read Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations, in which she demonstrates over and over again that listening to students, asking them about their choices, and taking in their explanations, is the key to teaching them effectively. Ask questions. And then listen hard. That’s the way to open the door to learning.


Credit: Pixaby Image 1870721 by 38344328, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

The following headline caught my attention today, and I thought I'd give it a semiotic treatment. 

Here it is: "Why 'Beauty and the Beast' will be the biggest box-office hit of the year so far".


I'm not interested in the reasons given for the predicted success in the article but, rather, in the larger picture that this apparently sure-fire box office bonanza presents.  It's worth looking into because it re-illustrates a number of points that I have made over the years in this blog about Hollywood semiotics.


The first, and most obvious, point to make is that this Disney live-action reprise of its own animated smash is a signifier of what could be called the "if at first you do succeed, do, do again principle." That is, with so much at stake financially in the modern movie business, commercially successful films tend to become franchises for the studios that produced them, and clone-opportunities for the studios that didn't.  Why take a creative risk when a little new technology can let you redo the animated original with real people this time around, and be pretty darned assured of a big-time box office hit?


Another fairly obvious point (though it took the movie industry a little while to get it ) could be called the "forget the fourteen-year-old boys for a moment and focus on the little girls realization."  That point has been amply made by such absolute blowouts as Titanic and all the Harry Potter films.  Heck, just to make certain, Disney has brought back Hermione Granger, I mean Emma Watson, as the Beauty.  And did I mention The Hunger Games trilogy?


Then there's what I'll call "the prince and princess paradox":  that is, in our proudly egalitarian democracy, one of the best ways to ring in the cash is to make a movie about princes and princesses—especially Nordic ones.  (Beauty is really a king's daughter in one of the early versions of the tale.)  For some reason, American middle-class desire still seems to be fixated on Old World privilege—which is a point I made on this blog when Frozen was still fresh a few years ago.


Related to "the prince and princess paradox" is the long-standing medieval revival, which has swept American popular culture ever since The Lord of the Rings exploded in popularity in the 1960s, and subsequently was given a postmodern makeover by Star Wars, a British "public school" inflection by Harry Potter, and a grand guignol do-over by Game of Thrones.  The paradox here lies in the way in which New World America, which has no actual medieval history of its own, continues to be obsessed with a fairy tale world of hereditary aristocrats, swords, and sorcerers. 


This brings me to my final point - When I cast the "new" Beauty and the Beast into a system of associated entertainments, I find in that system two somewhat similar shows that are also significantly different.  These are the 1987-90 television series Beauty and the Beast, and the DreamWorks franchise, Shrek.  The TV B & B was significant because it took the old fairy tale about what might be called a dis-enchanted prince into modern times, and turned the beast into a kind of mutant homeless person (who's actually rather handsome in his leonine way —one wonders what audience reaction would have been if Beauty was male and the beast was a female, however), who lives, literally, in the Manhattan underground.  The series was drenched in socio-political overtones, with the Beast being really a beast and not an enchanted prince who will go back to being a prince as Beauty's happily-ever-after reward.  While rather soupy and over-the-top, the series did, at least, Americanize the old story.


Then there's Shrek.  While rather cornball and over-the-top, Shrek gleefully shredded the old prince-and-princess framework entirely to give us an ogre-and-ogress happy ending, with a really creepy Prince Charming thrown into the saga just in case we didn't get the point.  Shrek, who first appeared in print form in 1990, was a creature from the Age of Attitude, the Bartman days when Bart Simpson, and not Homer, was the Simpsons star, and irreverence was a national pastime. 


So, I wonder about this back-to-the-Beauty stuff.  There's a New Yorker cartoon from Roz Chast that I'm reminded of here.  In the cartoon, entitled "Comes the Revolution Fairy Tales," "Cinderella" is retold with Cinderella ending up running away with "Henri, an idealistic student," as Prince Charming meets a gruesome end.  Now that's a fairy tale for the land of Thomas Paine.


A common complaint from students is that they have nothing to say in response to an assignment.  Part of the challenge hiding behind that complaint is, I think, the very challenge of assuming a voice of academic authority a la David Batholomae’s “Inventing the University.” But sometimes the problem isn’t finding an academic voice, but breaking down the assignment and what it’s asking for.  And sometimes, yet again, the issue is understanding what an argument is and what it looks like.  I thought I would share some of the strategies I use with students when they feel like they have nothing to say.


First, I encourage them to come into my office hours to discuss the reading.  In part I offer that to make sure they’ve done the reading and more importantly that they understand the reading, but I also start there because when they start talking through the reading they also start saying something.  I might prompt them with questions (“What did you underline?” “What felt important?” “What does this author really care about?” “What part confused you the most?” “What did you think was the most compelling evidence the author used?”) but just having them talk through the reading gets them saying something and often helps them increase their overall comprehension of the work.


Next, I walk them through the assignment to make sure that they understand it. Often we do this work in class and I will also often have groups work on sample arguments for the assignment that we discuss and assess as a whole.  In office hours this work can be even more focused.


Then I help them find an argument.  Again I find a conversational model useful.  I ask them to talk through a response to the assignment and then jot down key words and phrases that I feel have the most potential to lead them to an argument.  I offer these back to them as seeds they can use or as a scaffold for a developing argument.

Of course often what students mean by not having anything to say is that they don’t know how to meet page length requirements.  They’re afraid that they won’t have enough to say.  I tell them that working closely with quotations from the text is the best remedy to that, as each quotation (and its accompanying analysis) adds length and strength to the paper.  Once they have an argument sketched out, I will also ask them to find some quotations that they think might work in supporting the argument.


Often when students leave, they have all of the material they need for a solid draft.  It usually takes only a bit of hand-holding and, as they reflect on the process, they find that it’s all work that they can do on their own for the next paper.  Each successful draft, even if it’s not a successful argument, reinforces that they have something to say, even as they continue to acquire the requisite skills to say it well.

Recently, I had a chance to visit with colleagues and students at the University of Oklahoma, where the writing program, with the leadership of Roxanne Mountford, is implementing a new curriculum that they have worked long and hard to develop. Indeed, as I travel around the country, I am seeing more and more writing programs engaged in similar exercises, and for very good reason. As the U of Oklahoma group realized, while they have been working on this curriculum for some time, it is particularly pertinent—indeed kairotic—at this moment in time, given the new administration and its programs.


Andrea Lunsford with Roxanne Mountford and Susan Kates at the University of Oklahoma

At Oklahoma, the new curriculum focuses on understanding and interrogating values in its first term course, “Principles of English Composition I.” In this course, students work through a sequence of four linked projects. The first asks them to identify a value that is important to them, to define that personal value and to show how their personal history/experience led to the articulation and evolution of that value. After this deeply self-reflective assignment, students move on to analyze a “group value,” by identifying a campus group that they do not belong to and then identifying a meaningful value that group members hold and how they put that value into practice. Students then conduct research in order to understand the group value as thoroughly as possible. In the next assignment, students explore a text that “offers a point of view that differs from your own on a current social or political issue.” As you may imagine, this assignment draws on Ratcliffe’s work on rhetorical listening that leads to understanding first, analysis second. The goal of the assignment is not to argue for or against the values represented in the text but to explain “why the author of the texts holds the position and what values connect to that position.” The final assignment asks students to write a reflective essay on their term-long interrogation of values and the representation of values. The entire sequence then leads into the second-term course, which focuses on values-based arguments of their own, delivered in both written and spoken forms.


I very much admire the way such sequenced curricula guide students in the practice of critical inquiry and analysis, but without prescribing either what they can write about or the position they should take. This slow and steady approach to becoming critically aware seems to me especially effective with students who may be wary of what they’ve been told is the liberal agenda of higher education in general.


This curriculum is already being tested in the crucible of the classroom, and it will be evaluated and refined and revised as the group works to make it engage with all students. I look forward to learning more about this evaluation and about student response to it.


While at the University, I also had a chance to visit the Writing Center, directed by Michele Eodice, and to meet a student working away there. And to have a reunion with Roxanne Mountford and Susan Kates was, as always, pure pleasure.


Credit: Photos by Andrea Lunsford

Barclay Barrios

Teaching Online

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert Mar 15, 2017

At my school there’s continued pressure to offer fully online classes. The state has issued a mandate that 40% of state university undergraduates be enrolled in online classes by 2025.  Our Center for eLearning is well-funded, we’ve moved to Canvas as our online learning management system, and we’ve started placing more and more degree programs fully online.  My own experience with online teaching has been decidedly mixed and the class I am teaching online this semester, an introduction to interdisciplinary studies, has only confirmed that.


I’ve always felt that the challenge in teaching writing online is that writing courses are process courses and not content courses, and the best way to teach process is a lot of guided practice.  When I hear about teaching writing online it sounds as challenging to me as teaching violin or painting online (though, of course, such courses exist).  Continued evolution in technologies will, no doubt, assist but I am wondering how people have faced the more fundamental process versus content challenge.  I know any number of writing programs offer classes online so I am also wondering how you do it.


If you have experience teaching writing online I’d love to hear about it.  We’re offering some small test sections online here at school but additional advice or insight would be great.  What’s your experience been?

Dear Students,


An important goal for writing this literature review is to practice thinking outside the box for drafting and revising an essay. We have spoken about the differences between written product and writing process. But it has come to my attention that many of you have still attempted to draft your essays by beginning with the thesis and the introduction.


In longer essays and especially with researched essays, beginning with the introduction may lead to significant frustration. You may not have found your subject yet, especially if you are at the beginning of your research. With that in mind, I offer four photos with helpful hints for completing the Literature Review assignment.


Photo 1: The product is different from the process.

This first photo illustrates the product. Inside the template are 9 rectangles, each representing a section of the final essay. The introduction will address the connections between Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and a third subject that will grow out of your review of the literature. The seven middle sections focus on the summary and analysis of each separate source. Please note that your writing for a single source may be 2-3 paragraphs long. The conclusion is a recap of your essay. The printing on the side of the template indicates that your third topic will be a combination of 5-7 sources that show connections with “Allegory” and “Letter.”


The final essay, as you can see from the template, looks neat and precise. This is the finished product. But the process of achieving that final product looks quite different, as we have discussed.


Photo 2: The process is messy and includes much trial and error.

Here are the 7 steps to help complete the Literature Review:

  1. Find your sources
  2. Summarize and analyze each source. A summary responds to the question: “What does this source say?” An analysis responds to the question: “What does this source mean?”
  3. a. Find the common theme between sources and b. Between Plato and King and c. write it down!
  4. Choose 5-7 sources from #1 and #2 above.
  5. Arrange sources in appropriate order for body paragraphs.
  6. Write introduction.
  7. Write conclusion.


Photo 3: Use file cards to keep track of your sources.

Index cards (a 20th-century technology) serve several purposes. First, using handwriting can work kinesthetically to enhance memory. Plato Theatre also was a kinesthetic activity, using movement to connect to “Allegory” and its persuasive appeal to emotions (pathos). Second, the index cards allow writers to file the sources in categories that make sense. Here, I have color coded the different sources. Yellow for books, red for legal encyclopedia entries, blue for articles, green for archival documents, and purple for films. Third, summaries and analyses can be written on the back. Be sure to use additional space as needed. Finally, please note that there are a total of eleven sources here. In other words, use strategic over-thinking for this part of the process. As sources are summarized and analyzed in writing, the third topic for the literature review will eventually emerge.


Photo 4: Sort, arrange, and rearrange the file cards in an order that makes sense. This process will help with selecting the third topic.

In the end, I chose five sources. Each sources is a historic account of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March. I arranged the sources according to points of view. The first source is an article written by a journalist immediately after the March in 1965. The second source (a book) and the third source (a documentary) are records of the events of the March composed by historians. The fourth source (another documentary) and the fifth source (a graphic narrative) focus more specifically on Congressman John Lewis’s experiences of the March. I chose these sources based on my interpretation of Plato and King: that the light of the sun shows us that there is no “alternative truth,”, especially where racism is concerned. Note that I arrived at this connection between sources through abstract thinking and interpretation. From the initial sources (Photo 3), I could have chosen a number of different connections. The experience of emerging from the Cave engages my attention the most, and I found this connection in each of the sources in Photo 4.


Good luck with your work, and please let me know if you have questions or concerns. I will be happy to address them.



Dr. Susan N. Bernstein

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


A thread came across the WPA listserv last week that reminded me of a post I wrote a couple of years ago (Multimodal Mondays: No Fear Gramm(r) and Students' Top 5 Lists for Rhetorical Growth), which described a low stakes grammar assignment using Andrea's Writer's Help diagnostics and her Top 20 Student Grammar Mistakes. I have used Writer's Help to create individualized exercises for upper-division writing majors as well as to measure rhetorical growth with first-year writers. In my classes we call it “No Fear Gramm(r),” deciding to intentionally misspell/(re)spell the word in order to indicate the no fear aspect of the label. As students increasingly ask for prescriptive grammar help in their writing courses while simultaneously seeking assistance in applying those conventions across digital writing genres, I have found the below series of tasks beneficial for both generating conversation and demonstrating the transformative uses of digital grammar.


No Fear Gramm(r) is a low-stakes opportunity to use traditional diagnostic tools to create dialogic growth and community. In a class of eight professional writing majors, students not only take the diagnostic, but they then share their top five grammar issues with each other in a discussion forum, responding to coursemates and finding commonalities among everyone’s usage mistakes.


Students take a Grammar Diagnostic from Writer's Help 2.0 for Lunsford Handbooks. I don’t assign points to this assignment, but I talk with students on the first and second days of class about how we will use the results as departure points for the entire semester to grow specific qualities of our grammar usage. Although I don’t use the Gradebook option, Writer's Help does have one, so you can assign and grade the Diagnostic as well as the accompanying grammar exercises.


Measurable Learning Objectives

  • Examine results of a grammar diagnostic for areas of improvement
  • Compare diagnostic results to others’ in an open discussion forum
  • Synthesize content-meaning through dialogic writing and shared semantics


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.

Writer's Help 2.0 for Lunsford Handbooks: “Diagnostics”

The St. Martin’s Handbook: “The Top Twenty”

The Everyday Writer: Ch. 1, “The Top Twenty: A Quick Guide to Troubleshooting Your Writing”

Writing in Action: Ch. 1, “The Top Twenty: A Quick Guide to Troubleshooting Your Writing”

EasyWriter: “The Top Twenty”


Before Class: Student and Instructor Preparation
My students and I run this writing assignment during the first week of the semester as a low-stakes icebreaker and departure point for semester-long evaluation. To prepare, I embed the Writer's Help link in our class LMS as a Newsfeed item; I also email students before the first day of class with the same link and an explanation of what we are going to do.


In Class and/or Out

Students begin by posting and discussing their perceived Top 5 grammar issues in our course LMS. They then join our Writer's Help course and take the Diagnostic Pre-test. You can either have students complete the diagnostic in-class if you teach in a writing lab or have them complete the assignment on their own. I have tried both and have found better results when students work on this assignment outside of class. Since this assignment is low-stakes, I really only care about their authentic participation, however I can elicit it.


After students receive their results (immediate), they write up a comparison of their top five grammar issues versus their perceived ones, then post them, along with a reflection, in our online discussion forum. They interact with classmates in the forum, seeking out connections and discussing why these issues exist. We re/group in our face-to-face class the next week and examine interesting conclusions together. Students keep their Top Fives at-hand as they work through informal and formal writing opportunities during the semester. They also take a post-test diagnostic at the end of the semester to measure their growth in their Top 5 errors.


Anecdotal Results

This semester I have thirty students (two are non-native speakers), and the results showed many commonalities. The Top Five below represents elements of grammar reported by all students, in order of descending occurrence.

  1. Comma Usage
  2. Semicolons/apostrophes
  3. Pronouns
  4. Specific uses of Punctuation
  5. Sentence Structure/verbs

Interestingly, #3 (pronouns) was the #1 mistake in 2015, when I last measured these grammar elements for this blog. Comma usage shows up #1 this time, and was missing in 2015 altogether. Students still report issues with verbs, semicolons, and specific uses of punctuation.



Do Students Appreciate It as Much as I Do?

Every student I surveyed in an IRB-approved assessment of this assignment series reported that they learned more about their own specific grammar concerns by taking the diagnostic pre-test.  Accordingly, all of them thought their syntax-level grammar improved on the post-tests because they knew their specific concerns up-front.


Students further narrated their thoughts regarding the grammar diagnostic:

"The Grammar Diagnostics helped me better understand where my grammatical problems lay. For the most part, everything made sense in understanding why a convention that I used was incorrect and what the better one was, but some of the questions in the diagnostic seemed a little questionable. The only other thing about the Diagnostic that I didn't like so much was that it was multiple choice driven, which does not reflect the actual grammatical process of writing a research paper or other scholarly activity."


"My only concern is that I wish it included a longer pool of observation in the questions. For instance, I don't think that three questions concerning comma usage is enough evidence to prove if I am skilled or not at using them. Also, there should be extensive explanation of 'why' I answered a question wrong and what would be the correct answer and 'why' that answer would be correct. I just wish it had deeper explanations attached to each wrong answer."


"I feel they help to identify errors I've made a habit of using/not using."


"I think the Grammar Diagnostics is a great tool and should be introduced earlier in a college course. There are so many grammar 'rules' you should have learned in high school, but never do."


My Reflection
For me, low-stakes writing means “no worry” opportunities, where students can write and discuss their rhetorical concerns openly, without fear of grading or making mistakes. This assignment is multimodal because students use real-time ed-tech to see a snapshot of their grammar issues and then participate in digital forums to connect with other students about the same concerns. “No Fear Gramm(r)” counts for me, in terms of multimodal composition, because it encourages students to reflect on their own writing practices and become active participants in community-driven, digital conversations about writing. Try the assignment and let me know what you think!


Do you have an idea for a Multimodal Mondays activity or post? Contact Leah Rang for a chance to be featured on Andrea's blog.


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

Rhetoric and Reality

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Mar 10, 2017


One of my former colleagues was angered recently when NBC Nightly News on March 1st announced its story about President Trump’s speech to the joint houses of Congress with a banner that read, “Rhetoric & Reality.” His response on Facebook: “No no no! I can’t stand this Platonic framing anymore. Rhetoric and Reality are not opposed! Rhetoric and reality are on the same side, and lying and falsehood are on the other! 


Even a basic understanding of rhetoric could have saved our country from so much turmoil. However, when those on the side of lying and falsehood understand the power of rhetoric better than the average voter, rhetoric does become the enemy of reality and truth. The fact that the average voter was often getting his or her “news” via relatively new social media led to a victory of false rhetoric over the truth of the sort that has happened in the past only when other would-be dictators realized that shaking people’s faith in standard news media gave them the power to make people believe anything.


During the election, all of us saw things that we wanted to believe. Many of us did what has to be done when a claim is put forward: we looked to see what evidence there was behind that claim and what warrants it was based on. We looked at the source and the reliability of that source. Hopefully, we did this before we hit “share.” Politicians and supporters on all sides of the issues seem to understand the willingness of the American populace to hit “share” without questioning the source or the validity of the argument far better than most of us, even those of us educated in the field of rhetoric.


What does it take to shatter that belief in a single source of “truth”? The immediate future of our country depends on our ability to find an answer to that question. Those who believe that their single source of information are not willing to hear the arguments on the other side. They may be truly ignorant, but many of them are also willing know-nothings. Their faith in their “truth” is reinforced by one good speech that stays on track and sounds presidential. They can see and hear the support for the claims they want to believe, but opposing arguments are seen as only sour grapes because the other candidate didn’t win. One of the most frightening responses is the attempt, through bizarre unconstitutional legislation, to silence opposing voices. If they feel that campaign promises are being kept, they close their eyes to the effects of carrying out those promises.


Three sources of hope: we can hope that some eyes will be opened to the truth when promises kept start to negatively impact those who wanted to believe in those promises—when the absence of illegal workers starts to affect agricultural businesses, when families lose their health care, when the next would-be shooter is able to buy a gun because there is no legal reason he can’t, in spite of his mental illness.


We can hope that some eyes will be opened to the truth when promises are not kept —when the next terrorist is homegrown and not stopped by new immigration laws, when new pipelines are not built using American steel, when jobs are not saved.


We can hope that truth will win out when there are indisputable facts proving collusion with our enemies, indisputable facts proving that power in our country can be bought and sold, indisputable facts proving that the American public has been lied to.


True, those most willing to accept false reasoning have not yet been swayed by facts. The tipping point will come when enough of those in power and enough of those who hold the power of the vote over them listen to the voice of reason, listen to rhetoric in its finest form, and stand up for it.

Credit: View from the press seats by JoshBerglund19 on Flickr, used under a CC 2.0 License 




I’m a bit behind on my journal reading, but I finally got around to the December 2016 issue of CCC. It’s a good issue—with Joyce Carter’s powerful 2016 CCCC Chair’s address on “Making, Disrupting, Innovating”—but one article especially stood out to me: Jerry Won Lee and Christopher Jenks’s “Doing Translingual Dispositions.” This essay builds on Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur’s “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach” (College English, 2011, 303-21), which defines translingual disposition as one distinguished by “a general openness toward language and language differences.” Lee and Jenks go on to say


This disposition allows individuals to move beyond preconceived, limited notions of standardness and correctness, and it therefore facilitates interactions involving different Englishes. Considering the historical marginalization of ‘nonstandard’ varieties and dialects of English in various social and institutional contexts, translingual dispositions are essential for all users of English in a globalized society, regardless of whether they are ‘native’ or ‘nonnative’ speakers of English. (319)


I see the lively conversation around translingualism as one very positive outgrowth of the work done forty-five years ago by the group of scholars working on "Students’ Right to Their Own Language," first as a resolution and later as an NCTE publication, with full documentation. It’s worth remembering this resolution, voted on in 1972:


We affirm the students' right to their own patterns and varieties of language -- the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.


The last sentence in the resolution touches on what I have always thought of as “attitude,” that is, the attitude of teachers of
English toward varieties of English as well as toward other languages. Often it’s easier to pass a resolution (though this one was vehemently opposed by some members at the time) than it is to change attitudes. And in spite of this resolution and the research and scholarship that supported it, attitudes changed slowly: teachers of writing could and did talk the talk but didn’t yet come close to walking the walk. But we kept working at it: I can remember taking a cold, hard look at my syllabi, at the readings I chose, at my assignments, and noting the many many ways that attitudes regarding “proper” English were there inscribed. So I kept trying to make what I felt were my attitudes toward language variety (all upbeat and favorable) show forth more clearly in my classroom. And roughly twenty years ago, I wrote a new chapter for one of my reference books, on “Varieties of Language,” the first such chapter to appear in a composition handbook and one that argued for the validity of all varieties of English and of all languages.


So I’ve been thinking about these issues for most of my professional life, and I am encouraged by recent developments to recognize and nurture “translingual dispositions.” What I especially like about Lee and Jenks’s essay is that they see clearly that our field hasn’t yet worked out a strong pedagogy for teaching translingual dispositions, much less for teaching what Suresh Canagarajah and others call code meshing. But they persist in paving the way for such a pedagogy, showing that “even students who can be considered monolingual in the most traditional sense of the term have the capacities to develop translingual competence and do translingual disposition” by sharing research that demonstrates some students beginning to make the move toward such new dispositions.


Lee and Jenks are also clear-sighted about the role that teachers of writing must play in developing such dispositions: it won’t be enough for us to embrace this concept intellectually. Rather, as their title suggests, we have to DO translingual dispositions. I’d say that nearly fifty years on from the Students’ Right resolution, it’s time we take that step. And thanks to Lee and Jenks for moving us in the right direction.


Credit: Pixaby Image 705667 by wilhei, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

One common response to the semiotic study of such popular media as film, television, and music is that "it's only entertainment."  If you use popular culture as a thematic topic in your composition classes, then you may have encountered something of the sort, which is why the general introduction to Signs of Life in the USA carefully describes the historical process by which America became an "entertainment culture," and why that means that entertainment in America is always meaningful.


And if anyone still wants to object that entertainment is only entertainment, I give you the 2017 Oscar Awards ceremony.


No, I'm not referring to the mistaken best-picture-announcement-heard-round- the-world (how could they have just stood around waiting for the poor producers of La La Land to complete their victory speeches before breaking in with the correct envelope?!); I'm referring to the expectation that, like the Golden Globes, the ceremony was going to be another skirmish in the ongoing war between Hollywood and Donald Trump.  And that expectation, largely due to the opening monologue by Jimmy Kimmel, was not disappointed.


With Kimmel openly taunting the president (indeed, daring him to live-tweet the event), one doesn't need to go through every joke to get the point.  Which is, that with Saturday Night Live taking the lead with regularly scheduled take-downs (and enjoying a "ratings roll" ever since the election), and major awards ceremonies becoming platforms for presidential critique, the entertainment industry is emerging as the foremost institution of political opposition in the country.  I don't think that I am exaggerating: how often do we hear anything like it from the opposition party in the Senate and the House?


But if the entertainment industry has successfully taken up the cudgels against the Trump administration, will that action be successful itself?  Here's where things get tricky.  There is a lyric from a Tom Lehrer tune spoofing the folk-song-led 1960s protest movement called "The Folk Song Army," which goes like this:


Remember the war against Franco?
That's the kind where each of us belongs.
Though he may have won all the battles,
We had all the good songs.


There is no question that the entertainment industry has all of the good jokes (and speeches) when it comes to the anti-Trump resistance, but given that Trump's support comes from people who view Hollywood as a lot of out-of-touch elites, these jokes may only prompt them to dig in their heels (or "double down," as everyone seems to insist on saying these days) when it comes to their support for the president.  Indeed, a Washington Post report suggests that just this is happening, as 53% of those polled in a recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal national poll believe that "[T]he news media and other elites are exaggerating the problems with the Trump administration."   And "other elites," in American discourse, always include Hollywood.


Still, there is also the fact that entertainment is what Americans heed.  Donald Trump himself (as one of the new selections for the upcoming 9th edition of Signs of Life in the USA points out) used reality television as a springboard to the White House.  So perhaps the entertainment industry may indeed prove to be the most effective warrior in the anti-Trump opposition. 


This takes us back to our original premise: in America, entertainment matters.  A lot.  And that's why we teach popular cultural semiotics.


I suppose many of us are grappling with the significant changes to MLA citation in the organization’s eighth handbook.  I know I am.


Change happens, particularly as our technologies of publication continue to evolve rapidly in a digital age.  That’s one of the reasons that increasingly I don’t teach the mechanics of citation per se, but instead a meta approach to citing sources.  I tell my students that there are only 4 things they need to know about citation.


  1.         It exists.
    The most critical thing to know about citation is that it exists. That means that writers are responsible for acknowledging there sources.

  2.         If it’s not absolutely right, it’s wrong.
    Every little bit of a citation is critical, since these systems are designed to accurately document sources used. Getting citations perfectly correct is essential to the integrity of the work.

  3.        Know what you’re citing.
    I spend time talking about the kinds of sources that could be cited, as students often don’t know the differences between an anthology, an edited collection, a book, a journal article, a website, and more. Before any source can be cited, it’s important to know the kind of source it is.

  4.         Know how to find the answer.
    This step is crucial since it encourages a kind of meta-literacy. Citation systems change all the time, so making sure students learn the eighth edition MLA formatting is of limited use.  What’s more, only a fraction of the students in my courses will move into disciplines that use MLA.  It’s not at all important that they master the intricacies of MLA, but it is assuredly important that they master sets of tools that will help them find the correct answer.  In class, we discuss the range of tools they might use: a good handbook, a reliable web resource (including ones provided by our school’s library), and a spectrum of software tools that will help them construct a citation.


Encouraging citation literacy is my solution to the ever-changing nature of all citation systems.  I know that, personally, I often have to research and review how to do citations of even the most basic sources.  I share the strategies I use in the hopes that students will adopt similar ones.

I’m returning to the past—for this semester at least. Years ago now, as the First-Year Writing Program at NC State was in the midst of transitioning from a civic argument (first course) and study of literature approach (second course) to a WID-based model of writing instruction, our faculty grappled with ways to incorporate writing from a range of disciplinary communities into our courses, especially the second course. One of the ideas that emerged during that period of experimentation was to frame students’ experiences of literary texts with disciplinary arguments. We employed arguments from other disciplines, generally in the form of scholarly journal articles or book chapters, as lenses through which students could experience literary texts. This, we reasoned, was at least a way to have students engaged with writing from other disciplines in what was otherwise a course in the study of literature. Baby steps.


The instructional approach of our writing program eventually underwent an entire overhaul, but I’ve maintained a unit on reading and writing in the humanities in my WID-based course. I’ve also held fast to the expectation that this unit would introduce students to the basics of knowledge construction in the fields of the humanities, emphasizing the value of close reading and interpretation as integral elements to meaning-making in the humanities. To that end, one of the major projects I routinely have students respond to asks them to construct an interpretation of an artistic text, generally a literary one. An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing provides substantial support for such a project; Chapter 6 guides students through the process of crafting an interpretation of an artistic text while attending closely to rhetorical features conventionally associated with this frequently assigned genre.


To offer my students opportunities to engage with and study more routinely writing that occurs in other disciplinary domains, I’m mixing things up this semester and returning to the past. Though I’m maintaining the expectation that students will compose an interpretation of an artistic text (Assignment Framing Interpretations of Artistic Texts as a major project in the unit, this time around I’m asking students to frame their interpretations with other disciplinary arguments, as we did years ago at my institution. This approach is explored in detail in Arguing through Literature (2004), by Judith Ferster, a former Director of our First-Year Writing Program.


Here’s my plan to support this old/new approach to teaching the interpretation of an artistic text. I’m putting together some small readings clusters, or themed subunits. In each cluster, we’ll read two to three selected literary texts (though one or more of these could easily be substituted with other kinds of artistic texts). These artistic texts will be paired with a disciplinary text (scholarly journal article or book chapter) that, as a model for application, we can use to frame our exploration of the artistic texts themselves. Here’s a brief example of what one of these subunits looks like:


Reading Cluster A: War and Militarism

Disciplinary Frame

Eibl-eibesfeldt, Irenäus. “Warfare, Man’s Indoctrinability, and

  Group Selection.” Ethos: International Journal of Behavioural

  Biology, vol. 60, no. 3, 1982, pp. 177-198. doi: 10.1111/j.1439-


Artistic Text

Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”

Artistic Text

Luigi Pirandello, “War”

Artistic Text

Ernest Hemingway, “Soldier’s Home”


Based on my past experiences, students’ success with this approach depends a lot on guided practice. Such practice begins by helping them read, grapple with, and understand the disciplinary frame. Once they have a solid grasp of the frame, then they are typically able to read the artistic text through the lens of the disciplinary frame with success. Although I provide examples of frame texts, and we practice the application of disciplinary frames to their interpretation of various literary texts in my reading clusters, my students will ultimately find their own frame text and create an original interpretation of their chosen artistic text in light of their understanding of the disciplinary argument.


I see a number of advantages to returning to this approach from my past. First, it provides another opportunity for students to interact with authentic disciplinary arguments, potentially from a wide range of academic fields. Secondly, this approach fosters originality in students’ interpretations. Since students must locate their own disciplinary frames, their interpretations are necessarily original. Most likely, no one else has ever before applied the same frame to their target artistic text.


Additionally, there’s a flexibility that allows space for students’ own areas of interest to guide their interpretations; as a result, the students themselves may be more invested in the project overall.


I’d be interested to hear what you think of this approach. Are your students writing interpretations of artistic texts? What challenges do you/they face? What do you think of using disciplinary arguments as interpretive frame texts?

Like many of you, I've been thinking a lot lately about how best to work with students in a "post-fact" world. We all understand the problem--students being inundated with misinformation, falsehoods, outright lies, "alternative facts," and, of course, genuine news and factual statements. But how to tell one from another? Recent research by the Pew Foundation and others suggests that, in fact, such acts of careful discrimination between fact and fiction are quite difficult, to say the very least.


In my own work on argument, I have long stressed the crucial importance of listening (many thanks to Krista Ratcliffe’s work) and of fully acknowledging those with whom you are arguing. I stress rhetorical listening—that is, listening from the other person’s point of view, listening with as open a mind as possible, and trying to truly hear what the other person is saying. Today, these abilities seem not simply important but the very sine qua non of conversation that can move forward, rather than stalling in a dead heat of rancor and anger.


I’ve also been collecting ideas from others, and it's been encouraging to hear so many teachers of writing sharing their strategies and assignments. We are a group grounded in action, not just talk.


As usual, I get a lot of inspiration from postings to the WPA list and often I’m struck by the humorous approach to argument I find there: it’s often a very useful strategy. Recently I read a post from Mark Marino the description of his assignment(s) on writing “fake news,” a term much in the news today. As Mark puts it, he takes a “slightly unorthodox” approach in a three-week course called “How to Write and Read Fake News: Journalism in the Age of Trump”:


As a college composition instructor (at USC), I've been fascinated/infuriated/provoked by both the circulation of fake news (the non-satirical kind) and the weaponization of the term "fake news" by the President largely to delegitimize the professional press as a form of censorship/censorship. This course marks my attempt to respond.


Although the course was satirical in tone and highly performative in delivery, the course had a real reading list, lessons, and assignments. You can find Mark’s syllabus (he calls it a “sillybus”) online. Mark also wrote an explanation of the project at Slingshot.


I especially enjoyed hearing about student response and about the kinds of topics they chose to write “fake news” about, and I enjoyed the light touch, the smile just-barely there. And I was very impressed with the students’ ability to analyze their own “fakes” and Mark’s attempts to move that analytic ability onto other “fakes” on the Web.


So that’s one posting that caught my eye in the last couple of weeks. For another—as Monty Python used to say—“now for something completely different.” I wonder if you have read about or seen Daryl Davis, the African American musician who has made it his practice to meet and befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan and who wrote about it in Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the KKK. I first ran across a mention of Davis on PBS and was thunderstruck at the very idea: as a child born and raised in the deeply segregated south, I had a recurring nightmare about the KKK throughout my childhood and youth. While I never saw anyone in robes or hoods, so powerful and frightening were the images that I woke screaming at the dream of those hoods and torches. Could I, I wonder, meet and talk in a friendly way with a member?


After watching the film on Davis, called Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis and Race in America, perhaps I could—because Davis is the very embodiment of what Krista Ratcliffe calls rhetorical listening. He meets and befriends members of the KKK; he invites them to his home; he sits and listens, saying “I did not respect what he said, but I respects his right to say it.” And sometimes (in fact, to hear him tell it, fairly often) it works: the two very unlike people become friends, and in some cases the KKK member renounces his or her dedication to a “race war.” Here are a couple of tips from Davis, from a posting by Conor Friedersdorf (he’s a conservative editorialist) for The Atlantic, that reverberate strongly with me:


Please do…

“Look for commonalities. You can find something in five minutes—even with your worst enemy. And build on those. Say I don’t like you because you’re white and I’m black. You disgust me. . . . And so our contention is based upon our races. But you’re like ‘how do you feel about all these drugs on the street, and all these meth labs that are popping up?’ And I say, I think the law needs to crack down on things that people can get addicted to very easily and it's destroying our society. So you say, ‘Well yeah, I agree 100 percent.’ You might even tell me your son started dabbling in drugs. They don't discriminate. So now I see that you want what I want, that drugs are affecting your family the same way they affect my family, so now we're in agreement. So let's focus on that. As we focus more and more and find more things in common, things we have in contrast, such as skin color, matter less and less.”

Please don’t:

“. . . become condescending. Don’t become insulting. You’re going to hear things that you don’t like. You’re going to hear things you know are absolutely wrong. . . . You will also hear things that are opinions put out as facts. ‘There are more black people on welfare than white people.’ Well, that’s not true. And you should counter that and correct that. But don't do it in a manner that is insulting or condescending because you know they're wrong, and you're going to beat them over the head for being wrong. Show them the data, or tell them you'll get it, or if they really believe it, say, I know you're wrong, but if you think you're right then bring me the data.”


On the PBS page for Accidental Courtesy, readers are asked “Do you think Daryl's strategy of befriending KKK members to change the way they view people of color is the right approach?" Here are two of many responses:


Timothy Zaal Work Related

It is imperative! As a former racist myself, had I not had the opportunity to step out of my comfort zone/isolated social network, those who I dehumanized through fear & Far Right propaganda, would have remained less than human & worthy of extinction. However, I was shown compassion by my perceived enemy. I would not have successfully disengaged from the far right & lived to tell about it without exposure beyond my social network.
Respect = Change 
T. Zaal


I think Daryl sees the humanity in all people including those with reprehensible racist beliefs. His willingness to engage with the 'other' shows that through dialogue, and mutual respect, people can change. He shows that when we dehumanize those that dehumanize us we are all diminished. In the polarized political climate we live in, this offers a glimmer of hope, because neither retreating to our corners nor lashing out in anger, is an option anymore. While the discussion between Daryl and BLM leaders seems to expose a rift in approaches, differences based in personal life experiences and philosophies, this is nothing new in any civil rights movement; and this was just one 'made for camera' moment that is not a definitive statement on where things stand. I get where the BLM leaders are coming from and I get what Daryl is trying to do. I believe the movement to reform or diminish white supremacy will take a multitude of approaches and requires people of all ethnicities, including white people, to work together- and we make to stop making each other wrong.


The film Accidental Courtesy is widely available online. I can imagine watching either all or part of it with students and then asking them to respond to that same question. Doing so might take us a long way toward getting over the need to “make each other wrong.” Listen. And listen hard. And listen again.


Credit: Pixaby Image 1903774 by pixel2013, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

I have been writing about implementing a writing-about-writing (WAW) approach to first-year composition in a community college. In the last post, Writing about Writing in the Community College: Workshop Assignments, I described a sequence of “workshop assignments” designed to encourage careful reading and synthesis of sources. I’d like to share two examples of workshop texts written by my students (with their permission).


The following unedited paragraph was composed by a student from West Africa.  For the assignment, I asked students to craft a definition of academic discourse—or to argue whether or not it is really a “thing” that we can define.


We can state that academic discourse is not just “a thing,” it is “many things.” Even if Downs and Wardle say that there isn’t an universal academic discourse, this doesn’t mean that there is no academic discourse. I think, there is many academic discourses. Each discourse is represented by a discipline, which has specific rules. For example, biologists will name each living organisms with two words, whose the first represent the genus of that organism, and the second the specie. However, those academic discourse share some common principles; For example, abstract, introduction, conclusion are some common concepts in all those disciplines, and basically have the same meaning; Work cited list is also a common concept between them, but with some differences depending on which type (APA, MLA etc) each discipline is using. Students in their daily routine have to experience those writing rules which sometimes look similar, but must of the time, students have to remind theirself in which discipline they are writing, and adjust their brain to follow the particular rule of that discipline; In the end, as K. R. think in her Workshop, student’s papers have to meet certain standard to be accepted by their teachers (Workshop 2, paragraph 2). I think, those standards which teachers are expecting their students to meet are what define each academic discourse.


I suspect a few fellow teachers might be looking for a red pen to correct the obvious language issues that this student faces. However, I am more interested here in what he accomplishes in this one paragraph: he makes a claim about academic discourse, connects that claim to the article by Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle, provides an example from his own experience in the sciences, and finally draws a conclusion that incorporates a comment from his classmate (K.R.). He is building skills that will carry into his next major assignment—the construction of a literature review for his research project on West African pidgins.


Another student, also with a non-English background, at first accepted the common view of an academic discourse which underlies all college reading and writing assignments. She assumed that students who are in college must be using this basic “academic discourse” in order to function with any measure of success. The following unedited paragraph is expansion and revision of her original piece:


Previously, I explained that in my opinion academic discourse is this unique knowledge that students take from college, like learning to read critically, understand complex concepts and incorporating these ideas in their own writing. But after reading the article, “Writing from Sources, Writing from Sentence” by Rebecca Moore Howard, Tricia Serviss, and Tanya K. Rodrigue, I look at academic discourse differently. The findings from their research are showing that students are using mostly patchwriting, paraphrasing, summarizing, and one ‘good’ sentence to build their papers rather than understanding the whole concept of their source (188). In other words, their findings are setting up a counter argument with what I said previously, about academic discourse. Moreover, according to Dr. Howard’s data, students are not only using most of their information from sources, but they are using most of their information from the first pages, which is showing that student don’t read their sources, and therefor they don’t get the whole concept their source. Overall, I think that Howard, Serviss, and Rodrigue findings are showing that most of the students are not interested in their reading and writing classes, and they learn how to be crafty in order to pass their classes not to learn something that they can use later in life.


Again, if we look past the language issues, we see the student’s critical thinking: she revisited her original conclusion by considering an additional article (along with some data from a PowerPoint which Rebecca Moore Howard shared at a workshop at my college a few years ago). The cynicism implied in her conclusion here is probably not warranted, but I suspect her position will be refined further as she continues to read and conduct her own research for the class project. 


These pieces are not polished or perfect, but they suggest an authentic engagement in conversations about writing. The paragraphs illustrate key points from Downs and Wardle’s seminal article on writing about writing, “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies’”: students in a WAW course may “produce imperfect work,” given the time constraints of the course (575). But at the same time, these students’ close reading abilities, confidence, awareness of writing contexts, and understanding of the conversational nature of academic research have increased, similar to the benefits highlighted by Downs and Wardle (572-573).


I am looking forward to their independent research projects.


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Barclay Barrios

On Grit

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert Mar 1, 2017

Part of my work as Associate Dean for the college involves overseeing Student Academic Services, our advising office.  I meet regularly with Laura Mooney, the Director, to discuss issues and plan new initiatives.  Lately, we’ve been thinking about grit. Grit is an emerging approach to predicting and promoting student retention and success, and given that retention is a key metric in our state’s performance funding model, we’re very interested in exploring strategies that help our students stay in school and succeed.


“Grit” is defined in this context as “perseverance and passion for long term goals.”  Essentially, it’s a stick-to-it-ness that enables some students to push through challenges towards success. On the advising side, Laura is training her team to identify and recognize grit in students while also encourage that quality in her advising team, but I have started wondering how this same concept might be applied to the writing classroom.


Certainly, in my experience, grit is needed.  Across my teaching career I’ve found that the primary reason I fail students is because they stop showing up to class.  The challenge has always been figuring out what to do about that since reaching them after they have disappeared is a challenge in itself (they don’t tend to be super responsive to emails once they’ve made the decision to disappear).  I can’t say if students leave my classroom because the work is too challenging or too boring or if there are simply serious life issues that prevent them from achieving academic success.  But perhaps if I can find ways to promote grit from day one I might prevent some of these problems before they start.


I imagine I would start by discussing the concept from the first day and I might even try a grit assessment.  Then I would help them situate the work of the first year writing class in the context of goals that matter to them, helping them understand how success in the class will help them move towards their goals.  I might try early interventions the moment I see someone discouraged, interventions designed to promote greater tenacity.  And I would acknowledge and reward perseverance in the course. There are some additional recommendations in a draft report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology.


Have any of you tried tracking and nurturing grit in your classes? I’d be curious to hear what’s worked and what hasn’t.

Barclay Barrios

Teaching Fake News

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert Mar 1, 2017

There’s a lot of news out there now about fake news.  I think the topic offers a wonderful opportunity for the writing classroom, particular for any class that involves research.  Not only can students learn how to do rigorous research, but they also can learn how to spot a fake story on Facebook or Twitter.


I would probably start such an activity by bringing in some fake news posts.  BuzzFeed has a nice collection, or you might also try the archive at Snopes.  As a class, students can analyze these stories and look for clues that indicate they’re fake. has a great article on how to spot fake news and NPR has a good introduction to the topic as well.


The class as a whole can develop a guide for finding fake news and then students can bring in other examples, explaining how they used the guide to locate the fake articles.  As they move into research, the class can invert the fake news guide to create a guide for finding solid and reliable sources.


Given the suspected impact those fake news stories had in recent events, I think this is a great exercise and a great way to think about research.  Hope you give it a try.