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EMCC_Kiev_Day2_01 SD by ELSA International on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licenseWhile collecting materials for my summer course, I found the Writing Group Starter Kit from the University of North Carolina’s Writing Center. This fantastic resource is intended to help students organize writing groups independently; however, it has materials that with a little tweaking are perfect for writing groups in the classroom, as well.


The site has a series of six worksheets that help independent groups both manage the logistics of their meetings and communicate effectively about their writing projects. Admittedly, I was taken in by the title of the handout Thirteen Ways of Talking About Writing Groups. I was expecting something connected to Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Instead, I got thirteen questions intended to help a writing group set up its ground rules—very good and helpful questions, just not the poetic treatment I was expecting. Despite misleading me, I will use the Thirteen Ways to talk about how I am using the UNC resources.


First, I need to provide some details on the goals for the UNC resources and the needs of my course. The UNC resources are meant to help writers who are organizing their own groups. Presumably they will be bringing their own goals to the group, which will apparently meet in person. They will set all their own expectations for what is shared, when it is shared, and how the group will interact. The students in my course will have some freedom in how they work together, but there are some decisions that are either dictated by the course or by my teaching philosophy. For example, I am teaching a 100% online course and students are not geographically nearby. They will not be able to meet in person, so questions about where to meet are irrelevant.


Since the UNC resources will not work for my course as is, I am going to divide the questions into two groups: (1) those that are predetermined or that I will decide about for the course, and (2) those that students can decide about. I am going to use the first group of questions to help explain the way that writing groups work in the course. By working through those questions, I can make sure that I include all the important details. I plan to use the second group, which students will answer, as inspiration for a Google Forms survey. A survey will organize the responses so that the online groups can move quickly through the process of making their final decisions. If students were to answer all the questions in a discussion forum or by email, I fear that they would be quickly overwhelmed by the length and variety of the answers. Since Google Forms provides a summary of results, the tool will make it easier for students to compare the options and make decisions.


So that’s how I plan to use the Thirteen Ways questions. I plan to take a similar approach to some of the other worksheets from the UNC Writing Center to help ensure students have the structure they need to make their writing groups successful. Strong writing groups should help with my overarching goal this summer to improve online discussion in the course as well. Do you have any strategies for supporting writing groups you can share? Please share in the comments below.



Credit: EMCC_Kiev_Day2_01 SD by ELSA International on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

On a visit to see my beloved grandnieces Audrey (now 13!) and Lila (9), we had lots of time to talk about the school year, review accomplishments, and discuss plans for next year (when Audrey will be in 8th and Lila in 4th grade). They were both upbeat about their EOGs (end-of-grade tests, a new term to me) and, in fact, Audrey even won a medal following the results of her French exam, and Lila had made great progress in math (her nemesis). Lots of excitement about summer camps: two leadership camps, a sleepover singing camp at UNC Greensboro, a two-week farm camp with lots of time to learn about and play with animals, and a couple of others—a busy summer, I thought.


But then Lila said, “but don’t forget reading and writing!” Indeed, she is already signed up for her local library reading program and is busily choosing the books (lots of animal books!) she will read as she competes for points and prizes. But then there’s writing! During my visit, Lila had mentioned (over and over!) that she wanted a particular kind of journal, which she described in great detail. We went to Target, where she thought her friend had seen it, and looked at every journal in the huge store, dozens and dozens of them. We pointed out any number of attractive journals, but without luck: Lila wanted this very particular journal and nothing else would do. I’ll admit to being a little exasperated—a journal is a journal, or so I thought. But Lila insisted this one was different: “it has plans in it,” she said, “and it gives you ideas.” Back to the drawing board . . . and online to search.


Eventually we found it: Your Diary: Your Own Unique Reality.



And sure enough, it did have plans in it, and a lot of prompts:





You can see the “heavenly” jacket Lila drew along with her “perfect backpack” and the beginning of her discussion of what made her day so “incredible.” What surprised me was how invested in this journal Lila was: she began working on it as soon as we got it and practically had to be separated from it by force at bedtime. The next day she was back at it again, having such fun writing stories, making up jokes, drawing pictures, and recording details of her life. Before I left, she said, with a huge smile on her face, “I’m going to go to college and major in writing.”


Now that’s music to any writing teacher’s ears! I look forward to following along as Lila writes in her journal throughout the summer and as she reads through the stack of books she has accumulated. It occurs to me that there couldn’t be much better preparation for 4th grade, or for life, than reading and writing for pleasure over the summer. And I say “bravo, brava” to all the libraries running reading programs and for all those publishers creating journals that captivate young minds!


Credit: Photos by Andrea Lunsford

This will be my last blog post.  I’ve been writing for this blog for at least six years, though I suspect it’s been a bit longer, and it’s been a wonderful pleasure sharing my random thoughts and engaging the wider world.  But I need to focus on other areas of my research for a time and can’t manage to juggle that task with the sustained attention this blog needs and deserves. 


So, I just wanted to say thanks to everyone—to everyone at Bedford who makes Bits happen (and there have been many over the years), to all the other contributors in the Macmillan Community, to all of you out there in the cyberspatial interwebs.  I appreciate having had this platform and look forward to joining other conversations in the field in other places.

Alphabet 1 by Brenda Clarke, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 licenseIn every writing assignment, I ask students to use what they know about layout and design to create a project that is clear and easy to read. The work that they turn in tells me that I need to incorporate more support to help them understand new document and online design work. Students seem able to copy the models that I share, but they tend to be lost when there are no models or when their content doesn’t fit the model precisely. It’s time to reflect and rethink.


What I Have Been Doing

I always spend a week on assignments related to design. Students read the chapter(s) in our textbook and I ask them to discuss various examples. I particularly like Robin Williams’ discussion of the use of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity (2014), so I add resources that include those ideas. Most recently, I have used tutorials that demonstrate the ideas, as students have free access to the videos at Virginia Tech. In addition, I share these infographics, which repeat and demonstrate the principles: 



We discuss these principles in our online forums, and I ask students to apply the principles to some of the documents in the course. I ask students to apply the principles to the infographics themselves, for instance, to give them some experience in paying attention to visual design. Finally, I ask them to apply the ideas to their projects specifically by mentioning it in peer review guidelines, revision checklists, and project rubrics.


As it stands now, I think students do not get enough practice in actually working through design principles. They analyze design, but their actual work is limited to applying that information to their projects. Additionally, I think students are trying to do too many new things at once. Because they focus on the content and requirements for their projects, design becomes a secondary concern, and, thus, it doesn’t get adequate attention.


New Strategies to Try

Here are a number of ideas that I have brainstormed (in no particular order) to give students more practice with design. In each, I have given students existing content so that they can focus their effort on design. For these particular activities, I am excluding video and audio projects.


  1. Plain to Formatted. Students will take a plain chunk of text, about one page long, and use the principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity to make the text more readable. The original and the formatted version must designed to be printed with a printer that only has black ink (e.g., no colors). They can use any basic typography (fonts, size, and so forth) as well as any layout strategies. They may revise the text to fit their new design, but for this particular activity they are limited to typography and layout. They may not add images, photos, clipart, or shapes.

  2. Highlight Your Inspiration/Beliefs. Choose an inspirational or important quotation related to your professional goals. The author of the quotation might be a business leader, a well-known scientist, or a relevant historical figure. Aim for a quotation that is no more than 10 to 12 words. Use document design to create an 8.5" by 11" poster that features the quotation. Use the principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity to make the key ideas stand out. Use color, images, photos, and/or shapes to complement your message. Your design should be something you would be willing to print out and hang up in your office at work.

  3. Increase the Wow Factor. Visit the Campus News site and choose a story that would be of interest to students at the university. Use the content from the news story to create a one-page, single-sided 8.5" by 11" poster that could be posted on the many bulletin boards in the hallways of buildings on campus. Sticking to the facts of the original news story, create a poster that will catch the attention of students casually walking down the hall. You can use any document design elements, and you can revise the text of the story, as long as you do not change the facts or add misleading information.

  4. Revise to Solve a Problem. Find a short document (no more than one 8.5" by 11" page) that violates one or more of the principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and/or proximity. Use the document to create a how-to explanation on how to improve the design in order to increase readability and interest. Your how-to should show the original document and a revised, improved version (a before and after).

  5. Focus on Headings. Choose a page from the Historical Digest pages for any Virginia Tech President. These pages are basic text, broken into paragraphs. Copy the historical information to your word processor, and add headings that provide information-rich signposts to the document. Once your headings have been added, a reader should be able to scan down the page and see the key achievements or events relevant to the particular president.

  6. Convert the Table. Review the content from the table on the Virginia Tech Enrollments page. While the information is clearly arranged, because there are over 100 lines in the table, you may find that it is hard to do more than scroll up and down the page. Use what you know about document design to present the information in a better way that will be more readable for visitors to the site. You can use any document design elements, but do not change the facts or change the layout or design in ways that would mislead readers.

  7. Pin It! [Part One] Find three images online that demonstrate each of the principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity (for a total of 12 images). Copy and paste the images into a word processor document, and add a description that explains which principle the image illustrates and explains how the image demonstrates the principle. Alternately, if you have a Pinterest Account, you can make a Document Design board, and pin the images you find to that board. Be sure that you include the description.
    [Part Two]
    Once you have gathered your 12 images from online documents, go through your own work and find two more examples for each design principle (for a total of 8 more). Take screenshots or photos of your work, crop the images to focus on the use of the design principles and add them to your word processor document or Pinterest board.

  8. Syllabus Redesign. Take a section from a syllabus from another course that you are taking, and use the document design principles to revise the information to make it more readable. A student who looks at the syllabus after your revision should have an easier time finding information in the section and understanding the details related to the course. Turn in your "before" and "after" versions of the syllabus section with a description of what you changed and how the changes reflect better document design. For the purposes of this assignment, you may not use any syllabus or course documents that the instructor has written.

  9. Slideshow Redesign. Choose either a slideshow that you have created for another course OR a slideshow that someone else has created. Find a slide in the slideshow that can be improved by applying document design principles. Revise the slide to improve its readability, paying attention to how the slide will be projected onto a screen. Think in particular about the size of fonts needed for the audience to read the information. If needed, you can convert your one slide into more than one slide to make it more readable. Turn in your "before" and "after" versions of the slide with a description of what you changed and how the changes reflect better document design. For the purposes of this assignment, you may not use any slideshows that the instructor has written.

  10. Show Your Style. Create a style guide for yourself, your company, or an organization you belong to that outlines the key elements of document design that you will follow, including typography, color, contrast, and layout. The goal is to create document design guidelines that will give the work you compose unity and coherence. The guidelines should help set a document design brand for you, your company, or your organization. Once you have established your guidelines, apply them to a short piece that you have written recently. Incorporate the "before" and "after" versions in your guidelines to demonstrate how the principles should be applied.


What activities do you use in your classes to teach students document design principles? I would love to hear from you in the comments below.


 Credit: Alphabet 1 by Brenda Clarke, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

Donna Winchell

Et Tu?

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Jun 16, 2017


File:Carl Theodor von Piloty Caesars Death.jpg

A heated controversy arose recently following the publication of a photo of comedienne Kathy Griffin, who was shown holding a (clearly fake) decapitated head representing President Trump. In a world that has seen hundreds of memes mocking Trump and dozens of Photoshopped images making him look foolish or worse, Griffin's photo was judged to be a step too far by some while defended as legitimate comedy by others. Not all of those attacking Griffin have been the usual Trump supporters.


Even more recently, Delta Airlines and the Bank of America have withdrawn their support from a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that opened last week at New York's Public Theater. It is not the only production of that play that has been performed this year with Trump as a stand-in for Julius Caesar. According to Michael Paulson and Sopan Deb of the New York Times, "Defenders of the production, including some theater critics, describe the Public's 'Julius Caesar' as nuanced, complex and loyal to Shakespeare's text--a cautionary tale about the costs of political violence. But the production is also explicit and graphic, featuring a blond Trump-like Caesar whose bloody stabbing is seen as offensive and inappropriate to some who have seen it." One woman who saw the performance declared, "I don't love President Trump, but he's the president. You can't assassinate him on a stage."


Apparently the line between theater--or visual comedy--and real life is a critical one. Neither Griffin nor the producers of Julius Caesar are considered criminals although Griffin's career has taken a serious blow because of the photo and the play has lost financial support. However, making a threat on the life of the President on social media is considered a crime and can lead to jail time even if the poster was "only joking." Even teenagers who have been warned once have been jailed for posting threats a second time. So a cautionary tale here as well: a joke among friends is one thing but posting a threat, even in jest, on social media crosses the line into criminal behavior. 


Credit: Caesar's Death by Carl Theodor von Piloty (1865) on Wikimedia Commons (shared under Public Domain) 

Jack Solomon

The Uses of Objectivity

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Jun 15, 2017

I take my title, and topic, for my last blog before the summer break from two pieces appearing in today's (as I write this) online news. One, John Warner's essay "The Pitfalls of 'Objectivity,'" appears in Inside Higher Ed, and the other is a news feature in The Washington Post on the prison sentencing of a Sandy Hook hoax proponent who sent death threats to the parents of one of the children murdered at the Connecticut elementary school. I'll begin with John Warner's essay.

Warner is a blogger for Inside Higher Ed, whose blog, "Just Visiting," describes his experiences as an adjunct writing instructor. As a voice for the much-beleaguered, and ever-growing, class of adjunct writing professors in this country, Warner is a very popular Inside Higher Ed blogger, whose columns consistently garner far and away the most commentary (almost always positive) of any other blog on the news site, often from grateful instructors who are justifiably glad to see someone expressing their point of view for once in a prominent place. Heck, Warner gets more comments on each blog post than I have gotten in all the years I have been writing this blog, so it's hard to argue with success.

But in this era when "fake news" and "alternative facts" have come to so dominate the political landscape, I feel obliged to respond to Warner's thesis, which is that, "One of the worst disservices the students I work with have experienced prior to coming to college is being led to believe that their writing – academic or otherwise – should strive for 'objectivity.'” Warner's point—which, as a central tenet of cultural studies generally, and the New Historicism in particular, is not a new one—is that "there is no such thing as purely objective research." This position cannot be refuted: writing and research always not only contain, but begin, in subjectivity. Even scientific investigation starts with an hypothesis, a conjecture, a subjective cast into an ocean of epistemic uncertainty. And if one really wants to press the point, there has never been a successful refutation of the fundamental Kantian position that knowledge is forever trapped in the mind, that we know only phenomena, not noumena.

So, the question is not whether or not subjectivity is an inevitable part of writing, thinking, and arguing. Rather, the question is whether we really want to throw out the objective baby with the bathwater, which is what I think happens when Warner argues that, "Strong writing comes from a strong set of beliefs, beliefs rooted in personal values. Those underlying values tend to be relatively immutable." And that takes us to the Sandy Hook hoax community.


To put it succinctly, the Sandy Hook hoaxers believe that the massacre at the Sandy Hook School was a "false flag" that either never took place at all or was perpetrated by the Obama administration (there are various claims in this regard), and which was planted in order to justify the seizure of Americans' guns. The hoaxers have written at length, and with great passion, about this, producing all sorts of "facts" (in the way of all conspiracy theorists). One could say that their texts come "from a strong set of beliefs . . . rooted in personal values . . . that tend to be relatively immutable." And there's the problem.

Now, Warner is hardly promoting conspiracy theorizing, or being tied to immutable beliefs. For him, "An effective writer is confident in communicating their beliefs, while simultaneously being open to having those beliefs challenged and then changed as they realize their existing beliefs may be in conflict with their values." But the problem is that without objective facts, a contest of beliefs is only that, with no basis for settling the debate. You don't like the facts? Shout "fake news!" and produce your own "alternative facts." I'm sure you see where this heading.

As with the legacy of poststructuralist thinking that I have often written about in this blog, Warner's apparently generous and liberal approach to writing leads to unintended results. By undermining our students' acceptance of the existence of objective facts—and the objectivity to pursue them—we are underpinning a political environment where hostile camps hole up in their echo chambers of shared beliefs and simply shout at each other. And while I know that we, as writing instructors, can't end that—any more than we can come up with a final refutation of Kantian and poststructuralist subjectivism—if we really want to do our bit to resist the current climate of "fake news" claims we should be encouraging our students to see the dialectic of subjectivity and objectivity, the complex ways in which the two can complement each other. It isn't easy, and there can be no easy formula for doing so, but simply denigrating objectivity to our students is not going to help us, or them.



corn, food literacy, Andrea Lunsford, Navajo Nation“I could learn another song, perhaps another ceremony. Maybe I could heal one more person. I am hopeful, grandson. Life is so short. So precious.” The speaker, the 101-year-old grandfather of Navajo poet, playwright, and leader Rex Lee Jim, is responding to his grandson’s question of why he wished to live another decade or so. His grandfather says he is “still learning” and “still walking”: “I am Home God, walking. I am at the center of the wide cornfield, walking. I am planting the white corn, walking.”


For Rex Lee Jim and his grandfather, food—and perhaps especially corn—is sacred. But, he asks, “when does corn stop being sacred?”


Blue corn pancakes for breakfast. Kneel down bread (corn meal rolled in corn husks and baked in the ground). Awesome meals! Then we started washing it down with way too much fructose drinks. Coke. Pepsi. Root Beer. Dr. Pepper. No doctor at all. Today obesity reigns. Diabetes terrorizes. Yes, when does corn stop being sacred?


This question, and its answers, grew out of writing workshops and exchanges held between students from the Navajo Nation and students from Fern Creek High in Louisville, KY, who are all involved in a food literacy program that aims to change “the world by first changing ourselves, and we change ourselves by changing what we plant in the garden between our ears.”


I’ve written about the Navajo Kentuckians before (see here and here!) and the remarkable partnership that has brought Rex Lee Jim from the Navajo Nation and Brent Peters from Louisville, KY together to create such life-changing programs. Peters and his colleagues are now finishing a book—called Tigers Feeding Chickens—that all teachers of writing need to read, and to act on. I’ll be writing more about the book in another post.


For now, I want simply to point to the depth and breadth of this food literacy program, which is experiential, hands-on, student-centered, inquiry-based—and enormously effective. In it, students learn about where food comes from, about its relationship to mental, emotional, and physical health, and about food traditions in their own and other cultures. And they become questioners, interrogators of their family’s eating habits and traditions, connecting the dots and drawing up plans for enhancing and enriching their relationship to food and, in some cases, for transforming that relationship. The student writing that grows out of these experiences is mature, insightful, deeply moving: they teach themselves—and in turn they teach each other and their teachers and family members as well. As Rex Lee Jim puts it:


The essential step to becoming a true learner for life is an experience in humility and vulnerability, which leads to genuine communication with and deep understanding of our youth culture, the most abundant, energetic, and daring resource available for us.


In courses and programs that focus on learning for life, writing is not about skills and drills, not about five-paragraph essays, not about standardized tests and exams. Rather, writing becomes an essential by-product of learning, a way of crafting and sharing knowledge, and a means of putting that knowledge to work for the good of communities. That’s writing that can change lives for the better—and that’s writing infinitely worth teaching as we and our students continue to learn together, to continue to plant that garden between our ears.


Credit: Pixaby Image 1898198 by Daria-Yakovleva, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

It seems that I need to revisit my policy on personal portable technologies in the classroom just about yearly now.  I’ve for a long time moved away from banning them and towards learning how to use them responsibly (so, for example, if you need to take that call or send that text, simply step out the classroom to do so).  I think, though, I am moving ever closer to a full integration.


My own use of these technologies is driving my reconsideration.  I always have either my laptop or my phone (or more likely both) at meetings these days.  I use it to review documents for the meeting and to take notes but increasingly I find myself doing spot research in the course of a meeting: searching through old emails to find out just how we handled this situation last time, checking our Collective Bargaining Agreement for the specific language about a faculty policy, or even heading to Wikipedia to get a quick background on a scholar or critic mentioned in passing.


If I assume that I am working in a professional setting (which clearly I am) and if I assume students in my classes will be in similar settings (which I dearly hope they will) then I think my own habits of technology should inform my expectations for students as well.  That is, I would hope they would learn to use technology to enhance and supplement the work before them as well.


This summer I am teaching a class on gender and sexuality and prompting students to use these technologies productively comes in handy.  I might make a historical reference, ask if anyone knows it, and then ask someone to web search it for the class when it’s clear no one has the answer.  The availability of ancillary knowledge is useful. Teaching students when and how to use technology in these settings is even more useful.  I can’t say that it’s a total success (I am sure some are still on Facebook and Snapchat) but I think it’s moving in the right direction and so I will continue to model these professional uses and will continue to revisit my policies on technology, as well.

Computers & Writing Doge MemeI love image-based memes like the doge graphic on the right. Their combination of linguistic text, visual image, and arrangement makes a perfect example for discussions of multimodal texts. Everything matters with these images. The linguistic text has to connect to the image. Separately, the words alone or the image alone would have an entirely different meaning. The arrangement of the image and the words changes the meaning further. In the case of the doge image, the words float around the image, mimicking the idea of thoughts that the animal is having. You can learn a lot more about this particular meme on the Know Your Meme site.


Kitten memeA few years ago, I began adding memes to the daily course blog posts. I either found or created memes that somehow tied to the activities we were working on or to current happenings. The kitten meme on the left is one of the favorites of those that I created. This poor, sad kitten showed up on the class website on the day that we discussed the importance of documentation. As students worked on their multimodal projects, it can be tempting to save assets (like images they find that relate to their projects) as they come across them. If they don’t also write down where these assets come from, they too will be sad kittens when it comes time to all documentation to their projects. You can see all the other memes I have collected in my Tumblr collection.


Because I enjoy these memes so much, I love sharing them with other teachers, so at the 2017 Computers and Writing Conference (hashtag: #cwcon) earlier this month, I presented a mini-workshop on using memes in the classroom. My session was titled, Write Like You Meme It: A Hands-on Intro to Memes in the Classroom.


During the workshop, we explored reasons to incorporate memes in the writing classroom, looked at a variety of examples, explored tools for making memes, talked about potential challenges, and then created memes using simple, free tools. You can find links to the free tools, background information, possible assignments, and other resources on the session webpage. We had a great deal of fun making our conference and teaching themed memes. The doge meme above was created by the whole class. I displayed the Doge Meme Generator on the screen, and attendees shared phrases to add to the image. The bottom-most phrase, “Go Elkie,” refers to the conference chair, Elkie Burnside.


To end this week’s post, I want to share the other memes that were created by attendees during the session. Just click the Play button below to see them all:




Have you used memes in your classes? My students always enjoy the chance to make memes. I have created a similar slideshow of Student-Created Memes that you can view to see their work, and check out the session webpage for details on the guidelines and assignments that I share with them. If you use memes with your students, tell me about your experience. I would love to hear more in the comment below!

I recently had a chance to join Susan Thomas, Alyssa O’Brien, and students in the University of Sydney’s beginning writing class (to be renamed “Introduction to Academic Writing” in 2018) via Skype to talk about the role writing should (will!) play in their lives. I met the students in an auditorium (there are nearly 200 enrolled in the class) during their once-a-week, one-hour “lecture,” which is augmented by another hour spent in tutorial groups of 25 and a third hour of online writing activities.  Susan is working to include more tutorial time next year, as data gathered from students indicates that they would prefer that, as would Susan. In describing the course, she goes on to say:


While WRIT1000 is a first-year course, students can take it at any time, including summer and winter school. It's not unusual for third and fourth year students to enroll just prior to graduation, to brush up on writing skills for job applications, etc. In fact, in one of my tutorials this semester, not a single student is a first-year!


There are five short assignments in the class, with each building on/towards the others in a portfolio style. We have a sentence task, a paragraph task, a research task, a peer review task, and a final reflection task. Each person teaching the course does the grading for her tutorials. We focus on sentences and paragraphs and the analysis of these, with the idea being that students leave WRIT1000 ready to write essays in WRIT1002, our advanced writing course; and we have two 2000-level courses focusing more on rhetorical analysis. We have two 3000-level courses, one focusing on workplace writing and the other on rhetorical theory. We have five graduate courses on professional writing and editing, ESL/EAL, and thesis (dissertation) writing.


These courses are all part of the Writing Minor in the Department of Writing Studies, which will launch in 2018. In addition, some years ago Susan founded the "Writing Hub" at U Sydney, which is their writing center and which will also be part of the new Department. All very exciting!


lecture classroomDuring the hour I spent with the WRIT1000 class, I was delighted to find the Australian students (who were majoring in a wide variety of disciplines) engaged as well as very engaging. I spoke for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, sharing the findings of some major research studies that link the ability to communicate effectively, in both writing and speaking, to success in many fields—from astronomy to zoology and everywhere in between. Since Susan had told me that many of her students take a fairly dim view of collaboration (which seems to fly in the face of the importance their culture places on self-reliance, at best, and might be a form of cheating, at worst), I took some time to talk about how much we know about the value of being able to work (and write) effectively with others, an ability highly valued by many professions and absolutely necessary in an age when it is increasingly difficult (or impossible) for a single researcher working alone to solve the kinds of complex problems facing many organizations and companies today. Noting the Stanford Study of Writing finding that “dialogic interaction” was key to major learning experiences in the college years, I asked how many had collaborated with others, in learning or in writing. A few hands went up, and I hope to follow up on this question with Susan as the term progresses.


During the Q and A session that followed, students stepped up with alacrity, asking important and substantive questions—from intellectual property conventions in terms of collaboration, in general, and collaborative writing, in particular; to why conventions shift from discipline to discipline (such as the use of first person or the passive voice); to tips for revision for both monolingual and multilingual writers.


Any worries I had that the hour might be filled with awkward silences proved completely unfounded, and at the end of our time together I only wished to extend it further. I’m hoping some of the students might take up my invitation to write to me: I have a lot of questions I’d love to ask them about their experiences with writing in and out of class at Sydney—as well as about how they define writing and what they think writing is most useful for. So bravo and brava Aussie writers!


Credit: Pixaby Image 2093745 by Wokandapix, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

Barclay Barrios

Summer is Here

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert Jun 7, 2017

We’re already a couple of weeks into our first summer semester here, but wherever you are I hope your semester is ending smoothly.  I’ve written before about the challenges of teaching in summer but thought I would revisit this topic, thinking more specifically about some of the unique opportunities that summer teaching brings.


At my school, summer classes run six weeks, meeting two times a week for three hours each.  The challenge for summer teaching for us is three-part: squeezing sixteen weeks of learning into six, balancing the work that can be done between classes (when students have maybe a day to do the work), and filling a three hour class in a way that’s productive.  I’d like to invert those challenges.


Three hour classes allow me a lot more time to make writing happen in the classroom.  They also open the possibility for showing more video, something I am doing this summer.  Having a class that meets twice a week means that students reinforce writing skills more often, and more intensely.  And working with a six week semester forces me to distill the course into a set of essential skills.  There just isn’t room for anything not necessary.


What is summer semester like at your school?  And how do you meet its challenges, perhaps turning them into advantages?  I’d love to hear…

Even able writers who try their best to “be clear” may fail miserably. A couple of months ago, I was reminded of how subtle clarity can be—and how greatly it can matter.


In March the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Maine, handed down a controversial decision—one I heard about the same way you probably did, in coverage by the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, NPR, and other news outlets. The court reversed a lower court decision in a Maine labor law case to rule in favor of the plaintiffs, dairy-truck drivers, on the grounds that the absence of a comma in a state law made it ambiguous.


The law says that the usual regulations mandating extra pay for overtime do not apply to the following categories of work: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution” of perishable foods. Because no comma appears in that series after “shipment”—because the series lacks a serial, or Oxford, comma—about 75 drivers are entitled to four-plus years of back overtime, the court decreed. That overtime is worth millions.


As the Times explained the Court of Appeals’ reasoning, “The phrase could mean that ‘packing for shipment or distribution’ was exempted, but not distribution itself.” So, arguably, people who distribute perishable food do not belong to an exempt category, and they do therefore deserve overtime pay.


My first thought when I read this was, No, sorry—nothing against truck drivers, but the law does not say that. If what was exempt from overtime was packing for either of two purposes (shipping or distribution), the phrase should have ended, “… marketing, storing OR packing for shipment or distribution.” The missing “or” is the clincher, not the serial comma, which would unimportantly appear, or not, after “storing.” As written, the single “or” can’t, correctly, be part of the phrase “shipment or distribution” because it’s busy tying together the series as a whole. The two distinct work categories of packing and distribution are being declared exempt.


But then I stepped back from the grammar and thought, The higher court found the law ambiguous! If the justices couldn’t agree on what the law means, what more do we need to know? And I noticed that the sentence does contain a bit more evidence pointing toward ambiguity: canning, processing, … and packing are all -ing forms of verbs, specifically gerunds, whereas shipment and distribution are not. The form of these two nouns subtly encourages us to think of them as different from the gerunds in the series. Might they be a pair of objects of the preposition for?


Further, let’s acknowledge that not every law on the books is well written or even up to code grammatically. So never mind that the manual for drafting laws in Maine, according to the Times, advises against using serial commas. (The manual is said to give “trailers, semitrailers, and pole trailers” as a don’t-do-it example, and “trailers, semitrailers and pole trailers” as one to emulate.) It’s crazy that the meaning of this section of the law in question depends so heavily on one optional comma.


To me, this episode demonstrates why we should all routinely use serial commas. “The canning, processing, packing for shipment, or distribution” of perishable foods—that’s clear, no?


But it also contains a broader lesson about looking out for readers. I doubt that any of us can write anything worth reading if we’re constantly considering possible misreadings and ambiguities in sentences as we draft them. So we need to take that step after drafting and read our work over with sharp, skeptical eyes. I think of it as pretending I’ve never before seen what I just wrote. When I have time to put the work aside overnight, or at least while I go out for a walk, I do it. It makes the little trick of imagination I’m playing easier. Alternatively—or usually also—I ask someone to weigh in who really has never before seen what I wrote and who understands that I’m not just seeking praise.


While looking out for our readers, we must also give them credit as critical thinkers; we don’t need to tell them things over and over. Trying to see through their eyes what we’ve written doesn’t have to lead to dull repetition. Rather, the idea is to meet readers more than halfway.


Looking out for readers may not be worth millions to them—let alone to us—but still it’s worth a lot.


Do you have questions about language or grammar, or are there topics you would like me to address? If so, please email me at bwallraff


Barbara Wallraff is a professional writer and editor. She spent 25 years at the Atlantic Monthly, where she was the language columnist and an editor. The author of three books on language and style—the national bestseller Word CourtYour Own Words, and Word Fugitives—Wallraff has lectured at the Columbia School of Journalism, the Council of Science Editors, Microsoft, the International Education of Students organization, and the Radcliffe Publishing Program. Her writing about English usage has appeared in national publications including the American Scholar, the Wilson Quarterly, the Harvard Business Review blog, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine. She is coauthor of
In Conversation: A Writer's Guidebook, which will be published in December 2017.

TechRhet LogoI spent last weekend at the 2017 Computers and Writing Conference in Findlay, Ohio, where I found that many of my colleagues hadn’t found the new home of the TechRhet discussion list. This week I want to share details on what the list is and how you can join the conversation and connect with colleagues who are doing cool things with digital technology in the classroom.


What Is TechRhet?

TechRhet is an online discussion list, managed through Google Groups. If you want to join discussions about using digital technology to teach and research composition, rhetoric, literature, and other topics, TechRhet is the place for you.


The genealogy of TechRhet began with Megabyte University (MBU-L), started by Fred Kemp at Texas Tech University about 1990. MBU-L morphed into the discussion forum for the Alliance of Computers and Writing (ACW-L) and in mid-2005 Kathy Fitch created TechRhet on the Interversity site. When the Interversity went dark in 2016, I created this new home on Google Groups to allow us to continue our conversations.


Ugh, Google Groups. Really?

Yes, Google Groups is free and easily has the bandwidth to manage anything we might come up with. If I hosted a list on my own server, we’d find ourselves constantly bumping up against server load issues. Google Groups comes with a web-based archive of all messages as well, which allows us to return to conversations whenever we like.


More importantly, those of you who want to keep these conversations out of your email inbox can. But just as importantly, those of you who want email messages because you do not want another site to remember to visit can do that, too. It is a very flexible tool that can do everything we need as a community.


How Do I Use TechRhet on the Web? How Do I Get to the Archives?

After you join the group, go to!forum/techrhet, the group homepage. You can scroll through the messages if you'd like to browse. Use the Search box near the top of the page to search the archives.


How Do I Sent TechRhet to My Email Inbox?

After you join the group, go to the My Groups page. Be sure that you are logged into the account that you used to join the list. On the My Groups page, you’ll see a list of all the groups you belong to. Find TechRhet on the list, and choose the way you want your messages to be sent to you from the pull-down list (highlighted in yellow in the image below). The changes are saved automatically.

Google Groups Screenshot showing Message preference pull-down list


Any rules?

The rules for this discussion list are simple: Be collegial. Be thoughtful. Don't be a jerk. Spammers will be removed without warning. With those basic guidelines in mind, jump in and join the conversation. Don't be shy! 

There have been reports that President Trump’s staff are intentionally keeping the President so busy during his nine-day trip abroad that he has not had time to tweet. His Twitter account has, indeed, been uncharacteristically inactive. During the first portion of the trip, the President did not speak very much publicly either. Perhaps for that reason, but also perhaps because of the need to fill up the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the visual rhetoric of key moments on the trip has kept pundits and average citizens alike busy.


It's been called the "slap heard 'round the world." At least one video captured the second or two on the red carpet in which Trump reached back to take his wife’s hand only to have her slap his hand away. Some pictures the next day caught the couple holding hands, but once again, clips showed Mrs. Trump reaching up to smooth her hair when her husband tried to take her hand as they left Air Force One. In addition to speculation about what their body language meant, there seemed to be mixed feelings about Mrs. Trump’s decision not to cover her head in Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi press applauded her conservative outfits—and the fact that she walked behind her husband in a subservient position. With little to report while the Trumps later awaited their audience with the Pope, talk turned to the fact that Mrs. Trump had appropriately covered her head for the occasion. Critics had to have something to say, though, so they attacked her for honoring the Christian faith by covering her head at the Vatican but disrespecting Islam by not doing so in Saudi Arabia. Hackles were raised again when she appeared sleeveless at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial museum.


Trump’s ratings back home went up after he visited the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, the first sitting U. S. President ever to do so. Images of him standing solemnly at the wall wearing a yarmulke flashed around the world. Those who were so inclined welcomed such images as signs of faith and respect; others imagined Trump wondering how Israel got Mexico to pay for the wall.


If body language is any indication, the other NATO members had plenty to say as they stood at NATO headquarters in Brussels and listened to Trump chastise them for not paying their fair share of defense funding. A panel on CNN made much of the visual image of Trump’s speech. To his left was a memorial to those who died on September 11th, a portion of the north wall of one of the Twin Towers and a reminder that September 11th was the only time that the nations of the world have come together in support of one member nation under attack, as set out in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, NATO’s founding treaty.


Clearly visual rhetoric makes the argument that the viewer wants to see, and the Trumps’ trip abroad proves that people read into images what they want to see.


Credit: President Trump's Trip Abroad on Flickr (Public Domain)  

I’ve written before about my complete and utter surprise when, nearly eight years ago, Stanford’s Vice Provost appeared at our annual Oral Presentation of Research Awards ceremony (where one award is given, every term, for the best research/presentation in our second-year writing/oral presentation course) and announced that the award would henceforth be the LUNSFORD award. (He went on to say that this was the first undergraduate award to be named for someone still alive, which sounded—and still sounds—so funny to me!)


Alive I still am, and so I was delighted to attend the 7th annual award ceremony, held in the presentation space in the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking. We had a good crowd—and a hungry one, who fell with gusto upon a table laden with goodies, from tiny crab cakes to cheeses, fruits, and sweets. Faculty Director Adam Banks presided, making eloquent and inspirational remarks about the importance of writing and about the mission of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric and the Hume Center, and asking all those nominated for awards to stand and be recognized. Then each term’s winners were introduced by their instructors (who also deserved warm congratulations on their teaching), who spoke about the excellent research/writing/speaking their students had done and then presented each winner with a pretty nice check, a certificate, and several books that the instructors had chosen especially for them.


This is “awards season” across the country, so I expect you may have been attending similar events and congratulating undergraduate students on their work. I love this time of year and try to attend as many such sessions as possible, though I’ll admit this is my favorite. We capped the afternoon off with two student winners reprising their presentations. Juliana Chang led off with “Heritage Language Loss in Second Generation East-Asian Americans,” which opened with the following slide, showing Juliana and her grandmother and a photo of Juliana presenting:



As Juliana went on to explain, she can no longer talk with her much-loved grandmother because she came to this country as a toddler and lost her ability to speak and understand Mandarin. Her research on language loss among this particular community was compelling, as she sorted out the reasons why so many Chinese and Taiwanese young people fail to retain their native language and reflected on the implications of this situation. She ended her presentation with a poem she had written to her grandmother, but one she still cannot speak to her in Mandarin. It was a bittersweet and memorable presentation.



The second presentation featured David Slater, here receiving his award from his instructor, Dr. Kathleen Tarr:



David’s presentation, “Cracking the Keyless Lock,” focused on current encryption practices, which he explored in depth, exploring the arguments on all sides of this very fraught issue. He looked especially hard at the issue of end-to-end encryption, and coming to what, for many, was a surprising but fully-reasoned conclusion. Big applause all around for Chang and Slater, and then more food and fun.


You can check out both of these presentations, as well as a number of others, at The Lunsford Award Presentations page on the Stanford University site. Take a look!


Credit: Photos by Andrea Lunsford

Jack Solomon


Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Jun 1, 2017

Aught aught seven.  You already know what the topic of this blog is going to be on the basis of this simple combination of numbers: who else but James Bond, spy fiction's most popular secret agent, whose cinematic franchise could make even Batman green with envy.  And you also have probably already guessed the occasion for this blog: Sir Roger Moore, that most prolific of the Bond avatars, has finally gone to that special operations room in the sky.


But this blog isn't a eulogy; it's a semiotic analysis—not of the undying Bond himself, but of the way he has been portrayed through the years. 


So many actors have played Bond since his appearance in the guise of Sean Connery in 1962 (forever my personal favorite, and only, Bond: but that's not semiotics) that it would take quite an essay to analyze all of them.  But I'm only concerned here with two of them: Roger Moore and Daniel Craig, whose portrayals of the master spy offer a perfect object lesson in the way that a semiotic analysis works.


Here's how:  as I cannot note often enough, a semiotic analysis involves the situating of your topic in a system of associations and differences—that is, with those phenomena with which it bears a relationship of both similarity and contrast.  As portrayers of the same fictional character, then, Roger Moore and Daniel Craig belong to such a system, and they have, of course, a lot in common: good looks, suavity, fearlessness, and a certain essential (hard to define) Britishness (which is why, I suppose, David Niven—that most British of Brit actors—was cast, in a spoof of what is already a spoof, as Sir James Bond in 1967).  But there is also a striking, and critical, difference:  Moore played Bond with a creamy smoothness, as well as a sort of Brechtean "don't take any of this too seriously" inflection; Craig, in contrast, gets down and dirty, a bit worn out, a lot more mortal.  Taken by itself, of course, this might only signify the difference between two thespian interpretations of the same character, and thus nothing of much cultural significance at all.  But if we enlarge the system in which James Bond signifies, a larger meaning appears after all.


So let's now look at some other entertainment franchises involving superheroes (and James Bond has a lot of superhero DNA in him).  Start with Batman, and Adam West.  In his own way, West was to Batman—as Don Adams was to James Bond, and James Bond was to, well, real British secret agents in the post-World War II era—which is to say, all spoof.  Indeed,  West's take on the Caped Crusader  was so devastating that it wasn't until 1989 that he returned to the silver screen in Tim Burton's Batman, which completely rewrote the script to present the Frank Miller-inspired sturm-und-drang Batman that has provided the foundation for all of the Batmen we have seen ever since.


Then there's Superman, and the matchup between George Reeves and Henry Cavill.  Here the suit alone tells the story: from Reeves's sky blue costume to Cavill's blue-black armor, something has changed.  The mood is much darker, more violent, and the Man of Steel himself is no longer a simple champion of Truth, Justice, and the American Way.


The critical difference between Bonds, Batmen, and Supermen can be interpreted in three ways.  First, of course, the shift reveals the way that our cultural mood has darkened considerably over the years (Deadpool really makes the point), and our cartoon heroes (both literally and figuratively) have taken on the emotional coloration of our times.  Audiences have no interest in chirpy superheroes, nor in petty crimes and restrained violence: it's all Armageddon and Apocalypse Now.  Similarly, disillusioned (not to say, cynical) viewers will no longer accept pristine-pure heroes: the Man of Steel must have Feet of Clay; the Dark Knight must have Dark Nights.  But, perhaps most profoundly, what has also changed is the social status of the superhero (or super spy) himself, from a minor, rather marginal character who isn't intended to be taken very seriously, to a fully-fledged tragic hero who must bear the burden of our doubts and disillusionments on his well-sculpted shoulders.  Move over Hamlet, here comes Batman.


The Marxist cultural critic Lucien Goldmann once proposed that a society can be known by its "high" art.  Perhaps this was once true, but no longer.  To know ourselves we have to look at our popular culture.  Daniel Craig has it right:  we're getting a bit worn out; we're beginning to lose; the smooth road has gotten rather rough. 


James Bond is us.