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Workshop on Tumblr in the classroom by tengrrl on Flickr I have never felt adept at Tumblr. I just don’t get it. Enough people like it for me to believe that there must be something there; but whatever it is, I don’t quite connect with it. To look for answers, I attended that Computers and Writing workshop, “When You Find a Great Meme to Post for Your Assignment: Tumblr as a Multimodal Writing and Community Space in the Composition Classroom.” I gained some pointers, but honestly, I still couldn’t understand what Tumblr offers that wasn’t already available with tools I already used.


As I was preparing for my presentation on social media for the Council of Writing Program Administrators Conference (#CWPA2017) earlier this month, I was looking for a way to share example sites that met several goals:


  • Hosted on a trustworthy site (and not one I owned)
  • Has no cost
  • Incorporates screenshot images easily
  • Publishes entries easily (since I would have many)
  • Allows a system of tagging or similar option to sort entries on various criteria


I was essentially thinking of a simple database, but I didn’t want to program or host it. I went through a number of tools, but everything had some problem—until I came to Tumblr.


Tumblr met all my goals. I remembered, as I was testing it, that the workshop leaders, Meg McGuire and Jen England, had mentioned that one of the things people liked most about Tumblr was its rich tagging system. I quickly began gathering examples of the online presence of writing programs and writing centers for my #CWPA2017 presentation in my own Tumblr blog, Social Media for WPAs.


The homepage of Social Media for WPAs felt a little busy to me, with its Pinterest-style grid layout. To provide a simpler organization, I created a Categories page, which lists my folksonomic tags under a few headers. Clicking on any of the tags on the Categories page takes you to a page that shows only the entries that demonstrate that particular tag. For example, if you click the Instagram tag, you get a page showing examples of writing programs or centers that use Instagram.


As I worked on my Social Media for WPAs site, I realized how valuable Tumblr would be in the writing classroom. I could use a similar system of tagging to organize online examples or readings for students. If I was teaching students about blogging, for instance, I could gather examples of different kinds of entries and collect them on a Tumblr blog. Likewise, students doing online research could do the same thing, tracking what they find in a Tumblr blog.


Using Tumblr, it turned out, was easy, and it provided exactly what I needed. Perhaps I finally get Tumblr. Do you? If you have ideas to share for using Tumblr, I would love to hear from you in the comments.



Photo Credit: Workshop on Tumblr in the classroom by tengrrl

Last month, I shared a series of questions that can help with the process of Organizing Successful Writing Groups. Today, I want to share another resource that I’ve found that teaches students how to give one another feedback.


I love the video No One Writes Alone: Peer Review in the Classroom, A Guide For Students (6m 33s), which demonstrates how students collaborate and provide feedback on drafts for one another. I ask students to watch the video, paying attention to the kind of feedback people give and how the authors respond to the feedback. I had hoped that the video would provide enough modeling that students would be able to get beyond short, summative comments in their feedback to one another. I gave them the following instructions:


The online discussions that you have about your writing group should be much like the conversations that took place in the video. When you comment on someone else’s projects, you provide concrete details about what you see and what the writer can do to improve. When someone comments on your projects, remember to be open to suggestions and avoid becoming defensive.


Somehow, it wasn’t enough, so I have spent time in the last week looking for additional resources. I found a gem. Peer Review: Commenting Strategies (5m4s) from the University of Minnesota Writing Studies program demonstrates six concrete strategies for providing constructive and helpful feedback:



While the MIT video gives students some overarching suggestions for what peer review looks like, this University of Minnesota video gives students very specific instructions. If students are unsure how to make constructive comments, after they spend five minutes watching this video, they’ll know exactly the kind of comments to share with the members of their writing groups.


How do you demonstrate constructive feedback strategies for your students? I am always eager to find more resources to share with my classes, so please leave me a comment below with your ideas.

Do you remember being 19? I do. The last thing I wanted to be was correct—or (in most circumstances) appropriate. I wanted to be … independent! Creative! Envied! I did want to write well, and I understood that doing so involved correct grammar and the use of appropriate language. I just didn’t like to think of it that way.


Lately I’ve been wondering what a better way to think of it might be. What are we really asking students to do when we tell them to write correctly and appropriately? We’re asking them to conform to standards of language and conventions of genre and discipline. Unfortunately, conformity is another thing that young people may not be interested in working hard to achieve. “Why are we supposed to do X?,” they’ll want to know.


These are much the same issues as come up when someone is learning a sport. The coach will say, “Hold the bat/club/racket like this,” and the learner will be more inclined to remember and follow through if the coach offers a reason, such as “It will give you a stronger swing.” Saying only “This is the correct way to do it” is not only less helpful but also less persuasive.


With sports, people learn many of the rules and the reasons for them by, over time, watching, asking questions, and playing. With writing, we learn by reading, asking questions, and writing. Some reasons are obvious; just seeing the rule broken shows what its purpose is. The reason not to write run-on sentences, for instance, becomes clear if you have to struggle through a few run-ons that someone else wrote. Or consider repeats. In my work as an editor, I mark phrases like “The supervisor is responsible for supervising …” or “Currently, the currents in the Atlantic Ocean …” and suggest changes. Authors do ask me why I’ve suggested certain changes, but none has ever asked me about these. Evidently they realize what’s wrong without asking.


Other reasons can be hard to figure out. For instance, why do we look down on the passive voice in most fields and genres but consider it standard when writing in scientific disciplines? If the active voice is stronger and more forceful in journalism or a memoir, why isn’t it more forceful when describing a scientific experiment? It’s because, in science, who performed the experiment is generally beside the point. A sentence like “Jamie Gonzales placed the mice into the maze” puts the focus on the wrong thing; “The mice were placed into the maze” is what readers need to know; who did the placing doesn’t really matter. Ideally, experiments will be replicable—anyone might follow the same procedure and achieve the same results. To that extent, the passive-voice convention makes sense.


Not even expert writers always know the reasons underlying some of the writing standards and conventions they observe. Often, to begin to understand a convention, we need to critically read examples of its being observed or not, and we need to consider how the convention evolved over time. It would be an interesting assignment to have students read passages in various genres, possibly all on the same subject—say, an abstract from a scientific journal, a newspaper article about the same study, and an editorial discussing its implications—and discuss the differences they perceive. How do the purpose and audience of each genre influence the conventions used within?


When the reason for a writing standard or convention is opaque, we may have to ask students to take it on trust that there is a reason. That trust will be easier for them to come by if we explain as many reasons as we can for other standards and conventions, rather than simply telling them what’s correct.


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.

Infographic on How Project Feedback WorksMy summer course began last week, so I’m getting back into the habit of making new resources and revising old ones. This week, I want to share an infographic that I developed to explain how the project feedback process works in my courses.


My course this summer is 100% online. I never see the students in person. Most of them are not geographically near campus. This situation means that everything for the course must be communicated in writing. Even if I created videos, I need to have a written transcript to go along with them.


The challenge is getting students to read all that writing. I’ve found in teaching online courses previously that I can write very explicit explanations and instructions, but students frequently don’t read them or, at best, only skim them. My solution has been using infographics to explain course policies and content.


Explaining the feedback and assessment methods that I use would take only a few minutes if I were meeting face-to-face with students; writing them out, however, resulted in a full page of text, which I can’t be sure that students will read carefully. In the infographic that I created to explain the process, I hoped to explain the process while making it clear that there can multiple revisions before a project is accepted.


While explaining feedback and assessment, I wanted to emphasize the general requirements for major projects. The first step, where I check for completion, also highlights the importance of the self-assessment information in the process. I ask students to complete a checklist and add reflective comments with every project. In the past, students often forgot to include that self-assessment information, so the infographic stresses that they will not get feedback on the content or design of their work until they submit all the required information.


I have worked other information into the process in a similar way. I wanted to demonstrate that acceptable projects need both strong content and a strong document design. I created those two steps to indicate that expectation. In practice, I don’t strictly separate content from design, of course; however, showing them as different steps helps emphasize that both are important.


Finally, I wanted to reinforce the expectation for the involvement of writing groups in the revision process—and the writing process, overall. The revision section of the infographic shows specific steps for asking writing groups for feedback and for incorporating that feedback.


Students will receive the infographic later this week, and I look forward to hearing their reactions. One thing is sure: they are more likely to read through the infographic than they are to read the page of text that explains the process. If you have ideas on how to improve the infographic or ideas for explaining feedback to students, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

HPIM7056 by vxla on Flickr, used under a CC-BY licenseA few weeks ago, I shared Ten Activities Focusing on Visual Design that I plan to use to give students ongoing practice in document design principles. Another idea I want to try is a semester-long scavenger hunt.


I have a list of ten design tips that I refer students to if they need support on any particular design area:


  1. Use lists to organize information clearly. See Formatting Vertical Lists by Grammar Girl (check all 4 pages or listen to the podcast).
  2. Contrast is a critical ingredient in every design. Ensure good contrast between text and background.
  3. Make sure that your headings and subheadings create information-rich signposts for readers.
  4. Avoid presenting a "wall of text" by "chunking" text and visual elements.
  5. Limit typefaces to two per document. Any more than that gives your text a messy or unprofessional appearance.
  6. Use flush-left, ragged-right body text. Save centered text for graduation announcements and party invitations.
  7. Emphasize ten percent or less of text to make sure the key information stands out.
  8. Add consistency with repetition of design elements. Repeating patterns unify a document.
  9. Use alignment to organize a document visually, drawing the reader’s eye to the important info on the page.
  10. Group related elements together, in proximity to one another, to emphasize the connections visually.


Each week or so during the term, I will introduce a challenge related to one of these tips. We will go over the design principles and tips, and then we will look at an example that relates to the principle. In the case of contrast, for example, we can look at the image shown in this entry and talk about how increasing contrast could improve the sign for Advantage Wireless. Once students understand the principle involved, they are ready for the challenge:


 As you go about your daily activities, watch for documents that demonstrate the importance of contrast in document design. The documents can be positive or negative examples. Review the examples in this post, if your find has already been posted, you can like and/or comment on it. If you’ve found something new, take a photo of what you find and post it in the Contrast Discussions thread. Explain how contrast influences the document and, if relevant, what you would change to improve it.


During subsequent class sessions, I can pull examples from the class responses to discuss in class. I will leave the threads open so that students can add to threads from previous weeks when they find examples. Students will need to find two or three examples during the term, not one every week.


By the end of the term, I hope that students will have developed a stronger sense of how document design affects everything around them, from billboards to posters on the bulletin boards in the hallway. That understanding should improve their own documents and their feedback during peer review.


What do you do to teach document design principles? Share an idea in the comments below.



Credit: HPIM7056 by vxla on Flickr, used under a CC-BY license