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Last Spring I left off in this blog with an exploration of what I called “The Uses of Objectivity.” That essay probed the inadvertent relationships between poststructural theory and the current climate of “alternative facts” and “post-truth” claims.  Since then I’ve run across an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education that could have been written in response to mine, and while it actually wasn't, I'd like to continue the discussion a bit here.


The Chronicle essay I’m referring to here is Andrew J. Perrin’s “Stop Blaming Postmodernism for Post-Truth Politics.” That's an easy request to honor: certainly the supporters 0f such alt-fact politicians as Donald Trump can hardly be expected to have been influenced by —much less, have read—the texts of contemporary postmodern theory.  So by all means let's take postmodernism off the hook in this regard.  The question is not how postmodernism has affected what is often referred to as the "populist" politics of Trumpism; the question is how educators can best contest, in the classroom, the contentions of the post-truth world.  My position on this question is that educators who wish to do so would do well not to deconstruct, in a postmodern fashion, the fundamental grounds for things like scientific consensus, while Perrin, for his part, feels that we need more postmodernism in the face of the post-truth era because of the way that it exposes the ways in which "all claims, beliefs, and symbols are tied up with the structures of power and representation that give rise to them." 


Now, the originator of this postmodern approach to power/knowledge was, of course, Michel Foucault.  It is central to his entire notion of "discourse," which itself descended from his essentially poststructural (poststructuralism is an academic species of the larger cultural genus postmodernism) adaptation of the structuralist position that reality (and the knowledge thereof) is constructed by systems of signs.  That is to say, the signified, in the structuralist view, is not something detected outside the sign system: it is constituted by the sign system.  From here it is not a very large step to the poststructural position that whoever controls the sign system controls what counts as "reality," as "truth" itself. 


There is certainly no shortage of historical instances in which this vision of power/knowledge has indeed been played out.  The Third Reich, for example, rejected relativity theory as "Jewish physics," and that was that as far as Germany was concerned.  George Orwell, for his part, gave dramatic expression to this sort of thing in 1984: 2+2=5 if Big Brother says so.


Thus, it comes down to a simple question.   What is a more effective response to the post-truth claim, for example, that climate science is hoax: the position that all scientific claims are expressions of power/knowledge, or the position that concrete empirical evidence gets us closer to the truth of climate change than do the claims of power?  This is not a rhetorical question, because I do not suppose that everyone will agree with my own answer to it, which happens to be as simple as the question itself:  I prefer to oppose power/knowledge with objectively measurable data.  For me, reality is not subject to a referendum.


Interestingly, the late Edward Said—who helped put Foucault on the American literary-critical map in his book Beginnings—came to identify another problem that arises with respect to postmodern power theory when he criticized Foucault for effectively denying the element of human responsibility in power relations by treating power as a nebulous "formation" that is expressed socially and historically rather than being wielded by empowered individuals (which happens to be a poststructural view on power that parallels the structuralist position on the relationship between langue and parole).  Such a view could provide support for the many voters who did not vote in the 2016 presidential election due to their belief that both major parties expressed the same neoliberal and capitalist power formations.  I think that the aftermath of that election makes it pretty plain that individuals do wield power and in different ways, no matter what the current larger power/knowledge formation may be.


And just as interestingly, as I was putting the finishing touches on this blog, an essay by Mark Lilla appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education saying substantially the same thing: i.e., if students accept "the mystical idea that anonymous forces of power shape everything in life," they "will be perfectly justified in withdrawing from democratic politics and casting an ironic eye on it."  Now, two Humanities professors in agreement doth not a movement make, but it's heartening to see that my thoughts are shared by someone else.

For the first time since starting this blog five years ago, I took a bit of a break for part of July. I’ve had a very busy writing summer, and, like many other teachers, I also like to spend some time trying to get caught up on reading books and journals. So I’m writing today to say I hope all of you have had a good summer, thus far, and I hope that the coming school year will bring some joy amid the anxiety we are all feeling about health care, education, and the state of our country. I also come with a recommendation: a review essay in the March 2017 issue of College English. Literacy Hope and the Violence of Literacy: A Bind that Ties Us,” by Kirk Branch, is definitely worth a read.


A barbed wire bound together with a knot of rope, with a green field behind.Branch’s provocative and thoughtful review addresses four books: Paul Feigenbaum’s Collaborative Imagination: Earing Activism through Literacy Education; Michael Harker’s The Lure of Literacy: A Critical Reception of the Compulsory Composition Debate, Todd Ruecker’s Transiciones: Pathways of Latinas and Latinos Writing in High School and College, and Amy Wan’s Producing Good Citizens: Literacy Training in Anxious Times. While Branch ends up discussing each book in some detail, he sets the entire discussion in the context of the bind all literacy teachers and scholars face—between what Harvey Graff calls the “literacy myth,” of hope and faith in the power of literacy to liberate and to solve many ills, including social inequality; and what Elspeth Stuckey calls “the violence of literacy,” its power to oppress, punish, and subjugate.


I read Stuckey’s book when it came out twenty-five years ago, and I still remember literally reeling from my encounter with her rage against a system that has not only withheld literacy but also used literacy to punish people. I still remember, in this same vein, hearing an African American textile worker from South Carolina tell of being beaten in middle school when she misspelled names of bones in the body: when she told her mother what had happened, her mother said “I can’t go complain to those white people, but you don’t ever have to go to that school again.” I’m here using deliberately stark terms to illustrate the “bind,” as Branch describes, to make the point that all teachers of writing will inevitably encounter the poles of this divide. But of course, such binaries are never simple, never easy, and this one is no different. Issues surrounding literacy and our relationship to literacy are deeply complex; they are also intertwined with ideology and with the stories we tell about education in the United States. Beyond complex, really. But recognizing this complexity and resisting either pole long enough to look closely at our own goals, and to see how they are implicated in institutional systems that almost certainly work against those goals, is a necessary step in coming to grips with both “literacy hope” and “the violence of literacy.”


Branch finds admirable things in each of these books, but in the end Feigenbaum’s seems most fascinating to him:


In the end, what I find so compelling about Feigenbaum’s book is that he wholly engages the contradictions at the heart of literacy education, that he understands the ways his own teaching is implicated in the sort of violence at the heart of Stuckey’s analysis, that the necessary impossibility of achieving the goals he attaches to progressive literacy education does not mean that it will fail. (420)

As we begin a new school year (and with a Secretary of Education who is no friend to public education or to progressive literacy education), it seems especially important to reflect on the “binds” that tie us—sometimes into knots (!), sometimes into productive and useful and meaningful work with young writers. As Branch puts it, we can at least hope that these binds “tie us together, that they allow us to work with others within and outside our disciplines to understand and continually to reimagine the potential of literacy education in anxious times.”


Credit: Pixaby Image 2482275 by cocoparisienne, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

My college is beginning its first semester under a new “multiple measures” placement policy (a misnomer in our case, for as Alexandros Goudas has pointed out, such policies are actually implemented as multiple single measures). In our case, this is a state decision; local faculty did not participate in the development of the policy and cannot deviate from it. Faculty responses have ranged from hand-wringing and consternation to resignation and cautious optimism. What we can say with confidence is that more students will place directly into our college composition programs and co-requisite courses, while enrollment in our developmental IRW courses will continue to decline.


The talk around the single-cup coffee maker these days raises important questions: are college composition instructors now de facto developmental or basic writing instructors? How will this change pedagogy, syllabi, and expectations? If instructors have no training in basic or developmental writing or familiarity with its rich history of research—what should they do?


I’ve been thinking about how to respond to these questions. Each class will be different, of course, and some instructors will notice the effects of our placement changes more than others. In general, however, there are three positive and proactive steps community college writing instructors can take in light of significant placement changes:


  1. Focus on what you already know about teaching writing; reject quick fixes, gimmicks, hacks, and “all-it-takes-is-a-few-hours-on-our-website” approaches. We do know a lot about what works in writing instruction, according to John Warner. Warner notes that students may not have had opportunities to “[engage] with writing that demands they work inside a full rhetorical situation.” Basic writers thrive in courses that provide just such opportunities, where they can “make choices and wrestle with ideas that will be presented to interested audiences.”
  2. Listen to the students. Nicole Matos recently wrote a thought-provoking and poignant piece detailing how developmental students responded to this question: “What do you really, really wish your professors understood?” As the primary audience for whom students are writing, we must find ways—explicit and implicit—to ask this question and assure students that their answers will be heard.
  3. Join the professional conversation about composition at two-year colleges and developmental/basic writing. TYCA (Two-Year College English Association) has a list-serve, and the Council on Basic Writing has a very active discussion on Facebook.  There are national and regional TYCA and CCCC conferences, and the National Association for Developmental Education (NADE) hosts an annual conference as well. Instructors and researchers exchange best practices for pedagogy as well as platforms to advocate for equity in access and resources for all students (and adjunct faculty).


The placement changes can force us back into the role of learners—always a beneficial stance to take. As my students learn to make rhetorical choices in unfamiliar writing situations, I must make pedagogical choices in sometimes unfamiliar classroom contexts. Moreover, two-year community college instructors can—no, must—look at the changes as an invitation for reflection and scholarship: we should gather data about the results of these changes and look for ways to refine and improve them (and ensure faculty voices are included in policy discussions at local, state, and national levels).



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Hello, dear Colleagues: I send all good wishes to you and your students for the new academic year. I’m often asked these two questions at the start of the semester: What are the best ways to introduce a Hacker/Sommers handbook? and What activities might help students develop the habit of using a handbook?


We know that most students enter a writing classes uncertain about what a handbook is and how and why it will help them succeed as college writers. Yet we also know that the more students rely on their handbook, the more effective they will become as writers, especially when they’re writing their papers at 2 a.m. and need a trusted source to answer their questions about using sources and meeting the expectations of college writing.

On the first day of class I tell my students this: Everything you need to become a successful college writer in any course is in your handbook. Buy it, become friends with it. I’ve learned, though, that this statement is a well-intentioned abstraction unless I require students to bring their handbook to each class and give them specific reasons to open it—questions to answer or problems to solve—and show them how the book is designed for them. I want students to start asking questions about their writing and to learn how to find the answers in their handbook. One of my oft repeated queries in class is—Where in your handbook will you find the answer to that question?

I designed the following activities to introduce A Writer's Reference and activities to introduce Rules for Writers to help students become more confident using their handbook. These activities—scavenger hunts, open-book quizzes, and more—promote collaboration among students as they learn to navigate their handbook. Enjoy using these activities with your students. Let me know how it goes.

With all good wishes,
Nancy Sommers

Detail from Kansas City by Dean Hochman on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 licenseLast week, I offered some suggestions for how to prepare and manage discussions about racism and other difficult topics with students. Inspired by a conversation with Lillian Mina on Facebook this afternoon, I’m following up with a classroom activity with a real-world scenario that involves racism, rather than a fictional situation.


Naturally, there is plenty of room for fictional scenarios and the safety net they provide when we discuss these issues. I plan to share some fictional cases in the coming weeks, in fact. The problem is that those fictional scenarios sometimes feel a bit fake to me. Still, I recognize that they have a purpose. Students can maintain a certain distance when the scenario isn’t real, even though it is based on and likely similar to experiences that students have had, seen, or heard about. A real-world scenario, on the other hand, brings authenticity into the conversation and asks students to consider the real consequences of their discussion and their decisions.


This activity focuses on the scheduled CCCC Convention slated for Kansas City next March and the Update from CCCC on Kansas City, which was sent to CCCC members yesterday. For those not in the know, the Executive Committee of CCCC is searching for the best response to the NAACP travel advisory, warning against travel to and in the state of Missouri. The dilemma focuses on the safety of CCCC members attending the convention, the demands of some members to respect the travel advisory to protect members and protest the conditions that led to the advisory, and the significant financial impact that the association will face if the convention is canceled or relocated.


This situation serves as the backdrop for the activity, but it seems unfair to ask students to choose the best solution. The CCCC Executive Committee is struggling with the decision, and they have been working for weeks even though they have a thorough understanding of the issues at play. Students are unlikely to get beyond a gut-level response in the time devoted to the activity. That kind of superficial decision trivializes the situation and the underlying issues. For that reason, this activity focuses instead on analyzing and revising the Update from CCCC on Kansas City, following these steps:


  1. Ask students to read the document thoroughly prior to class, noting any places that they find confusing or that they have questions about.
  2. Begin the class session by asking students to discuss the situation described in the document and finding answers to any questions that they have. The goal of the conversation isn’t to find answers or weigh the options, but to ensure students have a strong understanding of the situation.
  3. Have students identify the audiences and goals of the document. To start, ask students to share what they can tell from their reading. Provide students additional information about the association, the people who attend the convention, and the reasons that they might attend. Encourage students to look for secondary and tertiary audiences and goals.
  4. Arrange students in small groups, and ask them to consider how the document design fits the goals and audiences for the document. If students need more structure for this conversation, provide these scenarios or similar ones patterned on the audiences and goals they identified:
    • an untenured faculty member of CCCC who submitted a proposal to the convention and only a few minutes between classes to look at the message.
    • a former member of the CCCC Executive Committee who sympathizes with the current members and wants to know how they are proceeding.
    • a graduate student member of CCCC who is planning on going to the convention and wants a fast overview of the important details without having to read the full document in depth.
    • a CCCC member who is concerned about safety at the convention and advocates respecting the travel advisory.
    • a book publisher’s sales representative who is scheduled to exhibit books at the convention.
    As students consider these readers and others they have identified, encourage them to think about how race and gender identity influence how people read the document.
  5. Close the discussion session by asking student groups to share their conclusions and save notes for the next session.
  6. Begin the next class session by reviewing the information from the previous session, and introduce the revision project students are to undertake: Working in small groups, students are to rethink the document thoroughly and make changes to the document design that will help it better fit the needs of a particular audience. Emphasize that students should present the information from the original document with sensitivity to the issues it covers and attention to sharing the details accurately.
  7. You can leave this document design work open, or provide specific revision projects like these:
    • Compose an abstract or executive summary that communicates the main points of the document to a reader who doesn’t have time to read the full document immediately.
    • Chunk the document into an online-friendly series of pages (rather than one giant wall of text) that use document design to increase readability.
    • Convert the document into a slideshow presentation, keeping in mind the TEDblog’s 10 tips on how to make slides that communicate your idea, or the information on slideshow presentations from your course textbook.
  8. Allow groups the remainder of the course session (and additional sessions as needed) to complete their document redesigns. Monitor groups and provide support as necessary.
  9. Once students’ redesigns are complete, have a presentation session, where each group shares the redesign student members have created with the class, explaining their goals and how they changed the document to meet them.


What I like about this activity is that students must engage with the racism, the potential for violence, and the concerns for safety that the document concentrates on. They cannot ignore the situation that brings the document into being, but they aren’t tasked with solving the problem. Instead, they must develop strategies to discuss racism with compassion, fairness, and honesty—and that’s something that the world needs right now.


Next week, I’ll return with some of those fictional scenarios that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Until then, if you have suggestions for talking about racism with students or resources to share, please add a comment below.



Credit: Detail from Kansas City by Dean Hochman on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

This semester, our first writing project in Stretch is called: “Why is writing so hard?” The title is inspired by our first reading of the semester,  “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” a 1963 talk by James Baldwin (1924-1987), given at New York City Community Church and also broadcast over New York radio station WBAI, and republished in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin.


In “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” James Baldwin addresses the conditions of human suffering, and reminds the audience of the artist’s responsibility to pay attention to and to alleviate human suffering. At the same time, Baldwin suggests that most people are too “mistrustful” to pay attention, and too “panic-stricken” to intervene. Baldwin offers that, “[We are dealing with] a people determined to believe that they can make suffering obsolete. Who don’t understand yet a very physiological fact: that the pain which signals a toothache is the pain which saves your life.”


Baldwin’s talk is informed by the ongoing and historical presence of violent white supremacy in the United States. This link provides photographs that offer literal snapshots of major events in 1963, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s arrest in Birmingham in April and the funeral of Mississippi activist and NAACP lawyer Medgar Evers, assassinated in June by White Citizen’s Council member Byron De La Beckwith. Both Dr. King and Medgar Evers were friends of James Baldwin.



The year 1963 is of personal significance as well. I started Kindergarten in the autumn of 1963 at a school that was as segregated as our suburban Chicago village. Because of residential segregation, real estate agents and landlords legally could steer African-American home-buyers and renters away from available housing in our town, and banks could refuse to loan money to African-American applicants. There were no federal orders to desegregate our schools, and throughout my public schooling there were almost no lessons in social studies, history, or current events on the Civil Rights Movement, with a few notable exceptions.


On the first day of Fall Semester 2017, these intersections of national and personal history, and the very recent events in Charlottesville (see the Charlottesville Syllabus) provided significant contexts for teaching “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.” Catastrophe offered an unfortunate rhetorical situation and a frightening kairotic moment.


Baldwin’s talk implicitly addresses the cataclysms of 1963 -- and of our own time as well. The writing prompts for “Why is Writing So Hard?” also invite implicit rather than explicit responses. Baldwin, forceful about the causes of struggle, remains tentative regarding absolute solutions for a long standing national crisis. In the assignment for Writing Project 1, all of the questions focus on rhetorical problems, for which students can find, perhaps initially, their level of comfort in responding. Yet the more overarching goal for Writing Project 1 is to provide students with opportunities to reach beyond the constraints of their comfort zones.


Why is writing so hard? The answer awaits us in that kairotic negotiation between opportunity and constraint, a negotiation that holds potential for all of us to write and to grow as writers in difficult times.


In memory of Dick Gregory (1932-2017): Activist, artist, and friend to James Baldwin.



Suggestion 1: AUDIENCE

James Baldwin composed “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” and “Sonny’s Blues” in the years after World War II, during the Civil Rights Movement. In other words, Baldwin wrote during a period of great social and cultural transitions, and his writing is well over 50-60 years old. With that in mind, consider these questions: What risks does Baldwin ask the audience to take? Why? Would an audience in 2017 be willing to take such risks? Do you believe that James Baldwin’s writing remains relevant for audiences in 2017? Why or why not?


Suggestion 2: PURPOSE  

James Baldwin, in speaking of the artist’s work asks, “But what do you do?”  What is the artist’s “frightening assignment”? How does Baldwin address this question? What does Baldwin suggest are the purposes of the artist’s work? What is “the price” of this work? Using Baldwin’s criteria, do you consider yourself to be an artist? Why or why not?


Suggestion 3: PATHOS

James Baldwin writes, “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.” Pathos is the appeal emotion, to “how we suffer and how we are delighted.”As an African-American man, Baldwin wrote for a global audience. How does Baldwin account for Black history and culture (such as the Blues) in his work? Does his account add to the emotional appeal of Baldwin’s writing? Why or why not?



[image source: By Allan warren (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons]

Like many teachers of writing across the country, I am shocked, stunned, and horrified by the events that took place recently at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Watching the KKK especially took me back to my youth in the South, when I had recurring nightmares about the Klan. I didn’t know anyone in it (that I knew of) and had never seen a Klansman: their influence was so insidious that it got into my little head and stayed there, keeping me scared and quaking after I woke up from one of these nightmares.


At such a time, every teacher, every person, must stand up in resistance to the Klan, the Neo-Nazis, the white supremacists, and to other hate groups. Together, we are stronger—much, much stronger—than they are.


I just received the following statement from the Rhetoric Society of America, which I was very glad to get and which I pass on here. Please share it with others.


            Posted August 18, 2017

The Rhetoric Society of America supports the study and teaching of rhetoric toward the end of advancing constructive communication among people who sustain their societies through discussion, debate, and well-reasoned argument rather than violence.


Recent statements by President Trump about the events in Charlottesville suggest the claim that the hateful ideology of white supremacy and this nation’s founding principle that all people are “created equal” and share “certain inalienable rights” are acceptable differences of opinion in American. The White-Nationalist, Alt-right, KKK, and Neo-Nazi groups that assembled in Charlottesville espouse an ideology that has caused some of the worst atrocities of US and international history. Those who defend them use language in ways that Wayne Booth would recognize as “rhetrickery” – essentially, verbal violence in the guise of civic rhetoric that is a direct violation of democratic values and practices.


We call upon citizens, press, and political leaders of the United States and beyond to reject public statements that would normalize this ideology and to work together in language and in law toward a just society sustained by a public discourse that proceeds upon principles of honesty and respect for all people who adhere to those same principles.


Gregory Clark, President

Rhetoric Society of America


I’m sure many of you have thoughts on the events in Charlottesville, or maybe plan on discussing the rhetoric surrounding these issues in the classroom. Please write any comments below—I would love to hear how you all are addressing and reflecting on this with your students.

Multiculturalism by Pug50 on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 licenseCurrent events in the U.S. focus far too regularly on activities driven by racist (and antiracist) views and actions. These events are nothing new. Racist acts happen every minute of every day in the U.S. What is perhaps new is the wide media coverage that some events receive. With the rise of citizen journalism, events that would never have made it out of local newspapers become high profile examples of the state of racism in America, and they come not just with first-person accounts, but also with images, videos, and audio recordings that document the prejudice and, frequently, the accompanying violence.


As I reflect on the summer’s events, I am acutely aware that I haven’t done enough to counter and fight against the prevalent racism that I - that we - see every day. With my post today and others over the coming weeks, I hope to begin correcting that shortcoming. To do so, I have been brainstorming writing and discussion projects that ask students to critically examine racist events or racist artifacts and actions. In future posts, I’ll share some of those ideas, but this week, I need to say two things about preparing to explore these issues in the classroom.


First, though we may wish to, we cannot force students to accept and support a particular viewpoint. We cannot require an ideology, but we can ask questions and encourage analysis that persuades students to consider the issues more clearly. The activities that I will share in the future ask students to consider the factual aspects the issue they are exploring, but not to judge the facts or their presentation as good or bad.


Second, when we introduce such topics, we have to recognize that some students will not share our perspective, that they will fall on the “wrong” side of the issue. We have to be prepared then to guide students through fair but honest discussions in ways that avoid emotional or highly-charged confrontations. These resources suggest strategies to manage these conversations:



The most important suggestion these resources make is to be sure that you are well-prepared for the conversations and that you have prepared students as well. Specifically, create classroom discussion guidelines and practice following them in less contentious conversations before moving to more difficult subjects. You cannot guess everything that can go wrong, but you can have classroom management strategies in place that will help you defuse problems before they spiral out of control.


Finally, I want to recommend the AAUP article “Eight Actions to Reduce Racism in College Classrooms,” from the November–December 2016 Academe. The article offers a candid outline of typical ways that racism appears in higher ed as well as some concrete suggestions for self-examination. It urges readers to “recognize your implicit biases and remediate your racial illiteracy,” to “meaningfully integrate diverse cultures and peoples into the curriculum,” and to “responsibly address racial tensions when they arise”—excellent suggestions all. These recommendations are supported by climate studies the authors conducted at the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s short and well worth your time.


That’s all I have for this week. Next week, I will be back with some classroom-ready activities on these issues. In the meantime, if you have questions or suggestions about discussing racism in the classroom, please let me know by leaving a comment below. I’ll see you next week.




Credit: Multiculturalism by Pug50 on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

As summer begins to wane—in spite of a heat wave bearing down on us—I begin to get that annual itch: it’s almost time for school to start. As I’ve written before, autumn is my favorite season because it means school to me, and school is where I’ve spent most of my life, a place that is familiar and homey and comfortable.


So regardless of my consternation over this government’s attacks on the environment, education, justice for all, and on the institutions that support them, my heart still leaps up at the thought of new and old students arriving and of the learning teachers and students throughout the country will be doing. I want to open my arms in welcome to every single one of those students and to celebrate every one of those teachers.


Yet I am deeply aware that many students in this country will not feel welcomed and will not experience school as familiar and homey and comfortable. Many may be frightened—indeed, terrified—that they and/or their families will be deported. Others will have so-called “access” to choice schools but in reality will be left out almost entirely. And still others will carry the burdens heaped upon them by various forms of thoughtlessness, exclusion, and discrimination. Especially in the face of the new Secretary of Education’s systematic attempts to dismantle public schools, this fall’s school opening seems fraught with difficulty.


What can we do in response to such attacks, to the thoughtlessness, exclusions, and discriminations? First, we can recognize them—we can name them; we can call them out, repeatedly. We can work locally to support teachers by volunteering and contributing our time, talent, and money to our public schools; by supporting knowledgeable and ethical citizens for election to school boards and other local offices (or by running ourselves!); and by keeping pressure on our representatives and senators to restore funding for public education in order to support dreamers across the land.


And we can—and must—be the welcoming faces and voices students see in our communities, in our churches and local institutions, and, most of all, in our schools. This is going to be a hard year for teachers, who will be asked to take on added responsibilities, to hold the line against encroachments on student rights, to teach truth, and to speak truth to power. But if there’s any group in this country up to such a task, I believe it is our teachers. So as this school year begins, I am wishing that the forces for good, for truth, for justice, will be with all of us as we say, to each and every student, “welcome back to school.”


Credit: Pixaby Image 2093743 by Wokandapix, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

Grumpy Cat dislikes your exclamation pointsAdmittedly, I am guilty of using too many exclamation points in my personal emails and text messages. I do try to avoid them in the email messages that I write to students and my colleagues, however.


I have been even more self-conscious about exclamation points since my summer school class had a discussion about what you should and shouldn’t do in email messages at work. Turns out, there are some pretty strong feelings about whether to use exclamation points at all, where to use them if you must, who you can use them with, and exactly how to use them.


I thought it might be fun this week to share some of the resources the class explored as background readings for the discussion:



Everyone’s favorite was the Hubspot piece. It ends with a somewhat satirical flowchart that suggests you definitely shouldn’t use exclamation points. It’s a fun flowchart, so I want to share it. Click here to see the full-size version.


Should I Use an Exclamation Point? Flowchart from Hubspot


I particularly like the alternative suggestions included in the flowchart. It goes beyond just telling readers to avoid the exclamation point by telling them what they can do instead. It doesn’t hurt that students found it humorous but truthful as well.


Do you have any fun resources for talking about punctuation in the classroom? Please share them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!—exclamation point intended :)



Credit: Grumpy Cat meme from Meme Generator

Brainstorming by Kevin Dooley on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 licenseI have been lucky since I have been teaching professional writing courses: students typically come to the course with knowledge of how writing works. They already know that there is information gathering and research at the beginning. They understand that there is revision and proofreading work for their drafts, though they sometimes focus more on small editorial changes rather than substantive revision.


Since I am using a labor-based assessment system (Inoue, 2014), I ask students to continue working on their projects until they reach the level that would be used in the workplace. I have told them, “If it’s not ready to send out in the workplace, it’s not finished for the purposes of our class.”


Relying on the grading options in Canvas (our LMS), I assigned the pieces either a Complete (when they were done) or an Incomplete (when they were not). The system worked well during submission and the first round of revision and resubmission. When I returned some of the resubmitted drafts still earning an Incomplete however, individual students began emailing me with questions. Apparently I blew students’ minds with my belief that more than one round of revision is sometimes needed.


That confusion about revision showed me that students don’t really understand the revision process at all. Despite all their experience in summer jobs, internships and work-study positions, most of the class had not encountered the multiple rounds of revision and rewriting that a document can go through in the workplace (or, apparently, in college courses).


As a result of this realization, I am adding some resources and discussion of revision in the workplace early in the course schedule. My first thought was to write a narrative explanation of revision, using a kind of case study that reports my own experience in the workplace. I worried, though, that they might only skim the piece and not change their understanding of revision in any concrete ways. I have had a good bit of success with videos in the course, but so close to the beginning of the fall term, I don’t have time to produce a video with subtitles and a transcript.


I think an infographic will provide the information quickly and efficiently. By simply following the rounds of revision in a visual representation, students will be able to see that one round of revision is the exception. Several rounds are far more likely. I’m not sure if I’ll use a flowchart, timeline, or journey-style map, but once I develop my new resource, I will share it with all of you. In the meantime, what do you do to help students understand the many and varied cycles of revision? Do you have useful resources you can share? Please add a comment below to let me know.



Credit: Brainstorming by Kevin Dooley on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

Nearest accessible entrance by Paul Wilkinson on Flickr, used under a CC-BY licenseAccessibility is critical to success in the writing classroom, both for students and teachers. It’s not just a matter of meeting laws and guidelines for required accessibility and support for accommodations. It is also about making sure that we out disability in the classroom, making a safe space where anyone can find a welcome space to think, collaborate, and write.


Two resources that I have revisited recently have reminded me of the importance of talking about disability and accessibility openly in the classroom. First, I reread Amy Vadali’s 2015 WPA article Disabling Writing Program Administration, which was awarded the 2015 Kenneth A. Bruffee Award at last month’s Conference of the Council of Writing Program Administrators. Vidali explores the ways that disability is absent or discussed in stereotypical ways in accounts of writing program administration.


Her piece helped me recognize that I rarely talk about my disabilities with students. Sometimes, when physical issues make it necessary, I admit my arthritis and bursitis, usually when I cannot walk around the classroom. Very occasionally, I will mention my diabetes, when my blood sugar is off and I am feeling dizzy. In both cases, I’m reluctant because I fear they will judge me by quickly, connecting my disabilities to the fact that I am overweight. Even worse, I recognized that I never talk about my struggles with depression and anxiety. Fearing that I will be written off as insane, I only disclose my mental health if a student discloses her mental health first, in situations where I want to connect and convince her that I understand her needs. I need to be more open with my students, if only to be a role model by making disability visible.


Second, I returned to Melanie Yergeau’s luncheon plenary from the Council of Writing Program Administrators Conference in July 2016 when I was editing the video recently so that it could be published online. The video, shown below, captures Yergeau’s search for support on her campus. The script, slides, and resource list are available online:



Yergeau’s account focuses on her own search. When I consider the many roadblocks Yergeau—a smart faculty member who knows the support she is entitled to—encounters, I worry for the undergraduate students who struggle to find resources on campus and those who do not even know what resources they should be provided with. I have written in the past about work to Improve My Accessibility Policy, but Yergeau’s account reminds me that I need to do more to advocate for my students and others like them.


I invite you to consider these two resources and think about your own support for disability. Tell me what you are doing, and how these two pieces effect your teaching. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.




Credit: Nearest accessible entrance by Paul Wilkinson on Flickr, used under a CC-BY license.