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One of the most common objections from students whose instructors use popular culture as a basis for teaching writing and critical thinking skills in their classes is that it (pop culture) "is only entertainment," and that any attempt to think critically about it is "reading something into it" that isn't there.   Well, I think that the results of the latest round of Emmy Awards should finally put an end to any such complaints, because the sweeping triumphs of The Handmaid's Tale and Saturday Night Live have made it quite clear that the entertainment industry is now a direct participant in American politics.


This is a point that has been stated explicitly in every edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. (including, of course, the 9th edition, due out in a couple of weeks), in which students are taught that the traditional line between entertainment and everyday life has been so diminished that it could be said that we live in an "entertainment culture," in which all of our activities, including the political process, are required to be entertaining as well.  The blurring of this line does not simply refer to entertainers who have become successful politicians (like Ronald Reagan, Al Franken, and, um, Donald Trump), but to the way that television shows like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show have become major players in American electoral politics.


Lest the recent results at the Emmy's give the idea that the politicization of entertainment is a one-way street, navigated solely by entertainments and entertainers on the left, the same thing is going on on the right as well, and this is something that cultural analysts often miss, pretty simply because those entertainers do not tend to be part of the taste culture of cultural analysts.  Of course, it isn't only cultural analysts who have neglected the place of what I'll call the "ent-right" in American politics: by relying virtually exclusively on the support of entertainers like Beyonce´ and Lena Dunham—not to mention the crew at SNL and Jon Stewart—Hillary Clinton completely miscalculated the power of those entertainers who appeal to the voters who voted for Donald Trump.  The results of this miscalculation are hardly insignificant.


To give you a better idea of just how American entertainment is now parsing on political grounds, I'll provide a link to a New York Times feature article that includes fifty maps of the United States geographically showing which television programs are viewed in which regions of the country.  Referred to as a "cultural divide" in the article, what is revealed is equally a political divide.  So striking are the differences in television viewership that it would behoove future presidential election pollsters to ask people not who they are going to vote for (a question that the 2016 election appears to demonstrate is one that people do not always answer honestly) but which television programs they watch (or what kind of music they listen to, etc.. Who knows what the outcome of the 2016 election would have been if Hillary Clinton had a prominent country music icon on her side).


In short, popular cultural semiotics isn't merely something for the classroom (though it can begin there); it is essential to an understanding of what is happening in this country and of what is likely to happen.  And one has to look at everything, not only one's own favorite performers.  Because the purpose of analyzing entertainment is not to be entertained: it is to grasp the power of entertainment.


Line of library books


Check out the Academy for Teachers for an inspiring look at what one group is doing to celebrate teaching in America. As the website announces:


 We honor and support good teaching, which means we’re all about passion for a subject, creativity in the classroom, and devotion to students. The Academy brings strong teachers together with leading experts and artists for inspiring events held in partnership with New York City’s great institutions. In so doing, we raise respect for the teaching profession.


The brain wave of Sam Swope, teacher and author of wonderful children’s books (see The Araboolies of Liberty Street, The Krazeees, and Gotta Go, Gotta Go!) as well as of I Am a Pencil: A Teacher, His Kids, and Their World of Stories. Through personality, perseverance, and panache, Swope called on a number of institutions in and around New York City, and particularly the New York Public Library, to join forces with him in founding this Academy, for which teachers are nominated by personalities including the novelist Daniel Alarcón, New York Times writer Frank Bruni, African American folklorist Maria Tatar, and many many others.


I know that the teachers who are part of this program benefit enormously from it, and I know that they take their new knowledge back to their students. But what most impresses me about the Academy is its quiet insistence on the importance of teaching, of its focus on the reach good teachers have across generations of students, and of its reflection of our deep need, as a society, to recognize and celebrate these teachers and their work. Toward that end, the Academy has launched a new initiative, publication of tiny chapbooks in which contemporary authors write about a teacher who inspired them. I’ve read several of the chapbooks so far and have been entranced with the stories they tell. For example, Karen Russell, whose first novel, Swamplandia!, was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer in fiction writes


But then there was Mr. Blackmon, who was in a category all his own. His . . . courses were on par with the best classes I have taken at the graduate level. . . . It’s not an exaggeration to say that Mr. Blackmon’s teaching changed the course of my life. He took us on a field trip to the University of Miami library, showed us how to research using their amazing, labyrinthine archives. I sat in a glue-scented study carrel next to bona fide college students, reading a biography of Julius K. Nyerere. I wrote twenty-page papers for Mr. Blackmon about African socialism in Tanzania, about the politics of the Panama Canal... I have never studied harder for any class . . . and in the process we became more conscious and deliberate and flexible and knowledgeable and curious. We argued, we listened to one another’s positions, we learned to ask better questions, we read and read and read, we redrew our maps of where we could go, who we might become. We grew up.


It strikes me that most of us teachers of writing could write our own chapbooks about a Mr. or Ms. Blackmon, about a teacher who meant the world to us, who helped us grow up and into ourselves. And perhaps we should write those, and, in the bargain, honor the spirit of the Academy for Teachers. If you have any stories of those teachers, feel free to share them in the comments—or, if you take it upon yourself to create your own chapbook, feel free to send it my way.


Credit: Pixaby Image 24564874 by StockSnap, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

In my last post, I introduced the first part of a writing about writing assignment for students enrolled in both my FYC course and an ESL co-requisite support course.  In a course-long project, students are exploring, describing, and analyzing a discourse community.  The theoretical framework for their use of sources comes from Joseph Bizup’s 2008 article, “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing.”


This past week, students began to look for their sources, incrementally building what my colleague Ruth Holmes has called a Progressive Annotated Bibliography, or PAB.  For the first PAB entry, students looked for a general background source, something which provides an overview of the discourse community—its membership, goals, authorities, and purposes.  Each PAB installment includes three parts:  the MLA works cited entry for the source, a paragraph-length summary, and a source trail/comments paragraph, in which students describe their process of finding source (including any leads that took them in the wrong direction and sources they reviewed but abandoned) and their assessment of the value of the source for their investigation. 


My students are studying a wide variety of communities, including surgical technology, accounting, importing/exporting with Latin America, cybersecurity, and language teaching.  Their first PABs were, for the most part, well-constructed and insightful, particularly in their evaluation of the source quality and their search process.


PAB #2, however, has proven problematic.  After reminding students of the purpose of the research project, I explained the goal for our second source, which is an exhibit source (in Bizup’s terms).  Specifically, I asked the students to find an example of a text written by the discourse community for its members.  Our strategy was (I thought) straightforward: find the website of a relevant and recognized professional organization and select an article or text that communicates about an area of interest for discourse community members.  As I illustrated the search process, I reminded students that our goal was to understand how members of this discourse community create texts, share information, and use language—all parts of what Gee has called Discourse.


Emails began filling my inbox within a few hours after class, and most suggested confusion about how to evaluate the sources they found.  I realized students were wrestling with a mismatch between what I was asking of them and what they had done in previous courses:


  • I found the professional website, but it’s a .org, so it’s probably not reliable. Can I just go to a database?
  • I can’t find an article describing how members of the group communicate. What should I do?
  • I searched for “communication and discourse” with my group, but I didn’t find anything that talks about secondary discourse. There’s nothing about how the group communicates.
  • I found this blog on the organization website, but blogs are not good sources.
  • I don’t think my source is peer-reviewed. Will you count off for that?
  • Can I use Wikipedia?
  • Does the article have to be from this year?


These questions reveal a great deal about previous instruction in research methods, and they indicate that while my students are familiar with some of the vocabulary of information literacy (credibility, reliability, peer-review, scholarly, etc.), they define these terms as absolutes, rather than seeing them as contextually defined.  Moreover, the students were puzzled by the notion of an exhibit source—suggesting a narrow understanding of the purpose of academic research.  That the research process can use sources in different ways--and that context determines what reliability or relevance actually means--does not match their previous experiences. 


I think the students are encountering threshold concepts about research–ideas which are troubling because they do not necessarily align with previous instruction or experience.  Specifically, they are wrestling with some of the threshold concepts for information literacy as identified by Association of College and Research Librarians: “authority is constructed and contextual,” “searching as strategic exploration,” and “scholarship as conversation.”  


One of the advantages of beginning a research process early in the term is that we still have 11 weeks to work through some of these questions, and students will be able to revisit sources, summaries, and their growing understanding of not only their target discourse community, but also the complexities of information literacy.


Want to offer feedback, comments, and suggestions on this post? Join the Macmillan Community to get involved (it’s free, quick, and easy)!

Kristin Ravel is pursuing her PhD in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research interests encompass multimodality, digital media studies, ethics in communication, and feminist theory.



As a cisgender instructor, I was always under an unchecked and unquestioned assumption that my courses were supportive to all LGBTQ+ students. I believed that standards of respect and responsibility I worked to prioritize in the classroom would take care of any situation.


I began to question my assumptions when a friend teaching an LGBTQ+ course asked me to recommend writing instructors in our program who were supportive of transgender and gender non-conforming students. I could name lots of instructors off the top of my head who were friendly, approachable, and understanding…but when I stopped to think about actual classroom practices and strategies tied to gender identity, I came up short for suggestions.


At that time, I was part of our WPA team as the English 101 course coordinator. I designed the standardized curriculum, trained new GTAs, and organized and ran the required instructor meetings. In my two years in that position, I couldn’t remember a single conversation, professional development project, or meeting that posed the question of how to support transgender and gender non-conforming students.


I don’t think I’m the only one in this position, and I’m hoping to make up for this neglect now by sharing some strategies for how I retooled my classroom practices.


  • Go out of your way to get educated about LGBTQ+ issues: Although there are a number of sources out there, I’ve found Sherry Zane’s article “Supporting Transgender Students in the Classroom” from Faculty Focus extremely useful for classroom practices. More generally speaking, it’s good to become familiar about issues surrounding the LGBTQ+ community. This could involve getting informed about gender identity yourself or asking what your college campus is doing to ensure there are gender-inclusive facilities, harassment policies, and proper healthcare and counseling available to students of all sexual orientations.


  • Model pronoun etiquette beginning on day one of class: On the first day of class, I tell students I go by she/her and include my pronouns on the syllabus. Additionally, I take a written poll that students turn in to me at the beginning of our first day (as opposed to reading students’ names off a roster). Here is the poll I used this semester:


  • Last name as it appears in university records:
  • Name you use:
  • Pronouns you use:
  • Major/minor/undecided?:
  • Please describe your access to and familiarity with technology (Smartphone? Laptop? Home computer? IPad? Access to Internet at home? Etc.)
  • Anything else you would like your instructor to know about you?


After the poll, students were asked to take turns sharing the name they use, their major, and something they are excited about this semester.

  • Find ways to support rather than draw attention to: It’s best to avoid the word “preferred” in front of pronoun. It’s just “pronoun” (see this video for more information and perspectives). Also, there is no need to force students to share their pronoun out loud in front of the class (see this article for more info). Some classes make the default pronoun “they” until everyone knows each other’s pronouns. In my class, I make it optional. Whatever you choose, it’s important to let students know you recognize their gender identities, but avoid outing.  In sum, pronouns don’t have to be a big deal, and we can make the situation better by treating them that way.
  • Make conversations about gender a part of your curriculum: One benefit writing courses have in allowing for the visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming students is that discussing language and how it transforms given social, political, economic, and cultural contexts is (often) already a part of the curriculum. Bringing in texts that discuss gender and the fluidity of gender may help further open these conversations.


For instance, I have found the short webtext “I Heart the Singular They” useful for talking about gender identity while allowing for productive conversations about multimodal rhetorical analysis. Students in my class have noted how the sweet, almost child-like nature of this text may help persuade those who are resistant to accepting singular “they” pronoun identities. Eventually, the discussion led to questions like: Who may be resistant to the singular they and why? Who oversees what we decide is a language rule? What issues or confusion may the singular “they” cause? How does the webtext work to resolve that?


After this discussion, students were asked to write an essay about “I Heart the Singular They” based on what they had learned about multimodal rhetorical analysis in Writer/Designer.


  • Be ready to make mistakes, but also be ready to keep learning: In no way am I perfect at supporting my transgender and gender non-conforming students. I have made and will continue to make mistakes—there is no doubt about this. But the difference, I have found is admitting those mistakes and finding ways to do better next time. Doing better next time, however, does not mean depending on the educational and emotional labor of the oppressed. There are plenty of books and online resources out there already. Rather than asking questions like “What can I do better?” directly, take the initiative to figure that out yourself (this goes back to point #1). Some of my favorite go-to resources are Black Girl Dangerous and Autostraddle. If you find them helpful too, it’s a good idea to throw some financial support their way so they can keep producing content.

I wanted to end by inviting others into this discussion: What are your favorite resources for supporting LGBTQ+ students? What about resources specifically for supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students? What do you do in your classes now or what do you hope to change?

Thanks to Bridget Kies, Kristin Prins, Ali Sperling, and Rachael Sullivan for all the help and conversations that made this post possible.

Vignette 1: American Sports History

Perhaps, dear reader, you have just read the title of this week’s post and you are thinking:

“Because the writers in my classrooms do not know the conventions, they do not know when they have broken conventions.” Or “My department/program/institution requires students to produce a writing sample for assessment that shows adherence to conventions. I don’t have any choice but to teach the conventions.”


Yet I invite you to consider recent US sports history. On September 24, 2017, according to the New York TImes, “N.F.L. players across the country demonstrated during the national anthem on Sunday in a show of solidarity against President Trump, who scolded the league and players on Twitter this weekend.” In doing so, these football players were following the lead of of Colin Kaepernick who, in 2016 in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement, would not stand for the national anthem.


The convention appears to be, “Everyone stands for the national anthem before a football game.” However, with Kaepernick’s protest and with the protests of other NFL players on September 24th, a rule that seemed written in stone has been broken again and again. Historically relevant to these protests are the direct actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in the months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, as well as the more recent example of Knox College women’s basketball player Arianya Smith in St. Louis County in the wake of civil unrest after the death of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, who was African American, at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

When considered from a rhetorical standpoint, the action of breaking with convention is not only a matter of how, but also a matter of why. Kairos, the rhetorical context of deciding to break convention also is significant. Shannon Carter and her colleagues from the Remixing Rural Texas project offer an especially moving example of the importance of paying attention to Kairos in their video John Carlos: Before Mexico City.


Shannon Carter, John Carlos, and Susan Naomi Bernstein at 4C13 in Las Vegas, Nevada.


Vignette 2: Grammar Conventions

Dear reader, forgive me for taking the long way around in responding to your initial concerns about conventions. In order to respond, however, I need to trouble the idea that students have no knowledge of conventions. Perhaps, as Mina Shaughnessy and others have offered, our students know the rules all too well. When they are internalized with inflexibility, rules can become serious roadblocks to successful writing. In Errors and Expectations, Shaughnessy offered that students interrogate the reasons for conventions, and then work on revising and reapplying their approach to conventions. Shaughnessy’s suggestion was adapted as a class activity in early editions of Teaching Developmental Writing.


This year, on the third day of class, I offered another adaptation that included a close reading of James Baldwin’s “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.” Here are the questions I wrote on the board:

In small groups:

  1. Make a short list of rules for writing that you have learned over the years
  2. Find examples of places in Baldwin’s text where the rules are broken
  3. Discuss why Baldwin may have decided to break these rules
  4. Discuss the questions: Are these rules appropriate for you to break in Writing Project 1? Why or why not?
  5. We will discuss this activity as a larger group.

This activity provided us with opportunities to read Baldwin’s work more deeply. Students’ examples of Baldwin’s writing breaking with convention were clear and direct: Baldwin writes run-on sentences, they said. Baldwin writes with comma splices. Baldwin writes fragments. A conversation about form and content followed:


SUSAN: Perfect. Let’s take on the fragment rule. Where did you find a fragment?

STUDENTS: On page 51, there are a series of fragments. The first is: “Soldiers don’t.”

SUSAN: Okay, let’s try breaking down that fragment. Note that don’t is a contraction.

All of sentences in the series begin with “don’t.”

SUSAN (writes a grammatical convention on the board):

Soldiers + don’t. = Soldiers + do not.

Subject + Verb = Complete Sentence

SUSAN: Why might Baldwin use this series of contractions on page 51?


STUDENTS: For repetition. Repetition emphasizes Baldwin’s point about poets and artists

understanding the truth about people.


SUSAN: Yes. Baldwin is showing us the relationship between form and content.

Can you try something like this in your own writing?


STUDENTS: We don’t know. Can we?


SUSAN: Yes, you can. You can do it strategically based on audience and purpose.

For some academic audiences and purpose, contractions may be too informal. The verb disappears in a contraction, and some reader may mistake your sentence for a fragment. We know from the example, however, that the verb is still there and that the sentence is complete. In this way, language is like music.

The writer can practice shaping form to fit content.


Later, as I read journal entries, I discovered that students were intrigued by this activity. A seemingly unbreakable rule turned out to be a rhetorical convention that writers could adapt as needed to fit their message and their rhetorical context.


Anarchy did not ensue.


Vignette 3: James Baldwin

Reader, I ask your patience once more while I offer you personal context for the Kairos of reading James Baldwin, a circumstance I could not have anticipated a month ago when I wrote my initial post for the semester.


On the Wednesday after Labor Day, I learned that my beloved had been taken to the hospital emergency room after collapsing from heatstroke on a public sidewalk. The high had been 109 degrees that day. I spent that Wednesday night on a loveseat in a hospital corridor near the ICU, not knowing the damage my beloved’s body had sustained, and whether his condition would worsen or improve.


Over the next twelve days, through hospital care and rehab, we learned that my beloved, with time, was expected to recover. Only later did we realize that we had broken with healthcare conventions, especially when my beloved spent eighteen hours in rehab with no medical attention for severe stomach pains. My beloved could not digest the food in rehab, and staff perceived our request for healthier food as a demand for special treatment. Even so, we found one dish, a vegetable medley, particularly concerning. Neither of us could recognize the vegetables, and we worried about the efficacy of any patient’s recovery in such circumstances.

Indeed, our worry was reinforced when the discharge nurse reminded us to make sure to eat a healthy diet. In rehab, this had not been possible.


What pulled us through this experience was reading Baldwin together. One especially difficult evening, I read to my beloved the words the students and I had discussed in class over and over again:

Everybody’s hurt. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what torments you is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive.

Then in a whisper, I breathed out the next sentence: “This is all you have to do with it.”


Both of us held back tears. We grasped the significance of the events that had brought us to this space, of all that we had shared together as teachers, as writers, and as human beings.


In Baldwin we found meaning enough to move toward the future.

Accessibility Lab by Bill Scott on Flickr, used under a CC-BY license

Image Long Description: Color photo of a white sign, indicating the location of an Accessibility Lab, on the side of a frosted glass wall. The sign shows the accessibility icon of a white human symbol in a blue circle. Below the image the location name is written in Braille, which shows as black dots on the white background.

In the best of all possible worlds, my course materials would include a variety of media, intended to support the many learning styles that students bring to the course. Every one of these resources would be accessible in multiple ways. Every video would have closed captioning and a transcript. Every image would have an alt attribute and, when appropriate, a long description. Webpages would have high contrast alternatives and never show errors when analyzed with the WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool.


Unfortunately, I do not live in the best of all possible worlds. I know that there are gaps in my course materials. I am eagerly attending workshops this term to improve the accessibility of my online materials, and I am a member of a year-long cohort that focuses on inclusion and diversity. The problem is that I only have so much time, and it can be challenging to add all the resources that are needed. I try my best to ensure that whatever I produce is accessible, but some of the outside resources I include, like infographics and videos, don’t have captioning, transcripts, or other accessibility features.


So what to do? I decided to involve students themselves in the solution. Grades in my professional writing courses relate to the labor that students put into the course, following Asao Inoue’s anti-racist assessment model (2014). To explain very briefly, students must try a number of specific tasks that range from simple log entries to major writing projects. If they put in the effort and try the required activities, they can earn a B in the course. To earn a grade higher than a B, students must take an ongoing leadership role by helping to teach the class new things and significantly adding support to the writing community. I provide students with a list of ways to contribute. You can read more about the course arrangement on the Requirements page for this semester.


With the need to provide options for adding to the course in mind, I added an activity that invited students to create the missing transcripts and text descriptions for resources used in the course. Here is the assignment that I am using:


Optional Accessibility Transcript Activity

Ideally, everything in this course should be accessible to everyone. For instance, videos and audio recordings need transcripts, and images need alt attributes and long descriptions that explain what they show.


The goal of this activity is to create the transcripts and descriptions that are missing for some of the resources used in the course. Your work will focus on accurately presenting the words from the original as well as applying document design principles to ensure that the transcript is easy to read and navigate.


These resources provide how-to information and tips:


How The Activity Is Graded

The transcript activity is completely optional. If you create a transcript, I’ll check it for accuracy to the original, standard correctness, and good document design. If necessary, you can revise a transcript until it is usable for the course. Your transcript will be graded either Complete or Incomplete, meaning you can revise.


If you are working toward a grade higher than a B in the course, you can create a transcript as part of the extra work you do to build community in the course and share ideas. This transcript activity is just one of several options available to you.


How To Participate

Creating a transcript is an independent activity. You won’t interact with anyone other than me, unless you ask your writing group to give you feedback. Here’s the process you’ll follow:


  1. Choose a resource that is missing a transcript. They will usually be things that are posted in our Daily Discussion posts.
  2. Email me with the details on the resource you want to work with. I will check your request to make sure the task is not too big or too small. After I check it, I will send you an approval. Wait for that approval before you begin your work.
  3. Use the resources above for tips on how to create your transcript.
  4. Use a word processor to type and format the text from the video or image that you have chosen.
  5. Submit your transcript in Canvas in the Optional Transcript Assignment once you have finished.
  6. If your work is finished, I will mark it Complete in Canvas Grades, add it to the course website, and credit you. If it needs to be revised, I’ll mark it Incomplete in Canvas Grades, and you can revise and resubmit.


To make the assignment work smoothly, I add a note on every page that I publish that indicates which elements already have transcripts or and which need accessibility support. In the month that the activity has been available, several students have volunteered to create the missing materials. As a result, I now have support for resources that I had no time to take care of myself. 


I particularly like the multiple benefits that grow from this activity:


  • Students gain a better understanding of the needs of those with disabilities.
  • Students learn how to create accessible documents.
  • Students participate in an authentic writing and document design activity, with a concrete purpose and audience.
  • Students can focus on on editing and design skills, since the content itself already exists.


All that and I get resources that make my course materials more accessible too. This activity is definitely a keeper.


How do you talk about accessibility with your students? Do you have any assignments or classroom activities to share? Please leave a comment below with your comments or questions.


Credit: Accessibility Lab by Bill Scott on Flickr, used under a CC-BY license.

If you read past today’s folderol about the Tweeter-in-Chief, you’ll get to an article about the first day of school for the new curriculum in Turkey. From this point forward, students will be spared learning about Darwin. At university, those who opt-in will have a chance to learn about the man credited with first formulating and then working out in detail the theory that species evolve. And those who opt out will be spared the whole messy business.


We are surrounded by light, and yet we live in darkness.


I can safely say that today is the first day I’ve ever given any thought to what the Turkish national curriculum is. I don’t say this with pride; I’m just conceding my parochialism. I have spent considerable time thinking about curricular issues at my home university, though. Here, one could encounter Darwin or not; it would really depend on the route one chose to take through the labyrinth of “core” requirements. Do students in the U.S. graduate from high school able to articulate the gist of Darwin’s theory of evolution? Are they able to say why it matters, one way or the other, whether Darwin is taught or not? Do the answers to those questions change if we make them about college students in the U.S.?


In the classes I teach, it is not uncommon for students to say to me: “I am not a Christian, so I know nothing about the religion.” Some are embarrassed by this; some are not. Yesterday, in my office hours, I had a student offer a version of the Annunciation to me that was wrapped around Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, and conflated the Virgin Mary with Mary Magdalene. As far as I can tell, the ignorance in the student population about the general tenets of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism is only slightly greater. Of course, there’s no required course in World Religions, either at the high school level or in the “core” requirements at my home institution, so what most students know about religious belief extends no further than the edge of their personal experience.


Of course, we’ve reached a point where the difference between education and advocacy has been so blurred that it is now understood that to teach anything is to advocate for that thing. My students express this general attitude when they apologize to me for not being a believer: they assume that, by assigning Genesis and reading it with care, I am expressing my belief in the text at hand, rather than my modeling what it means to have a trained mind. I won’t speculate here about the root cause of this conflation of education and advocacy. I’ll note only that one direct consequence of the confusion is a deadening of curiosity. In a tsunami of digital information, students elect not to use search engines to seek out what they do not know. It is as if they thought their search histories might someday become public and they would be called to account for having an interest not only in their own educations, but in education in general.



If the digital age has, in fact, plunged us into darkness, it has also provided us with a foundational infrastructure for mounting a Re-Enlightenment. If we use our classrooms to cultivate curiosity-driven research; if we allow for open-ended explorations; if we reward individual efforts to venture into what defines “the unknown” for students individually, we will be creating spaces where students acquire the skills necessary to become lifelong learners.

A person writing in a notebook with a pen


School is back in session in many places, which means it’s not too early to start thinking about Halloween! It was my favorite holiday when I was a kid and one I still look forward to. These days, I welcome goblins and princesses and superheroes (I wonder how many Donald Trump’s there will be this year?); I will admire the costumes, hand out sweet stuff, and talk to the attendant parents. But this year I’m thinking, too, of all the ghost stories we used to tell, sitting around the fireplace and scaring ourselves out of our wits; sometimes, we even wrote them out and hid them in our siblings’ beds, hoping for an especially big scare.


I don’t remember any writing in school that featured Halloween, but today I expect students everywhere are invited to write about Halloween (or the Day of the Dead). In addition, there are contests galore, such as the Annual Ghost Story Writing Contest, or the National Ghost Story Competition from the Writer’s Mag site. They also host flash fiction writing contests (limited to 513 words) on various themes, one of which is inevitably “horror.


So, as summer is winding down, how about turning our thoughts to autumn and to entering one of these contests, or just asking students to write a 513-word story about an autumnal theme or subject? You’ll have just about two months to come up with an assignment, to invite students to enter contests, etc. This has the potential to be a great graphic novel or other multimodal project. I’d love to hear about any results! Feel free to post them in the comments below, or let me know that you have an example you would like to share privately. And an early happy Halloween to you all!


Credit: Pixaby Image 1850177 by Pexels, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License



The accounts below are from survivors of torture conducted by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s police and military. (Warning: Graphic Testimony/Images of Torture in the links.)


Nothing Else But Non-Violence

A Child and A Bird (video)


These testimonies were collected by Syrians for Truth and Justice, a human rights organization that I have been part of creating over the past several years. In addition to collecting testimonies from survivors of human rights abuses by Assad, ISIS, and proliferating militia, STJ also works with a network of human rights activists based in Syria who document on-going human rights abuses, including a recent report on the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun.


Engaging in such work quickly teaches you that Jalal Nofar’s testimony represents just one of many moments of torture and human rights abuse, just one voice among the many that were told to be quiet but continued to speak. It is a lesson I want my students to also learn.


Over the next several months, then, I will be asking students in Syracuse (university and community-based) to join in the work of STJ as well as support high school students in North Africa attempting to work against ISIS recruitment in their community. As a collective, we will be thinking through how to produce print, digital, and performance-based artifacts that can support this important human rights work – work occurring in local moments across the Middle East and North Africa but with resonance for our own communities in Syracuse. Throughout, they will be working at forming a transnational conversation on their responsibilities and role as human rights activists.


It is, perhaps, one of the most challenging community projects I have ever undertaken.  


Already, some of the individuals in our network of international partners have faced government repression and threats. Elements of the project has been hampered by our need to have individuals or messages cross international borders in a time of restrictions and travel bans.  And the imagined promise of a fluid digital culture across space and time now seems a bit naïve. My students are already beginning to recognize how such work has real implications, real effects, in spaces to which they may never travel.


And I have had to recognize that the scholarly  work on community partnership and publication on which this course is premised is primarily situated within a certain understanding of U.S. culture. There is a latent faith in the right of individuals to speak, a latent faith in the safety of engaging in such speech, and, perhaps, an optimism that such actions will produce change. The challenges made by movements such as Black Lives Matter have been important interventions in asking all of us to reconsider how we are situated differently to such a faith. Still, with broad brushstrokes, I would argue much of our scholarship swims in such waters.


How, then, to position community literacy paradigms, skills, and practices within contexts that seem to trouble such beliefs? How to provide students with frameworks that do not romanticize the United States (brushing over the marginalization many populations feel) or present individuals in the Middle East/North Africa as victims to be saved? Tentatively, I intend on taking the following disciplinary/pedagogical steps.


1. Create a Complex Historical Narrative

Given the current political debates around the refugees and conflicts emerging from the Middle East and North Africa, I decided to begin my class not with rhetorical theory, but with historical research. I used academic research, online news sources, and current affair blogs, to situate my students popular culture understandings within a history of collective struggle by activists in this region for democracy and human rights. In doing so, I am also indirectly highlighting how such rights have histories outside the context of the United States.


2. Provide Models of Political Change

Within public discussions of the Middle East/North Africa, there are critiques/concerns expressed about a continual failure to establish democratic states. For this reason, I believe that my students need a model of political change, a theory through which they could test how public discussion was framing the situation in a country such as Syria, but also test the theory against their own work. (Here I am latently making the point that many of us inhabit a model of political change of which we are not always fully cognizant.)


3. Understand the Risks Involved

Speaking out always carries risk. Yet often in community publishing contexts that risk is not fully understood, articulated. Perhaps the university is seen as a guarantor of safety for all those involved. After warning about the graphic nature of STJ’s work, I will ask students to explore the site, taking note of the risks each of these individuals faced in their own lives for their public work. We can then discuss how such risks exist for everyone in the United States, though differently situated depending on individual identity. Here I want them to gain an overt understanding of the real-life context of this work and that while I would step in when necessary, they were entering projects where actual risks are involved.


Only then will we turn to the field’s work of community partnership and publishing.


I recognize that discussions of Syria, the Middle East, and human rights might seem far afield from the typical work of our writing classrooms. Yet what I have learned from this “exceptional” class is that any class which engages in community partnership work needs to create a complex historical context of that community, provide a model of social change to frame the work, and enable students to understand the risks being asked of community members. It needs the insights of other disciplines, such as history and political science. Our community writing classes might be about writing, that is, but more than writing theory is necessary to make our work successful.

Tanya RodrigueToday’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodrigue, an assistant professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.


Instructors are currently tasked with the challenge of teaching students the 21st century literacies they need to live and work in the digital age. Engaging students with multimodal writing assignments is one way students can learn these literacies. Yet many instructors may be apprehensive about incorporating multimodal assignments into their curriculum: they may feel intimidated by technology, inadequate about their knowledge of media, or overwhelmed by the vast number of programs and platforms available to use for learning purposes. Even those who are comfortable working with technology may be unsure of how to incorporate it to best facilitate course learning goals or design thoughtful multimodal assignments.


In this blog post, I offer a reflective, recursive process that novice and experienced instructors can use to generate intellectual material needed to compose effective multimodal writing assignments. Follow the steps in the three stages below.


Stage #1 Preparing for Reflection

  1. Identify the course in which you’d like to incorporate a multimodal assignment and list the course learning goals.
  2. Decide the genre, digital tool, or digital platform you’d like to work with. The decision making process will vary among instructors. For example, an instructor who is new to teaching multimodal writing may choose a familiar genre like a podcast, while a more experienced teacher may choose an unfamiliar program with pedagogical potential like Storybird.
  3. Decide on the nature of the writing assignment (low-stakes or high-stakes). If you are a novice, I recommend a low-stakes assignment.


Stage #2: Identifying and Reflecting on Affordances

This process invites instructors to identify and reflect on three affordances—practical, conceptual, and pedagogical—of a genre, digital tool, or platform, and look at them in relation to one another at various points during Stage #2 and #3. Below I list definitions for each affordance and questions for instructors to ask themselves during this stage of the process. I recommend beginning with practical affordances, yet I encourage instructors to remain open to shifting between and among the affordance reflection questions as it seems appropriate. The more connections made, the more intellectual material yielded.

1. Practical affordances are the available functions, options, features, and capabilities of genres, digital tools, and/or digital platforms. For example, a practical affordance of a genre like a slide presentation is its ability to be transformed into a video, while a practical affordance of a digital tool may be its ability to change format and font color.

  • Questions for genre: What are the characteristics, constraints, purposes, obligatory and optional moves of the genre?
  • Questions for digital tools and platforms: What is the purpose and what options are available to achieve this purpose? What features distinguish this tool or platform from others? What are the constraints and how might they impact pedagogical and conceptual affordances?


2.Pedagogical affordances are available pedagogical practices or opportunities inherent in genres, digital tools, and or digital platforms. Some may be immediately apparent, such as the ability to teach audience awareness via a comment option, while others can be made visible when reflecting on the following:

  • Questions for genre, digital tools, and digital platforms: How might this help students achieve a course learning goal(s)? What are its constraints, and how might they influence what I can and cannot teach? How might I use it for its intended purpose and how might I transform it to more appropriately work for my needs?


3. Conceptual affordances are available cognitive moves students can make during the composing process that ultimately lead to discoveries or meaning making. The instructor must imagine how students may engage with the genre, digital tools, and/or digital platforms and the kind of thinking and invention that may occur as a result.

  • Questions: What course goals may directly or indirectly call for teaching students invention acts such as listening, interpreting, analyzing, identifying, imagining, assessing, deciding, reflecting, and making connections? What kinds of invention acts are valued in your discipline and in this class in particular? What do you want to teach your students about invention, invention strategies, and process, and their relationship to composing and working with technology?


Stage #3: Mining the Intellectual Material

The invention work of stage #3 requires taking up stage #2 responses and making connections between and among them in efforts to compose a multimodal assignment that works to achieve course learning goals. The process can be used multiple times; with each time, the pool of raw material grows and can be mined for additional multimodal assignment ideas.



Below is a concept map that charts out the intellectual material generated from engaging with this process for a first year writing course using the digital tool, Storify.



*This blog post was adapted from my recent article “An Epistemological Process for Multimodal Assignment Design” in Journal of Global Literacies, Technologies, and Emerging Pedagogies’ special issue on multimodality.*

Ilford 1973 by Jussi on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 licenseThis academic year, I am a member of a learning community that is exploring strategies for inclusive pedagogy. As a result, I’m thinking about ways to include issues of diversity and accessibility in my teaching. Most recently, I have been developing materials that address racial discrimination, particularly ethics and race. I shared three scenarios and a moral compass technique September 5th, and three more scenarios last week. This week, I’m sharing the last four ethics scenarios for discussing race and discrimination, completing a serialized list of ten.


The Scenarios

  • You have been asked to create a diversity policy for the use of images in your advertising materials. There have been recent complaints about racist and sexist images, so your company is especially interested in ensuring that all ads in the future celebrate diversity. After examining the problematic images, you decide that it will be best to describe the best kinds of images to use, rather than to list everything that would not be acceptable. Your coworkers disagree. They worry that without an understanding of the specific things to avoid, employees will continue to choose inappropriate images. Despite their feedback, you decide to go with your own feeling. You believe that listing all the possible wrong images would be impossible and that it could easily offend employees. Did you make the right choice? Is there a better strategy?
  • Your company encourages employees to dress in costumes for Halloween every year. Last year, some employees wore inappropriate costumes that offended other employees and clients. Most of the problem costumes generically adopted culture as costume (e.g., Native American princess, Mexican bandito, geisha). While your company’s executive director is all for Halloween costumes and a bit of fun, she is worried about a repeat of the inappropriate costumes from last year. She emails all employees an announcement of a Halloween party during the company’s afternoon break. She invites everyone to wear costumes to work. To address the inappropriate costume issues, she adds this information to her email: “Please remember to choose an appropriate costume. If you are worried that your costume may not be okay, ask someone in HR about it.” Did she choose the right way to handle the situation?
  • The employees from your division go out for lunch to celebrate a coworker’s birthday. While you are all waiting for your orders, the group is chatting about family and plans for the weekend. Doug speaks up, saying, “You know that reminds me of a joke.” He then tells a racist joke. Most members of your group laugh outright. A couple appear bothered by the joke. You consider speaking up and pointing out that the joke is inappropriate and that Doug should not share such things at work. It appears though that most people did not notice that the joke was offensive. You decide to avoid the issue and say nothing. Everyone is out to have fun, and you don’t want to make everyone uncomfortable. Did you make the right decision? Is there a better way to handle the situation?
  • You handle customer service through your company’s social media accounts. The company has launched a series of television and online commercials that show diverse families enjoying their products. In response, protesters are complaining about these depictions on social media in posts filled with stereotypes. Some protesters admit they buy your company’s products but will find alternatives if the diverse images are not stopped. The large volume of protests is distracting you from your main task of providing customer service. You tell your manager about the situation, and she instructs you to block and report all protesters. You disagree with her, arguing that the protesters are still customers and that blocking will bar them from getting support. You disagree even more with reporting these protesters, who you believe have the right to complain. Your manager is not convinced. She states that you can block and report the protesters or she will find someone who will to take over your job and assign you elsewhere. You bow to her request and begin blocking and reporting all protesters. Have you made the right decision? Has your manager?


The scenarios above are phrased for technical and business writing classes (since that is what I am currently teaching). They could be used “as is” in first-year composition, or they can be customized. For instance, students could consider a diversity policy for images used on the university’s website and in printed promotional materials.


This week, I also tried to create scenarios that could turn into writing assignments. After discussing the first scenario, students can write their own diversity policy for the use of images. For a business or technical writing course, students can focus on company documents, such as the use of images in advertisements, slideshow presentations, and website resources. First-year composition students can create policies for clubs or groups they are involved with, for the university, or for the texts they write for the course. Whichever kind of policy they compose, students will have to balance specific explanations of the policy with persuasive strategies that will convince readers to follow the guidelines.


I hope you find the ten scenarios I have shared this month useful. If you have questions or suggestions about them, please leave me a comment below.



Credit: Ilford 1973 by Jussi on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Recently I joined an international group of scholars who are exploring how traditional strategies for making meaning from the world through representation are being supplanted by new approaches that emphasize simulation. Of course, simulation often gets a bad name because techniques of simulation are assumed to alienate people further from real life concerns, and technologies like gaming and virtual reality are assumed to distract and confuse their audiences with illusions. However, simulation is increasingly important in the sciences to model complex systems and interactions and to understand complicated phenomena occurring in real time like global climate change.


Contemporary digital curators and artists are now creating computer screen simulations that emulate the processes of reading, writing, and researching. For example, MIT professor Fox Harrell created an interactive simulation that showed an email inbox and composing screen for an imagined human resources manager at “Grayscale,” an imaginary tech company. The simulation helped people understand how ambivalent sexism might produce workplace harassment by exploring the story and its multiple endings that are dependent on the user’s action. Similarly, the Salman Rushdie Digital Archive profiled by the New York Times displayed how the famed writer might have navigated files on his Macintosh computer workstation with an “exact replica” in an “emulated environment.” In the Rushdie archive at Emory University, the user can role play as an author poking around desktop folders, sticky notes, drafts of a novel in progress, and even the contents of a virtual wastebasket.


In Understanding Rhetoric we largely relied on representational approaches to teaching people to become better readers and writers. The fact that we used a comic-book format that depicted Jonathan and I as cartoon characters was a strategic choice. We even differentiated the representational approach of using hand-drawn figures from other possible representational approaches like photography in our introduction that discussed the topic of visual literacy. In other words, to teach reading and writing, we depended on abstract symbols that may have been less vivid and interactive than a 3D digital world or a constantly shifting simulation created with computational media that could react to the actions of a user or player.


Obviously using images rather than just plain text alone was intended to do more showing and less telling in bringing rhetorical situations to life. As Scott McCloud has argued, visual communication sometimes benefits from a more iconic approach that allows people to more easily imagine themselves occupying particular roles.


With our new feature, “Walk the Talk,” we hope that the game-like page spread will suggest more ways that instructors and students can incorporate more simulation and role play in the process of learning to become more effective readers, researchers, and writers. Although the board games we show are designed with a single path, we know that the process of composing often branches in many directions. And often new directions for communication and publication can emerge over time.


For example, in Understanding Rhetoric we showed part of a research paper written by a student who had traveled to a university archive and then to the Japanese American National Museum to understand how her family members had created traditional crafts from recycled materials in the Poston internment camp during World War II.  Recently the Smithsonian Museum of American History opened a new exhibit called Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II that included artifacts similar to the bird ornaments produced by her grandparents. The exhibit explains that “to combat the boredom of their forced leisure, many inmates learned new skills through classes taught by fellow prisoners.” Today that student’s research journey might have included more kinds of online research.



The phrase “walk the walk” suggests an admonition in favor of doing rather than saying or showing rather than telling, since it is generally opposed to “talk the talk” in colloquial English. To walk a walk is to reenact a vivid experience and to follow closely in someone’s footsteps in the manner of simulation rather than representation. By asking students to “walk the talk” we demonstrate that rhetoric mixes doing and saying, showing and telling, and performing and composing. You might also ask students to “talk the walk” as they look at the trajectories of the writing process and critically reflect about the paths not taken.

Today’s featured blogger is Andrew Hoffman, author of Monsters: A Bedford Spotlight Reader.

One of the clichés about today’s students is that they are visual learners. While that’s certainly not true for all of our students, many do seem glued to their screens – smartphones, tablets, or laptops. This orientation to visual learning can make it difficult when instructors such as myself want them to encounter monsters (the theme of my composition course and my book) in text-based materials.


Fortunately, with the use of Monsters as a textbook in the classroom, I can supplement the written word with video. Hollywood – as well as other international film capitals – has made hundreds, if not thousands, of horror and monster movies. In all likelihood, most students’ experiences with monsters have been significantly shaped by their encounters with them in movies, television programs, or even videogames. In my classroom, typically only a minority of students are readers of horror, science fiction, or mystery stories. I suspect this is true for most other instructors.


That’s why I like to bring video into my classroom. I teach in so-called “smart classrooms” that come equipped with computers and projection systems. The computers give me access to the Internet. That’s where the fun begins. I use YouTube clips, either trailers or scenes, to enhance the texts that are in Monsters, and also create new directions for exploration into the whole question of how monsters are present in our imaginations, our lives, our culture, our history, and in the larger world around us. I prepare for class ahead of time by going online to YouTube where I look for videos. I open up multiple Web pages to make them easily available for me during class time.


For example, if I want the class to discuss Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (a brief selection is in Chapter 1 of Monsters), I would likely use a trailer of the 1931 version starring Boris Karloff as the Creature.  This is the prototypical depiction, made popular with sequels, pop culture versions in television shows, commercials, and print ads, not to mention innumerable Halloween costume knock-offs. Then, I might show a scene from the 1994 version, starring Robert DeNiro as the Creature. This version was intended to be closer to Mary Shelley’s original story; students are often surprised to see that the Creature speaks – and speaks quite well at that.



I might then quote a passage from Shelley’s novel in which the Creature engages in sophisticated contemplations. Read, for example, from Shelley’s novel at Volume II, Chapter VIII, to show how the Creature speaks. (One witty student suggested that the Creature “sounds just like an English professor”!) This can open a door to a discussion about the nature of monsters than can speak versus those that do not. (Which are more frightening? Why?)  We then re-examine the question of what actually makes a monster a monster (and helps prepare students for a discussion of the human monster later in Monsters, Chapter 5).


I find that in the classroom, looking at different film adaptations of the same work can give rise to interesting discussions about author intent, audience (including how audience expectations change over time), and theme. The encounter with both text and video provides a useful opportunity to challenge students to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each medium in storytelling. The results are often rewarding: students are usually surprised to hear the Creature speak, and once they start thinking about the potential messages that lie within different portrayals of the Frankenstein story, they can come up with deeper, more probing analyses not only of the story but its connection to today’s world, and how we communicate messages. This can lead to broader discussions of today’s monsters, both fictional and real.      


Since new movies, television shows, videogames, and other forms of video-based entertainment seem to produce new conceptions of monsters at a staggering rate, I’ve decided that if I can’t beat them, I’ll join them. You should try it, too.



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


Our students are often participants in multiple social media networks—Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, and the like—but one thing they all see, regardless of platform, is a plethora of memes. Memes of all kinds have become a central part of daily reading for our students, so it’s time we start acknowledging them in the classroom.


Wiggins and Bowers (2014) argue for the significance of studying memes as digital artifacts:


Second, memes as artifacts highlight their social and cultural role on the new media landscape. Whereas a cultural artifact offers information about the culture that creates and uses it (Watts, 1981), a social artifact informs us about the social behavior of those individuals or groups which produce it (Wartofsky, 1979). Memes as artifacts possess both cultural and social attributes as they are produced, reproduced, and transformed to reconstitute the social system. In practical terms, the memetic social system is reconstituted when members of participatory digital culture use rules and resources of meme creation in the reproduction of further iterations of a given meme. (p. 6)


If students are to be participants in emerging digital spaces, they must study and learn the “rules and resources” of primary texts within these spaces.



To talk about memes as digital artifacts, to look at memes as objects of study, and to repurpose existing memes or create new memes as a mode of expression and reflection for students talking about their lives as writers.





1. Ask students to reflect on their past experiences with memes, and use this information to spark a class discussion about what memes are, which memes survive and why, how they become popular, and how they’re used in multiple rhetorical situations, including social media, text messages, and advertisements.


It may be helpful to do a “close read” of a few popular memes that have withstood the test of time and the internet. These examples might include:




This meme typically highlights personal reflections that are relatable to a wide audience. Later iterations of the meme are self-referential, showing how quickly these texts evolve and their trajectory.



Condescending Wonka


This meme and its countless iterations are useful for discussing how memes often become political and appropriated for argumentation purposes.



Salt Bae


Variations on this popular meme demonstrate how interpretations of the visual and its tone change based on the various authors/editors captions.


2. Partner students up to interview each other about their writing processes: what they do, what has worked for them, what they struggle with. The goal is to have an honest conversation, but prompt questions can be helpful. The following questions have been useful for my classes in the past when reflecting on the ways in which they write:

  • What kinds of tools do you use when writing?  Do you handwrite, use a computer, or use other media to compose or brainstorm? Why? 
  • What place does revision have in your writing process?  Do you tend to write several drafts or just one?  Have you always written this way?  Why or why not?
  • Do you consider writing to be a solo act?  Why or why not?  If you don’t, who do you generally ask to get involved?  Why?  At what stage of the process? 
  • How much time, if any, do you spend thinking or prewriting?  Does this vary with different assignments?  Why or why not? 
  • How do you react emotionally when writing an essay?  Why do you think you react this way? 
  • What challenges do you face as a writer?  Do you think that you can overcome these challenges?  Why or why not?  If so, how do you think these challenges can be resolved? 


Students take notes and prompt with questions to elicit detail and keep their partners talking.


3. Partners look over the notes that were taken and identify a meme-able emotion or challenge during their writing process. Based on the previous class discussion about what makes an effective meme, students should prioritize ideas that may be relatable to the class, to first-year composition students, or writers in general. You might describe the goal as creating a meme to make their classmates respond, “literally me rn.”


Multiple meme-generators available online for free, including Students can also easily use PowerPoint create their own memes using their own images and text options.


4. Share memes with the class, have some laughs, and talk about how the memes capture relatable reflections, stereotypes, and revelations about writing. Students might also talk about how the image and text interact with each other to communicate meaning beyond the words themselves.



This assignment helps students think and talk about digital literacy as they see it every day of their online lives. In studying memes as digital artifacts, students can see how visual and textual elements of memes work in conjunction to respond and adapt to current events, different discourse communities, and multiple rhetorical situations. Reflecting on their own experiences with writing, as well as learning about other writers’ experiences, helps to create a writers’ community in the classroom and to dispel the “lonely writer” stereotype.



Wiggings, B. E., & Bowers, G. B. (2014). Memes as genre: A structurational analysis of the memescape. New Media & Society, 1-21. doi:10.1177/1461444814535194

We are surrounded by light, yet we live in darkness.


With internet access, we all have the opportunity to wander in a global library that dwarfs the collections at any of the schools or universities where we happen to teach. We can pursue our own versions of independent research; listen to lectures by the world’s greatest thinkers; wander the Louvre and the Uffizi; visit Jane Goodall’s research lab in Tanzania; study the devastation in Syria from a drone’s eye view; read reports on the melting in Antarctica; learn more about the history of relations between North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan. We can drill down to information at the sub-atomic level and dolly all the way back to take in the view of our troubled, little planet as it appears from the space station.


We can do this, but as we kick off another school year, our students find themselves swimming to class through a pestilent sea of misinformation, foolishness, and principled idiocy. Houston is underwater in a brew of toxic waste, but how much do our students know about the consequences of this disaster? Is any part of their education preparing them to think about multi-variant problems that have no solutions? North Korea has just detonated a hydrogen bomb more powerful than the ones we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What do our students know about nuclear warfare’s past? Is any part of their required curriculum preparing them to think about history as unsettled? In some places, as our students move across the quad, driverless cars pass in the distance. Will any of the classes our students take explore the possibility of a jobless future?


In our writing classrooms, we have the means at our disposal to bridge the gap between what education has traditionally offered students and what kind of thinking it will take to address the most pressing problems of our time. We live in a sloganeering time under a broken political system that is defined by an antagonism towards expertise. We can work against the zeitgeist’s idealization of the simpleton by cultivating the engagement with complexity in our classrooms. We can eschew assignments that require students to argue first and think later. We can slow things down so that our students can practice attentiveness, so that they can begin to see details that are invisible to the distracted, so that they have time to reflect, to rethink, to reimagine.


“I don’t know enough to say.” “I’d need to do some more research before I could hazard an opinion.” When my students start making statements of this kind in class and in their writing, I know that we’re making progress. Real learning begins with the recognition of one’s own ignorance. We help our students most when we help them practice responding to this recognition with curiosity, when we help them to see that “I don’t know” is the beginning of an exploration into what can be known for certain and what can only ever be known in a qualified way.


Next: On the Re-enlightenment.

Jack Solomon

They're Ba-ack!

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Sep 14, 2017

Creepy clowns are back, and Hollywood is counting on them to deliver big box office after what appears to have been a slow summer for the movie industry—at least according to the L. A. Times.  I've visited this territory before in this blog, but between the recent release of It, the cinematic version of the Stephen King novel by the same name, and all the recent hoopla over Insane Clown Posse and their "Juggalo" followers, I thought it would merit a second look.


If you've never heard of Insane Clown Posse, and think that Juggalos must be some sort of children's breakfast cereal, you're forgiven.  This is one of those many corners of popular culture that, somehow, young folks always seem to be in on, but which tends to be under the radar for the rest of us.  Not that Insane Clown Posse is anything new: they're a rap act that has been around since 1989, specializing in a genre called "horror core"—think Marilyn Manson meets Twisty the Clown.  And Juggalos are horror-core fans that follow performers like Insane Clown Posse around and hold mass participation events of their own—think Gothicised Deadheads in creepy clown suits at a Trekkie convention.


So what is it with It, and all this clown stuff?  What is the significance of this fad that appears to be edging into a trend?  Well, to begin with, it's less than sixty shopping days till Halloween, so that's part of the explanation—according to the First Law of Popular Culture (which I have just invented): viz., A fad that has made money will continue to be milked for more money until it is obliterated by a new fad that makes it look hopelessly outdated while retaining its essential appeal.  Applied to the present instance, we might say that just as zombies flocked in where vampires began to fear to tread a few years ago, creepy clown stock appears to be rising now that zombies are beginning to look rather old hat.  But is there anything more to it all?


In attempting to widen the semiotic system in which we can situate the creepy clown phenomenon in order to interpret it, I've found myself considering the peculiar similarities between the Juggalos of today and the Skinheads of yore.  Interestingly, both have working-class origins, along with highly stylized fashion codes and preferences for certain kinds of music (of course, this is true for just about any popular cultural youth movement).  More significantly, both have divided into what might be called malignant and benign camps.  That is to say, one set of Juggalos is at least accused of having the characteristics of a street gang, while the other appears to be as harmless as run-of-the-mill cosplayers.  Similarly, while the classic Skinhead liked to toy around with neo-Nazi and other fascist displays, an offshoot of the movement—sometimes referred to as "anti-racist" Skinheads—has adopted the fashion-and-music tastes (more or less) of fascistical Skinheads while embracing an anti-fascist ideology. 


All this gets me thinking, because if we expand the system we can find two other popular cultural trends that the creepy clown phenomenon—along with its Juggalo cohorts—shares with the Skinheads: an obsession with costumed role playing mixed with a fascination with violence (even if only in play), whether in the form of horror (Juggalos) or of hob-nailed mayhem (Skinheads).  In this respect (costume drama-cum-cruelty), we may as well include Game Of Thrones in the system, for here too we find elaborate costuming wound round a mind-numbing level of violence.  It's as if Harry Potter grew up to become a warlord.


Well, so what?  If popular culture appears to be filled with elaborate expressions of violent cosplay, it's just play-pretend isn't it, a distraction from the horrors, or boredom, of everyday life—what Freud called "civilization and its discontents?" And Stephen King is hardly alone in making a fortune off the perennial appeal of Grand Guignol.


But then I start thinking about the violence-obsessed costume drama that took place on the campus of the University of Virginia, where khaki-clad and polo shirt sporting crowds of young men marched torches in hand in a studied recreation of Hitler's brown-shirt demonstrations.  Was this some sort of political cosplay, a "let's play at Nazis" display for those in the crowd who weren't "official" members of the Klan and the American Nazi Party?  I really don't know.  I'm not sure that anyone knows just how many genuine Nazis there are in the country, as compared with the play actors who are getting a kick out of trolling their classmates.  But playing at horror has a way of familiarizing it, of moving it from the fringe to the center, and I can only hope that we haven't gotten to the point where the line between play-pretend and deadly-earnest has become so blurred that the true horrors may descend upon us.

Andrea A. Lunsford

Writing to Connect

Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Sep 14, 2017


The following message was written by Professor Jenn Fishman from Marquette, who was my research partner in the Stanford Study of Writing. Jenn expresses so beautifully the aims of that study, which began shortly after 9/11/2001, and of our deep belief in the power of writing to connect us to others. 


Jenn has given me permission to post her message here and I do so with gratitude. 


In early September, 2001, I was a graduate student and a member of the Stanford Study of Writing research team. At that time, we were preparing to recruit a cohort of entering students for a 5-year longitudinal study of college writing. Members of the Stanford Class of 2005, including the 189 first-year students who joined us, were among the first travelers after the attacks. Since Stanford is on the quarter system, many needed to fly or drive significant distances to reach campus on time for orientation. While all study participants completed surveys and contributed examples of their writing over the next 5 years, a small group also agreed to be interviewed by us annually. Sandy, the student whose reflection is attached to this message, was among that group. 


For me, remembering the confluence of events 16 years ago underscores the importance of writing in the face of tragedy, both in the moment and in reflection years later. As Hurricane Irma wreaks destruction on Florida and Hurricane Jose gathers force; as everyone affected by Hurricane Harvey, the recent earthquake in Mexico, and unprecedented flooding across South Asia works to rebuild their lives; as changing US immigration policies threaten thousands of DREAMers including Marquette's own, I hope we can help students find both refuge and agency in their own and others' writing. 


I share Sandy's words with her permission.

A reflection on starting college immediately after 9/11


Written by Sandy*, a participant in the Stanford Study of Writing and a member of the Stanford Class of 2005. Shared by Jenn Fishman with permission.


September 11th was a Tuesday. I was wrapping up my summer job at my dad's office, making plans to drive from SoCal to Stanford for freshman orientation on September 21st. I was scared - everybody was. That day, I didn't know if all of America was going to blow up; I didn't know if Stanford would start on schedule. But Stanford did, and my dad and I drove north the next week.


We stopped in Sacramento to spend a day rafting on the American River, before heading to Stanford. On September 20th, driving from Sacramento to Palo Alto, we stopped at a small seafood restaurant in Berkeley, CA. The TV was on in the bar, and everybody stopped eating when President Bush addressed Congress.


The President pointed his finger to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda that night, as well as to the Taliban in Afghanistan. He announced the new Department of Homeland Security. He said, "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." He said we would fight the "War on Terror," and that it would have "decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion." I realized this meant we would go to war; I was scared.


Freshman orientation was a whirlwind. I remember sitting on the quad hearing a university official speak about the attacks and what this meant for Stanford. I remember this person talking about Stanford's commitment to diversity and against racism. In less than two weeks, mass racial profiling of young Muslim men had already begun.


School started and the days whizzed by. There was so much to take in that it was hard to think about the world beyond Stanford. I wanted to get involved in journalism, so I found Stanford's radio station, KZSU. At the News Department's first meeting, I invented my own assignment. I decided to attend a Muslim prayer vigil in the courtyard of Old Union. I was proud that the station loaned me brand-new recording equipment. I sat at Old Union during the vigil, wondering about the nature of Muslim American communities and what terrorist organizations actually were, and fearing for my fellow students about the racism that they would encounter.


Four years later, I sat in the Quad again, but this time, I was graduating. The student spoke of entering as a freshman right after September 11th. I knew this had colored my college experience, but it was hard for me to imagine what college would have been like if September 11th hadn't happened.


Now, two and a half years out of college and almost done with law school, I'm beginning to get more perspective. Attending college in the shadow of September 11th made me deeply aware of cultural differences and inspired me to search for ways to bridge them. However, now I also realize how much government propaganda I bought into at the time, for instance, thinking that there was at least some sense to a war in Iraq.


It's taken me over two years of studying law to begin to get a sense of how much the government has used September 11th as an excuse to violate our civil liberties in ways that have no bearing on the "War Against Terror." Now that more time has passed, I've awoken, and I want to be an immigration lawyer and immigrants' rights activist, so that our country treats its newcomers decently.


*  Sandy (a pseudonym) was a member of the cohort we interviewed between 2001 and 2006 for the Stanford Study of Writing. Her experiences as a college writer are also referenced in "Performing Writing, Performing Literacy" (CCC 57.2).


Sandy's reflection exemplifies using writing to process significant events and connect with others. How have you encouraged your students to use writing to connect?


Credit: Pixaby Image 2142402 by joergwunderlich, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


I am teaching a section of first-semester composition with a 2-credit corequisite, designed specifically for students from non-English speaking backgrounds. I approached the development of my syllabus and assignments in a Writing about Writing (WAW) framework, but this semester I am including a stronger focus on information literacy and source synthesis, based in part on my college’s current Quality Enhancement Plan focus (QEP).


I am presenting source-based writing to my students this term following Joseph Bizup’s 2008 article, “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing.”  The premise of Bizup’s framework is that students need to consider source-based composition rhetorically, with a vocabulary that characterizes how sources function in texts. As Bizup puts it, “We should adopt terms that allow us to name, describe, and analyze the different ways writers use their materials on the page, or equivalently, the various postures towards their materials that writers adopt” (75). Bizup uses the acronym BEAM to illustrate four ways of handling source material in a text. Sources can serve as background material (B), exhibits for analysis or interpretation (E), arguments for evaluation, rebuttal, or extension (A), or methods that frame research or provide a particular vocabulary for it (M).


In my course, students will be researching and analyzing a discourse community as a course-long project. Their research will lead them to background sources, exhibits, and arguments. I will be providing sources that give them a method and vocabulary for their research.


Our first major reading assignment also serves as the students’ initial exposure to the first of these method sources: James Gee’s 1989 article, “Literacy, Linguistics, and Discourse: Introduction.”  This essay is challenging in terms of vocabulary, but in our corequisite structure, students have additional time to work through these lexical difficulties. I have found that they engage quickly with the concept of secondary Discourses and dominant Discourses—noting their own struggles not only to learn English but to understand various English Discourses (in Gee’s sense) from which they are excluded or in which they aspire to participate.


The first significant writing assignment is a framed literacy narrative: students discuss their own reading or writing development through the conceptual lens of Discourse, as defined by Gee. Many of these students have never been required to reflect on their own experiences through such a conceptual framework, nor have they been shown how to introduce a method source and apply it effectively in their own writing. Preparation for this assignment, therefore, has included practice in summary, paraphrase, quotation, and consideration of rhetorical context.


I have just finished reading students’ first drafts, and I am astounded at their stories and their efforts to frame them in Gee’s terms, however clumsy those first attempts might be. And to my surprise, many of my students selected a second method source from our textbook, Roxane Gay’s “Peculiar Benefits”: they interpreted their literacy stories not only in terms of Discourse (Gee) but in terms of privilege, as defined by Gay.


In previous courses, I have asked students to write literacy narratives and compare their experiences to those of other writers whose literacy stories we have read. But this is the first time I’ve asked them to frame their narratives using a method source, and I am pleased with the outcome. We have a basis now for talking about method sources as we move to the next phase of the project, which will require different types of source use.


I wish I could share their stories, and especially their understanding of Discourse and privilege, with lawmakers who will now determine the fate of many of my students—those who currently have DACA protections but may lose them, given the President’s recent rescission of that executive order. My students do not see themselves as victims, as those without privilege, even though they have been excluded in many cases from participation in dominant Discourses and positions of power. They see themselves as privileged, simply because they are in the classroom with the opportunity to learn. I am honored to be teaching—and learning—with them.


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Black Lives Matter by Tony Webster on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licenseLast week, I attended After Charlottesville: Having Difficult Conversations in the Classroom, a workshop open to everyone in the university community that resulted in an active conversation about what we can and can’t talk about in the classroom and who can and can’t have a platform for speech at the university.


The Guidelines for Discussing Incidents of Hate, Bias, and Discrimination, from the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, were shared in the session to provide ways to be proactive about the issues of hate, as well as suggestions for what to do if something unanticipated happens.


As my continuing focus on discussing racism, I am outlining three more scenarios that ask students to confront racism through discussions of ethics. I provided three scenarios last week and also discussed a moral compass technique that helps students discuss ethical scenarios in more nuanced ways.


The Scenarios

  • Your company sells a variety of canned food products under the brand name Old South. The product labels and advertising depict pre-Civil War plantation scenes. A recent social media campaign is demanding that your company eliminate the racist images used in these product labels and advertisements. The company CEO has decided to do “what’s best for business.” He doesn’t believe that the images are problematic since they are based on historical drawings, but he is worried about the impact on sales. The CEO has asked the marketing department to rebrand, but has given them at least a year to make the necessary changes, including redesign, focus group tests, soft market launches, and, ultimately, a highly-publicized national launch. Your manager has asked you to write a press release that explains the company’s plan to customers and protesters. The CEO demands, however, that the company neither apologize or admit any problems with the current designs. He believes that doing so could cause customers to avoid the product until the redesign is launched. Is the CEO making an ethical decision? How would you write the press release?
  • You need to write a quarterly update to stockholders and the public about the company’s financial performance and current initiatives. Your manager interviewed the CEO for some comments in support of the information in the update, and gives the audio recording to you. The CEO is Japanese, and her English is not perfect. You listen to the recording and note a number of errors. In some places in the recording, her accent is strong, and you cannot determine what she is saying. The update must be released by 8AM tomorrow, so there is no time for back-and-forth with the CEO to talk about corrections. Rather than including what she said in the interview verbatim, you have corrected some minor errors and completely rephrased other comments to state what you think she means. You release the quarterly update to the public without having the CEO review your changes to her statements. Was your decision to rewrite the CEO’s comments ethical? Are there other ways that the situation might have been handled?
  • One of the employees in your department has a racist tattoo on his right arm. It is usually covered by his shirt, but recently he had on a short-sleeved polo shirt, which allowed half of the tattoo to show. Several employees noticed the tattoo and reported to HR that they found it offensive. HR asked you to tell the employee to cover the tattoo with a bandaid. To ensure that the issue does not come up again, you and managers from other units write a policy document that covers problematic tattoos—whether racist, sexist, or offensive in some other way. You and the other managers create a policy that forbids showing any tattoos, regardless of what is shown in the image. Tattoos are to be covered fully by clothing, a bandaid, or makeup. There is strong opposition to the policy. Many employees have tattoos that are in no way problematic (e.g., stars, flowers, Harley Davidson-themed, military logos). They say that they are being discriminated against just for having tattoos. You and the other managers stand by the policy, because you do not want to be in a position where you must judge whether tattoos are acceptable. Have you and the team of managers made the right decision? Are there any other ways to address the situation?


Next week I will share the final four scenarios for confronting racism with discussions of ethics. If you have suggestions for a scenario, questions to ask, or an idea to share, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.


Credit: Black Lives Matter by Tony Webster on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license.

Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.


As I write, pictures of the flooded streets of Houston are leading news broadcasts throughout the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and more rain is predicted. The power of visual rhetoric is clear as certain photos go viral on social media: a fireman carrying two small children to safety through waist-high water, another catching a few minutes of sleep with his boots still on, water covering portions of the first floor of the world-famous M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, people carrying their pets as they wade through the flooded streets of their neighborhoods. There is scene after scene of people helping people—first responders of all sorts, the National Guard, the “Cajun Navy.” One photo shows private vehicles towing boats lined up to go to work helping rescue the stranded. A television station loses power, and a lone reporter keeps broadcasting from the street outside, taking time to direct first responders to a man trapped in his truck nearby.


At this point, the flooding is catastrophic, but we seem to have learned some things from Katrina because the rescue efforts seem to be more organized. An iconic picture from that disaster showed seventy-four-year-old Edgar Hollingsworth, a black man, being carried from his home fourteen days after the hurricane, aided by rescuers male and female, white and Hispanic. An iconic pair of pictures that appeared in an earlier edition of Elements of Argument showed a young black man carrying food through the flood after “looting a grocery store,” while another showed a young white couple doing the same after “finding bread and soda from a local grocery store.” Yahoo!News had to issue an apology for the suggested racial bias.  Today I saw on Facebook the first photo of looters taking advantage of the opportunity offered by Harvey. I am reminded of Guy-Uriel Charles’s essay “Stop Calling Quake Victims Looters,” written in response to a recent earthquake in Haiti. A Haitian American, Charles questions our right to define as looters those who following a natural disaster take needed food from a store when there is no one there to pay even if the banks were open to get money. Contrast the man whose picture I use to illustrate that essay, who is carrying a large carton of infant formula, with those in the picture I saw today taking armloads of clothes still on hangers. (Crudely painted signs following Katrina read, “U Loot, We Shoot.”)


I’m sure that the stress that comes with days of no electricity and the loss of homes and property will bring out more of the negative side of human nature, but as Texas cities and towns—and maybe some in Louisiana—begin coping with the catastrophe that is Hurricane Harvey, images of people of all ages and races and vocations helping each other has been an encouraging contrast to all of the recent ones of Americans facing off in anger and violence across political barriers.


Credit to Lt. Zachary West of the Texas Military Department posted on Flickr 8/27/17 via Creative Commons

Business Meeting by thetaxhaven on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 licenseDuring the next few weeks, I will continue my series on racism in the classroom by sharing 10 scenarios that confront racism through discussions of ethics. The teaching strategy for these class discussions is simple:


  1. Students are presented with a scenario.
  2. They decide on their ethical stance on the issue in the scenario.
  3. They examine a summary of responses from their class.
  4. They discuss the various stances and work toward deeper exploration of the issue and, if possible, consensus on how to deal with the situation.


In step two, students choose their ethical stance using a strategy that I outlined two years ago for Discussing Ethics Scenarios in Professional Writing, though the strategy would work for any course. Using this strategy, decisions are chosen on a digital compass. As explained in the Learning & Leading with Technology article “Developing Ethical Direction” by Mike S. Ribble and Gerald D. Bailey, students choose among these 8 options:


  • Right
  • I am not sure it’s wrong
  • Depends on the situation
  • As long as I don’t get caught
  • Wrong
  • What’s the big deal?
  • It’s an individual choice
  • I don’t know


To simplify the process of tallying responses for the course, have students respond to the scenarios with a Google Form, or use one of the online polling tools, such as Poll Everywhere, SurveyMonkey, or Top Hat. Before beginning class discussion of the scenarios, prepare students for the issues that you will introduce. You can use the ideas I shared in my post last month, Preparing to Explore Racism and Racist Events in the Classroom.


The Scenarios

  1. You are in a meeting with the marketing team. Your manager (a black woman), her manager (a white man), and four other people (2 women and 2 men) are present. During the meeting, whenever your manager makes an assertion about the best direction for the team to take, her manager interrupts her or talks over her. Several times, he stops her and asks one of the other men in the room to clarify or explain the ideas. Your manager is frustrated, but remains silent to avoid confrontation with her own manager. Is your manager making the right choice? After making your decision, consider what actions you might take in the meeting.
  2. You are joining colleagues from the team of developers (4 men and 3 women) you manage for a barbecue on Friday to celebrate the launch of the program you have been working on for the past year. You arrive about 30 minutes late, because of a meeting with Accounting, and notice that everyone seems to already be in the backyard, laughing and having fun. You walk out the back door and scan the yard. You immediately notice that Haruka, a Japanese-American woman on the team, is not present. You approach Jeff, who owns the house and has taken command of the grill. You ask him, “Hey, looks like nearly everyone is here. When will Haruka get here? I want to share some feedback from Accounting with everyone.” Jeff looks a bit puzzled, but explains, “Oh, we never invite her. She’s so quiet. Makes everyone uncomfortable. She probably wouldn’t come anyway.” Is Jeff’s decision right or wrong? As the manager, how should you handle the situation?
  3. You are in an all-employee meeting of the food production company you work for. Every division provides an update on current projects and forecasts future projects and issues to consider. The Warehouse division, led by Sherry, has been working on a service project to provide food for those at the local family shelter. To share their work with everyone, they have developed a two-minute video that shows employees from the division unloading contributions along with testimonials from the shelter staff and people temporarily living there. About half-way through the video, a male person in the meeting room audibly makes a derogatory comment about the people living in the shelter. The comment includes racial stereotypes and a specific ethnic slur. Sherry looks unsure what to do and fidgets a bit as the video plays out. Once it finishes, she asks everyone to congratulate her team on their hard work and then sits down while employees applaud. Asked about her decision not to address the derogatory comment, Sherry explains that she had no way of knowing who made the comment, so it was best to just ignore it. Did Sherry make the right decision? If you were in Sherry’s position, what would you do? If you were sitting in the meeting, would you do anything? Why or why not?

Customizing the Scenarios

I’ve written the scenarios for use in a Business Writing or Technical Writing course. By changing the basics of the scenarios, you can convert them for use in another class, like first year composition.


For #1, change the scenario to a meeting of a small group working on a group presentation. Drop the references to managers, and talk about group members instead. To make the scenario easier to talk about, add specific first names. Obviously choose names that aren’t members of the course.


For #2, again, change from colleagues from the development team to members of a small group that is celebrating submission of a major project.


For #3, rather than an all-employee meeting, change the situation to a class meeting. Rather than divisions, have small groups, which are presenting their projects to the class. Sherry becomes a student from one of the groups.


Final Thoughts

Ethical scenarios like those above and those I’ll share in the next weeks can yield strong class conversations. While students may have strong convictions about the situations, there are rarely easy answers. Students must weigh alternatives and negotiate with one another to arrive at consensus.


Next week, I’ll be back with more scenarios. In the meantime, if you have any questions or want to share a scenario of your own, please leave me a comment below.




Credit: Business Meeting by thetaxhaven on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

People hold up signs supporting immigrants and immigration in America


When the Beach Boys released their version of “California Dreaming” in 1986, singing “All the leaves are brown, and the skies are grey. . . .” they weren’t thinking of California today. It’s not winter, for one thing, but late summer-about-to-be-fall. But many of the leaves on our still drought-troubled trees are already brown, and the sky is grey from haze and smoke from forest fires throughout California.


Of course, 1986 wasn’t such a great year for California either: Ronald Reagan, who as governor had presided over the decimation of the State’s vaunted university system, was president; the Challenger disaster occurred in January, and the Russian nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded in April—just for starters. So harking back to 1986 shouldn’t take us on a trip down nostalgia lane (though I should note that The Oprah Winfrey Show debuted that year and Miyazaki made the first Studio Ghibli film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, both great events in my book).


Still, it’s sobering to look back over three decades and see that in that year the Congress passed the 1986 Immigration and Reform Act. In summarizing the bill, Kurtis Mees writes that it


[G]ave unauthorized aliens the opportunity to apply and gain legal status if they met mandated requirements. The fate or status of all those who applied fell into the hands of “Designated Entities” and finally the U.S. Attorney General. Applicants had to prove that they lived and maintained a continuous physical presence in the U.S. since January 1st, 1982, possess a clean criminal record, and provide proof of registration within the Selective Service. Moreover, applicants had to meet minimal knowledge requirements in U.S. history, government and the English language or be pursuing a course of study approved by the Attorney General.


Sounds like a gain for immigrants, at first glance. The law did lead to green cards for two and a half million immigrants, many of them farm workers. But millions more were deemed ineligible—and so the “problem” continued to grow, as voices on the right called, incessantly, for stronger and stronger anti-immigration legislation.


Today we are caught in the same controversy, with an attorney general who is determined to roll back immigration and deport, deport, deport. While I had hoped that those in power today would exempt the “dreamers”—young people who signed up with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—on Tuesday, August 5, 2017, Jeff Sessions, arch foe of immigrants and immigration, announced that the program would be phased out, leaving some 800,000 young people—who have no criminal records but who have worked hard, gone to school, paid taxes, served in the military—completely vulnerable. We are in a time with more anti-immigrant sentiment in our government than perhaps any time since the 1920s, with little hope in sight that Congress will pass any sensible legislation to protect these dreamers as well as to establish rational, reasonable immigration reform.


We here in California, with the largest number of DACA recipients, are still trying to dream, however: the governor, many mayors, and most university presidents have said they will do everything in their power to protect those who signed up for DACA, and people up and down this long, long state are in the streets protesting this latest insult to our democracy.


If you have not yet read former President Obama’s message regarding this issue, please do so on the Los Angeles Times website. It is a reasoned, responsible argument, understated in its eloquence, which offers an opportunity for a class discussion or assignment. Have students read President Obama’s statement and then compare it to Jeff Sessions’s announcement of the rescinding of DACA on the Washington Examiner, or look at the current president’s potentially self-contradictory tweets about the issue.


Ask students to look at the claims made and proof offered in support of each. Ask them to tease out the enthymemes and see if the assumptions on which they are based stand up to scrutiny. Ask them to do some research on possible legislation being proposed by congressional leaders and look carefully at who gains and who loses from it. Ask them to think about what it means to be an American.


In addition to our indigenous fellow citizens, we are a country of immigrants; many of our most important scientific findings, technological developments, and artistic achievements have been accomplished by immigrants—and I am certain there are many more advancements that will come our way from the 800,000 DACA youth.


So I refuse to give up this particular dream, even if the leaves are brown and the skies are grey.


CreditPixaby Image 2590766 by StockSnap, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Cover of the book Bad Ideas About WritingIf you teach writing, you have certainly heard scores of misconceptions about writing, like these:


  • America is Facing a Literacy Crisis 
  • Official American English is Best 
  • African American Language is not Good English 
  • Teaching Grammar Improves Writing
  • Formal Outlines are Always Useful
  • The Five-Paragraph Essay Transmits Knowledge
  • Machines can Evaluate Writing Well
  • Texting Ruins Students’ Grammar Skills
  • Anyone Can Teach Writing


Sometimes they’re uttered by administrators or repeated by politicians. You may hear them from colleagues in other departments who ask you for help. Occasionally you hear them from other writing teachers. Students parrot them, repeating what they have heard from family, parents, and their high school teachers. It’s possible that you may have even thought them yourself at some point.


The next time that you hear one of those misconceptions, head directly to Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball (co-author of Bedford/St. Martin’s Writer/Designer) and Drew M. Loewe, for a myth-busting counter-argument, ready to share with that misled colleague, administrator, or student. The collection includes over sixty essays, divided into eight categories ranging from “Bad Ideas About What Good Writing Is” to “Bad Ideas About Writing Teachers.” The text includes essays from a number of Bedford/St. Martin’s authors, including Elizabeth Wardle (Writing about Writing), Susan Naomi Bernstein (Teaching Developmental Writing), and Beth L. Hewett (The Online Writing Conference, and Reading to Learn and Writing to Teach).


Elizabeth Losh, co-author of Bedford/St. Martin’s Understanding Rhetoric, praises Bad Ideas About Writing, explaining that it “offers its readers a wealth of good ideas for countering the dangerous myths, harmful stereotypes, unfounded folklore, romantic delusions, and fanciful thinking that too often surround questions about how best to improve written expression.”


Bad Ideas About Writing provokes discussion and debate as it meets each misconception with constructive criticism and related research on writers, writing, and how writing is taught. As Ball and Loewe, the editors, explain in the book’s introduction, “We hope that the collection is a conversation-starter, not a conversation-stopper, and we hope that it provides a catalog of support for productive conversations about how and why to stop the bad ideas about writing and start the good”—and that’s why I think it’s a good idea to download this book!


Bad Ideas About Writing is published in whole by the Digital Publishing Institute at WVU Libraries and is free to download.