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ask first by Robert Jack 啸风 Will on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licenseHere is a typical scenario that might be used on campus for a discussion about resources on and responses to sexual harassment:

A student in your course tells you that a member of her writing group for the course has been making inappropriate gestures and comments to her for several weeks. She reports that last night the group had a meeting at the library. After the meeting, everyone split up. She went to the study area on the third floor. About five minutes after settling in at a table to do some work, she realized that the problem group member was watching her from the stacks on the other side of the room. She says that she felt uncomfortable, so she gathered up her belongings and moved to a different area on the 4th floor. Unfortunately, she was followed and was being watched again. A few minutes later, the other student blocked her in the corner and tried to grope her. She fought back and got away, but now she is reluctant to come to class and does not want to remain in the writing group. What resources can you suggest to help her? How do you handle the situation?

This scenario works for a discussion on campus. The problem arises when this kind of scenario is the only kind that is discussed. You see, academic communities often have limited vision when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment, abuse, and violence. It may not be the issue that first comes to mind, however.


What’s the Issue?

Let me share an excerpt from Virginia Tech’s “What to Do if You Have Been Assaulted in the Past 72 Hours” instructions (scroll down to the last section on the page):


  • You can have a PERK exam even if you do not make a police report. You will not be responsible for the cost of the exam.
  • If you think you want to make a report to the police, the hospital will do a forensic exam to collect evidence, and can then do a drug screen if you think you may have been drugged.
  • The hospital will contact the Women’s Resource Center of the NRV and an Emergency Advocate will meet you at the hospital to provide support and information. These services are free.
  • If you wish to contact the police at one of the numbers above both the Women’s Resource Center and the Women’s Center at Virginia Tech have advocates who will go with you to make the report.


Those details are presumably just fine for the student in the scenario above. They don’t make sense for every student who may want to report an assault, however. Let me explain why by beginning with some statistics on sexual assault. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports the following details on their Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics page:


  • “Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted.” (Department of Justice)
  • “1 out of every 10 rape victims are male.” (Department of Justice)
  • “21% of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18% of non-TGQN females, and 4% of non-TGQN males.” (Association of American Universities)
  • “4.3% of active duty women and 0.9% of active duty men experienced unwanted sexual contact in FY14.” (Department of Defense)


The RAINN page on Campus Sexual Violence: Statistics states, “Among undergraduate students, 23.1% of females and 5.4% of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.”


Do you see the issue now? If the student looking for help is one of the 5.4% of undergraduate male students who experiences rape or sexual assault, does support from the Women’s Resource Center and the Women’s Center at Virginia Tech make sense? What if you are one of the 21% of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) students? The issue, of course, is that far too many of the campus resources available discuss sexual harassment, assault, and violence as if they only happen to women.


This limited vision ignores any student who does not identify as a woman. As if being the victim of sexual assault is not traumatic enough on its own, these students are at least implicitly treated as if their experience couldn’t have happened. After all, there is no relevant suggestion for the support they will receive. Beyond what the absences in this policy say to male students, they suggest that we can only address the issue of sexual harassment with a binary definition of gender identity. We can do better.


Taking It to the Classroom

The first step to improving our campus discussion of sexual harassment may well be taking it to the classroom by going through the steps I discussed above:


  1. Begin by asking students to read a campus statement on sexual assault or harassment, like Virginia Tech’s “What to Do if You Have Been Assaulted in the Past 72 Hours.”
  2. Ask students to identify the audience and purpose for the instructions.
  3. Share the statistics on sexual assault from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
  4. Go back to the campus statement, and ask students to identify who counts and who is left out of the statement, relying on the statistics for support.
  5. Have students compose a document in response, such as one of the following:
    • Rewrite the statement to make it more inclusive.
    • Write individual letters or a group letter to the office on campus that is responsible for the campus resources and ask them to revise their materials to be more inclusive.
    • Write a class letter to the editor of the campus newspaper, outlining the issue and asking for action to revise the materials.
    • Create a campus campaign that calls for revision and/or outlines available resources and support for victims of sexual assault and harassment.
    • Have students dig through other, related statements and resources on the campus website, such as the materials on Title IX; and then ask students to report their findings to the class.
    • Ask students to research sexual assault and harassment on campus. Have students use their research to create infographics that communicate the information to readers. The infographics can be used as part of a campaign to improve the available resources on sexual assault and harassment.


Final Thoughts

Like several other posts I have shared recently, the idea for this post grew from my participation in an inclusive pedagogy cohort, but I have to admit that it’s a topic that has been simmering for a few years. I had not noticed the limited view of sexual assault on campus until I attended an employee orientation in 2013. As part of the sessions, a police officer came in to tell us all about what the women could do in case of violence. I’m not sure what the men in the room thought. I guess they were supposed to be taking notes on how to help damsels in distress.


I wasn’t amused, but I was too nervous about my new job to speak up. Now, not only am I willing to speak up, but I am also willing to ask students to speak up with me.


What issues inspire you to speak up on campus? How do you explore inclusive communities with students? Do you have ideas or questions about inclusive pedagogy? Please tell me in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.


Credit: ask first by Robert Jack 啸风 Will on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license


My first-year writing students and I both enjoy the topic of technology’s effects on language and communication, so I knew that I wanted to include this topic in my Bedford Spotlight Reader, Language Diversity and Academic Writing (LDAW, from here on). Unfortunately, what makes it a great topic for engaging students—constant change and up-to-the-minute currency—also makes it near impossible to do justice to in a textbook. I knew that any article about a specific technological change or language phenomenon was liable to be outdated before the book was even in print.


So I compromised: I included two articles—Tom Chatfield’s New Scientist column “OMG—It’s the Textual Revolution” and Naomi Baron’s Educational Leadership article “Are Digital Media Changing Language?”—that feel to me relatively timeless (to whatever degree that term can apply to the realm of technological change). They emphasize not specific technological developments so much as the general affordances and constraints of technology; they focus less on specific changes to language itself and more on general attitudes toward communication and change. In my experience, both articles serve as great jumping-off points for discussions that can pull in whatever tech or texting phenomenon is hot at the moment.


Right now, one of the most prominent players in the “language” of texting is emojis. Emojis are a particularly interesting phenomenon because they share many of the features of their alphanumeric textspeak predecessors while, at the same time, being decidedly more visual and less “language-like” (see McCulloch’s article linked below). They provide an excellent opportunity to reinforce general themes of language, such as the “in-group” nature of slang that Eble’s article introduces in LDAW Chapter 1, while also pushing us well beyond the basics of language change that are discussed in LDAW Chapter 3. (Even the word emoji itself is an interesting case of language evolution, as debates about its appropriate plural make clear.)

Interested in discussing the role of emojis in language and communication with your students? For the remainder of this post, I’ll offer a few emoji subtopics, with recommended readings, that I think can lead to fruitful discussion and writing.


Purposes of emoji use. The journal Computers in Human Behavior has published quite a few articles about emoji use in recent years. I find this journal’s articles great for first-year writing because they provide exposure to traditional academic research article structure but tend to be on the briefer side. I’ve taught one piece in particular, an analysis of common reasons for emoji use, in my own class alongside the Chatfield article in LDAW Chapter 3. The article emphasizes the meaning and conversational utility within emojis, making it a nice companion to Chatfield’s.


Miscommunication. Grouplens, a technology research lab at the University of Minnesota, has done some fascinating work on emoji-related miscommunication. As these researchers have found, different phones and operating systems often render the same emoji in quite different ways. For instance, a big grin with smiling eyes sent from a Google Nexus is received by an iPhone user as something more like a grimace. A quick, approachable summary of some of this research is on the Grouplens blog, and they’ve also posted a full scholarly research paper published by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.  


Emojis as a threat (or not) to language. As an “internet linguist,” Gretchen McCulloch researches recent developments in internet-influenced language. Her entire blog is worth a browse for articles that may interest your students. For an emoji discussion, I’m a fan of her article on The Toast titled “A Linguist Explains Emoji and What Language Death Actually Looks Like.” In it, McCulloch responds to the familiar worry that a recent technology trend is threatening the quality of writing (emojis being only the most recent culprit, of course, in a lineage of scapegoats that has included everything from text messaging abbreviations to inexpensive postal delivery and the decline of line engraving). McCulloch’s article makes an interesting companion to LDAW Chapter 3 readings like Robert MacNeil’s “English Belongs to Everybody”; students may hear echoes of MacNeil’s point that “experts who wish to ‘save’ the language may only discourage pleasure in it.” It also, with its discussion of “actual” language death, hearkens back to Romney’s Chapter 1 article about efforts to revive the Yurok language.


Have you found other emoji articles or resources? What other language and technology phenomena do you find interesting to discuss with students? I invite you to let me and the Bits community know in the comments.

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.


I often tell my first-year composition students that writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and neither do composition classes. With the current political climate and its reach into nearly every aspect of our lives, I, like other instructors, feel compelled to bring current events into the classroom, but I sometimes struggle with how to do it effectively, with balance, and with inclusivity.


As much as I’d love to spend all of our time talking about presidential tweets and examining the arguments for and against gun control legislation, I have a responsibility to be mindful of my limited face-to-face time with my class and to make sure that I’m covering the necessary curriculum to prepare my students for future coursework. So, when I do talk about current events in the classroom, which is fairly often, I try to do it in a way that connects directly to course topics and allows for viewing the situation from a new or different perspective.



The following activity and assignment provide an opening to talk about recent protests and their texts through the lens of visual rhetoric.


Recommended readings



1. Talk to students about visual rhetoric. Like most instructors, I like to build on previous conversations about the rhetorical triangle and rhetorical situations and apply those conversations to things like advertisements, photographs, and videos. We cover things like arrangement, font, typeface, and color, among other elements and concerns. Claudia Cortes’s “Color in Motion” video series is a fun way to start talking about pathos and color choices in visual texts.


2. Provide examples of protest posters, both recent and historical, and foster discussion in small or large groups. A simple Google search will yield hundreds of possible signs for discussion, and there are several curated lists, such as this one from The Washington Post, that you could assign students to read, as well. Discussion topics could include:

  • What is the purpose of a protest sign? Who is the audience?
  • What features cause some signs, especially in recent protests, to go “viral”?
  • Are there particular combinations of arrangement, font, color, etc. that are more effective than others in the context of protest signs?
  • Have the criteria for rhetorically effective protest signs changed over time? If so, how?
  • How does the creator allow the subject or content of the protest sign to influence the visual rhetorical elements of the sign? Do creators make different visual rhetorical choices based on the subject of the sign and/or type of protest?

    These are just a few questions to get your class started with visual rhetoric, but this area is rich with opportunities to talk about language, audience, and discourse communities. You can and should tailor the discussion for your class based on your curriculum, interests, and course materials.


3. Create a list of “best practices” for creating an effective protest sign in today’s political climate. The “think, pair, share” activity could work well for this: give students time to think and free write on their own, then ask them to share their observations in small groups or pairs, and bring the class together to compile a collaborative list.


4. Ask students to use the list that your class has compiled to create a protest sign. This could be accomplished in any number of ways or a combination of different strategies:

  • Students work individually on creating a protest sign about a cause that they’re personally passionate about.
  • Small groups of students are assigned a cause based on a course theme or previous class discussion, and they collaborate to choose a stance, slogan, and rhetorical approach to their shared sign.
  • Students use traditional poster board and markers to create, or they take advantage of more advanced digital programs like PowerPoint or Photoshop to create their sign.


5. Develop an opportunity to for students to share their protest signs and explain their rhetorical choices. One idea might involve setting up the physical signs around the classroom like a poster session at a conference and asking students to write a short explanation of rhetorical choices to accompany their signs. Students could visit their classmates’ signs, ask questions about their processes, and provide feedback about the rhetorical effectiveness of their products.



This activity and assignment showcase multimodal texts in a real-world situation with real-world consequences. While tired stereotypes about millennials might have one believe that they aren’t interested in civics (or anything besides themselves), the reality is that we have the privilege of working with a group of generally motivated, socially conscious young adults who have beliefs and values that they want to communicate in meaningful ways. Keeping this assignment firmly grounded in first-year composition teaching topics will provide a space for students to express themselves and pursue their passions, while maintaining a clear path toward meeting course objectives.



Image Credit: "Citation needed" by on Flickr.

Signs of Life in the USAThe arrival of the authors' copies of the ninth edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. prompts me to reflect here on the history of this—at least for Sonia Maasik and myself—life-changing project. So I will do something a little different this week, and return to the original purpose of the web-log, which was to write something along the lines of a traditional journal or diary entry rather than an interpretive essay—a remembrance of things past in this case.

 To begin with, Signs of Life did not begin its life as a textbook. Its origins lie in a book I wrote in the mid-1980s: The Signs of Our Time: Semiotics: The Hidden Messages of Environments, Objects, and Cultural Images (1988). That book was a product of pure contingency, even serendipity. I was seated at my departmental Displaywriter (an early word processor that was about the size of a piano and used eight inch truly floppy disks) completing my final draft of Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age (1988)—a technical critique of poststructural semiotics that proposed a new paradigm whose theoretical parameters underlie the applied semiotic lessons to be found in Signs of Life—when my department chair drifted by and casually asked me if I would like to talk to a local publisher whom he had met recently at a party and who was looking for someone to write a  non-academic book on semiotics for a non-academic audience. As a young professor, I was ready to jump at any book-publishing opportunity, and, having found myself doing a lot of spontaneous interpretations of the popular culture of the 1980s (especially of stuffed toys like Paddington Bear and the celebrity Bear series—anyone remember Lauren Bearcall?), I was ready with a book proposal in no time. I soon had a contract, an advance (with which I purchased an early Macintosh computer that didn't even have a hard drive—it still works), and a tight deadline to meet (that's how things work in the trade book world). And that's also how Discourse and Reference and The Signs of Our Time came to be published in the same year.


A few years later, Sonia discovered that composition instructors were using The Signs of Our Time as a classroom text, and I found that chapters from the book were being reprinted in composition readers (the first to do so was Rereading America 2/e). So Sonia had a brainstorm: having worked with Bedford Books on other projects, she suggested that we propose a new composition textbook to Bedford based upon The Signs of Our Time. Looking back, it looks like a pretty obvious thing to have done, but this was the early 1990s, and America was hotly embroiled in the academic version of the "culture wars"; not only was the academic study of popular culture still controversial, but no one had attempted to bring semiotics into a composition classroom before. Still, Chuck Christensen—the founder of Bedford Books—who was always on the lookout for something both daring and new, was interested. He also wanted to know if I could provide a one-page description of what semiotics was all about. So ordered, so done, and we had a contract for a composition reader that would combine a full writing instruction apparatus with an array of readings, alongside unusually long chapter introductions that would both explain and demonstrate the semiotic method as applied to American popular culture.


That part of the matter was unusually smooth. But there were bumps in the road on the way to completion. For instance, there was our editor's initial response to our first chapter submissions. Let's just say that he was not enamored of certain elements in my expository style. But thanks to a long long-distance phone call we managed to clear that up to our mutual satisfaction. And the good news was that Bedford really wanted our book. The bad news was that they wanted it published by January 1994—a good deal less than a year away and we were starting practically from scratch. It was published in January 1994 (just in time for the big Northridge earthquake that knocked my campus to the ground). I still don't know how Sonia and I did it (the fact that we said "yes" to Chuck's invitation to do another book—it became California Dreams and Realities—in that same January, giving us six months to do it this time, simply boggles my mind to this day, but, as I say, we were a lot younger then).


Well, all that was a quarter of a century ago. In that time we have improved upon every prior edition of Signs of Life, listening not only to the many adopters of the text who have reviewed it over the years in the development stage of each new edition, but adding changes based upon our own experiences using it in our own classes. Of these changes, the most important to me are the ongoing refinements of my description of the semiotic method—the unpacking of the often-intuitive mental activity that takes place when one interprets popular cultural phenomena. There is an increasingly meta-cognitive aspect to these descriptions, which break down into their component parts the precise details of a semiotic analysis—details that effectively overlap with any act of critical thinking. And, of course, every new edition responds to popular cultural events and trends with updated readings, updated chapter introductions that introduce fresh models of semiotic analysis, and the introduction of new chapter topics altogether. And in the case of the 9th edition, we have added plenty of material for instructors who may want to use the 2016 presidential election as a course theme or topic. But perhaps the most important refinements for those who adopt the text are those that Sonia brings to each new edition: the expansion and clarification of the writing apparatus in the text that guides students in the writing of their semiotic analyses.


As I draw to an end here, I realize that I could write an entire blog just on the history of the covers for Signs of Life. Maybe I will in my next blog entry.

Computer screen with photo editing software and a photo being edited


We can’t turn on a TV or open a newspaper today without hearing about fake news, and we can’t participate in social media without encountering it at almost every turn. As a result, writing teachers are spending more and more time on critical reading skills, on analysis, on fact checking, on what Howard Rheingold (and others) calls “crap detection.”


As we do so, we need—increasingly—to call attention to fake images as well. We’ve known this, of course, for a long time: two decades ago, photographer Kenneth Brower sounded the alarm in a three-part series in The Atlantic on “Photography in the Age of Falsification,” noting that


The wildlife photography we see in films, books, and periodicals is often stunning in its design, import, and aesthetics. It may also be fake, enhanced, or manufactured by emerging digital technologies that have transformed—some say contaminated—the photography landscape.


Brower was concerned about the veracity and integrity of nature photography, and his long essay catalogs dozens of examples of what he calls “photofakery.” But the “emerging digital technologies” he worried about in 1998 have spawned a new generation of tools that make such manipulation almost effortless—and often very hard to detect. In a recent article in the Washington Post, William Wan says “We are a society drowning in doctored pictures. Strategically touched-up profiles on dating websites. Magazine covers adorned with pixel-shaved jaws and digitally enhanced busts. Twitter feeds ablaze with images manipulated for maximum outrage.”


According to cognitive psychologist Sophie J. Nightingale, we may be drowning in doctored photos, but chances are we don’t even know it. In one research study, Nightingale asked 700 men and women to look at photos and label those they believed were faked in some way. Only 45 percent of the participants could pinpoint changes, which included “airbrushing the sweat and wrinkles off a person’s face, adding and deleting items in the background, changing the light so that shadows fell on the wrong side.”


This finding is particularly worrying because we know all too well the power that images hold and how susceptible viewers are to that power. As an example, Wan points to the 2015 terrorist attack that killed 130 people in Paris: “a Canadian Sikh was falsely accused of being one of the attackers after a photo went viral, doctored to make him look like he was wearing a suicide bomb vest.”


If you read Wan’s article, “Many people can’t tell when photos are fake. Can you?” yourself,  you can click on a link  to take a version of Nightingale’s test to see if you can detect the faked photos.


In the meantime, we need to work closely with students on critical reading of images. If you have good tips on how to do so, please chime in here—and be sure to post your results of the fake photos quiz!


Credit: Pixaby Image 2707653 by alexx-ego, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


In my last two posts (Part 1 and Part 2), I introduced 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 researching a discourse community, using Joseph Bizup’s 2008 article, “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing” as the theoretical framework guiding their selection and analysis of source material.


Students first looked for a general description of the discourse, or a background (B) source. Next, they searched for sources that would illustrate common communication practices within the discourse, including professional organization websites, social media sites, newsletters, and professional or academic journals. These texts will serve as exhibit (E) sources.


This past week, students began looking for examples of argument (A) sources, which we are actually using as exhibits through which students investigate the language of argument within their target discourse. As with exhibit sources, the search for argument sources has created some challenges for the students. Several students, for example, had simplified or idiosyncratic definitions of argument. Some believed that argument requires a combative tone, while others assumed that articles which present research and evidence must be, by definition, informative only, and not argumentative.


In addition to re-conceptualizing argument, students also had to come to terms with the idea that all discourses and communities practice argumentation; several students initially questioned whether members of various professions actually argue (although a reminder that any presentation of reasons and evidence in support of position of a claim or proposal constitutes argument helped most of them envision how argument might function within their particular target discourse community).


We next tackled methods of searching that might lead to argument texts, including use of terms such as editorial, op-ed, or “response to” (in the title).  Some students had identified current controversial issues in the process of finding their exhibit sources, and they were able to use that information to find appropriate argument texts. Moreover, since some students are researching professional organizations with legislative advocacy or social justice teams, they found argument texts in the form of briefs, white papers, and position statements, many addressed to those outside of the particular discourse. We also discussed the ways that different discourse groups might use multimodal arguments: ad campaigns, slogans, memes, and other visual or audio texts.


Having found appropriate argument texts, students next grappled with reading the arguments so that they could develop a summary. Vocabulary often proved difficult, as did seeing how the argument terms we have worked to define (claim, counterclaim, reason, evidence, concession, rebuttal, credential, ethos, pathos, etc.) can be applied within this discourse context.


But what I found heartening—even as I found myself repeating, reminding, clarifying, and debunking—is that the majority of my students are determined to understand the texts they have uncovered in their research. When I suspected a source might be too difficult, students did not opt for an easier, more obvious text. “This is my field, Dr. Moore,” they would say. “I want to read this now; I plan to be writing it some day.”


This poster, developed by the Newseum, is another tool to remind students that sources have a discourse context and a provenance; taking time to examine that context can lead to more confidence about the information they find. I plan to share it with students as they continue their semester research project.




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

Tutoring Writing by Jake Mohan on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 licenseEach week, the inclusive pedagogy cohort that I am a member of posts on a specific topic. Recent posts have focused on food or housing insecurity, religious observances, military veterans, gender identity and expression, and cognitive diversity. Even when I knew about the resources included in these posts, their scenario-based approach has helped me to think about how I would react in response to these topics.


Each weekly post opens with a specific scenario that a teacher has encountered. Here’s an example from the message on supporting LGBTQ students:


Our class is discussing topics and writing opinion pieces related to same sex marriage legislation. There’s a wide range of viewpoints on the subject. Last week, a student revealed in his opinion piece that he is gay and is very uncomfortable with some of the perspectives being expressed—especially since very few people know his sexual orientation. How do I support this student?


The scenarios outline a situation that a teacher has encountered that results in the teacher needing support and additional resources to know what to do next. The posts continue with an explanation of possible resources and end with available campus resources. I particularly like that these messages aren’t asking me to play a game of “Guess the Right Answer.” Instead, they give me answers and model exactly what I can do next if I am ever in a similar situation.


Because of the effectiveness of this strategy, similar scenarios could be useful with students. Rather than describing situations from the teacher’s point of view, scenarios could be described from the student’s perspective and then matched with responses and campus resources that can help students. In particular, students could benefit from scenarios that explore resources students would be unlikely to know about otherwise, such as services that the Writing Center provides beyond basic tutoring sessions or how to get support from the university library. Further, I can talk about these resources without connecting them to any specific student in the class.


Using this strategy, I can give students more than name of a place or a brief explanation of its services. I can share a narrative students identify with, helping them build stronger connections to the information. What do you think? Can this scenario-based discussion of campus resources help students? How would you use the strategy? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.



Credit: Tutoring Writing by Jake Mohan on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

As a transition between Writing Project 1 and Writing Project 2, I invited students to watch and reflect in writing on a video preview of Raoul Peck’s film “I Am Not Your Negro,” published in The Guardian when the film opened in the UK. In the preview, James Baldwin speaks at the Cambridge University Union in 1965. Baldwin’s subject is the “American Dream,” and he states unequivocally that “what [America/Americans] are not facing is the results of what we’ve done.”

What Baldwin means here is that white supremacy denies that African Americans and other people of color did the hard labor to build this country: “under someone else’s whip. For nothing.”


In reading the reflections, I discovered that students have found in Baldwin’s work a profound inspiration for their own writing. Students have been moved by how Baldwin inserts himself and his experiences into his essays and speeches. By doing so, Baldwin offers a model for writers to create their own profound connections to pathos and ethos, even as he has been dead for three decades. From the students’ perspectives, Baldwin’s writing on the struggles of his time hold significant implications for the world in which students are coming of age.


For these reasons, I decided to design Writing Project 2 so that students would have more time to study an idea in depth. The assignment sheet below offers a glimpse of what we will embark on as we stretch toward midterm and beyond.




Choose one of the three sample prompts below or create your own prompt. The prompts ask you to work on the following skills, which will serve as grading criteria for WP 2:


  1. Choose a significant aspect of “I Am Not Your Negro”  
  2. Explain the significance through supporting examples
  3. Explore research to learn more about your examples
  4. Develop reasons for your own opinions



RESPONSIBILITY: What, in your opinion, does Baldwin mean by “taking responsibility for your own life”? What examples from the movie support your opinion? When you research these examples in more depth, what do you learn?  Why did you choose this option? In other words, what does the phrase “taking responsibility for your own life” mean for you and what relevant experiences support your examples?


AMERICAN DREAM: How did you define the “American Dream” before watching “I Am Not Your Negro”? What specific examples from the movie support and/or contradict your definition? When you research these examples in more depth, what do you learn? Has your definition of the “American Dream” changed as a result of watching the movie? Why or why not?


HISTORICAL MEDIA ARTIFACT: What historical media artifact (music, photography, film, advertising) draws your particular attention in “I Am Not Your Negro”? What specific examples from the movie support your ideas? When you research these examples in more depth, what do you learn? Why did these particular examples draw your attention? Why do these examples seem especially significant in 2017?


CREATE YOUR OWN PROMPT: Follow the four steps above, and take a look at the example included below.



James Baldwin’s Lesson for Teachers in a Time of Turmoil” by Clint Smith might serve as an example for WP 2. In his essay, Smith illustrates each of the four skills to be practiced for WP 2. Smith:

  1. Chooses a significant aspect of “I Am Not Your Negro” (using education and Baldwin’s essay “A Talk to Teachers”)
  2. Explains the significance through supporting examples (providing significant events of 1963)
  3. Explores research to learn more about your examples (comparing past history with current events)
  4. Develops reasons for your own opinions (addressing why he believes his ideas are significant)



See Paul Thomas’s course archive for Reconsidering James Baldwin in the Era of Black Lives Matter.


Photo: Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Author James Baldwin and actor Marlon Brando.] From National Archives Catalog.


A friend of mine, Jim, is a successful SAT/ACT tutor who’s been in the business for some time. In a typical year, he tells me, several of his tutees get an 800 on the SAT’s reading and writing section. Now that your fall composition courses are in full swing, you may find useful—and possibly surprising—his perspective on things that affect many students’ ability to read critically and write persuasively.

“They have trouble with irony, if it’s good irony,” Jim told me. I was puzzled. My impression is that students adore irony and other rhetorical devices with which people make their points indirectly. “That’s why many of them don’t like Jane Austen,” he said. “They don’t realize she’s funny.”

Indeed, young people’s idea of irony can be heavy-handed, and when they employ irony themselves, they tend to lack control over it. Maybe they don’t even necessarily recognize subtle irony? By now we’re all used to the idea that tone is easy to misinterpret in emails and texts—in writing, that is. I wonder whether the modern practice of adding emoji to everyday communications is undermining readers’ ability to recognize, and writers’ ability to convey, irony and similar matters of tone in plain words.

But “the biggest thing” he notices is that students “infer too much,” Jim told me. “This is the big problem of our time! They don’t see what’s there; they see what they expect is there. They bring their own perspective from previous things they’ve read and seen, movies and such. They think the writer is saying something expected.”

That observation, of course, applies directly to students’ ability to read critically, but it has implications for their ability to write well too.

“It’s hard to write something that tells readers exactly what you mean without saying the obvious. And saying the obvious makes readers think you don’t understand where they’re coming from,” Jim said. “The trick is to know what to leave out. A good writer is not only telling you things but also giving you clues to what they’re implying.” That is, saying the obvious is counterproductive. Not only does it validate the viewpoint of readers who expect to be reading the expected, but it risks boring them.

“Teach your students to trust their readers,” Jim said. “Writers always have to wonder what the reaction of the reader is going to be.” Naturally, you, the instructor, are the reader your students really need to please. But often, let’s say when you’ve assigned a persuasive essay, you may want them to write as if they are addressing an audience that is interested in the topic and knows the basic facts about it but doesn’t necessarily see it their way.

“For the student, it’s a role-play,” Jim said. “They should do what actors are sometimes taught to do: play to one person—in this case, probably a person who’s not the instructor.”

As writers, no doubt most of us are inclined to imagine we understand our readers, hypothetical or real, better than we really do. (This is where not inferring too much sneaks back in.) Recognizing this tendency—and not projecting ourselves onto them—is a first step toward knowing our audience better and therefore being better able to persuade them, inform them, hold their interest, or whatever our intended purpose is.

“The reader a student is writing for should be someone they know,” Jim continued. “Someone who’s a little different from them, but with things in common.” Of course, all of us have many things in common—mainly the fundamental things. So in a way, the deeper the subject, the easier it may be to find and speak to that common ground.

“With truly great writers,” Jim said, “you can read something of theirs from 500 B.C. and say to yourself, How do they know me?”

But if your student writers can begin to elicit that reaction from someone—like you or their ideal reader—who lives in their own time and place, surely you can count that as an accomplishment that you and they can be proud of.


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


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


Credit: Pixaby Image 1185626 by janeb13, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Like many of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ longtime admirers, I was thrilled to hear the New York Times investigative reporter won a 2017 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for her culture-shifting analytical reporting on segregated schooling and racial injustice. 


The award confirmed for my co-author, Stuart Greene, and me all the reasons we chose to anchor our chapter on Education in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Argument with Hannah-Jones’ essay, “School Segregation, the Continuing Tragedy of Ferguson.”


Just as Hannah-Jones explains in this short MacArthur Foundation video, she models in her essay the method of inquiry that moves readers beyond simply reacting to a tragedy like the police shooting of Michael Brown. Hannah-Jones teaches us to ask why the neighborhood where Brown attended school was so segregated. She shows why it's important to ask about the specific policies that dismantled the very desegregation laws that benefited Michael Brown’s mother in the same school district just a generation earlier. She invites readers to examine the data comparing the vast disparities in academic proficiencies of students in the lowest-performing school district in Missouri, the Normandy district where Michael Brown attended school, with the top-performing predominately white district, Clayton, just five miles away. 


Finally, she demonstrates the power of asking the question we train all our students to ask: “So what?” Her response -- after weaving connections between personal, political, and historical examples -- is devastating: “Students who spend their careers in segregated schools can look forward to a life on the margins …. They are more likely to be poor. They are more likely to go to jail. They are less likely to graduate from high school, to go to college, and to finish if they go. They are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods as adults” (This citation appears on page 451 of the forthcoming edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing). In other words, moving from only gut-wrenching sorrow about police violence to inquiry and analysis can allow us to see systematic patterns that maintain inequality. And, seeing them, we can begin to recognize their characteristics, and act to disrupt them. 


While Hannah-Jones is a journalist, she models the academic habits of mind we strive to instill in our students — asking questions that reveal patterns, and analyzing those patterns to understand their significance in the lives of real people. Further, she models how to examine the implications for a nation whose pledge proclaims “justice for all," while policies deliberately work against this aspiration.


What texts have been particularly helpful for you in modeling habits of mind that engage your students in meaningful inquiry? Please considering sharing in the comments, below.


Click here to see more articles by Nikole Hannah-Jones.


This fall has brought a series of disasters, from Hurricane Harvey in Texas to Irma in Florida to the wildfires that have recently raged in northern California. The effects of these disasters are still all around us, particularly in Puerto Rico, which was hit by not one but two huge storms, the last one named Maria. In the month that has passed since Hurricane Maria hit, many have spoken and sung out in support: Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Almost Like Praying” is just one example. And all across the country, students are writing about their own experiences with these disasters. As always, writing provides an opportunity to express thoughts, feelings, and emotions; it also offers catharsis and connection—and can lead to action. 


In this regard, meet Amaryllis Lopez, whom I’ve known through a Bread Loaf Teachers’ Network’s project called Next Generation Leadership Network (I wrote about this exciting initiative in a previous blog post). Amaryllis is one of this group of leaders, who are already making a difference in a number of different sites around the country. 


Currently a student at Bridgewater State (class of 2020), Amaryllis is majoring in English and minoring in Latin American and Caribbean Studies; she is also president of La Sociedad Latinix and a Social Action Writing Leader in the Andover Bread Loaf program in Lawrence. As you’ll see, she is also using writing as a major means of self-expression, as testimony, and as a vibrant call for action. Here is one of her recent blog posts, “Maria, Maria,” which she hopes will get others writing and acting positively in the face of total disaster.


Amaryllis’s post originally appeared on the Next Generation Leadership Network blog and the poem is inspired by Carlos Santana’s “Maria Maria.”


Maria Maria

October 5, 2017 

Amaryllis Lopez

Lawrence, MA


Hey, everyone! Long time no post.


As many of you know Hurrican Maria recently hit Puerto Rico devastatingly hard. A lot of my family still live in Puerto Rico and I’m still waiting on responses of safety from a couple of members. As usual, 45 “response” is unprofessional, inhumane, and ignorant….. the only way I can make sense of the world is through poetry. This is a poem I’ve been working on since the day the hurricane hit. I’m still as angry, hurt, and lonely as that day. Poetry is the only medium I know that can effectively educate and on hard topics and conversations in an inclusive way. With poetry, everyone is involved-- whether you are listening or performing, everyone in the room brings the poem to life for the words cannot be ignored and you can never say you weren’t aware. It’s in its infancy, but this is the latest version.  I finished it today.


 Se mira Maria on the corner
thinking of ways to make it better
but the US aint never helped us get any better
only took our ports to make them richer
la isla will be headlining news for a couple days then your president will drown it out
the Red Cross with proclaim themselves saviors and wipe away our blood with Benjamins
turn our pain into currency
make a meal for themselves out of our hunger


 Maria Maria 
she cries for help
 stop the looting, stop the shooting
Uncle Sam pick pocking on the corner
ahora vengo mama cause
her daughters have been uprooted and planted in a different son every year
every year the sun gets a little hotter
and now there
s plenty of water to put out the fire


it’s been a week since I’ve written this poem and nothing has been done
 Ni gota de esperanza 
F*** Elaine, this shit ain
t a good news story
your satisfaction ain
t shit when my people are dying
when laws are in place to benefit you first before us
this shit is a genocide
people are dying, I don’t know how to say that poetically


like y’all just gonna claim a whole territory and then forget it’s yours
debt be our housewarming present and
the only time we be American is when we’re on the front line
you’re not on our front lines
it’s clear that we are not on your minds cause getting angry about people taking knees for police brutality is more offense than ignoring millions of Americans in need


 Maria Maria
she reminds me of a west side story 

Of a modern day colonizer
Something like a punishment
A slow pulse
A muted drum line
like the heart of the Caribbean ain
t screaming in an empty all-inclusive resort storage room,
smiling for tips 24/7
while you sip on your drinks 24/7
for the next 6 months there will be no power 24/7
is there any light left in your hearts?


 Borikén, you know youre my lover
When the wind blows I can feel you through the weather
And even when we
re apart
It feels like we’re together


Credit: Pixaby Image 1292634 by Lenaeriksson, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

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.


I often take my three-year old son to a maker’s lounge at a nearby museum. He transforms popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, legos, paper cups, scraps of paper and whatever other materials available that day into his own creations. In his play, he makes things like spaceships and communication contraptions, which may or may not resemble a material object in the world.  My son learns through play: play in public places like the museum; play at his school, which operates from a play-based curriculum; and play at home with toys, cardboard boxes, costumes, and even flashlights.


Scholars have positioned play as optimal for learning: play fosters and invites problem-solving abilities, curiosity, exploration, discovery, inquiry, creativity, persistence, oral language, collaboration, intrinsic motivation, and strong engagement. While we know that play is a highly effective learning tool, it is often relegated to spaces where children learn. Positioned at the opposite end of the spectrum from “academic,” play is not often encouraged or integrated into classrooms in higher education. Yet, according to scholar Henry Jenkins, play—“the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving”—is one of the skills needed to be literate in the 21st century (Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture). Thus, as college instructors, teaching students how to “play” is now arguably part of our jobs.


In my pedagogy, I have recognized the value of play—both structured and unstructured, and material and intellectual play —as a means to learn about writing, rhetoric, and genre. One semi-structured material play activity I facilitate in my digital writing courses is the transformation of my class into a maker’s lounge. The purpose is four-fold: to motivate and nurture the 3-year old inside of my college students, evoking an excitement for learning and doing; to encourage creativity and innovation; and to position the writing process as a process of play, and writing itself as a play-based activity. I ultimately want my students to adopt the same mindset and approach they have and use in making something during this activity as they will when they compose a digital project.



Step #1: Bring in a plethora of materials students can use to build something such as legos, play-doh, string, tape, pens, paper.  Below is a picture of material I use. Spread the material out on a table.



Step #2: Tell students that they’ll be working with the material in three different ways. Then, one at a time, explain the steps. Set a five-minute timer for each step.

  1. Take some materials from the table and create something.
  2. Take two more pieces of material from the table and add it to your creation.
  3. Now, take the material you have and create something completely different.


Step #3: After students finish their creations, give them 10 minutes to respond to the following questions:

  1. How would you describe this experience?
  2. What did you create in each iteration of the activity, and in what ways did you work with the material to make these creations?
  3. How did it feel, both intellectually and emotionally, to add material to the creation in step 2 or to transform the material into something completely different in step 3?
  4. Why would I ask you to do this in a writing class?


Step #4: Ask students to share their responses with the class, and facilitate a large class discussion about the relationship between play and writing.



This activity yields a fun time, imaginative creations, and thoughtful reflections and realizations about writing and the writing process. Students’ creations have ranged from the simple—a bunny rabbit made with two pens and a paper plate later turned into a cat face—to the complex—a carousel with toy soldiers transformed into an elaborate military scene with a detailed storyline, complete with roles for each soldier. Students described the experience as “fun,” “creative,” “relaxing,” “engaging,” “silly,” “no-pressure,” and “simple.” Some students surprised themselves with what they made, either because they didn’t think they were creative and then recognized they were, or because an idea suddenly emerged, they claimed, out of “nowhere.” Other students talked about feeling uneasy about creating something or not knowing what they were doing while they were doing it, but eventually feeling excited about the finished product.


From this activity, my students exceeded my expectations, learning much about writing and the writing process. Some lessons they took away from the activity are:

  • the value of experimentation, play, revision, editing, and thinking “outside the box”
  • the realization that there are different ways to approach writing, and that constraints can yield creativity
  • the possibilities inherent in adding and transforming material, combining material (which some likened to modalities), and working within and against genre conventions and constraints
  • the recognition that there is no one “right way” to work with material when writing, and that it is possible to make “something” out of “nothing”

This activity can prepare students for a more structured activity in play with alphabetic or digital writing, and/or provide them with a frame of mind for approaching a composing task.


Photo by the author.

This semester my class is partnering with organizations in Syracuse, NY, as well as with schools in the Middle East/North Africa. Our goal is to foster a discussion on the meaning of human rights, religious freedom, and democracy. Much of this work is taking place in the context of our Middle Eastern student partners being confronted by ISIS on a daily basis. To prepare for these dialogues, my students have been reading, discussing, and considering the history of the region and its political contours. Indeed, this past week, we were just on the cusp of beginning our conversations.


Then one of our Middle Eastern partners vanished.  


A scheduled Skype call with my class never materialized. We still have not heard from him. My students feared the worse might have occurred. My sense was less ominous. For the moment, I am thinking that the absence is one of the typical partner issues any project faces. “Time will tell” if I’m being naïve. Still, in the immediate moment, I had to figure out how to move the class forward. It was at this moment that I realized the value of having multiple partners in any community project.


Often, when forming community partnership projects, teachers are advised to keep it simple – work with only one partner. When that partner is unable to keep their commitments, however, the project will often falter, if not actually fail. By itself, this possibility is an argument for creating projects with multiple partners.


Yet the more important reason against the strategy of the “single partner” is that it misrepresents the ways change occurs in a community.  Change is a collaborative coalitional project. To create change within a community is to work within a space where a network of committed organizations share resources toward a common goal, constantly amending plans as organizations encounter difficulties fulfilling their promises. Change is an alliance in constant flux.  If our goal is to show how change occurs then our community-based classroom projects need to demonstrate this fact for our students.


Here are some guiding principles:


      1. Your Classroom Should Exist Within a Coalition

When designing a community-based project for my students, I try to think of all the different actors who have a stake in a particular issue. Out of that set of organizations and individuals, I then consider with whom I have an existing partnership and an ongoing effort on a particular issue. Once I have a set of partners willing to join their existing efforts to the possibilities of my class, we develop a plan to distribute required work. (For advice on how to develop “work plans,” see Writing Communities, p. 233.)


      2. Each Coalition Member Should Have Unique but Integrated Tasks

The purpose of having multiple partners is to create a set of projects and tasks that are interrelated in that they support a common goal, but are not necessarily dependent on each other. For instance, community projects often find it useful to develop informational sheets on an issue to distribute in a neighborhood; community forums are also considered important, yet one is not dependent on the other. If one partner is unable to follow through on the forum, the other partner’s information sheets can still be produced in alliance with my class. This allows the project (and the class) to keep momentum going despite setbacks.


      3. Student Work Should Be Distributed Among Partners

Multiple partners create the possibility of different types of work for students. Rather than just tutoring, for instance, the students might also run workshops with parents about the goals of education; create short videos featuring students reading their work for a local community access station; produce policy papers for use by community organizations focused on school reform. That is, a partnership network allows students to not only experience ways in which collaboration can produce actual change, it also allows them to bring their particular strengths to this collaboration.


      4. When One Partner “Vanishes,” Redistribute Work Among Other Partners

If a project exists among many different organizations, when a partner has to drop out (or can’t fulfill its tasks), you can move students to other ongoing projects. This both demonstrates the value of coalitional work when creating change and insures that students have continuous work to do in the class. Such moves are not possible when a class is premised on a single project.


In arguing for our classrooms to be distributed among a network of community partners, I can imagine an argument that this creates more work for the teacher. My experience is that this is just the opposite. Each person’s individual workload shrinks and becomes more focused as collective resources are brought into alliance, and each person can witness greater impact for their efforts when placed within a collective movement. This is a powerful lesson for our students to learn.


As I conclude this post, I continue to hope that soon I will hear from my partner and friend in the Middle East. Yes, partners vanish, but we are all always wishing for their safe return.

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


As students create multimodal projects they learn the roles and skills of content creators. With our students composing through text and image, it is important that we also focus on composing for visual rhetoric. This series of related assignments introduces students to the practices of digital composers through the creation and sharing of digital galleries.


Background Reading


Assignment Steps

Curate: The practices of curation and repurposing are valuable skills for multimodal composers. Most work in my classes is housed on blogs in which students create a collection of academic works and digital projects. As part of this digital space, I have them dedicate an area/section to curate an image gallery. Each week I give them image assignments (10-20 images per week) that are either content driven and clustered by ideas or focused on visual composing techniques as a heuristic lens. From these assignments they curate an ongoing image gallery with captions. They organize the gallery into a visual layout that allows their audience to easily view them in organized sub-sections to showcase each week’s assignment.


Although students will use them to create content over the term, the curated galleries should also be engaging online spaces when viewed on their own. Through purposeful captioning, students learn the importance of connecting text and image for intentional, rhetorical communication. Captions go beyond naming and speak to meaning, composition, and design.


Compose: Next, we make students aware that visual composition is more than happenstance. We teach them to thoughtfully compose images through visual rhetoric and design aesthetic. They can compose in naturally occurring environments and capture cultural moments or stage scenes that intentionally communicate specific ideas to others. The images each week can stand on their own or can reveal a sequence when viewed together.


I send students out to research and analyze compelling images and supply them with some resources about the practices of visual composers. You can easily find these with a quick internet search but I include a few here—interestingly all in lists of ten.


Collaborate: Like traditional assignments, image work benefits from peer response and the sharing of rhetorical decisions. For this part of the series I have students create a grab-and-go gallery in which they choose an image and explain their rhetorical choices. I open up a blank presentation in Google Slides where they can collaboratively compose a full class presentation of their strongest images. Students first gather in groups and show their images. Group members help choose the strongest of the weekly images.


Each student then takes their strongest image and places it on an individual slide along with the rhetorical and visual choices they made. We then display the whole slideshow.  Students take turns presenting as their slide comes up while students in the audience provide feedback and discuss composing techniques and strategies.


Here is an example of one of these grab-and-go galleries designed to emphasize visual composing practices:




This activity gives us an opportunity to see and celebrate the work of others and reinforces the idea that there are rhetorical decisions involved in visual composition. This grab-and-go collaborative presentation is created on-the-spot and is completed within a single class period. It is a quick and easy way to share curated images (and other multimodal projects) and reinforces classroom practices such as digital collaboration and peer response while also teaching valuable visual composing practices.


Guest blogger Kim Haimes-Korn is a Professor in the English Department at Kennesaw State University. Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning, critical digital literacies and focuses on students’ powers to create their own knowledge through language and various “acts of composition.” She likes to have fun every day, return to nature when things get too crazy and think deeply about way too many things. She loves teaching. It has helped her understand the value of amazing relationships and boundless creativity. You can reach Kim at or visit her website Acts of Composition.


As a writing teacher, my number one goal is to see students succeed. I live for those moments when students write something that brings them pride, when they connect with a community or idea that resonates with them, or when they realize they can do something they thought was impossible. These are the moments when I see the rewards of teaching reflected through my students.


College and university administrators also place a high premium on “student success,” even naming entire offices or divisions after that goal. Yet, administrators are often looking at specific data when they talk about student success—things like grades, retention, and graduation rates, to name a few.


While some of these metrics might seem like impersonal numbers when viewed from a distance, my instructional evidence of individual student success and university measures of student success aren’t really that far apart. In some ways, they are two sides of the same coin. When I encourage students to find solutions to writing problems on their own and they succeed, they develop skills of persistence that will help them later in college. And if students begin to develop a set of tools in my class that will help them tackle tough writing projects later in other classes, they will have a better chance of success.


I have become increasingly convinced that a focus on Writing in the Disciplines (WID) in writing courses can be a powerful tool to partner with other efforts on campus to build student success. WID helps students think about the transition from their prior writing experiences to college and beyond, and it asks them to think about their future college and career aspirations. In other words, WID can help them transition to college and begin to explore and identify with a future major and career. 


The transition to college can be a challenging one. Vincent Tinto, a researcher interested in what helps students succeed as they make that transition, has written extensively about three stages that he identified that students go through as they adapt to college: separation, transition, and incorporation (Tinto, 1988). At the separation stage, students might feel disconnected to prior communities and commitments, and successful students move through a transition stage and then find a way to connect themselves with new communities in college (incorporation). Our goals as educators is to help shepherd them through that process.


Think about the kinds of assignments that are common in a WID approach and how they might help students work through these stages:

  • A Literacy Narrative: When students write literacy narratives, we can give them the space to think about the process of separation and the transition they are making to writing in college
  • A Literacy Profile: A literacy profile of a professional or a scholar in the student’s field of study can help them make a connection to someone who can mentor them in the kinds of writing they might be expected to do in their field
  • An Annotated Bibliography: Compiling a list of sources that document what others have written and said about an issue can help a student figure out how to enter the conversation.


By helping students build connections between the content in their writing classes and their future majors and careers, WID helps students with the process of transition and incorporation. As writing teachers, we can be partners in a campus-wide effort to give students the tools they need to succeed.


These are just a few sample assignments. What other assignments can you think of that would help students move through the three stages of separation, transition, and incorporation? What are the biggest questions and concerns that you have about trying a WID approach? If you’ve tried it already, what are some of the strategies you have found to be most effective?

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

Jack Solomon

Coping Without Catharsis

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Oct 12, 2017

It's beginning to feel like every time I sit down to write this bi-weekly blog of mine that America has just endured another calamity of such mind-numbing atrociousness that I can't simply ignore it, while at the same time knowing that there is nothing I can say that can possibly make anyone—students and colleagues alike—feel any better about it. And the massacre at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas has placed me in that position once again.


So I'm going to go ahead and address the matter analytically, but there are some things I will not do. First, I will not waste my time, or yours, demanding that America finally do something to control the spread of weapons of mass destruction to everyone who wants them, because I know perfectly well that America is not going to do anything of the kind. Second, I'm not going to try to explain why nothing is going to happen because it would be entirely futile to do so. Suffice to say that we all know the script: the political rituals that follow upon every one of these atrocities, and the way that those rituals invariably play out as they do. Third, I'm not going to blame "the media" for the carnage; that, too, is a common, though by no means illegitimate, part of the post-massacre script, as this essay in Inside Higher Education demonstrates once again. And finally, I'm not going to blame the high level of violence in popular culture for the high level of violence in everyday life—though that, too, is a not-unworthy subject for careful, data-driven analysis. Rather, I am going to look at the difference between the typical (and conventional) narrative to be found in violent entertainment, and the formless anomie to be found in the seemingly endless string of massacres in schools, movie theaters, night clubs, music festivals, and heaven knows what other sites, that plague our days and nights today.


Consider, then, the typical narrative of violent entertainment. Reduced to its most basic structure, it involves a victim (or victims), a villain (or villains), and a savior (or saviors). The story—whether told in the generic form of horror, or murder mystery, or thriller, or war epic, or superhero saga, or sword and sorcerer fantasy, or whatever—tells the tale of how the villain is, in some way or another, opposed by the savior, and, usually, stopped (even when the story is open-ended, which is not infrequent in contemporary entertainment, there is usually some heroic figure, or figures, to identify with, who at least provides a model of sanity amidst the mayhem). This is what stories conventionally do: they give shape to the horrors of existence and give them a kind of meaning that Aristotle called "catharsis." When the detective catches the killer, the vampire slayer drives the stake through the monster's heart, the evil empire is defeated, the wicked witch is dissolved or the evil sorcerer vaporized, the bad king is dethroned (or de-headed: Macbeth is part of this system as well), and so on and so forth, the audience overcomes its pity and terror, and, to put it as plainly as possible, feels better.


But this is exactly what does not happen when someone, who has been living among us—and who, having shown no signs of madness or murderousness, has plotted his massacre completely under the radar of law enforcement—suddenly cuts loose. More often than not, now, he also kills himself. And we are left with nothing but the carnage: there is no wily detective, no heroic hobbit, no boy wizard, no man/woman in spandex, no warrior, no secret agent, no martial arts expert, nor any kind of savior at all: just the sorry spectacle of missed opportunities on the part of those we rely on to protect us—from the police to the politicians—and an almost total lack of understanding of why the carnage occurred at all. I realize that the heroic acts of victims and first-responders on the ground in such cases can help mitigate the horror, but it is all too after-the-fact for any real comfort when we know that it is all going to happen again. This is the reality of real-life horror, and there is no redemptive narrative in sight.

Image of different social media buttons on a screen


Over the course of my career, I’ve served on a number of strategic planning initiatives, and inevitably, the issue of “branding” or “rebranding” comes up: usually the university, college, department, or program wants to establish a public image of itself that will be instantly recognizable and that will convey a particular idea or “feel.” Sometimes the work of branding is invigorating and fun—when we launched the Stanford Writing Center (now the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking), we took out a full-page ad in the campus newsletter announcing “a new Stanford tradition” and used words and images designed to get as far away from any idea of remediation as humanly possible. We pursued this theme, knowing that Stanford students would not identify as “remedial” no matter what, and it worked. The Center is now used by students across the campus and across the years, with usage by graduate students (sometimes professors, too) growing every year.


In this case, we were looking for a very positive brand for our Center. But branding can be negative—and often highly destructive—as well. No one knows this better than our current President, Donald Trump, whom the New York Times refers to as the “master brander.” In a recent article, Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy reported on their analysis of two years of Trumpian tweets (beginning in June 2015 and continuing six months into his presidency), finding that Trump “is much better at branding enemies than policies. And he expends far more effort mocking targets than promoting items on his agenda.”


Badger and Quealy’s analysis reveals the strategies Trump uses in this negative branding. Repetition, simplicity, consistency, and essentializing all work together to brand Trump’s enemies with words and phrases that stick in our minds. In his hundreds of tweets about Hillary Clinton, for example, he used “crooked” and “crooked Hillary” like a drum beat. Tthe simple, memorable, insistent phrase became associated with Clinton in many, many voters’ minds, as did the phrase “Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” “goofy Pocahontas” (aka Elizabeth Warren), “little” Marco Rubio.


The use of essentialism—the notion that one characteristic or trait is inherent to a person rather than the result of circumstances or a complex combination of factors—is particularly effective. Ted Cruz is not just a liar but rather he is essentially a liar: in Trump’s orbit, lying is a deep-seated, central and identifying characteristic that trumps all others.


Trump brands himself positively, of course, as a “winner” and “deal maker,” though he has not been particularly successful at branding policies, partially because he changes his mind so frequently about them (and perhaps because he isn’t as interested in policy as he is in personality).


It seems important to me that we share analyses like the one done by Badger and Quealy with students, that we alert them to the power of simple, consistent repetition and of essentializing to mark both people and policies in particularly negative, or positive, ways. Research in psychology shows that these strategies are very effective and that we are often unaware of their power over our thoughts and ideas. Being a critical reader and writer today means understanding how branding works and being able to interrogate it thoroughly.


I suggest reading “Trump Seems Much Better at Branding Opponents than Marketing Policies” on The New York Times July 18, 2017 edition and discussing it with your students. There, you can see excerpts from Trump’s tweets with the repeated word or phrase highlighted: it’s an eye-popping experience!


Credit: Pixaby Image 292994 by LoboStudioHamburg, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Coexist [bumper sticker] by Patrick Byrne on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licenseAs I mentioned in September, I am a member of a year-long cohort that focuses on inclusive pedagogical practices. Each week, we have discussion questions to consider, and I thought I would share one of the recent questions and my response with everyone this week.


The Questions

How do you prepare for religious diversity in your class? How does religious diversity intersect with the particular nature of your course or discipline?


My Response

Since I teach professional writing courses, the content matter of my classes has little to do with religious matters. There are ways that we can focus on religious diversity (more on that below), but you can easily teach a writing class without discussing religion with students in any depth or detail. Nonetheless, religion does come into the class because students often have religious practices that can impact the activities that we complete. I’ve broken my discussion into three sections: at the beginning of the term, as holidays occur, and religion in writing assignments.


At the Beginning of the Term

I try to model openness about religious matters by addressing religious holidays specifically in my class policies at the beginning of the term. I use the following statement on my syllabus:

Religious Holidays: Please take advantage of the grace period explained in the Late Policy section above if the due date for any work in this class coincides with a religious holiday that you celebrate. Please let me know before the holiday if the grace period will not be adequate, and we will come up with an alternative plan.

The grace period I mention is part of my late policy. To explain briefly, I announce a due date for each activity, but I also allow a grace period during which students can still turn in their work with no penalty. The policy is explained in more detail in a Bits post from 2013, Due Dates, Deadlines, and My Late Policy. I have varied the length of the grace period from three days to a week. Even the shorter three-day grace period takes care of most holidays and religious events.


As Holidays Occur in the Calendar

When a holiday draws near, I address it directly by reminding students to let me know if they need more time than the grace period allows. Occasionally, I also extend the grace period, when it seems likely that students may need more time.


I use class announcements to update students on holidays and class work. I see these announcements as serving a dual purpose: reminding students to think about time management, and educating the class on holidays that they may not know about. For instance, for Yom Kippur, I posted the following information:

I have extended the grace period for the Labor Log due on Friday, September 29, by one day. The grace period now ends at 11:59PM on Tuesday, October 3.


Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) begins at sundown on Friday and lasts until nightfall on Saturday. I know that some of you may be traveling home to mark the holiday with family or participating in special events here in town. As a result, I wanted to give anyone who needs it extra time so that the assignment does not interfere with your religious holiday.


If you need more than one day, please email me to arrange what you need.

It would usually be off-topic for me to talk about religious holidays at length, so I like this compromise that lets me provide a bit of information in contexts that fit with the course. Additionally, these reminder announcements take care of any extensions students may need. I’ve found that being up front and accepting of students’ needs allows me to avoid any complications.


Religion in Writing Assignments

Religion can come up naturally during class discussions of audience analysis. Just as students consider demographic categories like race, class, and gender, they can explore how an audience’s religious affiliation and practices influence a writing situation. In many business writing and technical writing situations, the reader’s religion isn’t relevant. A technical description of a chemical process, for example, won’t change because of the religion the reader follows.


There are rhetorical situations and writing assignments where religion of the audience does influence the work students do. Likewise, there are situations where religious practices directly effect the writing topic itself, not just the audience. Here are some examples:


  • Compose an internal memo, to be distributed on December 1, that explains the company’s policy on holiday decorations in the workplace. The student writing such a memo has to consider how coworkers’s religious beliefs and practices will influence their acceptance of the policy.
  • Write a leave policy for your company’s employee manual. Your company has paid holidays for all major U.S. holidays. Generally speaking, if the post office closes for the holiday, so does your company. Your policy needs to outline the holidays that the company observes, sick leave, family leave, bereavement, and any other situations specific to your industry. The company’s owner strongly believes in supporting employees’s religious beliefs, so she has asked you to draft a policy that proposes how employees can observe the holidays of their faith if they are not covered in the list of U.S. holidays when the company is closed.
  • You work for a regional collective of farms that wants to expand into food processing and sales. Up to this point, the collective has only sold their produce to manufacturers. Because of the regional popularity of your fruits and vegetables, many of the farm owners are interested in testing the production of simple food products that can be made with local ingredients. For instance, the collective includes a number of apple orchards, and there has been interest in manufacturing locally-sourced applesauce, apple butter, and apple cider. The collective wants to maximize sales opportunities by creating a product that meets the needs of a wide customer base. You have been asked to conduct a research project that investigates how religious requirements affect food processing and packaging. Once your research is complete, write a report that explains your findings and makes recommendations for practices the collective can adopt to ensure that their products meet the needs of customers from a variety of faiths.
  • Your company has always focused exclusively (and quite successfully) on domestic business. Because of the recent popularity of a new product, to which your company owns all patents, the board of directors has called for research on expansion into international markets. Choose a country and investigate the possibility of manufacturing and marketing products there. You can decide what your product it. Using your research on your country, write a recommendation report to the board of directors that explains the requirements for manufacturing and marketing your product in that location. Your report should include information on financing in the country, any specific regulations, taxes, or fees that would apply to your product, how the country’s population would respond to the introduction of your product, including consideration of how race, class, gender, cultural norms, and religious practices in the country would be likely to impact manufacturing and sales. Conclude your report with a recommendation on whether the board should consider the country further as a potential market.

Final Thoughts

Working through these ideas, I still believe that religious considerations need not be a large part of a professional writing course; however, there are certainly options for including religious diversity. It’s imperative for my class policies to support students’s religious practices. Students should also be asked to consider the religion of their audiences when they complete audience analysis of rhetorical situations. Including specific assignments that incorporate a religious dimension seems less of a requirement however. It’s doable, as the example assignments above demonstrate; yet it would need to fit the overarching goals of the course and fit into the progression of assignments. I would not add an otherwise unrelated or unnecessary assignment simply to add religious content to these writing courses.


That’s my take on the topic. How do you prepare for religious diversity in your class? How does religious diversity intersect with the particular nature of your course or discipline? Can you suggest writing assignments or class activities that incorporate religious diversity? Please leave me a comment below to share your ideas.



Credit: Coexist by Patrick Byrne on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license.

Today's guest blogger is Jeanne Bohannon (see end of post for bio).
As I travel back from a trip to Northeast Normal University (NENU) in Changchun, China, I am thinking about Andrea’s Top 20 Student Grammar Mistakes, which I explored with first-year students at NENU. I have employed the indomitable Top 20 in my digital grammar courses each semester but was a bit pensive taking it “on the road” to a class of students who major in English in a School of Foreign Languages. Before my arrival at NENU, my colleague, Professor Fuhui Zhang, took a poll of her fifty students, asking them to rank their own grammar challenges out of the Top 20. Here’s what they came up with:

NENU Class Supper and Grammar Practice



Among student-reported mistakes, faulty sentence structure (especially complex ones with two or three or more subordinate sentences) and wrong word are number 1 and number 2, respectively.


Anecdotal Results of Grammar Attitudes

The results showed a few commonalities with their American counterparts. The Top Ten below represents elements of grammar reported by all students, in order of descending occurrence.

  1. Faulty Sentence Structure
  2. Wrong Word
  3. Problems with Quotations/documentation
  4. Vague Pronouns
  5. Unnecessary/Missing Punctuation
  6. Unnecessary Shift in Verb Tense
  7. Unnecessary Comma
  8. Sentence Fragment
  9. Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement
  10. Fused (run-on) Sentence


Interestingly, #4 (pronouns) was close on the list with my American students in 2017 (#4), when I posted about my students’ Grammar Diagnostics when I last measured these grammar elements for this blog. Comma usage showed up #1 for American students, but for Chinese students ranked at #7. Both sets of students still report issues with verbs, semicolons, and specific uses of punctuation.


Professor Zhang further confirmed that she has noted the same issues in students’ writing.

Together, she and I determined to employ a learning strategy that, while completely new to students, might increase their application of grammar and help them to not only recognize mistakes, but avoid them. We landed on a flipped class model.


Learning grammar in a flipped class model is a low-stakes opportunity that uses traditional grammar tools to create dialogic growth between students in a class and helps students take ownership of their grammar challenges by teaching others. Students at NENU reviewed a PowerPoint presentation adapted from Stanford’s Hume Center for Writing and Speaking that detailed The Top 20 list prior to my arrival, which they used to rank the list based on their own writing experiences and grammar challenges. They narrowed their choices down to a Top 10 to fit within our class time parameters.


Measurable Learning Objectives

  • Examine results of the Top 20 for areas of improvement
  • Compare attitudinal results to others’ in an open discussion forum
  • Synthesize content-meaning through a flipped class model


Background Reading for Students and Instructors
Acts of reading and viewing visual texts are ongoing processes for attaining learning goals in dialogic, digital writing assignments. 


What We Did in Class

Students began by posting and discussing their perceived Top 10 grammar issues in their course LMS, called “QQ.” They then participated in the interactive PowerPoint, guessing answers to prescribed mistakes, sometimes reciting correct answers and at other times writing them on the chalkboard. Students also chose to participate on Weibo and WeChat, two Chinese social media platforms where they hashtagged #ProfessorJeanne to post their reflections and view others’ thoughts on the grammar lesson.  After working with students to vocalize their Top 10 grammar challenges in Mandarin first and then English, I encouraged them to step behind the instructor podium and teach content, demonstrating a deep understanding of each grammar element.


Did Students Appreciate Our Flipped Class?

Out of twenty-five students, twenty-one reported that they learned more about their own specific grammar pitfalls and how to avoid them by participating in the interactive lecture, social media posts, and flipped class. Accordingly, all of them thought their syntax-level American English grammar improved because they knew their specific concerns up-front.

Students flipping the class

Students further narrated their thoughts on postcards:


Learning the Snow App




My Reflection 
For me, strategies such as flipped classes engage students in participatory learning, without fear of grading or making mistakes. This assignment is multimodal because students use real-time ed-tech to see a snapshot of their grammar issues and then participate in face-to-face interactions with other students with similar concerns, supplemented by social media. “Flipped Grammar” counts for me, in terms of multimodal composition, because it encourages students to reflect on their own grammar challenges and become active participants in community-driven, digital conversations about writing. Try the “flip” and let me know what you think!


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


Jeanne Law Bohannon is an Assistant Professor of English in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Kennesaw State University. She believes in creating democratic learning spaces, where students become stakeholders in their own rhetorical growth though authentic engagement in class communities. Her research interests include evaluating digital literacies and critical engagement pedagogies; performing feminist rhetorical recoveries; and growing informed and empowered student scholars. Reach Jeanne at and

iPhone charging


Off and on (mostly on) since 1990, I have spent a good part of my summers at the Bread Loaf Graduate School of English, near Middlebury in Vermont’s Green Mountains. You are probably already aware of this MA program, certainly so if you have read my posts over the last six years, and know that I am a big fan of Bread Loaf—especially of the teachers who arrive each summer to pursue the study of language, literature, writing, rhetoric, and performance.


This summer I am not teaching (I’m now supposed to be retired!), but I spent a week on the mountain reading, writing, and talking with teachers about their students, about student writing and reading, and about their plans for this next school year. As always, I came away deeply inspired by what I learned. While I could talk glowingly about the Ken Macrorie writing centers, which I helped to start a few years ago and which are thriving under the leadership of Beverly Moss, or about the fabulous courses Brenda Brueggemann is teaching about disabilities and literature and about writing pedagogy, or about the brilliant production of Othello that the theater group mounted from scratch, I came away most excited about the Next Generation Leadership Network, an initiative of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network (led by Beverly and Dixie Goswami), Middlebury College, and Georgia Tech’s Westside Community Alliance (spearheaded by the incomparable Jackie Royster).


Funded by the Ford Foundation, the NGLN will engage young people, ages fifteen to twenty-one, in underserved communities across the nation. The program will help in developing robust knowledge and leadership, as well as organizing networked social, civic, and academic activities aimed at strengthening public and community-based education. The leaders of this project draw on grass roots initiatives in Lawrence, MA; Atlanta, GA; rural South Carolina; Appalachian Kentucky; the Navajo Nation; and rural Vermont to form social action teams aiming to change the national narrative about the capabilities, passions, and dreams of youth often viewed as deficient—or simply ignored. Through youth-centered think tanks, where young people and their mentors will gather physically and electronically, the teams will develop strategic plans for individual and collective social action. NGLN is founded on a deep and abiding belief in the strengths of young people to create and share knowledge, to build from experience, and to engage in strategic problem solving that can deeply enrich our understanding of 21st century literacies as multimodal and action centered performances.


Thanks to the determination and very hard work of people like Dixie Goswami, Jackie Royster, Beverly Moss, Lou Bernieri, Ceci Lewis, Brent Peters, Rex Lee Jim, and a host of others, the Next Generation Leadership Network is gearing up for a year of organizing and meeting—and, most of all, listening to young people across the country as they discuss how they hope to realize their potential as national leaders in literacy education. I am expecting big things from all of them!


Credit: Pixaby Image 2286442 by rawpixel, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

(A Sample Writing Prompt from Philadelphia-based Project.)


It is the second week of class. Students’ initial enthusiasm about working with Syrian human rights activists and North African students on confronting ISIS recruitment efforts has turned to apprehension, confusion, and concern. (See  my previous post on the teaching challenges of this topic and approach.) The political theory and regional histories have both emphasized the complex reality of the work and seemingly positioned such work as impossible.


As a teacher, it is at these moments that I have often turned to the drafting of writing prompts, which is an important way to shrink the project into a manageable size. The work becomes solely focused on that initial conversation with a community partner.  While initiating a conversation with communities who are in Syracuse and in North Africa might seem particularly difficult, the process of using writing prompts as a tool to explore hidden assumptions remains pretty much the same.  In general, I ask students to develop the prompts through a series of drafts.


1. The Prompt as Summary of Assigned Readings

As students begin to complete the assigned readings that provide a theoretical framework for the class, I ask them to draft a writing prompt that will begin their conversation with one of our community partners. Almost by default, the students tend to draft prompts that echo the terms of assigned readings and, really, are versions of writing assignments they might receive in other classes. We use these prompts to talk about the difference between ways of speaking in an academic community versus “everyday” communities. They are then tasked, in groups, to keep the intellectual framework in class intact but to revise one student’s writing prompt into more ordinary language. I also stress the variety of possible genres – poetry, memoir, photography, etc.


2. The Prompt as Rhetorical Invitation

As the students begin to revise a prompt for an “everyday” audience and share them in class, the language begins to reveal how they imagine their relationship to the community. Students often imagine themselves in the position of providing a service to an “impoverished community.” The prompt questions will ask partners to share hardships – not successes, positioning the community partner’s neighborhood as full of problematic issues – not as possessing attributes of collective insight and actions. Students are then asked to return to drafting the prompt, paying attention to how the community is framed.


3. The Prompt as Equal Invitation

As prompts are being revised into gestures of respect toward the community, the students must also turn their attention to choosing a topic which can begin to open up a dialogue with the community. The goal is to frame a conversation where the full life and school-based experiences of all those involved are seen as valuable to the work at hand. In a university environment premised on “expertise,” finding appropriate language to create this space is a particularly challenging task.


4. The Prompt Completed

Once the language of the prompt is completed, design becomes a key issue. Handing out photocopied sheets full of blank ink shows disrespect for everyone in the project. For that reason, once the writing is done, images need to be found that echo the stance of the prompt. As with all other elements of this process, choosing an image is also an opportunity for students to question their cultural assumptions about the community and their own relationship to it. Images of “urban poverty,” a typical first suggestion, might ultimately be replaced with images of collaboration, collective work, and visions of progress.


5. Community Review

Finally, any completed prompt will be reviewed by the lead community partner – the ally with whom the project was initiated. This might involve the partner attending a class session to point out where the language/images could be unintentionally insulting or misrepresenting the community’s self-image. This is a vital step and, as with all other moments in this process, demonstrates what it means to establish a partnership in terms of equality and respect – where everyone is working together on the issue to be addressed.


There is one final point to make about writing prompts: students should not be the only source. Rather, prior to the first common meeting, each partnering group should develop their own prompts. This ensures that everyone is in the position of “asking questions” and that each group goes through the same process of testing their cultural assumptions about other communities while practicing language that invites full participation by those communities. (As the partners take on such work, I often find it useful to be there as well.) The community’s creation of prompts may not be as time intensive as the students, given they will often have life responsibilities, but it is just as important.


When all the partners finally talk as a collective, one prompt from each group will be used to begin that conversation. This process can be as organized as directly assigning the prompts to specific selected groups. It can be as improvised as allowing individuals to choose a prompt then forming groups according to what prompt was selected. In both cases, the opening session should include individuals reading the results of their work – enacting the moment when community dialogue begins. (If possible, all the writing produced should be collected, as it provides insight into how individuals are imagining their emerging community as well as material for any possible publication.)


As I write this, my class and our community partners are still actively producing their prompts, exploring cultural assumptions, and thinking through that opening moment of conversation. It is difficult work, often frustrating to students. Still, my students also seem to be finding comfort and security knowing that the immensity of the work to come can become as focused as the conversation through which the work will emerge.

Las Vegas Mandalay Bay by Anthony Quintano on Flickr, under a CC-BY 2.0 license

Image Long Description: Color close-up photo of the iconic lighted "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign.

I stayed up all Sunday night into Monday afternoon, listening to the radio traffic from the Las Vegas police. Somehow it seemed more truthful than the repeated loops of phone videos on CNN, videos that seemed primarily to show jostled phones rather than anything informative. I couldn’t tell everything that was going on, but I could hear the active work to care for the safety of the people in Las Vegas. At a time when I didn’t (and still don’t) have the ability to actively work against the tragic events, it was somehow soothing to hear the voices of people who could and were doing something.


As I write this now, colleagues on the discussion list (WPA-L) of the Council of Writing Program Administrators are talking about whether to address the shooting with students and if they do address it, what they should say. Their discussion thread has the subject line Responding to Las Vegas in Class? Teachers are weighing in there with advice and strategies.


For my students, I wish I had a magic ability to know what to say to make it better, but no one can take the tragedy of it all away. My students are juniors and seniors, taking business writing and technical writing. The shooting doesn’t really connect to the subject matter, but I want to give them space to talk if they need it.


As I considered how to set up a place for their conversation, I was reminded of a piece that I wrote for NCTE ten years ago, in the aftermath of another tragedy. I shared a slightly revised excerpt on the WPA discussion list, and I want to share it here with you as well. While this piece refers to a middle-school journal, the idea is relevant for all levels.


Stories of Tragedies

Revised from the April 17, 2007 post of the NCTE Inbox blog


In his Voices from the Middle article “Difficult Days and Difficult Texts,” Bob Probst talks about the value of stories. “Stories,” he tells us, “will save us, if anything will” (50). Writing of the events of September 11, but just as applicable to the events in Las Vegas, Probst explains, “Part of the problem with understanding . . . was that we had an event, but didn’t yet have a story. All we had at that point was an image, a happening” (53). No matter how old the students we may interact with are, our job as teachers is to help them find the stories:


  • stories of their connections to people in Las Vegas,
  • stories of their own reflections on the events,
  • stories of police and rescue workers who responded,
  • stories of political reactions and implications,
  • stories of the social networks supporting them,
  • stories of the news media’s coverage,
  • stories of their own outrage, sadness, and horror,
  • stories of their fears and where they have found security,
  • stories of how such a thing could happen, and
  • stories of how we all can and must continue on.


As we meet with students and difficult events come up, the most important thing we can do is invite stories and respond to them as empathetic and encouraging readers. As Probst says, “Stories will save us, if anything will.”


The Tragedy of Needing This Post

 There are too many tragedies, as we all know. I have had to share a version of this post three times now—after the shootings at Virginia Tech, after the shootings at Newtown, and now, after the shootings in Las Vegas. I would love to never revise it again, but the reality of today’s world leaves me little hope.


For now, I will do what I can by asking students to share the stories they want and need to and to work together to find ways to move beyond the tragedy. It doesn’t feel like the active work that we need as a society to stop these tragedies from occurring, but it’s what I can do and what students need. That has to be good enough for now.


If you have a response to the tragedy that you can share, particularly advice on how to talk with students, please leave a comment below to help all of us do what we can to help students move forward.



Credit: Las Vegas Mandalay Bay by Anthony Quintano on Flickr, under a CC-BY 2.0 license