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So Thor is back, hammering his way to another blockbusting run at the box office. But this time, it's almost as if the producers of Thor: Ragnarok read an analysis I posted to this blog on November 11, 2013, when Thor: The Dark World appeared, because some interesting things have happened to the franchise this time around that seem to be in reaction to what I argued back then. So let's have a look first at what I said in 2013, before turning to the present. Here's what I said then:


Well, the dude with the big hammer just pulled off the biggest box office debut for quite some time, and such a commercial success calls for some semiotic attention.


There is an obvious system within which to situate Thor: The Dark World and thus begin our analysis. This, of course, is the realm of the cinematic superhero, a genre that has absolutely dominated Hollywood film making for quite some time now. Whether featuring such traditional superheroes as Batman, Spider Man, and Superman, or such emergent heavies as Iron Man and even (gulp!) Kick-Ass, the superhero movie is a widely recognized signifier of Hollywood’s timid focus on tried-and-true formulae that offer a high probability of box office success due to their pre-existing audiences of avid adolescent males. Add to this the increasingly observed cultural phenomenon that adulthood is the new childhood (or thirty is the new fourteen), and you have a pretty clear notion of at least a prominent part of the cultural significance of Thor’s recent coup.


But I want to look at a somewhat different angle on this particular superhero’s current dominance that I haven’t seen explored elsewhere. This is the fact that, unlike all other superheroes, Thor comes from an actual religion (I recognize that this bothered Captain America’s Christian sensibilities in The Avengers, but a god is a god). And while the exploitation of their ancestors’ pagan beliefs is hardly likely to disturb any modern Scandinavians, this cartoonish revision of an extinct cultural mythology is still just a little peculiar. I mean, why Thor and not, say, Apollo, or even Dionysus?


I think the explanation is two-fold here, and culturally significant in both parts. The first is that the Nordic gods were, after all, part of a pantheon of warriors, complete with a kind of locker/war room (Valhalla) and a persistent enemy (the Jotuns, et al) whose goal was indeed to destroy the world. [ That the enemies of the Nordic gods were destined to win a climactic battle over Thor and company (the Ragnarok, or Wagnerian Gotterdammerung), is an interesting feature of the mythology that may or may not occur in a future installment of the movie franchise.] But the point is that Norse mythology offers a ready-made superhero saga to a market hungering for clear-cut conflicts between absolute bad guys whose goal is to destroy the world and well-muscled good guys who oppose them: a simple heroes vs. villains tale.

You don’t find this in Greek mythology, which is always quite complicated and rather more profound in its probing of the complexities and contradictions of human life and character.


But I suspect that there is something more at work here. I mean, Wagner, the Third Reich’s signature composer, didn’t choose Norse mythology as the framework for his most famous opera by accident. And the fact is that you just don’t get any more Aryan than blonde Thor is (isn’t it interesting that the troublesome Loki, though part of the Norse pantheon too, somehow doesn’t have blonde hair? Note also in this regard how the evil Wormtongue in Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings also seems to be the only non-blonde among the blonde Rohirrim). The Greeks, for their part, weren’t blondes. So is the current popularity of this particular Norse god a reflection of a coded nostalgia for a whiter world? In this era of increasing racial insecurity as America’s demographic identity shifts, I can’t help but think so.


OK, so that was then, what about now? Let's just say that the "white nationalist" march at Charlottesville has clearly brought out into the open what was still lurking on the margins in 2013, and I would hazard to guess that a good number of the khaki-clad crew with their tiki torches and lightning bolt banners were (and are) Thor fans. So I'll stand by my 2013 interpretation. And as for the most recent installment in the Thor saga, well, I can almost see the producers of Thor: Ragnarok having the following pre-production conversation:


Producer 1: The semioticians are on to us.


Producer 2: Oh woe, alas, and alack!


Producer 3: I've got it: let's give Thor a haircut this time, and, you know, brown out those blonde tones!


Producer 1: Good, but not good enough.


Producer 2: Oh woe, alas, and alack!


Producer 3: Tessa Thompson is available to play Valkyrie.


Producer 1: Good, but not good enough.


Producer 2: Oh woe, alas, and alack!


Producer 3: Idris Elba is available too.


Producer 1: Good, but not good enough.


Producer 2: Oh woe, alas, and alack!


Producer 3: You do know that Taika Waititi is a Jewish Maori, don't you, and that he's available too?


Producer 1: I see a concept here.


Producer 2: Oh goodie, campy superheroes!


Producer 3: And surely no one will object to Jeff Goldblum playing one of the evil Elders of the Universe, because surely no one remembers the anti-Semitic forgery "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" that Hitler made such use of.


Producer 1: We didn't hear that.


Producer 2: Oh woe, alas, and alack!


Producer 3: We’ll paint a blue stripe on Jeff's chin. No one will make the connection.


Producer 1: It’s a wrap!


I rest my case.

I’ve been thinking of this book ever since I heard Rankine speak at the 2017 Feminisms and Rhetorics conference at the University of Dayton this fall. She spoke candidly and passionately to our primarily white audience and held me spellbound: her descriptions of her (many, constant) encounters with racism and sexism not only rang bare-bones-honest-true, but they also challenged me to examine once again my own participation in our racist society. As much as I have thought about and written about white women’s failure to recognize and resist such racism, as much as I have tried to examine and reexamine my own actions over my lifetime and to interrogate my positionality, I find I still have much more work to do. Much more.


I expect the same could be said for many other white teachers of writing, as well as of many of our students. Coming to terms with my own racist background is thus an ongoing process, and it’s not an easy or pretty one. So I am especially grateful to writers like Rankine, who are able to let me see the world through their eyes, at least to the extent that I am capable. Which brings me to Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. The New York Times review of this volume, also published in 2014, begins like this:

In light of the national demonstrations over the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, it’s tempting to describe “Citizen,” Claudia Rankine’s latest volume of poetry, as “timely.” Even the cover image of a floating hoodie, its sleeves and torso cut away, seems timely. Any American viewing it would immediately recall a certain black teenager who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in February 2012. But this work, by the artist David Hammons, was created in 1993 — well before Trayvon Martin was even born.


And this seems to be part of Rankine’s conceit: What passes as news for some (white) readers is simply quotidian lived experience for (black) others.

Rankine’s book treats the murder of young black men in a series of vignettes—prose poems—that cascade across the pages of the book, their lives held momentarily in suspension. Other entries render personal experiences with the constant and debilitating pressures of racist acts and comments. A longer section on Serena Williams left me in tears of rage—but also of recognition. No wonder Rankine’s book received the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and the 2015 PEN Open Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism.


But it’s hard to limit this text to the genre of poetry: it is poetry, and it isn’t. It’s a meditation; it’s part memoir; as the title proclaims, it is a lyric; it’s a series of narratives, of stories, of painful encounters. And it is experimental, deeply so. To take just one example, Rankine’s use of personal pronouns catches readers up, leaving us unable to make easy assumptions about who is speaking:

            And still this life parts your lids, you see

            you seeing your extending hand

            as a falling wave—

            I they he she we you turn

            only to discover

            the encounter

            to be alien to this place.

            Wait.   (140)


So who is the “you” Rankine refers to over and over in this book? That’s one of the questions I’d begin with in reading this text with students. When do they feel that they occupy that “you” space and when not? And why? In my very diverse classes, answers to these questions are sure to vary and to generate thoughtful reflections that can open up conversation about the current divisions among us. So, I think I’d put Rankine’s work near the beginning of a writing course, ready to take it one page, one meditation, one insight at a time.


In times like these, teachers of writing need Claudia Rankine. And so do our students.

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


Over the past couple of decades, Writing Studies scholars have become increasingly interested in exploring aurality and promoting the teaching of writing with sound. The aural mode affords instructors the opportunity to teach writing and rhetoric, and more generally, strong communication abilities.


I recently orchestrated an in-class mini-project that alternates between sound analysis and sound writing. The project calls for students to engage in critical listening to identify sonic rhetorical strategies and their effects, then work to concretize and expand that knowledge with their own sound writing. By the end of the mini-project, students will have collaboratively produced a chart that identifies the potentialities of sonic rhetorical strategies, which can later be used as a reference for a high-stakes audio project. Also, they will have individually composed a low-stakes aural representation of a photograph, which is intended to teach them more about rhetoric, sonic rhetorical strategies, sound interaction, and the value of play and experimentation in audio composing.



The following activity has multiple steps: instructors may choose not to do all of them or assign some of the in-class work for homework. In its entirety, the mini-project requires approximately 4-6 hours of in-class time, depending on the class level and students’ previous knowledge, and two homework assignments. The activity, as it stands, assumes students will have already learned about the affordances and constraints of the aural mode and sonic rhetorical strategies as well as how to use basic editing techniques in Audacity, a free audio software program.



Step #1: Ask students to compose an alphabetic description of a personal photograph for homework, then bring the description to class. Explain the mini-project and its purpose. Supply them with a blank version of the below chart; the chart I’ve included here is for instructor reference and includes some of the rhetorical potentialities of the five sonic rhetorical strategies explained in Rodrigue et al’s “Navigating the Soundscape, Composing with Audio.”




Sound Effects

Sound Interaction


1. Establishes tone, atmosphere, and setting

2. Creates mood

3. Evokes emotion

4. Functions as a transition (that juxtaposes and bridges sound)

5. Situates something in a particular culture or moment in history

6. Evokes personal associations

7. Triggers collective cultural and generational memories

8. Captures and preserves personal memories

1. Evokes emotion (on its own or via stark contrast with another sound)

2. Brings awareness or demands attention

3. Allows time for audience to construct meaning, make connections, reflect, think, and ask questions

4. Provides structure (like paragraphs do in an alphabetic text)

5. Indicates shifts in time, location, or perspective

6.Signals change

1. Provides information about a scene

2. Serves as a cue reference

3. Assists in mood creation

4. Evokes emotion

5. Triggers memories

6. Denotes an idea

7. Functions as a symbol

8. Works as a transition

9. Provides coherence


1. Juxtaposes sound

2. Creates harmony among sounds

3. Creates emphasis

4. Constructs tone

5. Builds meaning

6. Provides cohesion

7. Creates an environment or denotes place, space, or location

8. Provides transitions between/among rhetorical strategies


1. Conveys emotions

2. Produces different effects based on vocal qualities (for example: vocal tension creates sarcasm; soft and breathy voice conveys intimacy; tense and unwavering voice elicits emotional detachment)

3. Establishes a person’s identity  

4. Builds a connection with the audience

5. Denotes a setting


Step #2: Divide students into groups and assign each group a sonic rhetorical strategy. Ask them to return to the reading on their assigned strategy (music, silence, sound effects, sound interaction, or voice) and begin filling in the chart, identifying the rhetorical effects discussed in the article.


Step #3: Voice Analysis and Voice in Sound Writing

  • Play excerpts of audio that work with voice in unique and interesting ways. I recommend using Erin Anderson’s “What Hadn’t Happened” and Love + Radio’s “A Girl of Ivory.” (These two examples prompt interesting discussion about voice mixing, voice merging, and giving voice to those who do not have one, and their rhetorical impacts). Facilitate a discussion about how voice functions rhetorically in each example, adding or clarifying the student-identified rhetorical potentialities of voice in the sonic rhetorical strategy chart.
  • Ask students to open up a new file in Audacity and begin composing the aural representation of their photograph with voice. Students can use their own or someone else’s voice. They can record using Audacity, a cell phone voice app (voice memo or TapeACall to record phone calls), or provided recorders. Alternately, they can rip audio from the Internet (click here for tutorials and resources). Remind them to be thoughtful about how they are rhetorically employing voice.
  • In a free-write or brief discussion, ask students to respond to the question: What did this step in the activity teach you about voice?


Step #4: Music Analysis and Music in Sound Writing

  • Play excerpts of audio that work with music in unique and interesting ways. Alternately, you might show them this brief video on the rhetorical nature of music. (Thank you to Kate Artz for introducing me to this resource.) Facilitate a discussion about how music functions rhetorically in each example, adding or clarifying the student-identified rhetorical potentialities of music in the sonic rhetorical strategy chart.
  • Ask students to incorporate music into their aural representation, using a song downloaded from Bensound or Adobe Music Loops & Beds. Remind students to be rhetorically thoughtful. Ask them to take notes responding to this question: How might the strategies function individually and together to help you achieve your rhetorical goals?
  • In a free-write or brief discussion, ask students to respond to this question: What did this step in the activity teach you about music and sound interaction?


Step #5: Sound Effects/Silence Analysis and Sound Effects/Silence in Sound Writing

  • Play excerpts of audio that work with sound effects or silence in interesting ways. I recommend using Danah Hashem’s A Week in March for sound effects and Kate Artz’s “The Conversation” for silence. Again, facilitate a discussion about how sound effects or silence functions rhetorically in the example, adding or clarifying the student-identified rhetorical potentialities of sound effects or silence in the sonic rhetorical strategy chart.
  • Ask your students to incorporate sound effects or silence into their aural representation, again reminding them to be thoughtful about the rhetorical effects they’d like to achieve with this strategy. Ask them to take notes responding to this question: How might the strategies function individually and collaboratively to help you achieve your rhetorical goals?
  • In a free-write or brief discussion, ask students to respond to the question: What did this step in the activity teach you about sound effects or silence and sound interaction?


Step #6:

  • At this point, students should have a complete aural representation of their photograph. Instruct them to save the Audacity file and export it as an mp3 file. Now, ask students to take up their aural representation and do something to alter its original form for a different or the same rhetorical purpose. Students may choose to add, edit, delete, or modify an asset, or remix the project or parts of it. In preparation for this step, I encourage instructors to facilitate Using Play to Teach Writing in efforts to teach students about the value of play in audio composing.
  • In a free-write or brief discussion, ask students to respond to the question: What did this step in the activity teach you about revision, play, and experimentation with sonic rhetorical strategies and audio in general?


Step #7: The final step in this mini-project is an alphabetic homework assignment that asks students to reflect on these questions: What did this activity teach you about the affordances and constraints of the aural mode, sonic rhetorical strategies, and rhetoric and writing in general terms? What kinds of insights, questions, or challenges emerged during our collaborative analysis of examples, mini-discussions, and/or the creation of your aural representation? After students submit the homework, I encourage teachers to facilitate a discussion about what students wrote in their reflections.

Social Media Remote by Animated Heaven on Flickr, used under Public DomainLast week, I shared a critical thinking activity that asked students to explore the definitions of digital native and digital literacy. With my activity this week, I ask students to consider the idea of online identity. I cover several aspects of online identity, so I will share several posts on the topic. Today’s post focuses on an activity that shifts from digital literacy to the online identity that someone builds with those literacy skills. This activity should take only one class session.

The Activity

  1. Have students review the characteristics of the terms digital native and digital literacy, which the class established during previous sessions. Make any updates or changes that students want to the characteristics.
  2. With the characteristics fresh in students’ minds, explain that the class will apply the ideas by discussing the digital literacy skills that a public figure needs today.
    NOTE: Focus the discussion on particular public figures to ensure that you can complete the discussion during one class session. Consider the public figures in the instructions below as examples. Choose other public figures if they will work better for your class.
  3. Ask students about the digital literacy skills that a state politician or the school’s president needs and why those skills are needed. Ask them to consider the role rhetorical factors play—how do the audience, purpose, and context matter in terms of the necessary digital literacy skills? Record their responses on one side of the board or similar display.
  4. Once students have the basic characteristics determined, explain that you want them to think about how the digital literacy skills they expect would change (or not) if the public figure were a digital native, recording their answers on the other side of the display. Provide a concrete example such as the student government president or a class president. Encourage students to address the same ideas that they considered for the first public figure they analyzed. If new ideas come up for the digital native public figure, have students consider whether it applies to the older public figure (and if not, why not).
  5. With details recorded for both public figures, connect the conversation to online identity. Explain generally that online identity is the personality someone builds as they use their digital literacy skills. Provide only a brief definition. Students will have a working idea of what the term online identity means. The goal here is to ask students to record their preliminary ideas about the concept in preparation of deeper analysis.
  6. Arrange students into four small groups, asking two groups to consider the state politician or school president and the other two to consider the student government president or a class president. In their small groups, ask students to brainstorm a list of artifacts that they would expect to find if they investigated their public figure’s online identity.
  7. To get them started, you can offer the guiding questions below, but indicate these are just some opening questions. Groups can add many more questions of their own to these starting points:
    • What kind of social media accounts would you expect the figure to have?
    • What sites would you expect the figure to have logins on?
    • Where would you expect the figure to post comments?
    • Where would you find photos that figure posted online?
  8. Depending upon the amount of time left in the class, students can either present their brainstormed lists, combining the ideas to create one list for the state politician or school president and the other two to consider the student government president or a class president. If you have run out of time, ask groups to turn in their lists and combine the lists before the next session.
  9. End the session by explaining that you will use these lists as a starting point for a research project on online identity that you will begin during the next class session. Ask students to continue thinking about online identity, and to jot down any additional ideas they think of to add to their lists at the beginning of the next session.

Follow-Up Activities

Depending upon your course textbook, you might ask students to read an essay about establishing identity, whether online or not. The Bedford/St. Martin's title Acting Out Culture (4th ed, 2018) includes a chapter on “How We Identify” that offers a variety of relevant essays. If you want students to read specifically about online identity, Daniel Ruefman’s “Taking Control: Managing Your Online Identity for the Job Search” from Writing Commons frames the topic in terms that students can relate to personally.

Any Ideas to Add?

Let me hear your suggestions for talking about online identity and digital literacy in the composition classroom. Whether you have an assignment, a great reading, or another resource to share, I would love to see what you have to say. I might even feature your idea in an upcoming post!


[Photo: Social Media Remote by Animated Heaven on Flickr, used under Public Domain]

Today's guest blogger is Kim Haimes-Korna 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.


This is my semester to play with Google. I am loving my Google Drive and finding many new ways to use it in my classes. I have challenged myself to search out creative ways to use these tools and come to understand its many features. My classes have always encouraged collaboration and student voices, and these affordances help me achieve that in ways I could not have imagined. I was motivated early on this semester and talked about a peer responding activity in my last post, Grab-and-Go Galleries. Below I describe the results of this challenge and present Five for the Drive – a list of writing and collaborative activities for easy implementation in your courses.


Background Reading

  • The St. Martin’s Handbook:  Ch. 3 a-d, “Exploring, Planning and Drafting”; Ch. 7 a-e, Reading Critically”; Ch. 12, “Evaluating Sources and Taking Notes”
  • The Everyday Writer (also available with exercises): Ch. 9 a-e, “Critical Reading”; Ch.14 a-e, “Evaluating Sources and Taking Notes”
  • EasyWriter (also available with exercises): Ch. 2 a-e, “Exploring, Planning and Drafting”; Ch. 7 a-c, “Analyzing and Reading Critically”; Ch. 14 a-d, “Evaluating Sources and Taking Notes”


Five for the Drive

  1. Generating Text-Specific Passages. In order to teach strong interpretive reading and writing, we encourage our students to focus on specific passages and references in a text. For this activity, students pull a significant passage from a reading selection and post it to a document in our drive at the beginning of class. All students had to participate and created a real-time collaborative document that we could immediately refer to during our class discussion.
  2. Generating Thought-Provoking Questions. A modification of the activity above, this activity asks students to come up with 3 thought-provoking questions in response to a reading selection and post them to a Drive document. I used to assign students to submit an index card with these questions and then type them up myself at home. Now, students create them in real time so my homework is no longer necessary. I then break them into small groups to discuss these student-generated questions.
  3. Collaborative Slide Show. For this activity, I want to give students practice explicating a poem and working with visual representation. I created a template in Google Slides in which each student in a group is responsible for a single slide. They focus on part of the poem, write their interpretation and include an associated digital image (from Creative Commons and available for re-use). The template also includes a slide for collaborative takeaways and one for linking critical sources that works as a collaborative annotated bibliography. Students create this during a single class period and present to the class the following day.
  4. Catalog of Working Titles and Abstracts. For all the writing projects in my classes, I encourage the processes of invention – exploring and planning--that students share with each other for peer feedback. This activity teaches students to write engaging titles and summarize and focus their projects. Each student posts a working title and short description to the drive for immediate sharing and feedback. This becomes a reference document for students to keep each other’s projects in mind for ongoing suggestions and feedback. The Google Doc gives students the flexibility to change and shape their working titles and direction as they research and draft.
  5. Revision Log: When assigning digital writing (such as blogs) it is often difficult to track drafts and revision for student reflection and evaluation. I have students keep an ongoing revision log on their Google Drive in which they record and categorize changes they make as they make them. They complete a short reflection at the end in which they look at global changes and patterns of revision along with a self-evaluation of their progress.



These activities give teachers easy ways to emphasize and regularize collaboration in their classes. They are especially helpful in larger enrollment classes that might not have as many opportunities for collaboration. They show that team-work does not have to always be associated with long form projects and can be part of engaged, daily work in the classroom. These activities work well because they . . .

  • Give all students a voice and a chance to express their ideas.
  • Allow for immediate presentation of ideas in class.
  • Put the work on the students, rather than the teacher.
  • Provide quick, in-class access through phones and devices.
  • Create open-ended documents for ongoing work across a semester.


Want to be a guest blogger on Multimodal Mondays? Message Leah Rang for more information.

Donna Winchell

Symbolism and Protest

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Nov 24, 2017


Standing for the Pledge of Allegiance used to be a matter of course, something most of us took for granted.  The rare exception when I was a child was the family who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and who since 1943 had had a Constitutional right to sit during the Pledge. We were curious why our friend Becky sat out the Pledge and had a vague notion that it had something to do with what church she went to, but we didn’t worry about it or think that she loved our country any less than the rest of us. We were more concerned that members of her church thought all the rest of us were going to hell. It would be nice to think that even as children we understood that our flag symbolized Becky’s freedom not to do something that was against her religion. 


What the flag symbolizes is at the heart of the current controversy about taking a knee during the National Anthem. Clearly there is a huge difference in opinions. Not standing for the National Anthem is viewed by some as a sign of disrespect. What exactly is being disrespected when an NFL player takes a knee instead of standing when the anthem is played? Is it the flag or something that the flag symbolizes?  The flag being honored by the anthem symbolizes our country and, by extension, the freedoms guaranteed us as citizens of that country. Ironically, one of those freedoms is the freedom to protest peacefully. 


There has been a law regarding the appropriate behavior during the National Anthem since 1932, but the law has been revised six times since then, and there are no penalties specified for not behaving appropriately. The laws have generally differentiated between behavior when the flag is displayed during the anthem and when it is not. The focus from the beginning was more on behavior during the playing of the song than on behavior regarding the flag. When the flag is not displayed, audience members are supposed to stand and face the band. 


Is the refusal to stand for the National Anthem a show of disrespect for America’s servicemen and servicewomen? Is the flag a symbol of the military? “The Star Spangled Banner” was the anthem for the U. S. Navy before it was our national anthem. Perhaps the anthem is associated with those in the armed services because different behavior has always been expected from those in or having served in the military than from others—whether it was saluting or holding military headgear near the left shoulder so that the hand was over the heart. 


Colin Kaepernick has made it clear from the beginning what he is protesting. He is protesting mistreatment of American citizens by other American citizens in positions of power. He sat on the bench for two games, and his silent protest was only noticed the third game. At that point, his teammate Eric Reid talked to him and retired Green Beret and former NFL player Nate Boyer about how to continue the protest. Reid writes, “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” He continues, “It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.


Credit to skeeze posted on Pixaby June 21, 2014 via Creative Commons


This Thanksgiving, I’m having some trouble giving thanks. The increasing horror of mass shootings and senseless loss of life; the revelation of unthinkable acts of sexual harassment; the moral and spiritual decay in Congress; the combination of incompetence, corruption, and mean-spiritedness of the Trump administration; the ugliness, racism, and hatred unleashed through fake news, misinformation, and outright lies online; the cataclysmic natural disasters—all leave me feeling on the verge of hopelessness and despair.


But I don’t think I can give in to that hopelessness and despair. And so I turn, as I so often do, to one of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, who reminds me that

          “Hope” is the thing with feathers -

          That perches in the soul -

          And sings the tune without the words -

          And never stops - at all –

That “never stops - at all ” becomes a mantra for me, and it takes me to another thinker I admire and often turn to on dark days. Cornel West, Professor of Public Philosophy at Harvard and Professor Emeritus at Princeton, has written and spoken extensively and eloquently on the need for hope, as in this excerpt from a commencement address he gave at Wesleyan University:

Last, but not least, there is a need for audacious hope. And it's not optimism. I'm in no way an optimist. I've been black in America for 39 years. No ground for optimism here, given the progress and regress and three steps forward and four steps backward. Optimism is a notion that there's sufficient evidence that would allow us to infer that if we keep doing what we're doing, things will get better. I don't believe that. I'm a prisoner of hope, that's something else. Cutting against the grain, against the evidence. William James said it so well in that grand and masterful essay of his of 1879 called "The Sentiment of Rationality," where he talked about faith being the courage to act when doubt is warranted. And that's what I'm talking about.

What particularly lifts me up in this passage is not just the emphasis on hope but the linking of hope and courage. In a tweet on November 21, 2013 (right around Thanksgiving time), West wrote, “Faith, hope and love are the three pillars of deep spirituality -- yet it is courage that enables all three.”


Those words have what my grandmother called “stick-to-it-iveness”: they stick to me like they are a part of me, tattooed on my heart. It’s not enough to hope, or to be a “prisoner of hope.” Rather, we need to activate that hope through courage. And in this regard, I begin to feel more hopeful and more full of thanks: for the good, decent, strong women (and men) who have the courage to run for local and national offices for the first time ever; for the very few in Congress who have the courage to speak truth to power; for the teachers all over the United States who have the courage to enter their classrooms day after day full of hope and love; and to the women (and men) who have the courage to come forward and name those who have sexually harassed and abused them. In all these cases, it is the courage that enables hope that allows for hope.


And that’s a lot to be thankful for this season. I wish peace and hope and love—and courage—for you and your students this Thanksgiving, and always.


Credit: Pixaby Image 2261476 by andreahamilton264, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

One of the monumental tasks facing developmental English instructors in post-redesign institutions is how to provide just-in-time professional development for teachers who do not have experience teaching in an integrated classroom.  Pairing reading and writing specialists to collaborate on assignments and syllabus development provides one effective strategy. Brief workshops throughout the term can also be helpful. Here is one relatively simple reflection activity for a short workshop designed to support new IRW instructors.


To conduct the activity, ask instructors to complete a short reading assignment and a brief writing assignment, each no more than 3-7 minutes in length. After each task, have instructors reflect on what they did: how did they start? How often did they stop and return to the instructions? Where did they look during the process? What were some of the steps they followed?  Ideally, instructors would complete these assignments using screencasting or recording equipment, so that they could review their process afterwards and make more detailed comments.


After instructors have made notes on what they did, ask them to consider which process they were able to document more fully: reading or writing? Very often, our familiarity with one or the other in the classroom makes us much more attentive to our idiosyncratic patterns or practices in that area—reading teachers may analyze their reading techniques in much more detail than their writing habits, while writing teachers may do the opposite.


As teachers reflect on differences in their own awareness, encourage reading and writing instructors to work together to probe and expand their reflections. Reading teachers, for example, may encourage writing counterparts to consider movement backward or forwards in the text, or (if it was a particularly challenging text) the speed or timing of adjustments to initial hypotheses about the text. Writing instructors might ask colleagues to consider the role of planning prior to the first written words, or the amount of revision that occurred during the writing process.  Participants may also consider how rhetorical contexts informed both the reading and writing they did: how did a potential audience influence the writing task? How did awareness of an intended audience impact the reading assignment? Finally, the instructors might investigate how they would assess the effectiveness of their performance: how do they know if they read well or wrote well? Did some instructors have very different—but equally successful—processes?


If there is time, have participants complete a second set of activities and reflections, noting what additional insights they gained about their own reading and writing processes.


This simple workshop activity—reading/writing, reflection, discussion—will of course not make anyone into a stellar IRW instructor right away. But as instructors build awareness of their own reading and writing processes, they raise critical questions which can enhance both their future professional development and their interactions with students.


What is the best professional development for integrated reading and writing in your experience?


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

Digital Natives: An Infographic Series about Emerging Adults, from Oxford University PressVirginia Tech Libraries are embarking on a digital literacy initiative, which focuses on “support[ing] all learners in exploring, evaluating, creating, and sharing a variety of digital content, including data, information, and media.” This work matches much of the work I have been doing all along in the writing classroom when I talk about digital resources and digital composing.


For the next few weeks, I will share some relevant classroom activities and assignments that align with the digital literacy work on my campus. I’m starting my series with an activity that focuses on defining what it means to be a digital native and, by extension, what we mean when we talk about digital literacy. Establishing an understanding of these two terms provides the support for all the future activities in this series. Depending upon the length of your class sessions, you may break up the activity into more than one session.


The Activity

  1. Establish what students already know and think about the terms digital native and digital literacy. Ask students to write what they know about the terms, using whatever strategy they find most comfortable (e.g., freewriting, listing, clustering/mindmaps).
  2. Have students share their notes on the two terms in small groups, working together to identify similarities among the responses and the strongest ideas they have recorded.
  3. Ask each group to present the similarities and strongest ideas they have identified, writing notes on the board or presenting from a shared slideshow.
  4. With class input, group related ideas that have been shared, rephrasing and reducing as necessary to narrow down the list of characteristics. Identify this synthesized list as the first draft of characteristics of the terms for the class.
  5. Explain that the class will next compare the first draft to ideas that are presented in infographics about digital natives and digital literacy.
  6. Share my Digital Literacy board on Pinterest, or share your own collection of infographics. Preview each of the infographics briefly with the class. If desired, you may limit this activity to a single infographic or a small number of infographics.
  7. Assign each group a specific infographic to analyze. Alternately, allow groups to choose an infographic, first-come, first-served style.
  8. Ask students to return to their small groups and examine the infographic closely, using the following questions to guide their conversation:
    • What facts about digital literacy and/or digital natives are included in the infographic?
    • What support is given for the facts?
    • What is the source of the facts? Are the sources reputable?
    • Do you agree with the facts in the infographic? How well do they match your experience?
    • How do the facts in the infographic compare to those in the first draft that the class created?
  9. After students have discussed their infographics thoroughly, ask them to consider whether to change or add to the first draft of characteristics. Have groups identify their points generally, explaining that the whole class will decide on the specific details of changes or additions.
  10. Once small groups have finished their work, ask each group to share their infographic along with the basic points of their analysis of the infographic, relying on their answers to the questions in Step 8 to structure their presentation. Ask each group to end their presentation by explaining any changes or additions they recommend as a result of their analysis.
  11. Once the group presentations are complete, sort the changes and additions that have been suggested. Ask each small group to reconcile the relevant changes with an existing characteristic and/or to draft additional characteristics.
  12. Have groups submit their revisions and additions to you. Before the next class session, combine all the characteristics into a new draft. Make copies to distribute or create a slideshow of the revised characteristics.
  13. During the next session, pass out copies or share the slideshow with the class. Ask students to review the new draft, and as a class make any additional changes to the characteristics. Explain that this revised, new draft will be used in future activities.

Follow-Up Activities

Next week, I will share a follow-up activity that asks students to think about how their characteristics relate to the idea of online identity. If desired, however, you can use these alternative activities:


  • Ask students, working individually or in small groups, to create their own infographics that present one or more of the characteristics that the class has established.
  • Treat the class list of characteristics as a collection of hypotheses about digital natives and digital literacy. Have students, again individually or in small groups, research a characteristic, looking for supporting data. Ask students to prepare a formal oral presentation of their findings as well as any recommendations to change the characteristic they have investigated.
  • Have students write narrative essays that describe a specific incident from their own lives or that they have observed that relates to one of the characteristics. Students’ stories should support or refute the characteristic they focus on.

Any Ideas to Add?

I would love to hear some new ideas on discussing digital natives and digital literacy with students. Do you have ideas to share or infographics that I can add to my collection? Please leave me a comment below with the details, and come back next week for my follow-up activity that focuses on online identity.



Infographic Credit: Digital Natives: An Infographic Series about Emerging Adults, from Oxford University Press

The discussions around the 2018 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) convention in Kansas City, Missouri, are provocative and inspiring and offer substantial motivation for me to search my conscience on where I stand and why. Because of Missouri Senate Bill 43 and the NAACP Missouri Travel Advisory, CCCC caucuses and standing groups have announced plans to withdraw from face-to-face meetings in Missouri out of concerns for the safety of their membership, primarily people of color and other historically marginalized groups.


This post ends with a final writing project for the fall semester, a commentary on the call by James Baldwin and others for a boycott of Christmas 1963. I begin, however, with my reasons for boycotting the CCCC 2018 convention in Kansas City, Missouri. The more I researched the past and current histories of white supremacy and civil unrest in Missouri and the surrounding region (especially in my home state of Illinois), the more a boycott of the convention made sense.


The town of Ferguson, Missouri, is not unlike the town in Illinois where I lived until the age of seven. Both towns have shifted from majority white to majority black populations in the postindustrial years of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. My Illinois town, on the other side of the Mississippi River and far north of the Missouri border, was created after World War II. Private developers built a planned community to address a Chicago-area housing shortage. However, the developers decided that the new housing would not include black people, which at that time was legally permissible. From the late 1950s onward this plan changed so that Blacks were allowed in certain areas of the town, designated by the town city council members, one of whom was my grandfather. In the early 1960s, he was instrumental in adopting this idea of “planned integration.”


The town that was my early childhood home in Illinois is not unlike Ferguson in that years ago, it welcomed white people almost exclusively. Then, as industry and development moved elsewhere and gentrification increased in the cities, older suburban housing was left to deteriorate. The city of Chicago decided to implode its housing projects, without providing new housing equally available to displaced residents. This initiative was called The Plan for Transformation. Many of the houses in my Illinois town became part of Section 8 and the federal housing vouchers that followed. A divide grew in the town between the middle class white folks who remembered an idyllic past, and the newcomers who were often poor and often Black. The newcomers did not share in the nostalgia of the townies. How could they, when they were not allowed to participate in shaping the future of the town that they now called home?


My schools in that town were segregated. My classes, which included new and experimental programs for teaching reading and writing, were de facto for white children only. In that atmosphere, I learned how to read and write through alternative methods. Later, when my family moved to an older and more conservative school district (also segregated), I could overcompensate through reading and writing. Because of undiagnosed ADHD, I struggled in subjects that relied on rote memorization and small motor coordination. But I could write my way out of anything, a skill I acquired through white privilege.


Those years are long ago and far away. But as white adults raised in segregation, we may feel unable to act, and we may think that our boycott of CCCC in Kansas City, Missouri, will not have an impact on the problems of white supremacy in Missouri or elsewhere. If we attend CCCC, white privilege in hand, we will advance our careers and we will be able to talk to others in the field. That, we may believe, will have more lasting results than refusing to spend money in Missouri.


Nonetheless, it is significant to note that there is a precedent for boycotts in our profession, and that in two cases the boycotts were for causes that marked racial injustice. CCCC moved the 1993 conference out of Phoenix, Arizona, and NCTE in 2010 moved their conference out of Phoenix, Arizona—both in response to national boycott initiatives The two events that triggered these boycotts were Arizona’s refusal to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday holiday in 1993, and Arizona SB 1070, the 2010 anti-immigration bill, some of which was later declared unconstitutional.


I am boycotting CCCC because I need to take responsibility for my own actions that, unwittingly or not, contribute to white supremacy. I am using the word boycott because it was the word used by James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and countless others in times as troubled as our own. I am boycotting the convention because, for me, it is a matter of white privilege to assume that my presence as another nice white lady in Kansas City matters more than standing in solidarity with the caucuses and standing groups who choose not to compromise their safety by travelling to Missouri.


I also stand in solidarity with colleagues who are compelled by their employment situations to attend CCCC, regardless of the physical burdens and mental anguish attendance may incur. Matters of necessity and matters of conscience are deeply personal. As Adam Grant recently suggested in the New York Times, I also believe in the need to “make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective.” Over the years, CCCC has played a significant role in my professional development. I value CCCC as a venue for presenting new research and pedagogy, and for learning about Writing Studies projects that are taking place across the country.


It could be argued that many states are in the position of Missouri, and it also could be argued that not honoring a boycott allows us to bear witness to current conditions and to honor workers in Missouri, as well as the Executive Committee of CCCC who made the decision to keep the convention in Kansas City. I am not convinced by these arguments. Missouri’s ongoing issues with white supremacy and racism are evident, and provide a compelling case for the NAACP Travel Advisory and a boycott.


My perspective also is shaped by the difficult decision I needed to make shortly after the 2010 boycott of Arizona was called. I travelled to Phoenix to celebrate my father’s eightieth birthday. I bought my airline ticket before the boycott was announced, and I considered asking for a refund.


In that case, I was an individual travelling for family reasons, not part of a large group of people convening in that state to spend time and money for business and tourism. This reason is not an excuse, but a statement of our common dilemma. My decision to travel to Arizona was marked by frustration. Since 2010, I have learned a great deal more about the history of white supremacy, and the structural racism which may seem invisible, but in which so many of us participate everyday.


Indeed, my decision to travel to Arizona in 2010 informs my decision to boycott CCCC in Kansas City. My personal experiences of inconvenience and existential frustration cannot compare to the consequences of current and historical violence and oppression against people of color, which includes not only civil unrest in Ferguson and St. Louis and campus uprisings in Columbia, but also the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre in Illinois. The East St. Louis Massacre terrorized and devastated the lives of Black people on both the Illinois and Missouri sides of the Mississippi River. Blacks migrating from the south settled in heavily segregated East St. Louis because Missouri segregation laws limited available housing in neighboring St. Louis, and settled in Illinois suburb of East St. Louis. White workers felt threatened by job loss, and used this perceived threat to terrorize the black community in July 1917. As many as 100 black people died, perhaps more, while others escaped over a bridge to St. Louis, and after the bridge was closed, took to the waters of the Mississippi River separating the two states.


In attending CCCC, I would be choosing to travel on business to an event that brings in a substantial amount of money spent on site for food, lodging, and other expenses. This choice demonstrates to the business community in Missouri that I am comfortable to travel to and to do business with a state with a law that discriminates against marginalized groups in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations, and where violence toward communities of color is commonplace. If the business community earns less money than expected from CCCC in Kansas City, then perhaps attention will be paid.


That has proven to be the case in Arizona, and the results of the Arizona boycotts also matter in my decision. Although I did not live in Arizona at the time of either boycott, I moved here in 2013, and I have seen the difference that withholding business and tourist dollars can make. This difference was especially present in the veto in 2014 of a religious freedom bill. The governor vetoed that bill because another boycott was threatened. The previous boycotts had been financially difficult, and thus very sobering for Arizona’s economic interests. The threat of a new boycott was enough to convince the governor to veto the bill, and for no other religious freedom bills to be passed by the legislature, or signed into law by the current governor (as of 2017).


In 1963, when James Baldwin called for a boycott of Christmas, I was in Kindergarten and my family did not celebrate Christmas. But that did not exempt us from the benefits of white privilege. At home and at school, we did not discuss the murder of the four little girls in the church in Birmingham. Perhaps the community believed the murders were not an appropriate subject for young children. Indeed, when President Kennedy was assassinated a few months later, school was dismissed early and confusion left our community unable to address its shared sadness. This lack of attention to tragic consequences of terrorism shows the depth of what segregation does to all of us. We, as white people, are removed from an understanding of the situation and its relationships to the larger structures of power, and we are then unable to connect with the anger, pain, sadness, and helplessness evoked by such catastrophes.


So I will not see you at CCCC in 2018, dear readers. But like you I will keep teaching and writing and trying to make sense of a difficult world. With this in mind, here is the final writing project I will assign this term, based on James Baldwin’s call for a Christmas Boycott in 1963.


Writing Project 3: Presenting an Argument

For WP 3 you will need to read “Support Christmas Boycott,” an article by James Baldwin written with performing artists and writers Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Odetta Gordan, John O. Killens, and Louis Lomax. You also need to imagine that the readers for whom you write do NOT share your opinion. Your job in WP 3 is to respectfully invite readers to consider your opinion, and perhaps to persuade readers to change their minds. Choose one of the following prompts to focus your writing.

  1. In 2017, James Baldwin (who died in 1987) would have turned 93. Imagine that he is still alive and still writing strong—and that, as the 2017 holiday season approaches, he is considering republishing “Support Christmas Boycott.” In addition, imagine that Baldwin has written to you asking your advice on whether or not to post “Support Christmas Boycott” on social media. What advice would you give him? Why?
  2. Imagine that it is 1963. Write a response to Baldwin’s call for a boycott. Engage his most significant ideas. From this engagement, figure out your own position. Do you agree or disagree? Do you agree with some ideas but not others? Do you find contradictions? What would you do if you were an adult in 1963 faced with this decision?
  3. In 1963, James Unger, a Boston College student wrote “Santa Claus Boycott” for the Boston College newspaper In the Heights. Most significantly, Unger suggests that people have grown tired of reading about Civil Rights and that the situation will improve with time. It is better, Unger writes, not “to press too hard and too fast.“ 55 years have passed since the boycott proposal of 1963. Write a response to Unger from 55 years in the future, addressing how Unger’s predictions for the future actually turned out.
  4. Christmas 2017: Boycott—yes or no. Explain your response in detail.


Dennis Baron, whose blog The Web of Language I follow, has been on a break for several months, so I was very glad to hear that he is back online. In a recent post, “Language in the Age of Fake News, Fox News, and Trump,” Baron provides an overview of a number of linguists and language experts (from Chomsky and Austin to Grice and Orwell) who provided principles for communication, such as Austin’s locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts or Grice’s cooperative principle. But, Baron says, these linguists “never watched Fox News,” which uses words not to communicate but rather to listen to meaningless and misleading nonsense so much that it numbs its viewers. “The Age of fake news, Fox News, and Trump™ is causing us to rethink everything we know about how language works,” Baron argues.


Baron may be right. Certainly teachers of writing are facing a huge uphill battle in helping students to, first, understand that there’s a problem worthy of their attention and, second, to provide them with strategies for analyzing and resisting fake news. But, I think we still know some things about how language works. More specifically, we are learning how Trump’s language works: many scholars and journalists have pointed out his small, simple vocabulary; his use of repetition to hammer points, whether true or not, home over and over again; his constant shifting of topics and subjects in order to throw listeners off base; and his willingness to stretch, bend, or ignore the truth.


In working on the 8th edition of Everything’s an Argument, I found myself thinking about Trump as I was revising a section on fallacies and fallacious thinking. In fact, I added a fallacy to this edition because Trump uses it so often. Paralipsis, sometimes also referred to as apophasis, occultatio, or praeteritio, occurs when writers or speakers say they will not mention something—but mention it by virtue of saying they won’t! In Ben Jonson’s Catiline, for example, one character says to another, “Thy incest with thy sister, I not name.” Or Socrates, on trial for his life, says that he will not mention his grieving widow and children, thus invoking them. Donald Trump has taken this rhetorical strategy to new heights, using it constantly throughout the campaign and into his presidency. About Marco Rubio, Trump said “I will not call him a lightweight, because I think that’s a derogatory term. So I will not call him a lightweight, OK?” He used the pattern repeatedly in attacking Hillary Clinton, saying in one of the debates that he had planned to mount a really “rough” set of charges against Clinton and her family but that “I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate.” And when criticized by Megyn Kelly, he said, “I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo,” though he had just done so. In short, this strategy can be reduced to “I won’t say it. There, I just said it.”


Once pointed out to them, students will begin to see this strategy – and be able to name it and, perhaps, resist it. But, as Trump well knows, it’s a very powerful tool, one Trump uses over and over to discredit, criticize, and diminish those with whom he disagrees. For this reason, it seemed like the right time to include paralipsis in Everything’s an Argument and to bring students into the conversation about its use, and abuse.


Credit: Pixaby Image 2792230 by signuversum, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


Why invite an economic theorist into your composition class? Recent Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler offers concepts that bolster what you already teach in your course about the craft of persuasion, but with some twists that students find very appealing. Let me give you a little nudge.


Thalers theory of choice architecture, developed with colleagues Cass R. Sunstein and John P. Balz, are the foundation of their 2008 best-seller, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. My co-author, Stuart Greene, and I include a generous slice of these insights in our chapter on Economics in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing. Choice Architecture explains the way that small details in consumer displays, software design, fee structures, and more can nudge us to make decisions in ways we may not notice but that profoundly impact our behavior.


Thaler is just the sort of expert we go out of our way to invite into our composition classrooms because his challenging ideas stretch our students vocabularies and conceptual understanding of the world, and the impact of these ideas is immediately clear to them. After all, who hasnt felt manipulated on occasion by a mandated choice? And how many of us can resist the path of least resistance or default decision-making behind the I agree to the terms check-boxes that we often click out of resignation rather than comprehension? (These are decisions we sometimes regret.)


By helping students see the structures behind the thousands of subtle nudges in our daily lives, Thaler and you, as a composition instructor  can help students understand the many default settings that shape every aspect of our daily lives, from consumer decisions, to our environmental habits, to the hundreds of decisions our universities make for us (all of us!) that are worthy of closer analysis. Im willing to bet any topic you pursue in your composition classrooms could be enhanced by the tools Thaler offers.


Like the most effective and provocative writers you invite your students to study, Thaler models the academic habits of mind we all seek to foster in our classrooms, including asking questions that reveal patterns, and analyzing those patterns to understand their significance in our personal lives and communities. Where better than your classroom to hand students the tools to better understand the power of persuasion, particularly the nudges we dont notice, even as we reach for that eye-level candy bar at the check-out stand?


In our textbook we provide readings to help students understand the key terms of argumentation. We try to keep the readings as up to date as possible. We can predict what some of the hot button issues will be over the life of each edition of the book, but no textbook can be as up to date as today’s headlines in the newspaper, on television, or online. Applying the terminology of argumentation to current events makes its relevance more apparent to students. Almost any issue in the headlines can become a lesson in applying the terms claim, support, and assumption. One obvious example currently in the news recently is DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).


How does a current controversy like that over DACA become a lesson in argumentation? Here are some suggestions.


  1. Ask your students to come up with a claim of fact, a claim of value, and a claim of policy about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

    Examples: Claim of fact—In most cases, the so-called Dreamers would be going back to a country that they cannot even remember.

    Claim of value—It is unfair to deny children brought to this country by parents who entered illegally the hope offered them by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

    Claim of policy—DACA should be revoked. (or should not)

                           Children of illegal immigrants should not be punished for the actions of their parents.

  2. Discuss some of their examples as a class or in small groups and then as a class. Discuss why some examples would make good thesis statements for argumentative writing and others wouldn’t. For example, this is a statement of fact but would not need to be developed in an essay: DACA was established by the Obama administration in 2012. From the the list above, "In most cases, the so-called Dreamers would be going back to a country that they cannot even remember." is also a claim of fact that does not make a good thesis statement. Other students do not have to agree with a statement to understand whether or not it is the type of statement that can serve as the thesis for argumentative writing.
  3. You can then ask the students to discuss what types of support would be used in arguing in writing about some of the examples. Primary evidence would start, of course, with knowing exactly what DACA is and what it does. Factual support would include such things as statistics about how many young people would be affected by revoking DACA. Remember that support goes beyond factual information to include claims to needs and values. Why do some Americans feel threatened by the existence of DACA, for instance? (appeal to the need for job security, for example) Why do others feel so strongly that these young people who were indeed brought into the country illegally should be allowed to remain here? (appeal to the value of diversity)
  4. Discussing appeals to needs and values inevitably leads to discussing assumptions. Ask your students what assumptions a person would need to make to accept that DACA should be revoked. They might be assuming, for example, that anyone entering the US illegally should be deported no matter what. Those arguing that it should not be revoked may assume that children should not be held accountable for illegal acts by their parents.


Image Source: "Los Angeles March for Immigrant Rights" by Molly Adams on Flickr 9/11/17 via Creative Commons 2.0 license.

In my last blog (Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: A Portrait of the Project as a Young Book) I indicated that I might tell the story of the various book covers that have been used for Signs of Life in the U.S.A. over the years, and, given the importance of visual imagery to cultural semiotics, I think that offering an insider view of how book covers get created might be useful to instructors of popular culture. So here goes.


Anyone who has followed the cover history of Signs of Life knows that Sonia and I have always eschewed the use of celebrity images—a common cover strategy that suggests that popular culture is all about entertainment icons. Since one of the main theses of Signs of Life is that popular culture is a matter of everyday life, of the ordinary along with the extraordinary, we wanted to find a cover image for our first edition that would semiotically convey this message even before its readers opened the book to see what was inside. At the same time, Sonia and I liked the practice of using established works of art for book covers, and figured that there would be a wealth of Pop Art choices to choose from.


Well, there certainly was a lot of Pop Art to consider, but we were rather dismayed to find that just about all of it was—at least to our tastes—off putting (“repulsive” would be a better word for the often garish, erotic, and/or just plain ugly works we found), and we didn’t want such stuff on the cover of our book. But then we found a perfect image from a well-known Pop Art painter named Tom Wesselmann, whose Still Life #31—featuring an image of a kitchen table with some apples, pears, a TV set, a view of an open countryside outside a window, and a portrait of George Washington—seemed just right for our purposes. So discovered, so done. We had our first cover.


Thus, things were easy when it came to the second edition: we simply looked for more Wesselmann, and this time we found Still Life #28, a painting that is quite similar to Still Life #31, though the color scheme is different, and Abraham Lincoln takes the place of George Washington. There’s even a cat on the cover. Cover number 2 was in the bag.


Between the first and second editions of Signs of Life, however, Sonia and I also published the first edition of California Dreams and Realities, for which we used one of David Hockney’s Pearblossom Highway paintings (#2). This ruled out using something from Hockney for the third edition of Signs of Life (we wanted Hockney again for the second edition of California Dreams), so when it came time to create the new cover we suggested another Wesselmann. Our editor disagreed: it was time for something new—which made sense because we did not want to give the impression that the third edition was the same as the first two. Each edition is much revised. So this time the art staff at Bedford designed a cover that featured a montage of images that included a white limousine, a yellow taxi, a cow, a highway, images from the southwestern desert, an electric guitar (a Parker Fly, by the way), the San Francisco skyline, the Capitol Dome in Washington D.C., the Statue of Liberty, two skyscrapers standing together, a giant football, a giant hamburger, a Las Vegas casino sign, and a blue-sky background with billowing white clouds. A bit too cluttered for my taste, but good enough, though it was upsetting to realize, after the September 11 attacks, that those two skyscrapers were the World Trade Center.


By the time the fourth edition came around, Bedford had chosen a motif that would be repeated, in variations, for the next five editions: this would be linear arrangements of individual images displayed in a single Rubic’s-cube-like block (edition #4), in rows with brightly colored dots interspersed (edition #5), in rows without dots (edition #6), in an art work by Liz West featuring a brightly colored square filled with squares (edition #7), and in rows of tiny images of the artist's (Simon Evans) personal possessions (edition #8). Everyday life in boxes, so to speak.


Which takes us to the ninth edition. When Sonia and I were shown the cover art for the first time, we could see that the Bedford art department had abandoned the images-in-rows motif to go, as it were, back to the future with an image reminiscent not of the first two covers but to a less cluttered revival of the third. It’s nice to see Lincoln back, along with a Route 66 sign that echoes Hockney’s Route 138 highway marker in the Pearblossom series. And there is a lot of blue sky to add a measure of natural serenity to the scene. I'm quite fond of natural serenity.


So, you see, a lot of thought goes into cover design (and I haven't even mentioned the two proposed covers that Sonia and I flat out rejected).  For while, as the old saying has it, you can't judge a book by its cover, you can use the cover of Signs of Life as a teaching tool, something to hold up in class and ask students to interpret, image by image, the way one would interpret a package. Because, in the end, a book cover is a kind of package, something that is at once functional (it holds the book together and protects its pages) and informational (it presents a sense of what is inside), while striving (at least in our case) to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible. It wraps the whole project up, and is something I will miss if hard-copy books should ever disappear in a wave of e-texts.


8th editionNew 9th edition

Before I retired, I regularly taught a sophomore-level course on comics, one I developed out of my interest in the rhetorical power of images and one that brought me into contact with very interesting students from across all the disciplines. During the time I was developing and refining this class, some of my colleagues in the Creative Writing wing of the English department (particularly Adam Johnson and Tom Kealy) began to offer a course for students interested not only in studying and analyzing comics, but in producing them as well. Out of this impetus grew Stanford’s Graphic Novel Project (not to be confused with Stanford’s Graphic Narrative Project, a research group that has also been very successful). That course has now grown into a two-term, twenty-week course with the following goals:

  • To tell a compelling real-world human story that is “worthy of study and creative devotion” and that seeks “to do good, seek justice, and bring about change.”
  • To teach nonfiction research, visual storytelling, and long-form narrative through a collaborative effort, realizing that “through collaboration, a story can become richer, more inspired, and more layered with human experience.”

These are lofty goals, yet in 20 weeks this small group of undergraduates comes up with a story proposal, outlines the story, thumbnails the scenes, does the inking by hand on Bristol board, and then uses Adobe Photoshop and InDesign to “clean” the text, create word balloons, color, and create the layout. Students carry out every step of this intricate and time-consuming process, through the editorial and printing processes that lead to a finished book.


Given my 40 years of work on collaboration, not to mention my love of comics and my delight in teaching them, you can bet I’m a big fan of this project, which to  date has produced seven graphic novels: Shake Girl (2008); Virunga (2009); Pika-don (2010); From Busan to San Francisco (2012); A Place Among the Stars (2014); American Heathen (2015); and Luisa (2017).


What makes this series so compelling to me is its insistence on “real life” stories that students feel need to be told, and heard, today, striving in each volume to call attention to issues and places and people that should be remembered. That is certainly true with the current volume, which tells the story of Luisa Capetillo (1879-1922), born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and destined to become one of its most famous labor organizers. As the students say, in the aftermath of the American annexation of Puerto Rico,

Feminist, anarchist, labor organizer, Luisa Capetillo. . . saw the advantages—the possibility of unions—and the disadvantages—the exploitation that made them necessary—of American rule. She set out to fight for the rights of the workers. Luisa believed in good hygiene, free love, and human dignity. She was also an impassioned, trenchant writer, famous in her day for her book, Mi Opinion Sobre las Libertades, Derechos y Deberes de la Mujer. With her tenacity, faith, and oratory, Luisa was the perfect advocate—except for one problem. She was a woman.

Luisa was known for wearing white mens’ suits, as in the photo below, and throughout the graphic novel she is depicted as rejecting clothing as well as other norms, acts which led to many threats against her, including the threat of jail. She persisted, however, organizing not only in Puerto Rico but in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Florida, writing and speaking out for women’s rights and for the vote.

When I read Luisa, I was reminded once more of the strength, ingenuity, passion, and capabilities of undergraduate student writers, and I celebrate the work they are doing to keep the memory of social justice advocates like Luisa Capetillo alive. I also celebrate the power of collaboration: this project demonstrates how, working together, students can pool their talents (even the font used in this book was created in their class from the handwriting of two of the student writers/artists), drawing on the artistic abilities of some and the storytelling abilities of others. I hope to see projects like this one—“comics advocacy”—blossoming all across the country.

The redesign of developmental English programs across the country presents some significant challenges for developmental instructors, especially those who have been teaching in traditional multi-level programs with separate reading and writing tracks. How do faculty begin to create an integrated reading and writing syllabus, especially if they only have experience in one area or the other? What does an integrated syllabus even look like?


In working with the implementation of Virginia’s redesign and with instructors in other states, I’ve seen several models of successful syllabi—as well as some strategies which do not seem to work as well. What follows is my own informal classification of syllabus types. As one would expect, some instructors combine elements from different syllabus types, and they often find success in that eclectic approach. My list is not in any particular order, and I’m sure I’ve omitted some possible approaches. I welcome additional suggestions and comments.


The Paired Skills and Processes Syllabus. This syllabus organizes instruction according to parallel skills or steps in the reading and writing processes. For example, pre-reading and pre-writing instruction might occur together in this approach, often with a focus on rhetorical situation. Similarly, reading skills such as finding and paraphrasing the main idea are coupled with a writing skill such as developing a strong thesis. The paired skills and processes approach is often combined with a focus on genres or traditional rhetorical modes.


Read to Write/Write to Read Syllabus. In this approach, instructors focus on the role that writing can play in the reading process (annotating, note-taking, reflecting, connecting, paraphrasing, summarizing, and responding), and the ways in which reading supports writing (through pre-writing, reading to revise, reading in peer-review, reading to edit, and writing from different texts).


The Thematic Syllabus. Instructors using this syllabus select thematically-related readings to enhance the development of content-awareness and vocabulary. Class activities promote active and critical reading skills, and students write in response to readings. With a thematic syllabus, instructors have a natural base from which to teach how to synthesize information from multiple sources.


The Argument/Rhetorical Moves Syllabus. Particularly well-suited to colleges and universities with an argument-based first-year composition course, this syllabus presents both reading and writing through awareness of rhetorical moves: introducing a topic, presenting a claim, considering a counterargument, creating a context, making a concession, etc. Students learn to identify rhetorical moves in reading, assess their effectiveness for the particular audience and purpose, and ultimately imitate them as they develop their own papers.


The Great Books Syllabus. In this approach, instructors build a syllabus around one or two critical full-length books, often one fiction and one non-fiction. Reading skills and vocabulary are addressed in the context of the readings, and writing assignments build from topics in the texts.


The Project-Based Syllabus. Instructors who develop a project-based syllabus organize the syllabus around a series of projects which require both reading and writing skills for success. For example, students might conduct research and interviews related to child-care services on campus, and then draft a proposal for changes, addressed to campus administrators. Instructors must consider reading and writing skills required for a project carefully so that instruction and scaffolding flow naturally as the project develops. Project-based syllabi often work well in programs that combine developmental instruction with a service-learning component.


From our redesign in Virginia, we’ve seen that one syllabus which does not work well is an alternating syllabus: one day (or segment) on reading skills, followed by one day (or segment) on writing skills. The original intent of the alternating syllabus was simple: bring together the expertise of a reading teacher and a writing teacher to team-teach the integrated course. Teach-teaching can certainly be effective (and a tremendous opportunity for professional development), but the alternating model keeps reading and writing separate and thus works against the intent of the redesign. Anecdotally, we saw a great deal of frustration in the alternating syllabus: with essentially two separate courses going on simultaneously, instructors did not feel they had covered learning outcomes adequately, and they felt rushed and overwhelmed. As team-taught alternating syllabi evolved into thematic, paired-skills, or other syllabus types (whether taught by one or two instructors), those frustrations began to wane.


What does your integrated reading and writing syllabus look like?


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Today's guest bloggers is Eric Rawson, author of American Subcultures: A Bedford Spotlight Reader.


Rhetoric deals with matters of uncertainty and disagreement. In challenging our students to see their writing as a means of discovery as well as an articulation of ideas, we necessarily lead them into places of uncertainty. Their typical—and understandable—reaction when confronting strange territory is to seek safe ground, to fall back on familiar ways of framing arguments, such as the five-paragraph thought-killer. As writing instructors, we challenge our students to plunge into their confusion with the faith that they will find a path. Of course, we cannot sincerely pursue this course if we ourselves are unwilling to embrace a risk-taking model that welcomes uncertainty and doubt into our teaching practices.


Instructors are as prone to confusion as students, as I recently rediscovered as I worked on the American Subcultures topic reader. Particularly when our composition courses are organized around thematics, we often struggle to project our mastery of the material. Since we usually are not experts in American subcultures (or other comp-class thematics), we have to assimilate new material in a hurry. But teaching writing in the context of thematics outside our expertise can be a very good thing. It means that we experience some of the same confusion as our students do. Rather than present myself as an authority on American subcultures, I tell my classes on the first day that I’m not a sociologist, but that together we will explore the readings, discuss the issues, and respond in writing.


Embracing confusion has implications for assignment design. If we are to encourage our students to delve into material that requires thoughtful consideration—moving beyond the already clarified—then we do not want to overdetermine the writing tasks. We want to emphasize the point that for writing to lead to discovery and clarification, it must necessarily start from a place that is unknown and obscure.


  • Confusion and invention: Modelling the invention process is essential, leading students into confusion and showing them a way out again. One way is to solicit a random topic from the class so as to cast the instructor in the role of confused student, as the class “stepstones” through initial ideas, analyzing assumptions, making connections, developing a thesis and perhaps a points-to-make list. Modelling this process risks failure, but failure can be an important lesson. Admit it. Scrap the plan. Start again, having risked appearing foolish. Point out that confusion is a sign that we are asking novel questions. Worry if the students are never Use confusion as a way of generating creative questions worth writing about.
  • Confusion and drafting: Years ago, an Air Force pilot told me that he was trained that when confused about what to do in a damaged airplane, he should DO ANYTHING! Doing something means one can develop a course of action based on what happens next. The potter can’t begin to shape the pot without a lump of clay, and the writer cannot begin to shape an argument without a mess of prose to work with. Finding one’s way out of confusion requires action.
  • Confusion and revision: Early in the semester I show my students a clip from Henri Clouzots 1957 documentary “The Mystery of Picasso.” Using time-lapse photography, Clouzot compresses eight hours of Picasso at work into a few minutes. We watch a painting develop from its initial idea, passing through multiple revisions as the artist scrapes the canvas and begins again—and again— revisiting trouble spots, trying radically new approaches. At one point, Picasso stops the procedure and addresses the filmmaker: “This is bad. This is very, very bad.” Then he completes a masterpiece.


Having made the point that confusion brings rewards not only at the invention and drafting stages but also in the revision process, I turn the lesson to specific writing tasks, examining my own “time lapse”: the multiple drafts of a single introductory paragraph, for instance. It’s possible to oversell the work of close revision, with the unfortunate consequence of locking our time-pressured students in a dungeon of self-doubt. But if presented in a way that doesn’t demand prose at the level of a Nobel Laureate, imagining a reader’s confusion can guide the writer through the process of revision.


Ultimately, confusion generates creativity, exploration, discovery. Too much certainty drives all manner of things drab or dangerous, from depressing architecture to rigid politics. It’s boring. Confusion can be generative. Confusion leads to discovery; certainty rarely does. Certainty can set us in motion, but confusion can change our understanding of the world.

I have been reflecting upon and writing about the ways that using photography (i.e., photovoice) and digital storytelling help open up spaces for students to develop a sense of agency and to be more civically engaged. So I was delighted to see that guest blogger Tanya Rodrigue contributed a piece on on multimodal assignments (See 3 Step for Creating a Multimodal Assignment). I appreciate the kinds of questions that she prompts instructors to ask in order to examine the different affordances of a given genre or digital tool. For example, “What is the purpose and what options are available to achieve [the writer’s] purpose? What features distinguish this tool or platform from others? What are the constraints and how might they impact pedagogical and conceptual affordances?” These are important questions that challenge us as teachers to consider the extent to which different tools foster democratic engagement, voice, and agency apart from the pedagogical context that encourages students to act on their convictions.


Here I am thinking about providing contexts for sharing power; creating spaces for critical conversations about inequality, racial struggle, and injustice; examining the sociopolitical contexts that stand in the way of change; or encouraging the intergenerational conversations that connect students to the communities we encourage them to be a part of. The work before us as educators entails examining the tensions, contradictions, and promises of educating youth for participation and leadership amid contexts that often demand compliance more than change.


My concerns about the contexts of teaching students to be more involved in their communities led me and my co-author, April Lidinsky, to include a number of readings in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing. These are readings that challenge students to reflect upon the kinds of tools we often take for granted in discussions about the conditions that foster change. Dana Radcliffe explains in “Dashed Hopes: Why Aren’t Social Media Delivering Democracy?” that media platforms alone cannot create a movement, Instead, it’s useful to think about the importance of defining what we mean by deliberative democracy. I would add that it is important to center our attention on developing relationships that humanize individuals in our efforts to make a difference in the world. We have included additional readings that also invite students to think about different media platforms and the ways they work to achieve a given writer’s goals (e.g., Dan Kennedy’s “Political Blogs,” John Dickerson’s “Don’t Fear Twitter” and Steve Grove’s “Youtube”).


I wonder what other teachers of writing are doing to create the kinds of contexts that will enable students to develop a sense of voice and agency, while also looking critically at the tools we encourage them to use as ways to create meaningful change. What kind of citizens are we trying to shape? What kinds of democratic values? What political and ideological interests are embedded in or attached to varied conceptions of citizenship? 


Last month I had the pleasure of attending the 11th biennial meeting of the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference, held at the University of Dayton. Traveling cross country for the meeting took me back to the first meeting, sponsored by Oregon State and chaired by Lisa Ede and Cheryl Glenn in 1997. Lisa and Cheryl had gotten funding from their department to hold a conference on a topic of their choice. Since the three of us had recently published an essay entitled “Border Crossings: Intersections of Rhetoric and Feminism,” that’s the topic they chose, assuming that they would hold this one-time conference and that would be that.


But that first conference stirred so much creativity, was so exciting and thought-provoking, that attendees decided it could not happen just once, and so colleagues from the University of Minnesota stepped up to say they would hold a second conference in 1999. And so the “biennial” meeting got a foothold, and before long the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in Rhetoric and Composition signed on as co-sponsor, and now here we are, in 2017, celebrating the 20th anniversary of this conference. I’ve been to almost all of the intervening conferences and have come to look forward to this smaller, more intimate conference as my favorite. Certainly this year’s meeting was no disappointment. In fact, Margaret Strain, Elizabeth Mackay, and Patrick Thomas rolled out the red carpet in grand style for us, with an extraordinarily powerful book and document exhibit in the library (the first edition of Phyllis Wheatley’s poems almost brought me to my knees), a grand reception in their remarkable art institute (a perfect gem of a building full of magnificent paintings and sculptures), and a concert featuring undergraduate singers.


These events were very special treats, but the conference itself more than matched them. I attended a panel at every single session, and I expected to find at least one that was, shall we say, less than engaging. Didn’t happen. Every panel I attended was thought-provoking, lively, deeply informed, and challenging in all the best ways. The conference theme, “Rhetorics, Rights, (R)esponsibilities,” seemed to have been particularly evocative, and we heard papers on the rhetorics and responsibilities of religious groups, presidential campaigns, indigenous cultures, protest movements, and much more. Of special importance to me were several sessions on Black feminist rhetoric (I loved Ronisha Browdy’s “Keeping my Eye on FLOTUS’s Garden: A Black Feminist Rhetorical Reading of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Kitchen Garden”), as well as talks by Kendra Mitchell and Jason Collins, a session devoted to “Black Women’s Multivalent Resistances to Marginalization,” and a memorable roundtable titled “#SayHerName #BlackGirlMagic: 21st Century Black Women’s Rhetorical Practices,” featuring Gwendolyn Pough, Tamika Carey, Elaine Richardson, and LaToya Sawyer. DYNAMITE.


Claudia Rankine, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale, a 2016 MacArthur Award winner, and the author of Citizen (which the conference organizers aptly describe as a “defining text for our time”) gave the keynote to a wildly receptive and appreciative audience. She spoke very directly about racism in our society and had a message for the 53% of white women voters who cast a ballot for Trump: not “what could they have been thinking” but what WERE they thinking, and it wasn’t good. I was on the edge of my seat through the entire talk and have since re-read Citizen. It’s a book every one of us should know well.


 Now a few weeks after the conference, I find myself looking back on it, remembering powerful moments, such as Aneil Rallin’s hauntingly beautiful and provocative “’Can I Get a Witness:’ Writing with June Jordan,” a series of vignettes that mixed personal narrative with critical analysis to show, rather than tell about, the effects of racism all around us. I am also looking forward, already, to the 2019 conference, which will be held at James Madison University, hosted by Jen Almjed, Elisabeth Gunnior, and Traci Zimmerman. As of now, their working theme is "Re-visioning and Re-mediating the F-word: Feminisms & Rhetorics Twenty Years Later." I hope teachers of writing from all over the country will be joining me there!


Credit: Pixaby Image 2692553 by wangkunsunny, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License