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I have been dreading the announcement of Time’s Person of the Year Award, because I feared it would go again to Donald Trump, who has been boasting that he would probably win the award. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when the magazine named “The Silence Breakers” as 2017’s Persons of the Year. The five women on the cover, and many more included in the cover story, are those who have been speaking out—persistently and bravely—about ongoing sexual harassment in many different workplaces and in the everyday life of so many, many women. This is indeed an important moment in our culture. It’s worth thinking about, and celebrating, during this holiday season.


On October 15, 2017, actor and activist Alyssa Milano took to Twitter to issue a call to action: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write “me too” as a reply to this tweet.” Milano was joining the conversation surrounding a spate of revelations about very high-profile and powerful people accused of sexual harassment: Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Harvey Weinstein. Milano’s tweet argues for standing up and speaking out—in big numbers. And her message certainly hit a nerve: within 24 hours, 4.7 million people around the world had joined the “me too” conversation, with over 12 million posts and comments.


Some of these comments pointed out that the “me too” movement is actually more than ten years old: it began with activist Tarana Burke, who, along with Milano, features in the Time story. Burke was directing a Girls for Gender Equity program in Brooklyn and created “me too” with the intention of giving voice to young women of color. As Burke told CNN after Milano’s tweet went viral: “It's not about a viral campaign for me. It's about a movement."


Burke’s response to the 2017 meme makes an important point, one that was echoed in some of the responses Milano received and was further elaborated by Jessi Hempel, the editorial director of Backchannel. In “The Problem with #MeToo and Viral Outrage,” Hempel said that, “on its surface,” #MeToo has what looks to be the makings of an “earnest and effective social movement.” But, like Burke, she wondered whether it would actually have the power and longevity of a true social movement. She was concerned that while millions of people are weighing in, at last, on a long-ignored issue,

In truth, however, #MeToo is a too-perfect meme. It harnesses social media’s mechanisms to drive users (that’s you and me) into escalating states of outrage while exhausting us to the point where we cannot meaningfully act.

Hempel cites extensive research by Yale professor Molly Crockett that suggests that “digital technologies may be transforming the way we experience outrage, and limiting how much we can actually change social realities.” In other words, expressing outrage online may let us talk the talk but not walk the walk of actual change.


But cascading events during the late fall and early winter of 2017 suggest that the work begun by Tarana Burke over a decade ago and given new urgency by Alyssa Milano’s viral tweet indeed constitutes a true movement, as women continued to come forward with accusations of sexual misconduct against powerful men: Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose lost their jobs; Louis C.K. admitted to harassing five women; James Levine was suspended from the Metropolitan Opera; Al Franken and John Conyers resigned from Congress; and women continue to accuse former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and, indeed, the President of the United States, of sexual harassment.


So when I woke up a few weeks ago to hear that Time named “The Silence Breakers: The Voices that Launched a Movement,” as their Persons of the Year for 2017, I began to feel like women’s outrage is not going to waste and that true change in workplace safety and opportunity for women will happen. I know others are not so optimistic, but in this holiday season with so many things going all wrong for our country, this is one thing that is going right.


And let’s not forget the role that writing and speaking have played in bringing these stories to light: we need to celebrate how language acts can make change, even against all odds. So BRAVA and happy holidays to silence breakers everywhere.     


Credit: Pixaby Image 2859980 by surdumihail, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


The principle is: Refer to people the way they want to be referred to.

Admittedly, special situations come up that test the principle—as when Prince changed his stage name to a symbol that none of us have on our keyboards and that is said to be unpronounceable. But Prince’s fans went along with it, mostly calling him “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” Seven years or so later when he changed his name back to Prince, they went along with that too.

Then again, some special situations lurch over the line between showing respect and acquiescing in puffery. Maybe a senior employee likes to be introduced by his title, Chief Knowledge Officer So-and-So, or a group wants its name written in all capitals and never mind that the name isn’t an acronym. Marketers and publicists and so on may not fully understand the implications of terminology they ask for. We have to think for ourselves.

And yet the general principle holds: Refer to people the way they want to be referred to. It applies when writing or speaking to or about individuals in academic, workplace, and social settings. It applies to pronouns (“a transgender man … he”). It applies to groups (“people with autism,” “Rohingya”). In many cases, we can’t truly know what most members of groups, or what particular atypical individuals, prefer. But since the principle we’re discussing is fairly commonly understood, we can rely on sources such as reputable media online to have done that part of our homework for us, and we just need to see how they refer to the people we’re writing about.

The principle also applies to you—even if you’re not particular about how your students refer to you. It may be useful to remember that students are negotiating the transition from treating adults with deference, as they were probably brought up to do, to treating them mainly as peers. In my opinion, you’ll be doing students a favor if you make some preference or other about how to refer to you clear as early as possible in your interactions with them. Various choices can be valid in a student-instructor relationship (Dr. Baker, Professor Baker, Ms. Baker, Victoria, Vickie), so why make them guess which you’d like? More important, this situation is about respect, and it offers you a nonconfrontational opportunity to indicate what you find respectful to the right degree.

In addition to the question of how to address someone is how to refer to someone in writing. When students cite sources in papers, the style they’re following (MLA, APA, Chicago, CSE) tells them the forms to use. Most styles call for citing last names only, and never mind the advanced and honorary degrees, the lofty titles that many of the sources they’re citing worked so hard to earn. For instance, in academic text and bibliographies alike, the cosmologist, when he’s a source, is simply “Hawking.”

But what if the assignment is to write a brief biography of Stephen Hawking? On first reference he’s probably “Stephen Hawking.” After that, though, is he “Hawking” or “Dr. Hawking” or “Stephen”? Is his first wife “Jane” or “Mrs. Hawking”? Is his second wife “Elaine” or “Ms. Mason”? These options are either more or less appropriate in different contexts, for different audiences; they set different tones. Similarly, calling Hillary Clinton “Mrs. Clinton” sets a different tone from calling her “Secretary Clinton.”

To be sure, these are trivial choices. But they also signal to readers, possibly several times per page, such things as how familiar the writer is with the genre in which she is writing. If students can keep half an eye on how their sources refer to people, even as they keep their other eye and a half on what the sources are saying about them, it can only work to their advantage.


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


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


Credit: Pixaby Image 2849602 by surdumihail, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Global Partnerships, Local Acts

During the past year, my students have worked with students and activists in the Middle East/North African region. For many of them, the act of corresponding and writing with students from this region has enabled them to hear from communities at the center of today’s public debate, such as Syrian refugees. As a result, the student writing for my classes has demonstrated a larger global framework through which they now understand public rhetoric about this region and, often, has produced personal connections with individuals from that region that humanize the harshness of our current public rhetoric.


Yet global partnerships are more than just student interactions. Such partnerships are also structures designed to provide a platform for teachers, students, institutions, and communities to build a transnational space for dialogue.  In the final post for the year, I want to offer three tactics to insure any such partnership can reach its potential, as well as survive challenges emerging from the current political context.


Participant Safety

In a global partnership, the political context of public speech will necessarily be fraught. This is particularly true when there is actual violence occurring amongst the nations in which the project is situated. In such an environment, there needs to be increased awareness of how participation in a project is not an “innocent act.” Indeed, participating in a project located within Trump’s United States will necessarily impact how any dialogue is understood, no matter how seemingly innocuous.


Given this situation, there has to be a clear understanding among the partners on how student privacy/anonymity can be ensured. This might mean that students are provided with pseudonyms when they interact online; it might mean that certain types of private/personal information are placed “off-limit” in “student-to-student” conversations. There will also need to be regular dialogue with the global partner to understand how the public framing of student participation in the project might differ within each national context. While we might frame a discussion around “human rights” in the United States, that same discussion might be framed differently within the partner’s national context. Which is to say, the partnership must be consistently aware of how differing national rhetorical contexts must be navigated to ensure the safety of participants and the continued possibility of dialogue.


Institutional Awareness

Given the current political context, global partnerships need to be fully discussed across a set of university sites, including departmental, collegial, and, possibly, university-wide offices. There are several reasons for this discussion. First, in my experience, global partnerships necessarily are perceived as “university projects.” It could well be that the administrative figures above your specific global partners reach out to your university about a certain issue, believing it to be the appropriate response. For this reason, it is best that your university understands both your partnerships and the structures you have put in place for its success. This will enable productive dialogues with your university. Second, given the current political context where publicly engaged programs are facing political attack, you want your university to have overtly or tacitly approved your partnership so you have a backstop to any seemingly random criticism. Essentially, then, the more a partnership is understood and supported by your university/college, the better.


Circulation Protocols

All partnerships produce materials that speak to the work done. Often these partnerships also have the goal of circulating these materials publicly. In a global partnership, it is important to have in place protocols which have layers of approval – from the author, to the partners, to perhaps partnering organizations. (It might also be important to have policies on how authors will “mask” elements of their story for anonymity.) In addition, any discussion with the authors will need to be overt about where their writing will intentionally circulate (based on the partnership plan) as well as how it might circulate unintentionally (through social media). Such discussion also have to occur with partnering organizations, who will need to decide how/if to publicize their participation across printed/digital products which emerge from the project. And unlike other projects where students might be given a strong editorial role in any publications (for experience, etc.), here such decisions should be made by those partners responsible for the project. This is a case where faculty expertise needs to outweigh student learning.


I recognize that, to some extent, the tone of this post seems ominous. Given such a tone, who would ever want to initiate such global partnerships? One response would be that such a short post is unable to capture the excitement and interest students feel about such opportunities. (See earlier blog posts.) Yet perhaps a more important response speaks to the current political moment. At a time when public rhetoric is so divisive, so bigoted toward different Middle Eastern and North African cultures, I believe it is morally and ethically necessary to create partnerships which can provide opportunities for transnational dialogues, premised on trust and pointed towards greater understanding. If we truly believe in the public power of writing and rhetoric, then we have no other choice.

Everyone has a secret vice, I suppose, and mine is reading online newspapers like Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education—as in multiple times every day. I admit that there is something compulsive about the matter, something that goes beyond the unquestionable usefulness of such reading for someone who is both a university professor and a cultural semiotician, something, I'm afraid, that is akin to the all-too-human attraction to things like train wrecks. This might surprise anyone who does not read these news sources: after all, wouldn't one expect there to be nothing but a kind of staid blandness to higher education reporting? Tedium, not harum-scarum, would seem to be the order of the day on such sites.


But no, in these days when signs of the culture wars are to be found everywhere in American society, even the higher-ed news beat is not immune to the kind of squabbling and trolling that defaces so much of the Internet. The situation has gotten so bad that the editors of The Chronicle of Higher Education have discontinued the comments section for most of its news stories, while Inside Higher Ed has polled its readers as to whether it should do the same. So far, IHE has decided to continue with posting reader comments (though it just shut down the comments section responding to an article on a recent controversy at Texas State University), and although I think it would be better for the overall blood pressure of American academe to just scrap the comments section altogether, on balance I hope that that doesn't happen. Here's why.


Because for the purposes of cultural semiotics, the comments sections on the Internet, no matter where you find them, offer invaluable insights into what is really going on in this country. Unlike formal surveys or polls—which, though they claim scientific precision, can never get around the fact that people, quite simply, often lie to pollsters and other inquisitors—online comments, commonly posted in anonymity, reveal what their authors really think. It isn't pretty, and it can make your blood boil, but it can get you a lot closer to the truth than, say, all those surveys that virtually put Hillary Clinton in the White House until the votes were actually counted.


Among the many things that the comments on IHE can tell us is that the days when we could assume that what we do on our university campuses stays on our university campuses are over. Thanks to the Internet, the whole world is watching, and, what is more, sharing what it sees. This matters a great deal, because even though the sorts of things that make headline news represent only a very small fraction of the daily life of the aggregated Universitas Americus, these things are magnified exponentially by the way that social media work. Every time a university student, or professor, says something that causes a commotion due to an inadequate definition of the speaker's terms, that statement will not only be misconstrued, it will become the representative face of American academia as a whole—which goes a long way towards explaining the declining levels of trust in higher education today that are now being widely reported. This may not be fair, but all you have to do is read the comments sections when these sorts of stories break, and it will be painfully clear that this is what happens when words that mean one thing in the context of the discourse of cultural studies mean quite something else in ordinary usage.


Linguistically speaking, what is going on is similar to the days of deconstructive paleonymy:  that is, when Derrida and DeMan (et al.) took common words like "writing" and "allegory" and employed them with significantly different, and newly coined, meanings. This caused a lot of confusion (as, for example, when Derrida asserted in Of Grammatology, that, historically speaking, "writing" is prior to "speech"), but the confusion was confined to the world of literary theorists and critics, causing nary a stir in the world at large. But it is quite a different matter when words that are already loaded with socially explosive potential in their ordinary sense are injected into the World Wide Web in their paleonymic one. Another part of the problem lies in the nature of the social network itself. From Facebook posts that their writers assume are private (when they aren't), to Twitter blasts (which are character-limited and thus rife with linguistic imprecision), the medium is indeed the message. Assuming an audience of like-minded readers, posters to social media often employ a kind of in-group shorthand, which can be woefully misunderstood when read by anyone who isn't in the silo. So when the silo walls are as porous as the Internet can make them, the need for carefully worded and explained communications becomes all the more necessary. This could lead to lecture-like, rather boring online communication, but I think that this would be a case of boredom perpetrated in a good cause. The culture wars are messy enough as they are: those of us in cultural studies can help by being as linguistically precise, and transparent, as we can.


During the last two months, I’ve visited three universities, where I had a chance to sit in on Writing Center sessions and talk with undergrads. I’ve also spent time in two high schools visiting Bread Loaf School of English teachers. What I didn’t remark on at the time—when I was 100% engaged with individual students—but note now, in hindsight, is that the high school students seemed to be doing more multimodal composing than the college students, at least in their class assignments. Now I’m wondering what evidence we have of the percentage of writing students do (in high school and in college) that is multimodal—that is, writing that engages a range of media as opposed to the traditional print-only assignment. I don’t have an answer to this question right now, though I’m doing some research and will report if and when I turn up compelling information.


In the meantime, I think it’s worth thinking or re-thinking assignment sequences in first-year writing to ask how many of them call for multimodal practices, how many do not, and why these decisions have been made. At one school I visited, the WPA told me that upper administration frowned on multimodal assignments because they think the assignments can’t be “reliably scored.” Another WPA said that his teaching staff is divided on the issue, with older staff favoring traditional print-based assignments while younger staff (the smaller group) leaned toward multimodal assignments. My sense is that at Stanford students do multimodal writing in their writing and rhetoric classes, but in most other classes the assignments are still the traditional print essay.


More important than the ratio of single-mode to multimodal writing, though, is the question of the strengths and weaknesses of each, or more specifically of how each helps develop student writing and helps support student writers’ rhetorical knowledge and strategies. The longitudinal study of Stanford student writing known as the Stanford Study of Writing found a strong relationship between performance, digital engagement, and heightened audience awareness. In other words, when students prepared multimodal compositions and then performed them (delivery, delivery, delivery!), they demonstrated stronger connections to their audiences and stronger understanding of their rhetorical situations. We have also found that asking students to “remediate” a piece of writing—to turn it from written medium to one or more other media—enhances their rhetorical awareness.


These findings suggest, to me at least, that the move to more carefully crafted multimodal opportunities for student work, and especially the opportunity to perform or deliver that work, is a very good one. That’s why I’m focusing more on multimodal writing in textbooks like Everything’s an Argument and The Everyday Writer, and why we support Multimodal Mondays on this blog. If you have a favorite multimodal writing assignment, we’d be very glad to showcase it! Comment below to share your favorite assignment, or message Leah Rang for more information on how to become a guest blogger on Multimodal Mondays.


Credit: Pixaby Image 849825 by StartupStockPhotos, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

By Faye Spencer Maor and Jason DePolo of North Carolina A&T State University.


So, where are we?


We have been and are creating spaces for ourselves through innovative ideas and creative partnering. One result from this work was the Symposium on Composition and the HBCU in 2014 on the campus of North Carolina A&T State University (NC A&T). This symposium came about through conversations with Jimmy Fleming of Bedford/St. Martin’s in 2012-2013 — conversations that started with discussions about textbooks and ended up with talks about the unique context of composition at HBCUs and the need for that work to be heard and spread abroad. We at NC A&T argued that faculty at HBCUs needed opportunities for research partners and mentoring because continued underfunding of our institutions left us little to no resources for research and travel. We teach, and our work, in many ways, can help our colleagues at all institutions!  Jimmy asked how Bedford could help. We told him. After more conversations with Bedford, and our then Dean, Dr. Goldie Byrd, the idea of a conference morphed into a much more manageable one-day regional symposium on HBCUs and Composition. The symposium was held at North Carolina A&T State University on April 2, 2014.


Over 50 participants from as far north as Baltimore and as far south as Georgia converged on the campus of North Carolina A&T State University to share and learn that they were not alone in the work, innovation, and struggle of teaching writing at an HBCU. At the symposium, HBCU faculty were able to engage with scholars such as Andrea Lunsford, Gesa Kirsch, Vershawn Ashanti Young, and Staci Perryman-Clark: scholars who came to talk to them, who wanted to know their experiences and challenges. As a result, these teacher/scholars were able to get a glimpse of the work done in this context. Specifically, students were able to hear and exchange their thoughts with Vershawn concerning code switching in a packed auditorium full of sharp thinkers who challenged what they heard in ways that not only impressed Vershawn but everyone in attendance. Workshops were held, and community was built. It was a special moment in time. It was also a spark.


Since that symposium, more of our colleagues in composition at HBCUs are engaging in continued research and its presentation to institutional- and discipline-based conferences and workshops. Collaborations and other connections are blossoming. We are inserting the need for our involvement in STEM education. We are working together and planning to do more symposia and conferences to make our voices and work known and useful to all of us who care about and do this work. We have always been here, but we are striving for and obtaining a stronger voice and presence.  We can no longer afford to be a small part of the conversation or an afterthought. Our context is similar and unique. Our challenges are similar AND unique. 


Ultimately, we believe Writing Program Administrators and Composition Faculty at HBCUs traditionally face limited resources, excessive teaching loads, and few opportunities for research productivity. The aim of the 2014 Symposium on Composition at the HBCU was to provide a platform for these underrepresented voices to participate in a teaching and learning colloquium. The goal was to provide professional development activities through workshops conducted by specialized, nationally recognized faculty. In addition, it was our hope to engender an enduring dialogue and encourage teachers to continue collaboration on pedagogy and research relevant to teaching writing at HBCUs, leading to future symposia and conferences.


The spark has ignited a flame. In Spring 2018 at Howard University, one of the oldest and most prestigious HBCUs in the United States, the collaboration will continue. We are delighted and excited! We are coming, and we will lift as we climb!

Traci Gardner

Mapping Online Identity

Posted by Traci Gardner Expert Dec 12, 2017

Unknown UserThis post is part of a series that ask students to examine how digital technology shapes literacy and the ways that people interact with others, inspired by Virginia Tech Libraries’ digital literacy initiative. Previous posts have covered definitions of digital native and digital literacy, the relationship between digital literacy and online identity, and researching a public figure’s online identity.

I used a digital identity mapping activity several years ago with mixed results. I think it was a relatively good idea, but the Digital Identity Mapping grid, from Fred Cavazza (blog linked is in French), which I used used for the activity, did not work well for students. The image was not designed for accessibility, which limited its usefulness. Even if the image had been accessible, however, there were other issues that would have still caused issues for students.

While students eventually worked through the mapping activity, they got stuck on basic comprehension and never got to the deeper analysis that I set as the activity objective. In particular, they didn’t understand that they could have more than one online identity even though they were quite adept with code switching in their face-to-face worlds. As the activity was originally set up, there was no way to reconcile the different ways that they identified in online communities and spaces.

The redesigned version of the activity that I am sharing here focuses more on connections to prior knowledge about identity and also reconfigures the mapping grid to better fit their experiences. Students will complete this activity to gather information on their online identities before working several composing projects related to online identity.

The Activity

  1. Review the terms digital native, digital literacy, and online identity, which the class has discussed during previous sessions. You might begin by asking students to consider how the terms relate to college students in general and then how they relate to students at their college in particular. Students may also share how the terms relate to themselves individually; however, asking students to reveal these details to the whole class is not the goal.
  2. Ask students to think about the personas they have developed online (either consciously or unconsciously).
    1. To help students understand the relationships among online and face-to-face experiences, talk about your own different identities (e.g., teacher, family member, friend, sports fan).
    2. Discuss how we have different identities online as well. Some are identical or very similar to our face-to-face identities, and some are different. For instance, you can talk about your identity face-to-face and online as a teacher. Obviously, do not reveal anything about your identities that you do not want students to know.
    3. Ask students to brainstorm lists of face-to-face identities that students at their college may have, listing the information on the board or typing it into a projected, shared document. If students need examples to get started, you can suggest their identities on Facebook with friends, on LinkedIn with potential colleagues and employers, and on gaming sites with other gamers.
    4. Emphasize that students need not have the identities that they suggest. You are building a list for the class to draw on. You may also ask students to name only identities that are appropriate for the classroom community.
    5. Once students begin running out of suggestions, review the list and make any additions or changes.
    6. Have students brainstorm online identities that are not already represented in the class list. As an example, you can mention identities that exist only online, like Facebook friends or gaming friends, identities that may only be known to others in a particular online community or subcommunity.
    7. Add a star or asterisk to items on the first list that come up as students think about online-only identities. Students can consider whether these similar identities differ.
    8. As discussion dies down, review the two lists and again make any additions or changes.
  3. Share the Digital Identity Worksheet with the class, asking students to follow the instructions to obtain a copy that they can work with. Alternately, you can provide photocopies of the worksheet.
  4. Demonstrate for the class how to use the worksheet by filling in a row, using your online identity as a teacher (or whatever personal identity you used earlier in the session).
  5. Working as a whole class, fill in another line on the worksheet, using an identity that all students can relate to, such as a student in the course you are teaching or more generally, a member of the class community (to include students and teacher in the identity). Take advantage of the opportunity to discuss how identities on the brainstormed lists can be broken into more specific categories if desired (for instance, students can be broken out into different majors, class levels, courses, and so forth).
  6. Once students understand how to fill in the worksheet, ask them to complete the form for homework:
    1. Explain that they will use the information on the worksheet in future writing activities, which they will begin during the next class session.
    2. Reinforce the instruction that students should not reveal any online identity or any component of an online identity that they are not comfortable talking about in class.

Closing Thoughts

This redesigned version of the activity is less visual. All the icons and the grid from Cavazza’s original version are gone. This change clarifies the analysis and self-reflection that students need to do. Further, it puts more emphasis on writing by serving as a heuristic for projects students will explore in future sessions. They will return to their worksheets several times as they work.

This activity could easily be adapted as an extension or addition to the previous activity on researching a public figure’s online identity. Students could use their research to fill in the worksheet for the figures they considered to organize their ideas before working on their class presentations.

Come back next week, when I will share a writing assignment that focuses on online identity and digital literacy, connecting this recent series to the first activity students completed. In the meantime, if you have any questions or have a great activity or assignment to share, let me know by leaving a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.


Image credit: Unknown user by Traci Gardner, used under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license.


Students came into class today on fire about the latest news of powerful men who have been fired for sexually predatory behaviors. Part of the conversational aftermath of the #metoo movement is the reminder that these abuses don’t just happen in Hollywood, journalism, or politics. This abuse happens to people who have far less power, who may have nothing to gain – and perhaps a lot to lose – by outing a manager at a fast food job they need, or a predatory president in small business that might contribute meaningfully to the local economy.  Of course, that default setting to “silence” is one way a “system of privilege” works.


My students have been analyzing the essay “What is a ‘System of Privilege’?’” by Allan G. Johnson. Johnson’s tightly written text anchors the chapter on sociological readings my co-author Stuart Greene and I included in the 4th edition of From Inquiry to Academic WritingBecause of the before-class chatter about predatory behavior, I led the students in a visual exercise about gender and privilege that is not original to me, but one I recommend. I wrote on the board: “What do you do every day to protect yourself from sexual assault?" I drew two columns, one for men, and one for women. I called on the men first.  “Uhhhhh….”  Awkward silence. Then laughter. A student ran his fingers through his hair in thoughtful embarrassment and said, “Uh — I keep my pants up? And I try to just … be aware?” That elicited some laughter, but by this point the women were on the edge of their seats, hands shooting up.


What followed was an avalanche of strategies, tactics, and survival skills that are second-nature to women socialized in U.S. culture. As my handwriting reveals, I could hardly write fast enough to keep up with the torrent of routine behaviors women use to keep themselves safe, from walking in darkened parking lots with “Wolverine keys” at the ready, to buddy systems to watch drinks and get home safely, to a range of small weapons tucked into purses. The air was charged. Women were angry, but also seemed vindicated to share this anger.


I made room for some silence as we looked at the evidence on the board before asking: “So, what do we make of this?”  One person immediately said: “That is privilege. Some people never have to think about sexual violence. Other people have to think about it all the time.”  Some of the men talked about how their female friends frequently ask them to serve as their “bodyguards” at concerts or at bars. Other men nodded, one noting, “Even though I’m smaller than some of my female friends, they still see me as their protector. I don’t know how to feel about that.”


We dove into Johnson’s essay, then, and students made connections to insights by Jean Kilbourne on “‘Two Ways a Woman Can Get Hurt’: Advertising and Violence,” and the lively analysis by Ken Gillam and Shannon R. Wooden of alternatives to toxic masculinity in animated films in the essay, “Post-Princess Models of Gender: The New Man in Disney/Pixar.”


With a little prompting, students could draw out intersectional insights that unpacked these simple categories of “male” and “female” behavior. As Traci Gardner reminds us in her powerful post Who Counts When We Talk about Sexual Harassment? repeating simplistic gender binaries erases the experiences of trans* and gender-nonconforming people, as well as sexual violence experienced by men. Further, an intersectional analysis reminds us that men of color receive fear responses that are often heightened, as the terrible record of police violence reminds us. Male students let down their guard as they revealed their hurt feelings when women cross the street to avoid them, or pull their purses close when they pass, or assume they are “players.” Privilege might empower some, but it warps the human experience of all.


At the end of class, dozens of students spontaneously lined up to take photos of the board to share on social media. Their words are now part of the cultural conversation.  #StudentsToo.


Photo Credit: April Lidinsky


Like many (perhaps most) teachers of writing in the United States, I have been disillusioned, disheartened, and increasingly disturbed by the mean-spirited political discourse coming from the president and his administration, and I’ve been nearly overwhelmed by the cynicism and hypocrisy of the Congress. But with every new attack on the truth, on ethical behavior, and on the principles of justice and fairness for all, not just the few, I renew my commitment to the teaching of rhetoric. And I don’t mean teaching logical fallacies or proper style or Toulmin argument, though all of these have a place in a course on rhetoric. What I do mean is teaching rhetoric as the art, theory, and practice of ethical communication, as a way to live well and honestly in this world, and as a guide to coming to sound conclusions and to sharing those conclusions with others in respectful ways.


I’m concerned that as writing courses get cut and trimmed and squeezed (some schools now have only one required writing course and few elective ones; some have none), that teachers of writing may feel that they don’t have time or space for teaching rhetoric: it’s all they can do to guide students through the construction of major writing assignments and provide them with detailed, constructive feedback. And such assignments and feedback on those assignments are very important, but if those assignments, those pieces of writing, are seen simply as assignments, things to be completed and moved on from, then we’ve missed an opportunity to embed them in rhetorical theory and practice. It’s better, I believe, to have fewer assignments and to embed them in clear rhetorical situations, ideally ones chosen and explored by the students themselves, than to leave out attention to rhetorical contexts that shape any piece of writing (or speaking).


That means taking time to explain a little about rhetoric’s history, to give examples of how rhetorical principles and strategies have worked to empower truths and expose lies, and to ask students how firmly they stand behind the words that they write and how much ownership of and responsibility for those words they take. In short, teaching rhetoric in our writing classes leads us to ask students to examine their own positions, their own ethics, their own commitments. And doing so, I believe, leads students not only to better writing and communication, but also to better understanding of the role they can play in unmasking lies and disinformation, in rejecting hypocrisy and cynicism, and in upholding public commitment to truth and to verifiable facts. Imagine how public and political discourse would change if we adopted these principles and lived by them!


As always, thinking about students and everything they have to offer us is my antidote for despair, as is teaching rhetoric!


Credit: Pixaby Image 2557396 by StockSnap, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


When Things Fall Apart – But the Work Must Continue

When the semester began, my students were going to work with a colleague of mine in the Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) region on a project to support local schools combatting ISIS recruitment efforts. The same political turmoil which would allow such ISIS recruitment, however, ultimately pulled the project under and, more tragically, led to my partner and friend being the object of political persecution. In response, the project had to shift to working with another set of schools, also in the MENA region, where a discussion was held on human, political, and gender rights.


This reframed project then encountered complications locally in Syracuse. The project had intended for about eight high school students at a local community center to join the emerging discussion about human rights. Instead, almost twenty students from all ages joined. This provided more input and interaction, but also changed the work my students would be undertaking at the center, and significantly altered the planned discussion with the MENA students.


All this affected students’ individual and group work. Our imagined “prompt” group, for instance, had been assigned the task of developing discussion questions for all the partners. Given the disruptions, they had to create questions for a different type of audience than initially imagined. And, once younger students in Syracuse joined, prompts had to be replaced with more activity-based work. Mid-way through the course, then, their group mission shifted significantly, as did that of each working group in class, in response to every transformation of the process.


Given this experience both in the current project and in projects past, I have come to believe that the key to any assessment of a community project is to embed it not in the successes of the partnerships, but in moments of struggle and collapse. Not only are such moments more common in any community effort, but they also ask the students to place themselves in the work of praxis – connecting theory and strategy to produce a desired goal. I always tell my students the moments of disruption/change are the “teachable moments.” My assessment of their work, then, focuses in on how their individual and group praxis enabled the project to move forward. And as a class, we’ll produce a set of materials and discussions to gauge this aspect of our work.


What is Community? How did you help to create/sustain it?

At the outset of the term, the students read theoretical works about how communities emerge and gain power, and historical pieces about the specific communities/regions in which they would be working. For one of their final assignments, students test how these theories stood up against the community work they undertook this term. How did the difficult daily work of our project enable them to develop their own theories of what makes communities emerge or fall apart?


I am also asking them to generate a portfolio demonstrating the concrete work they did to support the community conversation. This might be emails to other students, drafts of prompts, discarded website projects, etc. The goal is to create a map of their involvement and the particular strategy that emerged for them and for their group’s project. Here the question is not so much a theoretical “What is community?” but an organizational question of “How is community created?” Students will write a short essay describing their emerging sense of community organizing.


How did we work together?

Our work occurred as a collective that attempted to move toward the same goal. During our final class, my hope is to begin with the “strategic maps” created by students to retell the history of their work, referring to how our theoretical understanding was altered by experience. Specifically, the students will have to collectively consider how our original goals were tempered: What can we reasonably have expected individual students or groups to have completed? What might we have done differently? This will lead to the creation of a “collective rubric” on which individual/group products can be understood. The goal here is to show that in such work, assessment is about how to understand not only what happened but what needs to happen next.


How do we value the work?

Hopefully through the work of the class and these final assignments, students have come to understand that they are being assessed for their ability to theorize and strategize towards a collective goal within a dynamic environment. Here the “point” is not so much being “correct,” but working through specific concrete issues with tactical moves and conceptual continuity. It is the overcoming, not the denial of obstacles and set-backs, that will ultimately earn them the “A.”


In this way, a student that can theorize about community, but cannot document the specific tasks they took to actually instantiate or rebuild that community, would not receive an “A.” Nor would the student who can list multiple tasks, but has no conception on why they were done. It is the student who can weave both together, who has learned to work through disruption to enable continued progress, that has truly understood the nature of praxis in any community project.


Final Note: The Community Response#

In the vast majority of such projects, I invite the community partners to attend final class discussions about problems faced, work achieved, and next steps. The global nature of this project made that difficult, to say the least. In my next and last post of the year, I will talk about strategies for community input within a global context.

Every so often, I encounter myths about my work as a community college writing instructor, and I feel compelled to disabuse my well-meaning friends or colleagues of their mistaken assumptions. For example, I have been asked (more than once) how I can possibly continue in such a “boring” line of work; surely it must get tedious teaching the same thing over and over again. “After all,” they hint, “there’s a reason that the ‘grunt work’ you are doing in first-year and developmental writing often falls to those who are lowest on the academic hierarchy!”


At this point, I smile and share a little secret: in over 20 years of teaching IRW, first-year composition, grammar, and ESL courses, I have never taught the same course twice. Granted, the institutions, course names, and even textbooks might be the same, and the syllabi might be quite similar. But my classroom is an on-going laboratory, and the content and pedagogy of my courses evolves continually. How can I possibly be bored when I am waiting to observe just how the latest adjustment will influence the writing, reading, thinking, and “languaging” that I see in my students?


Here’s a simple example. Like many writing instructors, I assign a literacy narrative in my first-year/ALP course. I first incorporated this assignment in my courses as a novice instructor working in a “process approach”: I spent time with my students in pre-writing activities, creating time-lines and freewriting about powerful memories. We then worked through multiple drafts before editing the final version. Later, as colleges moved to integrate reading more explicitly into the classroom, I began to ask students to read literacy narratives and react or respond to them in the context of their own writing; the assignment shifted to focus more on reading skills and the value of connections between texts and students’ experiences. More recently, under the influence of the Writing about Writing (WAW) approach to composition pedagogy, I have added excerpts from theoretical readings (from articles by James Gee or John Swales, for example) as students prepare to write literacy narratives; such excerpts provide students with a language lens through which they can analyze and reflect on their experiences. We are still working through a process and focusing on reading, but I’ve extended the assignment to address a vocabulary for interpretation and analysis.


This coming semester, I am considering another change to my assignment. In this case, it will be a change in sequence. I have always done the literacy narrative as the first paper in the course, but I would like to see what happens if I make it the final paper instead (or perhaps I can structure it as a two-part paper, with both an initial and final version). I plan to incorporate more structured reflection into the course as a whole, and I would like to give the students a chance to use that reflection as primary research—in conjunction with a semester of assigned readings—to develop the literacy narrative at the end of the term. Perhaps that would spark more analysis, more reflection, more metacognition, or perhaps even a stronger foundation for my students to transfer writing knowledge and writing habits to new contexts.


I’m excited about the possibilities for instruction based on a change in my assignment sequence. My enthusiasm certainly marks me as a very specific kind of teaching-nerd, but I am perfectly ok with that.


What changes are you planning for your spring composition or IRW courses? What do you hope to see as a result? I would love to hear from you.


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Screenshot of Jazz Jennings' Twitter Profile, on November 30, 2017Inspired by Virginia Tech Libraries’ digital literacy initiative, I am sharing a series of activities that ask students to examine how digital technology shapes literacy and the ways that people interact with others in my recent posts. So far, I have posted an activity on the definitions of digital native and digital literacy and an activity on digital literacy and online identity.

This week I have a collaborative research project that students complete to learn more about how online identities work. Depending upon the depth of research you ask for, this activity will take anywhere from one to two weeks of class sessions for collaborative work and presentations.

The Assignment

In this scenario-based assignment, your group has been hired by the manager of a public figure to assess the online identity of their client. The manager wants an honest and objective presentation on the client, showing both the good and the bad. Your group will present to the manager, the public figure, and other members of the figure’s inner circle. The manager will use the information your group shares to create a plan to strengthen the client’s online reputation and improve the client’s overall reception with the public.

Step 1: Set up group collaboration rules and decide how you want to share the information that you gather with one another. You might set up a shared folder on Google Drive, for example, so that everyone can access what you find.

Step 2: Choose a public figure to investigate. For the purposes of this assignment, a public figure can be someone such as a celebrity, artist, writer, politician, public official, or industry leader. The public figure you choose must be a living person. Do not choose a fictional character, for instance. Additionally, to avoid any potential invasion of privacy, do not choose any students on campus. Be sure that you receive approval for your public figure before you proceed to the next step of the assignment.

Step 3: Create a list of the online places that your public figure has posted information or where others post information in response to or about your figure. Include the name and the link. Additionally, spend some time assessing the reputation of the sites and consider whether each site is a positive, neutral, or negative impact on the figure’s identity. Check places like the following:

  • Social media sites (like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram)
  • Professional networking and job search sites (like LinkedIn)
  • Blogging sites
  • Personal and work websites
  • Video sharing sites (like YouTube, Vine, and Vimeo)
  • Hobby or special interest sites (places where the figure might post or comment)
  • News and current event sites (that might publish stories or interviews about the figure)

Step 4: Gather evidence of the public figure’s online identity. . Consider what the person chooses to put online (personally or through a proxy) and what others put online about that person by examining and collecting information like the following:

  • the words that the figure posts
  • the images that the figure posts
  • the facts that the figure posts
  • the opinions that the figure shares
  • the products and services that the figure endorses
  • the people that the figure recommends or mentions
  • the messages that the figure shares (e.g., retweets, forwards)

Step 5: Review all the information that you have gathered. As a group, look for patterns and connections that appear among the different sites, building an online identity for the public figure you have researched. As you draw conclusions, use the journalist’s questions to think through ideas:

  • who does the figure care about, talk about, appear with, and so forth
  • what does the figure do, use, care about, and so on
  • where does the figure go, visit, stay, and so forth
  • when does the figure seem to be active (what time of day? what days of the week? any special events?)
  • why does the figure share information online (what is the purpose or goal of the online identity?)
  • how does the figure share information online (posts personally, forwards a lot of information, has a PR manager to do the work)
  • how often does the figure share information online

Step 6: Use your research and analysis to create a seven to eight minute group presentation that describes the online identity of the public figure you have examined to the manager, the public figure, and other members of the figure’s inner circle. Share the conclusions that you have drawn about the strengths and weaknesses of the public figure’s online identity, including concrete details from your research as support. Conclude your presentation with some suggestions to strengthen the public figure’s online reputation and improve their overall reception with the public.

What’s Next?

After working together to investigate someone’s online identity, students should be ready to examine their own online identities independently—and that is the topic of my next posts. I will share some specific activities that ask students to examine their online identities and consider what they can do to improve their reputation as digital natives. If you have suggestions for activities or questions about how to talk about these issues in the classroom, please leave me a comment below.


[Photo: Screenshot of Jazz Jennings' Twitter Profile, taken on November 30, 2017]

Consider for a moment the instances in your life when you were lost. Perhaps anxiety heightened your feelings of being lost and originated from events personal, professional, or academic. Perhaps you were faced with a decision to write a memoir, to start a new job, or to stand on your own in front of a class as a teacher for the first time. How did you see your way forward? How did you cross the divide?


Many writers in a first-year composition class find themselves similarly positioned. Financial stress, psychological stress, personal stress, and academic rigor all act as agents challenging persistence in their new academic life. These writers access many tools in order construct the support – or bridges – that facilitate transfer across the divide.


Engagement and a strong self-concept may be two of the most important factors determining resilience and persistence, and self-concept is directly affected by the social support we have around us. One of my goals at the University of Arizona in working with fellow writers is to help them believe that they do belong, that they are supported, and that they can develop agency in accessing support.


Oberg’s Theory of Culture Shock posits that the more unfamiliar a culture is to a newcomer, the more stressful it will be, and Oberg suggests a traveler in a foreign country will pass through stages: 1) the honeymoon stage, 2) adoption of a hostile and aggressive attitude, 3) endurance, then 4) crisis (to leave) or acceptance (to stay) in the new country.


Two points I’d like to make drawing from Oberg:


  1. Writers new to college find themselves similarly positioned.
  2. Writers navigating new genres find themselves similarly positioned.


Genres function in ways not dissimilar to culture. They’re constantly in flux while at the same time possessing conventions and expectations that locals recognize and understand. Further, genres function to stratify locals and non-locals. If you speak the language, the locals more readily accept you (a pathway to social support). If you don’t, those same locals will view you with a skeptical eye (if not outright reject you).


For writers, the closer a new genre is to a familiar genre, the easier it is to transfer knowledge from previous experience toward understanding the new genre. The further apart the new genre is to past genres with which we are familiar, the more difficult it will be to write in the new genre. I consider this the genre divide.




In writing classes, one of my goals is to provide writers with the tools to construct bridges between existing knowledge they have and new forms of knowledge they need. I strive to make them aware of such bridging tools. And there are many.


In An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing, one bridging tool we emphasize is the rhetorical context. An example that came up in class this past week was from our Applied Fields chapter. I asked my fellow writers to draft a nursing discharge plan, a genre of which most were unfamiliar. Many approached this assignment by largely mimicking the conventional organizational structures of the example included in the book. In class, however, I recognized the language many writers used in their discharge plan suggested they thought I was the audience. So I challenged them to think about who the author of a nursing discharge plan was, who the audience was (i.e., patients), what the purpose was, and what the topic was of their discharge plan.


In that moment their metacognitive awareness became heightened toward the agency such bridging tools afford. That is, many recognized, “Oh, snap, there are tools I can use to make sense of this new, foreign genre!” There are tools they can use to construct a bridge across the genre divide of past knowledge and new writing contexts.


As first-year writing teachers, we often scaffold assignments in a sequence to construct such bridges for our fellow writers. And in a university with a strong Writing Across the Curriculum program, considerable institutional resources can be applied to help writers persist beyond the borderlands of FYW as they engage more fully in their second, third, and fourth years. Vygotskian scaffolding is well-established pedagogy. However, I’m less certain composition scholars have connected Vygotsky to institutional theory in making the case for Writing Across the Curriculum in higher education.


In the writing classroom, Genre Bridge Theory aligns Wittgenstein’s concept of language games with Vygotsky’s zones of proximal development. One potential critique in so doing is a tendency toward “performativity” of genre conventions rather than truth. My argument would be that truth arises by accessing bridging tools when writers achieve insight, realize the power of their own agency, and visualize and create something wholly original.


In conclusion, I should acknowledge my bias toward process. Rationalists view the purpose of writing as production. They would like to see students write a “perfect” sentence or paper that meets their (i.e., faculty) expectations and the expectations other faculty have of writing. I find rationalist views of teaching writing extraordinarily oppressive as they subordinate truth in favor of performance. Instead I focus my emotional labor toward heightening my fellow writers’ awareness of their own processes so that when they write in unfamiliar genres where they may feel lost, they can draw metacognitively from bridging tools to make sense of the new terrain, to navigate, and to find their way—ideally toward originality, insight, and truth.