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Jack Solomon

Things Fall Apart

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Mar 29, 2018


While there appears to be some significant doubt over whether Cambridge Analytica really had much effect on the outcome of 2016 presidential election (Evan Halper at the L.A. Times makes a good case that it didn't), the overall story of the way that millions of Facebook profiles were mined for partisan purposes is still something that is of profound significance in this time when digital technology seems to be on the verge of undermining the entire democratic process itself. As such, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica controversy is a worthy topic for a class that makes use of popular culture in teaching writing and critical thinking.


If you happen to be using the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A., you could well begin with John Herrman's "Inside Facebook's (Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political Media Machine." In this extensive survey of the many ways in which Facebook has fostered an ecosystem of political activists who invade your news feed with ideologically targeted content, Herrman shows how the marketing of online behavior has been transformed into a "(Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political Media Machine." That our Internet activity is being tracked and our data mined is no secret anymore, and many people don't seem to mind—so long as it only results in specially curated advertising pitches and coupon offers. But what Herrman describes goes well beyond product merchandizing into information manipulation, the building of highly politicized news silos where the news you get is the news that someone has calculated that you want to get, and nothing else, as more and more Americans transition away from such traditional news sources as newspapers and television to Facebook, Twitter, and a myriad of other social media.


Brooke Gladstone's "Influencing Machines: The Echo Chambers of the Internet" (also in the 9th edition of Signs of Life), succinctly explains the effect of this shift. With no pretense of presenting a balanced palette of news and information, the new media are exacerbating and deepening the social divisions in America, creating ideological echo chambers that effectively constitute alternate realities for those that inhabit them. The result is a kind of political and cultural echolalia.


It's little wonder, then, that the contending parties in America cannot find a way to communicate effectively with each other. Already divided by a history of cultural conflict and contradiction (chapter 7 of Signs of Life explores this division in depth), Americans have vanishingly less in common with those whose lives lie on the other side of the great divide.


There is something profoundly ironic about all this. For many years it has been assumed that the effect of modern mass media has been to chip away at America's regional differences, flattening them out into a kind of unaccented (literally and figuratively) sameness: a mass culture watching the same TV shows, eating the same food, and talking in the same way. But now something is changing. Rather than tending towards a common culture, America, sliced and diced by digital algorithms, is dividing into mutually hostile camps.


William Butler Yeats said it best long ago at a time when his own country was divided in two: "Things fall apart," he lamented, "the centre cannot hold." Now there's something to hashtag.



Image Source: "Facebook security chief rants about misguided “algorithm” backlash" by  Marco Verch on Flickr 10/08/17 via Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Andrea A. Lunsford

CCCC 2018 and DBLAC

Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Mar 29, 2018


Like many in our field, I had second, and third, thoughts about attending CCCC this year, given the NAACP’s travel warning for people of color. I followed the debate on several listservs and read all of the statements sent out by CCCC leaders explaining their decision to keep the conference in Missouri and the steps they were taking to work with the NAACP and other groups to support civil rights in Missouri. In the end, while I believe that our organization should have pulled out of Missouri (we have taken such action in the past, so there is precedent) and while I supported the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition’s decision not to meet at this year’s CCCC, in the end I decided to attend for one day (Thursday) in order to be part of a panel on “Feminist Rhetorics in the Age of Trump.”


That panel was inspirational to me, as I knew it would be, but I also got a surprise treat when I attended another panel, called “DBLAC: Challenging Narratives of Deviance and Disruption in Writing Spaces.” This panel was a surprise because I had not known about DBLAC, and it was a treat because the talks were all outstanding!


As its website defines it,

Digital Black Lit (Literatures & Literacies) and Composition or DBLAC is a digital network of Black graduate students in the United States, formed in May 2016 at the Digital Media and Composition Institute (DMAC) at The Ohio State University. We are comprised of graduate students who self-identify as Black in the fields of Literacy Studies, Literature, Writing Studies, Rhetoric, English Studies, Creative Writing, Digital Humanities, and other related fields. This network provides safe spaces for members to testify to, discuss with, and share support for each other in response to the continued marginalization of Black bodies in academia. DBLAC also acts as a learning community for professional development, networking, and resource-pooling aimed at the academic retention and success of its members.   


The panelists introduced us to this fairly new organization, and told us a bit about its history and their involvement in it. As I listened to them talk about establishing safe spaces for graduate students of color and about how to establish a supportive community, I finally noticed what they were wearing: each member of the panel had on a black t-shirt with a series of names printed in large, white block letters. When these finally came into focus for me, I realized they were the names of these panelists’ mentors, scholars of color who had provided safe spaces for them. BANKS, ROYSTER, GILYARD, MOSS, NUNLEY. . . and others. In short, the panelists were embodying their message, delivering it not only through their words but through their actions and clothing.


Khirsten Echols, Brittany Hull, Louis Maraj, and Sherita Roundtree each shared experiences of being in UNsafe, hostile, and disrespectful spaces in the academy, stories that are all too familiar to all who have had the privilege of working closely with graduate students of color. They didn’t stop there, however, going on to share their research and scholarship on recognizing, respecting, and valuing the knowledge and insights of young scholars of color.


Sherita Roundtree, in “Black Women’s Noise and Institutionalized Spaces,” argues that Black women are often “scripted out” of spaces of belonging and that addressing this long-standing act of exclusion calls for literally making space and recognizing the right of Black women to occupy it, in their scholarship, teaching, and professional development. They have been kept from occupying such spaces by what Roundtree identifies as “noise,” a term used by Jacqueline Jones Royster in her award-winning essay, “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own”:

At the extreme, the African American community, as my personal example, has seen and continues to see its contributions and achievements called into question in grossly negative ways, as in the case of The Bell Curve. . . . Such interpretations of human potential create a type of discourse that serves as a distraction, as noise that drains off energy and sabotages the work of identifying substantive problems within and across cultural boundaries and the work also of finding solutions that have import, not simply for a ‘race’ but for human beings whose living conditions, values, and preferences vary.


In her presentation, Roundtree took this concept of “noise”—the chatter/clatter that distracts attention from African American women’s achievements and contributions, that literally drowns them out-—and then expanded it. In Roundtree’s work, “noise” affects the perceptions of African American women in such negative ways, yes, but the term also signals something else: the “noisiness” of Black women is not negative but can instead be thoroughly grounded in Black culture and ways of knowing and being. Roundtree’s goal goes beyond reducing the negative noise that affects Black women so profoundly; in addition, she aims to explore “the perceived and known noisiness of Black women GTA’s in the academy and their teaching of writing,” thus seeking to “develop a more nuanced understanding of Black women as teachers, learners, and mentors.”


As I listened to this group of very smart and very talented researchers, I wished that everyone at CCCC could have heard their presentations. In the meantime, I urge everyone who works with graduate students of color to make sure they know about DBLAC!


Credit: Pixabay Image 2488359 by gtjoflot, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

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.


Multimodal composition relies heavily on the relationship between text and image. As teachers in this context we can emphasize to students that composing images takes the same kind of thought and energy as composing written texts. We consider our audience, purpose, subject matter, and context and make rhetorical choices that communicate meaning. Of course, students can just snap pictures and capture strong images by happenstance, but I try to get them to understand that composing images involves rhetorical strategies and an understanding of visual rhetoric.


Kenneth Louis Smith in the Handbook of Visual Communications (Routledge, 2005), helps make that distinction. 

Not every visual object is visual rhetoric. What turns a visual object into a communicative artifact--a symbol that communicates and can be studied as rhetoric--is the presence of three characteristics. . . . The image must be symbolic, involve human intervention, and be presented to an audience for the purpose of communicating with that audience.

This definition is a good place to start our conversation. How do we symbolize? What is the difference between literal and representative images? How can we use visuals to move beyond pretty pictures and create persuasive communication?


I use this and other sources to introduce students to the idea of image rhetorics and discuss particular rhetorical strategies to consider while composing visuals. I find it useful for students to think about metaphors and their relationship to designing visual content. and other online sources offer glossaries and definitions for rhetorical devices and visual metaphors. I also use Sean Morey’s discussion of Image Rhetorics (The Digital Writer) to investigate terms and to help initiate students into learning the language of visual composition. He discusses the following rhetorical lenses and image categories: Analogy, Metaphor, Metonomy, Synecdoche, Enthymeme and provides detailed visual examples of each.


Morey also talks about the importance of text and image relationships and suggests terms like Anchorage and Relay, Juxtaposition and the distinction between Denotation and Connotation. Students learn the language of visual composition and start to see ways to change and enhance their visual composing practices through this assignment. 


Background Resources:

The St. Martin’s Handbook: Ch. 16, Design for Print and Digital Writing; Ch. 17, Presentations

The Everyday Writer (also available with exercises): Ch.22, Making Design Decisions; Ch. 23, Presentations

 EasyWriter (also available with exercises): Ch.3, Making Design Decisions; Ch. 11, Creating Presentations


Steps of the assignment:

  1. Have students study and learn image rhetoric terms and strategies.
  2. Look online for examples that demonstrate the principles of visual rhetoric.
  3. Gather students into teams and have each team compose a collaborative Image Rhetoric Slide show through Google Slides.
  4. Each student is responsible for a single slide that features a different rhetorical term in which they 1) Define the term, 2) Compose an original visual example, and 3) Provide an explanation of the meaning they are trying to communicate (and what makes it effective).
  5. Students present the slide shows in class and discuss examples.



It is one thing to understand a definition and repeat its characteristics on a test. It is another to apply that knowledge through this kind of exercise. Students found interesting connections and creative ways of presenting persuasive visual communication. Students come to see larger connections between cultural concepts and learn how images can bring complicated ideas together in impactful ways.


For example, Aiden’s slide provides an analysis of metaphors, creatively combines two concepts, and draws a “comparison between unhealthy fried foods known to be carcinogenic like fries and tobacco products.”

This assignment helps students understand that many of the messages around them are composed through these lenses and that they can actively compose persuasive visual images of their own.  I have included two of the team presentations below:


Let me know what you think in the comments.

We’re almost to the mid-point of Nelson’s The Argonauts. Eighty pages in, I’ve had the students spend time in the computer lab drafting and then publishing “interpretive footnotes” in order to explore one of Nelson’s many references and see where the exploration leads. As with the interpretive definition assignment, I publish an example for them to read before they get started. 

There are no images in Nelson’s text; but she returns often to the work of Catherine Opie. We’ve discussed the images in class and I’ve had the students write about the experience of looking at Opie’s self-portraits. But, like all discussions, there’s been a lot left unsaid and there have been paths left to pursue. And that’s what I want to happen in the interpretive footnote—for the pursuit to continue, for the connections to keep sparking.

Here’s what I published prior to having the students enter the computer lab: 


Each time I passed the sign stuck into the blameless mountain, I thought about Catherine Opie's Self-Portrait/Cutting from 1993, in which Opie photographed her back with a drawing of a house and two stick-figure women holding hands (two triangled skirts!) carved into it, along with a sun, a cloud and two birds. She took the photo while the drawing was still dripping with blood.


The pacing of Nelson's description here is timed for maximum shock. If you don't know the image ahead of time, what you experience over these two sentences is a crescendo that starts with the word "blameless" and then moves from "cutting" to "carved" to "dripping with blood." The mountains that Nelson passes are blameless because they can't control what other people stick into them; they are the passive recipients of the pro-Prop 8 signs calling for the end to gay marriage.


Like the blameless mountains, has Opie's blameless back, too, been defaced? vandalized? made into a site for a political struggle? It's hard to quite know what verb to use here. The one most ready-to-hand is the one Opie provides herself--cut. But, how? Cutting, as a form of ritualistic self-harm, tends to be done on the arms or the legs. How does one cut a childlike picture of friendship or love into one's own back? So, from cutting to carving to drawing, the latter two verbs allowing the knife to turn, to shape, to compose, to redesign the act of mortification. Did Opie do this to herself? That would require fixing the knife and moving her back to create the shapes. It's more likely she had someone carve the picture for her. And then, she took the picture herself, with the blood still dripping.


The written description slows the experience of Opie's work down and it asks the reader to construct the image herself. The actual image, though, arrives immediately.


Harry and Nelson disagree about what the image means. Or rather, Nelson argues that the image means something troubling and Harry, without commenting on the image, isn't troubled by the possibility that Opie might be grieving the fact that she can't have a "homonormative" family. In this instance, Nelson settles for engaging with the art object via hermeneutics; she interprets it and extracts a stable meaning from it. And then she further locks the meaning down by citing personal information about Opie that confirms that the image is one of grieving.



This stabilizing is only temporary, however. Having introduced Opie's work on page 11, Nelson returns to it on page 64, immediately after recounting all the negative reactions her friends had to Community Action Center, a film that gave Nelson a glimpse of freedom. Ugh, one of Nelson's friends says, why did we have to stare at so many hairy pussies? As if in answer to that question, Nelson returns to Opie and observes that Self-Portrait/Cutting is "in conversation" with another of Opie's self-portraits, Pervert. The childlike picture on Opie's back is "in conversation" with "the ornate script of the word Pervert, which Opie had carved into the front of her chest and photographed a year later." And this image is in conversation with Opie's Self-Portrait/Nursing, taken a decade later, where the scars from the chest-carving remain, leaving a "ghosted" trace of the word "pervert" above the nursing child Opie cradles in her arms.

Here, it's clearer that Opie has had the word "pervert" and the ornamentation beneath it carved into her chest by another person. There are other details about the portrait that Nelson elects not to mention, details the unsuspecting viewer may well find difficult to behold: Opie is seated in this image; her head is encased in a dark black leather mask, with a brass ring at the neck; both of her arms have matching rows of flesh piercing needles running up them; she is topless; she is wearing leather pants with a leather belt; the fingers of her hands are interlaced; the posed figure seems relaxed and calm; the figure faces the camera head-on, but can see nothing.

This description also slows down the experience of beholding the image.


What is this image saying to the Cutting image?

It's the same body in both images. The self in both portraits has a face that can't be seen; it is a self that presents her body for others to see. One facet of that self entertains or entertained childlike visions of coupledom. Another facet takes pleasure in receiving pain, in submission, in being at the mercy of another. It's the same body, but visually, the desire for a partner and the desire for pleasure can't be united in a single image.



Which bring us to the third self-portrait: Nursing.


Here, in the definitively maternal act of nursing, Opie reveals her face. She looks into her child's eyes; her child looks at her. The child is too young to know what scars are, let alone how to understand their meaning. The child's sex is not revealed.


The ghosted scar offers a rebus of sodomitical maternity: the pervert need not die or even go into hiding per se, but nor is adult sexuality foisted upon the child, made its burden.


Is this image the place where Opie's identity is secured and stabilized? The one that brings her safely back within the perceived societal norms? I think it would be a mistake to force such a reading on the image either in isolation or in context of the series. The "sodomitical mother" encrypted in this image is a many-faceted self: Opie can show her face in this image because it is the image of Woman that all women are expected to fulfill. And, if the image is looked at quickly or carelessly, the scratches on Opie's chest might be missed altogether or misinterpreted as a skin condition, signs of aging, unfortunate lighting.


The three images together allow the viewer to see some facets of Opie's self, facets that sink beneath the surface when she removes the leather mask, picks up her hungry child, and turns her face to the camera. She's had non-reproductive sex and she's reproduced; she grieves, has a fantasy life, has sexual desires, has maternal desires. Doesn't that make her, in the end, a "normal" human being?

That's not the conclusion Nelson wants us to reach or that Opie thinks is true. When Nelson returns to Opie on page 74, she quotes Opie, laughing, as she says, "becoming homogenized and part of mainstream domesticity is transgressive for somebody like me." While Nelson isn't laughing along with Opie, she emphasizes the insight at the heart of the laughter: "it's the binary of normative/transgressive that's unsustainable, along with the demand that anyone live a life that's all one thing." Opie moves between the poles of that binary; engaging with her work requires that the viewer resist the pull to sap the images of their power via norm-driven acts of interpretation. Here, again, we find the call to an erotics of art, rather than a hermeneutics, as a practice for self-definition.

ALEXANDRIA LOCKETT is an Assistant Professor of English at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She deeply enjoys serving the oldest historically Black college for women, and is committed to teaching and learning about the relationship between composition, new media, sustainability, and collective intelligence. At Spelman, Dr. Lockett actively contributes to the English Department’s writing minor in the areas of professional and multimedia composition. She also provides leadership to the Comprehensive Writing Program in major curricular initiatives like First-Year Composition and Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing in the Disciplines (WAC/WID). In 2015, she was awarded a $10,500 grant from the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS) Grant to organize and lead a faculty development symposium on Integrating Wikipedia into Writing-Intensive Courses at ACS Colleges. She continued her work with Wikipedia in 2017, organizing Spelman’s first-ever Art+Feminism–Black Women’s Herstory Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. Currently, Dr. Lockett is the proud recipient of the UNCF/Mellon Faculty Residence Fellowship (2017-2018) where she is a fellow at Emory University’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference. While in residence, she is working on her book project Overflow: Rhetorical Perspectives on Leaks. 

Diversity and inclusion.  Equality.  Social justice. 


These terms and concepts comfortably blanket educators asserting their desired vision of the world in a distant, cold, and bitter wasteland. Part of the mystery of such words lies in the major assumption that historically white institutions (HWCUs) need to be more integrated, or at least appear mildly interested in some kind of commitment to this effort. However, what exactly do these words mean to faculty and administrators at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and single-sex colleges?  


In my own personal experience teaching writing and unofficially administering the Writing Intensive initiative at Spelman College—a historically black college for women in Atlanta, Georgia—I feel alienated from the framing of diversity discourses. Before I discuss certain aspects of my experience, I want to clarify those conversations may be very applicable to predominantly white contexts that are more or less typical for the majority of instructors and researchers participating in our discipline. However, black women faculty face major challenges in work environments where they are a highly represented demographic. Arguably, this educational space comes with significant risks that are sometimes muted by the nature of the college. 


I didn’t start to notice the systemic silence surrounding faculty and student demographics at Spelman until I started developing and leading faculty development workshops about the teaching of writing at the college across and within disciplines. Faculty often did not explicitly discuss what it meant to teach black women, or what it was like for black women of various ranks to exchange teaching and learning. There was a kind of assumption that since we were mostly black women gathered in a space, we would know what to do. 


And I thought I would know.


The allure of being part of the demographic majority when you are used to being represented as a minority is intoxicating. After living in some of the whitest towns in America from 2001-2013—Kirksville, Missouri; Norman, Oklahoma; and State College, Pennsylvania—the first week of working at Spelman felt unreal. Black women of every size, shape, color, hair type, hair style, and age moved through the space with smiling faces that lent sparkle to the sun and shine on skin that blinded me with the power. We saw each other, feeling that shared electricity of novelty and glimpsing hope. Potential filled me up like fresh fruit. Alive. Fleshy. Ripe. I moved more slowly than at Penn State where I needed to be small, dart fast, and move out the way. And those other places where I regretted being seen or taking up space, where I communed with the trees during breaks to avoid the concrete jungle of young white bodies shuffling about swiftly and completely enough to swallow me whole. In that small private college in Atlanta, I felt an indignant right to be there. Not to color the place, and not to sit on a margin, but to be at the center of its life. 


But we weren’t *all* black women faculty, and the black women faculty there most likely had been teaching in predominantly white American college classroom spaces before coming to Spelman. Did we understand that we needed to talk about the meaning of teaching black woman somewhere? To talk about what it means to work with other black women? That we needed to know more about our assumptions about the meaning of our bodies to the students in those classrooms? In faculty meetings? How were students receiving our instruction and what did they expect?


After participating in first-year writing portfolio assessment with an interdisciplinary jury for the past few years, as well as several writing-intensive faculty development workshops on topics like “Integrating Wikipedia into Writing-Intensive Courses” and “Teaching Black Women Writers,” I strongly believe that we need to do even more research on several major issues facing HBCU faculty—including but not limited to:


  • Their attitudes and expectations towards their training and work environments.
  • Their deliberate or unconscious reproduction of the field’s dominant discourses in writing instruction at HBCUs
  • Their students' responses to an instructor’s demographic embodiment and social relationship to (and within) the black community
  • Their scholarly knowledge of and/or production of research projects centered on Rhetoric and Writing programs at HBCUs—historically or present
  • Their sociopolitical relationship to the HBCU and how it influences access of and distributions of resources both within and outside the college


Next week, March 28-31, I am thrilled to attend my first-ever HBCU Symposium at Howard University, sponsored by Bedford/St. Martin’s and the Howard University Writing Program. This event will be the second time that I have been to a professional development opportunity that organizes HBCU writing faculty representing various institutions in a single space. Two years ago, July 25-28, 2016, I attended a UNCF/Mellon Teaching and Learning Institute on Critical Hip-Hop Rhetoric and Composition led by Shawanda Stewart and Brian Stone at Huston-Tillotson University. This event enabled me to network with a number of passionate writing teachers operating under financial and pedagogical constraints. Although much of the institute’s focus was on teaching students, especially those in first-year composition courses, this event brought up some glaring issues about how the field does diversity in terms of faculty development. For example, Asao Inoue—2018 Program Chair of the CCCC and one of our featured speakers—offered a dynamic, memorable workshop on assessment. Inoue’s discussion about how we may be unknowingly institutionalizing whiteness through our grading practices at the expense of marginalized students resonated with many of us. The fact that HBCUs could be subject to white supremacy by its own instructors was hardly surprising, given some of our colonial histories. Moreover, some of the institute’s attendees were white, and seeking to leverage the most value from diversity and inclusion strategies.


But when we started talking about our institutional context, as scene and agency, the conversation uncomfortably shifted to unknown terrain. To prepare for Inoue’s visit, we were required to read his book, Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future. Feeling as if Inoue was not writing to underrepresented instructors, I asked him to explain how his theory of antiracist assessment applied to HBCUs after we were well over halfway through his planned workshop. Other instructors also wanted to discuss this problem. Moreover, I wanted him to help me understand how to get linguistically conservative instructors to manage “gradeless” classrooms. I recognized quickly that if we were going to have that conversation, it would deviate too sharply from the workshop he planned. I stopped pushing it, and Inoue gracefully and thoughtfully acknowledged the validity of my concerns. Nevertheless, the disconnect between Inoue’s antiracist aims and their relevance to HBCUs seemed jarring, given that he knew he was communicating with an audience of HBCU writing instructors.


Even at a workshop at an HBCU with HBCU faculty, I was compelled to engage “diversity” pedagogical hypotheticals about represented students we don’t teach and instructors whose bodies are not black like me. (For more info about this audience issue, see the endnote.)


At the upcoming HBCU symposium, I am looking forward to discussing some of the unique challenges of teaching writing in the HBCU space. Engagement with contemporary sociopolitical issues may be encouraged even as student deficiency is focused on more than the task at hand. The teaching of grammar is often believed to be the primary and exclusive duty of English departments and Writing Centers, which positions us as easy targets to blame for student failure during faculty meetings. We often lack examples of how to structure and administer our programs because our history and traditions have yet to be fully incorporated in our field’s dominant disciplinary historiographies, our most widely circulated First-Year Composition readers and Rhetoric textbooks, or our conference panel offerings at NCTE, CCCC, ATTW, RSA, NCA, Computers and Writing, etc. Certainly this was illustrated by the teaching and learning institute at Huston-Tillotson.


Moreover, I look forward to using the space of the HBCU symposium to collaboratively develop more resources that racially diverse HBCU faculty need to effectively serve our unique demographic. In this historical moment, I’d love to see conversations about the role of HBCUs in contemporary society take the lead on cultivating an empowered faculty. Without a culture of empathic and collaborative collegiality, black and brown women teachers are just as alienated as they are at PWI/HWCUs. How can we be expected to uplift our beautifully diverse students when it seems so socially unacceptable to mention, let alone critique, the environments we labor in?



This audience issue is discussed at length in Sarah Banschbach Valles, Rebecca Day Babcock, and Karen Keaton Jackson, who argue that diversity scholarship about Writing Centers tends to assume that directors are “middle-aged White female(s) and the student, or in some cases the tutor, is the Other” (Writing Center Administrators and Diversity: A Survey, 2017). As their article demonstrates, scholarship about the field’s administrative leadership such as Writing Center Directors and WPAs is scarce, raising questions about the racial landscape of the field’s entirety of practitioners and those they serve. While Jill Gladstein’s National Census of Writing Project offers some sense of institutional writing program representation, it does not collect data about the bodies occupying them. One recent exception is "Race, Silence, and Writing Program Administration: A Qualitative Study of US College Writing Programs,” published by Genevieve Garda de Mueller and Iris Ruiz last year (2017). 




de Mueller, Genevieve Garda, and Iris Ruiz. "Race, Silence, and Writing Program Administration: A Qualitative Study of US College Writing Programs." WPA: Writing Program Administration 40.2 (2017).


Fulford, Collie. "Hit the Ground Listening: An Ethnographic Approach to New WPA Learning." WPA: Writing Program Administration 35.1 (2011): 159-62.


Green Jr., David Frank. "Notes of a Native Son: Considerations when Discussing Race and Privilege in the Teacher's Lounge." The Journal for Understanding and Dismantling Privilege 4.2 (2014): 261-75.


Hocks, M. "Using multimedia to teach communication across the curriculum." WPA: Writing Program Administration 25.1-2 (2001): 25-43.


Howson, Emily, Chris Massenburg, and Cecilia Shelton. "Reflections on Building a Popular Writing Course." Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3.1 (2016).


Rose, Shirley K., Lisa S. Mastrangelo, and Barbara L'Eplattenier. "Directing first-year writing: The new limits of authority." College Composition and Communication (2013): 43-66.    

Taylor, Hill. "Black spaces: Examining the writing major at an urban HBCU." Composition Studies 35.1 (2007): 99-112.


Valles, Sarah Banschbach, Rebecca Day Babcock, and Karen Keaton Jackson. "Writing Center Administrators and Diversity: A Survey."


This semester, students have been invited to engage with reading a whole nonfiction book from a choice of three twentieth-century texts: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, and Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge. I chose these three books because excerpts from them are frequently anthologized in first-year essay collections, and each text deals with a still-contemporary issue of relevance to my students: decolonial theory (Anzaldúa); racism (Baldwin); and climate change (Williams). Students could chose to work individually or in groups on a creative project that would merge in-school and out-of-school concerns.


The assignment for the creative projects is copied later in this post. The general invitation asks students to create a multimedia piece that is not necessarily digital, but that can be digitally documented, such as a handmade collage or mural that can be photographed, or spoken word lyrics that can be transcribed to a document and uploaded to our institution’s eportfolio system.


A creative project, according to the assignment, is essentially a rhetorical act that asks students to seize the circumstances of the moment (kairos) to persuade audiences to move toward action, or at the very least to pay attention to issues that have long been ignored and that continue to provoke dire consequences.


One example of a previous creative project that I shared with students (and previously on Bedford BitsA Single Story (audio file)) was a song based on Chiminanda Ngozi Adiche’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” The song riffs on the theme of Adiche’s talk, inviting listeners to consider the complexities of identity that resist stereotypes and that move beyond a “single story.” The three assigned books also address complexities of identity, and work rhetorically to persuade readers to consider everyday life as deeply embodied in its complications.


This semester, the introduction to the creative projects was preceded by a moment of silence for victims of gun violence. Our classes met the day after the walkout efforts initiated by the students in Parkland, Florida, to commemorate the first-month anniversary of gun violence and the murders of seventeen people at their high school. The walkout and activism surrounding the many recent occurrences of gun violence are examples of creative projects, as a student noted by drawing the class’s attention to a recent exhibit of murder victims’ shoes on the lawn of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.


At the end of this project, students will write an analytic essay that asks them to reflect on their processes of making their creative project and the insights gained from reading the book they selected. We are just at the beginning of this work. I hope to report back later in the semester.



Writing Project 2: CREATIVE PROJECT

For WP 2, you are asked to make a creative project based on the book you have chosen. The creative project contains two parts:


PART 1: Create a multimedia piece that shows your relationship with the book.

  • For the multimedia piece, you can create (alone or in collaboration with others in class):
    • photography, music, video, artwork, poetry, spoken word, podcast, interview, poster, collage, graphs, charts, experiments, blueprints, demonstration, performance, fiction, memoir, zines, graphic novels, service project, and so on.
  • The piece can relate to your major, to interests outside of your major, or to interests outside of school.
  • Post your piece on our eportfolio system. The original piece need NOT be digital, but make sure that you can make a digital record of your work to post online.


PART 2: Write an analysis that focuses on your relationship with the book, your process work for the multimedia piece, and your final multimedia product. Here are some questions to begin, but remember to go deeper as your work moves forward:


  • Your RELATIONSHIP with the book
    • What seems most significant?
    • What causes cognitive dissonance?
    • What connections did you find to 21st-century thought and action?
    • What points seemed confusing?
  • Your PROCESS work for the multimedia piece
    • How did you decide what to create?
    • What steps did you take?
    • What successes did you have?
    • What frustrations did you find?

  • Your final multimedia PRODUCT:
    • Does the multimedia piece truly reflect your relationship with the book?
    • If so why?
    • If not, why not? What would you change?


At this year’s CCCC, I participated in a roundtable on “Feminist Rhetorics in the Age of Trump.” Noting that the narrative spun daily by Trump is filled with lies, mis- and dis-information, and “alternative facts” (a phrase that won Kellyanne Conway the 2017 NCTE Doublespeak Award), and that we must do everything we can to help our students resist this narrative, I offered a series of exercises and assignments aimed at helping students to STOP, LOOK, and LISTEN before they TALK (much less TWEET).


These exercises and assignments all aim at reflection, contemplation, and careful looking and listening. They aim for understanding rather than winning at all cost, for stepping back and analyzing the full context of any statement or situation before rushing to judgment or conclusions.


One “looking” assignment I have used throughout my career is to ask a student, unobtrusively, to serve as “observer of the day.” This student watches interactions intently, noting who speaks before and after whom, for how long, and in what clusters. How much the teacher talks and who responds. How turn-taking works and to what ends. Who never speaks. What body language can suggest about the ethos of the classroom that day. Then the observer reports findings the next day and we discuss just how well our classroom is working. I like this exercise because it engages students in careful reflection and self-reflection, and because I learn so much from it as well: on more than one occasion, I have been surprised to see how much I dominate discussion, how I seem to elicit comments from only certain kinds of students, how I may have silenced someone. This kind of quiet reflection and contemplation can help to counter, I hope, the narrative of “winners” and “losers” the president is so intent on fostering, and can encourage stepping back and taking the long view, so I recommend it.


But as I should have known, now there’s an app for this! Called Equity Maps, it’s an app for tablets, marketed by iPad for iOS devices (at a cost of $2.99), and aimed at helping teachers “Effortlessly trace and assess your students’ interaction, performance, and involvement.” I think I may spring for the $2.99 and take a much closer look to see how Equity Maps and its analytics may help me improve on my old-fashioned “observer of the day” method. But I won’t be too surprised if I decide to stick with my tried and true version rather than its electronic replacement!


You can check Equity Maps out for yourself, or perhaps you already have: if so, I’d love to hear what you think of it!



Credit: Pixabay Image 2557399 by StockSnap, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Word Cloud made from the pages of the Labor Resource CenterEarlier this month, the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA) premiered their Labor Resource Center. The site provides an amazing array of resources on labor equity and equality for both those working with and in writing programs and those researching writing programs.

Housed on Colorado State’s Center for the Study of Academic Labor website, the collection of resources grew from ideas exchanged at a pre-conference institute at the CWPA conference in 2013. Now, five years later, the newly launched center provides artifacts and materials that focus on the labor issues most relevant to writing program administration.

The Labor Resource Center includes example documents and guidelines that can help answer questions such as:

  • What is typically included in a job description for a director of first year composition?
  • What should I pay attention to if I am writing a self-evaluation of my work as a faculty member?
  • What examples are available for student evaluation of teaching?
  • What should a candidate keep in mind during a job interview? What should a search committee consider?
  • What position statements address working conditions?
  • What databases are useful for research on writing instruction and academic labor?
  • What should I read if I want to learn more about working conditions for composition faculty?

As the site explains on its home page, it is “(Always) In progress.” Its Forthcoming Pages/Projects link indicates that the site will ultimately include additional materials including an FAQ page, details on job negotiation, sample contracts, and research on class size.

Whether you are a newcomer to teaching in the composition classroom or an experienced administrator, you will find relevant resources on the CSAL website. I encourage you to visit and explore the already rich collection. If you have suggestions for materials to add to the collection, you can email Seth Kahn, who serves as the chair of the CWPA Labor Committee and is the primary administrator for the site.


Image credit: Word Cloud from the CWPA Labor Resource Center by Traci Gardner, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license.

Traci Gardner

Checking the Checkers

Posted by Traci Gardner Expert Mar 19, 2018

As teachers and writers, we know that spell checkers, grammar checkers, and style checkers have limitations. Students, on the other hand, sometimes succumb to the promise of accuracy and accept whatever these tools suggest. So how can we convince them to question the advice that they receive?

With my students, I introduce the topic with a discussion of an article that demonstrates the complications that checkers can introduce and a complementary article that discusses the value of accuracy. Here’s the prompt I use, which you are welcome to copy and customize for your classes:

Screenshot of autocorrect on a phone, with the image of a police officer riding a unicornWe all rely on grammar and style checkers to help us find the small errors in our writing. Anyone who has had autocorrect go wrong, however, knows that grammar and spell checkers are not necessarily accurate. Sometimes (as in the case of the unicorn-riding police officer in the meme image on the right) these tools can change our messages to say things we never intended.

In the same way that you must double-check the changes that autocorrect suggests, you have to pay attention to the grammar and style tools that are available in your word processors. Read the article Microsoft Word’s Grammar and Style Tools Will Make Your Writing Worse for examples of how Word can suggest changes that will confuse your readers.

Compare the piece to the BBC’s article on The true importance of good spelling, which discusses why correctness and accuracy matter by considering how readers react to errors in texts.

Be prepared to discuss the following questions in class:

  • Have you been in situations when you judged someone by their spelling or grammar OR when you were judged on your spelling or grammar? If you are comfortable with sharing, tell us what happened.
  • Have you been a victim of autocorrect gone wrong or an incorrect correction from a spelling or grammar checker? What happened? How did readers react to the autocorrected text?
  • How do your experiences and those that have been shared in class compare to the attitudes toward correctness and accuracy discussed in the BBC article?
  • In what situations are grammar or spell checkers likely to give incorrect advice? Why do these situations lead to mistakes?
  • What suggestions do you have to help people avoid taking bad advice from spell and grammar checkers? What can people do if they are unsure of the advice they are given?

To build on the discussion, follow up with “Mistakes Are a Fact of Life”: A National Comparative Study by Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen J. Lunsford, which is mentioned in the BBC article. Either ask students to read the 2008 CCC article itself or to read some excerpts from the article that demonstrate ways that spell and grammar checkers lead writers to make errors. After reading, have students consider how the categories in the CCC article compare to the different situations they identified in which grammar or spell checkers are likely to give incorrect advice. Encourage students to consider how the categories from the article can help them identify inaccurate advice from spell and grammar checkers.

As students work on drafts for the course, I ask them to note times when they receive poor advice from their word processors. I invite them to share incorrect corrections in a discussion forum. They provide a screenshot of the correction and then explain why the advice is wrong. Ideally, they use the categories from the CCC article to indicate the kind of error that the advice would result in. The resulting examples help the whole class understand the importance of double-checking the advice that spell and grammar checkers provide.

How do you discuss spelling and grammar in class? What activities do you use to help students understand how to use spell and grammar check advice effectively? Please leave a comment below with the details. I’d love to hear from you.


Credits: Police Issue Unicorn from Autocorrect Fail. The Lunsford and Lunsford article is from CCC 59:4/June 2008, pp. 781–806.

The news of the death of Allan G. Johnson, path-breaking sociologist, was a punch to my gut. Most writing instructors have go-to authors whose foundational ideas become the central analytical lens of a course. For example, Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of “contact zones” shaped many semesters of my early teaching years in the 1990s, as did Gloria Anzaldúa’s theory of “new mestiza consciousness.” Similarly, Allan G. Johnson’s succinct definition of “systems of privilege” is a concept that can anchor an entire semester, providing a lens through which students can consider myriad issues. Johnson explains, “The concept of privilege refers to any advantage that is unearned, exclusive, and socially conferred” (455 in FIAW). It’s hard to imagine a topic in a writing class that would not benefit from this analytical lens.


For just this reason, my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I include Johnson’s helpfully clear and brief essay, “What is a ‘System of Privilege?’” in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing. While many students are familiar with the general concept of privilege, they sometimes react defensively. They might throw out challenges, either personal (“No one has ever given me a free ride!”) or drawn from the media (“What about Oprah?”) to critique anecdotally the claim that there is structural inequality in our culture. Anticipating these detractors, Johnson preemptively notes, “…privilege does not guarantee good outcomes for the privileged group or bad outcomes for everyone else” (456). Instead, privilege “load[s]the odds one way or another,” working like “rules in a game […] in which everyone participates” (456). Johnson’s point that we are all part of a system, whether we want to be or not, is a “click” moment for many students. We can’t opt out a structurally unequal society, but once we see that we are implicated in the system, we can begin to figure out how to maneuver, resist, and create change.


Johnson lays out categories of analysis that are easily graspable by students: “A system of privilege — a family, a workplace, a society — is organized around three basic principles: dominance, identification, and centeredness” (456). Each of these might offer analytical tools for in-class brainstorming that can form the basis of more developed student essays.


Dominance: Consider white privilege, in which “the default is for white people to occupy positions of power” (456) so that people of color are seen as exceptions to the rule. How many examples can your students generate, linked to your other readings, to consider the significance of phrases like “black director,” “Asian comedian,” “Latinx author,” or all the other ways whiteness is rendered “invisible” by being dominant?


Identification: Consider the way male bodies, for example, are seen as the standard for human beings. What examples might your students come up with, from medical testing, leadership in almost any industry, or films like Black Panther (since, despite strong women in the Black Panther plot, power moves are between men in this film about re-centering black identity)?


Centeredness: Johnson defines this as “the tendency to put white people and what they do at the center of attention” (456). How many examples can your students develop, based on looking at the front pages of newspapers, magazine covers, advertising, or, to return to our film example, the significance of black centeredness in Black Panther? (Students should discover that upending one system of privilege [racism] does not necessarily upend other systems of privilege [sexism]).


Once students grasp the multifaceted implications of “systems of privilege,” you can help them see how transferrable it is to almost any issue involving power, from the #MeToo movement, to #BlackLivesMatter, to the coverage of the Parkland high schoolers or to the many “evergreen” topics we often explore with our students, such as the meanings of identity, community, or inequality. Johnson’s insights have the power to become more than a tool for your classroom; the concept of “systems of privilege” can be a lens for understanding life.



Photo Courtesy of April Lidinsky

Jack Solomon

And the Winner Is . . .

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Mar 15, 2018


As I consider the cultural significance of this year's Academy Awards ceremony, my attention has not been captured by the Best Picture winner—which strikes me as a weird amalgam of Water World, Beauty and the Beast (TV version), and Avatar, with a dash of Roswell thrown in for good measure—but by something quite external to the event. Yes, I'm referring to the clamor over the 20% television ratings drop that has been lighting up the airwaves.


Fortune blames the drop off on "the rapidly-changing viewing habits of TV audiences, more and more of whom are choosing to stream their favorite content online (including on social media) rather than watching live on TV," as does Vulture and NPR, more or less. They're probably right, at least in part. Other explanations cite the lack of any real blockbusters among the Best Picture nominees this year (Fortune), as well as the Jimmy Kimmel twopeat as Master of Ceremonies (Fortune). But the really big story involves what might be regarded as the transformation of the Nielson ratings into a kind of Gallup Poll.


Consider in this regard the Fox News angle on the story: "Oscars ratings are down, and ABC's lack of control over the Academy may be to blame." Or Breitbart's exultation over the low numbers. And, of course, the President's morning after tweet. In each case (and many others), the fallout from the fall off is attributed to voter—I mean viewer—disgust with the "elitist" and "liberal" tendencies of the Academy, which is now getting its comeuppance.


Is it? I don't know: a thorough analysis of the numbers seems to be in order, and I would expect that the ABC brass at the very least will be conducting one in an attempt to preserve their ad revenues. In my own view, whatever caused the ratings drop is certainly overdetermined, with multiple forces combining to reduce television viewership not only of the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl but of traditional televised media as a whole. Certainly Fortune, Vulture and NPR are correct about the effect of the digital age on American viewing habits, but, given the leading role that Hollywood has played in the resistance to the Trump presidency, a deeper exploration of the possibility of a growing resistance to the resistance as evidenced in television viewing preferences could shed some light on emerging trends within the culture wars in this country.


Of course, the Fox News ( take on the matter could prove to be fake news in the end, but even should that happen, the fact that the ratings drop could be so easily exploited for political purposes is itself significant. There are a number of takeaways from this. The first can be found in a Washington Post blog entitled "Trump is supercharging the celebrification of politics." The Post blog surveys an intensification of a cultural process that has been the core premise of nine editions of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: namely, that the traditional division between "high" culture and "low" (or workaday and recreational) in America is being replaced by a single "entertainment culture" that permeates our society from end to end. The transformation has been going on for a long time, but Trump has intensified it.


But as the hoohah over the Academy Awards television viewership decline demonstrates, this entertainment culture is not a common culture: Americans are lining up on two sides of a popular cultural divide that matches an ideological one, with Fox News audiences lined up against MSNBC's, and innumerable other viewership dichotomies (Duck Dynasty, say, vs. Mad Men) indicating just how wide the culture gap has grown. So now we're counting audience numbers for such once broad-appeal spectacles as the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards to see which side is "winning." This is a new normal indeed, and it is indicative of a country that is tearing apart.


But then again, the same Post blog that I've cited above reports that the most read Washington Post story for the day in which the blog appeared concerned "the season finale of The Bachelor”—a TV event that really puts the soap into soap opera. So maybe there actually is something of world-historic importance for Americans to rally 'round after all.


Image Source: "Academy Award Winner" by  Davidlohr Bueso on Flickr 09/06/09 via Creative Commons 2.0 license


Many teachers of writing may have read an interview with Lori Salem, who directed Temple University’s Writing Center and is now Assistant Vice Provost and Director of the Student Success Center there. Conducted by Rose Jacobs and titled “What’s Wrong with Writing Centers,” the interview focused on data drawn from a quantitative study of responses from 4,204 Temple students (the entering class of 2009) to a variety of questions, including ones about whether or not to use the writing center.


As Jacobs reports in her interview, Salem

found that practices that are near-orthodoxy in writing centers—such as nondirective instruction, in which tutors prompt students to come up with the right answers themselves; and a resistance to focusing on grammatical errors—are most effective for privileged students in good academic standing. . . . These methods, meanwhile, poorly serve the most frequent visitors: female students, minority students, those with low academic standing, and those who are speaking a language other than English at home.

In this interview and in other work, such as her prize-winning 2016 essay, “Decisions. . . Decisions: Who Chooses to Use the Writing Center,” Salem argues that we should completely rethink what we do in writing centers and see writing centers as pedagogical workshops—“”a place where writers encounter writing tutors who know their stuff—and a space where pedagogical practices are constantly being developed, explored, and tested.” The rethinking Salem envisions calls for differentiated pedagogies rather than what she calls “policy pedagogies;” that is, pedagogies that reject monolithic policies in favor of basing tutoring strategies on individual students’ perceived needs.


It’s hard to disagree with these conclusions; indeed, the writing centers I have been associated with never followed monolithic policies and certainly tried to tailor tutoring strategies to the students we worked with. Salem says that writing centers almost universally reject working with grammatical issues, but that also has not been my experience: in my own tutoring, I seldom begin with such issues, preferring to first understand what the student is trying to do in a piece of writing and making a plan, with that student, for achieving the goal. That often leads to intense engagement with student writing along with a lot of careful listening. And it can often lead to a discussion of some grammatical element—but that’s not where I begin.


I have two other responses to Salem’s work, for which I am grateful; we need more such studies and we need them badly. First, I question the efficacy of seeing students who use writing centers as somehow “remedial” or in need of remediation. Salem is right that the “remedial” label clings perniciously to writing centers (it’s what Judy Segal, referring to students’ saying that they “love” lectures when we know that such lectures are largely ineffective, calls the “undertow effect”). But that doesn’t suggest, to me, that the students coming to us are remedial or that it is helpful to think of them as such. Taking students as they come, listening carefully to them, modulating our strategies to accommodate their needs and wishes doesn’t necessitate using any labels at all.


Second, I am not as totally condemning of “nondirective practices” as Salem seems to be; she says, in essence, that such tutoring is “not an effective method for teaching language learners in any way.” I know that Salem has research-based evidence for this claim, and I take the point that such practices may be aimed at students of privilege. But, as always, it depends on what you mean by “nondirective.” In my experience, the term means trying first and foremost to get to know the student sitting beside me so that I can get a sense of that student’s fears and also dreams. A case in point: I was teaching in China and doing some tutoring, working with a woman who was returning to college and for whom English was the fourth language she was trying to master. As I got to know her over the course of many sessions, I learned that one of her primary reasons for reading, writing, and speaking in English was to help her four-year-old son. Knowing that helped me know where to begin, focusing on conversational moves and on learning strategies for helping her son begin reading English. Had I launched into a highly directive approach, I don’t think I would have gained these insights into my student’s very particular needs.


Though I do have some questions and challenges for Salem, I continue to be impressed with the work she is doing. The unexamined writing center is not worth working in, and we need more critics like Lori Salem to help us ask hard questions about whose interests we serve—and whose we do not serve—in our Center.


Credit: Pixabay Image 3211179 by rawpixel, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

How to Choose a Doctoral Program

Over the next several weeks, students will be deciding what doctoral program to attend. This decision follows from months of researching potential programs, talking to faculty, and often visiting the campus. For students who hope to make community engagement a central part of their work, the decision takes on added complexity, as factors beyond curriculum and faculty must be considered. In this short essay, I want to highlight some of those factors.


Existing Partnerships

When coursework is taken into account, most graduate students only have about two to three years to engage in a community partnership. Effective partnerships, however, take significant time to develop. For this reason, many students would benefit most from choosing a doctoral program where a project has existed for a significant period of time. Working within this project will allow the student to understand the complexity of such work, witness what collaboration entails, and begin to understand the range of work possible. In the process, they can also learn the skill sets that were used to initiate the project.


It might seem to be a more attractive option to attend a program where you will be “allowed to develop your own project.” Certainly, a lot can be learned from such work, particularly if you also learn how to build a program that will continue after your departure. The graduate program will also benefit from your labor. It is doubtful, however, that such a scenario actually prepares you with the skills/insights necessary to take on such work in your next institution. This can lead to early mistakes which can create long-term issues for junior scholars.


So, while I would never discourage someone from beginning a partnership as a graduate student, I would encourage students whenever possible to learn by attending programs with existing programs that can model the fullest articulation of such work.


Funding Strategies

A central part of any community partnership will be resource development/allocation. Within a project, partners will often have to assess what internal resources are available, and what outside resources are required. One of the reasons to attend a program with existing partnerships is to take part in such conversations, to gain a sense of how such planning occurs. Within this context, students can also learn how to develop, apply for, and manage grants.


Learning how to write grants is often portrayed as a mercenary skill. In fact, grants written for community partnerships are a central way of thinking through issues of power, leadership, and collaboration. Grants directly confront who will control the requested funds, how decisions will be made, and how the funds will be distributed to ensure work is achieved by all those involved. To some extent, grants are the mechanism to establish the working patterns of partnerships. For that reason, graduate students interested in community partnerships must engage in such work.

In addition to gaining experience in partnership development, the language of grants helps students clarify their own sense of the work. Grants are morally-based enterprises. In writing a grant, you are being asked to consider how your ethics intersect with another institution – often in language that is more direct then academic discourse. As such, they force the writer to make clear his or her beliefs and values. As students begins doctoral work, such clarity will allow them to build projects which they find personally and politically sustaining beyond the specifics of any degree program.


So, when choosing a graduate program, I would explore what opportunities are available for engaging in grant work, what faculty have expertise in such work, and whether other students in the program have gained such experience.


Interdisciplinary/Intercommunity Partnerships

Community partnerships are necessarily interdisciplinary. It would be arrogant to assume that our discipline of composition and rhetoric provides all the tools to navigate the dynamics of a neighborhood or community project. For this reason, students should explore whether a doctoral program has aligned faculty from other departments. Students should also consider whether the doctoral program has non-university-based community scholars who can act as advisors as well. Finally, students should inquire whether there is room within the required curriculum to take courses outside of their “home department” and enroll in internships with community partners.


Here I should add that any successful project I have undertaken in the past twenty years has always been informed by Anthropology, Education, Women/Gender Studies, and Geography professors among others. I have worked with religious and labor leaders; block captains and community elders. Without this consistent dialogue among a broad range of faculty, the work would have been inadequately theorized and enacted. For graduate students intending on taking on community partnerships as a central part of their career, Gramsci’s insight that “everyone is an intellectual” needs to be experienced from the beginning of their education.


So, in considering the advisors/faculty within a doctoral program, students should make sure the list includes more than ‘names in our field,’ but also names other disciplines, communities, and individuals as necessary to gain the education required to engage in community partnership work.


One final note: Mentorship

While not directly related to community engagement, I recommend asking current students within a doctoral program the following questions: How often do you meet with your advisor? How quickly is work returned to you? A doctoral program can have all the opportunities in the world to engage in community work, but it if fails to take care of the intellectual development of its own community members, then I would not attend.


(My answer to those questions: In-person meetings no more than 8 days apart; written work commented upon and returned within 10 days.)

For previous posts on teaching The Argonauts, click below:

“I now understand her point better”: Reflections on Empty Narratives of Research 

What Does Interpretation Look Like? A Play in Three Acts 


As we’ve been making our way through The Argonauts, my students and I have encountered words drawn from writers of philosophy, psychoanalysis, queer theory, political history, poetry, manifestos and more. When the students look up the unfamiliar terms that populate Nelson’s text, the online dictionaries only offer them so much assistance in illuminating whatever passage they are struggling with.

How, I ask them, can a definition drawn from a normative text like a dictionary be expected to make sense when it is plopped down into Nelson’s queer text? (The same question can be asked of any definition dropped into any text where the writer’s work is interpretive; in this instance, the normative responsibilities of the dictionary simply get thrown into high relief when the destination text is Nelson’s genre-bending memoir.)

So, as a corrective, I sent the students off to explore the digital Oxford English Dictionary. I wanted them to watch the word they were researching enter the English language, to track its appearance backwards in time and then forward into the present. I wanted to highlight that the meaning of a word alters over time. And then, once the students had done that work, I wanted them to return to Nelson’s text and write up an account on how Nelson was using the word or phrase they chose to explore. To help the students along, I posted my own response to the assignment on our WordPress site.
What I received in response has amazed me. This assignment paid dividends beyond my wildest imagination. I really recommend it!

Here’s the example I posted:

Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein's idea that the inexpressible is contained--inexpressibly!--in the expressed.

The OED defines the adjectival form of inexpressible to mean: "That cannot be expressed in words; unutterable, unspeakable, indescribable," which isn't terribly surprising. What's interesting is that they credit John Donne, metaphysical poet and Anglican priest, with first putting the word into print in a 1631 sermon delivered on Easter Sunday:


"Thou shalt feele the joy of his third birth in thy soul, most inexpressible this day."

How can Christ be born three times? First, in the miracle of Mary's virgin birth. Then, when he is resurrected after his crucifixion. And, a third time, when he is re-born in the soul of the Christian believer. When that happens, Donne preaches, the joy the believer feels will be "inexpressible."


So, the original context for the term is religious. When the term surfaces in Nelson's prose nearly 400 years later, it is not in relation to a devotion to Christ, but in an idea of Wittgenstein's that Nelson "had spent a lifetime devoted to." The term, in other words, has traveled from the realm of the divine to the secular realm of philosophy.


This observation remains true even after I discovered a yet earlier use of the term than the one recorded in the 2nd edition of the OED (published before the digitization of print made global searches of lexical history something anyone could do). It turns out that Donne used "inexpressible" in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, his extended meditation on the meaning of death and sinfulness, composed in 1623 and published in 1624, after he recovered from an unknown illness that almost cost him his life. The context this time is Donne's XIX Expostulation, where he maintains that God is a "direct God, may I not say a literal God, a God that wouldst be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all" and, at the same time, a "metaphorical God too," one whose use of metaphors, allegories, and hyperbole is without equal. Addressing his God, Donne rejoices:


"O, what words but thine express the inexpressible texture and composition of thy word, in which, to one man, that argument that binds his faith to believe that to be the word of God, is the reverent simplicity of the word, and, to another, the majesty of the word."

Here, Donne, Wittgenstein, and Nelson converge: Donne's first use of the term "inexpressible" occurs in a discussion of how God's language, as recorded in the Bible, works its transformative magic; Nelson is not devoted to that God, but to Wittgenstein's idea about language's power to express the inexpressible. Donne and Wittgenstein are struck by the same thing. The difference is that Donne credits the Christian God with the power to make the Bible work as it does while Wittgenstein locates that power in the structure of language itself.


Right next door to "inexpressible," one finds the plural: "inexpressibles," a euphemism for "unmentionables" that arose in the late 1800s. Edward Gibbon, author of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, used the euphemism in a letter to Lord Sheffield on November 11, 1793, in relation to his visit to a surgeon. "Have you never observed," Gibbons writes, "through my inexpressibles, a large prominency which, as it was not at all painful and very little troublesome, I had strangely neglected for many years?"

Gibbons went on to report on the surgical efforts to drain the large prominency of the water that was collected in it. These drainings were carried out every fourteen days, because the prominency refilled with water. Gibbons never recovered and died on January 16, 1794.

Here, the inexpressibles cover over the unmentionables, placing the discussion of sexual health out of bounds. So, inexpressible goes from the divine to the venal, flipping its meaning during its voyage from the sermon to the mundane.



In this way you can have your empty church with a dirt floor swept clean of dirt and your spectacular stained glass gleaming by the cathedral rafters, both. Because nothing you say can fuck up the space for God.

What is this space for God? I think it is the inexpressible. No matter how you choose to use language--to celebrate simplicity or complexity--there's no way to exercise complete control over how words say and mean. Put the profane ("fuck up") right next to the sacred ("God") and the inexpressible space remains.


I have been talking with my students about the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School last month, and we have discussed and debated the rhetoric around the murder of 17 students and educators – how the media represented what occurred, especially the language used to describe the shooter and the students who survived. We could not ignore the vexing question of race. Black student protesters are cast as violent criminals – whether during the Youth March in Birmingham or lifting their voices against police violence in Black Lives Matter – while the white students have been called “actors” (by the most cynical), “victims” and even “heroes.”


In both cases, we have witnessed youth practicing democracy. The composition classroom can and should be a space where we equip students to have a voice, identify the sources of social problems as critical readers and writers, and enter into conversations. Although I think this assumption has motivated many teachers of writing for decades, others lament a civic education gap. Dahlia Lithwick’s point in a recent Slate Magazine article is that schools no longer focus on the arts, civics, and enrichment that once ensured education was rooted in the day-to-day lives of students and their families. However, she also calls attention to the kind of privilege the students at Stoneman Douglas High have experienced. They have access to a system-wide debate program, a forensics program, and an exceptional drama program. Educators there are committed to supporting speech and journalism programs as the means through which to promote student activism. She observes, “These kids aren’t prodigiously gifted. They’ve just had the gift of the kind of education we no longer value.”


The classroom should be a place where students can practice democracy. But it is not enough to argue that democratic values are as important as traditional academic priorities. We must also ask, what kind of democratic values? What political and ideological interests are embedded in or attached to varied conceptions of citizenship? Unfortunately, education reform and economic development have ignored these questions and the very skills and perspectives necessary for building a socially just world in which we want to live.


When my students and I talk about education in general and literacy specifically, it is with the understanding that learning and development cannot be considered apart from social environment. But how should we talk about literacy? Winn and Behizadeh, among others, are right to argue students need to have access to literacies – students’ own creative and cultural literate practices, academic literacy, and critical reading and writing skills. These are tools students need to navigate and transform the world around them, evidenced in the Stoneman Douglas students’ who are speaking out and helping to propel a movement. They have learned the language of power.


However, it is one thing for my students and me to discuss who has access to literacies that promote a questioning, critical frame of mind. It is another to step beyond classroom boundaries into the lives of others where my students can experience worlds quite different from their own – to see firsthand who has access to resources young people need to thrive and who does not.


Using Neuman and Celano’s study of four neighborhoods in Philadelphia as a model, we set out to map the key places and resources in the neighborhoods surrounding our campus. (April Lidinsky and I include an excerpt of their research article in the 4th edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing.) Neuman and Celano are particularly interested in the resources and potential disparities in print environments – the likelihood children will find access to books and other resources.


As my students and I begin to map the neighborhood surrounding our campus (an example of which is pictured above), we start to make a list of places where literacy occurs. This list, as it turns out, is limited to the coffee shop where we observe people having conversations and reading material on their computer screens. When we go into a 24-hour convenience store, we spot just a few magazines and the local newspaper, but cannot locate any books for adults or children. Next, we pass a bank where we see several people making transactions, and four slow fast food restaurants where customers look at their phones. No bus stop that might take people to their jobs. No full service grocery store. What do these limited resources tell us about what matters and for whom? It matters a great deal if you are a child who attends a public school just a ¼ mile away that will close at the end of the current school year. The loss of a school exacerbates the persistent inequality that affects mostly children and families of color who look to that school as a source of stability and social capital.


Walking gives us an opportunity to look critically at our environment, to question the decisions that determine who lives in the neighborhoods we observed, and to write about what makes a flourishing community. I want my students to reflect on what makes a neighborhood thrive, develop a critical habit of mind, and use their skills as speakers and writers to move people to action. I want them to see that all children, that everyone, should have the gift of an education that values their voice and equips them to practice democracy. And it can begin in the writing and rhetoric classroom when we honor our own students’ voices and cultivate the kind of citizenship exemplified by the Stoneman Douglas High students.



Student Literacy Map Courtesy of Sheila Roohan

The classroom can and should be a place where students learn to engage critically, and develop the skills necessary to enter nationwide debates as active, democratic citizens. In order to do so, they must understand the rhetoric used by the media, by the government, and by proponents on either side of an argument. The warrants, assumptions, and terminology used in public debate – especially regarding hotly contested issues – often go under-examined.  


Case in point, the choice of terminology used in discussing the role of guns in American society reflects the most essential differences between those on different sides of the debate about Americans’ right to own guns. In the aftermath of the most recent school shooting, proponents of restrictions on gun ownership have increasingly used the term “gun safety” rather than the term “gun control” to draw attention to their primary concern. Weighing in on that side of the debate is the emotional appeal provided by Parkland students—and thousands of their counterparts elsewhere—giving a public face to the victims and potential victims of gun violence and voicing their plea for new legislation to prevent similar massacres in the future.


Even though it is difficult to argue against gun safety, so far legislators have not been swayed by the terminology or the tactics. Is it simply party loyalty that drives a legislator to vote against restrictions on assault rifles? Is it campaign contributions from the NRA that prevent legislators from voting to increase the age at which an individual can buy guns? Why have some businesses proved more willing to restrict gun sales than our government?


If the most basic fear of gun control advocates is that more children and young people will die without more restrictions on guns, the most basic fear of gun control opponents is giving any modicum of control up to the government. Their simplest defense is that the Second Amendment gives Americans the right to bear arms. There is no room in their philosophy for the historical context of that amendment or the consideration of changes in guns that have come about since it became law. Does the right to bear arms mean the same thing in an age of automatic guns and armor-piercing bullets? Does the Second Amendment mean that there can be no restrictions on the type of arms any citizen can bear? What can be more important than keeping schoolchildren safe? The answer has to be keeping American citizens safe from the government. Not just from government restrictions, but from total control by an armed government of an unarmed citizenry. It is the ultimate result of the slippery slope that begins with giving an inch. It is the ultimate extension of the argument by gun owners that they have the right to protect their families. After all, what was “a well regulated Militia” designed to protect our young nation from? What were the Founding Fathers afraid of when they devised this means of protecting “the security of a free State”? The citizenry must be able to protect themselves against enemies from without or enemies from within. Since we have our armed forces to do the first, the only justification for a well-regulated militia is to protect from the latter.


This sort of analysis of the warrants or assumptions underlying arguments for and against restrictions on gun ownership can help to clarify, if not resolve, the stalemate regarding any changes in existing laws. Encouraging students to participate in such an analysis not only hones their understanding of argument, but also invites active citizenship.


Image Source: "AK-47 Assault Rifle // Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947" by on Flickr 01/19/10 via Creative Commons 2.0 license


Recently, I had a chance to spend a day with teachers of writing at the University of Texas at Arlington (thank you Justin Lerberg!). I came away impressed with how carefully they have designed their writing assignment sequences for their first and second writing courses and how seriously they were about continuing to analyze and interrogate their assignments and other parts of their curriculum. If the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s my strong opinion that the unexamined curriculum/assignment sequence is not worth teaching.


The first assignment in the first course sequence calls for a discourse community analysis, and they have developed a detailed (four and a half pages!) assignment sheet that guides students through thinking about invention, arrangement, style, and some logistical considerations. They begin by defining discourse community as “a group of people who share common interest, goals, values, assumptions, knowledge of a topic, and . . . discursive patterns, i.e. specialized vocabulary, speech genres, and ways of communicating.” They follow with examples of discourse communities, from fans of a particular sports team to military vets, avid gamers, followers of a TV show or film series, etc.


The major purpose of this assignment, they say is “to demystify the process of entering an academic discourse community . . . and to reflect on and analyze the discursive skills you mastered as an insider in a discourse community.” As they pursue this assignment, of course, first-year college students are also entering, whether they are aware of it or not, the academic discourse community of their particular university. A lot has been written about this process (think of David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University” or, even earlier, Tom Huckin, Carol Berkenkotter, and John Ackerman’s “Conventions, Conversation, and the Writer” – and later articles that asked whether entering the discourse communities these articles describe was a form of manipulation rather than liberation), which I won’t rehearse here and which the UTA students don’t necessarily need to know about. But putting this assignment in the context of this strand of scholarly investigation would be helpful for those teaching it. Indeed, ongoing examination of and work on assignments demands this kind of rhetorical contextualizing—it keeps us honest!


I also wonder if an assignment like this one can go at least a good way toward helping students not only identify their major discourse communities and describe how they became “insiders” in the communities, but also to examine the assumptions and values (most often unstated) of the communities. Where are they coming from, literally and figuratively? What kinds of people do they include—and exclude—and why? What other groups’ values are furthered by this community and how clearly are they articulated? Adding this layer of analysis would, I think, further enable the critical thinking this assignment asks for.


Finally, I wonder if in preparation for this assignment, it might be profitable to lead the class in trying to analyze a discourse community they don’t belong to—so that they may be more open and able to examine it with a tough critical eye. If so, that experience might help them bring the same critical skills to how they became members of their own discourse communities.


Thanks again to colleagues at UTA for such an invigorating visit and thought-provoking discussion of assignments!


Credit: Pixabay Image 593344 by StartupStockPhotos, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Shawanda Stewart is an Assistant Professor of English at Huston-Tillotson University and Rhetoric and Professional Communication PhD candidate at New Mexico State University. Her primary research interests include first year composition pedagogy, developmental reading and writing, composition assessment, and language and culture. Shawanda has a genuine interest in research and scholarship that examines and promotes voice and identity authenticity through language in the college composition classroom. 


In the same way that the Black Lives Matter movement was not about excluding others’ bodies, but rather, was created in response to the treatment—namely murder—of black bodies, this post is not about the exclusion of non-black lives; rather it is in response to the treatment of black language in the college classroom. It is about stating outright and plainly that the language, language identity, and voices of black students matter, which also extends to language, language identity, and voices of other marginalized populations.


In the case of first-year composition, there is a move toward demarginalizing students by recognizing language varieties in our classrooms; accordingly, I propose that doing so requires

  • combatting monolingual ideologies;
  • embracing code-meshing and translanguaging;
  • offering teaching and learning alternatives to practices that support the privileging of Standard English to other English varieties; and
  • providing learning opportunities that connect students to their personal communities and cultures.

In Geographies of Writing, Nedra Reynolds (2004) explains the relationship between sociogeographies and identity: “Geographical locations influence our habits, speech pattern style, and values—all of which make it a rhetorical concept or important to rhetoric. For writers, location is an act of inhabiting one’s words; location is a struggle as well as a place, an act of coming into being and taking responsibility” (11).

When teaching first-year composition (or any course for that manner), I must question the ways in which I might practice racism in my own classroom, and how I can—even if most of my students look like me-—contribute to the problem. Whether I contribute via my personal actions, my silence, my ignorance, or simply because I am adhering to the system, unless I am aware of the possibilities of me practicing racist writing instruction practices, I cannot work toward creating a classroom that promotes antiracist writing instruction.

I want to further expose students to the usefulness of critical consciousness in rhetoric and writing (namely in their own writing) and encourage them to recognize that their words are powerful because of their past and present sociogeographical positions. Their experiences are unique, and this is power. In On Intellectual Activism, Patricia Hill Collins writes that “developing a critical consciousness can position individuals and groups to challenge social injustices. Learning to think for oneself often leads to action” (131).


The question at hand is what exactly is our purpose for teaching writing to students? If writing is an act of expression whereby we ask students to think creatively, critically, and rhetorically, what message then are we sending students when we tell them that “good” writing is SWE? Even when we don’t use these words exactly.


When we approach standard written English as a writing convention rather than the writing standard in our pedagogy, then we can begin considering seriously the ways by which we can teach students to become better critical thinkers and stronger writers without doing so by taking away their identity.



Hill Collins, P. (2013). On intellectual activism. Philadelphia. PA: Temple University Press.

Reynolds, N. (2004). Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

I have just returned from the National Association of Developmental Education (NADE) annual conference, and a term from keynote speaker Dr. Stephen Chew of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama stuck with me: the curse of expertise (or the curse of knowledge). In short, the curse afflicts those who have attained expertise and forget what it was like to be a beginner, someone who does not have a conceptual framework or vocabulary for a particular discipline. Experts who are cursed in this way struggle to communicate effectively with novice learners.


In another NADE session, Sonya Armstrong and Normal Stahl discussed the “fall of the field” of college reading. Among the factors influencing the decline of the field, Armstrong and Stahl noted the rise of composition-centric integrated reading and writing classes, often taught by instructors with little or no background in reading theory and pedagogy (and as I have seen in many community colleges, a dearth of resources and funding for professional development). Without that training, composition instructors—and content instructors across multiple disciplines—can easily succumb to the curse of expertise when it comes to reading. 


You may have heard the language of the curse in hallways and faculty meetings: Why can’t they read? Reading is a skill they should have learned in high school. Once you’ve learned to decode, you can read anything. I am not assigning much reading; my students can’t comprehend the text. I know they can’t because they fail the multiple choice comprehension checks I give them. If they can’t read this, they aren’t college material. When I was in school…


But as “expert readers,” perhaps we have forgotten the journey that brought us where we are – a journey of misreading and revision, of developing conceptual schemata and lexical sophistication, of growing awareness of genres and disciplinary conventions, of connections and the pleasure of shifts in our thinking. There was probably a moment when we first began to argue with texts or smile upon meeting a familiar idiom or rhetorical strategy in use. But before that familiarity, there was surely some confusion or frustration. 


I would like to make three recommendations for IRW instructors:


  1. Try to remember a reading challenge from your past. For me, it was early in my graduate studies in linguistics. I had not yet had a formal syntax course, but I was asked to read Denis Bouchard’s On the Content of Empty Categories. Each paragraph was painstaking and slow for me, although I considered myself a strong reader. I did not have the background knowledge to make sense of the text or build a coherent understanding; my copy of the book is riddled with question marks and attempted marginal paraphrases, most of which are either erased or crossed out. It took months of study and multiple readings for my mind to begin to construct an understanding of this book. (If you are struggling to remember such an experience, ask a colleague in another discipline to identify a seminal but advanced text in the field. Try to read it, and compare your reading with that of your colleague. As a reader who lacks disciplinary expertise, you may better understand your students’ struggles).
  2. Familiarize yourself with the robust published research in college reading. As a starting point, I would suggest an article by Armstrong and Stahl, “Communication Across the Silos and Borders: The Culture of Reading in a Community College,” or a white paper by Jodi Patrick Holschuh and Eric J. Paulson, “The Terrain of College Developmental Reading.”
  3. Finally, as you structure your IRW course, think about adding as extra “R”: Integrated Recursive Reading and Writing. Growth in reading takes time: time to read extended texts and to come back to them multiple times as meaning is constructed and refined. Composition teachers know that strong writing involves multiple drafts, and we tell our students that revision means re-seeing their written work. But so often, as “cursed experts,” we expect reading to happen fully and quickly after just one exposure to a snippet of text. Just as you might restrain the tendency to mark every grammar error on the first draft of an essay, hold back on your comments if students’ first reading does not yield a coherent interpretation, or if the students seem to have missed a rhetorical feature that is quite obvious to you. Give the students ownership of the reading, so that understanding can develop with time, and try not to tell them “what they should have seen.” After all, as novices, the students shouldn’t have seen what you did: you are reading as an expert. Acknowledge what the students did see, and invite them to visit the text again.


It’s so easy for students to see recursion, revision, and repetition as signs of failure. But we know they are not—they are the hallmarks of what we (as experts) do. 


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Your students should use, for sure. It’s the best dictionary for everyday purposes, and I’ll explain why after I give you a bit of background and do some complaining.


Once upon a time, I might have recommended the New Oxford New American Dictionary. But the print edition hasn’t been updated since 2010, and its free online sibling is a bit of a project to find. Click here, and where you see “Dictionary” in white-on-black letters, scroll down to “Dictionary (US).”


I definitely would have recommended the American Heritage Dictionary. It’s still good. But once upon a time, it had ample resources and wasn’t shy about offering informed, expert advice. I was thrilled when, years ago, the AHD invited me to become a member of its “usage panel.” But last month, after half a century’s existence, the usage panel was disbanded. And as of this spring, the AHD’s editorial staff will consist of one part-time lexicographer. The AHD ain’t what it used to be.


The American Heritage Dictionary was launched in 1969, with the goal of restoring lexicographical standards that many felt had been recklessly abandoned when Merriam-Webster published Webster’s Third Unabridged, in 1961. Web3 did away with usage labels like “colloquial,” “incorrect,” and “humorous.” It lopped 250,000 entries out of its predecessor to make room for 100,000 new words (“unabridged,” eh?). And it was “descriptive,” promising only to inform people about how words are used. If folks said “irregardless,” then “irregardless” was a word worthy of inclusion. (Okay, Web3 does label it “nonstand.”)


Its predecessor, Webster’s Second, published in 1934, is widely acknowledged to have been magisterial in its day. It was proudly “prescriptive,” advising people how to use words. According to W2, “irregardless” is “Erron. or Humorous, U. S.


The outrage that, in some quarters, arose when Web2 abdicated in favor of Web3 led to the creation of the AHD. It assembled an impressive hundred-member usage panel (Isaac Asimov! Alistair Cooke! Langston Hughes! Barbara Tuchman!). Their collated opinions about the likes of between you and I were presented as notes beneath the relevant headwords (99 percent of the panel disapproved of between you and I—and I sure wish I knew who the rebel was). As for “irregardless,” it doesn’t look as if the first edition’s lexicographers even bothered to ask for the panel’s opinions. The note beneath the word reads, “Usage: Irregardless, a double negative, is never acceptable except when the intent is clearly humorous.”


But the AHD, along with the other major dictionaries, has by now slid some distance down the slippery slope whose bottom Web3 was so eager to reach. Heck, even the incomparable but special-purpose OED now tells you that “literally” can mean “figuratively.”


To be sure, descriptivism has qualities that many find appealing. It presents itself as egalitarian, answering “Why should we privilege the locutions of dead white men?” with “We shouldn’t, and we don’t. We tell you how a range of past and present English speakers use words and encourage you to make choices for yourself.” I mistrust that claim, because no doubt all sorts of biases lurk in the underlying data. What’s more, if dictionaries really wanted to help writers and speakers of various English dialects use them more effectively, shouldn’t there be specific dictionaries for many more subsets of English than there are? All the dictionaries I’m discussing purport to cover all dialects.


Second, descriptivism is a definable goal that for-profit companies, which publish most dictionaries, can comfortably aim for. Data about word usage is in limitless supply, and it’s cheap and superficially unambiguous, while discernment about usage can be hard to find, costly to engage, and easy to doubt and argue with.


Finally, descriptivism feels scientific, like linguistics. And up to a point, it is scientific. Today’s lexicographers have at their command astonishing “corpora”—huge electronic compiled bodies of language, drawn from a wide range of spoken and printed sources—to tease out new information about how the language is used. Big data!


Would you, however, consider it a good idea to fold your school’s English composition program into its linguistics department? The two have different purposes and use different methods. The purpose of dictionaries was, until the 1960s, neatly aligned with the purposes of English composition courses: to teach people how to use our common language correctly, clearly, and effectively. Web3 and its successors, including, have washed their hands of that responsibility. I’ve even heard lexicographers make fun of the idea that that’s their job. Meanwhile, the rest of us turn to dictionaries in hopes they’ll teach us to use language better. Sorry, that’s not what they do anymore.


So why is the best dictionary for everyday purposes? Because it’s free, readily available, and easy to use. It has usage notes that give sound guidance. It’s online (as the others are too), so you always see the latest versions of entries. Merriam-Webster itself admits that its .com dictionary is more up to date than the latest edition of its Collegiate. And the Collegiate—and therefore, I have to assume,—is in wide use. Stylebooks including The Chicago Manual, and periodicals ranging from The New Yorker to MIT Technology Review, have it as their house dictionary.


In descriptivism—as in other things I like better, such as evolution—success breeds success. If the nation’s most widely used dictionary says that the verb “face-palm” is written with a hyphen and “humblebrag” is not, that in itself is bound to skew the words’ spelling toward those choices—until the people who mostly use them decide dictionaries are irrelevant. I’ll write some other time about how to go around dictionaries direct to the sources and be your own lexicographer.


Credit: Pixabay Image 1798 by PublicDomainPictures, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Supercharge Your Teamwork! InfographicWhen students are asked to work in groups, they may not know what good teamwork looks like. Like anything in the writing classroom, models can help them understand how to collaborate effectively. The challenge is modeling the process for them. I can demo any number of writing strategies as well as provide step-by-step instructions on technology questions. Modeling group work, however, is not a one-person job.


Pop culture to the rescue! The infographic to the right analyzes the teamwork strategies of six pop culture teams. It describes the team, identifies the team members, outlines their strategies, and suggests some debriefing notes. It is long and detailed, so you need to click the image to read the full-sized image or view the original on the Inloox site.


As students begin working together in their writing groups, I share the infographic above and ask them to compare their own teams to those in the infographic. I invite them to respond to these discussion questions:


  • How accurate are the characterizations of the teams in the infographic? Would you change them?
  • Does your team match any of those in the infographic? How well does the infographic team compare to your team? Tell us how.
  • How do the characteristics of teams in the infographic relate to those in the readings for this week?


After discussing the infographic, I ask students to brainstorm a class list of other pop culture groups that they are familiar with. If they have trouble getting started, I offer some examples of television shows that feature a team of characters that works together to meet a goal, like NCIS, S.W.A.T, or SEAL Team. If students need additional inspiration, I throw out some categories like teams in anime, teams in movies, and teams in literature.


With a list compiled, the class can talk about how the various teams compare to those in the infographic and hypothesize why some groups are more successful than others. The ultimate goal is to find teamwork strategies that students can use as they work together, so I close the discussion by asking students to create a list of techniques to use in their own groups.


As an extension activity, students can apply their list of strategies by working in groups to choose a team from the class list and collaboratively design an image that presents the team, modeled on the infographic.


Do you have an activity to improve student group work? Please share your ideas in a comment below. I’d love to try your strategies in the classroom.




Infographic from InLoox

I had not planned on writing on this topic as my Bits Blog posting deadline approached. But when a headline in the L.A. Times on February 21st blared that "Conspiracy theories about Florida school shooting survivors have gone mainstream"—and this on a day when America's school children rose up to say "enough is enough" about gun violence—I felt that I ought to say something. What to say, however, is difficult to decide. As I wrote after the Route 91 Harvest music festival massacre in Las Vegas, I am not confident (to put it mildly) that anything meaningful is going to be done—the L.A. Times has a nailed it with a "Handy clip-and-save editorial for America's next gun massacre" and I don't have any solutions that the students now marching for their lives aren't already proposing more effectively than I can. But the whole mess has—thanks to something I've read in the Washington Post—enabled me to crystallize a solution to a critical thinking conundrum that I've been pondering, and that's what this blog will be about.


That conundrum is how to teach our students how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information on the Internet. It seems like such an easy thing to do: just stick to the facts and you'll be fine. But when the purveyors of conspiracy theories have grown as sophisticated as they have in mimicking the compilation of "factual" evidence and then posting it all over the Internet in such a way as to confuse people into thinking that there is a sufficiency of cross-referenced sources to make their fairy tales believable, it becomes more of a challenge to teach students what's rot and what's not. And as I've also written in this blog, that challenge isn't made any easier by academic attacks on objective factuality on behalf of poststructural theories of the linguistic and/or social construction of reality. So, as I say, the matter isn't as simple as it looks.


Here's where that Washington Post article comes in. For in Paul Waldman's opinion piece, "Why the Parkland students have made pro-gun conservatives so mad," he identifies what can be used as a simple litmus test for cutting through the clutter in an alt-fact world: keep an eye out for ad hominem arguments in political argumentation.


Here's how he puts it:

The American right is officially terrified of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Those students, who rapidly turned themselves into activists and organizers after 17 of their fellow students and teachers were murdered at their school, have become the most visible face of this new phase of  the gun debate, and conservatives are absolutely livid about it. As a consequence, they’re desperately arguing not just that the students are wrong in their suggestions for how gun policy should be changed, but also that they shouldn’t be speaking at all and ought to be ignored.


There are two critical reasons the right is having this reaction, one more obvious than the other. The plainer reason is that as people who were personally touched by gun violence and as young people — old enough to be informed and articulate but still children — the students make extremely sympathetic advocates, garnering attention and a respectful hearing for their views. The less obvious reason is that because of that status, the students take away the most critical tool conservatives use to win political arguments: the personal vilification of those who disagree with them.


It is the use of "personal vilification of those who disagree" that reliably marks out an evidence-starved argument. Thus, when Richard Muller—once a favorite of the climate change denial crowd—reviewed his data and announced in 2012 that he had changed his mind and concluded that climate change is both real and anthropogenic, his erstwhile cheerleaders simply began to call him names. And you probably don't even want to know about the personal attacks they have been making on Michael Mann.


But given the high level of personal vilification that takes place on the Net (the political left can be found doing this too), our students have probably been somewhat desensitized to it, and may even take it for granted that this is the way that legitimate argumentation takes place. This is why it is especially important that we teach them about the ad hominem fallacy, not simply as a part of a list of logical and rhetorical fallacies to memorize but as a stand-alone topic addressing what is probably the most common rhetorical fallacy to be found on the Internet, and political life more generally these days.


Now, we can't stop simply with warning our students against ad hominem arguments (we should teach them not to make them either), but we can establish the point as a kind of point of departure: if someone's claims are swathed in personal attacks and accusations, it is likely that there is nothing of substance behind the argument. After all, an ad hominem attack is a kind of changing of the subject, a distraction from the attacker's lack of any relevant evidence.


I know this won't change the world, and it is of no use against the sort of people who are now vilifying American school children who have had enough, but at least it's a place to begin for writing and critical thinking instruction.


I’ve written several posts in the last year about the sad state of our national discourse and about the “echo chamber” that arises when people talk only with those they agree with. In my seven decades, I have not seen such a deep divide, or such hostility of one “side” to the other. These issues are of great concern to teachers of writing, who want student writers to be able to communicate across differences and to reach audiences of all different kinds. So, I have been collecting articles and materials that provide examples of how to communicate more effectively with those you don’t necessarily agree with, along with strategies for helping students develop their own abilities to listen fairly and openly and to engage in productive conversations rather than shouting matches.


A recent article by Arthur C Brooks in the New York Times provided me with another good example to add to my collection. In it, Brooks describes a pro-Trump rally in Washington DC that drew a group of counterprotesters from Black Lives Matter of Greater New York. The scene, Brooks says, was becoming “combustible” as the groups shouted back and forth and began moving toward one another.


But then—something completely unexpected happened. The leader of the pro-Trump group invited the leader of the Black Lives Matter group to speak: “We’re going to give you two minutes of our platform to put your message out,” the pro-Trump leader said. “Whether they disagree or agree with your message is irrelevant. It’s the fact that you have the right to have the message.” The Black Lives Matter leader accepted the invitation and took the stage, saying “I am an American . . . and the beauty of America is that when you see something broke in your country, you can mobilize to fix it.” When someone in the crowd shouted “All lives matter,” he responded with “You’re right, my brother, you’re right. All lives matter, right? But when a black life is lost, we get no justice. That is why we say that black lives matter. If we really want to make America great, we do it together.”


This person-to-person exchange dissipated hostilities and even drew cheers from the other group. Brooks concludes that what he calls “the toxic anonymity of virtual interaction through social media” leads to those echo chambers in which we assume we are good and they are bad, leading to further hatred. But, Brooks says, “on the odd occasion that people are exposed to each other as people, as at the rally in Washington, othering is hard to maintain. And that is the rare moment when human compassion and empathy can break out.”


As teachers of writing, we have an opportunity to help compassion and empathy “break out.” Our fairly small classes allow students to know one another “as people,” and to find ways to connect with them across many kinds of differences. We can also engage students in assignments that allow them to interact with others in empathetic and compassionate ways, using the techniques of invitational rhetoric (which I discuss in all my textbooks).


That rally in Washington shows that it can be done, that opposing sides can listen to one another, and perhaps find common ground. To see for yourself, check out the video of that rally and what happened. And show it to your students!


Credit: Pixabay Image 1985863 by rawpixel, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License