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I’ve been thinking about African American discourse and African American rhetoric (along with other indigenous rhetorics) since 1973, when members of CCCC were debating what would become the resolution known as "Students' Right to Their Own Language," eventually passed in 1974. That debate helped me think long and hard about the hegemonic status of "standard" English, about the home dialects and languages of my students, and about my own home dialect of the Appalachian mountain south, a language I grew up with, inhabited with ease, and loved, but which I seldom used as an adult in speaking, and never in writing.


At the time, I hoped that most other teachers of writing and reading would welcome this resolution, take its message to heart, and adjust their attitudes toward what counts as "proper" language use. Alas. Twenty-five years after the resolution, the debate still goes on, though "standard edited American English" has been challenged, seriously and serially, for decades now, from those who advocated during the Ebonics controversy to those who advocated for code switching and now to those who argue for code meshing and for "translingual" dispositions to language use.


As I travel around the country, visit schools, and go to conferences, I don’t see agreement across these lines of argument. Far from it. But I do see movement toward more progressive attitudes toward language variety and language use. And I also see very encouraging scholarly work addressing these issues, from Jerry Won Lee’s wonderfully insightful The Politics of Translingualism: After Englishes (Routledge, 2017) to Bonnie J. Williams-Farrier’s "'Talkin' Bout Good & Bad' Pedagogies: Code-Switching vs. Comparative Rhetorical Approaches" (a must-read essay in the December 2017 issue of College Composition and Communication), to the hot-off-the-presses On African-American Rhetoric by Keith Gilyard and Adam J. Banks (Routledge, 2018). I could name a number of others, but let’s stick with these three for a start: if you have not read them, you are in for a treat. I’ve learned so much from each of these texts, and as a result feel I can understand and embrace what Lee calls "translingual dispositions," and I am becoming more familiar with the moves and strategies of African-American rhetoric, thanks to Gilyard and Banks, as well as with the tropes, schemes, and syntactic moves of what Williams-Farrier calls African American Vernacular Tradition. I will write more, and more specifically, about what I’m learning soon, but in the meantime, if you’ve read any or all of these texts, I’d love to hear what you have learned!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2667529 by StarzySpringer, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Today's guest blogger is Tiffany Mitchell, a Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.


Assessing multimodal compositions can often be challenging because the form and design vary so widely, whether because of the assignment parameters you establish or because of students’ stylistic choices. There are a few key categories by which most multimodal assignments can be assessed. Within each category, it can be helpful to work backwards by first considering what you envision students’ final projects should look like, then developing a rubric or list of expectations for the project. No matter your expectations, it’s important to remain flexible in assessing because creativity comes in many forms. Consider the following categories when developing assessment guidelines/rubrics for multimodal compositions:


Color choices

When assessing the color composition of a multimodal assignment, it’s best to consider how appropriate the color choices are for the topic as well as the project design. I jokingly tell students that if their color choices make their viewers jump back from shock or squint from blinding colors, then they should consider alternatives. However, even this has exceptions. Flexibility is especially important in this category; the same color choices can succeed or fail depending on topic and design differences. For instance, neon colors work really well for psychedelic or hallucinogenic related topics, but would not work well for human rights related topics. Directing students to use Adobe’s Color Wheel can help them make wiser color selections.


  • To assess color choices, consider if the colors are complementary or contrasting to one another. How well do the colors align with the topic and overall design? Do the colors work well together to express and evoke effective intended meaning for the project?


Spatial design/White space

Balanced spatial design can be crucial to the overall aesthetics of the multimodal project. Like résumés and other textual documents, multimodal creations need a good balance between text and whitespace--even if the background isn’t actually white. Showing students sample projects that have with good spatial design can help guide their whitespace considerations. As seen in the two sample assignments, balanced white space will vary from project to project, so stay flexible when assessing.


  • To assess spatial design, determine whether the project seems too crowded or if there’s a good balance throughout. Have they filled the available space with quality content or left gaps of blank space? Is there a good spatial balance between text and images/videos? Does the font properly fit the space?


Font options

The efficacy of multimodal assignments can be strongly affected by the font types students use. Similar to the color choices, the font choices should align with the topic as well as the overall design of the project. Students don’t always realize that the font they use can evoke different meanings and that it’s important to select the appropriate font; therefore, it’s important to stress to them that font choice matters. Assigning the students to read Purdue OWL’s Using Fonts with Purpose pages can help.


  • To assess, consider whether the font matches the topic of the multimodal project. Does the font align with the selected color scheme? Does it match the overall design of the project? Does it help evoke the intended meanings?


Images/Video/Audio Use

Images, video, and audio can be used in many different ways. These forms of media also come in all shapes, sizes, and types: artwork, memes, clipart, photographs, online and/or user-created audio or video, and even Creative Commons content. Assessing this category becomes more about what they used and where they used it in the text. It’s important to offer students specific directions on what types of media are allowed, how many of each may be used, and how they should cite these media sources. Whether or not the images fit with the content is also quite important, especially if the topic can be controversial, as seen in the magazine sample assignment. Again, remain flexible—possibly setting aside your personal perspectives if images fit the project.


  • To assess, determine if their projects used the images, video, and/or audio in the manners you stated they could. Then consider whether the media relates to and enhances the subject, color, and design.


Source Use and Citing

Hyperlinking, citations on a separate page, scrolling citations on a video, full citations in small font, in-sentence references: citing can happen in many ways in multimodal projects, so we have to be open to them all. Because students often forget that multimodal projects need citations too, assessing this part of the project is often more about did they cite than how they cited. It’s helpful to show students many ways to cite in their projects and to remind them that multimodal compositions need citations too--even for images, video, and audio sources.


  • To assess, determine if citations are present within the multimodal project in a manner acceptable to you.


These categories of assessment work best with multimodal projects that students create on their own, such as magazines, brochures, slide shows, infographics, etc. While some of these categories could apply to multimodal projects created in social media platforms, categories such as font, color, and spatial design are not adjustable in most social media. This is not an exhaustive list of assessment categories for multimodal assignments, but hopefully, this will get you started. And above all, stay flexible when assessing.




Magazine Sample (click to open)

Brochure Sample (click to open)

One of my all-time favorite readings from past editions of Signs of Life in the USA is Andy Medhurst's "Batman, Deviance, and Camp." In that analysis of how the original muscle-man clone of Superman morphed into "Fred MacMurray from My Three Sons" in the wake of Fredric Wertham's notorious accusation in 1955 that Batman and Robin were like "a wish dream of two homosexuals living together," only to be transformed into the Camped Crusader of the 1966 TV series Batman, and then revised once more into the Dark Knight of the 1980s and beyond, Medhurst reveals how cartoon superheroes change with the times, reflecting and mediating the cross currents of cultural history. So as I ponder the rampant success of the second Deadpool film in this emergent franchise, I find myself wondering what this new entrant into the superhero sweepstakes may signify. Surely this is a topic for semiotic exploration.


What particularly strikes me here is the difference between the gloomy and humorless Batman of the Miller/Burton/Nolan (et al.) era, and the non-stop wisecracking of Deadpool. It isn't that Deadpool doesn't have a dark backstory of his own, as grim as anything to be found in Bruce Wayne's CV. And, surely, the Deadpool ecosystem is even more violent than the Batworld. No, it's a matter of tone, of attitude, rather than content.


Now, if Deadpool were the only currently popular superhero who cracked wise all the time, there really wouldn't be very much to go on here, semiotically speaking. But Deadpool isn't the only wise acre among the men in spandex: various Avengers (especially Thor), along with the latest incarnation of Spiderman, have also taken to joking around in the midst of the most murderous mayhem. If the Dark Knight soared to superstar status on the wings of melancholy, a lot of rising contenders for the super-crown appear to be taking their cue from Comedy Central. Something's going on here. The question is, what?


I'm thrown back on what might be called "deductive abduction" here: that is, moving from a general condition to a particular situation as the most likely explanation. The general condition lies in the way that wise-cracking humor has been used in numerous instances in which a movie whose traditional audience would be restricted to children and adolescents (think Shrek) has broken through to generational cross-over status by employing lots of self-reflexive, topically allusive, and winking dialogue to send a message to post-adolescent viewers that no one involved in the film is really taking all this fantasy stuff seriously, and so it's safe, even hip, for grown-up viewers to watch it (of course, this is also part of the formula behind the phenomenal success of The Simpsons). Stop for a moment to think about the profound silliness of the Avengers movies: who (over a certain age) could take this stuff seriously? Well, the wise cracks—which are generally aimed at those who happen to be over a certain age—are there to provide reassurance that it isn't supposed to be taken seriously. Just sit back, be cool, and enjoy.


So, given the R-rating of the Deadpool movies, I would deduce that the almost excessive (if not actually excessive) self-reflexive, topically allusive, and winking dialogue to be found in them works to reassure an over-seventeen audience that the whole thing is just a big joke. No one is taking any of this seriously, and so it is perfectly safe to be spotted at the local cineplex watching it. Hey, there's even a postmodern inflection to Deadpool's fourth-wall dissolving monologues: what could be more hip?


Since most cultural phenomena are quite over-determined in their significance, I do not mean to preclude any other possible interpretations of the super wiseass phenomenon, but the interpretation I've posted here is one I feel confident of. At any rate, the topic could make for a very lively class discussion and an interesting essay assignment.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2688068 by pabloengelsused under a CC0 Creative Commons License. 


This time every year, I look forward to meeting students who have won awards for their work in first and second year Program in Writing and Rhetoric classes at Stanford, and this year brought a very special treat. On May 16, the eighth annual Lunsford Oral Presentation of Research Award ceremony was held in the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking, and the presentations I heard there literally took my breath away. Every term, instructors nominate their students’ best presentations, and two are chosen to receive an award during this spring ceremony. Of course, I’m very much interested and invested in these awards, and every year I look forward to meeting students and learning about the kind of research these sophomores are doing. I’ve always come away impressed with the quality of student work. But, as I noted, this year I was more than impressed, for two main reasons. First, the nature of the research undergraduates are undertaking seems to have deepened exponentially as they tackle more and more serious and complex issues. Second, the student award winners this year had done original, primary research.


Won Gi Jung, for example, in his “A Tale of Two Cities,” studied how the colonial contexts of Korea under Japanese rule had affected the Korean detective novel, and thus the culture. In addition to deploying post-colonial theory and close reading to outstanding effect, he had used quantitative mapping methods to track every site appearing in the novels of the 1930s, and compared his findings to a map of Seoul of the time. This analysis led to strikingly original discussion of the rhetorical situation of that particular time and place.


For a presentation on the Death Café Movement, Michelle Chang (pictured, left, with her instructor Selby Schwartz) carried out extensive field research, using ethnographic and autoethnographic techniques to show how this movement responds to the medicalized experience of death and dying, with its accompanying lack of agency, solitude, and artificial divisions. As a result of this research, Chang hosted a “mobile death café” across the U.S., bringing this resource to rural and more remote communities.


Still another student, Swetha Revanur, not only studied the sex trafficking taking place on sites such as, but she also used artificial intelligence to analyze data derived from the site to help understand geographic trends, to study the use of emojis that send special nonverbal messages, and to begin tracking telephone numbers associated with the site. And more: she also developed an “intelligent algorithm” that detects sex trafficking attempts with 80% accuracy. In her second year of college, thank you very much!  


These writers/rhetors are using sophisticated research methods to explore difficult and important issues: research at a very high level indeed! I was truly thrilled to be a witness to their work.


Finally, the student presenters this year were the most polished I have seen in the eight years the award has been given: they knew their material cold and they were poised; easy on their feet; eloquent; accessible; and, to me and the audience assembled at the Hume Center, captivating. So bravo and brava to undergrad researchers and presenters everywhere. And double congratulations to their instructors!


Image Credit: Andrea Lunsford

As a general rule, anyone who did not vote for Donald Trump for president wants to know why anyone else did. Along those lines, I was thinking about the way I introduce motivation when discussing argumentation, in terms of needs and values. In Elements of Argument, we explain an argument’s appeal to needs by citing Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy, explained in his 1943 “Theory of Motivation.” The most basic needs that motivate a human being are physiological: the need for food, water, sex, etc. Next comes the need for safety—security of one’s person, the family, health, property. It is difficult to focus on any other needs if one is hungry or lives in fear. Later Maslow revised his theory to explain that people’s needs on one level do not have to be completely met before they can concern themselves with the higher levels. Still, it is, as Maslow theorized, a hierarchy of needs. Only when physiological and safety needs have largely been met can people worry about the need for love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.


A surprising number of authors have applied Maslow’s Hierarchy to the 2016 presidential election. Jamie Beckland does so in this way: “The biggest lesson for any political candidate is that they must speak to the lowest common denominator need on Maslow’s hierarchy that a majority of the electorate will relate to. A political campaign that helps people believe that they can become self-actualized, and achieve their highest and best dreams, can only win if the majority of the electorate believes they are safe; that they belong; and that they have self-worth. On the other hand, if the majority of the electorate does not feel confident in having food, clothing, and shelter, then a campaign focused on self-actualization is doomed.” Beckland writes about how Clinton “spoke to building a sense of community – of being Stronger Together. This appeals to our need for ‘Love and Belonging,’ and many people voted for Clinton because she represented this need. The need for Love and Belonging manifests itself in ideas like: The need for safe spaces, where minorities and historically oppressed groups can express their perspectives without fear of persecution. The need for women to have a voice in the political establishment, and to believe that any qualified person would be judged on their qualifications for the presidency, and not by their gender. The need to see yourself as part of the great American experiment, where people of different creeds and colors assemble under a shared vision of freedom and opportunity.” Beckland argues that Clinton lost because Trump appealed to more basic needs, to which voters responded more strongly.


The fact that the Trump campaign understood the lesson Maslow had to teach is evidenced by its emphasis on job security, affordable healthcare, and security from threats posed by illegal aliens. Phil Fragasso explains, “At its most basic level, Trump’s harsh rhetoric appeals to the bottommost layers of Maslow’s hierarchy - physiological and safety needs. He’s going to deliver more jobs at higher pay, make ‘winning’ so common it becomes boring, and ensure that Americans are protected against terrorists domestic and foreign, can shout ‘Merry Christmas’ from the highest rooftops, and stop Mexicans from taking the jobs that Americans don’t want.” Fragasso differs from some other analysts in arguing that the next two levels on the hierarchy “best explain Trump’s core character and his continuing support: esteem and love/belonging.” Fragasso’s own bias is clear as he goes on, “Most tellingly, Trump provided his loyal supporters with something they rarely experience: the very same esteem and love/belonging [that Trump himself experiences]. Trump voters tend to reside on the fringes where they are often afraid to voice their politically incorrect (and often abhorrently [sic]) beliefs and opinions.”


For Trump, as for any president, success and continued support from those who voted for him depend on whether or not he is able to fill the needs to which he appealed when he won their votes.



Image Source: “Louvre Pyramid - Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs” by pshegubj on Flickr 6/30/12 via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 license.


In response to a posting I wrote a week or two ago, Steven Kapica shared an image on Twitter of one of his students’ writing spaces. I’m wondering if other readers have images of writing spaces, and if so, if they would share them with us.


I’m asking particularly because I’ve just read a very interesting and provocative article in the February issue of College Composition and Communication, Hannah Rule’s “Writing’s Rooms” (402-432). I was first attracted by the title, which gives writing the agency: writing’s rooms, thus suggesting—indeed arguing—that writing is embodied in spaces, that it shapes as well as is shaped by spaces, and that it is always, in her words, “emplaced.”


Rule’s essay reviews three studies that focus on writing’s rooms: one by Susan Wyche, who asks students to respond to detailed questions about where, how, and with whom they write and then interviews them about their thoughts on these questions. A second study by Paul Prior and Jody Shipka focuses on writing room practices, asking participants to draw pictures of these spaces which, in Rule’s view, “shows how non-alphabetic modes capture the constructedness and lived experiences of writing’s rooms.” In the third study, an ethnography of undergraduates, Brian McNely, Paul Gestwicki, Bridget Gelms, and Ann Burke use “visual ethnography methods”—photographs—to reveal more about writing’s rooms and writing practices. These photos show “the ‘extra stuff’ around and involved in the inventional, compositional action the researchers were studying, and their accrual “delivers a sense of these students’ ‘theatre of composition.”


Finally, Rule reports on a study she and her graduate students did, in which the students first made two drawings of their writing processes and wrote about what was shown there. Then they video recorded several sessions of writing, which, along with the drawings, provided material for follow-up structured interviews. Rule’s descriptions of this study are vivid and fascinating, and they support her conclusion that such multimodal methods are “especially useful for writers in our classrooms”:

To pursue writing’s rooms is to continually uncover the inhabited ‘theaters’ of composing processes: the emplaced embodied movements, the unintentional and accidental interactions that exceed awareness, the ineluctable and myriad ways that writing always (and all ways) takes place. (430)


I appreciate Rule’s careful review of previous research, her elegant account of her own study, and her call for composition researchers to continue a focus on the places, the spaces, the rooms (and automobiles, buses, benches, other nooks and crannies) where writing happens.


If you have other examples of student writing spaces/rooms, please share in the comments below or on social media!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 828911 by Free-Photos, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


Quick quiz:

  • In the biblical story, what was Jonah swallowed by?
  • How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?

Did you answer “whale” to the first question and “two” to the second? Most people do … even though they’re well aware that it was Noah, not Moses who built the ark in the biblical story.


So wrote Lisa Fazio, an assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, in a recent article titled “Why You Stink at Fact-Checking.” Fazio’s article was published in the very cool and credible online magazine The Conversation and republished last month in The Washington Post.


Fazio says that psychologists call the relevant phenomenon the Moses Illusion. But not long after I read her article, I heard a non-Moses-related variant on NPR. It went something like this:

“A humorous story is a …”

                                                                              “… joke.”

“Where there’s fire, there’s often …”

                                                                              “… smoke.”

“Another word for ‘people’ is …”

                                                                                      “… folk.”

      “The white part of an egg is called the …”





The Conversation article, based on a sizable body of research that Fazio and colleagues have conducted, demonstrates how easy and normal it is for all of us to unwittingly absorb—and share—false information. What’s more, the “negative effects of reading false information occur even when the incorrect information directly contradicts people’s prior knowledge.”


Participants in Fazio’s studies accepted false information even if they’d been “warned that some of the questions would have something wrong with them.” They did so when the factual errors turned up in questions related to their field of expertise. They did so even when the “critical information” was highlighted in red and they were told to pay particular attention to it!


If you’re concerned about your students’ ability to separate information from disinformation when they’re writing papers, I highly recommend you assign them to read Fazio’s article.


Writers beware too

The article got me thinking, indirectly, about “indirection.” Most good nonfiction writers I know consider indirection a fault, whether or not they know that name for it. (I’ve never heard another one.) I learned about indirection from the legendary Eleanor Gould of The New Yorker, but just now I was surprised to find that among half a dozen or so of my go-to writing and editing guides, only The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage discusses it:


indirection is what Harold Ross of The New Yorker called the quirk of sidling into facts as if the reader already knew them. An example is this sentence, in a profile of a college athlete: The 19-year-old also plays the piccolo. The reader pauses to wonder whether the 19-year-old is the athlete or someone else.


The most straightforward remedy is, of course, to get the athlete’s name in there. For example, “Wilson, 19 years old, also plays the piccolo.”


Indirection tends not to raise the hackles of readers who haven’t been trained to look for it—possibly because it’s common and accepted in fiction. For instance, take this opening sentence of a short story that appeared in The Atlantic: “It was Saturday and the house was full of flies again.” I’ve remembered that sentence for decades (although unfortunately I can’t remember or find online the title of the story or the author). It hooked me exactly because it sidles into the situation in a way that made me want to know more.


However, in nonfiction, avoiding indirection strikes me as important in two ways:


(1) Good ol’ clarity. I often advise writers who are trying to make an argument that the goal is to lead readers along step by logical step to their document’s conclusion—which, by the time readers reach it, will preferably seem inevitable. Firmly connecting the content of one sentence to that of the next underpins this step-by-step technique. Not “Wilson is an exceptional athlete. The 19-year-old also plays the piccolo” but “Wilson, at 19 years old, is an exceptional athlete. She also plays the piccolo.” Doesn’t the latter version feel much more grounded and authoritative?


(2) Fighting against the Moses Illusion. Note that both examples of the phenomenon I’ve given in this post present the false information indirectly. They don’t say, “Moses took two animals of each kind aboard the Ark. True or false?” and “The white part of an egg is called the yolk. True or false?” I’ll bet that most readers would catch the falsehoods here. Allowing ourselves indirection can also lure us into making mistakes we’re not even aware of.


The Conversation article concludes:

Detecting and correcting false information is difficult work and requires fighting against the ways our brains like to process information. Critical thinking alone won’t save us. Our psychological quirks put us at risk of falling for misinformation, disinformation and propaganda.


This applies to the psychology of writers as well as readers, I have no doubt. Caveat scriptor. 


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1351629 by quinntheislander, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

In my last post, I looked at the value of dedicating time for students to notice grammatical and lexical features in a text they are reading. Students can make their noticing tangible by annotating: circling, highlighting, and underlining. But what follows? A well-marked text signals visible noticing—but without activities to prompt students to hypothesize about the functions of the features they have annotated, the noticing may soon be forgotten.


Hypothesis formation and testing is at the heart of inductive grammatical exploration, but in my experience, formulating a “testable” hypothesis about the purpose or rhetorical force of a selected word or grammatical form can challenge students, especially those who are uncertain of their own intuitions in the reading process (or their own vocabulary for articulating intuitions). Students may offer vague responses at first: “Well, he did this to emphasize his point,” or “It sounds good.” When I probe further—how so?—the students often seem befuddled. 


One tool for helping students verbalize and refine a hypothesis about grammar is to use the principle of contrast: contrasts in grammar or lexis illustrate the consequences of the choices we make. Putting contrasting variations of sentences side by side can help students discover those consequences and, in turn, find useful principles to apply in their own writing (given time, of course – I am not claiming that a few rounds of contrast-based activities will suddenly “fix” all issues of grammar and style!).


Here’s a simple example, taken from an essay by Steven Pinker that I use in introductory writing classes to illustrate elements of argument. In this first example, I might ask students to think about the purpose of the commas:


When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s, crime was falling to record lows, just as the denunciations of video games in the 1990s coincided with the great American crime decline.


The introductory comma (such as the one after “the 1950s”) is one my students very rarely use, so this example works well for them. To create a contrast, I simply remove the commas:


When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s crime was falling to record lows just as the denunciations of video games in the 1990s coincided with the great American crime decline.


What are the potential misreadings that might occur without the commas? A casual reader, for example, might see “1950s crime” as a single unit, not separating “crime” as the subject of the next clause. While advanced readers will correct the problem easily, that simple misreading could slow or stump readers the first time through. Similarly, without the second comma, readers might assume that the “just as” is a time clause describing when “crime was falling to record lows.” But “just as” actually introduces a comparison, and the comma helps the reader separate the clauses. 


Granted, students might not frame these contrasts as I have. But they do (usually) see the difference in the two versions and understand the value of the comma in each case. 


Consider the following example, from the same article:


Yet discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying.


Here, I might want to illustrate verb tenses with my students. Having asked them to notice uses of the present continuous (or progressive) form of the verb, I might then have them consider what happens when we substitute the simple present (conversion to the simple present is also a good time to practice subject-verb agreement):


Yet discoveries multiply like fruit flies, and progress dizzies.


Once again, I might ask students a simple question: what differences do these changes in tense make? Do discoveries always multiply in this way? Are we always dizzied by scientific progress? Students usually see that the focus here is on the immediate present: this generalization applies NOW, in this moment. And that time reference is critical for Pinker’s argument that technology (rapidly changing now) is not an impediment to innovative or deep thought. Astute students will often ask at this point why we call the simple present “the present” if it doesn’t really refer to the present (or at least exclusively to the present time). This question can lead to some interesting discussions about grammar terminology (and whether or not knowledge of it is necessary for effective communication).


So in working with readings and grammar, I begin by having students notice and annotate what they see. From there, we can use contrasts to explore what I would call the “so what” related to the target grammar. When these activities work well—and I give them the time needed—students also build confidence in their abilities and the value of their linguistic intuitions.


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This weekend, I have been exploring the capabilities of the online tool Lumen5, a web-based tool that you can use to convert any written text to a video. Lumen5 offers to “Transform articles into videos in minutes” on their company website. The end result, Lumen5 explains, is “Social videos made easy.”

How Lumen5 Works

To use Lumen5, you create a project and then begin producing your video. Lumen5 gives you three choices, shown in the screenshot below:

Screenshot of Lumen5 Options for creating a video

As the image shows, the interface is clean and easy to understand. You add the required information by clicking on one of the three options:

  1. You can use an article or blog post by pasting in the link to the document.
  2. You can copy and paste text from any document you have access to.
  3. You can start with an empty video and add text and resources as you go along.

For this post, I am going to focus on what happens when you choose the first or second option. Whether you have pasted in a link or the text for your video, Lumen5 next adds your content to a series of video panes, similar to slides in a slide deck. Each sentence in your content is displayed on a pane. If your sentence is long, it is divided into two panes.

In addition to sorting the text onto the panes, Lumen5 pairs the content with an image (either in public domain or free to use) based on the keywords it finds in the text. For example, if the text talks about writing a paper, Lumen5 will add a photo that shows something related to writing. It might be a photo of a person writing, an image of hands on a keyboard, or a picture of a notebook and pen on a table.

Once the first draft of your video is auto-generated, you can spend time editing the draft by changing the text on the panes and choosing a different image, video, or icon to represent the content. To change the text, you just click on the pane and type. For the images, you choose the media tab, and then you can either search the libraries available in Lumen5 for an image or you can upload media of your own. You can also choose from one of the free-to-use soundtracks or upload your own.

Once you are happy with your video, you click the Render button and wait about ten minutes for the video to process. Once the video is ready, you download the MP4 file and upload it wherever you’d like to share it with your students. Lumen5 even provides a help page on downloading and sharing your video to a various social networks.

A Sample Lumen5 Video

I decided to experiment with a digital handout on my course website that explains the labor-based grading system to students (See Inoue, 2014), paired with a tip-filled infographic on how to do well in the course. The result of my project is the following video:

All in all, I’m quite happy with the results. I spent about three hours on the video, most of which was spent being overly picky about images and the background music.

Constraints of Lumen5

There are some limitations in Lumen5. I used the free version of the tool, which allows you to create an unlimited number of videos in 480p video quality. The free videos do have a Lumen5 logo at the end. If you want to remove that logo or record in a higher resolution, you have to pay a hefty fee of $49/month. For the work that I would do, the free version will likely suffice.

Lumen5 does not allow for voice-over, only the soundtracks as background music. Since the finished video is downloaded as an MP4 file, it is easy enough to open the downloaded file in another program, like Camtasia, if you want to add a voice-over. As there is no voice-over, you do not need to add a closed caption file. All of the text is already on the screen.

Students with visual impairments do need a transcript of the text of the video however. The text in the video is not readable by a screen reader. I created a transcript for my video by copying the text out of Lumen5 and pasting it into a Word document. After applying formatting to make the file easy for a screen reader to navigate, I saved it as a PDF and uploaded it to my own website. Making the transcript took me less than ten minutes overall.

There are some other minor limitations. You have little control over the color of the content on the screen, for example, and it’s difficult to deal with awkward line breaks. Given that the slick tool is free, however, I find these constraints quite bearable.

Final Thoughts on Lumen5

If you are interested in adding some simple videos to your course, I encourage you to experiment with Lumen5. It was a simple enough tool that I would use it with students as well, if you are working on a video assignment. Go visit the Lumen5 website and give it a try; then, please come back and tell me what you think. I’m eager to hear your thoughts about this exciting tool!

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


Metacognition, reflection, self-understanding, even self-monitored learning. As compositionists, we’ve all noted and looked up these terms as we participate in pedagogy workshops and professional development. In today’s post, I want to talk not about the “what” but about the “how”—not the term but the application—because I believe that reflection (my preferred term but maybe not yours) is a viable tool for every writer’s toolbox. As our students enter our classrooms as writers already and as they emerge from our courses having grown in those roles, we as instructors may want to focus our end-of-class activities on this application of metacognition.


I offer a self-reflection assignment this week as one means of attaining a sense of writerly self-awareness. This assignment also doubles as an assessment vehicle for our English Department’s writing-intensive (WI) courses at Kennesaw State. Although developed for a writing-intensive course, this self-reflection assignment can work across learning levels and environments. Today’s templates come courtesy of our Director of the B.A. degree, Dr. Chris Palmer, who coordinated our WI initiative this year and the Kennesaw State University English Department Writing Intensive Program.


In our writing intensive courses, students develop their skills in a diversity of ways, culminating in a research paper, where they use a memo template to reflect on their work, providing us with information on how we’re doing in teaching these elements:

  • A 10-12 page research-based essay
  • The final reflective piece (see Guidelines document: KSU 2018 Reflective memo assignment)
  • At least one other reflective activity
  • Frequent low-stakes writing throughout the semester
  • An assignment that requires students to evaluate sources (Examples: an annotated bibliography, a review of a critical essay, a research proposal that involves evaluation of sources, etc.)
  • Regular writing instruction that focuses on the writing process
  • Sequenced assignments (proposals, discovery drafts, I-search essays, annotated bibliographies, or progress reports) that build towards the final essay
  • At least two peer reviews
  • Writing Center Outreach (either the general outreach visit or one of the specific workshops)



Students are asked to write a memo to the English Department assessment committee, reflecting on what they have learned through writing their documented research essay, which is the culminating assignment for the course. We think about this assignment in terms of multimodality, because it asks students to re-mix their work in a different genre with a specific visuality.


Format (also available as a Word Doc) for memos include the following three subheadings (sections):


1. Context and Goals

Write a paragraph that provides context for your argument (thesis) and reflects on its effectiveness: What were your goals for the essay? To what extent did you accomplish them?

2. First Paragraph Containing Argument (Thesis)

Copy, paste, and block indent the paragraph that first presents your argument (thesis). Underline the sentence(s) that state(s) your argument (thesis). Then restate the argument in one or two sentences.

3. Second Paragraph Illustrating Use of Sources

a. Copy, paste, and block indent a paragraph that contains a strong supporting claim or topic sentence, and showcases your use of sources.

b. Next, explain how the supporting claim or topic sentence develops your argument (thesis) and why it is a good representation of your ability to:

Remember to use appropriate sources purposefully to support your argument (thesis) and  incorporate sources into your own text

Length should be at least 500 and up to 750 words, not including the paragraphs you quote from your essay, single-spacing with double spacing between paragraphs, 12-point Times New Roman font.

Hand in one hard copy for grading and submit one electronic document, without identifying marks, such as your name or your professor’s, for the purposes of anonymous program



Background Reading for Students and Instructors

  • The St. Martin’s Handbook: 4m, “Reflecting on Your Writing,” 12e “Reading and Interpreting Sources,” 12f “Synthesizing Sources”
  • The Everyday Writer (also available with Exercises): 11b “Reflect,” 14a “Understand the Purpose of Sources,” 14d “Read Critically and Interpret Sources,” 14e “Synthesize Sources”
  • EasyWriter (also available with Exercises): 5b, “Reflecting on Your Own Work,” 14b “Reading and Interpreting Sources,” 14c” Synthesizing Sources”


Assignment Learning Objectives

  • Students will be able to remix their work into a different genre
  • Students will be able to explain how supporting claims or topic sentences develop an argument
  • Students will be able to evaluate their own effectiveness in source use for academic writing


Reflection and Templates for Your Use

We believe that the reflective memo counts as multimodal communication, because it re-mixes the genre for students to assess their own work and adds a template-based visual component that requires students to synthesize assignment parameters and create their reflection based on them. We use a rubric (KSU 2018 Reflective Memo Rubric) to help us with a more consistent assessment of the writing intensive courses; you may have a more holistic approach, so feel free to download and edit ours. We would also like to hear your feedback on how this assignment, or a similar one, works for your students, as they emerge from our classes as writers with a more diverse multimodal toolbox.

The end of the semester often brings to mind Crystal Eastman’s 1920 essay, “Now We Can Begin.” Like any Commencement speaker worth her salt, Eastman, a feminist and pacifist, chose the momentous occasion of the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920 to look forward rather than backward. She saw the long fought-for victory of granting women the right to vote as a beginning of the next struggle.


I see similarities to the semester’s end. Certainly, students have much to celebrate as they complete their final essays (as do you when you finish commenting on them!). But I think of a semester’s end not as a closure, but as an opening. This feeling came to mind as I read Andrea Lunsford’s recent post on “Recommended Reading,” which sent me searching for a pencil to lengthen my “Must Read” list.


As instructors, we devote a lot of time to recommending reading. We structure our classes around texts, building an arc that we hope will engage our students and inspire critical thinking and writing. The process Stuart Greene and I went through as we selected readings for From Inquiry to Academic Writing  felt a lot like making a “recommended reading” list. We chose pieces that excited us, and that we couldn’t wait to share with students. Every headnote I wrote for the reader functions as a recommendation, too: “Oh! You’ve just got to read this, because…”


After a semester of our reading recommendations, I like to turn to students, and ask them to suggest summer reading material for their peers and me. In my early teaching days, I would tape pieces of paper outside my office door, inviting students to list book titles and authors with a one-sentence endorsement: “You must read this read this, because…” These days, we gather those recommendations through courseware or campus social media, but the spirit is the same. Students are the authorities, with the responsibility of pitching their favorite texts to prospective readers in a tiny argument that can have big impact.


Among the student-recommended texts that I’d recommend in turn:

  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini
  • Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi
  • What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician's Guide to Rebuilding America's CommunitiesOne Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time, by Dar Williams


What’s on your summer reading list? And what do your students recommend? Like Crystal Eastman, but with a long list of book titles in hand, I say: “Now, we can begin.”


Photo Credit: April Lidinsky

The lead-in to the L.A. Times article on the Tony Award nominations really caught my attention. Here it is:


"'SpongeBob SquarePants,' 'Mean Girls' and 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.'

'Angels in America,' 'Carousel' and 'My Fair Lady.'"


That's exactly as it appeared, and the title of the piece—"Tony nominations for 'Harry Potter,' 'SpongeBob' and 'Mean Girls' put Hollywood center stage"—made it clear that the author was well aware of the list's significance: that television and the movies appear to be taking over one of the last bastions of American live theater: the Broadway stage.


Now, before you get the idea that I am going to lament this development as some sort of cultural loss or desecration, let me assure you that I have no such intention. To begin with, Broadway has always occupied a somewhat liminal position in the traditional high cultural/mass cultural divide, and the stage has always been a setting for popular entertainment—albeit one that is not mediated by electronic technology. And while the article, for its part, does note that "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" represents "just one example of the kind of pop-culture franchise that can reduce producers' financial risk," it does not do so in anger. Indeed, it even quotes a writer associated with this year's nominees' sole "art-house" production ("The Band's Visit”), who rather generously observes that "Commercial theater, and musical theater, is a really risky venture. It's very expensive. It's possible to have a great success, but it's really unlikely"; adding that "I don't blame anyone for trying to hedge against that risk by adapting a really well known property, and it's not always cynical."


There are two quick and easy popular-semiotic takeaways, then, from this year's Tonys. The first is that the last barriers between mass media entertainment and the more culturally prestigious (if less lucrative) traditional stage are coming down once and for all. The second is that they are coming down not on behalf of some sort of producer-led deconstruction of a vanishing high cultural/low cultural divide, but simply because very few Broadway producers are willing to take any financial risks these days and prefer to go with tried and true productions. And this doesn't simply mean translating blockbuster movies and TV shows to the stage: after all, revivals of "Angels in America" and "The Iceman Cometh" are also among the nominees this year.


But the real significance of the Tonys for me appears when we broaden the system in which to analyze the nominations to include what is happening in the movies and television as well. Here too we find revivals, reboots, sequels, short, one studio or network franchise after another centered on a successful brand that never seems to run out of steam: "Avengers Infinity War" (note the endlessness implied); "Star Wars Forever"; "Roseanne" II and "Murphy Brown" redux; and so on and so forth. What this reveals is not only a similar spirit of creative bet hedging by going with tried and true entertainment commodities, but a narrowing of opportunities for creators themselves as well. For the message in this particular bottle is that in America success is the gift that keeps on giving. A few people (like George Lucas and J.K. Rowling) are going to rise from obscurity and hit it so big with their creative efforts that they will use up all the oxygen in the room. It isn't that there will be less creativity (with luminaries like Lucas and Rowling shining bright for innumerable self-publishing dreamers who hope to be the next meteors in the popular cultural skies, there will never be any danger of that); the problem is that there will be fewer opportunities to make such creative breakthroughs, or earn any sort of living while trying, when the stage (literally and figuratively) is filled with old brands that won't move aside for new entrants.


And so, finally, we come to a larger system within which to understand what is going on with the Tony Awards: this system is America itself, where a handful of winners are vacuuming up all of the opportunity in America and leaving almost nothing for everyone else (George Packer eloquently describes the situation in "Celebrating Inequality," an essay you can find in the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the USA). The rewards of the American dream are bigger than they have ever been; but not only are there fewer seats at the banquet of success, the pickings are getting leaner and leaner for those who haven't been invited.


Credit: Pixabay Image 123398 by smaus, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


I’ve written often about what I take to be the deeply performative nature of writing: from the collaborative performances associated with much workplace writing; through the years of the Stanford Study of Writing, from what my students called “performing for a grade" to a full-blown, three-hour Hip-Hopera written, choreographed, directed, and performed by a student in her senior year; to these students’ insistence that good writing always involved a performance, an act of “making something happen in the world.”


My grandniece Audrey agrees. An eighth grader in public school, she has been getting assignments that invite her to think of her writing as embodied and performed. Most recently, while studying about the American Civil War, her history teacher asked students to imagine a person alive at the time of the war, to place that person in a specific time and place, and to create a day-by-day diary or journal that person might have kept. This assignment captured Audrey’s imagination, and she thought hard about it for days, trying out several possible diarists before she eventually came up with Jane Puckett, who lived from 1836-1866. She traced Jane’s family tree back several generations and showed how the families included soldiers fighting on both sides of the civil war.


As I read and viewed this lengthy journal, I was struck by how Audrey helped bring Jane to life through her diary, using reported speech and dialogue along with vivid descriptions and illustrations, and also how she performed her understanding of the complexities of the war and the fateful and often fatal choices people had to make during that time.


The imaginative journey this assignment invoked involved trying to step into the past and embody someone else’s experiences, speaking and writing without anachronisms (not always successfully!). Audrey was acutely aware of the challenges she faced: “He’s the hardest teacher in the whole school; I’ll be lucky to get a C.” But she persevered, choosing a free handwriting font to type up the entire diary on 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper cut in half and using tea to give the look of an old, slightly stained manuscript. Then she bound the pages, including illustrations, in leather covers tied with a leather cord. All in all, a pretty impressive performance, I thought.


As this example suggests, young writers today have a strong sense of the performative qualities of writing, one that didn’t seem available to me when I was a middle schooler. At any rate, I am very happy to see that next year’s CCCCs meeting will focus on the theme of Performance-Rhetoric, Performance-Composition. You can also see some scholars speaking to this theme in a video, where one person quotes August Wilson as saying “Performance is embodied knowledge.”


I hope to attend next year’s meeting, where I expect to both deepen and expand my understanding of what it means to perform rhetoric and composition. In the meantime, I plan to ask Audrey to talk more with me about how she and her 8th grade classmates think about such acts.


Image Credit: Andrea Lunsford

Last week, I reviewed several word cloud generators and suggested a few ways that you can use word clouds in the classroom. This week, I am sharing some ways that you can use word clouds in your classes to engage students directly in the learning process. The ten active learning strategies below ask students to move beyond the absorption of ideas typical of a lecture-based class to deep engagement with the ideas and development of relevant content area and critical thinking skills.

1. 25-Word Summaries

With 25-word summaries, students summarize (or otherwise discuss) their reading in 25 words or less. Students must concentrate their ideas and make every word count. Once students submit their summaries, combine them in a single document, and generate a word cloud that reveals the 25 words that students mentioned most. For nonfiction readings, the resulting word cloud can show the main points of the reading, significant facts that are included, and key issues that stand out for students. For fictional readings, the word cloud can reveal significant features from the reading, such as themes and symbols.

The word cloud below is the collected response to the discussion question “What are the main themes in A Raisin in the Sun?” For accessibility purposes, include the table of word frequency, which screen readers will be able to read.

Word Cloud on the themes in A Raisin in the Sun


family    21
african    16
people    14
dream    10
dreams    10
abortion      8
act      8
knowledge      7
raisin      7
africa      6

2. Icebreakers with Survey Responses

Choose your favorite icebreaker question: What’s your favorite food? What’s the last book you read? What kind of texts have you written in the workplace? Ask students to respond with online survey software, like Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter. Both of these tools allow you to present the survey responses in a word cloud, so you do not need any additional software. The cloud appears on the survey website as the responses are added.

3. Directed Paraphrase

Check students’ comprehension by asking them to paraphrase the most recent lesson or activity that the class has completed. Encourage students to put the content of the lesson into their own words, rather than parroting back what they have seen or read in the class. Collect all of the responses in a single document, and generate a word cloud of the most commonly repeated words. Share the cloud with the class and ask them to consider why certain words showed up and why others were missing. Be sure to ask them to comment on how well the word cloud represents the lesson or activity they paraphrased.

4. Prediction

Before students read the next section of an article or chapter of a book, ask them to suggest what they think will happen next. As with other activities, gather the responses in a single document and create a word cloud, which will identify the most popular predictions. Ask students to discuss why certain predications were popular, connecting to the available evidence from the reading they have completed.

5. Muddiest Point

Ask students to write down whatever is most unclear about the lesson, in a word or two, before leaving the classroom for the day. Collect students’ responses and assemble them into a single document, from which you can build a word cloud of the points that most students noted. Open the next class session with the word cloud, and address the concepts that students have identified.

6. Focused List

Build a focused list by asking students to respond to a question about a topic. This strategy can be used to stimulate prior knowledge by asking a question such as “What have you learned about the topic already?” Give students time to brainstorm a list of concepts that they recall, and create a word cloud of the ideas they have shared. Use the word cloud to extend discussion of prior knowledge by asking students to explain the concepts that appear in the word cloud.

7. Version Comparison

As part of a research project, ask students to find two articles on their topic, ideally two that focus on different perspectives. Have students make a word cloud for each of the articles and then compare the two clouds. Specifically, ask which words that the two versions have in common as well as what their most significant differences are. Have students determine which of the most frequently used words communicate facts and which communicate opinion. If there are terms in the word clouds that students have not found elsewhere in their research, encourage them to examine these words further as they relate to the topic.

8. Role Play

Again, set up a survey using online survey software, like Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter, but this time ask students to answer from another perspective. In literature courses, you can ask students to answer as they think one of the characters would respond. The activity can be used as a Prediction activity (#4 above) by asking students to predict what someone in a reading might do next or a decision the person would make. For any reading that students complete, they might respond as the author would. If you are studying argument, students can answer as someone on a particular side of the issue might. These role-playing surveys will result in interesting word clouds that reveal how well students understand whatever they are reading or studying.

9. Quiz-Style Games

For this activity, you create the word cloud yourself. You could choose keywords from a text and manufacture a cloud, or paste in the text of a reading to create a cloud. Ensure that your cloud does not include the title of the piece or other words that would make the source immediately obvious. The word cloud above for A Raisin in the Sun would work for this activity. Use the resulting word clouds to quiz students: By looking only on the cloud, can they identify the piece that the cloud represents? Students could work individually or in teams to propose their answers, similar to a game show. This activity would work particularly well as a review exercise before an exam.

10. List-Cloud-Group-Label

With this modification of the List-Group-Label strategy, you can stimulate prior knowledge as you introduce a reading, a unit of study, or a course theme. Write a word or phrase related to the subject area on the board. For instance, if the course will explore popular culture, you might focus on the word popularity or the phrase popular culture itself. Have students brainstorm related words and phrases using online survey software, like Poll Everywhere or Mentimeter (or in an open Google Doc). Make a word cloud of students’ responses. Next, arrange students into small groups, and ask each group to examine the word cloud closely. Groups can add or remove words or phrases as well as decide on whether particular items on the list should have been larger or smaller in the word cloud. Once they have considered the words, ask groups to arrange the words into several related subtopics and to provide a label for each subtopic. Have groups present their subtopics to the whole class and explain their arrangement. The whole class can compare the different subtopics that groups have created. Later in the course, after you have begun your exploration of the reading, unit, or theme, ask students to return to the labeled groups of words and consider how well they relate to the topic as it has evolved during the course.

Final Thoughts

As you can see from these ten ideas, word clouds can be a versatile tool in the classroom. They can be used for analysis, description, summary, and more. Perhaps my favorite thing about these uses of word clouds is that the results are always different. Although my classes may study the same topic or readings from one term to the next, the way that they create and analyze word clouds is always unique—and every so often, they reveal an idea that surprises me.

What are your thoughts on word clouds now that you have seen some ways to use them? Do you have additional strategies to try? Would you complete one of these active learning strategies in a different way? Tell me your thoughts in a comment below. I can’t wait to hear from you.

Before the beginning of the spring semester, as I planned our assignments for the course, I tried to imagine where we might be by the end of the semester. I thought of skills to be practiced and outcomes to be measured, and I also considered multiple means of fostering persistence and resilience through the processes and products of writing. Through these means, I returned to a genre I had used in the past, the graduation speech.


The end of the semester and the end of the school year can be a difficult time for many students in ways that they understandably may not be willing to share with us. They may struggle with intersecting issues of community and family, with food insecurity and racism, with the need to hold several jobs and to take a course overload to try to accelerate their education. In other words, the end of the year is a time when students need to keep most focused even as low energy levels may impede concentration.


What to do?


At the end of the semester, through the #redfored movement, public school teachers demonstrated against prolonged state defunding of K-12 education. The demonstrations began at the end of the last week of classes, impacting our community economically, politically, and emotionally. School defunding began during the recession of 2008, and accelerated over the ensuing nine years, or for half of the time that my traditional-aged first-year students had been alive.


In the early part of the recession, in the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama had been invited to give a graduation speech at our institution. The speech became controversial, as described in the links connected to the assignment, when some people suggested that the President had not yet accomplished enough to earn an honorary degree. President Obama decided to speak at graduation anyway and wove the controversy into his remarks that demonstrated an exemplary understanding of kairos, or the rhetorical circumstances of the situation.


Because this story held local interest for my students, I offered the speech as a reading to help understand the genre of the graduation speech. Also included was a website that listed fifteen themes and other suggestions for composing graduation speeches (see the link below).


But the main point of assigning the graduation speech as a final assignment was to give us an opportunity to imagine the future in a positive light. Students not only needed to write a speech, but also to envision themselves as graduating and being chosen to address their classmates. They had to consider the kairos that had produced such circumstances, and to focus on what it would mean to arrive at that historical marker in their own lives.


In the conclusion for their speech, one student wrote:

Take this speech as a lesson, pass it down to others, give them courage, and give them confidence. Tell them they can do it, those 4 little words mean a lot to people. Makes them push that much harder. Be the one to make the difference in someone’s college experience, and college career. That’s what I am here to do today, you guys don’t need this, you already made it. Give this to others and help them be better, you could be the difference maker.

Under the intense pressures that students endure in the culmination of their first year experiences, offering courage and confidence to others can be a significant gift not only to students’ sense of community, but also to students’ developing sense of themselves as writers. As this student suggests, that gift can make all the difference.


Take what you have learned and experiment with a different genre: a speech that you have been invited to deliver to your college graduating class

  • Revise the letter that you wrote to a younger audience as a speech for your class and audience members at your graduation
  • Include your reading from earlier writing projects as references
  • See this link for a list of 15 themes and suggestions for writing graduation speeches. Choose one of these themes for your graduation speech.
  • Look at former President Obama’s 2009 graduation speech at ASU-Tempe for another example. See these links for the transcript, the video, and the historical background of this speech.

    Music educators performing in the #redfored band at the Arizona state capitol in Phoenix on April 30, 2018. The writing on the drum says: “The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and his life for the welfare of others.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.       Photo by Susan Naomi Bernstein


An arrest in connection with a series of rapes and murders in California by a perpetrator known variously as the Golden State Killer, the East Area Rapist, and the Original Night Stalker promises to bring closure for victims and victims’ families who have been waiting since the 1970s and 1980s. The accused, Joseph DeAngelo, was found through an unconventional method. As millions in recent months sent their DNA to be tested to trace their genealogy “just for fun,” law enforcement officers went to an open-source genealogical platform to find first DeAngelo’s family and then DeAngelo. (They used “discarded” DNA from DeAngelo to make the final match with DNA from victims.) Advances in DNA testing have made thousands of convictions possible and have freed innocent men and women who were convicted before today’s testing methods were developed.


Use of a genealogical site to catch a criminal elicited a perhaps unexpected criticism. Those who submitted their DNA for testing hardly thought that it could be used for that purpose. Is it legitimate—is it legal, even—for the DNA samples to be used as they were used in the DeAngelo case?


There is an interesting parallel between the questions raised about the use of DNA samples submitted for one purpose being used for another and the whole controversy from a few years ago. Many universities and a smaller number of high schools use to locate plagiarism in student papers. One reason for the site’s effectiveness is that every paper submitted to be checked becomes part of the database that is checked, and so on and so on and so on. Several lawsuits grew out of students’ anger at how their work was being used without their permission. They could not pass the course the paper was written for without submitting it to Turnitin, but once they submitted it, their original work was then used by Turnitin to make profit. Some students argued that they were coerced into signing away permission to the use of their work under threat of a failing grade in the course. The fact that some even wrote their protestations into the permission form did not change the outcome of at least one court case that was decided in favor of the defendant.


Students are warned constantly, as are we all, to be cautious about what they post on the Internet. Pictures taken at a drunken Spring Break party can come back to haunt them when they apply for a job. Intimate photos shared with the love of their life can become “revenge porn” when the relationship sours. The lawsuits were an interesting reversal in which students did not want their work to become part of a huge digital database.


The difference between Turnitin and the site used by police in the DeAngelo case, GEDmatch is that, rather than being required to use it by schools (who pay for access to the Turnitin database), users of the genealogy site chose to use it, for free. An article from the Los Angeles Times tellingly called “Cracking the Golden State Killer case: Clever detective work or a violation of privacy?” explains that with GEDmatch, “consenting users upload test results from a variety of genealogy websites and cross-reference their findings to discover relatives who might have tested with different companies.” In response to the DeAngelo case, GEDmatch made this statement: While the database was created for genealogical research, it is important that GEDmatch participants understand the possible uses of their DNA, including identification of relatives that have committed crimes or were victims of crimes. If you are concerned about non-genealogical uses of your DNA, you should not upload your DNA to the database and/or you should remove your DNA that has already been uploaded.


Clever detective work or a violation of privacy? Maybe both. The Times article warns, “Ruth Dickover, director of UC Davis' forensic science program, described law enforcement's approach as a glimpse into a future in which virtually all genetic information is accessible to the government.” The larger genealogical sites, 23andMe and, try to shield the privacy of their customers. Neither has given law enforcement access to customers’ DNA, and both state their intent to resist doing so in the absence of a search warrant or court order. The danger comes when the customers themselves share their DNA results online, which is what they do with GEDmatch. We can applaud the success of law enforcement in catching a killer and rapist, and most of us do not have to worry about our DNA revealing a skeleton in our closet, but we have to remember that once we make the decision to make our results public, we are doing so not just for ourselves, but for all of those who share our DNA as well.



Image Source: “DNA representation” by Andy Leppard on Flickr 10/5/06 via Creative Commons 2.0 license

Andrea A. Lunsford

On Writing Spaces

Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert May 3, 2018


A happy event at Ohio State last week got me thinking about the importance—and wide variety—of writing spaces. I was in Columbus for a meeting of the English Department’s Alumni Advisory Committee (I got my Ph.D. at OSU in 1977) and to my surprise and delight, the meeting concluded with the official opening of a newly renovated graduate student lounge, to which I had contributed. Here are some photos of the new space:



Pretty nice digs—and certainly a far cry from the space graduate students lay claim to in the 70s. As I talked with the graduate students gathered there, they spoke of the significance of this space, a “room of their own” for a quiet coffee and chat, a small group meeting—or for writing. One student said her shared office was always full of students and teachers conferring and thus fairly hectic: “it’s impossible to think straight in there,” she said. But this fairly quiet new space, with its large windows, good light, and welcome atmosphere, felt like a place she would enjoy writing and reading and thinking, as well as enjoying the company of her fellow students.


This discussion reminded me of how many young people today have few if any comfortable or welcoming writing spaces available. When students are living at home, in both high school and college, such spaces are scarce. In Bronwyn LaMay’s terrific ethnographic study Personal Narrative, Revised: Writing Love and Agency in the High School Classroom, she describes in detail the living conditions of some of her students and they are not conducive to writing, to say the very least.


College students often tell me that they prefer to write in a space with lots of other things going on—music, multiple windows open on their devices, other people, all multitasking. But I have no evidence to suggest that such writing spaces are productive and a lot of evidence (especially about noise and multitasking) that they are anything but. Of course, I’ve taught and written long enough to know that one person’s productive writing space is another person’s site of writing block. So, I’m cautious when talking to students about where they do their best writing, since the answers inevitably vary widely. But one response they have in common is that the space needs to feel like theirs, a place that is all for and about them. Once they discover such a space, they tend to stick with it.


So last week, as I helped inaugurate the new space at Ohio State, I was wishing for safe, welcoming, productive spaces for all writers. And I think it is well worth talking with our students about what constitutes such a space—and helping them make a plan to claim such a space for themselves.


Image Credit: Andrea Lunsford

In my last post, I suggested a set of threshold concepts about grammar that could support a “reading for grammar” pedagogy; in such a pedagogy, grammar is explored inductively and descriptively through interactions with complex and challenging texts.  The concepts I proposed address the nature of grammatical systems and the critical importance of those systems in meaning-making activities. Those activities—and the choices of readers and writers engaged in them—have implications for identity and social positioning.


However, practically speaking, how does this translate into classroom practice? I think it begins with noticing—simply bringing syntax and the conventions of written language into the students’ range of attention. My hunch that noticing initiates growth in grammatical awareness comes from years of interacting with students who, in reading class texts or their own work, responded to questions about specific linguistic features in this way: “I didn’t see that.” And while it is easy to attribute that response to carelessness or laziness, I don’t think that fairly captures the task students face in reading, particularly students who have not been afforded extensive reading opportunities (except for perhaps the mind-numbing readings assigned in the preparation and completion of standardized tests). After years of teaching composition (and with training in linguistics), I am certainly going to have a different experience with a text than my students do. I have developed an awareness of multiple linguistic features; my eyes scan for these automatically, and I interpret them rapidly. But I am not so adept in understanding how to “read” a soccer match, for example. Hundreds of details immediately evident to my students—aficionados of fútbol—escape my notice. “I didn’t see that.” 


My soccer analogy reminds me that I cannot push students headlong into noticing during our first encounter with a text, just as I wouldn’t try to pay attention to intricate player formations at my first soccer match. I would need to settle in at the stadium, figure out how to get to my seat, match teams and uniforms, and make sure I could see the goals at either end of the field. Students also need time to situate themselves as readers of a text.


But once we have spent some time with a text, I can invite my students to notice how the author is using grammar. I try to select an interesting grammatical feature of the text:  subject-verb agreement, commas, parallel structure, subordinate clauses, colons, use of quotes, verbal complements, verb tenses—anything that contributes in some way to our understanding of the text. Then I ask the students to notice that feature (having chosen only one). I might point it out in a couple of paragraphs, and then ask students to notice where else it is used and annotate those instances. 


My temptation is always to rush through this noticing; it would be easier for me to point out the instances and move quickly into explanation and practice (activities that I will discuss in future posts). But I am learning to resist this temptation and give my students time to notice for themselves, without moving in to correct what they “didn’t see.”  (Even with something that seems as obvious as periods as markers of terminal sentence boundaries, students may not be adept at noticing quickly. To combat the “5 sentences per paragraph” pseudo-rule that some students have been taught, I will ask them to count the number of sentences in one or two paragraphs of a reading we have done.  Invariably, students do not agree on the number the first time. As they check their counts with others in the class, I hear the phrase again and again: “Oh!  I didn’t see that.”)


Noticing and annotating take time, and given the hectic pressure of accelerated courses and packed syllabi, it can seem that we don’t have luxury for these activities in class.  But I think noticing is essential for the development of close reading skills, grammatical awareness, and the ability to revise and edit one’s own work. I have found as students practice, an important shift takes place: not only do they notice the textual features I have asked them to see, but they also begin to notice other characteristics of the text—and lexical and syntactic awareness increases. 


In the next post, I will look at activities that build on noticing. In the meantime, your comments and questions are welcome.


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Word clouds can give writers helpful information as they revise their work. As I explained in my previous post Word Clouds as Revision Tools, “Word clouds highlight the most frequently used words in a text, using larger font sizes for the words used most often and smaller sizes for those used less often.”

Using Word Clouds

In the writing classroom, word clouds can help students identify words that they have overused or identify themes in their writing. In technical writing classes, I ask students to create word clouds from their job application materials and then evaluate whether the words that they use the most project the image that they want potential employers to see.

In classes that focus on reading, students can use word clouds to analyze passages from poetry, essays, fiction, and other readings. The resulting word clouds can help students identify themes and symbols in the texts, just as a concordance might. Here’s the word cloud for the 50 most frequent words in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

Word Cloud for T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

Once a word cloud like the one above is generated, students can talk generally about the frequently-used words, and then search for the words in the original text to see how they are used.

Problems with the Most Commonly Used Word Cloud Generator

So word clouds can be a fun tool to use in the classroom; recently, however, I have run into trouble when assigning word cloud activities. My go-to tool, Wordle, is no longer working consistently. When I follow their troubleshooting instructions, I end up finding this Java error:

Java error: The Chrome browser does not support NPAPI plug-ins and therefore will not run all Java content. Switch to a different browser (Internet Explorer or Safari on Mac) to run the Java plug-in.

Wordle has been my favorite and the tool that I have seen other teachers use most frequently, but with the end of Java support, I can’t rely on Wordle anymore. I need to find tools that students can use easily and reliably.

Word Cloud Alternatives to Try

After testing several options, I found three alternatives that seem useful:

These three tools create word clouds easily, giving the user the same basic settings. Word Cloud Generator (for Google Docs) is limited in the ways that you can manipulate the layout of the words. For instance, to switch to the landscape layout shown for The Waste Land example above, I had to open the image in Photoshop and rotate it. It’s not a hard change to make, but it is an extra step. Word Cloud Generator includes the unique ability to add a table of the most frequently used words and their frequency of use to the end of the analyzed document. To share this add-on with students, use the How to Create a Word Cloud in Google Docs video and instructions.

Pro Word Cloud (for Microsoft Word and PowerPoint) does allow you to change the layout of the words, giving you a range of options that includes Higgledy Piggledy. I love anything that offers me the chance to make things “Higgledy Piggledy.” This Word add-in falls short, however, since it has no option to exclude words from the cloud. There is a check box to “Remove common words,” but no option to customize the words that are removed. To share the add-in with students, you can use the Create a Word Cloud in a PowerPoint Presentation video and instructions. The instructions are generally the same to install and use the add-in in Microsoft Word.

WordClouds (for web browsers) is the best choice if the source text for your word cloud is a web page or PDF. You can upload a file or enter a web link, and the tool will make a related cloud. WordClouds also includes the largest number of options of the three tools. In addition to the customary settings for the color, font, and the layout of the words, you can change the shape of the cloud (e.g., a heart, an apple, a cat), set the distance between words (or the gap size), and add a mask. The shape option includes not only basic shapes, but also the ability to choose a letter or number as the shape of the cloud and the ability to choose a colorful icon (such as a rainbow). There’s even a sneaky way to track multi-word phrases (e.g., writing center). Just add a tilde (~) between the words (i.e., writing~center). While there is no page of instructions for WordClouds, students can use the Wizard on the site to get started and find the answers to any questions on the FAQ page.

Final Thoughts

I am always looking for more ways to use word clouds in the classroom. They are so easy to create, and they quickly reveal keywords and themes in the analyzed texts. I am working on some additional word cloud activities for next week’s post. If you have an activity to share, please leave me a note below, and be sure to come back next week for those additional assignments that use word clouds.