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If you were around in 1960, you probably remember rockabilly singer Eddie Cochran singing about the “Summertime Blues” (check it out on YouTube!). The lyrics are clever—all about how the singer has to work all summer and so has “summertime blues.” Teachers of writing often have such blues as we work all summer to get ready for another year, often while also teaching or holding down other jobs. So it’s worth patting yourself on the back as this summer rolls in and, I hope, avoiding too many summertime blues.


I will certainly be working most of the summer: writing articles and chapters and working on books. But I’m also determined to take a couple of weeks off to relax and do some good summertime reading.


I wrote a few weeks ago recommending Keith Gilyard and Adam Banks’s On African American Rhetoric, from which I’ve learned a great deal (especially from the chapter on Black Twitter). But I’m going to take time this summer for reading outside our field, and I hope you can do so too. In case you don’t have a summer reading list set yet, here are a few books that I have on mine:

  • Steve Almond’s Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country, published by Red Hen Press, offers seventeen “bad stories,” narratives Almond says we must fight against and try to replace with “stories that offer a vision of the American spirit as one of kindness and decency, the sort that powered the Emancipation Proclamation and the New Deal and the War on Poverty.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Books 1-3. Go Shuri! Need I say more?
  • For sheer escapism, nothing’s better to me than a Louise Penny Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novel set in the lyrically beautiful Canadian village of Three Pines. There are 13, I think, and I’ve been saving the most recent one, Glass Houses, for a special treat. Number 14, Kingdom of the Blind, is due out in November and I’ll probably pre-order it!
  • Georgina Kleege’s More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art, from Oxford UP, captivated me with its title alone, but since I’ve read other works by Kleege (Sight Unseen and Blind Rage), I know she is a gorgeous prose stylist who brings her keen wit, intelligence, and unflinching honesty to every page. This one’s on the top of my stack.
  • Finally, another book about art, though this time it’s art in clay. Julia Rowntree and Duncan Hooson’s Clay in Common (published in Britain by Triarchy Press and available on Amazon) introduces readers to the Clayground Collective, a “project book for schools, museums, galleries, libraries, and artists and clay activists everywhere.” I love the idea of “clay activists,” and I’ve dipped into the book just enough to believe that I will emerge from this read as part of the activist group, who believe that we are losing far too much when we lose touch with knowledge that comes to us through making and through using our hands.


So I plan to try to balance summertime work blues with summertime reading joys. While I do, I’ll be taking a bit of a break from this blog space. But like Elizabeth Warren, I will persist—and be back soon.


Wishing you a peaceful and joyful summer.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1702617 by Bequest, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Andrea A. Lunsford

Are You a Mentor?

Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Jun 21, 2018


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role mentorship has played in my life and career, about those who have served as formal and informal or unofficial mentors for me, and also about those for whom I’ve tried to serve as mentor. It’s a complicated set of relationships, but one I think is of enormous importance to the work we do and the values we hold.


I don’t remember having a mentor in middle or high school. I had a *very* strange set of teachers in middle school, one of whom—our math teacher—was taken out of the classroom one day by school officials as he ranted and raved (we never saw him again) and another of whom—our Latin teacher—I was absolutely terrified. In high school, I had a chemistry teacher who was famous for raising knots on recalcitrant students’ arms with her “Nesbitt knocks” and an English teacher who talked to us at great length about her year as a debutante and her deep love for what she called the “old south.” No mentors there.


In college, however, I had one fabulous mentor, a Humanities teacher from whom I took several courses. He invited me to office hours and eventually to his home where he and his wife helped me make up summer reading lists to help fill in the gaps of my knowledge of British and American literature. In graduate school, I was most grateful for the mentorship of Edward P. J. Corbett—and of many of my fellow students: we helped and supported one another throughout grad school, refusing the agonistic culture of many grad programs in which students compete to be “the best.”


During my career, I’ve often experienced a mutual mentoring with students, relationships that seemed to me to be reciprocal: we mentored each other, often in truly meaningful and remarkable ways. And of course I have tried very hard to be a mentor, especially to women and students of color, or to any student I sensed was struggling. I hope I’ve been helpful, that I’ve respected and carried out the inspired and inspiring motto of the National Association of Colored Women, “Lifting as We Climb.”


I also take every opportunity to celebrate great mentors, and our field of rhetoric and writing studies has many. Last year, The Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition award its second Lisa Ede Mentoring Award to Penn State’s Cheryl Glenn. And this year, the Rhetoric Society of America presented its third Cheryl Geisler Award for Outstanding Mentor to Texas Christian’s Richard Enos. I attended both of these award ceremonies, and over the years I have spoken with many, many students who spoke passionately about the support they had received from Glenn, Enos, and other mentors. These conversations stay with me, reinforcing my conviction that mentoring can change lives and can sometimes save lives.


Yet there’s no section on CVs devoted to mentorship; there’s usually little or no consideration of mentorship in tenure and promotion proceedings. Most of this work is “extra,” added on to everything else a scholar/teacher is supposed to do. I’d love to see some changes in the way we evaluate candidates for tenure and promotion, and would love to see mentoring recognized and valued more than it is. In the meantime, I will be at every mentoring award ceremony I possibly can, to acknowledge and to celebrate the individuals who give so much to so many.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3152585 by rawpixel, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Animaker LogoIn my last post, I shared Lumen5, a site that allows you to make short videos by pairing free-to-use images with the text from a webpage or handout. Today, I’m sharing another simple, free tool that you can use to make short videos for the classroom. Edify Animaker offers a suite of tools to create “Animated Videos, Done Right!” The tool boasts an impressive collection of Fortune 500 clients, including Google, Adidas, GE, FedEx, Ebay, and Walmart.

How Animaker Works

Its website describes using Animaker as a straightforward process: “Click and Choose. Drag and Drop. Edit and Play. That's Animaker.” That overview is a bit of an oversimplification, but the process is relatively easy to master. There are two broad ways to go about creating your video: (1) begin with a template for a specific genre of video, or (2) create a video of your own from a blank project file.

If you choose the template option, Animaker asks you to “Click and Choose” one of ten different video templates:

  • Explainer Video
  • Facebook Video
  • Cartoon Video
  • Advertisement Video
  • YouTube Video
  • Birthday Video
  • Christmas Video Greeting
  • Video Presentation
  • Lyric Video
  • Instagram Video

The alternative option begins with the video equivalent to a blank page. After you “Click and Choose” one of these options, you move on to the “Drag and Drop” portion of the project. Regardless of the option you choose, you next can “Drag and Drop” assets into your video, picking from a variety of included characters, properties, and backgrounds. In addition to the included assets, you can upload your own images and sounds (within certain file size constraints) to use in your production.

Finally, you move on to the “Edit and Play” part of the process, adding transitions, setting how much time the assets spend onscreen, and choreographing the various parts of the video. You can preview the video as often as you'd like. When you are satisfied, you export the video. The free option of Animaker allows you to export to Facebook and YouTube. Once the export is complete, you’re ready to share the video with students.

An Example Video

To test Edify Animaker, I created the video below, which addresses the question, What Is the Grace Period in Your Technical Writing Class?

Most of the copy for the video came from course documents, such as the general explanation of the grace period on the course syllabus. The Animaker video did take a bit longer to create than the Lumen5 video, as Animaker's tools are more sophisticated. While Lumen5 videos were a simple combination of background images and overlaid text, Animaker videos include options for backgrounds, characters, properties and text. Each of the assets in an Animaker video can be manipulated for time on screen and beginning and ending transitions.

Constraints of Animaker

Most of the constraints of Animaker are clearly outlined on the Pricing Plans page, which compares four plans (Free, Personal, Startup, and Business). The free plan creates only two minute videos in SD quality. Additionally, the free plan limits users to only five exports per month. As a result, if you use the free version, you must be careful to edit and preview completely before you export to ensure that you do not run out of resources.

Educators can take advantage of the Premium pricing on the Edify-branded version of Animaker. The Premium plan costs $ 0.20 / month for students and $10/month for teachers (billed yearly). The Premium pricing model increases the maximum video length to 30 minutes, allowing for Full HD, HD, and SD quality videos. Further, the Premium plan increases the number of exports to 200 (from five on the free version).

As is typically the case with free plans, Animaker’s most basic plan offers only a limited collection of image and sound assets. This constraint can easily be overcome by uploading your own images and sounds to supplement the basic library. The Premium plan for educators includes the highest number of assets (identical to the Business Plan).

While the free version does not allow you to download the video, savvy users can export the video to Facebook or YouTube and then download from either site in order to create a personal backup or edit with another program (e.g., Camtasia). These downloaded versions will not be as flexible as the project files on the Animaker site.

As was the case with Lumen5, students with visual impairments will need a transcript of the text of the Animaker videos. The text in the video is not readable by a screen reader. That said, downloading the video from the intermediary site may be necessary to customize closed captions and transcripts. YouTube can automatically create captions from the audio soundtrack; however, it will not be able to convert text that appears on the screen alone for the visually impaired.

Final Thoughts on Animaker

The free version of Animaker allows users to create more sophisticated videos than Lumen5 does, including the ability to upload a voiceover recording. Naturally, I prefer to use the free version as long as I can. If I found myself needing additional resources from Animaker, the Premium Plan for educators seems like a reasonable upgrade, for only $10 a month.

Much like Lumen5, Animaker is also simple enough for students to use. I would not use Animaker as students’ very first video production tool; however, once students have created some basic videos using their smartphones or animated slideshow presentations, they would have the skills to step up to the additional features that Animaker offers.

I encourage you to take an hour or two to try out Edify Animaker this summer. You should find yourself able to make a relatively polished video that you can use in the classroom, even with the free version of the tool. Once you try Animaker, come back and tell me what you think. I would love to hear what you think about the features that it offers and how you might use the tool to create resources for your classes.

Today’s guest blogger is Kim Haimes-Korn, a Professor of English and Digital Writing at Kennesaw State University. Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning and 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.


My friend, Andrea Ellinor shared with me an idea she learned from the Artist’s Way (Cameron 20) – the idea of “filling the well.” Andrea was an early adopter of technologies and was always seeking out innovation.  She worked tirelessly, but every once-in-a-while, she would stop and say, “It’s time to fill the well.” She realized that innovation, energy, and creativity need new experiences and ideas to remain vital. For Andrea, filling the well was visiting new places, meeting new people and considering new ideas.  It was the process of “making the familiar strange” (a term from cultural anthropology) and   of letting go of the intensity of work for a while to allow the mind and body to rejuvenate and grow. 


This concept applies to us as teachers.  Some of us have the opportunity to leave the classroom for a while and have our summers to recover.  Others still teach but move at a slower pace during the summer.  Breaks are our time to heal and fill the well to refresh and keep our teaching creative, innovative, and moving ahead.  As we know, teaching is a full time job.  Even in our time off, we think about our students, assignments, and classes and continually work to develop our curriculum and pedagogies. Although much of our work happens in the classroom, it is these places between where we often make connections and generate new ideas. 



Summer Kim’s Ideas for Filling the Well

I have enjoyed the good fortune of taking a break during my summers.  Every year, I ceremoniously transition from School Year Kim to Summer Kim -- who has a different perspective and can live a less scheduled life for a while (a break for which I am very grateful).  I always prioritize fun and relaxation over breaks but also work to develop simple, mindful practices of creative productivity to fill the well.


Summertime . . .

A Time of Reflection – I take the time to look back on the previous year and consider how things worked in my classroom and in my professional life.  I look at student feedback, modify assignments, and try to figure out what was successful and unsuccessful.  Innovative teachers know that it is ok to fail and that it usually takes more than one run to figure out our assignments and curriculum.  We always have our lists of “shoulda dones” at the end of a class or semester.  We can use this time to recognize our moments of success and be open to change things that did not work.


A Time of Reading and Research – During the school year, I regularly curate articles and books that I want to read.  Summer is the perfect time to catch up and fill the well with new ideas.  This means reading for ourselves (personal reading, beach books, People magazine – gasp!) and reading to enrich our professional and teaching lives. I go back to my archived bookmarks and read and annotate articles in leisure when my mind is not cluttered with school-year content. I talk to friends and colleagues to generate recommendations and stack reading around the house  (journals, articles, books, textbooks) to read in small bits. I actively extend my knowledge in areas I hope to pursue or deepen. 


A Time for Technology – The thought of learning new technologies during the school year is a nightmare.  We are all too familiar with the dread of our LMS switching vendors, online certifications or trying to keep up with the changing pace of technological developments. Online classes and tutorials help us keep up with our students and learn how users create and respond to new technologies.  This work involves learning new software, analyzing audience trends, and studying cultural shifts in technology use. 


A Time to Integrate Multimodal Assignments I can’t leave this post without talking about multimodal assignments.  Now more than ever, our students need these content creation skills to fully participate in both personal and professional conversations.  We can rethink traditional assignments and integrate multimodal components into our curriculum. We can design new digital assignments, clarify instructions, find new resources, curate examples, scaffold steps, and imagine instruments for assessment, evaluation, and feedback.


A Time to Connect and Brainstorm I try to get together with people I have missed during the busy school year.    My most creative ideas come out of open-ended brainstorming and sharing with friends and colleagues.  One of my colleagues and I even arrange a scholar weekend (we try to do one every quarter) to just talk, think, share, and work – uninterrupted. Our talk is always a lively tapestry of personal, professional, and intellectual conversation – and laughing. These collaborative communities keep us connected and engaged.


A Time to Clear Out: Operation 50% – It is hard to fill the well when it is full with other things. You can’t bring in the new until you let go of things that are no longer useful or weighing you down.      Every summer I launch Operation 50% - in which I attempt to get rid of 50% of my stuff.  I start small because it is overwhelming but I visit spaces like my kitchen junk drawer, my pantry, or my bookshelves and try get rid of half of the contents. The method applies to cleaning up my teaching materials to get ready for the next semester.  I clean out file cabinets and organize data for my research.  I reorganize my online classes and resources, eliminate duplicate files, fix broken links, and replace dated resources that are no longer relevant and I work on improving usability on my sites. I rarely reach my 50% goal but it keeps me moving and helps me break the overwhelming maintenance into achievable goals.


Ultimately, our breaks remind us to live in the now. We all need to stop every now and again, practice mindfulness and actively “fill our wells.”  Teaching is an all-encompassing job that demands our rapt attention most of the time. Our passion for what we do drives us and provides boundless creativity and meaningful service to others. We draw energy from student relationships and embrace our responsibility to engage and enlighten. It is our challenge to make our breaks productive and peaceful and develop ongoing habits of mindfulness that take us through the school year.  I have learned these practices throughout the years and they have helped me remain a strong teacher and afforded me the energy and desire to love my teaching life. 


Last week I wrote a bit about the plenary talk I had the honor of delivering at this year’s RSA meeting, brilliantly arranged by incoming President Kirt Wilson with assistance from Christa Olson, Roxanne Mountford, and Bill Keith. Their efforts—along with those of many others who helped out—paid off big time with a program packed with exciting speakers and panels. As always, I learned a lot from attending, and it was especially fun to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the organization and to look back to 1968, the year of its founding, and trace the accomplishments of RSA over the decades.


And talk about an embarrassment of riches: I didn’t get to see 10% or even 5% of the panels I would have liked to attend since there were probably a dozen at every time slot that I knew I would be interested in. But here I will mention a few that I particularly learned from. “Teaching and Writing about Demagoguery in Dangerous Times” featured talks by Jennifer Mercieca, Michael Steudeman, and Paul Elliott Johnson: I took copious notes on how teachers of writing could help students build “rhetorical citizenship,” on how to deal with “asymmetric polarization,” and on how to focus on explaining rather than arguing, especially in tense or potentially agonistic settings.


In a session on “Reinventing Rhetoric through Undergraduate Research,” Jenn Fishman, Jane Greer, Sean Patrick O’Rourke, Trish Roberts-Miller, Dominic DelliCarini, and Jack Selzer inspired me with their descriptions of the kinds of research projects undergraduates are carrying out at their schools. Refusing to accept the view of college and college writing classes as “preparation” for something that comes later, these scholars view colleges as a “site of practice” where students are doing research that can help to shape disciplines and disciplinary knowledge. I felt very pleased to know that Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric shares this view of student research and to see that it is spreading across the country. Far from the old “research paper” that I did in college, or the kind of assignments that ask students to use a pre-chosen set of sources as a basis for research (perhaps as a way to combat plagiarism?), the assignments this panel discussed were far-ranging, sophisticated, and often carried out in the field.


Brad Lucas, Scott Mitchell, Jess Boykin, and Valerie Gallagher and Keon Pettiway presented “Remembering and Remediating the Civil Rights Movement,” which was especially poignant given this 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Especially intriguing was Gallagher and Pettiway’s description of North Carolina State University’s Virtual MLK Project, which immerses attendees in the sounds and sights of part of the Civil Rights Movement, including a recreation of King’s “Fill up the Jails” speech in Durham, NC, of which no known audio recording exists. Hearing about this project, and the amazing opportunities it offers to students at NCSU and elsewhere, made me want to get down to Raleigh as soon as possible to take it in.


In “Looking Forward in Latinx Rhetorics,” Jaime Mejia, Sonia Arellano, Ana Milena Ribero, and Ruben Casas held me spellbound as they talked about the challenges facing Latinxs attempting to “assimilate” into the academy; about “tactile rhetoric” and its instantiation in the Migrant Quilt Project, based in Tucson and memorializing migrant deaths; about how “undocumented” youth are using rhetorical strategies in their resistance and resilience; about how MigraZoom—a project that began in 2013 and distributed Kodak cameras to migrants and asked them to photograph their journeys—captured the everyday, sometimes mundane but almost always beautiful landscapes, people, animals, and other quotidian objects captured on film. All of these talks challenged those of us in the audience to re-think or re-imagine the ways we use technology in our teaching and learning.


I could go on and on, about the two-day seminar on Diversity and Rhetorical Traditions sponsored by the American Society for the History of Rhetoric, about the panels celebrating 50 years of RSA history and featuring many luminaries of our field, about queer identities and queer worldmaking, and so much more, so much more. For those who weren’t able to attend the conference, I hope this post gives you some idea of the riches available there as well as some names and topics to find out more about. As always, I came away wanting to share insights and to bring them to bear on writing program curricula and pedagogy.


I can be critical of Aristotle sometimes, but I do think he was right in arguing that learning is among the greatest joys of life. So thanks to RSA for reminding me of that fact!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2316268 by Broesis, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

I have been writing about ways to build grammar awareness through reading activities.  I began with an exploratory look at threshold concepts for grammar in the composition classroom. I also addressed activities that encourage students to notice grammatical features in target texts. In the last post, I discussed applying a principle of contrast to texts so that students can construct and refine grammatical hypotheses.


Another strategy that can be applied to texts involves the creation of grammatical frames to illustrate critical grammar points. Consider the following example, taken from an editorial by Steven Pinker:


If electronic media were hazardous to intelligence, the quality of science would be plummeting. Yet discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying.


The first of these two sentences is a counterfactual (also called unreal) condition, which follows a standard format: If + subject + past tense verb, subject + would + base form of the verb. The next sentence introduces the real or factual counterpart to the conditional; as a contrast, this sentence is introduced with “yet.” In combination, these sentences illustrate a useful grammatical pattern for argumentation, a pattern that students can employ for themselves. Provide students with a simple frame, and then invite them to play with the language in the context of their own ideas:


            If _________ were _______________, (then) _______ would _________.  But (yet) ______________________. 


            If ______________________ (verb in past), _______________ (use “would”) __________.  But (yet) __________________.


Next, students could predict what the following sentence might logically contain. In this case, the next sentence could be a result clause beginning with “so” or “therefore.” Or the writer might choose to provide additional facts as a contrast to the conditional, as Pinker actually does (note his use of the words “other” and “likewise”):


Other activities in the life of the mind, like philosophy, history and cultural criticism, are likewise flourishing, as anyone who has lost a morning of work to the Web site Arts & Letters Daily can attest.


Patterns and frames can also be used to help multilingual writers and English language learners build lexical knowledge. One of the most challenging aspects of English language acquisition is verb complementation: whether a verb can be followed by a noun, prepositional phrase, gerund, infinitive, noun clause, or adjective – or some combination of these—is lexically determined. In other words, the individual verb determines what grammatical structures follow it. Vocabulary development for academic writing involves a growing awareness of which verbs occur in which patterns.  Reading exercises can foster this lexical awareness. Consider the following sentence from Pinker’s essay:


Search engines lower our intelligence, encouraging us to skim on the surface of knowledge rather than dive to its depths.


“Encourage” is one of several verbs which can be followed (among other patterns) by a noun or pronoun and an infinitive: encourage someone to do something. Students can begin to build a repertoire of verbs that follow this pattern, looking for additional examples in class readings (urge someone to do something, expect someone to do something, etc.). But instructors can also point out verbs students will not find in this pattern, such as “recommend” or “suggest.” 


Whether the frames are invoked to illustrate a grammatical construct such as a conditional or a lexically-determined complement, invite students to play with language in the frames in low-stakes activities.  


This use of frames or patterns is similar to the approach of Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in They Say, I Say. Some have criticized the Graff and Birkenstein templates as formulaic or detrimental to the thinking process (as in this article by Phyllis Banay). My use of frames, however, differs from the They Say, I Say template approach in a couple of ways. First, frames are derived from course readings; they are not presented as a pre-determined list. Second, while frames may be connected to rhetorical moves (as in the case of Pinker’s use of counterfactual conditions to introduce evidence against a claim), the primary focus of the frames here is to build grammatical and lexical confidence. Finally, I would not require that students use a particular frame in a graded writing assignment; ultimately, my goal is to build student confidence to make grammatical choices—not dictate those choices for them.  


Want to offer feedback, comments, and suggestions on this post? 

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Recently, I gave a webinar on community partnership pedagogies and writing across the curriculum (mentioned in my previous post, Writing Across the Curriculum and the Importance of Writing Communities, leading up to this event). Some of you may have attended - if so, I hope the discussion offered insight on how you can utilize community partnership projects in your classroom, department, or institution.


If you were unable to attend, you can review the recording below.



I hope this will begin a dialogue, and would love to hear how you integrate writing communities and teach across the disciplines. What projects have you undertaken with your students and colleagues?

The late spring and early summer months are seasons of moving for many of us, and last month, my partner and I and our orange tabby cat Destiny left Arizona to return to Queens, New York. While uprooting from a familiar place and grounding roots in a new community may not be easy or seamless, such transitions offer challenges that can keep our minds sharp and resilient, even through difficult moments. The lessons I learn relocating across the country remind me of the hard work of moving into new classroom spaces, whether we experience these transitions as teachers or as students. 


Destiny, an orange tabby cat, looks out the window at a view of city apartment buildings from his new home in Queens, New York.


My reflection on transitions come from an experience that my partner and I could not anticipate in advance. The morning after we moved into our new home in Queens, we awakened to find Destiny panting in respiratory distress. It was 6 a.m. on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and we needed to find a vet who could diagnose and treat him. This process eventually became a daylong journey, and at its inception a positive outcome was not guaranteed. While the diagnosis was inconclusive, it seemed at the very least that Destiny was suffering from anxiety. Destiny had come to us as a stray early in our stay in Arizona five years before. The desert was the only home he had ever known, and he needed time to adjust to the decidedly unfamiliar space of a small city apartment. We would need to make major changes to our plans to care for Destiny’s immediate needs. 


Destiny’s transition from college-town house cat to apartment-dwelling city kitty especially teaches me to hit the ground running, to build new forms of participation into transitions, and to expect the unexpected. Even as these lessons have become common practice in my classrooms, relocating has caused me to try to reframe these lessons for a variety of settings.


  1. Hit the ground running: Create a plan to become involved with your community as soon as possible. Dive right into the curriculum on the first day of class, and offer an activity that represents a core value of the community that you hope to create with students. For example:
  • Try not to read the syllabus aloud or highlight only the key points of the syllabus (texts needed, major assignments, attendance policy, and so forth). Alternatively, you can invite students to study the syllabus together in pairs or small groups to prepare for a brief syllabus quiz on the second day.
  • Listen to a reading or watch a video together, then discuss it afterwards in small groups. Be sure to offer students a chance to ask questions and to write about what they have experienced.
  • Co-create an activity together. Brainstorm topics for a first writing assignment, or have students make lists of what they already know about writing and what goals they have for completing the course. Share the lists to find challenges and commonalities.


  1. Not everyone wants to participate immediately. Build alternative forms of participation into the transition. Offer a more inclusive curriculum through universal design that can help shy students and allow students with learning differences and differences in attention span and executive function to engage on an individualized level.
  • Try not to offer a “diagnostic” writing assignment. Students are not patients with symptoms that need prescribed treatments. Instead, present the first day essay as an opportunity for students to introduce themselves to you as writers. What values or experiences do students bring to their writing? What do students want you to know about how they learn, about what helps their learning and what may be a roadblock to learning?
  • Offer lots of opportunities for ungraded, directed free writing. Even as topics can be co-created in class, students gain a great deal from individualized practice without the pressure of formal evaluation.
  • Create a forum for students to ask anonymous questions about the first writing assignment, or about the course syllabus and classroom policies.


  1. Expect the unexpected. Try to approach this new transition without expectations for anything going as planned. Give yourself space as a teacher to deal with challenges that may arise at the beginning of the term. The internet may crash, or inclement weather may cause difficult commutes and late arrivals, but your classroom community can learn to adapt to unanticipated changes or delays.
  • Return to analog activities. Have students practice writing with paper and pen.
  • Draw or write salient points on the board, leaving a record of your activities.
  • Use pair shares or small groups to have students introduce themselves to each other and to the rest of the class.


This experience with our move and with Destiny’s adjustment reminds me not only of the hard work that our students do to adjust to new circumstances, but also the work that we must do as teachers to move from the imaginary classroom constructed in the syllabus to the reality of the desires and needs of the students with whom we share our new classroom community. We can learn a great deal from observing not only our students, but also ourselves. Even as Destiny continues to adjust to his new and unexpected circumstances day by day, we work toward transitioning to new space in our shared community that we hope will benefit all of us.

Jack Solomon

Building a Religion

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Jun 7, 2018

As I head into the summer recess for my Bits blogs, I find myself contemplating the cultural significance of the rise and apparent fall of Theranos, the troubled biotech startup that was once heralded as a disruptive force that would revolutionize the blood testing industry, and, not so incidentally, produce a new generation of high-tech entrepreneurs to rank with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. On the face of it, of course, this would not appear to be a topic for popular cultural analysis, but bear with me for a moment, for when it comes to the new technologies, everything relates in some way or another to the manifold currents of everyday life that popular culture expresses.


What has drawn my attention to Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos saga is the publication of a book by the Wall Street Journal writer who first blew the whistle on the company in 2015: John Carreyrou's BAD BLOOD: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. A brief synopsis of that book appeared in Wired just as it was being released, and it was a single sentence in that synopsis that really got me thinking. It appears in Carreyrou's narrative at the point when things at Theranos were beginning to unravel and various high-ranking employees were abandoning ship. In the wake of such resignations, Elizabeth Holmes allegedly summoned every remaining employee to an all-hands-on-deck meeting to demand loyalty from them. But she didn't call it loyalty: according to Carreyrou "Holmes told the gathered employees that she was building a religion. If there were any among them who didn’t believe, they should leave."


Building a religion: Holmes was telling a truth that was deeper than she realized. For when we situate the story of Theranos in the larger system of post-industrial America, we can see that our entire culture has been building a religion around what Fredric Jameson has called America's postmodern mode of production. On the face of it, the object of worship in this system is technology itself, which is viewed as a kind of all-purpose savior that will solve all of our problems if we are just patient enough. Steven Pinker's new book, Enlightenment Now, makes this point explicitly, but it is implicit every time some new tech startup promises to "fix" higher education, clean up all the trash in the ocean, and use architecture to save the natural environment (see, for example, Wade Graham's "Are We Greening Our Cities, or Just Greenwashing Them?", which provides both a survey and a critique of the eco-city movement: you can find it in the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the USA). The religion of technology also produces its own demi-gods, like Elon Musk, who can announce yet another delay (or change of plans) in his money-losing product line and still see his Tesla stock rise due to the unwavering adoration of his flock.


Oddly enough, as I was writing the first draft of this blog I came across an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education that examines a related angle on this phenomenon. There, in a take-down of the "design thinking" movement (an ecstatic amalgamation of a Stanford University product design program and the Esalen Institute that promises to transform higher education into a factory for producing entrepreneurially inclined "change agents"), Lee Vinsel compares the whole thing, overtly, to a religious cult, acidly remarking that the movement "has many of the features of classic cult indoctrination, including intense emotional highs, a special lingo barely recognizable to outsiders, and a nigh-salvific sense of election" —concluding that "In the end, design thinking is not about design. It’s not about the liberal arts. It’s not about innovation in any meaningful sense. It’s certainly not about 'social innovation' if that means significant social change. It’s about commercialization. It’s about making education a superficial form of business training."


Thus, I think that Vinsel would agree with my contention that behind the religion of technology is something larger, older, and more universal. This is, quite simply, the religion of money worship. Minting instant billionaires and driving an ever-deeper wedge between a technology-fostered one percent and everyone else, the post-industrial economy dazzles most through the glitter of gold, which overcomes every other moral value, from Facebook's willingness to allow its platform to be exploited for the purposes of overt political manipulation to Theranos's performing a million blood tests with a technology so flawed that the tests have had to be invalidated, at who knows what cost to the patients (one should say, victims) involved.


And what does America do in response? It makes movies, like Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network, and John Carreyrou's own Bad Blood, a film said to be starring Jennifer Lawrence, and due out in 2019, thus turning social anomie into entertainment, and promising even more offerings on the altars of extreme affluence.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1761832 by kropekk_pl, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


In 1994, Anne Haas Dyson and Celia Genishi published a collection that made a big impression on me. The Need for Story: Cultural Diversity in Classroom and Community demonstrated how important stories are in helping us to understand the world and ourselves in it—a need that, they argued convincingly, is universal. At the time, I was very glad to see that the old traditional “modes of discourse” (argumentation, exposition, description, and narration) had been displaced in writing curricula, especially since they “bled” into each other constantly. Moreover, I thought then, and do even more so today, that narrative can play a part in all discourse, from memoirs to business reports. And I began tracking the use of narrative in discourses that had traditionally been thought of as outside the “academic” discourse taught in most writing classes, particularly those of African American, Latinx, and Native American traditions.


So I’ve been thinking about narrative, and the power of narrative, for a long time. But in the last 18 months or so, I’ve grown more and more concerned about the use of stories to spread misinformation, distortions, and even lies. In a 2009 Ted Talk, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pointed out “The Danger of a Single Story”—what happens when whole groups of rich, complex people are reduced to a single narrative. Adichie says that it’s fairly simple to create such a single story: just “show people as one thing and one thing only, over and over again, and that is what they will become.” Adichie notes that stories are enmeshed in structures of power, that how they are told, when they are told, how many are told are all dependent on power, and “the ultimate power is to tell the story of another person—but to make it THE definitive story of that person.” And I would add “of that people” or “of that culture.”


Such stories surround us today: “immigrants are rapists and animals”; “guns don’t kill people”; “climate change is a hoax.” You can fill in the blanks with dozens of other stories that are repeated with stunning and mind-numbing regularity, even though they are demonstrably untrue.


So when I had the amazing opportunity to address the Rhetoric Society of America on its 50th anniversary last week in Minneapolis, I spoke of the need to examine and challenge narratives and stories that crush dreams, choke freedoms, and leave people voiceless and instead to pursue what I am calling narrative justice, because it occurs to me that our efforts to achieve social justice cannot advance when people are trapped, silenced, and demeaned by stories that simply will never allow for it.


I believe that teachers of writing are in a perfect position to foster the work of narrative justice, first by guiding students in identifying and understanding dangerous “single stories,” then analyzing and critiquing them. And we can go the next step as well, guiding students in creating alternative narratives that do justice to the truths of lived experience and that reflect their deepest values, their best sense of self, their vision of a just society. That’s a tall order for sure, but it’s also one that writing teachers are already working to fill. In this time which some call “post-truth” and others “a tower of lies,” doing so is our privilege and our responsibility.


I’m hoping to make my talk available on the web soon, for anyone interested.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1245690 by Free-Photos, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Donna Winchell

Selling Lies

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Jun 1, 2018

Cato is generally credited with defining an orator as a good man skilled in speaking. A successful speech, by classical standards, was based on reason but was also strengthened by the knowledge that the person speaking was moral. As I write that, it amazes and depresses me that I have to use past tense and include the qualifying prepositional phrase. There was—and, yes, still is—an art to presenting oneself in such a way as to be trusted and believed. The term sophist was used in Cato’s time for a teacher of rhetoric in general, but eventually came to be associated with a man who presented what seemed to be a logical argument but was actually fallacious or specious. Thus the derogatory term sophistry


Donald Trump has long used the term fake news for much of the negative press that he receives. In doing so, he provides an interesting twist on rhetorical strategies used to present one’s self as an ethical speaker. A comment that he made to Lesley Stahl in passing when she interviewed him during the 2016 presidential campaign has attracted attention lately because of what it reveals about his alternative rhetorical strategy. Speaking to fellow journalists recently, Stahl reported that she asked Trump about his constant attacks on journalists. She told him, “You know, that is getting tired. Why are you doing this? You’re doing it over and over. It’s boring, and it’s time to end that.” His response: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”


We’ve long since passed the point where news was simply news. If news was as objective as it should be, it wouldn’t matter if we got it from Fox or CNN, but we all know how much it does matter. The line between news reporting and commentary on the news has become so blurred that it doesn’t even exist anymore. And we are all aware how easily news reports can be slanted based simply on what is included and what is left out. Even our entertainment reflects this understanding. The Newsroom was a television show that ran 2012-14. One viewer explained its premise in this way: “A news team attempts to create a news show that reports the news in an ethical and reasonable way. They take real, newsworthy events from our world as they're happening (such as bin Laden's justified killing, NSA spying, etc) and report on them as if they were an actual news station that followed rational and moral guidelines, in a biting criticism of our popular press and a clever blurring of art and reality.” Unfortunately, the reality of how news is handled these days comes closer to what happens in the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, summarized in this way by a viewer: “After being caught in a scandalous situation days before the election, the president does not seem to have much of a chance of being re-elected. One of his advisers contacts a top Hollywood producer in order to manufacture a war in Albania that the president can heroically end, all through mass media.”


News as manufactured truth is not news. More importantly, it’s not truth. There have always been sophists. What we need now is a term for those willing to accept manufactured truth. 


Image Source: “truth” by Jason Eppink on Flickr 10/4/05 via Creative Commons 2.0 license