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2018

[This post originally published May 23, 2011.]

 

This time of year, thoughts often turn to summer book lists. The International Writing Centers Association discussion list includes a query and recommendations for summer reading. The University California at Berkeley publishes a summer reading list with archives dating back to 1985; while intended for incoming first-year students, teachers will find many titles here that invite participation in the three Rs of summer: reading, reflection, and renewal.

 

My own summer reading list overlaps with my summer writing, which includes the revision of  Teaching Developmental Writing: Background Readings for a fourth edition. As I revise, I want to consider more of the historical context out of which basic writing and open admission college education emerged for poor and working people in New York City and other urban locations. So my reading list includes Mina Shaughnessy’s essays and Manning Marable’s new book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

 

As a child born and raised in the American Midwest who now lives in one of New York City’s five boroughs, I am intrigued by the journeys of other Midwesterners to New York. Mina Shaughnessy (1924–1978: Lead, South Dakota; Evanston, Illinois) and Malcolm X (1925–1965: Omaha, Nebraska; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Lansing, Michigan) both took this journey, although their roots were quite different. Shaughnessy studied theater at Northwestern University and acted in summer stock productions. Malcolm X dropped out of school after eighth grade, moved from Lansing to Boston, and became absorbed in reading and writing while incarcerated in a Massachusetts prison.

 

Because Manning Marable’s biography is a cultural history, I look forward to learning more about this earlier generation and the world into which I was born. Like my parents and many of my teachers in K–12 public schools, Mina Shaughnessy and Malcolm X grew up in the catastrophic years of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and came of age in the midst of the tumult of World War II in the 1940s.

 

In 1965, I was a small child living in a segregated suburban Chicago, and I do not remember Malcolm X’s was assassination in New York City. I first read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, cowritten with Alex Haley, several years after I finished my BA. My copy of the book was old, and the yellowed pages often fell out of the binding as I read. That first reading left me confused, intrigued, and hungry for more. Although it was never assigned in any of my classes in undergraduate or graduate school, I have many times since reread and taught the Autobiography.

 

Similarly, I did not learn about Mina Shaughnessy’s work until I began my MA program in English in the mid-1980s, not quite a decade after Shaughnessy’s death from cancer. Yet in becoming a writer and in teaching writing, I recognized the struggles and potential transformations described in Errors and Expectations, and in Shaughnessy’s essays, and I felt a strong attraction to basic writing and to urban open admissions education.

So my summer reading focuses on political, historical, and cultural contexts that helped shaped basic writing and urban open admissions programs for poor and work-class college students. With these plans, I look forward to a summer of passionate engagement with reading and writing—and perhaps a time or two at the beach.

 

What will you do for the three Rs of summer? What are your plans for reading, reflection, and renewal? Where do you hope your reading will take you? And what will you do once you get there?

[This post originally published on November 13, 2012.]

 

One of my all-time favorite assignments is to ask students to create a time capsule focusing on their writing and themselves as writers. I’m not sure if it’s because of my obsession with archives, my love for scrapbooking, or my fascination with the things that go into writing a text that draws me to the activity. Whatever it is, the assignment helps me learn more about how each student writes while at the same time encouraging students to reflect on their writing and how it changes.

 

To begin, I explain the basic assignment. The goal is for students to create time capsules for themselves as writers. The audience for the activity varies. I’ve asked students to create time capsules that they will open later in the term or at some point in the future. It can be interesting to do the assignment early in the term and then open the time capsules at the end of the term as part of their final project. I’ve also asked students to create time capsules at the end of a term as a way to reflect on the work that they have done during the course. With students’ permission, I’ve opened some of these time capsules at the beginning of the next course I teach as an overview.

 

I set up the assignment as early in the term as reasonable. If I wait too late, students may well have discarded artifacts that they would like to include. Most students will understand what a time capsule is, but to be sure, I always kick off the activity with some background. Now that Apple has a back-up solution called Time Capsule, it is crucial to make sure everyone understands what we’re talking about. Wikipedia has a Time Capsule entry, which I use as a basic explanation. I play this YouTube video of the Westinghouse Time Capsule, buried in 1939 and to be opened in the year 6939, to provide a concrete example:

 

 

I also share some news articles on time capsules, like these:

 

The assignment I ask students to complete is not as complex as the time capsules in the news and video nor do students wait as long to open them, but these examples are a good way to review the characteristics important to time capsules. If I have time capsules from a previous course to share, I open them at this point too.

After exploring the examples, we create a class list of characteristics. I like to make sure students understand these details about time capsules:

  • The goal is to show someone in the future what life was like when the time capsule was assembled.
  • It’s not meant to showcase buried treasure or priceless artifacts. Money and artifacts can be included, but they normally are not remarkable treasures at the time when the time capsule is assembled.
  • The items in a time capsule should be long-lasting. They need to survive a long time without decaying in some way.
  • The items also need to be things that will not damage one another and/or they need to be specially packaged so they won’t damage one another.
  • The time capsule can include items that predict what life will be like when the capsule is opened, like letters to a future self or messages to future generations.

 

I ask students to brainstorm a list of the items in time capsules as well, so that they have a working list of the kinds of artifacts they will gather for their own time capsules. I also review the documentation included with the Westinghouse Time Capsule, and ask students to include similar explanations and reflections with their time capsules.

Beyond these instructions, I like to leave the specifics up to the individual students. They can choose the kind of container and what goes into it. They can include digital artifacts as well as analog materials. I prefer not to dictate requirements like the number of items or the kinds of things to be included. This assignment is very personal, and I want students to reflect on themselves as writers. If I provide a checklist of what to include, the assignment won’t do what I want it to. The only specific item I require is some explanatory, reflective pieces that help identify the items and their importance.

 

Opening these time capsules is always informative. I learn so much about students every time I use the assignment. It’s tempting too to think about what my own time capsule might look like, as a writer and teacher. If I were in the position to do so, I’d love to ask new graduate teaching assistants to gather time capsules after orientation that they will open at the end of the academic year as part of a final reflection on their teaching.

 

Do you have assignments that ask students to reflect on the writing they have done in the past? What artifacts do you save from your own writing and teaching? I’d love to hear from you. Just leave me a comment below!

Nancy Sommers

Coming to Teaching

Posted by Nancy Sommers Expert Jul 25, 2018

[This was originally posted February 1, 2011.]

 

Recently I was asked by a group of new writing teachers to give them one single piece of advice about teaching. As I tried to compose myself—just one?—and sifted through the various mantras that seemed possible, I offered up the following: Become a teacher who sees learning through the eyes of students.

 

I walked into my first classroom some decades ago with equal parts of enthusiasm and terror. I was just a few years older than my students and barely a step or two ahead. To prepare for class, I had spent hours with a mimeograph machine, staining my hands purple, obsessively duplicating a stack of handouts to fill a seventy-five-minute slot, lest my students found me wanting. What strikes me now about those early years of teaching is that all my new-teacher anxieties were focused on my own performance. I never considered adjusting classroom lessons to students’ rhythms and silences, as they practiced the unfamiliar moves of academic writing.

 

A few years ago, I started yoga classes, seeking to learn something new but also to see learning from the back of the room, from the perspective of a student who doesn’t know how to contort her body into a downward facing dog. I wanted to understand the experiences of students who don’t yet know how to write English sentences or paragraphs or who don’t understand the common language of academic writing. And I wanted to take a page or two of teaching methods from inspiring teachers who could help me reach my own students in the back of the room.

 

Along the way, I discovered a passion for yoga. At first I was a baffled and frustrated student who looked sideways to copy the postures of others and was clueless when teachers uttered words, especially in Sanskrit, that everyone but me seemed to understand. But I was also fortunate to find compassionate and generous teachers who didn’t bark commands—“Do downward facing dog”—but rather anticipated what was required for students to assume such a posture and devised a progression of small moves and sequences to help us learn the pose. These teachers appreciated the difficulties of being a novice and encouraged students to be patient—to learn by experimenting, approximating, and practicing.

 

These days I try not to bark commands to my students—“Cite your sources” or “Write clear sentences”—but to respect the challenges they face as novice academic writers. I ask: What do students need to know to cite sources or write clear sentences? And how can a writing assignment be broken down into a series of small steps and sequences to give students sufficient practice with individual skills, one lesson at a time, with opportunities to approximate the skills as they practice them? With so much newness in the classroom, we want students—those who sit in the front as well as those in the back—to learn from one another, especially to understand that learning takes practice, yes, but that it’s also a habit of mind, that each lesson is worth learning to become good college writers.

 

And teaching is so much more fun without purple-stained hands or a mimeographed stack of handouts. I’ve learned to love the silences in a classroom, even to listen for them, as they guide me—patiently and compassionately—to see learning through the eyes of students.

 

Whether you’ve been teaching one year, thirty-one years, or longer, please join the conversation. What one brief piece of advice would you offer new writing teachers? Or what advice was offered to you as a new teacher that you want to pass forward?

 

Share your suggestions, thoughts, or teaching stories in the comments!

Barbara Wallraff

Thinking Ahead

Posted by Barbara Wallraff Expert Jul 25, 2018

 

We’re told that people who hope to have fulfilling careers now and in the coming decades must be adaptable. That’s because technologies such as the internet and artificial intelligence are changing the kinds of jobs for which college is intended to prepare students and the skills they’ll need to do a given job well.


Consider your own job: You probably use a course management system, though such things barely existed 20 years ago. No doubt you’re also familiar with Wikipedia, Twitter, digital textbooks, blogs, Prezi, plagiarism detection systems, hyperlinking, and so on. Technology keeps shaking things up, and technologists warn that the pace of change can only increase.


Rapid change is expected in part because artificial intelligence has become capable of doing many things—identifying individuals in photos, driving and parking a car, and learning from experience, for instance—that once were the exclusive province of people. AI continues to encroach on, or assist with, many increasingly highly skilled kinds of work. So students must be prepared to have all kinds of innovations thrown at them throughout their careers. They will need to view change as a constant.


And then there’s “correct English,” which changes at a glacial pace. The fundamental structures of English change hardly at all. New nouns and verbs and adjectives may be coined every day, but they’re still nouns and verbs and adjectives, doing the jobs they’ve always done. New prepositions and conjunctions, however, scarcely ever enter English—these are considered “closed” classes of words. Pronouns, too, had long been considered a closed class, though new gender-neutral forms like “ze,” “nem,” “vis,” and the singular “they” are vying with one another to join the mainstream. Even a “glacial pace” of change is speeding up, figuratively as well as literally.


Of course, it’s a good thing to be conversant with the norms of traditional prose, because these makes centuries’ worth of writing accessible. We can, for example, read and enjoy Shakespeare. But contemporary literature is ever more inclusive, celebrating ever more registers of English. A few of many possible examples would be the fiction of Jesmyn Ward and Jhumpa Lahiri, and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize.


On the nonfiction side, traditional norms allow us to admire, for example, Charles Darwin’s insights in On the Origin of Species—even as we might wish he’d been able to write it in blog form and post videos of species as he came across them on his travels. (The first edition of Origin had just one illustration, a simple branching diagram.)


The norms of scholarly writing by now have diverged far from those for literature—journal articles, for instance, intentionally rely on the passive voice and colorless, if precise, terminology. Further, the vocabularies of scholarly and technical literature are expanding as rapidly as the fields of research: nanotechnology, mesosociology, biomedical engineering, artificial neural networks, and so on. Most of the world’s scientists and engineers and so on write in English—but often it’s not an English that people outside a small circle can understand.


Even the range of genres available to us has broadened, largely thanks to the technology of the internet. Online, multimodal compositions are coming to be the norm, with text paired with photos, videos, interactive graphics, and so on.


I doubt we can even guess how advances in technology will change our language in the near future and how we use it. Will “it’s” get folded into the spelling “its” because software has trouble distinguishing when to use each form, or will the software catch up with educated human understanding? Will the preferred pronunciations of words become the ones that Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant recognize most readily? Will grammatically correct phrases that a grammar checker underlines come to be considered incorrect?


But those are just fine points. Taking a longer and wider view, I remember a U.K. ESL specialist explaining to me almost 20 years ago that speech to text automation was coming along, automated translation software was coming along, text to speech was coming along too—and pretty soon the three processes were likely to become one sequence and we’d be able to converse with almost anyone, each of us in our preferred language. That ability is now tantalizingly close. Once simultaneous translation becomes widely available, it’s bound to shake many things up. And that’s only an example of the kinds of technologies on the horizon that have the potential to profoundly affect our lives, our work, and our use of language.


What does all this suggest for the present and future of English comp? To me, it suggests that students need to know that there’s no one correct way of writing anymore, if there ever was one. Certainly, there are better and worse ways—better and worse registers and tones—in different genres, for different audiences.


Would your students benefit from an assignment like the following? Let’s imagine a surprising archaeological find was recently made near your campus. They might write it up in three to five different genres—maybe as a tweet; as if they had taken part in or watched the dig and are telling a friend about it; as a brief local news story; as a report for an archaeology wiki or blog; and as an academic paper based on firsthand sources or the outline for such a paper.
An assignment like this may not do much to get your students ready for changes to the language and technology yet to come. But this one might help them better understand how diverse is the range of registers and media and genres already available to them—and how adaptable they will probably need to be in their writing.

 

Do you have questions about language or grammar, or are there topics you would like me to address? If so, please email me at bwallraff@mac.com or comment below!

 

Image Credit:  Pixabay Image 2228610 by Seanbatty, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

[This was originally posted October 2, 2015.]

 

When I share stories of my experience teaching in a WID-based curriculum, I’m often asked: So what exactly do you teach in a WID curriculum?

 

There are all kinds of ways to answer this question, of course. I could emphasize the rhetorical principles I teach, the writing process, the evaluation of source materials, or any number of other important concepts and skills. I’ve learned, though, that what people really want is to learn more about the kinds of major writing projects I assign.

 

Considering my course with such a question in mind, it occurs to me that I tend to organize my WID-based FYC course around two general categories of writing practice: rhetorical analysis projects and disciplinary genre projects.

 

Rhetorical analysis projects take a number of forms, but they all serve the purpose of providing opportunities for students to analyze and reflect on the ways academic communities, among others, construct texts.

 

When we explore writing in the natural sciences, for instance, one of my projects (Translating a Scientific Article for a Scholarly Audience ) asks students to translate a scientific article intended for a scholarly audience into a genre aimed at a more popular audience, like a press release or a news article for a science magazine. The act of translating information into the popular genre causes students to notice numerous conventional or distinctive features of scientific writing; it further allows students to consider the appropriateness of those features when communicating the same information for a different audience. In more traditional rhetorical analyses, students are asked to identify and describe the rhetorical features of one or more academic texts.  As part of their descriptions in my assignment, I push students to explain why they believe the writers of a text made the rhetorical decisions they did.

 

Rhetorical analysis assignments like these provide opportunities for students to consider “the how question”  — How is the text constructed? — but they can also cause students to consider more deeply “the why question” — Why is the text constructed as it is? Assignments that support students as they develop an understanding of how and why texts are constructed as they are, regardless of the intended audience, rely on the kinds of transferable analytical skills we want students to practice any time they encounter a new discourse community, in college and beyond.

 

Disciplinary genre projects are those in which students have opportunities to practice the forms of inquiry and writing that are often specific to particular academic communities. These reflect the kinds of assignments students are likely to encounter as part of the undergraduate experience.  The chart below provides a sampling of genres students might produce in a WID-based FYC course:

 

Discipline

Some Possible Genres

Humanities

Interpretation of Artistic Text

 

Review of Work of Art

Social Sciences

Literature Review

 

Social Science Theory Application

 

(Auto)ethnography

Natural Sciences

Formal Observation Report

 

Research Proposal

 

Annotated Bibliography

Applied Fields

Business Letter (Business), Legal Brief (Law), Discharge Instructions (Nursing)

 

Although I’ve described two kinds of writing assignments, the point really should be that these are complementary endeavors. Practicing disciplinary genres gives students needed experience in discipline-specific inquiry, and analyzing the rhetoric of a discipline helps students understand how that research is translated to a specific audience.

 

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

[This post originally published on February 1, 2013.]

 

In teaching argument, we tend to want to cover all the bases. We want to introduce our students to classical rhetoric, but we don’t want to leave out Toulmin or Rogers. Stasis theory is an expansion of Toulmin, offering five types of claims instead of three, and some authors introduce the rhetorical situation as an approach different from the classical modes of appeal.

 

Instead of teaching our students these theories as separate approaches to argumentation, we might give them a clearer understanding of how to read and write arguments if we showed them how the theories can be viewed as overlays upon each other.

 

Take classical rhetoric and the Toulmin model. I see a number of current texts teaching them as separate entities. If we teach the communication triangle of writer, audience, and subject that goes back to Aristotle, I like James Moffett’s idea of focusing on the legs of the triangle. The writer-audience leg represents the rhetorical relationship. The writer-subject leg represents the referential relationship. I don’t recall that Moffett gave a name to the third leg, the audience-subject relationship, but I have started to see that those three legs or relationships in the context of the Toulmin model.

 

This is an oversimplification, but the claim can be viewed as what the writer says about the subject, and thus the claim can be identified most directly with the writer-subject leg of the triangle. Support is the evidence the writer provides to an audience about the subject to prove the claim, or the writer-audience leg. Warrants—that concept so hard to teach our students—are assumptions about the subject that underlie the argumentation, and the audience-subject leg of the triangle. We write arguments hoping to change an audience’s thinking on a subject, but the more essential underlying assumptions or warrants are to preserving that audience’s world view, the harder it is to persuade him or her. That’s where Rogers’s theories can be useful in at least attempting to find common ground.

 

Difficult as warrants are, verbalizing them can help clarify why common ground is often so hard to find. Consider this warrant regarding gun control: Arming good people is the best defense against bad people with guns. Or this one: Arming the citizenry is crucial to avoiding the rise of tyranny. Audience members whose beliefs are grounded in the first of these assumptions are not going to be moved by the argument that reducing the number of assault weapons owned by Americans will reduce the number of homicides. The second blocks acceptance of any move by the government to curb gun violence because any such move will be seen as evidence of the very tyranny these people fear.

 

Each theory of argumentation gives students a vocabulary for discussing what they read and what they write. Too many different vocabularies can be overwhelming unless we show them how the theories work together to lend insight into how an argument works.

[This post originally published on February 28, 2012.]

 

Teaching history with comics is becoming increasingly common—the graphic novel’s richly illustrated form accommodates many important genres for traditional historians, including memoirs (such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home), government documents (such as The 9/11 Report and Report of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy), and journalistic reporting in war zones (such as Joe Sacco’s Palestine or Safe Area GoraĹžde).

 

In my own course for first-year students, Media Seductions: Influence Theory from Plato to Battlefield 2, I use Cold War-era comics as a way to understand the larger history of moral panics about new media. Specifically, I want students to think about how new knowledge systems such as clinical psychology became recognized as academic disciplines in the twentieth century and how psychologists began to be considered authorities on the societal risks of media such as comics, television programs, and video games.

 

In a unit about gory and macabre horror comics of the 1950s, students focus on how visual representations put specific assumptions about conformity, delinquency, violence, sexual deviance, imitation, and representation on display. Mangled bodies, decaying corpses, and bloody internal organs grace almost every lurid page. And there is certainly plenty to shock contemporary sensibilities when it comes to picturing race, gender, sexuality, ability, and class, although politically subversive sentiments that support other kinds of stories are often depicted in these comics as well. (The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read by Jim Trombetta is a good anthology of horror comics, as is Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s by Greg Sadowski and John Benson.)

 

In an exercise in historical empathy, the prompt for the related writing assignment reads as follows:

 

In this assignment you will travel back in time to 1954 and write a letter to the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to discuss the merits of a particular comic book story. Rather than make a broad argument against censorship, you are expected to defend your story by emphasizing the sophistication and the subtleties of your comic book’s visual and verbal logic.

Students might choose a moral fable about the sexual power of women like Susan and the Devil, a parable about the relationship between government and the labor force like Corpses . . . Coast to Coast, a perverse tale about domesticity and hospitality like The Corpse That Came to Dinner, a parody of the twisted value systems of the art world like Art for Death’s Sake, a psychedelic exploration of visual cognition like Colorama, or stories about contemporary domestic violence or child neglect like The Strange Case of Henpecked Harry or Chef’s Delight.

 

With a little online research, students can find the text of the testimony before the Senate Subcommittee of both notorious EC comics publisher William Gaines and the psychologist and anti-comics crusader Fredric Wertham. Exposés about the dangers of comic books from television specials and glossy magazines give further opportunities to explore the verbal and visual rhetoric of discourses about parenting from the 1950s.

 

Students more accustomed to citing textual quotations than visual details as evidence to support an argument may find this a challenging assignment. To help with close reading skills, the syllabus also includes Scott McCloud’s classic Understanding Comics so students can work with specific features and techniques of the genre that enhance the characters’ psychology, the structure of the narrative, the reader’s experience of the time of the story, or the depiction of the world of the comic book as a spatial environment.

[This post originally published on February 17, 2011.]

 

Beth McGregor came to college from a Midwestern town where she attended a fairly small public school: AP classes were a rarity, and she couldn’t remember writing anything longer than four pages in high school.  Then quite suddenly she was on the west coast, at Stanford, taking  four courses that demanded a lot of reading and writing.  Every week; often every day.

 

In David Bartholomae’s telling phrase, Beth needed to “invent the university” for herself.  That is, she needed to learn its conventions and customs, its ways of engaging with ideas and texts. As she put it, she needed to figure out how to become a “smart Stanford student.” I learned about Beth’s progress first during interviews during her first year of college (she was participating in Stanford’s longitudinal study of writing) and then when we did a directed reading course together on “writing as performance.”  A stand-up comic, Beth was used to performing, but she had never thought of writing as performative. As we worked together, Beth reflected a lot on her first year at college, eventually writing a one-woman performance to demonstrate part of what it meant to her to “invent the university.”

 

We videotaped Beth’s performance:

 

She stands at a writing desk, her first college assignment in front of her. Flanking her on either side are two friends who are playing her demonic internal editors. As she begins to write the opening sentence of her essay, one of the “editors” silences her, telling her to move that sentence down to the middle of the essay. The other says she’s never going to get it right. This attempt to write the first sentence goes on for several painful (and hilarious) minutes, until Beth bows her head and says “That’s it. I can’t do it. I can’t write this essay.”

 

I remember thinking how often I had felt just that way as a student, not just in my first year but later on, in graduate school and beyond:  “I just can’t write it.” But Beth doesn’t give up. Instead, she decides to put on the trappings of the “smart student,” glasses perched on her  nose, a cup of tea at hand, her hair twisted into a bun. Then she gives herself a pep talk: “So now, Miss Elizabeth,” she intones, “let’s write that first sentence.” The result is so convoluted that she later looked back on with great amusement. But as she said, the important thing was to write it, to get past her fears and try to sound like the “smart student.” Beth did what most of us do—she tried to imitate what she thought academic writing should sound like. She didn’t get it right at first, but she was on her way to inventing the university and to becoming a confident college writer.

 

I think of Beth often because I hope that the classes I teach and the books I write help students imagine themselves as writers and as “smart” students.  I hope that they help students invent the university for themselves. Of course, some would say that it’s the other way around—that the university is really inventing, shaping, and manipulating students, making them into its own image. There’s plenty of truth to that statement: we’re not called “professors” for nothing.  But I think most teachers of writing want to turn out not little replicas of ourselves or students who think and read and write just as we do, but rather students who shape us as much as we shape them.

Written with guest blogger Steve Cormany.

 

For this month’s post, I have asked my life partner, Steve Cormany, a writer and retired writing teacher, for an oral history of his first published piece of writing. His first publication was written under personally traumatic and historically tragic circumstances in 1970, one day after the Ohio National Guard killed four students at Kent State University, where Steve was a nineteen-year-old first-year college student.

 

In our home, as in many others, we are following the devastating developments at the US border with Mexico. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is arresting adults who are legally seeking asylum in the US. ICE has separated the adults from their children, and both children and their parents are incarcerated as they await immigration hearings. Steve and I wonder together what we can do, and what role writing might play.

 

In the course of our discussions, I invited Steve to tell me about what writing meant to him after the Kent State killings. We hoped that revisiting this event through writing would provide historical context for teachers and students to address current events, and the trauma invoked in our deeply embodied experiences.

 

To help Steve shape his response, I asked him to revisit the details of his writing process. My thought was that focusing on the writing would allow him to concentrate on providing concrete description. Similarly, in the classroom, I often suggest that students pay attention to specific detail as a means to develop their writing. I posed four questions that could be applicable to framing oral histories, or any assignment that invites students to consider a significant piece of their own writing.  

 

  1. What did you write and where and when did you write it?
  2. Who asked you to write it?
  3. Why did they ask?
  4. What were the results? How did you and your audience respond?

 

While the questions are simple, they allow writers to practice 5Ws + H, a basic journalistic process for evoking details which, by addressing kairos - or context and circumstances - also can serve to invoke ethos and emotion.

 

Here is Steve’s story.

 

On May 4th, 1970, the Ohio National Guard killed four students at Kent State University in northeast Ohio. The students were killed at a campus protest against the Vietnam War. As a first-year student at Kent State, I was an eyewitness to the killings, and the next evening, I was asked to write a brief newspaper column about what I had experienced.

 

I had come home from Kent because the campus was closed, and I was trying to talk with my friends at home about what had happened. All of us thought that the killings were legally and morally wrong. We were expressing our thoughts in response to a local television show. The reporters on the show also were against what the Ohio National Guard had done. However, viewers in the Cleveland area had called into the show to say that more of the students should have been shot because the students were troublemakers.

 

One of my friends who attended a nearby small liberal arts college invited me to a meeting of the college newspaper’s staff about the Kent State killings. My friend took me to the newspaper office where that evening, May 5th, 1970, I wrote a column for the next day’s campus newspaper.

 

I was excited to do this. It was to be a short piece, about 300 words, and it needed to be written by the deadline. It took me an hour to compose, while my friend, a reporter for the newspaper, was anxious for me to finish because he needed to drive both of us back home. Despite having to wait longer than he wished, my friend was pleased with the results and the column was published the following day, on May 6th.

 

It felt really good to publish this writing, even euphoric, because it was my dream to become a writer, and the column was on something that was very serious. I had tried to offer a detailed narrative of what I had experienced. People that I spoke with afterward liked what I had written because it addressed an important subject. They said that the column was very direct and didn’t mince words.

 

I felt gratified by this feedback, but I had written about an ongoing catastrophe. I felt conflicted about whether or not I did a fair job of describing what happened. It was difficult to recount the events because I was still in shock.

 

If the writing changed anything, it was inside the writer. It gave me some confidence in myself and confidence to write. Many years afterward, I earned a PhD in twentieth-century American literature, and I taught college classes in first-year writing and literature for twenty-five years. In the wake of my own horrific first-year experience, it is important for me to give back to others. That is why I agreed to tell this story, although it has not been easy.

Guest blogger Steve Cormany with life partner Susan Naomi Bernstein and their cat Destiny.