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Donna Winchell

The Year in Review

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Dec 21, 2018

Each year sees headlines that capture a wide range of political controversies and shape national discourse. The year drawing to a close, though, has been a banner year for controversy in a nation more divided than it has been in a long time. I have noted before that “the news” on television, radio, and the Internet is largely not the objective reporting expected in the past, but biased commentary on events. It may not be a great time to be an American, but it seems to be a great time to study argument in today’s headlines – or it would, were it not for the fact that some positions are so extreme they provide better examples of poor reasoning than of argumentative discourse. Robert Mueller and his team may be drafting the most compelling arguments here at year’s end, but they are too heavily redacted to read and analyze.


In a year of controversy, here are a few of the many questions that have shaped public discourse:


  • Is the Electoral College outdated in modern America?
  • How do we eliminate party politics as the basis for selecting Supreme Court justices?
  • How do we respect the victims of the #MeToo movement without condemning those falsely accused?
  • What should our nation’s response be to the murder in a foreign country of a journalist working for an American newspaper?
  • What are the dangers when members of the press are viewed as enemies of the state?
  • Is a tweet a formal statement of public policy?
  • Should the proposed wall on our southern border be built?
  • What is the alternative to separating children from their parents at our border with Mexico?
  • Are immigrants guilty of more crimes than other Americans? Are illegal immigrants?
  • Can a sitting president be indicted for a crime?
  • What changes are needed in the Affordable Care Act?
  • What can be done to make our elections fairer?
  • What restrictions, if any, should there be on gun ownership?
  • What should be done about foreign interference in US elections?


These are large questions. Some of them do not have clear cut answers. They are all argumentative, even those that can be answered yes or no. They won’t be answered this year, or maybe even next year. Some have been around for decades, if not centuries. They are the substance of argument, the type of argument that shapes and shakes our country every day. They are the types of questions that our students need to be able to tackle with more than emotion.


Photo Credit: “Concept of important day” by Marco Verch on Flickr, 12/11/18 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

Jack Solomon


Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Dec 20, 2018


One of the more interesting recent news items from the world of American popular culture has been the announcement that Netflix, rather than cancelling its streaming reruns of that Gen X TV blockbuster, Friends, on January 1, 2019 (as many viewers feared), has actually decided to up its payments for the rights to the series from $30 million to $100 million per year. The continuing popularity of this pop culture icon in an era decades later than the period in which it originated offers a particularly good topic for semiotic analysis, revealing how the same cultural sign can signal entirely different meanings when the context in which it appears changes.


When we look at those contexts, the striking thing about the early 1990s and the mid-twenty-teens is their similarity. For the early 1990s, too, was a time of reduced expectations in the wake of a searing recession. Though Millennials and iGens today may not be aware of it, Generation X too was identified as the first generation that expected to do more poorly in life than their parents. Theirs was the Grunge era, when youth culture, making the best of a bad situation, turned to a shabby-chic aesthetic, reviving the thrift-shop consumer ethos of the late 1960s and shrugging off the glitz and glam of the "go-for-the-gold" 1980s. The cast of Friends—in a thoroughly unrealistic evocation of the new spirit with their West Village digs—accordingly made personal relationships more important than material possessions, and thus became role models for a generation that felt left out of the American dream.


Sound familiar? After all, today's young, whether Millennials or iGens, are coming of age in the long shadow of the Great Recession, and so can find much in common with these six young adults whose portrayers are now, after all, the age of iGen parents. So with both Gen X nostalgia, and iGen relatability, on its side, it's no surprise that Friends should be worth $100 million to Netflix, as the streaming service maneuvers to survive in an era of intense competition.


But a little more research into the enduring popularity of Friends reveals something of a surprise, a difference upon which we can hang a semiotic interpretation. For it appears, according to an article in the New York Times, that for iGen viewers the appeal of Friends lies not in the personal relationships but in the thoroughly laid back lifestyles of the friends in question. This group of people prefers hanging out with each other at their favorite coffee house—and otherwise taking time out from their jobs—to the frantic pursuit for career success. It isn't that they don't have certain career aspirations, but they don't get all worked up about them. They'd rather fool around.


This reveals the dismal reality facing today’s youth – the worst of all possible worlds. At a time when the gateways to socio-economic prosperity and career satisfaction are either narrowing or slamming shut entirely (especially if technology isn't your thing), the cultural pressure is to achieve a big money, career success – to be the next Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. The Grunge era said, in effect, "if the opportunities aren't there, wealth isn't where it's at anyway: learning to live with less in the way of material prosperity by turning to your friends and lovers is the way to go"; while the Google era says, "if you can make it to the top, join the club, your TED talk invite is in the mail; otherwise, tough." No wonder at least some young fans of Friends feel nostalgia for an era they never experienced.


I think that there may be an added dimension, another difference, that accounts for the enduring popularity of Friends in a new era. For in that dim and distant time before smart phones, when these six friends wanted to get together, they really got together, in person, not via text, Facebook, Instagram, or whatever. Today, the smart phone is the center of social attention, and a continuing stream of news reports cite an accompanying teen despondency over an inability to socialize with others in person. Facebook has swamped face-to-face.


Thus, it is highly likely that younger fans today are responding to something that has been taken away from them. So here is a case where popular culture, which so often reflects the need for each generation to step out of the shadow of the previous, presents the spectacle of youthful nostalgia for what is effectively the world of their parents. Once a sign of Gen X adaption to tough times, Friends is now a signifier, paradoxically enough, of loss.


Photo Credit:  Pixabay Image 3774381 by mohamed_hassan, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


I hope that teachers of writing everywhere are finishing up their last grading of the term, seeing students off for the break, and enjoying some quiet, peaceful, loving holiday time. While we all have much cause for concern—and alarm—at the state of our country and our planet, while many are suffering from unspeakable loss and pain and grief, my hope is that this holiday season will provide at least some bit of respite and some time for repose and rejuvenation.


Just this week I’ve finished reading Michelle Obama’s remarkable memoir, Becoming, and reading her words has given me many moments of respite from the cares and woes of everyday life along with great inspiration. In case you haven’t read it yet, here is the final paragraph of this fabulous book:

In sharing my story, I hope to help create space for other stories and other voices, to widen the pathway for who belongs and why. I've been lucky enough to get to walk into stone castles, urban classrooms, and Iowa kitchens, just trying to be myself, just trying to connect. For every door that's been opened to me, I've tried to open my door to others. And here's what I have to say, finally: Let's invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. It's not about being perfect. It's not about where you get yourself in the end. There's power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there's grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.


I can’t think of better words, or better goals, to aim for in 2019. I’m wishing the grace Obama speaks of for all of you, along with good health and happy teaching in the coming year.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2953722 by rawpixel, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Lizbett Tinoco

Lizbett Tinoco (nominated by Dr. Kate Mangelsdorf) completed her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition in May 2018 from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). At UTEP, she was Assistant Director of the University Writing Center and taught a variety of courses, including First-Year Composition, Technical Writing, Professional Writing and Writing Program Administration. Her research interests focus on writing program administration, community colleges, writing centers, and multilingualism. She joined Texas A&M University-San Antonio as an Assistant Professor of English in the Fall of 2018.


One of the major assignments I teach in my technical writing course is a job market portfolio. The job market portfolio includes a rhetorical analysis of a job ad. Then, students create a tailored resume and cover letter for the specific job. In addition to these documents, I also want students to practice the rhetorical skills necessary for preparing and engaging in a job interview.


The job interview portion of the job market portfolio has taken on various iterations over the years I have taught this course. A few years ago, I had students schedule individual mock interview appointments with me. As you can image, these took up a lot of time! After trying this approach for one semester, I realized that my students and I, both, did not have enough time to schedule individual mock interviews. I did not simply want to get rid of this assignment because, today, more and more interviews are being conducted online through various video conferencing platforms. I wanted to make sure my students were prepared for the demands they might face when on the job market. The following semester, I was assigned an online technical writing course, so this made me rethink the job interview assignment.


Since the technical writing course I taught was online, I asked students to record their job interview responses using their cell phones or other devices they had available to them. I provided students with different groups of questions and asked them to provide a response to one question in every group. This version of the assignment went well, but in the reflection of the assignment, many students discussed feeling somewhat awkward recording themselves. A lot of them felt like the experience did not simulate a real one.


When I started my first tenure-track position at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, I learned I was going to teach technical writing. During my new faculty orientation, someone from the Mays Center for Experiential Learning & Community Engagement provided us with information about the services they offer to faculty and students. One of the resources our institution has access to is Big Interview. This online program gives students the opportunity to practice their interview skills. The program offers sets of questions based on different job industries, but instructors also have the ability to include their own set of questions. Students in my course really enjoyed that an interviewer asked them the questions, and then, they provided responses. Students felt this a more realistic experience.


One of the biggest issues my students had while using Big Interview was the accessibility of the program. Like many online programs, students had login issues and difficulty navigating the interface of the program. More significantly, students could not use the program on their cell phones. As I’m preparing to teach technical writing again next semester, I’m debating whether or not to use Big Interview. I keep asking myself the following questions: Will students have access to the technology they need to use this program? If students don’t have access, will they have the time to use computers available to them on campus?


As I continue to develop assignments, I need to make sure I am mindful about access to resources and technology that are necessary for my students to successfully complete assignments.


To view Liz’s assignment, visit Job Interview. To learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board, visit the Bedford New Scholars page on the Macmillan English Community.

Kim Haimes-KornToday’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.


Compositionists have always valued reflection. The collaborative collection, Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts for Writing Studies (2015), identifies reflection and metacognition as one of the important threshold concepts for teaching writing. Kara Taczak, in her threshold essay, defines the difference between cognition and metacognition. “Reflection is a mode of inquiry: a deliberate way of systematically recalling writing experiences to reframe the current writing situation. It allows writers to recognize what they are doing in that particular moment (cognition), as well as to consider why they made the rhetorical choices they did (metacognition)” (78). Writers experience the most effective learning when they shuttle back and forth between these concepts that ask the questions: What did I do? and Why did I do it?


It is especially important for multimodal composers to reflect upon their rhetorical choices because it involves non-linear and multidimensional thinking. “The need for metacognition assumes special importance when writers find themselves required to work in unfamiliar contexts or with forms with which they are unfamiliar” (Taczak 78). When students are immersed in multimodal writing projects, they are working on discreet tasks but reflection and metacognition asks them to take a step back and look at a range of skills and a body of work. It also encourages writers to realize the value of the work they have produced, build on prior knowledge and transfer skills to other contexts.


We often assign reflective assignments at the end of the term that ask students to review their work in our classes and articulate their learning through touching back on the writing and projects they have completed over the term. I use many kinds of reflective activities throughout my classes but I find these final course reflections the most rewarding (for both students and teachers) as they demonstrate learning and create conscious awareness.


In traditional classes, students can refer back to and cite specific examples from their work, including quotations. When I assign a final reflection in a multimodal classroom I ask them to crosslink (internally) to their work and create an interactive document in which the reader can immediately access their coursework by clicking through to the finished documents. I have students compose these reflections on their blogs but you can also use any type of electronic document (Word, Google Doc) that allows for hyperlinks.


Background Readings and Resources


Steps of the Assignment:

  1. Prompt students to review and annotate their work, noting areas of success and struggle along with rhetorical choices they made along the way.
  2. Ask them to reflect, in writing on these rhetorical choices and support their ideas with examples, references, and quotations from their texts over the course of the term.
  3. Crosslink to particular examples that support their ideas and allow readers to immediately access their work.
  4. Ask students to include visual representations (images and captions) that represent their experiences as writers in the class and demonstrate digital literacies and multimodal competencies.


Reflections on the Activity

Evaluating writing is one of the most difficult things we do as writing teachers. I find that these final reflections provide closure and give context to student work while revealing the processes and rhetorical choices students make along the way. I always hope that students take certain ideas and practices from my classes, and this assignment shows me that they have a conscious awareness and can identify these lessons for themselves. They give me a solid overview that is substantiated with artifacts generated as part of the experience.  



Work Cited:

Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth Wardle. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Utah State University Press, 2015.


I just returned from a meeting sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the subject of strengthening undergraduate education. Led by Pam Grossman, Dean of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Mike McPherson, former president of the Spencer Foundation, the meeting included scholars from many disciplines and universities as well as from foundations and other agencies. Topics ranged from how students learn best (active learning, evidence-based practices) to how to assess student learning, to methods for advancing “skillful teaching practices” and ways in which disciplinary organizations can support such practices.


At the opening session, speakers identified three major trends across colleges and universities and organizations: increased attention to teaching and professional development; increased attention to practitioner inquiry/teacher research; and a disconnect between research on teaching in K-12 settings and in higher education.


I came away encouraged about the field of rhetoric and writing: more than other disciplines, and often much more, our field exemplifies the first two trends and has answers to the questions the meeting leaders posed—along with a rich and now voluminous volume of research to support what we know. The intense efforts of teachers and researchers in our field over the last forty years have certainly paid off: in terms of questions of pedagogy especially, we are far ahead of other disciplines.


What I was most impressed with during this meeting, however, was the clear connection established between research and teaching. Anna Neumann from Teacher’s College reported on a study that followed forty university professors for five years following tenure, asking them how and where they pursued their ongoing scholarly learning: 66 percent reported that they did so through research, and 90 percent said that they did so through teaching. I was surprised by this finding because her study covered a number of fields—but it is exactly what I would have expected for the field of rhetoric and writing studies, though the 90 percent might have been closer to 95 percent!


Another study conducted at San Francisco State also caught my attention. This study was conducted as part of that university’s Metro College Success Program, which focuses on preparing teachers to practice what they call “social justice pedagogy,” which aims at truly inclusive practices, on presenting material through low-stakes practice and timely and relevant examples, and that recognizes that students who arrive “underprepared” do so not through some deficit in themselves but because a system characterized by conscious and unconscious biases doesn’t allow them to be “prepared.” The study attempted to measure the learning and pass rates of students in four different groups: a control group that received no intervention; a group that received supplemental instruction; a group that had small classes; and a group that had faculty trained in social justice pedagogy. The results: those in the control group had a 64.5 percent pass rate, which matched the average pass rate for the entire program. Those in the small group experienced a 69.2 percent rate, in the supplemental instruction group a 72.3 percent rate, and in the social justice pedagogy trained faculty group a 74.4 percent rate. Students who had all three advantages—small classes, supplementary material, and trained teachers—achieved an 88 percent rate.


Again, I am encouraged to know that many rhet/comp programs are already firmly grounded in research and that they work steadily for smaller classes, for excellent supplementary materials, and for ongoing professional development for those teaching in the program. But I also see many programs whose ability to embrace a social justice pedagogy is impeded by the dependence on more and more contingent and part-time faculty and brand new graduate students whose working conditions leave precious little time for training, much less for research. Nevertheless, the argument scholars in writing studies have been making for many decades now clearly holds true: the more research and teaching mutually inform one another and the more teaching faculty are engaged in research aimed at improving not what we teach but HOW we teach, the more likely the curriculum is built for student success. And that’s a goal all writing teachers embrace.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 918449 by Free-Photos, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Guest Blogger: Michelle Kaschak is an Assistant Teaching Professor of English at Penn State Lehigh Valley. She teaches IRW courses, first-year composition, and upper-level social science and technical writing courses


When I was child, I loved connect-the-dots books and worksheets. They helped me learn to see the big picture as I connected each line to the next number or letter.  As a writing teacher, I am always looking for ways for students to practice writing outside of the classroom or to help them “connect the dots” to help them understand that writing isn’t always at a desk or on a computer. That we can stretch our writing skills to other locales and other purposes.  


In this effort to change locales and make connections, I tried to find ways to utilize resources on our small campus. In my basic writing classes, I started using our campus art gallery to have students practice descriptive writing with a touch of art appreciation. 


I am fairly certain many of my students have not spent any length of time looking at or writing about art. Although we have a small campus and a small gallery, we do have rotating exhibits that offer everything from pen and ink drawings to large sculptures and photography. 


The class before we go to the gallery is a practice class. I had them look at a sculpture of a dancer and watch a short video of a ballet performance. We wrote down different words to describe both. They even had to stand up to pose like the sculpture, so they could write about the kinesthetic feeling of the movement. It ended up being quite fun.


For the next class in the art gallery, I had them do what I called an “Art Gallery Walk.”  I asked to look at three different pieces of art in the gallery and get them to write down as many adjectives as they can for each one. I urge them to think about how a word like small or weird could be rewritten to be more specific.    


Some of the adjectives they wrote down were life-like, chilling, weathered, prickly, jubilant, and even ethereal. It stretched their vocabulary skills, though some students were stronger at this than others. After writing their adjectives, they had to turn those descriptors into a short paragraph describing at least one of the pieces of art.   


A sample response from one student: 



“I believe this is a Cuban woman since cigars are big in Cuba and it still is. Cuba is very old fashioned and this woman shows that; she looks like she’s been out in the sun and is smoking a cigar. Cuba is a part of her and she is a part of Cuba.  I really enjoyed this piece and felt a connection to it.” 


What the students get from this exercise is the ability to think about word choice in writing. I try to guess which piece of art they wrote about by looking at their paragraph. If I cannot guess, they need to think about how they can be more specific and clear in describing it.


Overall, this lesson provides them with a concrete item to write about. It gets them in the gallery looking at and critiquing art. It’s not uncommon to hear, “I don’t like that.”  Or “This piece is weird.” But then they have to learn how to explain why. They learn to use their vocabulary skills to go beyond the typical words. That, to me, is the fun part of doing this assignment. 


In turn, I think the students learn to “connect the dots” between what they see, what they think and what they write. 


What are your strategies for helping students build vocabulary and “connect the dots”?

Wrong Way Street SignWhat happens when your plans for a term suddenly don’t work? How do you adjust? This fall, I’ve had to do some hard thinking about these questions.

If you follow this blog, you know that I disappeared in mid-October. On the evening of October 14, I fell, after tripping over a small baby gate that we use to separate the dogs when they are eating. I ended up taking an ambulance ride to the emergency room. After many x-rays, I was diagnosed with a severe hematoma and sprained knee. I was sent home with prescriptions for pain killers and instructions to use a walker for the foreseeable future.

That night, I didn’t think a knee injury would upend my teaching plans. I am teaching fully online, so I didn’t need to get to a classroom. I had everything for the week of October 14th already queued in Canvas (our LMS), so there was nothing to worry about. Wow, was I wrong!

When I attempted to get out of bed the next morning, I realized how badly injured I was. Just getting my leg off the bed was a major adventure. I had to loop a rolled sheet under my foot, like a stirrup, and then lift my leg onto the floor. I found that sitting at the computer for any length of time was impossible. Without my usual time at the computer, I couldn’t keep up with students, prepare materials for future classes, or grade their work.

Coping Strategies

  1. Let the department stakeholders know ASAP. Even though I didn’t need my department to do anything to help me, I wanted them to know what was going on in case students came to them with questions.
  2. Let students know next. If I were teaching in an on-campus classroom, students would have noticed immediately if I were to hobble into the classroom with a walker and a bandaged knew. My online students had no way to know. I not only told them what happened, but I also told them what kinds of delays to expect as a result.
  3. Look for shortcuts. I have a cache of daily posts that tie to various topics I teach, and I raided that collection for discussion and instructional ideas. I normally try to write several new things each week. With the injury, I had to take the shortcut of using what I already had.
  4. Get ahead on whatever you can. Since I could only sit at the computer for short sessions, I had to find a way to use that time effectively. I found that I could copy over one or two of those daily posts, revise lightly, and queue them to publish later during those short sessions. I was able to set up daily posts for a few weeks in advance this way.
  5. Change what you need to. After a few days of struggling to get work done, I knew that the original plan was not going to work. I reworked the course schedule so that I could drop a major writing assignment. I hated giving up the activity, but it was the right choice. Ultimately, the change gave me some extra time to grade and let students have more time to write their longer reports.
  6. Realize that it’s okay to lower your expectations for yourself. Probably the hardest task for me was recognizing that I simply couldn’t be the teacher I wanted to be this term. Last spring I used screencast feedback on students’ projects. They loved it, and I planned to use it again this fall. Unfortunately, that kind of feedback takes two or three times as long to produce, so I had to lower my goals and go back to a combination of annotations and end notes for feedback.

Fortunately, the term is nearly over, and I am doing much better. I can even sit at the computer for as long as I want to again! It’s been a challenging term, but I think I will make it through just fine. Perhaps more important, I gained a lot more sympathy for students who suffer major setbacks during the term. I certainly don’t want to fall again any time soon, but all in all I may have improved a bit as a teacher as a result this fall (pun intended).


Photo Credit: WRONG WAY by David Goehring on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

There are moments in our teaching lives that can feel epic, as much for what happens outside the classroom as inside. This semester was my first semester teaching in New York City after five years away, and it has often felt like a journey with a strong sense of purpose: non-linear, a quest or picaresque narrative, where kairos matters more than destination. Nonetheless, we have arrived at the end of the semester, and it is time for final reflections.


The reflection assignment for this term invites students to consider their first semester in college and their first college writing course as a journey. My hope is that this reflection will invite students to consider writing as a process that goes hand-in-hand with their self-discovery in their first semester.


Good journeys to all!


End-of-Semester Reflection

Consider your work in this writing course as a journey that began in August 2018 and that culminates in a significant destination in December 2018. As part of that journey, reflect on the significance of our theme: The Rhetorical Power of Stories. Your reflection should be 600-800 words and can be arranged in paragraph form. Select at least 3 (or more) of these questions to frame your reflection.


  1. What are some of the most important stories about this journey?
    • Beginning or end points?
    • Stopping places?
    • Places of celebration and/or frustration?
  2. Where does your WP 3 fit into this journey?
  3. What did you learn about the rhetorical power of stories from our course texts?
  4. What is your philosophy of writing?
    • What wisdom did you gain that you can call on in future writing experiences inside or outside of the classroom?
    • What awareness did you achieve about writing that you would like to share with others, including the professor and students just beginning the writing course?
  5. What do you want to add that isn’t included here?

Dustin LedfordToday’s guest blogger is Dustin Ledford, a graduate student at Kennesaw State University working toward a Master’s Degree in Professional Writing with a concentration in Composition and Rhetoric. He teaches First-Year Composition courses at KSU and also teaches diploma- and certificate-level composition at Georgia Northwestern Technical College. Dustin’s experience in the technical college system leads him to specialize in professional and workplace writing, which he incorporates in his course design to provide his students with experience writing for a variety of genres and audiences.  


How often have you asked students questions like “How does this sentence sound when you read it?” or “When you look at this image, what does the author want you to feel?” Chances are, if you’ve taught a class involving multimodal rhetoric, questions like these (or some variation thereof) have come up countless times during lecture, office hours, or even in assignment comments.


What do you do, though, if a student’s writing is too verbose or too fragmented, but the student is hard-of-hearing? How do you explain visual rhetoric if a student can’t see the image because of a visual impairment? Would you be able to cope, or would you be at a loss? How do you think the student might feel in that situation?

This is a challenge that I’ve faced many times as a composition instructor: I have worked not only with many hard-of-hearing students, but also with students facing cognitive disorders, learning disabilities, and visual impairments. Instead of just accommodating, best educational practices encourage us to build accessibility into courses from the ground up. So what does that look like?


For a practical example, I’d like to share a lesson and accompanying low stakes assignment discussing visual rhetoric. This assignment takes the idea of a relatively simple accessibility practice — writing alternate text attributes for images — and combining that practice with analyzing visual texts. Due to the nature of alternate text attributes, this exercise can also help students practice concise writing.


Background Readings and Resources


Assignment Learning Outcomes

  • Students will be able to identify and evaluate rhetorical elements of images.
  • Students will recognize the importance of alternative text in making their texts accessible.
  • Students will practice concise, descriptive writing through the genre of alt-texts.


Assignment Preparation

  1. Assemble (or locate) two short documents that are dependent on images to convey their full meaning. These text can be as simple or complex as desired, so long as students are given adequate time to read each document.
  2. Draft a short, simple quiz for each document (no more than five questions) that includes questions which cannot be answered without at least a basic understanding of the content of the document’s images. These can be simple questions (e.g. “According to the text, what’s an example of a fossil fuel?” when the example is only pictured rather than mentioned) or they can be more complicated questions involving simple charts or graphs.
  3. Remove all the images from one of the documents. (We’ll call this Document A.) Additionally, if any of these images have existing alt texts, be sure to remove (and save) them as well. Leave the spaces for the images, and number the spaces.
  4. Repeat this process with the second document (Document B), but be sure to keep the images grouped with the appropriate document (A’s images and B’s images).


Assignment Procedure

  1. Break the class into pairs. (We’ll call members of each team Students 1 and 2).
  2. Provide Student 1 with Document A, and provide Student 2 with the images. Be sure to tell them not to share either with their partner.
  3. Instruct Student 2 to write 5-15 word alt texts for each image they were given, then give the descriptions (but not the images) to their partner.
  4. Have Student 1 use Document A and Student 2’s alt texts to complete the quiz on his or her document.
  5. Have students repeat the process with Document B, but reverse their roles (the student who did not have the pictures writes the alt-text for the other student).
  6. Review the quizzes as a class (or provide an answer key) and have students score themselves. Afterwards, have them look over the images from their respective documents.
  7. Have each student revise the alt-texts they were given based on their experience taking the quiz.


Be sure to take some time with students afterward to discuss their experiences, particularly in terms of how images were important for conveying ideas and how the loss of that resource affected their ability to grasp the full meaning of the texts they read. Ask students to volunteer some of their alt-text descriptions and provide some of your own for comparison. Discuss what details took priority in each image and how having context changed their understanding of each image.


Reflection on the Activity

When I recently taught a student with a visual impairment, I became acutely aware of the difficulties students can face in our image-centric culture. Before we discussed visual rhetoric as a class, I contacted this student by email and asked if she would be comfortable sharing her own experiences with navigating her readings (and the Internet in general). This became a learning experience for my class (myself included) because it gave us insight into how difficult it can be to lose out on some of the intended meaning of writing when authors don’t take everyone’s needs into consideration.


Additionally, while I am still learning, this experience taught me to rethink some of my teaching methods and even the language I use to express certain ideas so that it is more inclusive to all the students with whom I work.


What strategies, activities, or assignments do you use to make your class accessible or teach accessibility?

Donna Winchell

When Reason Must Win

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Dec 7, 2018

In the recent powerful Paul Schrader film First Reformed, a young couple seek counseling from the minister of a tiny historic church in upstate New York, played by Ethan Hawke. The wife is expecting their first child, but the husband fears bringing a child into a world that climate change will make unfit for that child to grow up in. He has studied the science and knows the facts. The young mother-to-be is at his side in his environmental activism, but her heart tells her that she wants this child.


Emotion inevitably enters in to any decision to have a child or to abort one. Many couples would never abort a pregnancy even if the scientific facts indicate that the child cannot survive or will face ultimately insurmountable physical challenges. Some people—maybe most—who fully understand and accept the realities of climate change choose to reproduce in spite of what they know about the future of the world their children will grow up in. Until I started researching the most recent edition of Elements of Argument, I had not read any articles by those who have chosen not to start a family. I have read about climate change about as much as the average citizen, but I had never really thought about my sons’ generation having to confront the question of whether to have children or not because of the direction the world is headed.


Are there situations where reason has to win out over emotion? We have seen emotion overcome reason in the anti-vax movement. And we have seen the consequential outbreaks of illnesses: one Ohio school just announced that it can no longer allow religious exemptions for vaccinations. A headline in North Carolina reads, “School with high rate of vaccine exemptions faces state’s biggest chickenpox outbreak in over 20 years.” At that school, out of 152 students, 110 have never gotten the chickenpox vaccine.


It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the changing climate’s effect on our world, and it is difficult to imagine climate change’s future consequences. The world’s leaders, for the most part, seem to understand that climate change is real and to accept that attempts to lessen its impact must cross national boundaries and party lines. The Paris Accord is their attempt to address their concerns globally. Responsibility applies to individuals as well as world leaders, though. And, when the future of the world is at stake, reason must win over emotion or politics.



Photo Credit: “Beaufort Sea coastline” by ShoreZone on Flickr, 8/4/12 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

As I've noted before, I once participated in an online forum where the participants quarreled a lot. One of the things they griped about was the way that some members "padded" their post count with lots of very brief entries intended to run up their score. Their goal—due to the fact that every forum member was ranked individually against the entire membership—was to make it to the top of the heap.


I thought the whole thing was rather silly at the time, but I did find myself on occasion being dragged into the competition. I recognized that the larger motive behind the forum's incentives to "reward" quantity over quality was to encourage site activity, and that the forum owners themselves were engaged in a post-count competition with similarly themed forums. What I didn't know at the time was that there is a name for the way that the site was designed: it's called "gamification."


Gamification is the process by which an activity that is not, in itself, a game, is turned into one. "Players" are ranked according to their levels of participation. This website, for example, is gamified, with all of us ranked, badged, and labeled according to a rather bewildering number of criteria, some of which I still haven't wholly figured out. And, as Stephanie Miller's "The Power of Play: Gamification Can Change Marketing" reveals, a lot of marketing campaigns are being gamified as well, like Domino's Pizza Hero mobile app feature (you can find her article in the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the USA). Even educators are looking into gamification as a way of transforming American education.


"Well so what?" you may be thinking. "What's the harm in making things fun?" The problem (and there is a problem) only appears when rampant gamification is subjected to a semiotic analysis. For when it is considered in the context of the larger system of contemporary American culture, we can see how gamification is a reflection of an overall hypercapitalistic tendency to turn everything into a winner-takes-all competition, with all of the "losers" that that entails.


Gamification looks even more sinister in the light of Sarah Mason's exposé of the way that it is being employed to incentivize worker productivity without a corresponding increase in actual income, "High score, low pay: why the gig economy loves gamification." Going beyond her own personal experience as a Lyft driver subject to the sirens of the game, Mason reveals a form of worker exploitation that is intentionally grounded in the psychology of gambling addiction. Here's how she puts it:


In addition to offering meaningless badges and meagre savings at the pump, ride-hailing companies have also adopted some of the same design elements used by gambling firms to promote addictive behaviour among slot-machine users. One of things the anthropologist and NYU media studies professor Natasha Dow Schüll found during a decade-long study of machine gamblers in Las Vegas is that casinos use networked slot machines that allow them to surveil, track and analyse the behaviour of individual gamblers in real time – just as ride-hailing apps do. This means that casinos can “triangulate any given gambler’s player data with her demographic data, piecing together a profile that can be used to customise game offerings and marketing appeals specifically for her”. Like these customised game offerings, Lyft tells me that my weekly ride challenge has been “personalised just for you!”


Former Google “design ethicist” Tristan Harris has also described how the “pull-to-refresh” mechanism used in most social media feeds mimics the clever architecture of a slot machine: users never know when they are going to experience gratification – a dozen new likes or retweets – but they know that gratification will eventually come. This unpredictability is addictive: behavioural psychologists have long understood that gambling uses variable reinforcement schedules – unpredictable intervals of uncertainty, anticipation and feedback – to condition players into playing just one more round.


In short, what is happening here goes well beyond mere fun. Gamification is at once a form of behavior modification and an extension of the surveillance society in which we live, where everything we do is tracked and data mined on behalf of corporate profits that are not shared with the vast majority of the population. With artificial intelligence—which is grounded in mass data collection and algorithmic analysis—emerging as the newest breathlessly hyped game on the block, we can see that this hypercapitalistic cultural tendency is only going to continue its expansive intrusions into our lives. And that's not just fun and games.



Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1293132 by OpenClipart-Vectors, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


On November 24, S. Matthew Liao wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times titled “Do You Have a Moral Duty to Leave Facebook?” Liao, who teaches philosophy and bioethics at NYU, examines a number of reasons for deleting Facebook—for your own good as well as for the good of others. He points out the most obvious reasons: Facebook can be addictive and all-consuming and is linked to depression; it has played a major role in spreading misinformation, hate speech, and lies; and it has allowed others to harvest personal information for millions of people without their permission or knowledge.


Despite these problems, Liao ends his editorial saying he will stay on Facebook until it “crosses a moral red line.” In his opinion, Facebook has not yet crossed that line because it did not “intentionally” sell the data of its users nor did it assist “intentionally in the dissemination of hate speech.” Should Facebook cross that red line of intentionality, however, Liao says we must “opt out.”


Jaron Lanier, well known for his work on artificial intelligence and virtual reality, has come to the opposite conclusion. In his latest book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Lanier argues that social media have programmed us, like Pavlovian dogs, to behave in certain ways and to be mesmerized and dehumanized in the process. Whatever benefits social media may have are outweighed, in Lanier’s considered opinion, by “catastrophic losses to our personal dignity, happiness, and freedom.”


Lanier opens his book by wondering why cats are everywhere online and that dogs are NOT. Lanier wants us to be more like cats:

Cats have done the seemingly impossible. They’ve integrated themselves into the modern high-tech world without giving themselves up. They are still in charge. There is no worry that some stealthy meme crafted by algorithms and paid for by a creepy, hidden oligarch has taken over your cat. No one has taken over your cat; not you, not anyone. (p 2)

Alas, Lanier argues, we are not like cats in our online lives but much more like dogs: domesticated, obedient, loyal, dependable, and susceptible to training. In a long discussion of behaviorism and its ill effects, Lanier argues that social media has strong behavioristic tendencies and that it is training us to lose our free will—and to like doing so!


The complex problem Lanier describes with the acronym BUMMER, which stands for “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent,” has six moving parts:

B is for Butting into everyone’s lives

C is for Cramming content down people’s throats

D is for Directing people’s behaviors in the sneakiest way possible

E is for Earning money from letting the worst assholes secretly screw with everybody else

F is for Fake mobs and Faker society

Lanier takes up each one of these “moving parts” as he details his fifteen arguments for quitting social media, and he makes a very strong case. Indeed, it is bracing to see how social media, once hyped as the way to bring people together and give everyone a voice, is now out of favor with so many people, even those like Lanier who are Silicon Valley natives. Lanier is no dictator, though, and he ends the book with a softer tone, saying he knows he’s not the one to make decisions for everyone else and that “not everyone has the same options.” So he doesn’t demand that users abandon social media today but rather that they—and especially young people—explore what life might be like without the radical influence of social media. Such self-exploration could take many forms: “explore wilderness or learn a new skill,” he suggests.


But whatever form your self-exploration takes, do at least one thing:

            detach from the behavior-modification empires for a while—six months, say?. . . After your experiment, you’ll know yourself better. Then decide.

Writing about Lanier’s arguments offers an opportunity for students to begin the kind of exploration Lanier calls for, beginning perhaps with a whimsical account of how much they are like cats rather than dogs—or vice versa. And because the chapters are brief and very straightforward, each one makes a good text for a rhetorical analysis. No matter what they decide about his overall call to delete social media, Lanier raises questions that every student should think about as they come to deeper understandings of how their values and beliefs are shaped by social media.

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 998990 by Pixelkult, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Today’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodriguean associate professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.


In 2016, I engaged in two new experiences: I composed a personal audio documentary of the 2016 women’s marches and recorded myself talking through my process. One of the reasons why I chose to do so was because I assign longform audio projects in my writing courses yet never composed one myself. I thought I would learn more about how to effectively teach soundwriting if I did a version of my own assignment and reflected about it along the way.


From these experiences, I learned that recordings of my process, or what I call audio process notes, function as sites for both learning and invention. In listening and analyzing my own audio process notes, I discovered I was using talk as a means to learn—to learn how to write in a foreign genre in a foreign modality. My talk explicitly revealed cognitive moves associated with deep learning such as metacognition, problem-posing and problem-solving, and persistence. I also discovered, as Peter Elbow claims in Vernacular Eloquence, that messy, unplanned talk as opposed to careful writing, is a fertile ground for generating good ideas.


The inclusion of audio process notes in writing assignments, particularly those that ask students to compose in a new genre, is ripe with pedagogical potential. The audio process notes not only help students learn and identify the important cognitive moves needed to thrive in intellectual environments, but also more broadly teach students about writing, rhetoric, revision, idea development, and perhaps most importantly, how to approach a new writing situation.


Assigning audio process notes is appropriate for any writing assignment, not just multimodal writing assignments. Instructors may consider using or adapting the following description and audio process assessment tool in an undergraduate writing course.


Assignment Description:

While composing your project, you will reflect on your process along the way in audio form. If you have a smartphone, you can simply record yourself using an app and email the file to yourself. Otherwise, you may consider using Audacity, QuickTime, or Windows Media Player on a computer. I recommend you record yourself talking about your process after, or even during, each work session. You are required to have three entries, and each entry should be between 3-8 minutes. These notes will be assessed using five categories associated with effective learning and strong writing: rhetorical knowledge, problem-posing/problem-solving, play, persistence, and metacognition/reflection.


Assessment Tool:

Process Notes

[5 categories]

The composer demonstrates these abilities in a sophisticated and thoughtful manner consistently across their process notes.

The composer demonstrates these abilities in an effective manner across all or most of the process notes.

The composer demonstrates these abilities in an adequate way with room for growth in some of the process notes.

The composer demonstrates little to no effort in demonstrating the abilities in the five categories.

(1) Rhetorical knowledge: the ability to consider purpose, genre, audience, sonic rhetorical strategies, and context when making decisions.





(2) Problem-posing and problem-solving: the ability to pose challenging questions, and/or recognize a problem or issue and making a plan for how to approach solving it.





(3) Play, experimentation & flexibility: the ability and willingness to try out different ways to address a problem or achieve a goal, and/or take risks in an effort to determine what strategy/method is most effective.





(4) Persistence:

The ability to sustain/maintain interest in and attention to the project. The composer stays on task and works through problems or issues without giving up.





(5) Metacognition and reflection: The ability to think about one’s thinking, and to reflect on the impact of rhetorical decisions and their effects.






Our final writing project for the fall semester is based on an assignment created in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Adrienne Rich, poet, feminist theorist, and SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) teacher at City University of  New York. The assignment comes from Professor Rich’s collected papers in the CUNY Lost and Found Series. Professor Rich imagined the assignment, in part, as follows:


Write a description of a course you would like to take some day-- on any subject, or covering any kind of material. Talk about how you feel this material could best be taught, and what you would hope to be doing in that course (Rich 8, Adrienne Rich: Teaching at CUNY, 1968-1974).


I chose Professor Rich’s assignment for two critical reasons. First of all, one of the courses I teach at City University of New York is part of the SEEK Program, one of the oldest surviving programs in the United States for students from economically undeserved communities. Mina Shaughnessy, as part of her original vision for SEEK, hired poets and other creative writers to teach students in courses called Basic Writing. Many writers participated, including Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Toni Cade Bambara, in addition to Adrienne Rich, who wrote about her experiences in the essay Teaching Language in Open Admissions and the poem The Burning of Paper Instead of Children.


Second of all, the writing programs for which I am teaching this semester require a research paper for the final writing project. It is part of our work in first-year writing to offer tools for students to transfer knowledge across the curriculum. In creating their own syllabus, students can gain insight into how and why syllabi are constructed, and also can take part in the research needed for syllabus construction.


As a model, I offered students “Images of Women in Poetry by Men,” a syllabus found in Rich’s

collected papers (24-35). The syllabus offers Rich’s assumptions behind creating the course, as well as long and details annotated bibliographies and other sections. I suggested to students that their own syllabus could borrow from Rich’s template, which I delineated as follows:


  1. Course Title: What is the course called? Why is this title significant?
  2. Course Description and Goals : What will happen in the course? What will students and the instructor learn and do? Why are these goals significant?  (4-6+ paragraphs)
  3. Rationale: Why is the course needed? (4-6+ paragraphs)
  4. Assignments: What writing, multimedia, service learning, or other projects will students be asked to do? Why are these assignments significant? (4-6+ paragraphs)
  5. Assumptions and Biases: What are your assumptions about the course and about students who will take the course? What are your biases as as a course designer? Why are this assumptions important for grounding your course?  (4-6+ paragraphs)
  6. Annotated Lists of Texts (Reading, Viewing, Listening Lists): What texts should be required? Why? What texts should be optional? Why? (4-6+ annotated texts = Citation + short summary of the text)


Students have begun brainstorming course titles for their syllabus. Following are some of their favorites. An update will follow as this assignment continues.


History and Stan Lee

The Science Behind Singing

FL (Fruity Loops Music Program) Studio 101

Learning Basic Instrumental Technique and Posture

Sports Analytics (Statistics for Sports Fans)

Introduction to Cultural Contexts of Harry Potter

History of Dance (Hip Hop)

Politics and Immigration

An Outsider Comes Home: The Story(ies) of Black Panther