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For quite some time now I have been intimating in this blog that entertainment may not be the most effective way of achieving political goals, due to the way that it can distract its audience from the task of actual political engagement. Thus, I was inevitably struck by Steve Almond's forthright argument to this effect in a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. But while reading Almond's essay I found myself beginning to question my own position, and while I'm not quite ready to abandon it entirely, I do believe that it may need some modification in the light of recent developments in American political culture.


To see why, let's start with Almond's thesis. Arguing that the superb political comedy that has erupted in the wake of the Trump presidency has only played into the hands of a man "who relishes and exploits his beefs with comedians . . . [and who] doesn’t see them as degrading the office of the presidency so much as transforming that office into an adjunct of the entertainment industry, where what matters most is your ratings," Almond suggests that the "towering irony here is that the essential mission of comedians in the Age of Trump is identical to that of the man they mock." Thus, both Trump and his opponents "preach that our political and media classes are essentially corrupt. Both use shtick to convert our distress at this dysfunction into disposable laughs. In other words, both turn politics into show business." The upshot of all this, Almond concludes, is that "Halfway through his reign, Trump has reaffirmed a truth that extends from King Lear to Norman Lear: A kingdom that relies on court jesters to confront mad rulers is doomed. The Fool is not a redeemer. His role is to defuse, by means of laughter, the moral distress that presages redemption."


In short, comedians like the cast of SNL and Steve Colbert are making their audiences feel too good to actually go out and do anything (like vote). But there's a certain paradox here, for if Trump used comedy to capture the White House, so too can his opposition. In other words, if Almond's argument is right, it's also wrong. What worked for one side can work for the other. Maybe SNL and Steve Colbert (et. al) can help lead the revolution.


Only the future will reveal whether this will prove to be true, but for now we can take away one surety from Almond's essay: America's entertainment culture has engulfed our entire society so thoroughly that none of the old barriers between "high" culture and "low" truly exist anymore. Popular culture, with its mandate to entertain, is our dominant culture, for better or for worse.



Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3774381 by mohamed_hassan, used under the Pixabay License

Andrea A. Lunsford

Pay Attention!

Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Feb 28, 2019


It’s no secret that I am a fan of style and of teaching style, the third canon of rhetoric and, by any measure, an extremely important one today. So I’ve focused on style in all my textbooks and done a fair amount of research and reading about the history of style and about the fusion of style and “content.” More recently, I’ve thought long and hard about why style seems so important to me today and so necessary to teach our students to think about and to experiment with.


I’ve been deeply impressed with rhetorician Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention, which I’ve read twice and refer to often: in that book, Lanham argues that style is of the utmost importance to writing and speaking today because it is through style that we can get and hold an audience’s attention. Lanham traces the move from a “stuff” economy (think industrial revolution, Fordist principles, and manufacturing) to a “fluff” economy that deals not so much in concrete material objects but in immaterial ideas and information. Add to this shift the enormous changes wrought by technology, changes that make information more available to us than ever before, and the problem Lanham discusses comes into view: the ideas and information that will be effective and successful (often in monetary terms) are those that people attend to. Thus the “economics of attention” Lanham sees at work everywhere today. His analysis is astute and his advice straightforward: if you want to be heard in today’s society, you have to get people’s attention. And the major tool you have to do so is style.


Media consultant Howard Rheingold also writes extensively about the difficulty of getting and holding attention in Net Smart, another book I have learned a great deal from reading and studying. These two books are fairly old now, but they still strike me as prescient and accurate. Now I see “attention” commanding attention everywhere. In a recent issue of Wired, James Vlahos notes that “[In] the economics of the online world, …attention is everything,” and everyone from business CEOs to medical practitioners are talking about the “crisis” of being able to get their messages across and to capture the attention of audiences. Some of these folks are simply interested in building the bottom line or in making more and more money. But not all. Vlahos, for example, worries that the tech world’s search for “the perfect single answer” promised by Alexa and Echo and company (not quite there yet, Vlahos says, but very close) will reduce options and leave us at the mercy of single answers that have been chosen for us—and in that way choosing what we are able to pay attention to. Others like Lanham and Rheingold worry about how the truth (small “t”) can hold its own in getting attention with clickbait and lies.


As teachers of writing, we have a big stake in these debates and discussions, as do our students. In the long run, rhetoricians and compositionists need to be in on this conversation, carrying out research that can contribute to it in important ways. In the shorter run, we need to alert our students to the issues and especially to the need for them to focus on style as a means of getting and holding attention, and thus of having a chance to get their voices out there where they can and will be heard. Luckily, we know a lot about rhetorical strategies that can help command attention: everything from crafting electrifying titles and opening sentences to syntactic structures and word choices that pull readers/listeners along, to the use of visuals and graphics to hold attention, to the power of figurative language, and to the equal power of silence.


Still, I find that many teachers of writing say that there’s just no time to focus on style, that helping students with invention, with critical thinking, with organizational frameworks and drafting—all time-consuming and very important goals—seem more fundamental than style. I think it’s time, though, to question this assumption and to look at style as inseparable from inventing, thinking critically, drafting, and organizing. And then to create curricula that allow for this integration.


I would very much like to hear responses to these ideas and especially to hear of ways in which teachers of writing are already responding to the move I’m calling for. Please leave a comment below or write back to me directly at And thank you!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2365812 by rawpixel, used under the Pixabay License

Screenshot from Practical Strategies in Technical Communication showing a Thinking Visually featureI love the “Thinking Visually” resources in Mike Markel’s Practical Strategies for Technical Communication (2nd ed.). The example shown in the screenshot on the right outlines the six major characteristics of a technical document.

As you flip through the pages of the textbook, these full-page graphics stand out, catching students’ attention with their strong contrast and reader-friendly presentation of the information explored in more detail in the text.

The textbook’s “Preface for Instructors” explains the goal of this new feature:

Reflecting the increasingly visual nature of today’s learners and of technical communication itself, the Second Edition includes new “Thinking Visually” graphics, developed with feedback from instructors. This feature provides an accessible, modern take on key principles and concepts throughout the text.

The feature this quick summary presents definitely stands out, even in a highly visual textbook like this one.

[NOTE: The “Thinking Visually” infographics mentioned in this post are available in the short version of the text (mentioned above), Practical Strategies for Technical Communication.They are not included in the full version of the text, Technical Communication.]

I decided to create my own infographic resources to persuade students to think visually about the concepts in Technical Communication. I’m starting with documentation. Students typically struggle with that topic, and its coverage in most textbooks is dense and text-heavy.

I began with this page (shown as an image) on the question, “Why Use Documentation?” It is also available as a Google Doc or a PDF to provide full accessibility to students.

Image of the Why Use Documentation? page

The three reasons that documentation is important listed in the resource come from the Appendix on “Documenting Your Sources.” The infographic is rather simple, but I hope clear and direct—just like those from Practical Strategies for Technical Communication. Tell me what you think. I plan to make several more before students begin their major research projects in a few weeks, so I can definitely use some feedback. Just leave me a comment below.


NOTE: Practical Strategies for Technical Communication has just been published (2019) in a third edition, but I only have access to the second edition presently. The “Thinking Visually” are included in the third edition as well.

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


Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had several conversations with faculty and graduate students about "buy-in" in the classroom.
Current and future teachers wonder: how do I get students to buy-in to the idea that writing and learning how to write well is important?

I’ve posed this question to myself many times over the course of my career and have actively sought different ways to foster student buy-in. Some ideas have worked and some have not. While there are many factors that play a role in the extent to which instructors can foster student buy-in, I have had success at different institutions with the activities and strategies below.


  1. Discuss the importance of writing inside and outside of the classroom

For a 15-20 minute in-class activity, ask students to respond to the following questions in a freewrite.


  • What do you want to do after you graduate from college?
  • What kind of writing do you think you’ll do at your job?
  • What do you think might happen if you’re unable to communicate effectively at your job?
  • What do you think might happen if you’re really good at communicating effectively at your job?
  • Based on these questions, why do you think writing and learning how to write is important?


Ask students to share what they wrote and make a list of responses on the board. Orchestrate a conversation wherein students engage with the list and brainstorm about what we need to learn and practice in class to in order to strengthen our writing abilities. I encourage instructors to be transparent about how the skills, abilities, and knowledge gained in the course are transferable across writing situations, including the situations they’ll encounter in the future workplace.


(I usually have this discussion on the first or second day of class, but it’s never too late to do so.)


  1. Assign lots and lots of low-stakes writing assignments

Ask students to write every day in class and out of class. For example, you might provide a brief prompt at the beginning of every class intended to either help get them thinking about course material or just to practice writing in general. Here are some interesting prompts that you may consider using in your class.


You can explain to students that research has proven informal writing assignments support student learning and function as ripe sites for invention work. Perhaps most importantly, research states that the more people write, the better writers they become. All of the writing students do in your class will sharpen their writing abilities and communication skills, which in turn will help them learn and succeed in other college courses and in the workplace.


  1. Analyze writing in the workplace

Ask your students to engage with research that reveals the importance of writing and learning how to write. For example, you may assign sections of two studies on workplace writing: “Writing: A Ticket to Work…Or a Ticket Out” and “Writing: A Powerful Message from State Government.” The findings from the first study reveal that most people (2/3 of 8 million surveyed) in business have writing responsibilities and that writing abilities play a significant role in promotion, demotion, and job loss. The second study reveals that all 2.7 million state employees surveyed have writing responsibilities and all agree writing is important. This study is perhaps most persuasive for student buy-in because it demonstrates that jobs and careers that may not appear to demand strong writing abilities and skills may in fact do so.



In using these activities and other variations of them, I’ve recognized that pedagogical and curricular transparency is effective in fostering student buy-in. When we tell our students why we’re doing what we’re doing and how our decisions are informed by research in the discipline, they are more likely to recognize the value of the work they do in the class. Further, I’ve learned that discussions and activities that draw connections between school and the workplace and that emphasize transferability make a strong impact on students, especially students taking required classes or classes they think are unrelated to their major or future career. In positioning students to think about other courses they will take as well as their futures, they are more likely to be persuaded that writing and learning how to write matters.

Guest Blogger: Rochelle Spencer is currently a scholar in Dr. Maryemma Graham's Black Book Interactive Project at the University of Kansas. Rochelle is author of AfroSurrealism: The African Diaspora’s Surrealist Fiction (Routledge 2019) and co-editor, with Jina Ortiz, of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (Univ of Wisconsin Press, 2014). A VONA alum, a former board member of the Hurston Wright Foundation, a current member of the National Book Critics Circle, and co-curator for the Digital Literature Garden and Let's Play, Rochelle recently defended the first dissertation on AfroSurrealism.


How do we demonstrate radical love and trust towards our students, especially when exploring painful or traumatic subjects? If we, as a writing community, teach arguments and logos, ethos, and pathos, then it seems to me that we are left with critical questions: How do we create empathy? How do we decide when it’s “convenient” to care about someone?


These questions point to a community-centered pedagogy. Years ago, a student of color told me about being harassed by police right in front of the campus where I then taught. That student was Asian, and I am Black. I understood the student’s fear because I’ve been harassed by the police too. Last fall, as I prepared to teach a lesson on #BlackLivesMatter, I realized the bullying and intimidation my former student experienced may have happened to other students. Or they may have friends or family who have experienced police violence, perhaps while arrested or incarcerated.


Addressing these traumas while teaching argumentation, I have found that we’re always thinking about representation. I want to suggest to students that they don’t have to fit any particular image to be treated fairly. If someone’s skin is dark, or their pants sag, or if they wear a hijab or speak a language other than English, then should they be subjected to harassment or life-ending violence? It’s more than problematic to decide someone’s humanity based on whether they’re wearing a suit or tie--or a skirt with a slip. (We have a history of telling women and perhaps non-binary genders that sexual violence can be a result of the way they’re dressed. And I realize our brothers are raped and sexually violated but this specific condemnation seems mostly aimed at women.)


At the same time, I understand how people respond to those who [outwardly] convey power, through their dress or speech. We want our students’ voices to be heard and we want them to be taken seriously, especially as they work to create positive changes in their communities.

One lesson plan that grew out of this idea centered on visual arguments. In class, we watched  this video from CNN about Botham Sean Jean, who was killed inside his apartment by an off-duty police officer in Sept. 6, 2018, and Frank Ocean’s Nike 2016 video, which juxtaposed images of Trayvon Martin with sensual and surreal images. Using the following questions, we held a class discussion as a prelude to our writing assignment on visual argument:


  • Botham Jean’s family attorney says Jean “lived his life virtually without blemish,” how is that life portrayed in the video? Do you feel empathy towards Jean? Do you think this video generates empathy?
  • What do you think of Ocean’s incorporation of the Trayvon Martin photograph? Do you think it serves a purpose? Do you think the photograph is used respectfully? Why do you think Ocean juxtaposes so many contrasting images alongside the photograph? Does Ocean’s video create empathy?


In their in-class writings, which addressed these questions, my students helped me to understand the Ocean video as commentary on our emotional landscapes. While a few students viewed the Ocean video as a disjointed arrangement of startling scenes, others argued Ocean‘s kaleidoscopic images make it difficult to view a man of color, such as Ocean--or anyone really--through a one-dimensional lens. These students argued for Ocean’s video, with its multi-racial and intergenerational cast, as depicting a pluralistic society and the ways people must work together and fight for each other’s survival.


If Ocean's work exploits respectability politics, then history's portrayal of Rosa Parks only further reveals their complexity.We know about Rosa Parks’ work as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Movement but, in the 1950s, if a young, pregnant, and unmarried woman  had led the movement, would her sexual history--rather than the cause--have been the topic of discussion?  We create narratives about people that omit details. I think we tend to think of Parks, perhaps, as a silent image; we remember the quiet and dignified black-and-white photo of her sitting on the bus, but less known is Parks’ work as an outspoken and ardent investigator and activist who fought for justice for Recy Taylor, a black woman raped by six white men.


The challenge for our students, and for all writers whose work concerns people and our relationships to each other, is figuring out how to show our complexity, our totality--while helping our readers understand and care about our stories.

One of the most common logical fallacies in argumentation is the either/or fallacy. We see this fallacy a great deal these days because our two-party political system is as deeply entrenched as it has ever been, and each party accuses the other of the most extreme positions on hot topics, as if no center ground is possible. Often, the either/or fallacy leads to the straw man fallacy, as the other side finds itself defending against a much more extreme position than what it truly supports.


President Trump wants a wall on our southern border. That leads Republicans to support the unfair assumption that anyone who opposes the wall is for open borders; Trump even went so far as to accuse House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of supporting human trafficking because she opposes the border wall. However, immigration is not an either/or proposition. Both sides are in favor of border security, but if the Democrats must defend themselves against the false charge that they want no restrictions at all on immigration, they waste time and energy that could be spent on reaching common ground. Thus the straw man that Democrats are distracted by and find themselves attacking instead of the real issue.


New York’s new legislation about abortion is another example that can be examined in light of either/or logic. Some of those who oppose abortion assume that those who cheered the passage of the legislation must be willing to accept killing an infant in the process of being delivered. The law actually stipulates very specific circumstances under which a late-term abortion can be performed. That “if” clause is what opponents of abortion do not hear. The either/or fallacy comes in accepting that either one opposes abortion under any circumstances or accepts it under any circumstances. If those who support a woman’s right to choose have to defend themselves against the charge that they think it is okay to kill a baby during delivery, they are attacking a straw man rather than addressing the real issue of why a woman would choose a late-term abortion.


Any time a speaker or writer argues that if you don’t believe this, you believe that, it is worth pausing to consider if that dichotomy really exists. Is it true that anyone who supports gun control wants to take all guns away from every law-abiding American? Is it true that parents who allow their children to be vaccinated do not care about their children’s welfare?


The whole idea behind Rogerian argument is that it seeks common ground from which to work toward reconciling opposing or differing positions. That’s not easy when the issue is something as heated as abortion or the killing of black men by white police officers. It’s not easy because the first step toward reconciliation is being able to accurately state your opponent’s position. As long as every statement is weighed first in terms of its political impact, that step toward common ground will be slow in coming.



Photo credit: “Democratic Donkey & Republican Elephant - Caricatures” by DonkeyHotey on Flickr, 2/12/14 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

This blog series is written by Julia Domenicucci, an editor at Macmillan Learning, in conjunction with Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl.


Black and white photo of a dctionary page showing the word "grammar"


National Grammar Day is nearly here! Each year, this lesser known (but no less important!) holiday rolls around on March 4th. The day-long celebration of all things grammar was founded in 2008 by Martha Brockenbrough, who is an author and the founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. What better way to acknowledge the holiday in your own classroom than by listening to some Grammar Girl podcasts?


Podcasts have been around for a while, but their popularity seems to increase every day—and for good reason! They are engaging and creative, and they cover every topic imaginable. They are also great for the classroom: you can use them to maintain student engagement, accommodate different learning styles, and introduce multimodality.


LaunchPad and Achieve products include assignable, ad-free Grammar Girl podcasts, which you can use to support your lessons. If you’re teaching a lesson about prepositions or find your class needs some more help with the topic, you can assign one (or all!) of these suggested podcasts for students to listen to before class. Each podcast also comes with a complete transcript, which is perfect for students who aren’t audio learners or otherwise prefer to read the content. To learn more about digital products and purchasing options, please visit Macmillan's English catalog or speak with your sales representative. 


If you are using LaunchPad, refer to the unit “Grammar Girl Podcasts” for instructions on assigning podcasts. You can also find the same information on the support page "Assign Grammar Girl Podcasts."


If you are using Achieve, you will find a "Quick Start Guide: Grammar Girl and Question Bank" in your Welcome Unit. You can also find information on assigning Grammar Girl in Achieve on the support page "Add Grammar Girl and shared English content to your course."


Podcasts about Grammar & the English Language

  • Top Ten Grammar Myths [5:31]
  • Stop Calling Yourself a Grammar Nazi! [6:10]
  • The Proto-Indo-European Language [15:44]


Students can do a lot more with podcasts than simply listen to them. Use one of the following assignments to encourage students to engage further with the Grammar Girl podcasts.


Assignment A: There are countless ways to look at and think about grammar—get your students in on the debate! Start by having students listen to the Grammar Girl podcast “Top Ten Grammar Myths,” either together in class or for homework. Have each student select one of the ten myths and research it more deeply. They might consider:

  • What is the history of this grammar myth?
  • What are the different points of the debate surrounding this myth?
  • Which sources agree that this is a myth? Which sources disagree, and think this is not a myth?


After researching, ask students to write a brief report arguing that their selected myth is not a grammar myth, whether or not they agree. Each student should include their sources. Have students share their reports, either in small groups or as a class.


Assignment B: Each of the three selected podcasts touches upon a complex subject. Ask students to choose one of the listed podcasts and listen to it (or, alternately, choose one for the class to listen to together). Then, have each student choose a grammar or language topic they want to know more about—either from one of the podcasts or another source—and research its background. After researching, have each student present a brief report on their selected topic. Some ideas:

  • What is the history of the comma?
  • How does grammar develop within a language?
  • What is the origin of their favorite English word?
  • What is the history of the word “irregardless”?


Will you be discussing National Grammar Day in your classroom on March 4th? Let us know your plans in the comments! Read more articles about National Grammar Day by visiting the Quick and Dirty Tips website.


Credit: Pixabay Image 390029 by PDPics, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about style and delivery. Listening to the President’s hour-long rambling, free-associating announcement of a “national emergency,” I wondered again how his style—bullying, belligerent, antagonistic, dogmatic, and clipped (he often speaks in tweets)—seems to appeal to so many people. And yet it clearly does appeal to many, who seem eager if not to be bullied then to be told what to think, do, and believe. Elsewhere I’ve analyzed passages of his speeches, which reveal that he speaks on about a third or fourth-grade level, using a limited vocabulary, relying on stoking fears of “others,” and using tropes like paralipsis or occultatio (saying what you intend to say by insisting you won’t say it).


It’s surely worth asking our students to carry out analyses of style and delivery (looking at not only the words, phrases, images, figures of speech, and so on, but at body language as well) both in order to sharpen their critical skills and to help them analyze their own styles and patterns of delivery. Many writing centers now even provide ways for students to get presentations video-taped so that they can analyze these performances, often with the help of a speaking/presenting consultant.


On a recent visit to Stockholm, I was reminded of a very different kind of style and delivery: that used by teenager Greta Thunberg in her call to arms against the deadly emissions that are affecting the environment. You have probably heard of Thunberg—a sixteen-year-old (who started her campaign two years ago) who leaves school every Friday in Stockholm to sit in front of the Swedish parliament, admonishing leaders to act.


Thunberg is sitting in this photo, but she is more often standing and delivering speeches that challenge those listening to her to act. Speaking softly and clearly, enunciating every word (and often speaking in her second or third language, English), she has a message that is anything but soft. Like America’s current president, she uses repetition—but not like a baseball bat and instead like a drumbeat that intensifies in urgency as she moves through her talk. Take a look, for instance, at a speech she delivered to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year. (She got there after an arduous train trek since she refuses to use the emissions-heavy airlines, and she noted the hypocrisy of those who come in “private jets” to talk about what they are doing to reduce emissions.) You can find a transcript and watch clips of the speech here, but for now here is a brief excerpt of the beginning and end of her speech:

Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire...


Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want our hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.


I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.


There is much to talk about in her speech: the explicit, plain language that makes her message absolutely and unequivocally clear. The very short sentences (like the last one, “Because it is.”) offset by some as long as 40 words that help achieve a dynamic and steady rhythm. The use of direct address (“I want you to act.”). The stark contrast between ineffective, dithering “adults” and young people on a mission. And, again, the use of repetition, which she uses throughout but perhaps most notably in the last part of the speech: “I don’t want; I don’t want” followed by “I want,” “I want,” “I want,” “I want,” “I want.” Thunberg stands straight and tall before her audience, looking directly at them and speaking as if without notes. “I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” Here her use of repetition is artful, expressive, intensifying with each clause. Soft spoken, steady, often understated—but carrying a big message.


Our students could learn a lot from watching one of Thunberg’s presentations and then studying the transcript with care. In an age of “optics,” when images reign supreme and sound bites dominate, she offers some of her own that are truly memorable.


I like to challenge students to take a subject they are passionate about and to prepare a brief oral presentation, using examples like this one from Thunberg (or other speakers) to inspire them to concentrate on style and delivery. Because they matter, perhaps more today than ever.


Image Credit: Photo by Leonhard Lenz [CC0] via Wikimedia Commons

I am continuing to look at suggestions for working with multilingual students in FYC and IRW corequisite classrooms. Here’s a simple activity that can support sentence structure development for all readers and writers, one that is particularly helpful for multilingual students. 


Select a short passage (3-5 sentences) from a classroom reading, focusing on an excerpt that illustrates clear functions or rhetorical purposes. For example, in my current IRW composition course, we recently looked at this short paragraph from Elizabeth Wardle’s article “You Can Learn to Write in General,” from the open-source text Bad Ideas about Writing:


There is no writing in general, and thus no single class or workshop or experience can teach people to write, once and for all. But people want to believe that it’s possible to write in general because this belief makes writing seem less difficult and allows them to believe that writers can get a one-time writing inoculation that will extend across all settings. If this is the case, then non-English teachers and employers are off the hook; they don’t have to help students learn to write in their classrooms or workplaces, they can just criticize writers for not being able to meet their expectations— and criticize English teachers for not doing their jobs.  (31)


As my class discussed this passage in the context of the entire essay, we looked at what the three sentences accomplish rhetorically. Sentence one, for example, presents a strong claim (“There is no writing in general”) and follows with the consequences of that claim (“and thus…”). The second sentence introduces a contrasting belief (“But…”), followed by a reason (“because…”). The final sentence looks at the implications of accepting the alternative (“if…then…”), adding additional ideas via a semicolon and a dash. 

This analysis led to a simple discussion of different ways to express frustration, especially frustration in relation to mistaken ideas. Instead of screeching, “That’s wrong,” Wardle’s paragraph illustrates a formal and more “academic” means of confronting a false or mistaken belief.

Next, I asked students to think about statements or expectations suggesting mistaken assumptions that they hear (particularly in college or work situations), and to create a paragraph expressing their frustration, following Wardle’s model:

There is no _________________, and so ____________________.  But _______________ because _______________________.  If ___________, then _________________; _____________________--__________________.


Students worked on the project in groups, producing paragraphs similar to this one:


There is no way we can get so much homework done so fast, and thus teachers can’t expect us to finish everything completely.  But teachers want to believe that major assignments can be done in a day or two because they think we students don’t have lives and jobs outside of school.  If this was true, then maybe we should have all assignments done before the next class; teachers could also lecture us about how we don’t listen or how we make excuses--and even make us hate coming to class.


Once student groups generated their paragraphs, we did some large group editing for spelling, agreements, and mechanics.  But each group was able to complete a thought-provoking paragraph with effective sentence structure, using the functions and sentence patterns we found in Wardle’s original.  


This activity builds confidence for students, and in this particular case, it also allowed me to hear and affirm the struggles they have regarding academic expectations of them:  in addition to typical student complaints about the amount of time and work expected from them, students also commented on frustrations with feedback and criticism, the stress of comprehensive and high-stakes testing, difficulties talking with faculty, and the sense that faculty are offended when students aren’t 100% engaged in every class. The large-group editing and review of the paragraphs led to a frank discussion about strategies for dealing with mismatches between faculty and students. We didn’t resolve all the frustrations, but student perspectives were seen, heard, and validated.


What are your strategies for helping multilingual writers build confidence using different sentence structures?

I have a tender spot for students who struggle to find their tone as they enter an academic conversation. I remember writing my first (terrible) essay in college with no idea how to assert my heartfelt (and weak) claim: “Shakespeare’s Hamlet is brilliant!”


So, ham-handedly, I conjured an antagonist and self-righteously typed on my IBM Selectric something like: “While some people fail to recognize Shakespeare’s brilliance, I will argue that Hamlet proves Shakespeare is indeed a brilliant playwright.” The comments and grade on that paper were sobering, and (thanks to a skilled instructor) helpful to my growth as a thinker and writer. But I remember well the late-night struggle to enter a serious conversation about literature.


Early in each semester, my own writing students often reach for outrage as a conversational entree (“X’s idea is ridiculous!”) or sarcasm (“X claims to be a social justice advocate but totally fails to recognize their own privilege!”). In a recent accidentally amusing malapropism, a student trashed an author for being “totally hippocratical.” (Alas, the author in question was not a doctor.)


But who can blame students for assuming an "argument" must be built on forceful disagreement? Most of what we hear in the public sphere are gut-level judgments rather than reasoned analysis. Students can be forgiven for mistaking agreement with weakness, or believing that generous and empathetic readers simply are not tough enough to take a stand.


Our task, as writing instructors, is to model the tone of academic conversations, and to make the syntax of engagement transparent, so students can practice it. In 2019, I’ve found the Burkean metaphor (“Imagine a parlor!”) doesn’t take our students very far. So, in our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I offer steps to help demystify the process:


Steps to Writing Yourself into an Academic Conversation:

  • Retrace the conversation, including the relevance of the topic and situation, for readers by briefly discussing an author’s key claims and ideas. This discussion can be as brief as a sentence or two and include a quotation for each author you cite.
  • Respond to the ideas of others by helping readers understand the context in which another’s claims make sense. “I understand this if I consider it from this perspective.”
  • Discuss possible implications by putting problems aside, at least temporarily, and asking, “Do their claims make sense?”
  • Introduce conflicting points of view and raise possible criticisms to indicate something the authors may have overlooked.
  • Formulate your own claim to assert what you think.
  • Ensure that your own purpose as a writer is clear to readers.


You may have other steps you’d add to this list, and, certainly, as we close-read texts with students, we can name and “close write” additional rhetorical moves that academic writers make. Providing students the opportunity to name and practice these moves helps them see that syntax itself can guide their tone, helps them generate ideas, and provides structures for nuanced analysis.


Ultimately, our goal is to foster thinkers and writers who are inspired to engage meaningfully with ideas, as Bedford New Scholar Cecilia Shelton’s recent post demonstrates so powerfully.


By modeling thoughtful engagement with writers’ ideas inside our classroom, we can give our students the practice they will need to engage thoughtfully in the public sphere, too.



Photo Credit: April Lidinsky

Black student working at laptop outsideFor students to do well in the courses I teach, they have to understand how the course software works. Since the courses are 100% online, the spaces that our course software creates become the classroom where we interact. If students cannot get to those spaces or do not fully understand how they work, they can fail the course.

Given this potential, I make time for software instruction, no matter how packed the course is with subject area content and related work. Generally, I approach software instruction as needed to complete activities in the course. For instance, I talk about how to use banded rows to increase table readability as students work on an assignment that requires creating a table. The software instruction is directly tied to doing well on the activity, so students are motivated to learn the related technical skills.

The challenge is knowing when students will need help with the software that doesn’t relate to specific assignments. Students come to the course with a variety of experience, so I cannot assume that they all need the same instruction. I encourage students to help themselves by linking to the documentation from course materials. Beyond that, I’ve relied on two strategies:

  • Wait until someone asks.
  • Look for patterns that suggest students need help.

In both cases, I either provide a link to the documentation or provide a customized explanation with video or screenshots. These techniques work, but I’d like to do more.

This term, I decided to focus on software instruction from the first day of classes. I gave students a curated list of links to the student guide to the software. Focusing on the commands and tools that I knew students needed for the course reduced the number of documentation links 90%, from 241 to 24 links. No longer do students have to search through pages and pages of information to find what they need—and I benefit from linking to the official documentations, which I don’t have to maintain.

I asked students to read through the entire list. I don’t expect them to memorize the list or click on every link. I just want them to remember there was a resource that listed the main tools they need to use in the course. After skimming through the list, they chose at least one software task to learn more about. I asked students to read the details in the documentation and then try the tool.

For extra points, students could post a reply describing what they found in their exploration. To my happy surprise, the activity yielded 75 replies. Students explored a variety of tools, focusing on whatever interested them. Repeatedly, students explained that they had found some capability in the software that they never knew existed.

Will students remember everything they read? Undoubtedly not, but they do know where to find details on the key commands they need for the course. Since this was the first activity in the course, students and I can draw on it for the entire term. Overall, it seems like a successful strategy that I hope to continue using.

How do you make time for software instruction in your courses? What resources do you share with students? Tell me about the strategies you use by leaving a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.

Photo Credit: _MG_3783 by VIA Agency on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Ashley ShawAshley Shaw is a graduate student at Kennesaw State University working towards a Masters in the Arts of Professional Writing with a focus on composition and rhetoric. She teaches First-Year English Composition and Rhetoric courses and works at a private high school during the day. Along with teaching experience, she has worked as an editor and a marketer and brings these experiences into the classroom to help students learn how they will use academic lessons when writing in professional settings.


“Do I really need to learn this?”

“Will I ever actually do this again?”

“I’m a [fill in the blank] major. Will I ever actually have to write this stuff?”


These are questions I hear all of the time from students. The short answer to these questions is, of course, yes. However, saying yes isn’t always enough.


Professional Writing in an FYC Classroom


Having worked in the professional world before coming back to school to teach, I have seen the effects of a lack of professional writing in FYC classes: Writers are not less capable, but, in my experience, they are less confident and less sure about how to begin a writing assignment in the workplace. Because of this, I use examples from various professions to show how the learning objectives and tasks of the class apply to the types of writing students will do outside of school.


Background Reading



Assignment: Writing for a Real Audience


In this assignment, I set out to show students how to focus on their audience by using marketing and sales strategies. Businesses conduct a lot of research to create something called buyer personas, which are detailed descriptions of unique audiences to whom the marketer markets and the salesperson sells. By having my students create buyer personas, I hope to instill in them an understanding of how to target their writing to specific groups of people in a wide variety of rhetorical situations.


Assignment Learning Objectives 

  • Students will be able to create audience profiles
  • Students will be able to recognize how audience affects all rhetorical choices (tone, medium, etc.)


Project Components 


Assignment Steps


1. Introduce the Concept of Audience in Professional Settings

This activity takes place in the class right after a lesson on audience in academic settings, and it starts with a demonstration of how audiences are used in the fields of sales and marketing. To begin, I show the class a couple of real buyer personas, examples of which can easily be found with a Google search. We then talk about what they are and how they help business professionals address specific audiences in order to be more successful with their sales pitches.


2. Set up the Sales Situation

Now that they understand what buyer personas are, the class divides into five groups. I then present them with a weird product that they will be “selling.” For example, last semester, we worked on selling Gelli Baff - a tablet designed to turn bathwater into gel.


Each group gets assigned a specific audience. For the bath gel, I used the following audiences:

  • Parents
  • Kids
  • Investors
  • Buyers at Toy Stores
  • Non-parent present buyers (grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc.)


3. Work with Buyer Persona Sheets

After they find their groups and get their audience, I hand out buyer persona sheets. In their groups, students research their target groups and how to relate to them before filling out the sheet. Boxes the students fill out include

  •  A representative name and drawing (“Grandma Gayle,” a retiree, for the non-parent present buyers; “Bill the Buyer,” a tired, middle-aged man, for the toy store buyer, etc.)
  • Goals, motivations, and hobbies of the group
  • Demographics (age range, marital status, and education level)
  • Expectations for their toy purchases
  • Word choice, tone, and preferred communication methods


4. Create and Share Sales Pitches

Once the groups finish creating buyer personas, they plan short sales pitches.

They make choices about what medium to use (as examples, the kids group and the parents group planned commercials, while the investor group planned a PowerPoint presentation) and what to say in the presentation (the kids’ commercial focused on small words and “fun” and “cool” concepts, whereas the parents’ focused on price and safety.)


After the groups finish planning their sales pitches, each group shares what they created with the class.


5. Reflect on the Activity

Following the sales pitches, we reflect. The class discusses how different each pitch was even though each had the exact same purpose. We then talk about how audience is this important in anything we write. We also talk about how doing the same types of thinking and research about audience can help us write anything, from a research paper to a cover letter to a text sent to a parent versus a friend.  




At the end of my English 1101 class, the students write a letter to next year’s students. The letter includes things like what they learned in the class, what they wished they had done differently, what recommendations they have for future students, etc. After I did this assignment, I was surprised by how many of the letters included some version of understanding audience and how to target writing towards that audience. Because of this activity, they expressed the ability to understand the rhetorical choices they should make surrounding individual audiences. Moreover, they learned that making the best rhetorical choices requires a little bit of thought and research into who the audience is. Doing this research helps them begin the writing task in a much more confident manner.

Twenty-six years ago, almost to the day, I set about rewriting the general introduction to what would become the first edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. Seeking something of sufficient magnitude and familiarity to effectively introduce an audience of composition students to the then-unfamiliar (and ostensibly forbidding) field of cultural semiotics, I chose the Superbowl, which, I noted, is "more than just a football game. It's an Event, a ritual, a national celebration, and show-time" for those corporate high rollers who can afford the ever-increasing cost of advertising.


As I contemplate the semiotic significance of Superbowl LIII, it's as if I am being visited by the Ghost of Superbowls Past, comparing the present game to those that have gone before and wondering about the future. And at first glance, much remains the same. The Superbowl is still an Event, is still a national ritual, and its advertising has come even closer to overshadowing the game itself, with specially made commercials released in advance, game-time polling to "elect" the most popular ads, and plenty of post-game punditry devoted solely to the advertising.


But there is also a detectable difference this time around, a pivot away from the past into an unsettling present in which the words "national celebration" may appear to no longer apply. For Superbowl LIII was as riven by pre-game controversy as it was afflicted by a generally lackluster performance on the field, a disturbing dissonance that makes the Ghost of Superbowl Present a rather ominous apparition indeed.


The causes of this dissonance are well known. They include the infamous un-called pass interference that helped put the Rams into the NFL final and galvanized the city of New Orleans into creating its own game-day counter event—not to mention the filing of a couple of lawsuits. And they also include the on-going controversy swirling around the Kaepernick-inspired taking-a-knee protests that, having been suppressed by the NFL, resulted in an artist boycott of the half-time show. Which led, in turn, to yet another controversy involving the rather-less-than-household-word band that, so to speak, crossed the picket line to perform.


But beyond these more particular conflicts there looms the vast conflict that is America itself today, which no amount of "unity" advertising (one of the notable commercial themes to be found in Superbowl LIII's ad lineup) is likely to disperse. The situation is such that it's ironic now to think how, once upon a time, the Dallas Cowboys could award themselves the distinction of being "America's team," and make it stick. Today such an epithet might be regarded as an oxymoron.


Interestingly, one sign of unity that I did detect on Superbowl Sunday appeared in New Orleans itself, where a highly diverse population of all ages turned out for an anti-Superbowl party that really looked to be more fun than the usual script for the conquering-heroes victory parades staged in the cities of the actual winners of the game. Could it be that we have here an example of a way of coming together in a common cause wherein both winning and losing are irrelevant?


Alas, no. For the unity displayed on the streets of New Orleans on Superbowl Sunday was motivated by anger and resentment, an us-against-the-world vibe quite in keeping with the overall tenor of American politics these days. The partying crowd in New Orleans had wanted to win, and, being denied their victory, chose defiance.


When you add into the mix the elaborate conspiracy theories that enveloped the game—accusations that the Rams/Saints game was rigged by the NFL high command to get L.A. into the Superbowl to help pay for the new five billion dollar stadium being built there—a dark new significance begins to emerge. Indeed, with bizarre accusations that the entire NFL season had been rigged circulating through the Internet, the specter of an America so torn by distrust and disillusionment that even its favorite one-day sports event can't escape conspiratorial contamination rudely enters the picture. If this is the Ghost of Superbowl Present, what will the Ghost of Superbowls Future bring?



Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3558732 by QuinceMedia, used under a Pixabay License.


I wonder how many teachers of writing are getting tired of the word “optics”? I know I am. The word has been around a long time—it popped up several times during the Carter administration in the ‘70s, and it’s familiar to Canadians, who use the related French word optique. But its use seems to me to have grown exponentially during the Trump administration, with the emphasis so much on how things look, what “looks” get ratings up, and most of all on how things are perceived—as opposed to what they really are.


In such a time, visual rhetoric comes to the fore, or to the rescue! Certainly we have a plethora of examples of “optics” for students to examine, explore, and evaluate. Many writers remarked on the fairly stunning optical contrast between the Republican and Democratic “aisles” during the 2019 State of the Union address, where the Republican look was decidedly white, older, and male and the Democratic look was anything but. And the President, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi—practically glowing in all white—right behind him and a veritable sea of suffragette white-clad Congresswomen seated together in front of him, actually lost the spotlight when the women in white jumped up to clap and cheer and shout when he mentioned the large number of women now in the House. A video clip from that event would provide very fertile ground for rhetorical analysis, as would a series of still images. Optics indeed.


I was also fascinated earlier this week by the President’s rally in El Paso, Texas, where he got the crowd chanting “finish the wall.” Supporters, also largely white, wore uniform red MAGA hats, so viewers saw a sea of red at that rally. Just across and down the street, Beto O’Rourke held a counter-rally, beginning precisely as the President’s rally launched, and again the “optics” were fascinating. The President behind a podium, in a dark suit, white shirt, and bright red tie, shook his fist and scowled, speaking in sound bites that resemble his tweets. Across the way, O’Rourke, collar unbuttoned and sleeves of his shirt rolled up, strode back and forth across the stage, earnest and impassioned, speaking both English and Spanish. Examining just the body language of the two speakers would yield a rich rhetorical analysis, as would looking closely at the crowd responses, and at the self-presentation of the speakers and of those who introduced them. Finally, I think students would get a lot out of looking closely at the styles of delivery on display at this rally and counter-rally, both in terms of content (what the two were saying) and attitude/stance (how they were saying it). Certainly this event provides ample opportunity for practicing close reading and rhetorical analysis.


Over 30 years ago, Kathleen Welch startled her audience by declaring that delivery, the final and long-neglected canon of rhetoric, was by far the most important of the five (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery). She was prescient in that announcement, which has proven to be dead accurate. And since we are living in a time of image saturation, of “optics” wars on every front, this is a very good time to focus on delivery and on analyzing how it works to persuade (or dissuade) listeners.


Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 720677 by skeeze, used under the Pixabay License

This week, I have a short post on a great resource (and one related class activity) that I found on Twitter as I was reading through messages with the #womeninTC hashtag. The TC stands for Technical Communication. The hashtag is a great source of ideas, articles, and support for those of us who teach technical writing.

Here’s the Tweet from Dr. Amelia Cheley (@plaidsicle) that inspired this post, with a transcript following:

Image of Chesley's Tweet, transcript follows

Transcript, with capitalization consistent with the original:

dr. amelia chesley (@plaidsicle): for the first day of class this week, I had my tech com students analyze several random, real memos (including this one and then each compose a random, imaginary memo themselves. I am loving what they've come up with so far! #womenintc [3:26 PM 16 Jan 2019]

The activity sounded like fun, so I immediately clicked through to see the STAR TREK/Casting memo. Not only did I find an entertaining memo, but I was sucked into the website’s assortment of letters, memos, and other notes from the famous, the infamous, and the unknown. It is a rich collection of primary material that could be used in many classes, not just in technical writing.

My imagination is spinning with the options. I’m sure I will have some specific writing activities to share in the coming weeks, but for now, I’m going to end with a list of ten favorites from the site:

  2. Subject: Toilet Paper
  4. Gee whiz, that master alarm certainly startled me
  5. On bureaucratese and gobbledygook
  7. Is there a space program which we could win?
  8. The Tiger Oil Memos
  9. To All Potty-Mouthed Inbetweeners
  10. I was ready to sink into the earth with shame

As you wander through the site, I am sure you will find something entertaining. Let me know what you find, and share any ideas you have for using the site. Just leave me a comment below.

Donna Winchell

Coming to Terms

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Feb 8, 2019


On January 22, New York’s Democrat-controlled legislature passed and Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a controversial Reproductive Health Act that has conservatives crying foul. Liberals and conservatives alike can understand the law’s purpose: To protect the rights currently protected by Rowe v. Wade should that historic decision be reversed on the federal level. New York’s Reproductive Health Act goes a step farther to decriminalize abortion. As is often the case, those on both sides of the issue need to read what the law really says. And once again, definition of key terms is central to how the new law is interpreted.


Abortion legislation has long had to address the difficult concept of when life begins. Something as simple as referring to the product of conception as a fetus as opposed to a child can color how a law is viewed. Legislators have also had to confront what “late-term abortion” means. Donald Trump, Jr., recently referred to “post-term abortion,” which seems to be a medical impossibility: “And when I watch those Democrats standing there saying that, ‘Oh, it’s terrible that you can’t let someone kill a baby that is in the process of being born, in labor or shortly thereafter’ something’s very wrong.” Trump took Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s comments about how he would deal with a non-viable baby or one with severe deformities out of context to say that Northam would “execute a baby after birth.” Killing a baby in the process of being born, during labor, or shortly thereafter would not be right by anyone’s standards, and numerous charges of double homicide have been brought against those accused of killing a pregnant woman whose child consequently dies. This is not, however, the meaning of the term abortion.


Speaking out against the New York legislation, Trump, Sr., said, “Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” Why anyone would rip a baby from its mother’s womb moments before birth is unfathomable and is, again, hardly an abortion. Key words in the legislation explain under what circumstances abortion would be allowed. What the New York law says is this: A health care practitioner “may perform an abortion when, according to the practitioner’s judgment based on the facts of the patient’s case: the patient is within twenty-four weeks from the commencement of pregnancy, and there is an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.”


Doctors have long since defined when a fetus is viable or can survive outside of the womb. The term “viable” refers to both the fetus’s gestation period and its condition. All but seven states currently place limits on when an abortion can be performed based on viability—generally 20-24 weeks after conception. The tragedy of having to make the decision to abort a child after the point of viability usually arises because doctors have determined that the child will be stillborn or will die very soon after birth. For most women that decision is not lightly made. Before Rowe V. Wade, a pregnant woman whose fetus was dead could not abort the child under medical supervision but had to wait until her body aborted it.


Not everyone agrees whether an unborn child should be sacrificed to save the life of the mother. Even more controversial is whether that should be done to protect the mother’s health, since “health” covers a lot of territory, including mental health. The language surrounding abortion is full of pitfalls and is emotionally charged because it touches on some of Americans’ most firmly held beliefs, whether it is belief in the rights of the unborn or the right of women to make choices regarding their own bodies.


Photo Credits: “Anti-abortion protest at Planned Parenthood” by Fibonacci Blue on Flickr, 4/6/12 via a CC BY 2.0 license and "Women's March against Donald Trump " by Fibonacci Blue on Flickr, 1/21/17 via a CC BY 2.0 license.


I’ve been in Sweden visiting at the University of Orebro, where we talked about gender neutral language in general and gender neutral pronouns in particular. Teachers and scholars there are as concerned with language equity as we are in the U.S. so we traded stories about “singular they” and alternative pronouns. One colleague remembered reading a study that rewrote a passage to use gender neutral language throughout and reported that readers had a harder time understanding and remembering the gender neutral message, which seemed to have lost specificity. I was fascinated by this study—but my Swedish colleague could not remember where she had read it or any further details: if anyone knows of this study, or any others like it, I would be very grateful to have that information.


While I’ve been focusing on gender neutral pronouns and how to advise students to think carefully about their use of pronouns and about preferences those they address may have, I completely missed a book by James W. Pennebaker—though it’s been out nearly a decade. In The Secret Life of Pronouns, Pennebaker, who is Regents Centennial Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a well-known researcher on the relationship between writing and health, studies low function words (like pronouns and articles) to see what they may reveal about the social and psychological states of speakers who use them. Pennebaker and his team use analytical programs like the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count to analyze very large bodies of text and determine correlations. For example, when pundits criticized President Obama, saying that he was overly-fond of “I words” and suggesting that this signaled self-centeredness, Pennebaker went to work. As he reported, his research showed that Obama used fewer instances of I words than any other modern President. Further, this research revealed that people who are confident and self-assured (like President Obama) generally use fewer I words than insecure speakers, who rely on them much more heavily.


Of special interest to me is Pennebaker’s study of speakers/writers who shift between first and third person pronouns. These people, Pennebaker finds, tend to be able to shift perspectives, looking at an issue from other people’s points of view. This is a very intriguing finding, one scholars in writing studies and writing programs might well pursue. We now have enough large collections of student writing to carry out analyses using Pennebaker’s tools (or ones of our own design). Doing so could give us new information we could share with students about their own pronoun usage—at the very least. So perhaps it’s time to broaden and deepen our interest in pronouns: who knew they had such an exciting secret life?!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 623167 by nile, used under the Pixabay License

I am continuing to look at suggestions for working with multilingual students in FYC and IRW co-requisite classrooms. This week, I’d like to consider vocabulary development, an area of struggle for many students in basic writing classrooms, but particularly for multilingual writers. When I poll my students about writing concerns, a lack of vocabulary is often mentioned as a barrier or challenge.


My current IRW co-requisite supports a writing-about-writing (WAW) FYC course, which means I am asking my students to tackle some tough reading assignments, and it is in the context of those reading assignments that I first address vocabulary. Before students begin a WAW reading assignment, I provide a reading guide that includes some key vocabulary words. The guide primes students for the text and scaffolds the reading for them, allowing them to work through the content without repeated stops to refer to a dictionary or a translator.


But this initial exposure to lexical items is only the start of the learning process; even though students will see the words multiple times within the context of the reading, “acquiring” these words means understanding more than a translation or a definition.   Most linguists or language teachers would include the following as part of “knowing a word”:  pronunciation, spelling, register, part of speech, connotations, and collocations, in addition to the dictionary definitions. And for many words, there are multiple definitions to consider.


Within my IRW classes, therefore, I target a set of critical vocabulary throughout the term. I choose words that I know students will encounter more than once in our class readings, words that are critical for discussions of language and writing. I may also choose words that occur on the Academic Word List, which is a list of words and word families that occur across multiple academic disciplines. When I “target” words, I introduce and highlight these words as they occur in context, and I provide focused practice and opportunities for use. 


What does that look like? To highlight words in context, consider these strategies:

  • Preview the words before a reading.
  • Highlight the words in a reading by reading paragraphs aloud, emphasizing target words, and discussing the sentences in which they occur.
  • Incorporate the words in lectures and include them on class handouts and assignment instructions, giving students a chance to hear and see them.
  • Ask students open-ended questions that include the words.


To provide more focused instruction, consider these ideas:

  • Provide related parts of speech. For example, when students learn the noun “concession,” I also teach the related verb “concede.” Then students practice with both words, using cloze (fill in the blank) and grammatical judgment exercises. The latter type of exercise requires students to determine whether or not something is a possible sentence. For example, students must determine if we can say, “I will concession this point.” If they decide it is not acceptable, then they offer an alternative: we’d have to say “concede this point.”
  • Provide collocations. We can make concessions or offer concessions, but we don’t do concessions. We make a concession on or about a certain issue, and we concede that something is the case; we don’t make concessions to an issue (although we can make a concession to a person), and we don’t concede to do something (with an infinitive). Again, I present this information explicitly (a chart works well to show verb + prepositions combinations), point to it in our readings, and provide practice exercises. I frequently draw the incorrect sentences for these exercises from examples in student writing, and students often seemed relieved to have the clarification.
  • Look at contrasts carefully. As students study words and look at translations, they may encounter similar words with different connotations or nuances. With concession, for example, students may want to understand the difference between a concession and an admission; we discuss those differences explicitly. At times, students ask questions I can’t answer immediately. After all, there are many things about words that I know intuitively but have never been required to articulate. I will think about the question for a day or two, perhaps ask a colleague or consult the OED, and then take an answer back to the class. We also make the fact of tacit knowledge a topic of class discussion, emphasizing that all of us, as language-users, have such knowledge about language.
  • Celebrate attempts to use the words, whether successful or not.


While some of these activities may seem daunting or time-consuming, it actually takes little time to preview words and find ways to emphasize them within the context of other class activities. The focus exercises are not particularly hard to draw up either, and can be implemented in just a few moments at the beginning or the end of a class.  


Finally, instructors can let students guide on-going vocabulary study by asking for some basic feedback at the end of a class period or as part of a reflection journal: What are three words from our reading or class discussion that confused you or that you’d like to know more about?


For more about vocabulary and multilingual writers, I recommend the work of Paul Nation, Keith Folse, or Michael Lewis.


What are your strategies for helping multilingual writers learn and use new vocabulary?

Andrew HollingerAndrew Hollinger (nominated by Randall Monty) is pursuing his PhD in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University, and expects to finish in May 2020. He is the coordinator for first year writing at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. In addition to teaching in the writing program, he also teaches technical communication, and composition theory and pedagogy. His research interests include articulation theory, especially around teachers, students, and Education; writing studies; experience architecture and public rhetoric; and pedagogy.



FYW is Liminal

We forget, I think, what it’s like to not know how to write, think, study. Or, rather: what it’s like to not know something and also not know how to deal with it. Professional scholars and writers thrive in unknowing and inquiry; perhaps it’s the thrill of discovery and articulation that drives us. At the very least, we’ve acclimated.


Enter first year writing. While trying to become (very poetic and all), students enter our classes where they are confronted with many of the misconceptions they’ve been writing and working and learning under for the last twelve years of their schooling, things like there is one way/method/protocol that anyone can follow to produce “good” writing (that pesky universal discourse that even we have trouble dissuading our peers across campus of), or that getting better at grammar or vocabulary will translate to better writing, or that someone either has it or they don’t (I’m a math person, anyway), and so on. Overcoming the misconceptions is, itself, a daunting task. Add to that our content—writing is an activity and a subject (What does that mean?); “good” writing is contextual and situational (How do I know the situation?); not all composition is alphabetic text on a page (What?!)—and it’s a wonder our students don’t glimpse the syllabus on the first day and walk out.


The assumption, it sometimes seems, is that students and faculty outside of the writing program and rhet/comp  think first year writing is an obligatory course, a hurdle to jump. Show up, writing the essays, get your grade, and move on. The truth is more complex and less poetic.


First year writing is part of the first year experience—whether or not the course formally resides within a university-wide FYE infrastructure. Traditional students are transitioning from high school. Nontraditional students are trying to transition into a school mindset. Many students (even the “good” ones, whatever that means) don’t know what it means to be in college. What does it mean to be a scholar? What does it mean to engage with the genres and media and conventions of a discipline? What does it mean to think and struggle through ideas? Without guidance, many students end up making it through their time in college simply surviving, without really experiencing the full possibilities available to them.


First year writing, then, serves several functions and purposes: the teaching of (multimodal) composition and the larger social project of helping students enter the university (in all senses of “enter”). That is, first year writing is uniquely situated to perform the important work of teaching our course content while also equipping students for success in their other courses, in the jobs, and perhaps even interpersonally (though that’s a blog post for another time) if we, as instructors, can develop assignments that deliberately respond to both the academic and social areas our class is already in.


Assignments Can Be Bridges

Enter (again) first year writing and my assignment, Research Three Ways: Becoming an Academic. This project (three separate assignments) is intended for the second course in a two-course first year writing sequence, but could easily be adapted for the first course or a single course. The initial assignment is fairly common, a research paper. My own classes focus on writing as its own subject as well as threshold concepts, so students often write about topics that concern writing, reading, literacy, and learning. However, this assignment should work well with any focus, theme, or writing approach.


The interesting thing about this assignment is what happens during the writing of the research paper. Students are asked to track, color code, and annotate their revisions. (Why not just use “track changes” on Word or Google Drive or Draftback? You could. I like this approach because it slows the process down and requires students to make physical moves that parallel their cognitive maneuvers and rhetorical decisions.) This part of the assignment communicates early to students that

  1. We will be drafting and revising; it’s not even possible to write this paper the night before it’s due.
  2. Writing happens on purpose. Even when we are incidentally clever, the choice to leave it in constitutes a rhetorical choice and a purposeful composer.
  3. Additionally, done this way, the assignment asks students to frame and contextual their revisions.


Working through a research paper like this is like walking through a building with all the scaffolding still up. It’s easier to see how things were constructed, why this beam has to go here or why this wall has windows but this one doesn’t. Not only does the element of the assignment put everything on display (which is a great teaching tool), but it allows us to talk through the kinds of things we do automatically when we write for our own jobs. It goes back to the first year experience: this is what it is like to think through a problem and struggle through its solution. In this moment, we’re teaching students how to write and also how to be successful college students.


The remaining elements of the project, the conference presentation and the public document continue the twin processes of writing instruction and scholarly invitation and cultivation. After completing the research paper, students reframe their work as a presentation and then remix it as a document for a public (and, usually, lay audience). Pedagogically, students are engaging with multimodal composition and revision practices. They are self-editing and recasting their work to fit new and novel scenarios while still maintaining connections to the original research goals and products. For the larger college picture, we are inviting students to be scholars while also demonstrating how to work and think through their other courses.


First year writing is an important course, one with its own content, theory, pedagogy, threshold concepts, and implications. It is also a course that is inherently liminal, interstitial. Our students are moving and becoming. Even our content is constantly evolving. This assignment is one small way that we can help our students lean into the unfamiliar in productive and meaningful ways.


To view Andrew's assignment, visit Research Three Ways: Becoming an Academic. To learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board, visit the Bedford New Scholars page on the Macmillan English Community.

Six warning signs, all stating 'Keep Out - Zombie Infected Area'I kicked off Spring semester with some discussion questions meant to work as icebreakers. Two of the prompts are fairly typical: one asks students to talk about an object significant to their careers, and the other asks students to brainstorm characteristics of technical writing based on their experience and observations.

As an alternative to those two fairly customary discussion topics, I devised this third, more playful prompt, “Your Career and the Zombie Apocalypse”:

Imagine that the Zombie Apocalypse is upon us. The walking dead are bearing down upon your part of the country, and everyone in the world is working to stop them and preserve life in the world as it was before the zombie awakening. As a way to introduce yourself to the class, write a reply that tells us the following: 

  1. your major and career goal (i.e., what do you want to be when you graduate?).
  2. what one thing people in your career can do right now* to stop the zombies.
  3. how that one thing will be effective.

*In other words, this one thing needs to be a capability that your career already has. You cannot make up some solution that does not exist. That would be too easy :)

I’m delighted to report that the Zombies Discussion has been the most popular by far. Even more significant to me, students’ responses are showing a wonderful level of creative and analytical thinking. For instance, one computer science major suggested creating programs that analyze live video streams, comparing appearance and movements to what zombies look like and the ways that zombies walk in order to determine when zombies are near. Not a bad solution, I think. Even better, however, were the replies . One student asked how the program would tell the difference between zombies and people in zombie costumes. Another wondered how the program would differentiate between zombies and people with mobility issues, like senior citizens or people with injuries or disabilities.

Other students have talked about military drone strikes, protecting information systems, security of the water supply, crowdsourcing reports of outbreaks, social media survivor networks, cures and vaccinations, DNA modification, landscape barriers, and more.

Zombies aren’t really my thing, but the success of this icebreaker has convinced me that they have a place in this course. I am even wondering about an all-Zombie section of technical writing. Imagine the assignment opportunities:

  • Technical Description of a Zombie
  • Instructions for Trapping a Zombie
  • Directives for Zombie Safety
  • Zombie Sighting Field Report
  • Zombie Incident Reports
  • Recommendation Report on a Zombie Apocalypse Solution

There are so many options—and a good bit of fun to be had. I swear I would try this next term if we had a way to advertise a special focus section of technical writing on my campus. Who knew that an icebreaker would be so inspiring?

What kinds of icebreakers do you use? More importantly, are there zombies in your writing classroom? Leave me a comment below to tell me about your classes. I’d love to hear from you.


Photo Credit: Zombie Zone by Michel Curi on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

This semester, I am teaching a second semester college writing class on writing about literature through a rhetorical understanding of academic writing. The class includes English majors and potential majors in the humanities, as well as students whose interest range from STEM to social sciences. The diversity of majors and the course constraints offer interesting questions for building a syllabus (as explained in a previous post) and for designing assignments. In selecting readings and tasks for the course, I considered the following challenges in critical thinking and motivation:


  • Critical Thinking.: What would encourage students to think outside the box of previous training? Whether students excelled as creative writers in high school, or studied literature for the sole purpose of succeeding in standardized tests, how might students discover new approaches to understanding literature?
  • Motivation. How can the class present students with opportunities to experience for themselves implications of literature for everyday life? How
    could students observe the persuasive power of language while challenging themselves to grow as writers through rhetorical practice?


Inspiration emerged as a keyword for both challenges. Inspiration allows us to think outside the box, while providing connections between the sublime and everyday life. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word inspire has these origins:


Middle English enspire, from Old French inspirer, from Latin inspirare 'breathe or blow into' from in- 'into' + spirare 'breathe'. The word was originally used of a divine or supernatural being, in the sense 'impart a truth or idea to someone'.


Inspiration as breathing is a powerful metaphor. Considering these roots, I understood that it would be important to choose the readings for our first day with great care. I offered the class this introduction to the course:


This section of the course is based on the principle of what the 19th-century poet John Keats called negative capability, inspirational power of beauty. Writing may not be easy, and sometimes writing is not very pretty -- but writing, both process and product, can be a powerful inspiration in our lives. Keats and James Baldwin (who we will read later this semester) believed this-- and so do I. This is the reason I became a writer and this is why I am a teacher. Welcome to this Spring 2019 community of writers!


Our next step would be to read and listen to the words of two seemingly different examples: Kendrick Lamar’s i (from the album To Pimp a Butterfly) and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the Marriage of True Minds.”). Yet these readings share a deep sense of the emotional labor of love and love’s connections to inspiration. Kendrick Lamar’s text repeats the refrain, “I love myself,” and his words and body language in performance underscore the hard work involved in honoring this love. Shakespeare’s sonnet, in describing what love is not, address the constant need for discovering what love is. Considered in the same moment, these readings point to literary approaches to questions of love, and the meaning of such questions for everyday life. I imagine that students will offer even more insights into these connections.


With these considerations in mind, we will work our way toward beginning the first essay of the semester that will hopefully inspire my students critical thinking and motivation in their writing.


Follow these steps to complete Essay #1:

  1. Write journal entries that summarize and analyze each of the poems in your own words. Use evidence from the poems and the literary terms to support your ideas. All journal entries are based on your interpretations and opinions using evidence from the readings.


  1. Select at least one of the literary terms|key words that interests you. Write a journal entry that applies the literary terms to one of the poems. Refer to previous journal entries to explain your selection. You can write the entry as a poem, or as a conventional journal entry in paragraph form. Refer to previous journal entries to explain your selections.


  1. Choose at least one of the poems from the list below as a focus for Essay #1. Write a journal entry that explains your choice. Refer to previous journal entries to explain your choice.


  1. Investigate negative capability in the poem, the inspirational power of beauty (Poetry Foundation Website). Write a journal entry that responds to this prompt:


Which Literary Terms|Key Words allow you to better understand this inspiration? Why? Offer as many details as possible. Include details from previous journal entries as appropriate. This entry serves as a draft.


  1. Revise drafts for a  final essay that showcases your best work on Unit 1. Make a google.doc for your final essay and share it with me. Copy and paste a link to your google.doc in the course management submission portal. Only submissions with shared google.doc links can be evaluated.


POEMS: Eight poems spanning more than 400 years of British and American Literature:

Sonnet 116: Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds (William Shakespeare 1609)

The Tyger (William Blake 1794)

Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers (Adrienne Rich 1951)

Harlem by Langston (Langston Hughes 1951)

kitchenette building (Gwendolyn Brooks 1963)

My Brother at 3 A.M. (Natalie Diaz 2012)

A Small Needful Fact (Ross Gay 2015)

i  (single version)(Kendrick Lamar 2015; performance 2014)


LITERARY TERMS: A poem is as intricate as a motherboard and just as complex. Just as there are specific words that can help users to explain a motherboard’s wiring, there also are terms that allow readers and writers to explicate the circuitry of a poem. All of the terms are applicable to your own writing for the course, and can be for rhetorical analysis to better understand the meanings of persuasive language and the impact of this language for the audience (Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric). Here are several of those terms: imagery, irony, personification, tone.

Today’s guest blogger is Kim Haimes-Korn a Professor of English and Digital Writing at Kennesaw State University. Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning and critical digital literacies and focuses on students’ powers to create their own knowledge through language and various “acts of composition.” She likes to have fun every day, return to nature when things get too crazy, and think deeply about way too many things. She loves teaching. It has helped her understand the value of amazing relationships and boundless creativity. You can reach Kim at or visit her website: Acts of Composition.


This multimodal assignment is not original. In fact, I have seen many versions and applications of the idea but it is a great starting place for digital and visual storytellers. It is also popular in a textual form called Six Word Stories, often attributed to Hemingway’s legendary six-word story: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. Authors expand this genre to include other short-short versions such as sudden fiction or flash fiction that constrain conventions based on length and careful selection to achieve a narrative line. Although this idea has been around for a while, it is gaining new life through social media outlets such as Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, and Facebook that now feature this challenge for their users. Students can search for examples and submit their own stories on designated sites such as This exercise asks students to carefully consider the ways that very few words can take the shape of a story and advance a storyline. I like to have students analyze them and try their hand at composing these stories. This helps them begin to understand narrative theory, literary analysis, and the power of carefully selected language. It also is a good exercise for understanding and working with rhetorical constraints (only six words) and genre expectations.


When teaching digital storytelling, I use a similar assignment in which I have students compose a Five Image Story. Flickr has an existing group for visual storytellers to engage in this challenge: The Five Image Story. Here students can join the group and analyze examples of Five Image Stories for sequence and narrative line, visual effectiveness, and impact of the story.   They can also join the conversation, respond to others’ stories, and contribute their own. They must submit five images, in sequence without any text, except a title. I have students compose and submit their Five Image Stories to the Flickr conversation and post them on their blogs to share with their classmates. 


Background Readings and Resources


Steps to the Assignment

  1. Open up the conversation about the nature of stories. Have students identify what makes an effective story: engagement, meaning, progression, change, perspective, impact, etc. I usually have them participate in an online conversation about the meaning and shape of stories and then work in small groups in the classroom. We then try to generate a list from these conversations. Here are a few example responses:  
    1. Most importantly, stories describe a journey.
    2. Stories pass down knowledge and wisdom; offer advice; act as warnings; and serve as a reflection of the culture in which they were created.
    3. Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years. It is as innate as the need for companionship and belonging. Stories surround us all the time. I hear stories in music and podcasts; I read stories online, in books, in the news; I live my own story every day. 
    4. Stories at their most basic are comprised of a beginning, middle, and end.
    5. Stories are everywhere, just waiting to be told. 
  2. Next, I introduce the idea of the Six Word Stories and the Five Image Stories and we analyze a couple of examples. 
  3. Then, I send students to the Flickr site and have them join the group and look through the posted stories. As a group, they choose ones they like, discuss them, and connect to the features and ideas generated in their Meaning and Shape of stories conversation from earlier.
  4. Once they have an idea of the genre, they move to composing their own Five Image Stories. I have them post to Flickr to participate in this public archive and post to their own blogs for our class. In addition to their title, I require them to include a context statement on their blog (as I do for all Multimodal Mondays blog posts).
  5. Students then review the Five Image Stories of their classmates. Students present their stories and teammates discuss what makes them effective and engaging. Each team chooses a couple they consider strong and presents them to the full class.


Reflection on the Activity

This is a great activity to get students thinking about narrative and digital storytelling – an important component of multimodal composition. It challenges them to think conceptually and to begin to understand genre and structure. It teaches students the importance of image composition, curation, selection, arrangement, and constructing narrative lines. I am always interested in the different types of stories they create. Some are stories of progression, such as Sean’s advancing narrative of a kitten to a cat or Lydia’s story of experiences with her friend over a span of years. Some confine their narrative time span to a shorter time, such as Elijah’s story of a single day in his life. Some students reflect back on defining experiences, like Donna who includes images of tickets she has collected over the years. Others, like McKenna, project forward and engage in a predictive story about where she wants to travel in the future. Many students focus on significant objects to reveal something about their individual stories and some students, like Andrew, create conceptual stories that speak to universal ideas.  He captured unstacking nesting dolls to represent the idea of “Together We are Strong.”


Follow the links below to view some student examples