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When Sonia and I began working on the first edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. in 1992, semiotics was still regarded as a rather obscure scholarly discipline generally associated with literary theory and linguistics. It also was quite literally unheard of to attempt to employ semiotics as a model for critical thinking in first-year composition classes, and Chuck Christensen, the Publisher and Founder of Bedford Books, was rather sticking his neck out when he offered us a contract. To help everyone at Bedford along in the development process of this unusual textbook, he asked me to provide a one-page explanation of what semiotics actually is, and I responded with a semiotic analysis of the then-popular teen fashion of wearing athletic shoes—preferably Nikes—with their shoelaces untied. That did the trick and Sonia and I were on our way.


As you may note, the focus of my semiotic explanation for the Bedford folks was on an object (athletic shoes), with the intent of demonstrating how ordinary consumer products could be taken as signs bearing a larger cultural significance. This was quite consistent with semiotic practice at the time in the field of popular cultural studies, which frequently analyzed cultural objects and images. But even then I knew that the real focus of cultural semiotics in Signs of Life was human behavior as mediated by such things as fashion preferences, and with each new edition of the book, I have been further refining just what that means.


And so, as I work on the tenth edition of the book, I have come to realize that the semiotic analysis of cultural behavior bears a close relationship to the science of artificial intelligence. For just like AI, the semiotics of human behavior works with aggregated patterns based upon what people actually do rather than what they say. Consider how the ALEKS mathematics adaptive learning courseware works. Aggregating masses of data acquired by tracking students as they do their math homework on an LMS, ALEKS algorithmically anticipates common errors and prompts students to correct them step-by-step as they complete their assignments. This is basically the same principle behind the kind of algorithms created by Amazon, Facebook, and Google, which are designed to anticipate consumer behavior, and it's also the principle behind Alexa and Siri.


Now, semioticians don't spy on people, and they don't construct algorithms, and they don't profit by their analyses the way the corporate titans do, but they do take note of what people do and look for patterns by creating historically informed systems of association and difference in order to provide an abductive basis for the most likely, or probable, interpretation of the behavior that they are analyzing—as when in my last blog I looked at the many decades in which the character of the Joker has remained popular in order to interpret that popularity.


Now, to take another fundamental principle of cultural semiotics—that of the role of cultural mythologies in shaping social behavior—one can anticipate a good deal of resistance (especially from students) to the notion that individual human behavior can be so categorically interpreted in this way, for the mythology of individualism runs deep in the American grain. We like to think that our behavior is entirely free and unconstrained by any sort of mathematically-related probabilities. But it wouldn't bother a probability theorist, especially one like Sir David Spiegelhalter, a Cambridge University statistician, who has noted that “Just as vast numbers of randomly moving molecules, when put together, produce completely predictable behavior in a gas, so do vast numbers of human possibilities, each totally unpredictable in itself, when aggregated, produce an amazing predictability”.


So, when we perform a semiotic interpretation of popular culture, we are on the lookout for that probability curve, even as we anticipate individual outriders and exceptions (which can themselves point to different patterns that may be equally significant in what is, after all, an overdetermined interpretation). But our goal as semioticians is to reveal the significance of the patterns that we find, not to exploit them, and thus, perhaps, modify those behaviors that, all unawares, are doing harm.


Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 2587756 by Stock Snap, used under Pixabay License


On this Halloween, I am in Lawrence, MA, joining the Andover Bread Loaf group of teachers from Lawrence’s public schools and the students who act as writing consultants throughout the city. Founded, inspired, and led by Lou Bernieri, a genius if ever there was one, Andover Bread Loaf has changed the lives of disenfranchised inner-city students and their teachers, as well as those of students attending the super-elite Phillips Academy (Andover). We are here celebrating the work of these students along with high school representatives from several Next Generation Leadership Network sites, each of which aims to engage young people in taking on leadership roles and in writing and speaking their way into, and then shaping, public discourse.


I will write more about this thrilling meeting in a week or so, but right now I am about to ask the students here what or who they might want to “be” this Halloween. I’ve thought a lot about this question this year. Everywhere I look I see greedy, craven, corrupt people: no one out there to emulate. No one to look up to or admire unless I look very locally, to people like Lou or the fabulous teachers he works with. But then I thought again. And I was sure: if I were to “be” someone today, this Halloween, someone who represents the best of us, well, I’d be Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the “notorious RBG.”


In a Times editorial published a few weeks ago, columnist Thomas Friedman wrote of going to the opening concert of the National Symphony Orchestra:

At mid-concert, the chairman of the Kennedy Center, David M. Rubinstein, came out to greet the audience and the V.I.P.s. He welcomed the different ambassadors, then he went through the cabinet members present and then the Supreme Court justices. He introduced Justice Samuel Alito, who got a smattering of applause. Then he introduced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, seated in the balcony. First many women in the audience stood up to applaud. And then everyone stood up. And then everyone applauded. And then everyone applauded more. And then some people cheered. And then some whistled. And it went on and on and on.


It was extraordinary. I’ve been to a lot of Kennedy Center concerts, and a few when the president, sitting in his official box, was introduced. But I’ve never witnessed anything like the reception for Justice Ginsburg. And this was not a totally liberal audience. There were many older G.O.P. donors and corporate types there. This was a spontaneous, bipartisan expression of respect for, and longing for, a national leader of integrity and humility — after three years of a president utterly without shame, for whom no ethical red line has been too red to cross.


There is still a civic pulse in this country. (New York Times, Oct. 1, 2019)


If Friedman is right, if there is a “civic pulse” in the country and if there is truly longing for a “national leader of integrity and humility,” then I agree with him that Justice Ginsburg is such a person. On this Halloween, she’s my hero and the person I’d most like to “dress up” as. And not just that: she’s the person I want to hold before me as a steady, reassuring force for honesty and fairness and, yes, humility—and then try as hard as I can to “be like RBG.”


If you’re teaching today, ask your students who they would most like to “go as” on Halloween and why. This could be a fun writing prompt that leads to an interesting discussion!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1838545 by Pexels, used under the Pixabay License

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


A photo of the top of a British red telephone box, focused on the word "TELEPHONE" and a royal crown decoration.


Has the United Kingdom or Brexit come up in your classes lately? If so, this is a great opportunity to use Grammar Girl podcasts to learn more about another form of English!


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."


Comparing British and American Englishes with Grammar Girl

  • Names of Groups: British versus American English Usage [3:46]
  • American English versus British English [4:36]
  • Why Are British English and American English Different? [6:06]


Assignment: Choose one or more of the above podcasts and listen as a class; remind students they can also read along using the transcripts. Ask each student to take notes on their general thoughts and observations as they listen. After, discuss as a class: What did they learn about British English? About American English? Was anything surprising or did they know this information already?


Tip: If you want to focus on a specific aspect of English using these podcasts, you can. For subject-verb agreement, listen to “Names of Groups: British versus American English Usage.” If you want to discuss word usage and pronunciation, listen to “American English versus British English.” To discuss spelling differences, listen to “Why Are British English and American English Different?


Have you used podcasts to discuss different Englishes in class? Let us know in the comments!


Credit: Pixabay Image 203492 by Ichigo121212, used under a Pixaby License


I’ve just been reading Nancy Bou Ayash’s Toward Translingual Realities in Composition: (Re)Working Local Language Representations and Practices (2019). It’s a bit of a struggle for me—fairly dense in places, but I’m very glad I’m reading it. I was drawn to it by the cover (pictured above): who wouldn’t want to turn the page and find out what’s inside?!


The case Ayash makes for “translingual realities” is compelling, based on her own research in Beirut and in Seattle; the book is brimming with examples of translingual practices throughout. Because I know Seattle pretty well, I have especially enjoyed reading about the research conducted there, and one paragraph sparked my imagination in all kinds of ways. It’s long, but I think you’ll enjoy it:

On the walls of one of Seattle’s breakfast locations known for its twelve-egg omelets, the decorative collection of illustrations and accompanying textual descriptions patrons have playfully designed while waiting for their food as they mix languages, Englishes, language varieties, and visualization elements . . . portrays the city’s blending and bending of resources and practices. The flow of customers as they come and go, enter and exit that particular space has significantly expanded that canvas all the way to the restaurant’s entrance where the front door is now covered with graphic and textual creations. Bringing southern barbecue and brew to Seattle’s hip Ballard neighborhood, a counter service joint in a former barbecue wasteland is known not only for its smoky fall-off-the-bone-style ribs but also for the availability of writable chalkboard walls in its restrooms, with customers mobilizing meaning and language resources as they move in and out. At another jam-packed restaurant large enough to accommodate only ten tables, its whiteboard side wall is an open invitation to its primarily Spanish-speaking clientele usually on a one- to two-hour wait to grab black markers, search for blank surfaces, write, and draw on that fluid canvas. Covered with dry-erase paint, the interior walls of this Mexican steakhouse are adorned with Spanish, English, and Spanglish used in an interwoven mix to depict local experiences of and connections with the transnational migration of the culinary gene pool of the northwestern Sinaloa region across the US/Mexican border all the way to the Pacific Northwest region. (105)


Wow, what a scene! I love thinking about these restaurant-goers becoming authors and artists on the spot, mixing it up with languages, dialects, drawings—expressing themselves with fun and evidently with flair. Now I am going to be looking for examples of these open spaces for writing in public places like restaurants, writing that definitely strays outside the “lines” of a page or screen but is not graffiti (or is it?). I can also imagine sending my students out on field trips to gather additional data first hand: I can see them fanning out across San Francisco’s Chinatown or South of Market, around Oakland’s Jack London Square and other places in the East Bay, in search of “translingual realities” and bringing them to class to examine together and to use as a means of understanding translingualism—and not just understanding it better, but practicing it ourselves. And to go further, asking how these translingual realities relate to the writing they are doing in college and to ask how such realities might work to engage and influence that writing.


So thanks to Nancy Bou Ayash for taking me on this ride: I am now looking for “translingual realities” everywhere!


Image Credit: Andrea Lunsford

If I surveyed composition or IRW instructors about the student questions we find most frustrating, I am sure there would be considerable overlap in our responses. I would love to say that I am so calm, so focused on student support and student learning, that I am never flustered by student questions, and I am never tempted to give a snarky reply. But of course, this is not the case. Certain questions trigger my irritation, and more than I’d like to admit it, some rather unhelpful responses.


I got one of those questions last week. My students are writing rhetorical analyses of arguments about writing (choosing chapters from Bad Ideas about Writing as the focus of analysis), certainly not the easiest of tasks for beginning writers. To prepare for the assignment, I lead students through activities sequenced to scaffold instruction: first we practice summary, then recognition of argument components, then identification of various stylistic devices related to tone, stance, and engagement. In each case, we move from a large group discussion to a group or paired practice, and then individual practice.  The week before students begin working on their own drafts, they collaborate with others to practice parts of the assignment: summarizing the article, noting key elements of the argument, and crafting a thesis statement. We review these collaborative pieces as a whole class, discussing what works and what doesn’t. 


After the weeks of preparation and three preparatory “check-points” (summarizing the article they had selected for analysis, making a bulleted list of key rhetorical strategies, and drafting a thesis), I set aside a class period for drafting. About ten minutes into that class session devoted to drafting, a student came to me and asked me that question:  “So, what are we doing?” This student had been present for all the previous classes. This student had access to the handouts, the instructions, the samples, and the collaborative exercises—and the student had selected and summarized an article. But the student was completely lost when it came to drafting his analysis. “So what are we doing? Am I just supposed to write what I think about this topic?”


Snark filled my mind: what did the student think we were doing? Talk about a failure to transfer – how much nearer could writing situations be? And yet there was a failure to connect the previous three weeks, the collaborative practice and the checkpoints, to the current task. And in the moment, I am pretty sure I widened my eyes (but refrained from rolling them). The student must have noted my reaction.


I remembered my own teaching goal: build writing-talk so as to support metacognition, reflection, and transfer. I encouraged the student to get the assignment instructions, and we talked through what we had already done in preparation. The student nodded and went back to the computer. Still, it took some time before the draft began to take shape.


This week, the students in that class met with me in groups of four for review conferences. The questioning student came with a draft that did not address rhetorical analysis in any way, despite the review we went through on drafting day. During the conferences, we projected drafts one by one onto a screen for group discussion. And during this student-led discussion, the student had a breakthrough: “So that’s what we’re doing. I need to go back and re-think my thesis.” Other students made suggestions and gave encouragement, and the student left with a focus for revision.


“So what are we doing?” I need to remember the grammar embedded in this question.  “So” is a discourse connector; the question doesn’t appear in a vacuum. Part of instruction in meta-talk is helping students make connections to our previous discourse, to see the cohesiveness of the instruction up to that point. And it’s “we” – not just “I.” I have told the students we are a community, and answers often arise in collaborative work, just as they did for this student in our group conference. Finally, the question is in present progressive: a work in process. The process includes what we have done (present perfect) and what we will do (future), and each part is tied together. From the present moment, especially from the student’s point of view, the process as a whole can be terribly difficult to see. 


“So what are we doing, Dr. Moore?” This terribly annoying question can be a powerful teaching moment, if I will let it.


What questions annoy you in the writing classroom? How are you handling them?

Long before California Assembly Bill 705 went into effect, making accelerated composition the de facto first-semester composition course in my state, I was privileged to be part of a group of educators and counselors working for Santa Barbara City College’s Express to Success Program (ESP). 


Similar to the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) pioneered by Peter Adams and others at the Community College of Baltimore County, ESP “mainstreamed” a cohort of students who assessed below college-level into our first-semester composition course, English 110. In addition to taking 110, which met twice a week for a total of two hours and forty minutes, students in the cohort also met twice a week in English 89, a 50-minute Pass/No Pass co-requisite. Class size for English 110 was a manageable 24 students, with approximately half the students enrolled in the co-requisite.


Under the leadership of Kathy Molloy, ESP received the 2012 Chancellor’s Award for Best Practices in Student Equity and was chosen as a 2014 “Example of Excelencia” by Excelencia in Education, and was presented with the 2018 California Community Colleges Board of Governors Exemplary Program Award. It was a program with which both students and faculty were proud to be associated. (If I write at times in the past tense about the Express to Success Program, that’s because it was dissolved in May of 2019, a few months before AB705 went into effect.)


I’ll address the thorny issue of co-requisites and funding in a later post, but for the moment, I’d like to offer ESP’s co-requisite as a model for other colleges. What I found most valuable about English 89 was that it provided extra writing practice, built community, was supported by a peer tutor and counselor, combined full-class and individualized instruction, offered just in time remediation, and allowed for curricular collaboration and flexibility.


I’ll discuss the first two of these significant—and replicable—elements of the co-requisite in this post, and address the others next month. In doing so, I will be drawing not only on my own experiences, but also those of my colleagues in what was always a highly collaborative enterprise.


Extra Writing Practice

Writing is hard work, even for experienced writers, and growing as a writer requires lots of opportunities to fall flat on your face. Therefore, among the most important benefits of writing in the co-requisite is that students can experiment, take risks, and make mistakes that don’t affect their grades. Meeting twice a week allows for more of this low-stakes writing, and more time for instructors and tutors to talk students through different ways to best approach the assignment they are working on.


Sandra Starkey, my wife and ESP colleague, was always keen to make sure students generated at least some text during the fifty minutes they were in class. “The co-requisite,” she says, “gives students a chance to actually engage in writing. I tell them they’re like journalists: they have a deadline—the end of class—and they’re going to have to turn in a draft of a paragraph for the essay they’re working on. It may not be perfect, but it’s something they’ll be able to take home and work on further.”


As a writer myself, I loved the frenzy of drafting and revision that went on when the co-requisite was humming along. Students looked more closely at their texts than they were used to doing; they argued with one another—sometimes passionately—about the best way to express an idea. At its best, with everyone fully engaged in the complexities of the composition process, English 89 sometimes reminded me of a graduate writing workshop.


Building Community

Peter Adams and others are right to laud the benefits of the “cohort effect.” When students spend time together in the same small group over the course of a semester, they can’t help but come to cheer each other on. Bonny Bryan, now SBCC’s director of composition, found that what she most appreciated about English 89 “was the quick sense of community that emerged. Given its size and the fact that it was located in a computer lab, students quickly moved between working as a group of twelve to collaborating as triads and pairs.”


The small size of a co-requisite makes faculty members more accessible—and less threatening—to students, and provides instructors with opportunities to get to know their students as three-dimensional human beings. Jennifer Baxton, who took over coordinating English courses in ESP’s final semester, valued the way “the co-requisite workshop served as a way to further strengthen the connection between faculty and students, as well as students with their peers. As a group, the [co-req students] were invested in their success, working together toward the refinement of the skills taught in the composition class.”


Indeed, Kathy Molloy notes that the co-requisite students were often so enthusiastic about “the advantages of the support class…many of the students who weren’t assigned to the co-req asked to come as well—they clearly saw how helpful the extra support could be.”


Appropriately, it’s that growing sense of dedication to the act of writing that seems to create a sense of community. Enthusiasm is contagious, and with everyone in the room working towards a common goal, students begin sharing with one another their too-often untapped wisdom and kindness.


[More details on a successful model for the accelerated composition co-requisite are forthcoming in David Starkey’s next post.]

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


The idea of using music in my classes sounds simple enough but has had an amazing impact on my teaching over the years. Music and audio are important (often under emphasized) components of multimodal composition and digital content creation. Today, I want to talk about some of the ways I have used music in my classes and describe a particular assignment: The Class Playlist


I often ask students to analyze music as literature, look at lyrics through critical lenses, and interpret context, intention, and impact as social artifacts. For example, I have asked students to analyze “protest songs” and look at their place within particular historical and social contexts. With the availability of videos and lyrics online, this project is easily shared with others, so students can not only read the lyrics but also hear the actual music and analyze other components of this multimodal genre.


My classes also often involve digital community engagement for real-world projects that promote awareness or advocate for social change. Years ago, I stumbled on this wonderful organization, Playing for Change, who identify themselves as “a movement created to inspire and connect the world through music, born from the shared belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people.” I introduce students to the organization and present them with one of the first songs in their series, a version of Stand by Me performed by musicians all over the world and then reworked into an international tapestry of their voices – a format replicated by the organization over the years. This song is familiar to most people, has an uplifting melody and message, and demonstrates a great example of the ways we might create engaging multimodal content through and with music.



By happenstance, I was presenting at a professional conference and had to test my technology before my presentation. I pulled up this same song to test the audio and immediately noticed that it drew people into presentation and that it changed the mood of room, opening up my audience to hear what I had to say in ways that sitting in silence did not. I decided to continue to play it as participants entered as we gathered and set up the presentation. It challenged our notions of what we expect in these settings and used the multimodal component of music to affect the impact of the presentation. Since that day, I have often used this simple technique before I present. 


It was this experience that that led to my latest exploration of music in my writing classes – the Class Playlist. I currently teach a course that emphasizes digital storytelling and want to make sure students consider sound and music as important components of their multimodal composition processes. In class, we focus on students’ rhetorical and ethical use of music in digital contexts and the music itself as a storytelling genre.


We all love our playlists that allow us to curate songs in different ways. We can organize them around particular events, activities, or themes. In this class, since we focus on digital storytelling, I asked students to choose two songs that tell either a story (through lyrics and music) or that remind them of a story from their own lives (teachers can easily adapt this idea to their own course content). I have students submit songs to a collaborative Google document and then a move them to an online playlist app (Spotify). Each time we meet, I play one of their songs as students are settling into the room and I am taking roll and getting organized. Once the song is finished, I ask the student to explain a bit of context for the song, including why they chose it for our playlist.


Background Readings and Resources


Steps to the Assignment

  1. Introduce students to the importance of music as a multimodal and storytelling component. Present examples and/or have students work with their own examples to discuss in small groups or as a full class.
  2. Discuss ethical and professional ways and resources for using music in multimodal projects including copyright-free music sources and citation practices. (See more about Encouraging the Use of Public Domain Assets.)
  3. Ask students to submit two songs (along with links) for the class playlist – you can organize the playlist around a course theme by content or genre. This gives the playlist a cohesive goal that reinforces class content. 
  4. Move the playlist to an online app (e.g. Spotify) that curates and organizes the songs.
  5. Play selections from the list at the start of each class each day.
  6. Have students explain a bit of context for the song, including why they chose it and connect it to course content.


Reflection on the Activity

The class playlist activity takes a short amount of time and energy to incorporate into my classes. It allows me to focus attention on the importance and significance of music for multimodal composition and has the additional impact of altering the mood of the classroom to open students to a better atmosphere for learning. It takes them away from other distracting thoughts, helps focus attention on the class ahead and provides an alternate way of extending upon and enriching class content. It also provides a sense of ownership and agency in the class, in which students collaboratively create a playlist for our particular situation – another digital literacy skill. Many hear songs they have not heard before and add the playlist to their own collection as a memory of the class and these contributions. It sounds so simple but I am humbly impressed by the impact of this practice. 

Josh Chase (recommended by Marika Seigel) is a PhD student in the Rhetoric, Theory, and Culture program at Michigan Technological University. He expects to finish in May 2021. He serves as the composition program coordinator and teaches courses in composition, literature, and technical writing. He is also the managing editor of Portage Review, a transdisciplinary journal of undergraduate writing. His research interests are in rhetorical cultural studies, user-centered theory, and science and technology studies. He is currently exploring the rhetoric of conspiracy theories, the impacts of outlandish ideas on political discourse and culture, and the implications for technical communication and rhetorical theory.


Is there an instructor or scholar that helped shape your career in rhet/comp? How? 

The scholar who has most shaped my teaching is James Berlin. Berlin’s work outlines the history of composition studies and sketches the theoretical underpinnings of various classroom teaching practices. His work provides some much-appreciated context for the field I’m entering. Just as important, though, is Berlin’s reminder that “success in the classroom is never guaranteed” and that effective learning is the result of “dialectical collaboration—the interaction of student, teacher, and shared experience within a social, interdisciplinary framework,” a process whose outcome “is always unpredictable.” When I first started teaching — when I wasn’t sure if I could ever be a good teacher — Berlin prompted me to question whether I even knew what teaching was.


How does the next generation of students inspire you?

I’m very fortunate to be starting my teaching career right now precisely because the next generation of students is so inspiring. They’re often better writers than I remember myself being at 18 years old — or even now. I’m sometimes surprised when I introduce a reading or a concept that I think will be particularly interesting for my students only to find that a good number of them are already familiar with it. The idea that I could just create a solid semester-long curriculum and coast on that for a few years just isn’t an option: what seems profound to one group of students is often old hat to the next. So, in a very practical sense, my students inspire me to be a better teacher because I’m always questioning whether I have anything new to offer them. 


But they also inspire me in other ways. From climate change to growing inequality (and other challenges that we’ve yet to adequately address), the next generation seems ready to tackle the most significant challenges of our time. If rhetoric is symbolic action, then part of our job as writing teachers is to help our students find effective ways to act on these issues. For me, it’s hard to imagine anything more inspiring than that.


What is it like to co-design with the editorial team at Bedford/St. Martin's?

Honestly, before the summit, I was skeptical about co-designing with the editorial team at Bedford/St. Martin’s. I know next to nothing about educational publishing and imagined that I had little to offer them. They must know that too, I figured, so I just assumed the whole trip was an investment for them—a way of selling us on their products early in our careers. I was wrong about that. The editorial team had similar educational backgrounds and interests, they were familiar with the writers and scholars that have been influential for me, and they seemed genuinely interested in getting our perspectives on the work they plan to put out. They took criticism of their products seriously and didn’t seem interested in light or sugarcoated feedback. At heart, I think the members of the design team are teachers, too, and I’m already thinking about ways to adapt some of their workshops for my own classroom. 


What have you learned from other Bedford New Scholars?

Meeting and socializing with the other Bedford New Scholars were probably the best parts of the trip. These people are brilliant. Some of them just recently (and successfully!) went on the job market, so I was able to get a lot of good advice about that process. I learned a little bit about how composition programs from other parts of the country handle issues like growing class sizes and new teacher training. Through their Assignments that Work presentations, I learned about the different activities they’re engaging their students with and got some great ideas for adapting those activities for my own classes.


Josh’s Assignment that Works

During the Bedford New Scholars Summit, each member presented an assignment that had proven successful or innovative in their classroom. Below is a brief synopsis of Josh's assignment. You can view the full details here: Situating your Research with the CARS Model.


In the Michigan Tech composition program, by the time students begin drafting their research papers, they have already spent several weeks researching their chosen topics. Part of the scaffolding for the research paper involves composing an expanded annotated bibliography, a project that asks students to summarize and analyze a variety of relevant texts, and to both describe and reflect on their research processes.


As an activity to help students transition from a primarily research-driven mode of activity into a writing-only mode in which they engage those sources, I introduce the “Creating a Research Space” model of introductions, as outlined by John Swales and Christine Feak. While it was originally designed as a heuristic to help writers overcome the hurdles of writing an introduction, I find that the CARS model is also helpful in a broader sense: for myself and, I think, my students, it offers a way of organizing controversies and finding entry points for our own contributions—a kind of roadmap for stepping into the Burkean parlor.


While I encourage my students to use the CARS model for abstracts and introductions, that is not what I emphasize in this activity and assignment. Instead, I ask them to locate the CARS moves as they appear throughout the paper. The aim is not for students to view the model as a simple checklist that leads to a more sophisticated introduction but to see how the moves guide their engagement with sources throughout the research and writing processes.


Works Cited

Berlin, James. "Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class." Chap. in The Norton Book of Composition Studies, edited by Susan Miller, 667-84. New York: Norton, 2009.

Swales, John M., and Christine B. Feak. Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills. Vol. 1, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

Weise, Elizabeth. "Climate Change the New Vietnam War? Generation Z Poised to Change Us Politics with Activism." USA Today, May 6, 2019.


Learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board on the Bedford New Scholars Community page.

Hailed as a "must-see" movie for the apres-weekend water cooler crowd, and warily monitored by everyone from local police departments to survivors of the Aurora, Colorado massacre, Joker has surpassed its opening box office predictions and has already succeeded in becoming the current cinematic talk of the town. Such movies always make for student-engaging essay and discussion topics, and I expect that many college instructors across the country are already crafting assignments about this latest installment in the comics-inspired universe of Hollywood blockbusters.


But while many such assignments will be likely to invite debates on the advisability of making such a movie as Joker in the light of an epidemic of lunatic-loner mass shootings, while others (especially in film studies departments) will focus on the revival of the Scorsese/De Niro "character study" formula that made Taxi Driver a movie classic (heck, Joaquin Phoenix even channeled his inner-De Niro by losing a ton of weight Raging Bull style for the role, and, of course, De Niro's in the film too), a cultural semiotic analysis of the movie would take a different approach, which I will sketch out here.


To begin with, we can ask the question, "what does the enduring popularity of the Joker in American popular culture tell us?" For alone among the multitudinous villains of comic book history, the Joker returns again and again, now to star as the protagonist in his own feature film. Where's the Penguin, we might ask, or Clayface? What is it about this character that has captured the American imagination?


As with any semiotic analysis, let's start with the history of the Joker. In the beginning he was a Dick Tracy-like gangster in the tradition of Conan Doyle's evil genius Professor Moriarty, heading his own organized crime syndicate. Given a camped-up star turn in the Batman TV series of the 1960s, the Joker joined with Burgess Meredith's Penguin and a host of other really funny, but essentially harmless, villains in the days when fist fights (SMASH! BAM! POW!) were considered sufficient violence for a prime time children's television program.


The key change in the Joker's portrayal (the critical semiotic difference) came in the 1980s, when Frank Miller and Grant Morrison darkened the scenario considerably, turning the quondam clown into a psychopathic killer. This was the Joker that Jack Nicholson channeled in Tim Burton's Batman, and which Heath Ledger took further into the darkness in The Dark Knight. It's important to point out, however, that while Nicholson's Joker is a merciless killer, he is also very funny (his trashing of the art museum is, um, a riot), and his back story includes an acid bath that has ruined his face, providing a kind of medical excuse for his behavior. Ledger's Joker, on the other hand, isn't funny at all, and his unconvincing attempt to attribute his bad attitude to childhood abuse isn't really supposed to be taken seriously by anyone. The point is simply that he is a nihilistic mass murderer who likes to kill people—even his own followers. And unlike the past Jokers, he isn't in it for the money, incinerating a huge pile of cash with one of his victims tied up at the top to prove it.


The trajectory here is clear, and the makers of Joker were very well aware of it. Rather than turn back the clock to introduce a kinder, gentler Joker (you're laughing derisively at the suggestion, and that's precisely my point), Todd Phillips and Scott Silver quite knowingly upped the ante, earning an R-rating that is quite unusual for a comics-themed movie. Well, Deadpool got there first, but that's part of the point, too.


For in spite of the film's attempt to pass itself off as a study of the pathologizing effects of socioeconomic inequality, that isn't its appeal at all, and it doesn't explain why this particular character was chosen to be the protagonist. Just think, what if someone made a movie called Marx: the Alienation Effect in Contemporary Capitalism, based on the best-seller Das Kapital? No, I'm afraid that the Joker's popularity isn't political in any truly revolutionary sense. He's way too much of a loner, and too weird. There's something else going on here.


Before one succumbs to the temptation to simply say that Joker is a movie for psychopathic wannabes, let's just remember that the domestic box office for the film's first weekend was 96 million dollars. There just aren't that many psychopaths out there to sell so many tickets. No, the desire for an ever-darkening Joker is clearly a very widespread one, and the success of the afore-mentioned Deadpool franchise—not to mention Game of Thrones' wildly popular funhouse-mirror distortions of Tolkien's primly moralistic Middle Earth—only amplifies the evidence that Americans—especially younger Americans—are drawn to this sort of thing. But why?


I think that the new detail in the Joker's origin story that is introduced in the movie, portraying him as a failed standup comic and clown, is a good clue to the matter. We could say that Arthur Fleck's great dreams—at least in his mind—have been betrayed, and there's a familiar ring to this as a generation of millennials, burdened with college debt and college degrees that lead nowhere, faces a country that many feel is betraying them. It is significant in this regard that the darkening of the Joker began in the 1980s, the decade when the American dream began to crumble under the weight of the Reagan tax cuts, massive economic "restructuring," and two recessions from which the working and middle classes never fully recovered. What happened in response wasn't a revolution: it was anger and despair, spawning a kind of Everyman disillusionment with traditional authority (including moral authority), conspiracy theories, and fantasies of breaking loose and taking things into one's own hands.


Which makes characters like the Joker rather like Breaking Bad's Walter White, whose response to economic disruption was to become disruptive. White's Everyman revolt didn't instigate an epidemic of middle-class drug lords; it simply entertained an angry America with the trappings of vicarious fantasy. The success of Joker just a few years after the end of Heisenberg shows that the fantasy is getting darker still.


Smash. Bam. Pow.



Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 1433326 by annca, used under Pixabay License


Ernest Hemingway is said to have remarked that “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” Enigmatic, for sure. But also probably pretty good advice. I’ve been thinking about trust a lot lately, since it seems to be in very short supply. Who can you trust? According to pundits, everyday citizens, and lots of students I talk to, the answer is discouraging. Can’t trust the media. Can’t trust the government. Can’t trust politicians. Can’t trust . . . just about any institution or group. The failure of trust is no doubt related to the rise of tribalism, in-groups, be-and-think-just-like-me “friends.”


Pretty depressing. Yet I also sense a longing for trust—for true confidence in someone or something (or both). This summer as I was talking with students in several settings, I asked them about trust and who they trusted. Most mentioned a family member or friend first, but when it came to second or third on the list, the name of a teacher came up a number of times. In a couple of instances, students said they trusted a teacher because “he’s always honest with me,” and because “she always follows through; if she says she will do something, she always does it. I like that.”


The last couple of weeks I’ve written about teachers who seemed to me to be trusted by students—even those who didn’t always agree with them—and who reciprocated that trust. (Click here or here to read those posts.) I’ve been thinking about how trust arises in a classroom setting, how it can grow from small seeds. So being honest with students and always telling the truth seems like a good way to begin. But right behind that is the kind of reliability and consistency that the student above mentions regarding “follow through.” I don’t think this kind of consistency is what Ralph Waldo Emerson had in mind when he said that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” In other words, this kind of (non-foolish) reliability or consistency doesn’t obviate spontaneity. Rather, by helping to establish a trusting environment, it makes room for spontaneity.


And what else? I’d say giving everyone a fair hearing, listening hard, being able to admit it if you don’t know something, taking time to explain and explain again, and demonstrating care even while holding to a high standard—these are the building blocks of trust. Not rocket science, but hard nonetheless. And time consuming: Teachers instinctively know that this kind of trust isn’t generated in a day but only through persistence and through classroom talk—open and caring talk.


That can be hard to come by in these cynical and often hateful times. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. And our students are hungry for such trust, for the safety that it engenders, for a place they can be fully themselves and fully open to learning.


Do you have ways you build trust in your classroom? Do your students have insights into what such trust means to them? If so, I would love for you to join me in a guest blog post. Please do!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3470201 by rawpixel, used under the Pixabay License

Ive been teaching writing for 28 years, and I still wrestle with how much reading to assign in a writing class. Hopefully, I'm not alone. Theres an alchemy between less is more if we want students to do deep dives in texts, and more is more if we want our students to understand that reading often and widely is crucial to becoming stronger writers. Perhaps its worth thinking more about the purposes of reading in a writing classroom, and whether every reading should feed directly into a writing assignment. 


In a recent article titled Needed: More Reading in First-Year Writing, Rachel Wagner reflects on her own rationale for assigning reading in a writing class, starting with the embarrassing experience of being observed by a colleague on an awkward class day that wed all recognize, I suspect: A paper was due, and so she had not assigned a new reading, anticipating that students would not read a text they were not using in their papers. So, after some conversation about the drafts, there was no new text to spark class discussion. Wagner reflects how often she has trimmed back on readings, particularly later in the semester when students are busily writing longer papers, to give them time to focus on their writing. She then critiques this impulse, noting that reading always feeds the writer, even if it doesnt feed a particular assignment:

Not asking the students to read regularly is like telling them its OK not to explore. Even if its the week that their papers are due, they should still be reading things that they don’t have to be quizzed on or that dont have to be analyzed in their papers. Why? Because thats part of the writing process.


I appreciate all the perspectives at play here, from the crunched schedules of our students to the instructors impulse to get students in the habit of reading often and widely because thats what good writers do. Whats a thoughtful instructor to do?


As Stuart Greene and I have been developing the readings and guiding questions for the next edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writingwe have worked to include different kinds of texts to address this pedagogical challenge. We have selected lively, shorter selections that students might read just to keep mental sparks flying for a classroom discussion, even on a day when a paper is due. That kind of fast reading to feed ideas might be just the fizz on a low-energy class day, and could even be done on the spot, with a few minutes of silent reading or read aloud, in turns. We have also included more challenging scholarly selections that provide students plenty to think through, slowly, in relationship to other readings and their own ideas, and with methods and evidence that will give them the practice they need to analyze texts in other courses. For every text, we provide footholds for readers patterns to look for, questions to keep in mind, methods for evaluating rhetorical moves. After all, your classroom may be the only space for students to build these analytical muscles in the company of others who are interested not only in the ideas but in the experience of reading with writing moves in mind.


As with most pedagogy, the key is to be transparent with students about our rationales for what they are reading, as well as what they are writing. Just as sources serve different purposes in an academic essay (providing a theory, an example, a counterpoint, etc), readings serve different purposes in our classrooms though students may not grasp this unless we invite them into the pedagogical conversation. 

Sometimes, slow thinking with complex texts is just what the occasion requires. But sometimes, a shorter, sparkling text to feed the writers mind is just the thing. Sometimes less is more. But sometimes, as Dolly Parton has said, more really is more.



Photo Credit: April Lidinsky

Traci Gardner

A Note to Readers

Posted by Traci Gardner Expert Oct 16, 2019

This blog, Teaching Digital Natives, is currently on hold. Please stay tuned for more information soon! 


Last week, I wrote about the remarkable work Jeanne Bohannon is doing to help her often deeply conservative students reach beyond their own boundaries and engage with differences. I’m writing today about another remarkable teacher, Maria Roberts, whom I’ve known for a very long time from the Bread Loaf School of English but who also responded to my call to survey students about what they thought helped—and hurt—their ability to engage with people who held differing views than they did. And Maria was gracious enough to speak with me, at length, about her experiences (as a potentially vulnerable but also fearless and indomitable part-time instructor), her students (80% white with small percentages of African American, Hispanic, and international students), and her school (small, and in a rural area of Colorado). The students of color and international students tend to live on one side of campus; the white students on the other side. And last year at Halloween, some white students came in Klan robes and one faculty member in blackface.


In this atmosphere, Maria says, being able to speak is “all about courage.” In her classrooms, she strives to create a safe space where such courage can be seen and engaged and rewarded. She says that if she provides a place that is understood to be a safe place to talk, they do talk, open up, and are honest with one another. But doing so requires constant work and vigilance on her part—she must be aware of where everyone is, literally and metaphorically, all the time.


For Maria, the connection between teacher and students is key and it takes time to establish the trust that will allow that connection to grow and solidify. Clearly, she and many of her students have such relationships—and she is always reaching out, opening doors, and hoping to reach others. After our conversation, Maria shared a message she had from a former student who was reflecting on her experiences engaging with difference.  Here are some of her extraordinary remarks:

            I’d say in general I was uncomfortable talking to people who “looked” different from me (i.e. minorities) because I really had just never done it before. Our school is pretty homogeneous and a lack of exposure to other cultures puts people at a disadvantage. Mostly, though, I was afraid of saying something wrong or coming off as racist. Now [that] I’ve moved to one of the most diverse areas of the country, it’s gotten easier. I still catch myself being intolerant of other people’s experiences because I don’t understand: like a person of color talking about being treated unfairly, I might think “that doesn’t happen now.” BUT I then try to think from the other person’s perspective and recognize my blatant white privilege. When it is to politics or religion, I absolutely don’t feel comfortable talking about those things to people I don’t know and often not even people I do know. There’s too much hate and intolerance of differing opinions today. I would love to have productive conversations about these topics, but it seems impossible to do so.

For me, it’s a little more complicated because as a journalist I’m supposed to portray a façade of neutrality. I recently was assigned to write a story about comments some parents made during a public meeting essentially saying that Black and Hispanic students couldn’t perform at the same level as whites. Since that story was published, some people said it sparked important conversations and changes, but other people were hurt and offended and mad. Without having these conversations, I don’t think people can understand these are real issues in today’s society. Rather, they assume the issues are just legends and they don’t “happen here.”



In fact, Maria said, the backlash against this young journalist was severe, requiring her to have protection.  This former student shows the kind of courage Maria described earlier, courage that often or always comes with a cost. But this student knew one safe haven she could always turn to: her former teacher. Hence a lengthy conversation, back and forth, as Maria listens, encourages, and most of all understands.


I think of Maria and teachers like her every single day who are slowly but inexorably making a difference in students’ lives. Yes, it is all about courage. But before that, it is all about listening and all about trust. About building a place that is safe.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3488861 by congerdesign, used under the Pixabay License

When I think back to my high school writing instruction, I remember red ink, error codes, rules written by hand (it was the early 1980s) ten times in an effort to earn back half the points deducted for rule violations on initial drafts. By my senior year, I had great confidence in my ability to deploy semicolons correctly, avoid phrasal verbs, and resist the urge to write a fragment for effect. I could generate error-free writing with very little trauma. But I was terrified to say anything creative or unexpected, because the secondary lesson of my instruction was that writing presents a million ways to make mistakes, and mistakes should be avoided above all.


It’s difficult to explore ideas and meaning—doubting and then believing yourself in turn (Peter Elbow had not yet made an impact on secondary writing instruction at that point) when you edit each line as it appears before you, even before a proposition has reached its final punctuation, to ensure that subjects and verbs agree.


I had not yet understood (or could not verbalize) that writing concerns meaning—and identities, relationships, and social expectations, among other things. Implicitly I must have known something of these concerns, for I recognized that writing “correctly” would open academic doors for me, as it eventually did – doors that bypassed first-year composition courses. But “correctness” for me entailed writing without a number of language resources that could have been helpful in clarifying meaning for different audiences and purposes: passive voice, phrasal verbs, first and second person pronouns, some sentence-initial conjunctive adverbials, and there is/are constructions.


My current composition classes are working on revisions to literacy narratives, and I am working to create classroom spaces for metatalk about writing and grammar, encouraging students to consider their language and writing resources, the choices they have made in this particular paper, and how they are assessing the effectiveness of those choices.  Similar to my own concerns in high-school, much of their talk revolves around rules and errors—and the fact that I have told them they can violate “rules” they learned in previous courses, as long as their decision to do so fits the purpose and evolving meaning of the paper (which requires them to think about purposes and meanings and how language might either align with or work against them). I am trying not to restrict their writing or language resources in any way.


But an upper-level student challenged me on this “no linguistic restrictions” policy during a discussion in my advanced grammar class recently. We were looking at the functions that be plays in English, particularly in the progressive aspect and the passive voice, as well as in there is/are constructions. Students were exploring the rhetorical and discourse purposes of these constructions—backgrounding/foregrounding, creating cohesion, denying or reducing agency, introducing topic shifts, etc. I casually mentioned that I hated to hear that be verbs were restricted in some composition classes, given what be-based constructions can accomplish within a text. Why would we ever want to restrict students from using legitimate linguistic resources, especially when avoiding those resources might lead to less than optimal prose?


One of my students suggested that he had found a restriction on using be verbs helpful to his development as a writer. When not allowed to use be in a paper, he became aware of the extent to which he did use be verbs. And in the course of our conversation, it became evident that not using be might help a student develop skill at using other structures—just as an athlete or musician might restrict the use of a dominant hand in order to strengthen a weaker or less-practiced hand. When assignments are framed strategically, as exercises designed to target a particular linguistic “muscle,” then such restrictions might make sense.


Indeed. I have done such exercises—framing them as ways of playing with language, especially at the paragraph level. To the extent that these exercises highlight and illustrate language-meaning relationships and the ways in which language choices can affect a reader’s experiences, they also support my goal to expand and explore metatalk in developmental and first-year writing courses. 


The student’s comments challenged me to consider yet again the way I frame instructions for assignments—both major papers and smaller classroom exercises; the nature of the framing language can either make my purpose clear or leave students bewildered, sensing that they’ve just encountered another idiosyncratic and arbitrary rule. The advanced student’s comments—and the lively metalinguistic and pedagogic discussion that followed—also reminded me of the value of opening spaces for first-year writers to talk about their writing with each other, not just with me.


What language restrictions do you give student writers? Are these restrictions part of a specific assignment? What is your purpose in restricting linguistic choices in that assignment? Do you explain that purpose explicitly to students? How?

Shannon ButtsShannon Butts (recommended by Creed Greer) received her PhD in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Writing Studies at The University of Florida in August 2019. Shannon teaches courses on digital rhetoric, multimodal composition, professional communication, technofeminism, and first-year writing. She also serves as the Assistant Coordinator of First Year Writing and mentors graduate instructors. Shannon's research examines how digital and mobile writing technologies, such as augmented reality, locative media, and 3D printing, author new literacy practices for public writing and community advocacy.


How does the next generation of students inspire you? 


The students coming through my courses seem to have a hustle that understands the larger ecology of work, play, and education. College is not necessarily their end game but part of a growing skill set that will position them for more opportunities in the future. And that looks different for different students. People coming in from high school are hustling to make grades, get internships, start businesses – hustling to participate in an economy that has diversified the paths that people can take to make money and be successful. Similarly, students coming back to school or working on graduate degrees are hustling to build a portfolio of experiences that will help them advance in their current careers or start new ones. The hustle can be tiring, or seem disorganized. Yet, most of the students that I see are working to create a well-rounded set of skills to be not only competitive but happy in their work and life. The hustle includes physical fitness, growing plants, joining clubs, taking days off, having families, developing apps, caring about public issues, and fighting for equality and balance in new ways. The students I see now inspire me to hustle for both myself and others. 


What is the most important skill you aim to provide your students?


I want the students in my classroom to understand that writing is a process that grows and changes throughout their lives. As such, I want students to develop analytical skills that evaluate the nuances of any rhetorical situation or ecology. If students understand the complex components of an issue, then they can best evaluate how to respond and make change. Learning how to analyze arguments, identify evidence, and trace the connections between conversations can help students actively participate in the public sphere—where they not only receive or disseminate information but understand how to assemble new publics, to read and write for change, and to evaluate information for accuracy as well as applicability. If writers can map rhetorical ecologies and trace the relationships between evidence and argument, then I think they are better prepared to understand the complex systems that we all read, write, and participate in.


What is it like to be a part of the Bedford New Scholars?


Participating in the Bedford New Scholars programs provides a look behind the curtain of educational publishing. More than merely understanding how to test or market a text, the program has shown me how Bedford works to identify what is important to students, writers, and teachers in different schools and demographics. Through online resources, publishers have new opportunities to create platforms and curate content that works for diverse groups of students and instructors. While institutions may adopt one central text or program, Bedford has shown us how to work within the larger system to find what can best help students and instructors meet their goals for a classroom or course. By showing us multiple texts and platforms, the Bedford staff creates a forum for helping us understand the publishing process, but also gives a voice to the people who are in the classroom everyday. They not only wanted my feedback on existing projects but my critique and suggestions for change, and Bedford New Scholars offers an opportunity to participate in shaping emerging resources. 


What have you learned from other Bedford New Scholars?


I found the Bedford New Scholars experience empowering. Not only did I get the chance to meet some incredible teachers and scholars from different fields and institutions, but I also was challenged to continually evaluate my own teaching strategies and tools. By sitting down around a table and discussing the different dynamics of each Scholar’s school and experience, I was able to consider how my pedagogy might change while also affirming many of the common issues that instructors currently address: How can I make my classroom more inclusive and accessible? How can I empower my students through public writing? What kinds of emerging tools can help address inequality in the education system? The Bedford New Scholars offered a range of experience and insight and created a small community where instructors could share methods, critiques, tools, and camaraderie.  

Shannon’s Assignment that Works

During the Bedford New Scholars Summit, each member presented an assignment that had proven successful or innovative in their classroom. Below is a brief synopsis of Shannon’s assignment. You can view the full details here: Know Your Meme: Finding the Exigence


The “Know Your Meme” activity draws on research, analysis, evaluation, and remix skills to transform popular memes into detailed claims. Composing arguments requires an attunement to exigence—understanding an issue, problem, or situation and how best to address a public to motivate a response. For this activity, students are introduced to several popular memes asked to find the first time the meme was used as part of an argument. Instead of focusing on the isolated image, students should look to the rhetorical ecology of how a meme responded to a particular issue or idea. By asking questions like “What are the basic elements of the issue?” and “How does the meme engage a key component of an argument?,” students begin to define the exigence for the meme and the specifics of the rhetorical situation. Practicing good research skills, students can analyze the different arguments surrounding an issue and evaluate how their meme engages specific viewpoints.


After analyzing how a specific meme has responded to arguments in the public sphere, students gain a familiarity with the media as well as the details of the involved arguments. Memes are fairly simplistic in construction and can reduce complex arguments to pithy forms. The next step has participants evaluate memes for missing elements or logical fallacies and rewrite the media as a more complex claim with supportive details. Focusing on one specific use of their meme, students can ask, “What is missing to create a detailed response to the issue?” Drawing on their own research, students can then address the exigence of an issue by rewriting a meme as an argumentative claim with supportive details. Paying attention to research, exigence, and arguments, students learn to map the larger rhetorical ecology of public issues and craft detailed claims that participate in evolving conversations.


Learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board on the Bedford New Scholars Community page.


Jack Solomon

The Panopticon 2.0

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Oct 3, 2019

Michel Foucault's application of Jeremy Bentham's panoptic proposal for prison reform to the modern surveillance state has become a commonplace of contemporary cultural theory. And heaven knows that we are being watched by our government, by our computers, by our phones, and televisions, and automobiles, and goodness knows what else. It is also no secret that current and prospective employers monitor the social media imprints of their current and prospective employees—all those promises of airtight privacy settings and Snapchat anonymity notwithstanding. As I say, all this has become a commonplace of life in the digital era.


But a new wrinkle has entered the picture, a fold in the space/time fabric of modern life if you will, whereby the pre-digital past has come to haunt the digital present. For as the governor of Virginia and the prime minister of Canada now know to their cost, what goes into your school yearbook doesn't stay in your school yearbook. And thanks to an array of yearbook-posting alumni websites, anyone with an Internet connection can access virtually anyone's yearbook and immediately expose online those embarrassing moments that you thought were safely hidden in the fogs of time.


(A parenthetical autobiographical note: I would be highly amused if someone dug up my high school yearbook—yearbooks, actually, because I was on the staff for three years, the last two as editor-in-chief. The first of the three was a conventional celebration of football players, cheerleaders, and homecoming royalty, but I changed all that in the next two when I got editorial control, dedicating the first of them to the natural environment— including two photo essays complete with an accompanying poetic narrative—and the second devoted to a contemplation of the mystery of time itself, which included repeating reproductions of El Greco's "Saint Andrew and Saint Francis," which were intended to convey an ongoing dialog between a wise man and a seeker of temporal wisdom. You get one guess as to why I don't have to worry about any embarrassing party pics in my yearbooks.)


So it isn't enough to cancel your Twitter account, max out your privacy settings on Facebook (good luck with that), or simply take a long vacation from the Internet, for the Net's got you coming and going whatever you do. I expect that one's reaction to this state of affairs (which is itself of semiotic interest) is probably generational; that is, if you grew up with the Internet, none of this is likely to be particularly alarming, but if you remember the days when personal privacy was at least a value (if not always a reality), then it could be disturbing indeed. And there is no escaping the situation, for just as it is impossible to avoid the consequences of major cyber hacks by refusing to conduct any of your business affairs online (if you have any sort of bank account, credit/debit card, health record, or social security number, you are vulnerable no matter how hard you try to live outside the Web), there is no controlling what may surface from your past.


Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 4031973 by pixel2013, used under Pixabay License


This summer I surveyed students at a range of colleges and universities, asking them to tell me about what they saw as barriers to communicating with people different from them and about what they saw as the benefits of being able to do so. I’ve written a bit about what the students had to say and will write more in time. But this week I want to talk about a follow up to this research with students, because I had an opportunity to interview some of the teachers whose students responded to the survey about these same issues.


I came away from these interviews deeply impressed with the work teachers across the country are doing, first to broach difficult and controversial subjects in the classroom and second to help students engage with them—and with each other. All of the teachers I spoke with recognize the urgency of this work; all feel the strain of teaching in a time of intolerance, misinformation, and deep divides. The two teachers I want to talk about today, both of whom have given me permission to quote them and to share their ideas, are heroes to me, courageous and absolutely steadfast in their belief in young people and in their determination to serve them well by, among other things, raising their awareness of—and the importance of—difference and diversity.


One of these teachers is Jeanne Bohannon, who teaches at a public university in a bright red state. During last spring term, several events targeted African American students for harassment and threats, acts which led some white students to defend the offenders and to harass anyone who spoke out against them, including faculty. In this atmosphere, Professor Bohannon continued her work: “The kind of work I do is civil rights rhetoric and working with the Atlanta Student Movement. And sometimes it is really tough, so I really started to embed a lot of my primary research with the Atlanta Student Movement into our first year writing courses.”


I took a deep breath and then asked, “So how’s that going?” Here’s what she had to say:

I have lost two students so far, and one of the students I lost because she didn’t feel like the work was valid, in her words. Another student I lost because she was afraid that her parents, who were supporters of Donald Trump, would see her work, and she would get in trouble. But everyone else has been wonderful… I have to tell you, this course is drawing students across different majors. I have communication majors. I have English majors. I have STEM majors who seek out this class so that they can work on this civil rights research.


Jeanne has been teaching this course for several semesters now, with equally good results. What specifically did she do, I asked her, to establish a classroom ethos of respect and openness?

One of the things I do first off is I talk with the students about how I practice democratic pedagogy, how I do contract grading with students. What that means for me is every semester on my syllabus, I have a community expectation statement that was written by me and students back in 2015 and every semester we tweak it depending on the class. We spend the first couple of days in class with everyone talking through what it looks like to be a part of a community. And we set out the ground rules of what it means to be respectful. And we stress that you can disagree, but you must think of people as your community members. And that is part of the syllabus and that is part of the contract they sign, saying “I’m staying in the class and this is part of what I am going to do.”


Here’s a brief description of the research project on which the course rests:

This course engages undergraduate student scholars in public, digital humanities research centered on the roles AU Center students played in the struggle for civil and human rights in 1960-1962. Student scholars are expected to conduct their work based on a contract model, where they will work in teams to produce public texts that they negotiate with each other and the professor.


And here’s the community expectation statement that the class co-constructed and revises term by term:

Community Learning Precepts

Writing and learning are methods of communication that are inherently dialogic, democratic, and sometimes digital. We practice democratic learning in our course, as a matter of community-building. What this means for you:

  • You are a vital and respected member of our community.
  • You will participate authentically in our work as a stakeholder in your own rhetorical growth AND the growth of your colleagues in this class.
  • Your voice is important because it drives our interactions as a group.
  • You will design and curate your own learning and work experience in this class as a "contract" with both your colleagues and your instructor.


Later in the interview, we talked about problems that can arise as students work together on what to some are very “touchy” subjects and about how they negotiate differences.

I wish I had a more codified, concrete strategy for managing conflict. But what we do when that happens, and it does happen—it especially happens with some of my white male students who really want to engage with the project, but who feel awkward or feel like they can’t join because they feel guilt or they feel some other emotion. They want to engage but they just can’t. And so what is important for me is to pair them up with some of the lecturers who come to campus [to talk about the Atlanta Student Movement] and to make sure that I’m always engaging with them and that their fellow students keep engaging with them and pulling them along. We do a lot of experiential learning. So we’ll take fieldtrips down to different museums and archives. And it is all about inclusivity. This is in our community precepts that we practice all semester. Everyone in the community has value. It is difficult content we work through, but as scholars, as professionals, and as community members we do this together. And that is how I embrace it. I just keep articulating it all semester long to them.


What stands out to me as I revisit this interview is that Professor Bohannon—Jeanne—doesn’t have some magic elixir that she uses, or some abstract theory she is working with to help her students engage across difference. What she has is openness to others, the ability to listen rhetorically, the goal of making students full partners in their classroom community, and the time to work through problems calmly and fairly and openly. What gifts! If you’d like to see some of the work that Bohannon’s students have produced during the course of this project (some of which was supported by a grant she won), you can find it here.   


I know that teachers all across this country are carrying out similar work in their writing classrooms in which they help students deal with some deep-seated biases and prejudices as they struggle to engage with people who are unlike them in some ways. And I know that the importance of this work cannot be over-estimated. It is urgent. It is real. And we must keep doing it.


Many thanks to Jeanne Bohannon for allowing me to share some of her experiences and some of her strategies. I had intended to write about another teacher, but you’ll have to wait for another week to read about her!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3380192 by Fun_loving_Cindy, used under the Pixabay License