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2020

As the countdown to the annual Academy Awards ceremony ticks away, I'm seeing more and more articles in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times like this one, whose aim is to predict the outcomes of the votes for the prized categories of individual performance and best picture. What all these columns have in common is the way that they are essentially using a simplified form of predictive analytics in their prognostications, aggregating data from past awards seasons to pronounce what is going to happen this time around. You know the sort of thing: if Brad Pitt wins a SAG, his Oscar's in the bag. Grab a Golden Globe, and your picture's Oscar gold. Even when the statistics aren't all that compelling (as in the seven-out-of-twenty-five correlation between winning an acting SAG and an Oscar as reported in the Times article linked to above), stats are equated with destiny, much in the same way that presidential polls are touted as sure-fire crystal balls upon the future—and you know how well that worked out in 2016.

 

Reliable or not, however, this preference for data over careful analysis of the relative aesthetic merits of the various contenders for the big film prizes bears cultural significance. For this is the era of BIG DATA, an age when crunching numbers fuels vast advertising, educational, and AI enterprises that not only make piles of money for those who run them but which are also, and more significantly, widely believed to hold the key to solving all our problems, including "fixing" our higher education system. (Remember how robo-grading was going to liberate—or perhaps more accurately, eradicate—writing instructors? Or MOOCS?). But no amount of disappointing results seems to dampen what is almost a religious enthusiasm for the power of aggregated data. And now this faith appears to have engulfed the traditional ritual of handicapping the Oscars.

 

Which leads to a second significance. Because even if the big promises of Big Data haven't exactly been met quite yet, there are serious problems that it could address (for example, it sure would be nice if the power of aggregated data could be applied to reversing global warming), but guesstimating the Oscar awards in advance isn't such a problem. So the fact that entertainment writers are employing the techniques of data-driven analytics to prognosticate who's going to win what, indicates that their readers care so much about the outcome of a ritual whereby an ultra-exclusive club celebrates itself through an annual awards ceremony which even includes a royal red-carpet treatment, that they are eager for any glimpse into the future that they can get. And in a data-driven era, it should come as no surprise that data-driven Oscar augury has become, as they say, a "thing."

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 3679610 by analogicus, used under Pixabay License

 

Martin Luther King has been in my thoughts and in my heart for quite a while this year. As always, I attended a celebration in his honor in my little coastal village, a celebration that always includes music and testimonials and remembrances. And I spent hours rereading his speeches on MLK Day itself. But I got started early in my celebrations this year by attending, on what would have been MLK’s 91st birthday, a concert performed by the Kronos Quartet. I have heard a lot of Kronos concerts, and this was one of those performances that riveted me to my seat for the entire 90 minutes and left me gasping for breath and close to tears. And close to the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

The entire concert was electric, to say the least: it included “The Star Spangled Banner” (inspired by Jimi Hendrix), “Summertime” (inspired by Janis Joplin), “The House of the Rising Sun” (inspired by the Everly Brothers), and “Strange Fruit” (inspired by Billie Holiday). But the two long pieces, with voiceover, were the greatest triumphs. The first, “Glorious Mahalia,” featured Mahalia Jackson in conversation with her good friend Studs Terkel some 50 years ago; when she breaks into “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” her magnificent voice filled the auditorium to overflowing with love and compassion. Then the final piece, Zachary James Watson’s “Peace Be Till,” featured the voice of Dr. Clarence B. Jones, lawyer, musician, and speechwriter for Dr. King. As the Quartet played, Jones tells the story of being at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, as King prepared to deliver a speech, prepared for him by Jones. Jones says he was standing behind the stage, watching, as King took up the script of the speech and began to speak before the huge crowd assembled to hear him. After a paragraph or so, as he remembers it, Glorious Mahalia Jackson, who was seated on stage, shouted “Tell them about the dream, Martin; tell them about the dream.” Jones said he was transfixed as he watched King put aside the prepared text and begin to speak, and he remembers saying to the person standing next to him: “Those people out there better get ready because they are fixin’ to go to church.”

 

When the crowd at the concert rose to our feet at the conclusion of this piece, some crying, many shouting bravo, and everyone clapping, we watched as a tall, slim figure rose from his seat and climbed on to the stage: Dr. Clarence Jones himself. At 89, he was two years King’s junior, and he told us about his first meetings with King, about how he as a budding new lawyer with a family didn’t think he could give up his work to join the movement—until he went to church and heard King’s sermon on the responsibility of black people. He signed up that day and was with King from then until he was murdered—and then beyond.

 

He talked for 20 minutes or so, in the deep, mellifluous voice we had heard in the voiceover, about King, pointing out that it is impossible to imagine King without music and giving us examples of how much music was a part of King’s mission and message. A musician himself, Jones said he thought he could write for King because he knew music and because he listened so very, very carefully to King, soaking up every rhythm and cadence. “When I put in ‘pause’ or ‘repeat’ in a speech, I put it there because I knew he was going to do it,” he said.

 

I’ve been thinking about this moment ever since, pondering the crucial importance of listening as well as the crucial relationship between words and music. And as I’ve traveled across the country these last couple of weeks, I’ve been asking young people about King, about what they know about him, about what they know about his words and the music of those words. I didn’t meet a single young person who did not know the name, Martin Luther King, or respect it.  But I also found that their knowledge and understanding of him and his work did not go very deep. How is it, I wonder, that we keep our cultural memories alive? How do we keep the knowledge Jones spoke of alive? It seems to me that one powerful answer to this question is through school in general but through writing in particular. So I think that in the future I will ask young people to write about Martin Luther King Jr., to dig into the story of his life, to work through his family tree, to listen to his speeches and be captivated by the music that soars through them. Write. And. Remember.

 

Happy (belated) Martin Luther King Jr. Day, now and always.

 

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 682116 by adampaulclay, used under the Pixabay License

I am frequently asked how to incorporate reading instruction in corequisite classes, especially when institutional logistics make it difficult to add anything to an already packed syllabus. I have found that in many of my first-year courses, students don’t read assigned material unless there is some measure of accountability for those readings.  Most of them tell me that in prior classrooms, there was no reason to read. In a 2018 post, I queried whether or not we still expect students to learn via reading, and I touched on some of the techniques used by a colleague teaching history to promote student reading.

 

Two years later, at a new institution, I am still looking for ways to engage students in reading before class. In the process, I’ve asked myself WHY I am asking students to read – is it for content? An understanding of disciplinary conventions and methods? As examples of argumentation or analysis? To have experience with critical texts? To practice critical reading? All of the above?

 

In my first-year courses, both the traditional and the corequisite versions, I assign readings related to writing, rhetoric, language, and linguistics. My aims for readings vary, encompassing all the factors above: encountering different types of writing, gaining conceptual knowledge or vocabulary, practicing critical analysis, finding models, seeing connections, and building a framework for future reading and writing. 

 

This past summer and fall, I experimented with variations on a reading journal to address these goals. I created a template for the journal in a shared Google doc.  Housing the journals in Google docs made keeping track of entries and responding easier for me and for students.

 

I hoped the journal platform would encourage both individual and collaborative reading, as well as re-reading. (In this, I have been influenced extensively by the work of Cheryl Hogue Smith, whose “Interrogating Texts” should be required reading for all IRW instructors). For each assigned text, I asked students to complete an initial reading response before class discussion:

 

Reader responses. Provide an initial response of 100-250 words (due by __________). This response can include any of the following:

a.     Your understanding of the main idea.

b.     What surprised you, confused you, or irritated you.

c.      How the text confirmed, contradicted, or complicated your previous experiences.  

d.     What you’d like to say to the author.

e.     Your questions for the author.

f.       Connections between this text and yourself or other texts we’ve read.

 

Then, students added a post-discussion reflection or addendum—comments, insights, or new questions, based on our paired, group, or class discussions. 

 

To encourage continued reading and thinking, within two weeks after an initial reading, students were asked to complete either a formal summary (which could then be adjusted for use in other class writing) or a “Focus on Language” (FOL) entry for assigned texts.  The FOL entries required students to revisit the text and consider the way the author used language. My goal in asking students to complete FOL reflections was for them to engage with the text not only in terms of content or organization, but in terms of language:

 Focus on language questions.  Write 150-250 words reflecting your observations about two or more of the following concepts.

a.     Stance (How does the author insert himself or herself into the piece? What’s the writer’s tone? Provide a cited example, and discuss.  Focus on style, language, and writing strategies, NOT content.  It’s not WHAT the writing is saying, but HOW it is said.)

b.     Engagement (How does the author connect with readers? What is an example of a strategy the writer has used to recognize the readers of the text? Again, provide quotes and discuss them, with a focus on style and language).

c.      Zooming In (Focus on a single paragraph.  How does the writer use language to support her point?  What do you notice about the writer’s punctuation or sentence structure?  What questions do you have? Focus on HOW the writer is writing, the language, the arrangement of words, and the effects of the word or structure choices. Do not focus on content here.)

d.     Power sentences (What is one sentence that seems particularly powerful to you?  Why? Quote the sentence and cite it correctly.   Can you describe it?  What strategies are in this sentence that you can use in your own writing?  How does this sentence create a specific effect for readers? Do not focus on the content of the sentence, but the structure, language, and style). 

 

 

The reading journal entries accounted for 325 points of a possible 1000 in the course.  Points (full, half, or no credit) were awarded on a completion basis.

 

As part of an IRB-approved study, I collected the FOL responses (along with writer’s memos composed for the final portfolio) submitted by students in the fall. I am in the process of analyzing those comments now. While the analysis is on-going, there are a few trends I can point to:

 

  1. Despite the offer of completion credit, only about half of the students in the cohort earned full credit or nearly full credit for the assigned readings. Many simply ignored the assignment, even though some class time was allotted for completion and reminders were given electronically and verbally each week.
  2. The early and late FOL journal entries for those who did complete the journal demonstrated growing awareness of language, rhetorical purpose/structure, and the interactions between audience and author.
  3. Many students who completed the journal commented on the value of the entries—and their growing reading confidence—in their final reflection pieces for the course.

 

For those that participated, this journal appears to have fostered the kinds of thinking, writing, and reflecting that I wanted to see.  The problem, of course, is that a significant part of the class did not complete the journal, even with the incentive of a participation grade. I would be interested in hearing how you have used reading journals—or other tools—to promote reading engagement in your writing classrooms.

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

 

A runner, holding a baton, at the starting line on a track

 

Grammar Girl podcasts can be used at any time of the semester—including at the start! During the first few weeks of class, try assigning some podcasts about different grammar topics to prepare all your students for the weeks ahead.

 

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. 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 for the Start of the Semester

  • Pronouns and Antecedents [7:33]
  • Irregular Verbs [6:59]
  • Modal Auxiliary Verbs [9:11]
  • What Is a Subordinate Clause? [7:08]
  • Verbs Sandwiched between Singular and Plural Nouns [3:34]
  • Sentence Fragments [5:05]
  • Comma Splice [6:37]

 

Assignment A: During one of the first weeks of class, ask your students to rank the following sentence grammar topics in order of how confident they are in using them. Have 1 be “most confident” and 6 be “least confident.” (Alternately, ask them to write down the topic they are most confident in using and the topic they are least confident in using.) 

  • Pronouns
  • Verbs
  • Coordination and Subordination
  • Subject-Verb Agreement
  • Fragments
  • Run-ons and Comma Splices

 

Take the three most difficult topics and assign students to listen to the relevant podcasts. After, discuss the podcasts as a class.

 

Assignment B: If you assign the diagnostic Practice Test for Sentence Grammar in either LaunchPad or Achieve, check the class results to identify the topics where students struggled the most. Assign students to listen to the relevant podcasts--if you are assigning the Final Test for Sentence Grammar, schedule the podcasts to be due at least a few days before students take the final test. 

 

To learn more about Diagnostics in LaunchPad, please read “LaunchPad > View Diagnostic reports as an instructor”; to learn more about Diagnostics in Achieve, please read “Achieve > Introduction to Diagnostics for instructors.”

 

Credit: Pixabay Image 1840437by Pexels, used under a Pixaby License

 

As impeachment proceedings advance, as conflict in the Middle East escalates, as candidates for president bombard us with television messages, and as Facebook decides that it will not even bother trying to eliminate lies and misinformation posted by bots and trolls, I keep repeating the lines of W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” Like many others, I have whole swaths of poetry inscribed in my memory: I surprised myself recently by reciting a Shakespeare sonnet I hadn’t thought of in years. But Yeats’s poem is one of those indelibly etched in my memory to which I turn with increasing frequency: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

 

Yeats was writing amid the horrors of the “Great War” in 1919, but his words haunt our current scene. Today it seems that the worst among us are the ones whose “passionate intensity” is being heard. Many students tell me they are so distressed and confused by the torrent of what Howard Rheingold calls the “tsunami of hogwash” inundating us that they have tuned out: no news is preferable to passionately intense hogwash, they say, and with some justification. But giving in to that urge, which I often share, means giving up on what I have taught and believed in for 50 years: rhetoric as ethical communication. I don’t think we can give up; I think we must not give up. Never has it been more important for us to embrace and practice ethical communication, to model it, to analyze and explain it, and to engage with our students in it. Teachers of writing everywhere have an urgent obligation to help students understand the pervasive forces appealing to our worst instincts and to our worst versions of ourselves—to understand these forces and to build tools capable of revealing these negative and destructive forces for what they are. And to provide students with the rhetorical knowledge and strategies that can lead not to a “lack of conviction” but to its opposite, to what is true and honest and honorable and good.

 

As it turns out, the humble first-year writing course is the very place where such instruction can and does take place. As John Duffy puts it, “First-year composition is more than an introductory writing class. It is a course in ethical communication, one that offers students and the rest of us a hopeful alternative to our debased public discourse.” Duffy’s words—and the work of first-year writing courses and those who teach them—give me hope, and courage. As we move into this momentous election year, when so much is at stake for democracy and democratic institutions, we need to hold fast to these ideals.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 534751 by Fotocitizen, used under the Pixabay License

 

Now that the Academy Awards sweepstakes for 2020 is in full cry, with the Golden Globes functioning as a kind of stand-in for the Iowa Caucuses in the tea-leaf-reading business of trying to guess what picture is going to win the golden statuette, it seems to be a good time to have a semiotic look at Quentin Tarantino's latest entrant into the annals of Hollywood cool. Keep in mind that the purpose of such an examination is not the same as that of a film review: how well a movie does what it does is not equivalent to what it signifies. After all, the epic critical and commercial failure of Cats, the movie, has been due, one might say, to a massive, across-the-board wardrobe malfunction, not to anything that it might signify culturally. Conversely, a film can successfully accomplish what it sets out to do, winning commercial and critical acclaim along the way—as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has certainly done—and still pose interesting problems from a cultural standpoint. And that is something Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does, as well.

 

While it isn't what I wish to focus on here, it would be remiss of me not to mention the most common semiotic critique of the film that I have seen so far: that is, the way that it celebrates the days when men were men and completely dominated the entertainment industry. While I'm a little surprised that I haven't seen any mention of the way that this rather archetypal male buddy flick appears to be a self-conscious effort to reproduce the star-power of Robert Redford's and Paul Newman's collaboration in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which (coincidentally?) was released in 1969 (the time frame of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Tarantino's nostalgic homage paid to a perhaps not-so-bygone era has certainly not gone unnoticed.

 

But what really strikes me here is what Tarantino does with history. Yes, I know that we are forewarned: the "once upon a time" in the title not only alludes to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, it also clues us into the fact that this is a fairy tale, a fantasy from which we should not demand historical accuracy. And after all, Tarantino is famous for playing around with the facts, having already created such revisionist revenge fantasies as Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds. So deciding to completely rewrite the history of the Manson Family and the Tate-LaBianca murders is quite in character for Tarantino, whose audiences have come to expect this sort of thing from him.

 

Well, no one ever said that Hollywood is a history department, and I am under no serious apprehension that anyone is going to walk away believing that the Manson murders did not take place. The reversal of history presented in the movie is so total that it does not present the problems that ostensibly "historical" films that get the history wrong do. As I've said, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairy tale, not a documentary.

 

Still, when we pull back from the film to look at the context (or historical system) in which it appears, a somewhat less reassuring significance begins to loom. For this is the age of "fake news" and conspiracy theories, a time when large groups of people, quite deliberately, invent their own "truth" (what Steve Colbert has satirically called "truthiness") from which they cannot be shaken, no matter how much evidence can be produced in contradiction to their claims. So while there is no risk that the fantasy presented in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will ever be taken seriously as a historical text, its substitution of a wish-fulfillment for the grim facts of history is very much in keeping with the times. In this sense, the movie is a sign—a symptom, not a cause—of the postmodern tendency to regard historical truth as something that is always open for negotiation, with reality itself, as Jean Baudrillard always insisted, being nothing more than a simulacrum of a simulacrum—indeed, one might say, a Hollywood movie about Hollywood movies.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 2355686 by Wokandapix, used under Pixabay License

 

Last week, I wrote about Merriam-Webster choosing “they” as the word of the year for 2019, and then, serendipitously, I received my copy of Dennis Baron’s What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She the very next day. I knew Dennis had been working on pronouns and gender for, well, forever, and I’d even been able to read a few excerpts from the manuscript in progress. So I was looking forward to being able to hold the book in my hands and dive in. And did I ever! This book is more than worth waiting for: it answers so many questions I’ve had about the debate over the third-person singular pronouns and many others I hadn’t even thought to ask, and it does so with wit and generosity and grace.

 

Since the push for nonbinary pronoun use has been so much in the news these last few years, many may think of this as a hot “new” issue. Baron demonstrates that this is anything but the truth, that people have been searching for “the missing word” for hundreds of years: he includes an eye-popping sixty-page chronology at the end of the book to prove it, beginning with Robert Baker’s 1770 declaration that “he” is the first gender-neutral pronoun, through the OED’s 1871 blend of “s/he,” to Alfred Speltz’s early 1930s suggestion of “se, sem, serself, semself,” to Coca-Cola’s 2018 Super Bowl ad featuring the line, “There’s a Coke for he… and she… and her… and me… and them.” Singular “they.”

 

Indeed, it is singular “they” that Baron shows has had the real staying power. After determining that generic “he,” singular “they,” and a new coined term are the “only three serious contenders” in chapter 1 and demonstrating conclusively that generic “he” was never really generic (citing hilarious examples of legislators across the country turning themselves into pretzels trying to argue that generic “he” either included or, more usually, excluded women from exercising certain rights or holding office) in chapter 2, Baron takes readers along on a tour of coined terms proposed to replace generic “he”—and then to a fascinating discussion of the very important role pronouns play in many people’s lives, as he examines the politics and legalities of pronoun use in referring to transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people.

 

Then in my favorite chapter (5), Baron declares “the missing word is ‘they’” and explains why he has come to this conclusion. Opening the chapter with a quotation from rhetorician Fred Newton Scott,

The word “they” is being used as a pronoun of the common gender every day by millions of persons who are not particular about their language, and every other day by several thousands who are particular. (185)

Baron tells us that the OED “traces singular they back to 1375, in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf” (the werewolves knew!), citing linguists, philosophers, and famous authors (George Eliot and Jane Austen among them) who agree, even in spite of occasional ambiguity, and ending with an even-handed look at the pros and cons of both new coined pronouns and singular “they.” He comes down, however, on the side of the pros in noting “the worthiness of ‘they’” and concluding that “two things do seem sure: generic ‘he’ is stake-through-the-heart dead, and however you answer the question ‘What’s your pronoun?,’ nobody answers, ‘My pronoun is… “he or she.”’”

 

May generic “he” rest in peace. And may we all be grateful in this new year for Dennis Baron’s meticulous and insightful research.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 1798 by PublicDomainPictures, used under the Pixabay License

(A Brief Homage to Wendy Bishop)

 

I was lucky to learn from and collaborate with the late Wendy Bishop, whose loss—more than sixteen years ago now—is still hard for me to accept. Wendy was a force of nature, a whirlwind of ideas about how to create better writers and better teachers of writing. Her early focus was on employing composition scholarship to inform the teaching of creative writing, but she quickly became just as, if not more, interested in ways that creative writing could bring life to expository writing courses.

 

Wendy’s first book, Released into Language, was published in 1990, the year I began full-time college teaching, so she has been a constant presence in my thinking about pedagogy. Whenever I encounter a new teaching challenge, I wonder how Wendy would face it, and now that nearly all first-semester composition courses in California’s community colleges are accelerated, I’m returning once again to her work for ideas and inspiration.

 

Always ahead of the curve, Wendy seems to have intuited acceleration’s insight that students are ill-served by what Katie Hern calls “layers of remedial coursework.” Wendy writes in Released into Language that it “is no longer effective to remain tied to hierarchical ways of thinking,” arguing:

 

We should not assume that “basic” writing instruction should take place at “lower levels,” while upper-level classes exist merely to sort the “best” writers into smaller and smaller cadres. Instead, teachers need to look at the beliefs, goals, and pedagogy for each of these levels and to dismantle artificial “class” boundaries that have been formed, mainly, by a relatively unstructured historical progression. (xvi-xvii)

 

Wendy’s punning on “‘class’” is particularly appropriate to acceleration, as one of its chief goals is to break down the class (and racial) barriers that keep students entangled in pre-college-level classes.

 

Another aspect of Wendy’s work that is especially germane to acceleration is her persistent turning from the theoretical to the practical. Yes, she was concerned to ground her pedagogy in writing research, but she was never content to leave an idea alone until she could figure out how to apply it in the classroom. For all its cutting-edge scholarship, Released into Language is also a goldmine of specific ways that teachers can help their students become better writers. Wendy emphasizes the importance of course design and generative writing, which, are crucial in acceleration, where students benefit from clearly articulated goals and lots of help early in the writing process, when the blank page or screen can look so forbidding.

 

Accelerated composition instructors often teach Carol Dweck’s work on growth and fixed mindsets and Angela Duckworth’s ideas about grit, but Wendy was there much earlier, letting writers know that failure is not only okay, it’s inevitable—and temporary. “‘Take Risks Yourself’” was the title of an interview I published with her, and she was forever pushing herself, and the writers around her—both student and professional—to experiment and expand their repertoire of rhetorical moves, even if it meant falling on our faces.

 

Wendy loathed the Old School workshop model, with the bored professor fixated on taking down his—almost always his—students a peg or two, but she loved to create settings in which students could share their work with one another. Above all, she was keen to shift the focus “from the production of texts to the development of students as writers” (Bishop and Starkey 38).

 

Accelerating students are often underconfident because they don’t yet have a language for talking about when and where their writing is, or isn’t, working. In The Subject Is Writing, Wendy maintains that “a well taught composition or creative writing class should allow you to explore writing beliefs, writing types (genres) and their attributes and your own writing process. You will be successful to the degree that you become invested in your own work” (251). Metacognition, which is so essential to acceleration, was second nature to Wendy: a writing task was never complete until the writer had examined and learned from it.

 

Most importantly, she though writing was fun, an insight I am always trying to convey to my students. Wendy wrote all the time, and sometimes seemed to put as much passion into her emails as she did into her poems, essays and books.

 

I received my last email shortly before she died on November 21, 2003, at the age of 50 from complications caused by acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She talked briefly about her illness, but her focus, as always, was on the work ahead of her. Afterwards, I remember thinking, How she loved to write! As an epitaph, I think that would have made her smile.


 

Works Cited

Bishop, Wendy. Released into Language: Options for Teaching Creative Writing. NCTE, 1990.

---. “When All Writing Is Creative and Student Writing Is Literature.” The Subject Is Writing, edited by

Wendy Bishop, Boynton/Cook, 1993, pp. 249-260.

Bishop, Wendy, and David Starkey. Keywords in Creative Writing. Utah State UP, 2006.

Hern, Katie. “Some College Students More Prepared than Placement Tests Indicate.” EdSource, 12

Nov. 2015, edsource.org/2015/some-college-students-more-prepared-than-placement-tests-

indicate/90418.

Starkey, David. “Take Risks Yourself: An Interview with Wendy Bishop and Gerald Locklin.”

Writing on the Edge, vol. 7, no. 1, 1995, pp. 100-110.

It’s January, and my social media feeds are filled with suggestions for keeping resolutions, especially those related to wellness, healthy eating, and exercise. But I am also finding some pleas for encouragement from colleagues and friends who have set (or are setting) writing goals. One colleague facing a self-imposed dissertation progress deadline sought inspiration to combat writer’s block; the comment thread following her post illustrated the power of a writing community—a blend of support, encouragement, commiseration, and offers to read or brainstorm—as well as reminders of past challenges overcome and promises of future success. That online writing community, like other writing groups (structured or informal) provides a Janus outlook, a backwards glance for perspective and an impetus forward.

 

In the ideal classroom I envision for first-year writing students, the same sort of community forms and offers new college writers a platform to find their footing (all of my 2019 resolutions were designed to foster this kind of community). One of the challenges I face in corequisite first-year writing courses, however, is absenteeism. It’s hard to build the writing community in a face-to-face course (even with a solid online component) if the students don’t attend. Attending is so much more than presence, of course, although being present in the room is a logical starting point. But in that learning space I envision, students, tutors, and faculty alike attend; they stretch (Latin tendere) minds and words and sentences, or, as the OED puts it, they “direct the mind or observant faculties, to listen, apply” themselves.

 

And that brings me to the challenge of the moment: devising an attendance policy that promotes community, not punishment. We have considerable flexibility when it comes to attendance policies; the central requirement is to have such a policy and state it clearly on the syllabus. Many faculty I know stipulate a certain number of allowable unexcused absences; additional absences will lead to grade penalties or potential administrative withdrawal. Having a stated maximum (or mid-term maximum) allows instructors to initiate withdrawals—a process that can help a student with an already sagging GPA avoid an F. Others choose to reward presence with a participation grade of some sort. My emphasis on process—up to 40% of the students’ grades—supports attendance indirectly by awarding points for good faith investment in the process: participating in discussions, collaborative exercises, peer reviews, conferences, etc. 

 

Still, I’ve seen students who struggle to connect in class or who must miss multiple classes for unavoidable reasons. Some students who abide by the absence policy still fail to attend, insofar as attendance entails engaging and finding a sense of community. They do not seek collaboration on writing challenges. Other students cannot keep within the allowable absences as stated by the policy, but they manage to find small group communities by leveraging resources like online discussions, out-of-class meetings with writing tutors or fellows, or instructor office hours.

 

The perfect attendance policy probably does not exist – certainly not one that covers all situations and contexts. But I know I want a policy that reflects community (not punishment), recognizes student realities, invites participation via alternate pathways when needed, ensures accountability, and fosters strategic self-advocacy. 

Here’s what I’ve got at this point for my spring syllabus. I am open to any and all feedback! What attendance policy are you implementing in your first-year and corequisite writing courses this spring?

 

Attending class is crucial to your success in this course. The University expects students to attend all regularly-scheduled classes for instruction and examination, but more importantly, the writing portfolio you construct this term will be strengthened by in-class collaboration with your colleagues. When you are in class, you benefit from the insights and contributions of others, just as they benefit from your suggestions and ideas.

But I recognize that you cannot always be in class; sometimes, you may not want or be able to tell me why. When you need to miss a class, make sure you let me know. Check the syllabus on D2L to see what we are doing in class that day, and you can choose from the “attendance options” below to earn attendance credit and make up any points you miss. Generally, the points/attendance should be made up within a week of the day you miss class; if you need more time (or if you need to miss more than one class), email me so that we can discuss a timetable for participation.

 

Finally, if you do have documentation for an excused absence (see the following section), email that to me as soon as possible. I will keep these on record in case there is an administrative issue about withdrawals or grades later in the term.

 

Attendance Options

  • Come to class and participate (the default, and always the best option!)
  • Attend a small group conference with our SI or one of the writing fellows (especially if you miss a class and we are working on an early version of a draft)
  • Visit the writing center (especially if you miss a peer review or other late-stage draft review)
  • Check in with your group to get notes/information and provide comments/contributions to collaborative assignments via Google Docs or the Discussion Board

 

I may initiate an administrative withdrawal for students who stop attending class altogether (via one of the options above) and do not stay in contact with me.

  • A grade of W may be assigned to students who miss 25% of class meetings (5 classes) prior to the midpoint of the term.
  • A grade of WF will be assigned when students stop attending after the midpoint, or when the total number of absences reaches more than 25% of the class meetings (10).

 

Every year I look forward to finding out what words will be singled out as especially important or noteworthy for the preceding year. This year, though, I approached this subject with special trepidation: given the events of 2019—over 40 mass murder “events” that killed 211 people, the highest on record; temperatures warming much faster than anticipated; lies and misinformation pouring out via presidential tweets; “natural” disasters like wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and polar vortexes multiplying; and news cycles reeling from one crisis to another—well, I just couldn’t imagine what the word of this year could possibly be. So many candidates, so little time.

 

Indeed, several sources named words of the year related to these circumstances. Oxford dubbed “climate emergency” its word (or phrase) of the year, denoting “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and potentially irreversible environmental damage,” and underscoring Time magazine’s choice of Greta Thunberg as their Person of the Year and highlighting the youth movement she has inspired. Surely their work will grow more urgent and more important in 2020; Oxford notes that this phrase rose from “relative obscurity” to become one of the most prominent terms of 2019 and one of the most often searched for online. Dictionary.com announced that “existential” was its word of the year, noting the ubiquity of the word not only in political news but also in popular culture, such as Toy Story 4, in which Forky faces an existential crisis in terms of his identity as a toy (or not).

 

These words and phrases all reflect the crisis-driven 365 days of 2019. And they are all well taken, and well argued for. But Merriam-Webster took a somewhat different tack, choosing “they”—used to refer to persons whose gender identity is nonbinary—as their word of the year. Noting that searches for “they” increased by 313 percent in 2019 over the previous year, the dictionary went to say that “English famously lacks a gender neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone, and as a consequence “they” has been used for this purpose for over 600 years.” So singular “they” enters the dictionaries, along with “themself.” About time.

 

Of course, this word of the year also has big political implications since it signals approval of greater inclusivity and tolerance and empathy; it’s not likely to be applauded, much less accepted, by Trump’s base, though. But it is a big step forward anyway, in this 600-year-old search for a path beyond the he/she binary. Good choice, Merriam-Webster!

 

Which word of the year do you like best? Do you have a different word (or phrase) that you think should be word of the year? And more importantly, what do your students think? Asking our students to analyze and evaluate the chosen words and then to suggest words of their own is always a great writing prompt or discussion starter for the beginning of the semester. If you do this activity, I’d love to hear what your students come up with!  

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 846089 by Free-Photos, used under the Pixabay License