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2020

The news that "Sonic the Hedgehog" had to undergo a substantial CGI redesign after its core audience panned it in the trailers inevitably has reminded me of the fate of the movie version of "Cats," which also had to go back to the digital drawing board in the wake of a disastrous YouTube premier. But while it appears that the humanoid hedgehog's re-vamp has been more successful than that of the fluffy felines, the semiotic significance of the viewer-compelled re-workings of these two movies is very much worth exploring.

 

I'd like to begin that exploration with Jean Baudrillard's thesis that in the age of the "sign" (his term for postmodern capitalism), signification is a one-way street, with corporate elites broadcasting their signals (which include everything from billboards to feature-length movies) to a passively receptive audience whose only possible resistance (and a futile one of that) is to vandalize the signal (Baudrillard's example is scrawling a mustache on the "Mona Lisa"). While I've never been a fan of Baudrillard's often unsupported pronouncements, his fundamental point about the top-down vectors of the mass media is a valid one (more or less)—or was when he formulated it. But the fully interactive Internet, with the accompanying rise of social media to worldwide eminence, has changed all that. For now, the mass media aren't one-way streets at all: they are multi-lane superhighways on which the signals are flying in every direction. The medium is no longer the massage (yes, that was McLuhan's actual phrase); it's a democratic free-for-all.

 

That's probably the fundamental takeaway from the "Sonic/Cats" fiascos, but there is a second, rather less inspiring, signification to consider. For the often vitriolic piling-on evident during such eruptions of fan outrage is all-too-reminiscent of social media "shaming" campaigns, of online bullying and "cancel culture." Certainly the slings and arrows of outrageous Twitter attacks are not going to do any real harm to the well-heeled captains of the entertainment industry (just look at the way that the creators and cast of "Game of Thrones" essentially shrugged off fan demand for a major reset of the blockbuster series' final season), but there appears to be something habit forming in the generation of social media mobs. Denouncing movies is, in the larger scheme of things, pretty trivial stuff, but the online trials and executions of offending films have to be taken in the context of the vastly more serious campaigns undertaken against vulnerable individuals, who can very definitely be harmed by such outbursts (consider, for example, the recent case of Gayle King).

 

So, as is so often the case with the new media, we are looking at a mixed message here, one that combines a populist liberation of the masses from corporate (and other forms of elite) control, with a dark vision of mob rule. And that's no trifle.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 1174228 by Pixaline, used under Pixabay License

 

For some time now, I’ve been writing and speaking about how we can teach writing—and writers—in an age of misinformation and lies. I’ve done my homework, reading all I can about how easy it is these days to generate and spread disinformation, how simple it is to create a false narrative and beat it like a drum across the internet. And like many other teachers of writing, I’ve come up with some steps students can take—everything from fact checking to triangulating sources to relying on their good old common sense—to help identify and resist falsehoods.

 

But what is happening now has me more than frightened: indeed, I feel like my hair is on fire and that everyone who cares about the truth should be feeling the same way. Just take a look at McKay Coppins's "The 2020 Disinformation War" in the March 2020 issue of The Atlantic—and sit down and take ten deep breaths before you do so. Here’s one passage that took my breath away:

"Journalistic integrity is dead," [Breitbart editor Matthew] Boyle declared in a 2017 speech at the Heritage Foundation. "There is no such thing anymore. So everything is about the weaponization of information."

 

It’s a lesson drawn from demagogues around the world: When the press as an institution is weakened, fact-based journalism becomes just one more drop in the daily deluge of content—no more or less credible than partisan propaganda.

 

The weaponization of information. Coppins shows just that throughout this essay, following social media groups, attending MAGA rallies and talking with the people there, tracking the work of Brad Parscale, digital director for the Trump 2016 and 2020 campaigns, and showing how attempts to "fight fire with fire" have brought Democratic advocates to adopt similar weaponization strategies. It’s horrifying to read about and to watch unfold literally before our eyes.

 

In closing the essay, McKay cites political theorist Hannah Arendt, who

once wrote that the most successful totalitarian leaders of the 20th century instilled in their followers "a mixture of gullibility and cynicism." When they were lied to, they chose to believe it. When a lie was debunked, they claimed they’d known all along—and would then "admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness." Over time, Arendt wrote, the onslaught of propaganda conditioned people to "believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true."

 

If McKay is even halfway correct, we and our students are in even deeper trouble than I had imagined. In addition to learning how to see through the "weaponization of information," we now have to face a larger question, one engendered by current AI research. When alternate realities can be created through technologies, including not just the latest advances in AI research but the latest manipulations of words and images, we need, no, we must respond. It’s time, I think, for our national organizations to sponsor meetings devoted solely to this challenge. We can act locally too, of course, by supporting news media that have integrity and are dedicated to honest reporting. And in our classrooms, we must give students ample opportunity to examine the weaponization of information and to find ways to resist "believing everything and nothing." We. Must.

 

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 690192 by Free-Photos, used under the Pixabay License

Do you remember your first experience with peer review—in high school, college, graduate school, or somewhere else? How do you construct peer review sessions in your classes? How has peer review evolved in your pedagogy? If you’ve recently shifted to a corequisite plus FYC model, how does peer review fit within that model?

 

My first encounter with peer review occurred in an advanced expository writing course my junior year in college; I don’t recall much about the actual in-class sessions, other than the fact that we were working with hard copies (this was the late 1980s) read aloud to a small group. Mostly I remember anxiety: I dreaded the vulnerability I faced while listening to group members critique my writing and argue about whether or not I had overused semicolons. (I actually remember writing a sentence in an observation paper about a child with “tousled” hair. I loved the word and knew exactly why I wanted to use it—having encountered it in my own reading—but I had no clue how to pronounce it. The fear of making a basic pronunciation mistake sent my already entrenched anxiety skyrocketing).

 

A few years later, as a graduate student with very little training in composition pedagogy, I was teaching a sheltered section of first-year composition for international students, and I assigned peer reviews (as I was told to do) regularly. But the students, lacking confidence in their own skills in English and receiving no clear guidance from me, did not find the exercise helpful. I might have abandoned peer review altogether in my second year of teaching, but shortly before the term started, I was asked to join a small group exploring writing pedagogy, led by Dr. Nancy Thompson and Dr. Rhonda Grego. We read Marie Wilson Nelson’s At the Point of Need, kept teaching journals, and conducted personal research into our teaching. Critically, we used Elbow and Belanoff’s A Community of Writers as our class text, and the small companion booklet that came with it, Sharing and Responding, as a guide for peer review. With a tangible set of instructions for peer review, students began to respond much more positively—and I found sufficient reason to try peer review in my classes again (and fell in love with teaching multilingual and so-called “basic” writers at the same time).

 

Although I continually adjust and refine the way I conduct peer review, I generally come back to the principles and techniques in Sharing and Responding every semester, particularly in helping students understand the value of descriptive and “sayback” responding. This sort of non-judgmental listening and describing does much to alleviate the anxiety and panic that some students may feel. (I was reminded of this anxiety at the recent Georgia Association for Developmental Education conference, where I attended a “Writing Marathon” session requiring participants to compose and then read writing aloud to colleagues we did not even know.  I was asked to read first in my group, and I know my blood pressure was climbing when three other sets of eyes were trained on me and my yellow notebook. But the only response group members were allowed to give after each reading was this: “Thank you for sharing.” We did three iterations, and it was much easier the third time).

 

When it’s time for more directed feedback in class, we do preliminary work first: we discuss the benefits of peer review beyond improving the draft at hand, and we practice offering feedback on drafts that class members did not write. I generally have students do peer review in the first-year composition class, not during the corequisite, although we may use corequisite class time to discuss ways of using and responding to peer feedback.

This semester, our first peer review was conducted in a virtual space, and after some training and practice exercises, students responded to the drafts of others in their small group using the comments features on Google Docs. I asked students to focus on content and organization-- saying back what they heard, responding to content, clarifying points of confusion, and asking questions. Since these drafts were still relatively early, I asked them not to focus on grammar or punctuation.

 

Seventeen students participated in the first peer review, and they made a total of 155 comments, most of which focused on personal connections to content, praise for strong wording or support, and suggestions for expansion (requesting definitions or more information). Each draft (which was 2-3 pages in length) received an average of 9 peer comments (in contrast, the papers received on average 13 targeted comments from me).  

 

I saw much to be pleased about as I reviewed the comments: for the most part, students took the exercise seriously and made perceptive comments that relied heavily on modality and suggestion (might, could, would, can, consider, etc.), as well as questions. 

 

But neither the numbers nor a linguistic analysis provides an adequate measure of the success of the review, although both suggest students met the goal of engaging in substantive talk—and metatalk—about writing. Now I want to understand how students value the peer review process and what they will do with the comments they were given; in the past, some students have told me that the only comments worth considering are the ones from me, since I am doing the grading. This week, students will be reflecting on the peer review exercise and their next steps (in a journal exercise). I am eager to see their responses.

 

How do you set up peer review for students in FYC/corequisite courses? How do you assess the effectiveness of those sessions? I would love to hear your strategies.

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

 Bitten pencil and crumpled paper

 

Grammar Girl podcasts pair well with written assignments, and can help students think about issues related to style and structure (in addition to grammar, of course!). Consider trying one of the below activities to guide students in improving their writing--plus, there’s a bonus idea for classes working on speeches!

 

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."

 

Use Grammar Girl to Introduce Style Guides

  • Using Style Guides [5:13]

 

To introduce the concept of style guides, either listen to “Using Style Guides” as a class or assign it for homework. Together, discuss style guides and what purpose they serve. Ask your students which style guides they’ve used in other classes and talk about which will be used in this course.

 

Additional Activity: Assign students to groups of 2-3 and ask them to create a 5 minute presentation about a style guide. The focus should be on the key features of that guide and the intended audience.

 

Use Grammar Girl to Talk About Sentence Variety

  • Sentence Length [5:07]

 

Assign this podcast for homework and then ask students to write sentences of various lengths, taking position on a silly topic--for example, cats versus dogs. Ask them to write the shortest sentence they can, the longest sentence they can, and a few mid-length sentences. As a class, consider: Which sentences are most confusing? Which are most effective? Which are the most interesting?

 

Additional Activity: During peer review of an essay, ask students to mark variety in sentence length (or a lack of variety).

 

Use Grammar Girl to Check for Errors in Capitalization and Italics

  • Capitalizing Words in the Business World [6:47]
  • Capitalizing Titles, Course Names, and Geographic Names [6:40]
  • How to Use Italics [5:23]

 

Capitalization and italics can be confusing! Before a first draft is due, assign these three podcasts. During class, dedicate some time for each student to review their draft for issues with capitalization and italics.

 

BONUS: Using Grammar Girl to Improve a Speech

  • Writing Scripts and Speeches [6:34]

 

If your course involves writing and giving speeches, assign students the “Writing Scripts and Speeches” podcast as they begin drafting their first script. As a class, go over Grammar Girl’s suggestions and make a list of your students’ favorites. 

 

After the students give their speeches, discuss which (if any) of the suggestions they tried, and what they plan on doing for future speeches. 

 

Credit: Pixabay Image 1891732by congerdesign, used under a Pixaby License

Bananas"Bananas" by JeepersMedia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

 

Students might assume it’s bananas to pay $120,000 for a piece of fruit, but that’s what not just one but three art collectors did at Art Basel Miami last December. The first, in fact, paid a $30,000 premium for the “first edition” of Maurizio Cattelan’s artwork Comedian, a banana duct-taped to the outer wall of the très chic Perrotin gallery on South Beach. The other two buyers paid the list price for a signed and numbered certificate of authenticity, a banana, a roll of duct tape, and instructions: Change the banana every ten days or so.

 

We are in slippery territory here. Is this work a-peeling? Or off-pudding? Or is something rotten at Art Basel besides the bespoke bananas?

 

Comedian caused quite a stir in Miami. The gallery had to rope it off as selfies went viral. Lots of Instagram parodies, other things taped to walls: a Moon Pie, a jar of pickles, a bag of dish scrubbies. Kentucky Fried Chicken joined in, partnering with another gallery to offer its much-hyped chicken sandwich taped to canvas, also for $120,000 (“a mixed media work of art consisting of a toasted brioche bun, two pickles, fried chicken, mayo and duct tape over canvas”). Actually, it cost $120,003.99 – $120,000 for the art and $3.99 for the sandwich. No word if it sold.

 

But the Colonel isn’t an artist, right? With Cattelan, obviously, there’s the shrewd selection of the banana, of course, but then there’s also the way it is taped, just so.

 

If students aren’t buying that, they probably wouldn’t be interested in buying Comedian, even if they could. Like the unpretentious child who calls out the charade in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a similar refrain rings out about Comedian: It’s just a banana, people!

 

 “Almost nobody has discussed that it is not just ‘a banana,’” New York Times art critic Jason Farago wrote. “It is a banana and a piece of duct tape, and this is a significant difference.” It shows Cattelan’sdecades-long reliance on suspension to make the obvious seem ridiculous and to deflate and defeat the pretensions of earlier art…Something to do, also, with the comic potential of bananas.”

 

Perhaps the real story here is about wealth disparity, income inequality and the excesses of the rich. Comedian sold within walking distance of some of the most distressed neighborhoods in America.

 

Billionaires Billy and Beatrice Cox, of the Bancroft family (who controlled Dow Jones and Company for a hundred years), said: “When we saw the public debate Comedian sparked about art and our society, we bought it . . . . It opened the floodgates and morphed into an important debate about the value we place on works of art and objects in general.”

 

Take away all external meanings and all extrinsic measure of value – social, cultural, artistic, political, collectible – and you have what Marx (Karl, not Groucho) called the object’s use-value – you have a yellow fruit, technically a berry, temporary nourishment.

 

Artist David Datuna brought this irreducible value to light when, to the shock of onlookers, he plucked the $120,000 banana off the Perrotin gallery wall and ate it. “It was delicious,” he said. “It tasted like $120,000.” Some called it a stunt. He called it performance art.

 

 (Daylight come, an’ me wan’ a-go home . . . )

 

Using Comedian to Teach Argument

Cattelan’s banana provides an interesting contemporary example that is ripe for discussion in an argument course. Comedian offers a space where meaningful surveying, analyzing, and evaluating from multiple perspectives can occur. By analyzing the conflicts, students may discover that the questions generated from each position are quite different.

 

Students may have to confront obstacles to critical thinking, for example avoiding common sense responses that judge the art world and its patrons as foolish or excessive, or the artwork as “nothing,” or those who trade in such commodities as “selfish” or “crazy.”

 

Others, disposed to defend art, may face their own obstacles: If anything is art, and art is totally subjective, what distinguishes one type or example from any other? How does art attain its status as such? Is the quality of art intrinsic to the artwork, or extrinsic?  How have different contexts elevated some art works from the past, and diminished others?

 

When discussing evidence, students may consider how two different perspectives on this artwork might generate different types of supporting evidence: How might the evidence used as support differ when arguing that Comedian is art, compared to arguing that it is immoral to pay $120,000 for it?

 

Topics for Critical Thinking and Writing

  • “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana,” Groucho Marx said. The banana is, after all, a comic staple. Maybe what’s funny about Comedian is that it uses the classic banana trap to set up its supercilious audience for a humiliating fall. Maybe it continues the subversive tradition of the banana-as-symbol in modern art: Warhol’s banana-cum-Velvet Underground album cover, the Guerilla Girls, Gaugin, Gravity’s Rainbow. Abbot and Costello. A famous Monty Python sketch. A comedy theory clinic by Rowan Atkinson. Bean in an art class. Bert and Ernie on banana phones. Student may explore what Farago called “the comic potential of bananas” by contextualizing Comedian among these examples of a specific but durable comic tradition. Why are bananas “funny,” and why among fruits has it taken on such symbolic value? In what other ways has the banana proved a consistent feature of art?
  • Can we single out the Coxes or their $120,000 banana/concept/CoA for moral condemnation in a world rife with parallel examples of illusory value? What makes the Coxes’ purchase so exceptionally excessive? If we start talking about “wasting money” or expressions of gross inequality in the marketplace, we may start with million-dollar artworks and superyachts, but should we not go straight through the looking glass to SUVs, Lululemon, and seven-dollar lattes? Do the Coxes effectively function as a scapegoat, and should we not condemn our own collective consumerist habits?
  • How can Comedian be read as a political statement? As a comment on #MeToo, a (shriveling) symbol, crudely taped to a wall? (It is reminiscent of that scene in Zola’s Germinal where the women of a provincial French town castrate and kill a lecherous shopkeeper, then carry his appendage around on a pike.)
  • If Comedian is too-easily written off as bad art or just too simple, then how can students reconcile this judgment with various canons of modernism – or other art movements or theories? Students could compare Duchamp’s Fountain, Warhol’s soup can, Kadinsky’s abstractions, Rothko’s non-representational canvases, William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” (Also his wonderful poem, “This is Just to Say,” reputedly a note he left for his wife after impudently pinching the last plum from the icebox.) Students may also consider “found art,” for example, or by reading Kenneth Goldsmith’s essay, “Uncreative Writing” (Current Issues and Enduring Questions, p. 516) and considering whether or not the kinds of innovation, experimentation, and appropriation he discusses are applicable to the arts today – or any specific genre.
  • Conduct a creative exercise where students “create” a non-representational artwork using everyday objects presented in a unique or combinatory way. Other students may critique or interpret these artworks “connotatively” as the objects are presented as art, in a way that makes them significant beyond their denotative meanings.

 

Resources

To support these discussions and to give students entry points based on your course goals (or their interests), Current Issues and Enduring Questions* offers helpful sections:

 

To engage in critical thinking and guide students through some basic processes and ways to enter a conversation or debate:

  • Thinking through an Issue (p. 4)
  • Analyzing and Evaluating from Multiple Perspectives (p. 4)
  • Surveying, Analyzing and Evaluating the Issue (p. 6)
  • Confronting Obstacles to Critical Thinking (p. 8)
  • Anticipating Counterarguments (p. 8)
  • Approaching an Issue (p. 15)
  • Classical Topics – definitions, comparisons, relationships, testimonies (p. 17)


To define key terms and concepts:

(Students may attempt their own definitions of “art,” “modern art,” “non-representational art,” the “value of art,” or they may examine how definitions of such terms differ in opinion and commentary they locate and read.)

  • Defining Terms and Concepts (p. 44)
  • Some Procedures in Argument: Definitions (p. 85)

 

To practice critical summary by reading opinions and commentary on Comedian, then sharing/reporting to the class:

  • Summarizing and Paraphrasing (p. 46)
  • Critical Summary (p. 53)

 

To analyze arguments and evaluate rhetorical appeals, logical reasoning, and use of evidence in writing about Comedian:

  • Persuasion, Argument, and Rhetorical Appeals (p. 75)
  • Premises and Syllogisms (p. 81) – Students could invent novel syllogisms related to Comedian or art.
  • Evidence, Experimentation, Examples (p. 92)

 

To analyze the multimodal dimensions of art and discuss its denotative and symbolic meanings:

  • Chapter 4: Visual Rhetoric: Thinking about Images as Arguments (p. 131)
  • Seeing vs. Looking (p. 137)
  • Levels of Images (p. 140) 

 

To examine definitions of art from a literary perspective:

  • Chapter 11: A Literary Critic’s View (p. 375)
  • Interpreting (p. 376)
  • Judging (or Evaluating) (p. 376)

 

*Briefer versions are also available: Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing and From Critical Thinking to Argument.

 

Is style “the man himself,” as many have said? The “dress of thought” as Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son? Or “the counter-point of a writer’s character,” in Goethe’s view? H. L. Mencken thought that the essence of style was that “it can never be reduced to rules”; Katherine Anne Porter that “you do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style emanates from your own being.” Some say style inevitably reveals the writer’s character; others say only a fool would believe that claim.

 

Over the decades I have thought a lot about style, and I’m inclined to agree that it is not rule-governed though it is, or can be, developed. I’ve talked about style with hundreds of students (maybe thousands), and always remember a question I got during a talk I gave to 500 freshmen about style: “Can you tell me how to make my sentences sing?” Well, I can give some tips, offer a few ideas, but I can’t give a step-by-step process that will create singing sentences. Especially my own.

 

I had all these thoughts in mind when I picked up Keith Rhodes’s “Feeling it: Toward Style as Culturally Structured Intuition,” which appears in the December 2019 issue of College Composition and Communication. “Culturally structured intuition?” I thought. Tell me more! So I dove into the essay with great interest, and I wasn’t disappointed. After providing some background on his own interest in style, Rhodes sets forth his hypothesis: “style flows from the writer’s intuitive intentions more than from any other influence—including any specific methods that we teach.” (He’s using the term “flow” here in both its everyday sense and in the more specific one put forward by Csikszentmihalyi.) And he then goes on to make a bold leap to connect this view of style with the “liberatory goal of supporting students’ right to their own language.” “Bravo,” I thought, and read on.

 

Rhodes then reviews research in the field on teaching style and traditional pedagogical methods for doing so, finding little that seems viable today—except for current research on translingual dispositions toward style, to which he returns toward the end of his essay. Before that, however, he describes a small study in which he and colleagues taught style directly and then examined student writing to see if they could find evidence that the formal concepts they were teaching showed up in student writing. They did—in the very short run, but disappeared in later writing: “There was no demonstrable high-road, transferable learning about the language for particular features of style.”

 

Faced with these findings as well as with his own intuitions and his interviews with students, Rhodes hypothesizes that students did resonate with intuitive concepts like “voice” and “tone” and “conciseness.” Perhaps, Rhodes, suggests, we should “jumble the order of students owning their language—feeling more capable of using voice fluently to fit varied rhetorical situations and social settings.” In short, he says, echoing Kate Ronald, we should help students feel “at home” in their writing, and he goes on to argue that we should help them expand that notion of “home” to include numerous “homes.”

 

This move brings Rhodes back to “Students’ Right to Their Own Language”: “rather than frame the transaction as a patronizing granting of rights . . . teachers can help students explore the genuine uses of their existing felt sense of style in new contexts.” Doing so will help students practice developing more control of style in ways that can help them write sentences that “sing.” Working from this more structured, culturally situated, intuitive sense of style also fits very well with translingual approaches to teaching writing, approaches that bring community writing/speaking practices into the classroom and into student writing.

 

In the last part of the essay, Rhodes discusses translingual dispositions, code meshing, and the challenges of using both effectively in widely diverse classrooms. The entire article is well worth reading and studying—and talking with students about. Certainly I’ve learned a lot from thinking about the issues Rhodes raises; my big takeaway right now is that students can develop not style but styles, not voice but voices, and they can do so using intuitive everyday language. I’d love to hear other responses to these ideas since I am convinced that style is not a separate element of writing, but rather inextricable from content and infinitely worthy of our attention.

 

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 447577 by Andrys, used under the Pixabay License

Jack Solomon

"Typical Americans"

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Feb 13, 2020

Twenty-six years ago, the introduction to the first edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. began with an exploration of the place that the Super Bowl holds in American life and culture, noting how "It's more than just a football game. It's an Event, a ritual, a national celebration, and show-time for . . . corporate high rollers, for whom the game is but a stage" for high-profile branding and marketing. Since I wrote those words, paying almost as much attention to the Super Bowl’s commercials as to the game itself has become a national pastime, with advance ad previews, real-time ad-popularity polls, and post-game ad rundowns, including straight-up semiotic analyses like Eric Deggans's NPR overview of some of the unintended messages from Super Bowl LII's advertising lineup. And so it is only appropriate, if not downright obligatory, for me to take a look at this year's crop of Super Bowl ads as I write this blog in the aftermath of the game.

 

In general, like many other commentators, I see a lot of companies playing it safe, trying to avoid controversy in an increasingly polarized America by adopting such tried-and-true formulae as featuring popular celebrities in comic narratives—with Bill Murray's star turn in Jeep's "Groundhog Day" spoof probably being the most successful in this regard. With such a lineup, there isn't much room for trenchant semiotic analysis, leaving one simply with deciding whether a given ad is funny or not, and then analyzing what makes it funny to see what that might tell us.

 

But one ad did stand out from the play-it-safe crowd this year, an ad that Deggans (in the afore-mentioned analysis) awarded his own personal "Oddest use of vaguely nationalistic language to sell beer" award." Yes, you've probably already guessed which one, if only from the title of this blog: Budweiser's "Typical American" spot. And since Deggans got to it first, I'll begin my analysis of this interesting outlier with a complete quotation of what he has to say about it:

 

The self-styled "king of beers" offers some championship-level pandering in this ad, which features a gritty-voiced announcer sarcastically noting how "typical Americans" are always showing off their strength—as images of a heroic firefighter in action play across the screen. The ad urges viewers to celebrate the nobility of "typical Americans." But I couldn't help wonder who the narrator was referencing when he said, "they call us 'typical Americans.' " Who exactly is "they?" And why is Budweiser developing brand loyalty by urging "typical Americans" to rise up against this unnamed source of insult? Vaguely nationalistic, condescending and solicitous all at once—hardly a regal combination.

 

Well, I think that Deggans is right on target, and he asks exactly the right questions: namely, "Who exactly is 'they,'" and "why is Budweiser developing brand loyalty by urging 'typical Americans' to rise up against this unnamed source of insult?" So, these are the questions that my own analysis will seek to answer.

 

It's important to begin here with an acknowledgment that the creators of “Typical Americans” clearly went to great lengths to avoid cultural controversy by packing their panoramic survey of "typical Americans" doing their noble thing with an inclusive range of performers. From its multi-racial casting to its inclusion of an actually disabled athlete, to its celebration of the 2019 Women’s World Cup champions, the ad tries very hard to appeal to all of America without privileging any particular group. This isn't to say that everyone was included, but a fairly wide tent is definitely intended.

 

Still, while trying to project inclusivity, "Typical Americans" does set up an "us vs. them" dynamic in its voice-over narrative, a monolog simply dripping with sarcastic allusions to what "they" say about "us," along with a lot of visual refutations of “their” opinions. So, indeed, as Deggans asks, who are "they," precisely?

 

We can answer this question by situating it within the history of what I will call "the trope of the 'ugly American.'" Going back at least as far as nineteenth-century British attitudes towards their former colonies (Dickens is especially scathing in this regard), and coming to full maturity in the post-World War II years when America emerged as a superpower, "the ugly American" trope evokes an America that is fundamentally gauche, impolite, raw, uncultured, and uncivilized. "Typical Americans" alludes to this history in order to unite Americans against those who just don't understand us, don't get it, and can't be expected to get it. In short, the rest of the world. Which leads us to Deggans's second question: why did Budweiser make such an appeal in order to sell beer?

 

Here we can consider Budweiser's lengthy history of populist advertising. When, for example, in the boom-boom, go-for-the-gold 1980s, appeals to high status and wealth in advertising were quite common (consider Michelob's "Have It All" campaign), Budweiser was telling its consumers that "this Bud's for you," while featuring images of working-class Americans at work, at play, and in bars. In the light of this history, then, we can see that "Typical Americans" is presenting a new riff on an old Budweiser theme, spinning a populist narrative with (as Deggans recognizes) a distinctly nationalistic topspin. In so doing, the ad is trying to unify Americans at a time of disunity, make them feel good about being Americans, and so (not at all coincidentally) feel good about buying America's most popular/populist beer.

 

But there's a catch, something that I believe the ad's creators did not anticipate. For populism these days—especially when combined with overt nationalism—is evocative of an all-too-evident us-vs.-them dynamic that is currently driving America’s electoral politics. And thus, especially in a presidential election year like this one, the ad's attempt to unify Americans is bound to backfire, dividing those viewers who identify with nationalistic populism from those who don’t. This will still sell a lot of beer, of course, but not, perhaps, in the spirit that “Typical Americans” intended.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 3561339 by QuinceMedia, used under Pixabay License

 

I’m wondering how many others read the article by Mike McIntire and Kevin Roose in the New York Times called “What Happens When QAnon Seeps from the Web to the Offline World.” I have heard of this conspiracy theory before, but I didn’t know much about it or its supporters until I read this piece. Then I started digging in a bit to find out more.

 

In an interview with Matthew Rozsa of Salon, Travis View, who has studied and written about QAnon, describes the conspiracy theory this way:

QAnon is based upon the idea that there is a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who rule the world, essentially, and they control everything. They control politicians, and they control the media. They control Hollywood, and they cover up their existence, essentially. And they would have continued ruling the world, were it not for the election of President Donald Trump.

Say what? I was taken aback by the “satan-worshipping pedophile” description. Really?? Apparently, yes, as McIntire and Roose demonstrate: the claims the group makes are so wildly preposterous as to be jaw-dropping.

 

Alyssa Rosenberg suggests in her op-ed piece in the Washington Post that QAnon might be thought of not so much as a conspiracy theory, “but as an unusually absorbing alternate-reality game with extremely low barriers to entry.” She goes on to show just how addictive “playing” this particular alternate-reality online game is.

 

All these researchers note how large QAnon is, how much it has crept into a number of institutions and sites, and how many active and enthusiastic participants it has. So I’m wondering how much our students know about this group—and more to the point, what they think about it. The language used by QAnon-ers seems to me to present very rich opportunities for rhetorical analysis. This practice could track the strategies, methods, and tropes used by people who believe in this conspiracy theory, and other conspiracy theories, and it could unpack its “logic” to reveal what Kenneth Burke dubs its “terministic screen.”

 

Has anyone out there worked with such analyses or built other kinds of assignments aimed at countering the work of QAnon and other conspiracy theories? Is it worth the effort to do so? And why or why not? I am still learning more about QAnon, and growing more and more concerned at the literacy practices it deploys. Thanks for thinking about this issue.

 

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 785742 by Pixies, used under the Pixabay License

I’m roaring into my 2020 teaching with the old-school pedagogy of journal-writing, buoyed by the positive feedback from students, and, frankly, the pleasure I’m taking in practicing alongside them.

 

I have posted about a journaling experiment in a writing-centered first-year seminar. I am trying journals again this semester in an upper-level general education course with a gender and sustainability theme. This is a biggish group for a writing-centered class with 35 students, many of whom are coasting toward graduation in May. About half of them have science backgrounds, and some are out of practice doing close work with literary texts. I wasn’t sure they’d be up to spending the slow time with sentences that our challenging course texts required. However, I did know that many of them are used to close and careful observation and analysis in their science classes, and I wanted to make space for that expertise in our classroom.

 

So, I designed a semester-long assignment that I’m calling “Learn from a Tree,” requiring weekly journaling about a tree of each student’s choice on campus. I handed them appealingly designed recycled paper journals that are slim enough to tuck in their course folders but tall and stiff enough to stand up to the rigors of writing by hand outdoors with the journal balanced on a knee or backpack. I worked with some plant ecologists on campus on the assignment, Dr. Deb Marr and Dr. Andy Schnabel, and have decided to disclose their advice about observation slowly, as an experiment in paying attention to the process of acquiring literacy in a new subject. So far, it has been surprising, challenging, and—dare I say it?—fun.

 

I offered only vague guidelines for journaling at first, by design: Spend at least 5 minutes a week journaling about your tree, taking notes on what you see and what you experience. I wanted students to swim around a little bit in the challenge of learning to slow down and really look. I wanted them to notice, perhaps, that they may not yet know how to pay attention to details, much less how to think about what they see. The early journal entries are fascinating, some with sketches, some with impressionistic details, and many with reflections on just how long even five minutes unplugged can feel, standing still outdoors in front of a tree, a pen poised over a blank page. Students with science backgrounds have some advantages over those of us who are new to close-looking at plants.

 

As the semester goes on, I am revealing more and more suggestions about how to pay attention and take notes. I locate myself firmly as a learner alongside my students, drawing on colleagues’ suggestions for creating tracking grids in our journals for bud-growth, building on the Budburst resources for citizen scientists. I am learning about and sharing identification keys, since leafless winter trees in Northern Indiana present an interpretive challenge. We’re even going to be doing some mathematics, soon, so we can all learn to measure trees with a stick or our own paces.

 

Learning to slow down enough to close-read texts works the same way, of course. As we move through the course material—for example, Rachel Carson’s poetic invitation to see science as citizen literacy in Silent Spring—our task in class is to deliberate on what we think about what we see. We discuss giving the same attention to words, phrases, and arrangement that we are learning to give to the varied details of “our” trees. We are developing, together, more ways to explain textual significance and sharing our somatic experiences of slow looking and close reading. Both require discipline, and neither is easy. Already, though, the pleasures of discovery are a theme I am hearing from students, and I’m experiencing them, myself, as a novice naturalist and re-reader of texts I know well but continue to re-discover with students.

 

If analog journaling isn’t your style or presents challenges to your students or course format, Miriam Moore offers an appealing structure for an online journal that accomplishes the same sort of guided close attention to texts.

 

What are you trying inside or outside the classroom that allows you to share the vulnerability and discovery of slow looking, slow reading, and slow thinking? Until it’s time for the sap to run, you and your students might find this practice of slow-as-molasses-in-February deliberation to be just right for right now.

 

Photo Credit: Journal with a Tree by April Lidinsky

The two of you are former long-time California Community College professors now working for the Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges. Your current project focuses on using student support success factors to ensure learning. Can you begin by telling readers a little bit about what the RP Group is, and then give a brief overview of this particular project?

 

Kathy Molloy: The RP Group is a nonprofit organization that supports community colleges through research and professional development. Its goal is to build a community college culture that views planning, evidence-based decision-making, and institutional effectiveness as integral to promoting student success and increasing equitable outcomes.

 

Our project aims to understand how community colleges can feasibly deliver support both inside and outside the classroom to improve success for all students, with a particular focus on African-American and Latino learners. Using phone surveys and focus groups, the RP Group asked nearly 900 students from 13 California Community Colleges what supports their educational success. Feeling directed, focused, engaged, connected, nurtured and valued were the “success factors” that these students identified.

 

Your project promotes “the importance of affective learning in the classroom.” What are some of the most useful specific activities that you would recommend to instructors of accelerated composition?                                                                                                                                                                                                                        KM: My recommendations are for any class and any discipline, although students can get overwhelmed more quickly in an accelerated class. Making your expectations clear and letting students know that you are there to provide support are key. Doing activities that build community is essential throughout the semester, but especially in the first few weeks. For example, you can provide opportunities in your class for students to learn about you and each other. You can do this by giving multiple assignments involving different small groups and doing icebreakers and other getting-to-know-you activities. And you can teach students about the importance of a growth mindset and other practices of successful students so that they can carry those lessons beyond your classroom.

 

Diego Navarro: In the first few classes it is important to build trust and emotional safety in your classroom. If you have second language learners or students who see themselves as not really belonging in their college classes, do not use sarcasm or tell jokes that may be misunderstood by them. It is important to show respect and articulate the strengths of your students. Know that many of our students have radar that is keenly tuned to noticing when they feel threatened; how you treat one student is witnessed by all students. Know that if your students do not feel safe then there will be a negative impact especially the first few weeks of class when you are setting norms.

 

Slow down your tempo; become curious; listen beyond words to student needs, concerns or aspirations to understand their struggles. Realize that the greatest potency may be a pause. Identify and articulate your students’ strengths and positive intentions or traits.

 

It is also important at the beginning of the semester to keep a keen eye out for those behaviors that will sidetrack students later in the semester. Track and discuss with students their absences from class, missing assignments, and any behaviors that are disruptive to the learning environment that you are creating because the trajectory they create in the first three weeks of the semester may set a trend.

 

Finally, I think managing students’ energy in your classroom is one of the key affective practices. What I mean by this is: whenever energy is waning in the classroom during a lecture or some other passive activity, do not stop the class for a break since this dissipates the energy of the class. Instead, stop the class and lead them in an engagement-oriented exercise, such as those found in the Academy for College Excellence exercises, to refocus the energy of the students and accomplish one of the following: build community, help the students learn about each other, reinforce what they are learning in your class, build teamwork, or support the development of other professional skills like empathy and listening.

 

What do you think happens to students when their affective and non-cognitive needs are not met? What’s at stake here?

 

DN: When students’ affective and non-cognitive needs are not met then they go into bioreaction, a sympathetic nervous system response where the amygdala senses threat, the body receives a flood of hormones to amplify the body's alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles. and then they go into a response of fight, flight, freeze or appease. When they are in this response their body biologically is ready for survival and not learning. Their cognitive brain shuts down and they are not able to absorb and process what you are teaching. They have to first deal with identifying that they are in bioreaction and then learn techniques to pulling them out of it. For many students, when their triggered response kicks in it may take them hours to pull out of it. So, these needs are imperative to address.

 

KM: Our students’ futures are at stake! We know from the survey data from the Center for Community College Student Engagement that 28% of entering students say they feel isolated and that 50% of our students don’t return after the first year. If students don’t feel that they belong at college and that no one cares whether they are there or not, they drop out.  That’s a huge loss in terms of the opportunities they might have for a well-paying job and a huge loss to us as a society.

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 khaimesk@kennesaw.edu or visit her website: Acts of Composition.

 

Overview

As a digital storyteller myself, I am always looking for stories and connections in my world and for signs and meaning within my larger context. It is easy with my phone camera always available as I move through life and curate images and compose stories. Likewise, I hope to train students to see and create stories in their lives through observing personal, communal, and cultural perspectives, experiences, and influences through interacting with and interpreting their worlds. I encourage my students to engage in the regular practices of digital storytellers such as curation, selection, composition, and visual representation.

 

For this multimodal assignment, I ask students to create a simple digital story or slideshow in which they focus on a visual series of related things, experiences, or ideas. In addition to the digital skills required, students come to find their own meanings and understand larger rhetorical concepts of categorization, selection, arrangement, revision, and reflection. Categorization helps us understand the ways things fit together, universal abstractions, and the nature of things and ideas. This concept is rooted in classical rhetoric where both Plato and Aristotle refer to the connection between naming and categorization and explore the ways language facilitates this differentiation. Modern psychological and rhetorical interpretations support these vital cognitive processes in which “ideas and objects are recognized, differentiated, classified, and understood.”

Categorization focuses on how knowledge is organized. Objects in the same category are likely to share certain attributes, and category membership allows inferences to be drawn. The term category refers to a set of things (objects, ideas, events) that are grouped together. The term concept often refers to the mental representation of such knowledge. (Psychology Research and Reference, Iresearchnet.com)

 

This assignment draws on these concepts and asks students to find their own meanings in the overlapping and categorization of things. Through identifying similarities and differences, students stretch their cognitive muscles and move from the specific to the universal to abstract meaning and shared ideas.

 

 

Background Readings and Resources

The St. Martin’s Handbook: Ch 16: Design for Print and Digital Writing, Ch 13e: Working with Visuals and Media

The Everyday Writer (also available with Exercises): Ch 18: Making Design Decisions, Ch. 12c: Integrate visuals and media effectively

Easywriter (also available with Exercises): Ch 3: Making Design Decisions, Ch. 15b: Integrating visuals and media

 

Steps to the Assignment

  • Brainstorm: I encourage students to first identify a potential series that occurs in their lives – one that they will be able to collect multiple images over a period of time. I have them start this assignment by brainstorming and observing their lives for a day or so to look for patterns, connections, repetition, or emerging ideas. I ask them to create a list of possibilities and then select one on which to focus for their series.
  • Capture and Curate for Series: Next, students capture images and create a series. The number of images can vary as long as they collect more than they will use for their story (curation and selection). They need to capture related artifacts or concepts in different settings – studying them from different angles and perspectives. The series can be a collection of things or represent a series of ideas.  
  • Practice Composing Techniques: Make sure students practice strong composing techniques as they capture their images. This helps them realize that there are composing practices related to visual rhetoric and that these choices communicate different layers of meaning. Check out my Grab and Go Galleries post for resources and ways to integrate composing techniques into your classes.
  • Review and Select: Once students have collected and curated images, they should review the collection and select the strongest ones to include in their story. This is the time to recognize observations, inferences, patterns, and connections as they consider and select their artifacts.
  • Revise and Edit Images: After selection, students should edit their images through cropping, light, color, etc. to create quality images to communicate their meanings. I encourage them to use available digital tools and consider size, position, background, and context as they make these rhetorical choices.
  • Arrange Images: Next, arrange the images and insert them into a 1-2 minute digital story (video or self-advancing slideshow). I allow them to use any video editing software they like. Most of them have access on their computers and there are many free, online options as well. If time, students can get feedback from their peer towards revision.
  • Add Sound and Text: Students add title and credit slides, transitional text (if needed), and copyright free music. This is a good opportunity to discuss ethical digital use of images and citation practices. I usually share some open source, copyright-free music sites such as Bensound or Purple Planet for their use and selection. The music is another rhetorical consideration as students compose their stories and shape their particular meanings.
  • Reflection: Metacognition is always meaningful. Students reflect, in writing on what they learned through the series. They can comment on their processes and the ways they read across the collection and discuss connections between things to abstract, larger universal concepts or ideas.
  • Share with Classmates: Students can share their stories in small groups, with the full class or in an online, digital format (my students place them on their blog with a reflective context statement).

 

Reflection on the Activity

Digital storytelling can help us understand our world as we recognize patterns and connections in our lives. We can collect images for stories in our everyday lives, but trips and adventures also provide great opportunities for this kind of visual storytelling. It is in this spirit that I collected images and shaped my own version of this Digital, Visual Series Assignment on a recent trip to the desert (Palm Springs, CA) to visit family and explore the area. I started out by casting a wide net and worked to capture a sense of place as we went on with our activities. Palm Springs’s visual design style and cultural artifacts reflect a Mid-century Modern style that creates a feeling of “old Hollywood.”  I decided to focus in on this style and created my series to capture and explore iconic roadside signs that fit into these categories. I personally liked the idea of signs for my series for their obvious semantic connection and visual appeal along with their metaphorical implications. I have included my digital story, Looking for Signs, below as an example of this assignment.

 

 

I used to wait for a sign, she said, before I did anything. Then one night I had a dream & an angel in black tights came to me & said, you can start any time now, & then I asked is this a sign? & the angel started laughing & I woke up. Now, I think the whole world is filled with signs, but if there's no laughter, I know they're not for me.                            – Brian Andreas, Storypeople

We are heading into the fourth week of spring term, rounding out the first quarter of our FYC and corequisite courses. We’ve just finished early draft conferences on the first significant project – a literacy narrative. One of my research interests for this year concerns the nature of metatalk in my classroom and how to foster richer metatalk via conferencing, group work, and feedback. To that end, I’ve structured the FYC course so that each of the three major writing projects receives multiple rounds of feedback in different forms: an initial conference with oral feedback, a peer review that might include both written and oral feedback, and then written feedback from me via Google Docs. My written feedback is meant to spark further discussion as well, given that the commenting apparatus in Google Docs allows for replies (I’m alerted via email when a student responds to a comment). I’m looking to spark richer discussion that will in turn lead to thoughtful and strategic revisions, building up to the final portfolio. (And students in the corequisite will have additional conferences with our upper-division writing fellows, who are partnering with the corequisite students for the entire semester).

 

I’ve recently been reading research related to the Sydney School, an approach to teaching multilingual writers (generally at elementary and secondary levels) within a systemic functional linguistics (SFL) theoretical framework. SFL-based language and writing pedagogies have yielded some fascinating research in Australia, England, and (to a lesser extent) the United States. These SFL-based pedagogies draw extensively from the work of Lev Vygotsky in terms of the psychology of learning.

 

Oversimplifying a bit, one of the claims Vygotsky put forward is that social/interactive uses of language between parents and children (“intermental experience”) prompt a child’s cognitive language development (“intramental experience”). Within the Sydney school and related models, language acquisition/writing pedagogy attempts to mirror this intermental to intramental sequence, such that co-construction of texts precedes individual production. 

           

Thinking about SFL, Vygotsky, and applications of both to pedagogy provided me with a different lens for thinking about my early draft conferences this past week. Typically, when I conference with student writers, our conversations are screen/text focused. In other words, we are both looking at a screen with the student’s draft – either both of us are looking at my oversized desk-top monitor, or we have the paper pulled up on separate laptops. Either way, our gaze moves between screen and each other. The developing text is usually central, quite literally mediating our talk. In Vygotsky’s terms, I have asked the students to do intramental work and get that thinking on paper before the conference. Then I respond to that work, inviting them to think critically about the text with me (a variation of intermental thinking). Note that progression: intramental to intermental, the opposite of the proposed pedagogy I’ve been reading about for children and multilingual learners.

           

Several of my students came to this initial conference last week with underdeveloped drafts – some had just a page or a paragraph. Most were apologetic and self-condemning about the texts they had shared. In response, I tried a slightly different approach: I targeted one idea, word, sentence, or phrase from the texts they shared, and I began to ask questions. But rather than looking at the screen, I turned to face the student, and I began to ask questions about that word, idea, character, or whatever, leaving the screen to the side. Critically, I did not turn back to look at the screen again for most of our session: I kept eye contact with the student as we talked. Without exception, within a couple of minutes, detailed stories began to arise. When they paused, I continued to ask questions, or I tried to clarify: “So you’re saying he just shut down every single idea? Are you saying you might have loved reading if it hadn’t been for those comments?” Sometimes, the students nodded and elaborated – I had understood. Sometimes, however, I jumped to conclusions too quickly, and they gave more information, setting me straight. I also attempted to identify the sorts of thinking we were doing along the way: “You just gave me some very important context; make sure you provide that for your reader, too, when you work on revising this…  Hmm…. Do you see how the description you just gave might lead a reader to think that the teacher was the villain in your story?”

 

What we were doing, in short, was the work we typically call prewriting or invention—but we were doing it “intermentally,” or collaboratively. Granted, there is nothing earth-shaking about this recognition: I suspect writing teachers have been doing this sort of collaborative brainstorming for quite some time. In a sense, we were modelling together the sort of thinking that experienced writers may be able to do on their own (intramentally) – thinking through descriptions and details that will spark a reader’s interest, providing context the reader needs to make sense of the story, and making sure that our narratives recognize potential assumptions and conclusions that may lead readers astray—so that we can address such questions and potential misunderstandings in advance. 

All too often I think of feedback and talk about writing (the metatalk) as happening after initial drafts are done, when a visible text controls and mediates that feedback process. But now I wonder if some students could use more opportunities for “intermental” talk prior to drafting; I wonder if the draft itself becomes a barrier to productive thinking (whether intermental or intramental) about the developing text. (Imagine a student in a text-focused conference who marks the original draft with 5 places to “add detail.” Five such additions might make that text better, but would they capture the same richness and energy that unfolds when we think together about the story – without limiting ourselves to the text on the screen?)

 

I am looking forward to seeing how students (both those who had well-developed drafts and those who did not) build on our conferences for the next iterations of their papers, which they will bring for peer review next week. I am looking now at how I prepare students for peer review—many have already told me about negative experiences with peer review in the past. I’ll let you know what happens in my next post.

 

In the meantime, I would love to hear about your approach to conferences and peer review in FYC and corequisite classes.

 

I am woefully behind on my reading but trying to catch up the last week or so, and I just read a provocative and important article by Elise Findlay (whom I met recently when I was visiting St. Mary’s College, though I didn’t know at the time about this essay!) called “When Writers Aren’t Authors: A Qualitative Study of Unattributed Writers” in the May 2019 issue of College English. It reports on a lovely piece of research Findlay conducted with four former or current professional writers, and focuses especially on their relationship to the work they do, its connection to their identity/identities, and their experiences of agency and of vulnerability in terms of traditional understandings of authorship and ownership of text. And she introduces two strategies these writers employ—“writing to hide” and “strategic (dis)connection.”

 

Findlay argues, persuasively to my mind, for the multiplicity or hybridity of writers, for their ability to adapt a range of personas as they carry out a range of literate performances: “Professional writers—especially those writing in the institutional voices or on behalf of an employer—invent, construct, and perform a multiplicity of identities, personae, and selves.” As I see it, this is a quality of all writers, not just professional ones, and is part of what Lisa Ede and I describe as the collaborative continuum on which all writing exists. So I take Findlay’s point—and then some—since the argument she makes in this study underscores the complicated constructed nature of all text and the network of relationships that produce it.

 

Findlay is absolutely right that the ideology of the author as singular and autonomous is at odds with the way writing gets done in the world and that it limits the role of writers, making those writers who are “owners” of text seem more important and powerful than those who are not. As she says later in the essay, “overemphasis on imitation and collaboration reflects and propagates a view of professional writers as lesser, nonagentive, powerless—playing into frameworks of ownership and authorship. . . .” And perhaps this statement is still accurate, but I resist it as I’ve been resisting such dichotomies for forty years. Imitation and collaboration, in my view, are powerful tools writers use to make meaning—in fact, they are primary tools and certainly not lesser ones. That these tools resist the “frameworks of ownership and authorship” that have governed literate practices for a few hundred years is a strength.

 

All this to say that I agree with and am grateful to Findlay for raising the issues around authorship, ownership, and attribution in this essay—and I recommend it highly. And I agree that our pedagogies should address these issues as well, that students should examine their own multiple voices and selves and personae and perspectives, and that they can do so most effectively beyond the capitalistic constraints of ownership.

 

But that’s a pretty tall order, as Findlay acknowledges. In talking with students in the Stanford Study of Writing, I tracked many of their struggles and shifting thoughts about their relationship to what they wrote: many wavered between feeling identified with their writing and feeling completely disconnected from it. A number wanted to think of language and writing as “wanting to be free” from the constraints of copyright and ownership, able to reject the whole concept of plagiarism as bogus and to see language as an open field of play (see Larry Lessig’s extensive writings in support of a reformation). One student wrote at length about what he called the “authorless prose” of Wikipedia and compared it to the rigidly controlled and owned texts produced within a company like Google.

 

These are all questions and issues that Findlay’s essay asks and addresses, and they are ones teachers of writing can be bringing to our students. In concluding her essay, Findlay suggests that students might be asked to “write from positions with which they disagree or are disinterested, to write on behalf of a client or other external entity, to actively mask their own writerly ‘voice’ in the service of a unified, collaboratively written voice or to proactively create a writerly persona with specific investments and personality taints and then practice writing as that persona” (453). I expect that such assignments are already being offered to students, as they reflect the sequence of assignments described in the ancient progymnasmata.

 

Another possibility that I’ve seen at work in the classroom is to ask students to explore their own multiplicity, their own varying personae, as well as to chart all of the ways in which they are inevitably collaborating with others whenever they compose. As Findlay points out, such a view goes against a form of expressivism that sees writers as seeking to express a unified, autonomous self. And it resists the ideology of singular authorship as all-powerful, economically and politically (an ideology reified by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling). On the other hand, it clearly recognizes the reality of writers writing today, and offers them ways to think about their writing in productive, meaningful, and performative ways. So thanks to Elise Findlay and to others who are calling on us to reorient our attention to writers and to view multiplicity as an effective framework for doing so.

 

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 865073 by picjumbo_com, used under the Pixabay License