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344 Posts authored by: Andrea A. Lunsford Expert
Andrea A. Lunsford

Writer’s Club!

Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Apr 2, 2020


I may be sheltering in place and social distancing, but like so many others I am lucky to be able to connect with friends, loved ones, students, and teachers online. Recently I have gotten inquiries from teachers who have been teaching with one or another of my textbooks, and I’ve been able to send additional materials and links that they can use with their students online. This reminds me that in many ways teachers are first responders too, and heroes to their students (and to me). I feel so fortunate to be in contact with them.


And I am VERY lucky to have two particular young friends—in 2nd and 4th grades—who have joined me in a Writer’s Club. I have known their dad since he was 2 years old and think of him, his wife, and the girls as family. Leah (2nd) and Maya (4th) have been in Japanese immersion classes but are now schooling at home and every day, or every other day, we write back and forth. Yesterday brought an even bigger treat when we got together on Facebook for half an hour and I could see projects they were working on (a space craft and a quite large airplane carrying loads of cotton candy and other sweets) and some of their drawings.


I hope their work will bring smiles to you, as it has certainly done to me.


Poems by Leah


Cats Dogs

Little and cute

Snuggly Sleepy

With cat paws



Trump bump



Humph! Humph!


Poems by Maya


Dear coronavirus aka COVID19,

Please go away to another galaxy

NEVER come back

We have way too many things going on and now schools are closed

Because of you.

We can only see our friends and family virtually.

And we can’t go out of our house!

We can only go out for food and maybe clothes!

And the restaurants are all closed

So now we have to be six feet apart if we do go outside!

So, please do not be such a pain!



Flowers are soft

Light as a feather

Outstandingly blue

Whenever you look

Every bright day

Right in front of you.


I have many more, of course, but hope these few will brighten your day. I am sending virtual hugs and wishes for keeping safe to teachers and students everywhere.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 865116 by picjumbo_com, used under the Pixabay License


Last week I wrote about the importance of writing in times of crisis—times like we are experiencing right now. Writing connects us to others and enables an important form of intimacy that can stretch across great distances, and many of us are finding that taking time to write to loved ones, and especially to those with whom we have lost touch, is worth its weight in gold. As this virus continues to rage, I say keep it up and spread the word: writing helps!


Today I am thinking of another activity for students I work with: asking them not to “follow the money” but to “follow the story.” The struggle for who and what institutions will control the narrative of America’s response to and encounter with the coronavirus is ongoing, and it is reaching an especially intense state as I write this. Will the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force take control and be the voice citizens listen to and trust to provide an accurate narrative? What other narratives are out there, working away? Those provided by scientists, doctors, and those associated with the NIH and CDC? Congress, where the story being told by Republicans and the story being told by Democrats are completely at odds with one another? Traditional print and TV media that are reporting sometimes wildly varying stories of what is happening and what we should do about it? Or social media, where conspiracy theorists are busily trying to sell their narratives as the ones we should believe and trust? All of these—and more—narratives are currently in play. Why not, then, ask students to work online in pairs or small groups to track these narratives and to subject them to careful, fair rhetorical analysis.


In this time of social distancing, sheltering in place, and self-isolation, activities like these can give students something concrete and specific they can do, something that can help them understand how narratives circulate in our society and how they gain (or lose) power over how and what we think. More important, they can share their findings widely with others whose perceptions are daily being shaped (and often manipulated) by such narratives. Thinking clearly and rhetorically is one thing we and our students can all do to survive this pandemic.


Please. Stay. Safe. And aware.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 791029 by kaboompics, used under the Pixabay License


I am writing this post from my home by the ocean on the northern California coast. Our small local clinic has asked all folks my age to “shelter in place,” so I am doing that, along with washing my hands every time I turn around and taking other precautions. Most of all, though, I am thinking of all those students now attending classes remotely, all those people whose jobs are in jeopardy, and all the small businesses and arts organizations whose razor-thin budgets are already stretched to the limit and who are having to lay off staff and take salary reductions. And, of course, all those suffering from COVID-19. These are dark days indeed, and they are made darker by the utter incompetence of the current administration.


In such a time, as we know from decades of research, writing can help. Writing that expresses and gives vent to feelings, that captures and shares feelings, and that sets out ways to respond to a crisis—step by step, day by day—can ease tension, even lower blood pressure. So it seems to me like a very good time to think about using writing in these ways, and encouraging—even assigning—students to use writing in these ways as well.


In addition, I have found myself thinking of people I care about but have lost touch with, or of loved ones that I too often may take for granted. And I’ve been acting on these thoughts, taking time each day to write (text, email, or, my favorite, longhand letters and cards) to at least three people, asking how they are, if I can do anything to help, and telling them at least a little bit of how much they mean to me. I feel like I’m sending out messages in a bottle—messages of caring and of hope.


Might these weeks of self-isolation, social distancing, and quarantine be just the right time for such writing? I think so—and recommend it. In the meantime, stay safe.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 828911 by Free-Photos, used under the Pixabay License

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


For this assignment, students explore historical contexts through oral and visual histories of a time period or event. They read, watch videos, listen to historical accounts, and follow up with an experiential journey to a museum on the same subject. Although teachers can choose any time period or subject that fits in with their course content, I had students focus on WWII oral histories and then attend a campus exhibit to extend upon that knowledge in this particular class. In addition to interacting with these digital and visual stories, students curate their own images at the museum to contribute to a collaborative slide show in which they both choose an individual perspective and work together to read across their ideas and images. Teams create a presentation with images, impressions, and take-aways.


Background Readings and Resources

The St. Martin's Handbook, 8e: Ch. 11: Conducting Research; Ch. 17: Oral and Multimedia Presentations
The Everyday Writer, 7e: (also available with Exercises): Ch. 10h: Conduct Field Research; Ch. 19c: Create Slides or Other Visuals
EasyWriter, 7e: (also available with Exercises): Ch. 11f: Doing Field Research, Ch. 10: Creating Presentations



Steps to the Assignment

Students briefly summarize and share their selected stories and ideas with others and through an online discussion.

  • Schedule a Museum Visit: Instead of meeting in our regular class, I had students meet at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education which was on our campus. I worked with the museum staff ahead of time to shape the experiential portion of the assignment and select the subject matter. Although the assignment can be completed without the museum visit, it takes the stories and adds another multimodal dimension through visual artifacts and interactive exhibits.
  • Image Curation: Each student tours the museum and curates at least five images that represent their impressions/ideas from the exhibits. They should take field notes, capture quotations, and write down their impressions from their visit.
  • Students prepare individual slide for team project/meeting: Students choose one of the images and create an individual slide to contribute to a team slide show on the exhibit. They include their image and a short description along with a specific reference or quotation that supports their impressions and include their name at the bottom of the slide.
  • Teams Create a Collaborative Slideshow: Team members present their individual slides to the group to combine for a team presentation that addresses meaningful observations, interpretations, and ideas from the exhibit. In addition to their individual observations, team members complete follow-up slides in which they synthesize individual perspectives with a bulleted list of take-aways from the experience as they read across them as a group. They are required to title the presentation and include a team photo at the end, along with references.
  • Presentation: Team members present their slideshows to the class and compare observations from the other groups.


Reflection on the Activity
I like this assignment because it involves students in several types of multimodal learning and composing experiences. They engage with digital oral and visual histories, visual artifacts, and experiential learning. The assignment asks them to move beyond passive reading and bring their subjects to life through these multimodal extensions. Although all of the students attended the same museum, it was interesting to see where they chose to focus their attention. Some students focused on the visual artifacts of the time period, such as propaganda posters, while others looked at gender roles during the war, racial disparity, and regional participation. Others explored lifestyle artifacts that represented cultural ideologies of the time, typical living spaces, lifestyle artifacts, and occupational trends. I found the students much more engaged when they connected with the interactive digital resources and immersive experiences than if they just read the texts on their own.


I’ve written before about Hi From The Other Side, a website envisioned and developed by a former student of mine in 2016, along with two of his “more techie” friends. Hi From The Other Side matches up people with differing views, introduces them, and helps them start a respectful conversation with one another. In their words, “We pair nice people across the political divide to talk like neighbors. Not to convince, but to understand.” When asked about who sponsors the site and whether it is nonpartisan, the website explains that “this wasn't an initiative from a political organization or anything, just people who care about being better listeners.” And they have had a great deal of success in bringing people together. I’ve also written about Living Room Conversations, another site started to help bridge differences and enable better listening and understanding. This is a “transpartisan” group founded in 2010 and dedicated to “realizing civil discourse through conversation.”


Now comes AllSides, another effort to broaden understanding and promote respectful, civil discourse. AllSides is a multi-faceted site, offering news from across the political spectrum and labeling news items as “right,” “center,” or “left.” Providing differing perspectives on topics helps readers see them from several angles and thus expand their thinking about the topic. In addition, like Hi From The Other Side and Living Room Conversations, AllSides provides avenues for bringing people together for respectful discussions. They describe, for example, how their “Mismatch program and civil dialogue partnerships provide opportunities for respectful conversations with people across divides. Listen, be heard, and converse with your political ‘other’ in a respectful way.”


Most intriguing to me is their latest program, AllSides for Schools. Launched in 2019 in partnership with Living Room Conversations and The Mediators Foundation, this nonprofit group is in

response to the needs of teachers who seek to address a double crisis in the classroom of decayed media literacy skills and atrophied abilities to communicate outside the safe filter bubbles students [have] created for themselves in person and on social media. . . . AllSides for Schools provides a more comprehensive digital media literacy experience by centralizing and expanding resources for teachers who want to bring lessons on news literacy, critical thinking, and conversation across difference into the classroom.


I’ll admit to being near despair many times during the last three and a half years, as I’ve watched what counts for a national conversation deteriorate into a shouting match (at best). But sites and programs like these three have sprung up in response to that situation, showing that when people of good will and sound ethics put their minds to it, they can provide alternatives to the despair and the shouting matches. I hope they will lift our spirits as well—and give you additional resources to use in your own classrooms!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3649196 by Alexas_Fotos, used under the Pixabay License


It’s now completely official: the august Modern Language Association, for most of a century the maker of writing rules and guidelines, has posted an update on The MLA Style Center website and declared in “The Source,” their newsletter: “Using the singular they is a way to make your language more inclusive and to avoid making assumptions about gender.” MLA acknowledges that this violation of “grammatical agreement” was long frowned upon, but today they argue that it is not just acceptable but preferable. They cite Merriam-Webster, whose online dictionary now includes a new definition for “they” that says the term can be used to refer to persons whose gender identity is non-binary. MLA accepts this definition and adds that “they” should also be used to refer to a person whose gender identity is “unknown or irrelevant to the context,” as the new seventh edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association puts it. MLA stresses that writers should “always follow the personal pronouns of individuals they write about,” and then goes on to give examples of how to use it both for a specific person whose pronoun is “they” and as a generic third-person singular pronoun.


I (and my textbooks) agree with MLA, which declares that singular “they” “has emerged as a tool for making language more inclusive… and the MLA encourages writers to accept its use to avoid making or enabling assumptions about gender.” Can’t get much more clear and direct than that!


To many writers, including me, this usage does not come trippingly off the tongue: it takes consistent practice and attention to take up this new and important convention. So I’m grateful to MLA for this latest update on The MLA Style Center site and for all the detailed examples they offer there. You may want to invite your students to check it out here.


I’m also grateful for our language, which keeps changing and adapting and evolving. It’s one of the reasons it’s so much fun to teach writing and speaking today!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2178566 by Pexels, used under the 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


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


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

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



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,


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


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


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


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


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


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. 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