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17 Posts authored by: April Lidinsky Expert


As we head into summer, we should invite our students to practice all the skills they’ve honed in our writing classrooms as they listen to the political dialogues unfolding this season. Let’s hope they participate in them, too.


Here in South Bend, Indiana, we locals are listening closely to Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s surprising presidential campaign. I was one of the freezing thousands who gathered in the drafty un-renovated portion of a Studebaker assembly plant, rain dripping through the rafters, to witness Buttigieg’s official launch. His speech rang the chimes of ethos, logos, and pathos, and charmed the teachers in the crowd by inviting Mrs. Chismar — his high school Economics teacher — into the lineup of introductory voices.


While I don’t always agree with Buttigieg, I am struck by his rhetorical generosity as he works to create common ground on polarizing issues. For example, when he discusses climate change, he uses the term “climate security” and argues for a “generational alliance” to draw together a range of perspectives to solve this life-threatening problem.


Pete Buttigieg has been questioned by the press for benefiting from both male privilege and white privilege, ethos-boosters that he has been — to my ears — fairly reflective about, as in this conversation with Trevor Noah. He has also resisted and complicated standard narratives of coming out as a gay person, as in this discussion with Rachel Maddow. Listening to Buttigieg, I think of educator José Antonio Bowen’s championing of “slow thinking” in the classroom, which I wrote about last fall. This summer, I’ll be gathering linguistic examples that invite us to think beyond polarities from Buttigieg and the many other candidates vying for the presidency to use in the classroom.


I’ve also learned a lot about resisting polarizing thinking from Northwestern University medical ethicist Katie Watson, whose book, Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary Abortion, takes on fearlessly, and generously, current abortion debates. Rather than arguing for common ground, Watson argues for pluralism. She concludes,

The abortion debate often seems to boil down to a debate about vulnerability: Who or what is more in need of protection, fetuses or women? For me, the vulnerable thing in need of protection is pluralism —the idea that Americans who vigorously disagree about gender, family, sex, religion, and endless other topics can all flourish in the same country. (213)

Watson’s insights about pluralism reach far beyond this issue, of course. Like Buttigieg, Watson champions moving beyond “master narratives” of experiences in order to give voice to individual stories, which are always more complex and nuanced than generic “master narratives,” and have greater potential to invite compassion, even from those with very different experiences.


In From Inquiry to Academic Writing, my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I offer student writers skills for compassionate engagement with different perspectives through a Rogerian approach to argument, founded by psychotherapist Carl Rogers. Rogerian argument aims to reduce listeners’ sense of threat, and to open them to alternative perspectives. We offer four steps toward Rogerian argumentation for academic writers:


  1. Conveying to readers that their different views are understood.
  2. Acknowledging conditions under which readers’ views are valid.
  3. Helping readers see that the writer shares common ground with them.
  4. Creating mutually acceptable solutions to agreed-on problems


Holding these steps in mind as we engage others in the next few months will not only be good for our classrooms, but — Buttigieg and Watson would argue — it will be an investment in our democracy.


I held these thoughts in mind when Cornel West spoke in South Bend a few weeks ago, reminding a university crowd that “No matter how educated we are, we are part of the learned ignorant.” In his wide-ranging lecture, he kindled the theme of humility and vulnerability as essential to ethos if we are to engage in non-polarizing dialogue on difficult issues. Because he was in South Bend, and because West traveled in academic circles with Pete Buttigieg’s father, West played to the hometown crowd: “I remember little Pete when he was running around in short pants!” He then praised Professor Joe Buttigieg as “a caretaker of Gramsci.”


That phrase has lingered for me — being a “caretaker” of ideas, and of one another. Our task as instructors, as learners, and as citizens is surely to practice care-taking in these inhospitable times.


Photo Credit: April Lidinsky

Senioritis blooms along with the forsythia, magnolias, and flip-flops, and is hardly restricted to seniors. This time of year, half the challenge of teaching seems to be convincing students to still give a … well, we’ll go with “hoot.” One remedy — and also a student-centered classroom ideal — is to structure the semester’s end so that students take increasing ownership of class time as the semester draws to a close. Students should be able to answer the “So, what?” question, not only for their own writing, but for their learning in the course, and for their time in the classroom. How have you structured the semester’s end to center student voices, and with what results?


Here, I’ll share some strategies I’ve used:


Task students with designing a final class teach-in, and invite friends and family

I often invite students to plan a final class day as a “teach in” that we open up to friends and family (to raise the stakes of a real audience). We think of it as an idea-engagement event, in which every student has to participate in some way. They might read aloud a short, provocative passage of their writing, share some resources on a course theme, offer civic action tools related to the course, or even provide a playlist of songs related to the course theme. This teaches students to engage with multiple ways of learning designed to explain their key insights to a fresh audience, and to offer specific action steps in response. For these “teach in” events, my students have designed bookmarks with key ideas as takeaways, set up photo “booths” with informational props and frames to share out on social media, created civic action kits for writing to representatives about topics, designed temporary tattoos and bumper stickers, printed out recipe cards with activist steps, provided course-themed coloring pages, and on and on. I often provide a bit of food and a bigger space for the final day, to make it feel like a celebration. Students can name the event, advertise on social media and with flyers, and in general turn the last class day — so often a let-down or a hurried final presentation day — into a celebration of intellect and engagement that they can look forward to and own.


Upping the Ante in Peer Writing Workshops

If a final-day celebration doesn’t fit into your writing classroom schedule, you might also be more mindful about handing over student ownership of peer writing workshops. In From Inquiry to Academic Writing, my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I offer specific guidelines for writers and readers of early, later, and final drafts. As students approach the final draft of an essay, I often require them to set the agenda for the peer-group discussions, so they can take ownership of what writers need in the final stage of the revision process. Handing students the chalk (or the marker) at the front of the room and having them crowd-source the questions that should drive the day’s workshops gives them ownership of the revision process (which is, after all, what we hope they’ll take from our classes), and gives you as the instructor some crucial insights about what they’ve gleaned about the writing process. Once they’ve set the agenda on the board, students can use their peers’ guidance for their writing groups, with each writer benefiting from the peer group’s focus on each draft, one at a time.


If your students need a bit of prompting, here are some guides for student peer-group discussions of later drafts:

Working with later drafts

  1. To what extent is it clear which questions and issues motivate the writer?
  2. What is the writer’s thesis?
  3. How effectively does the writer establish the conversation — identify a gap in people’s knowledge, attempt to modify an existing argument, or try to correct some misunderstanding?
  4. How effectively does the writer distinguish between their ideas and the ideas that are summarized, paraphrased, or quoted?
  5. How well does the writer help you follow the logic of the writer’s argument?
  6. To what extent are you persuaded by the writer’s argument?
  7. To what extent does the writer anticipate possible counterarguments?
  8. To what extent does the writer make clear how the writer wants readers to respond?
  9. What do you think is working best? Explain by pointing to specific passages in the writer’s draft.
  10. What specific aspect of the draft is least effective? Explain by pointing to a specific passage in the writer’s draft.



And heres what we suggest for final drafts:

Working with final drafts

For writers:

  1. What is your unique perspective on your issue?
  2. To what extent do the words and phrases you use reflect who you believe your readers are?
  3. Does your style of citation reflect accepted conventions for academic writing?
  4. What do you think is working best in this draft?
  5. What specific aspect of the essay are you least satisfied with at this time?


For readers:

  1. How does the writer go about contributing a unique perspective on the issue?
  2. To what extent does the writer use words and phrases that are appropriate for the intended audience?
  3. To what extent does the style of citation reflect accepted conventions for academic writing?
  4. What do you think is working best?
  5. What specific aspect of the essay are you least satisfied with at this time?


Ultimately, students will remember their ownership of ideas and their confidence in transferring ideas from your course into other classes and beyond. Like any effective piece of literature, our courses should offer our students a clear answer to the question, “So what?”


How do you do this in your own courses? What do you hear back from your students about the skills they leave with, and use?



Photo Credit: April Lidinsky

“Now: What questions do you have?” I heard a colleague ask this of her students, midway through a class I was visiting, and I was struck by the helpfulness of the phrase. Rather than asking, “Any questions?” (which can imply that the professor wants to move the lesson along unless someone still doesn’t get it) this question instead suggested there certainly should be questions. And she made space, expectantly, for the conversation. I took mental notes.


Whether you are newer to teaching or have decades under your belt, it’s good to have more tools for effective classroom discussions. There will always be days when students seem lifeless and you feel like the hapless teacher in Ferris Buellers Day Off: “Anyone? Anyone?”


In this spirit, I have been following with interest a discussion my colleague Jay Vander Veen alerted me to on the surprising virtues of “cold calling” in the classroom. “Done right,” Gerard Dawson argues, cold calling can improve student confidence and ensure more voices are heard. Of course, when “done wrong” this practice can be used to shame or embarrass students, so Dawson suggests some in-class scaffolding (quick conferring with a neighbor, moving to corners of the room to express a perspective, or quick reflective writing) so that students have an “intellectual rehearsal” before being called on. He notices a dynamic you likely recognize from your own classrooms: Once students’ ideas have been affirmed in a discussion, they are more likely to speak up again.


I hadn’t thought about cold calling as the friend of less-confident students, but Doug Lemov, author of Teach like a Champion, makes the case that with warmth and encouragement, cold calls can be a tool for classroom inclusivity, encouraging students who otherwise may feel their ideas aren’t worth sharing. Significantly, those less-confident students might be disproportionately first-generation or marginalized.


Certainly, I keep these real classroom dynamics in mind as I craft open-ended and wide-ranging questions about readings in the prompts for students and instructors in From Inquiry to Academic Writing. My co-author, Stuart Greene, and I offer many ways for students to practice the question-asking habit of mind that is foundational to scholarly discovery — both aloud and in writing — inviting connections within texts, between texts, and between texts and experience.


In the rest of this piece, I’ll offer a reflection exercise that helps students see classroom conversation as a place to practice and name the academic moves they make in their writing, the topic of my last post. This reflection tool, designed by my colleague Ken Smith, helps over-talkers, under-talkers, and occasional talkers name the different purposes of their interactions, and helps them connect oral and written academic conversation. This checklist brings class participation into focus, and is quick to administer at the end of a class. Adapt as you like, and let me know how it works for you:




            Your name_______________________________________



            Thank you for your thoughtful evaluation of the work today. I hope you will

            be encouraged to continue good habits of class preparation and to build

            other practical participation skills for use in college and beyond. Keep me

            informed if you have questions about this part of the course.


            How many times did you contribute to the large group discussion today:

             _____ 0-2 _____ 3-5 _____ 6-9 _____ 10 or more

            In discussion today, did you do any of these valuable things:

            _____ Ask a question that advanced the classs conversation

            _____ Help answer a question that advanced the conversation

            _____ Point out an example that helped advance the conversation

            _____ Explain the meaning or significance of an example

            _____ Build on a comment by a classmate

            _____ Build on an idea from a previous class

            _____ Other:


            If we had small group work today, were you:

            _____ A more active contributor than most of your group

            _____ A less active contributor than most of the group

            _____ Silent or rarely spoke  

            _____ No small group work today

            Any questions you wish wed turn to next time? Other suggestions?

            Thank you.



Any of the strategies in this post can help you foster richer classroom discussions that will help students practice the habits of mind of academic writers. Of course, this can only happen in an atmosphere in which student responses — and questions and ideas — are truly valued. That part is up to you.



Image: Ferris Bueller "Anyone?" meme, via

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


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


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


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


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


Steps to Writing Yourself into an Academic Conversation:

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


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


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


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



Photo Credit: April Lidinsky


This is the scene outside my campus office right now. The phrase “bleak midwinter” comes to mind while I dwell on the absurdity of typing “Spring 2019” on my syllabi. No matter the weather on your campus, it can be tough to summon the mojo for new classes in the middle of the teaching year. But, as I tell my students every snowy January: We may begin in a deep freeze, but we’ll end in flowers.


So, with a New Year’s buzzword – “intentionality” – in mind, I’ve appreciated posts like Miriam Moore’s “Be It Hereby Resolved” on what to commit to in the coming semester.


It might even be worth reflecting on our late-summer teaching goals, as in Traci Gardner’s stimulating post, “My New School Year Resolutions.”


Both of these posts remind us that being an effective teacher doesn’t always mean doing one more new thing. Instead, it may mean doing the things we do best, but with more intention.


So, I’ll share a short list of classroom practices I’m re-committing to this semester that ask little more of me than being intentional. I’d love to hear yours.


  • Coming to class a little early to chat with students informally. It’s easy to forget how much more quickly this fosters community. At the end of each class, I’m making an effort to hang by the door and say goodbye to students individually, and by name, if possible. (For online classes, a chat space can offer room for informal community-building.)
  • Learning students names early and using them often, both aloud and in written comments. It’s a simple, effective way to let students know they are seen and valued.
  • And speaking of seeing: In face-to-face classes, I’m intentional about making solid, clear eye-contact with every single student during the class period. Rather than just repeatedly scanning the room, I am deliberate about making a real connection that says “I see you.” I remember how much this meant to me as a student. Students sit up when I really “see” them, and they often speak after I’ve engaged with them visually. They know I’m paying attention to them, and they pay attention to the class.
  • Ensuring every student speaks right away, every day. Breaking the silence in the first five minutes makes it more likely students will participate during the rest of the class. This might mean a lightening round of “Question of the Day” — something silly to get to know one another (“What’s your favorite candy?”), or something more pedagogically nutritious (“Two words to describe your reactions to today’s reading,” or “Read a sentence you’d like to talk about from today’s text.”).
  • Including reflection opportunities for students as often as possible. I wrote last fall about incorporating student journals into my class. This semester, I’m duplicating this effort but with a lighter touch — more consistent written reflection at the end of a class, or in the middle for five minutes after we’ve addressed a challenging concept. I’m trying to teach self-reflection as a habit, rather than an assignment.


Unsurprisingly, these intentions feel good and help me do good beyond the classroom, too.


Snowflakes may be flying, but these practices remind me that teaching well can feel like bursting into bloom.



Photo Credit: April Lidinsky

While many of us are hurtling toward the end of the semester, we are also pressed to decide next semester’s book orders and ancillary readings. So, I want to celebrate how many of you are blogging about assignments that place marginalized voices at the center of the classroom. (The photo to the right is from a recent New York Times article with rich images you might consider for classes around the upcoming holiday.) For example, Susan Naomi Bernstein recently described a redesigned assignment drawing on the film Black Panther. I also appreciate the insights about the politics of citation and authority in Dara Liling’s “Source Credibility as a Matter of Social Justice.” Many more of you, of course, are sharing inspirational texts for the rest of us to consider in our classrooms as we work hard to ensure our classrooms are inclusive, challenging, and aware of the politics of the academy and our historical moment.


My title for this post comes from bell hooks’ 1984 text, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, which has influenced my teaching for decades. hooks has been on my mind since I had the great good fortune to gather with thousands of feminist scholars and instructors at the 2018 National Women’s Studies Association conference in Atlanta just after the midterm elections. Conversation fizzed and popped about the implications of expanded representation – political and academic — by women and people of color.


The plenary sessions, too, amplified the potential tectonic shifts happening in scholarship and our classrooms. For example, the conference launched with a richly textured discussion between celebrated poet Elizabeth Alexander and sociologist Alondra Nelson, author of The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome (2016)That conversation — interdisciplinary, intersectional, political, and delightfully personal (Alexander and Nelson are longtime friends) — was a reminder of how crucial it is that we invite students into these conversations, so they understand that knowledge production is a human effort, shaped by power in myriad ways, but also a shaper of power. Another evening featured Alice Walker, who spoke with quiet intensity to a packed ballroom about the transformational experience of learning from Howard Zinn during his time as a professor at Spelman College. Yet another plenary brought together activists who reflected on lessons we could learn from social movements of 1968, and I could hardly scribble notes fast enough to capture the sparking conversation between Angela Davis, Bernadine Dohrn, Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, Ericka Huggins of the Black Panther Party, and Madonna Thunder Hawk. Thunder Hawk’s leadership in the Red Power movement is featured in the new documentary Warrior Women, which I plan to teach next semester.


My co-author, Stuart Greene, has blogged recently on the empathy we try to inspire through our work in From Inquiry to Academic WritingWe have worked hard, with each edition, to include voices that speak to the pressing issues of our time, from perspectives that often bring insights from the margin to the center, as hooks might say. It is work that never ends – for which I am thankful. Like you, we are always listening hard for new voices to invite our students into new conversations.


What are you most excited to teach? What can you recommend?



Photo Credit: April Lidinsky



“Midterm anxiety” conjures up a medley of worries. I’m not talking about midterm elections (another topic, another blog), but midterm grades. For first-semester writers, in particular, the middle of the first semester is when, uh, “things” get real, with higher-stakes assignments piling up and the looming fear of final grades.


Now is when our students need us to champion their potential, and to remind them that the whole point of education is to challenge them into growth over time.


None of us want to be the nun in the film Ladybird, who dismisses the eponymous high school character’s hopes for the Math Olympiad with, “But math isn’t something you’re terribly strong at.” In that illustrative scene, the student schools the teacher, as Ladybird corrects the nun: “that we know of yet.”


It’s in the “that we know of yet” that we find the kernel of the “growth mindset,” a concept by psychologist Carol Dweck that has been widely popularized, and remains, in my classroom experience, a empowering concept for first-year writers. My co-author, Stuart Greene, and I, include Dweck in From Inquiry to Academic Writing precisely because writing students continue to find the concept a powerful tool for understanding the pain and potential of learning.


In brief, Dweck characterizes a “growth mindset” as the belief that intelligence can be developed. In contrast, a “fixed mindset” is the belief that intelligence is static, which can lead people to give up on difficult tasks, believing that we are either naturally good or bad at particular subjects, and that if we’re good at them, they should be easy. Critical reading and writing, as we all know, is challenging work. So, it’s often tempting to give into the “I’m just not good at writing” mindset.


This semester, I am providing in-class journaling time to give students a safe place for guided self-reflection, an experiment I described in this earlier post. I attach low-stakes points to this task: If students are present and write for the full ten minutes, they earn the five points per entry. As you can see in the photo [above], students have taken ownership of their journals, and the insides are as distinct as their cover designs.


I have learned a lot from reading them, already, including some harsh realities. For example, a few students were able to write in the journal what they would not say aloud — that they found all the readings boring. Ouch. But, channeling my own growth-mindset as an instructor, I needed to hear this in order to invite more personal connections to the material.


The results? My original prompt about a quotation by Marx on work became an invitation to write about their own employment experiences, and what makes work meaningful. Wow, did they have a lot to say — on the up and downsides of being bilingual, the daily and nuanced battles of sexism in restaurants, the psychology of meddling managers, and the crew dynamics that make work alienating or a place of camaraderie. In short, they wrote their way into a terrific classroom discussion about Marx. They also pegged Marx as a growth-mindset thinker — anachronistic, but on point!


Other journal reflections have affirmed my pedagogy, as when some students lamented that I did not tell them the key ideas in a text before they read it, and instead made them do this work before class discussion. (Guilty as charged, though the comments inspired me to explain again why I want them to do this critical thinking independently.)


A consistent refrain in their journals is the challenge of time-management, a struggle I share as I try to maintain a growth-mindset about making time for my own research. I’ve shared with my students that I’ve joined a writing group, and we’re currently reading and applying insights from How to Write a Lot. Not surprisingly, the amusing and unforgiving advice from author Paul J. Silvia — another psychologist! — resonates point by point with my own guidance for students. Write every day. Make a schedule and stick to it. Keep a journal to reflect on your progress. Be accountable to others.


As I remind my students, we’re all in this together.



Photo Credit: April Lidinsky

A week ago, I would have cringed, ducked (and maybe even shrieked) at the image on the left, captured recently by a skillful neighbor.


This fall, though, I’m a brand-new student in an evening Master Naturalist course, and so I find myself leaning into such sights, empowered by the fresh knowledge that this is a harmless, even dazzling, yellow garden spider. Not only that, I can see details I would have missed a few days ago. I can discern the telling zipper pattern on the body, and with a quick glance at my notes, I can even confirm the Latin name, Argiope aurantia, and show off my knowledge that the webbed zigzag of silk is called a stabilimentum. What I used to ignore or avoid has now come into focus with fascinating clarity. How have I been missing these details all these years? What more can I learn?


In her essay, “The Language of Discretion,” Amy Tan captures this exhilarating experience concisely: “Once I added ‘mauve” to my vocabulary I began to see it everywhere.”


This is a good time to reflect on both the fear and fascination of learning, since our writing students are also shuttling between fear (“Every assignment still feels like a risk!”) and a bit of growing confidence (“Hey! I can understand at least parts of this difficult reading … and I have something to say about it, too!”).


In my last post, I wrote about inviting students to self-reflect on their reading and writing process in journals. (Their insights are often hilarious, and they are slowly doodling some magnificent covers. I’ll share more in a future post.)


Now, I want to reflect on how challenging these academic “habits of mind” are, as we guide our students to practice them, however tentatively, in our writing classrooms. My co-author, Stuart Greene, and I, open From Inquiry to Academic Writing with the “habits of mind” of academic writers, starting with:


  • Inquiry — through observation, asking questions, and examining alternatives
  • Seeking and valuing complexity — through reflection, examining issues from multiple points of view, and asking issue-based questions.


Let’s remind ourselves how rare these activities are in our culture. They may have been rare, too, in some of the classrooms in which our students either thrived or failed. After all, in an age of information-overload, people often prize (and are praised for) simplistic summaries that enable them to make a confident-sounding pronouncement, and move on to the next topic. In contrast, the “habits of mind” we ask our students to develop involve seeking more questions than answers, and opening up complex possibilities that include and value their experiences. These habits call for what José Antonio Bowen calls “slow thinking.” Our task is to model for our students the pleasures of what sounds like frustrating work. (Why lean in to peer at that spider? Because a web of meaning becomes visible when we do.)


Here’s an accessible Practice Sequence of activities you could use, or adapt, to demonstrate the value of these habits of mind:


  • Inquiry — through observation, asking questions, and examining alternatives: Find out through  searching what the most popular majors are on your campus. Is there anything that surprises or puzzles you? Write down any questions you have, including: Why are things the way they are? What alternative explanations can you provide to account for differences in the popularity of the subjects students major in?


  • Seeking and valuing complexity — through reflection, examining issues from multiple points of view, and asking issue-based questions: Imagine other perspectives on the data you found on the most popular majors on your campus. How might other students, or parents, explain your findings? What explanation might faculty members offer, both those who teach in those majors and those who do not? (You could seed this conversation with any number of recent sources on the workplace value of the humanities.)


Exercises like these can help students “see” aspects of their own campus and community for the first time, and set them to wondering: Why? The answers are multi-faceted, will raise additional questions, and will reveal the way their own experiences and decisions are woven into this new knowledge. And … they’re off and running, if not toward delight, at least toward interest in what had been invisible.


What adult learning experiences have shaped your own teaching? What webs of meaning fascinate your students right now?



Photo credit: Anne Brown

If you’re reading this, I’ll bet you get a kick out of new school supplies. Those of us who teach tend to enjoy the tools of the trade. Sharing our enthusiasm for those tools – even throw-back ones like writing journals – is another way to share our enthusiasm for learning. This semester, I invested in cheerful, inexpensive blank books to add fun to pedagogical self-reflection for my first-year students.


I have written before on the value of students writing cover letters for their essay submissions. That accessible, high-impact self-reflective practice gives students a chance to examine their writing processes and assess their ongoing challenges and strengths. Students continually tell me these self-reflections offer long-term insights as they continue to grow as thinkers, researchers, and writers. So, I’m incorporating this strategy more broadly this semester. 


I invested in slim, colorful blank books for students to use as journals (see the photo), and invited them to choose a color they like and to doodle a cover design if they wish. (They have taken ownership with aplomb!) I’ve incorporated in-class writing reflections throughout the semester, carving out consistent 5-10-minute journal times for students to reflect on their learning, or simply to ask questions they might not ask aloud in class. This consistent practice also fosters confidence in students’ own fluency, by requiring that they “just keep writing” during our journaling time. (We consider this the academic parallel to Dory’s reminder in Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming!”) As most writers know, getting over the fear of the blank page is more than half the battle of drafting. 


Here are a few journal prompts I’ve designed that are open-ended, but also give students a chance to practice skills they’ll use in more formal writing:


  • Reflecting on critical reading for college courses: Write for 10 minutes in your journal, reflecting on how you take notes on your reading to prepare for class discussions. What seems to work best for you, and why? What new approaches have you tried since starting college? What might you do differently, for better results? What questions/worries do you have? Make at least one specific connection -- and quote the text! -- to the class reading from Mindset, "A New Look at Learning."


  • On starting to gather sources for an essay: Write for 10 minutes in your journal on the sources you have gathered so far for your next essay. What key ideas and authors are most helpful to you at this stage, and why? What gaps do you see in your research? What do you need help with?


My co-author, Stuart Greene, and I have filled From Inquiry to Academic Writing with process-focused small assignments that help students reflect on every stage of the reading, research, drafting, and revision processes. Those exercises are ready for your students to use, or might inspire you to design your own.


However you invite your students to reflect, your response as a more expert writer is important. This need not be time-consuming. Simply affirming that writing is hard work, celebrating breakthroughs, and answering questions students are often too shy to ask in class can go a long way toward helping students feel part of this new academic community. As we all work to retain our students, this extra mode of communication helps us understand them better and teach more effectively, and gets students into the habit of self-reflection that is crucial for lifelong learning and growth.


Can you accomplish this without fun school supplies? Well, sure. But if my students’ throwback thrill upon choosing and decorating their writing journals is any indication, a little bling can add a dose of joy as your semester begins.


Please share in the comments the exercises you use to inspire student self-reflection. (Throwback school supplies are optional!)



Photo Credit: April Lidinsky

The end of the semester often brings to mind Crystal Eastman’s 1920 essay, “Now We Can Begin.” Like any Commencement speaker worth her salt, Eastman, a feminist and pacifist, chose the momentous occasion of the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920 to look forward rather than backward. She saw the long fought-for victory of granting women the right to vote as a beginning of the next struggle.


I see similarities to the semester’s end. Certainly, students have much to celebrate as they complete their final essays (as do you when you finish commenting on them!). But I think of a semester’s end not as a closure, but as an opening. This feeling came to mind as I read Andrea Lunsford’s recent post on “Recommended Reading,” which sent me searching for a pencil to lengthen my “Must Read” list.


As instructors, we devote a lot of time to recommending reading. We structure our classes around texts, building an arc that we hope will engage our students and inspire critical thinking and writing. The process Stuart Greene and I went through as we selected readings for From Inquiry to Academic Writing  felt a lot like making a “recommended reading” list. We chose pieces that excited us, and that we couldn’t wait to share with students. Every headnote I wrote for the reader functions as a recommendation, too: “Oh! You’ve just got to read this, because…”


After a semester of our reading recommendations, I like to turn to students, and ask them to suggest summer reading material for their peers and me. In my early teaching days, I would tape pieces of paper outside my office door, inviting students to list book titles and authors with a one-sentence endorsement: “You must read this read this, because…” These days, we gather those recommendations through courseware or campus social media, but the spirit is the same. Students are the authorities, with the responsibility of pitching their favorite texts to prospective readers in a tiny argument that can have big impact.


Among the student-recommended texts that I’d recommend in turn:

  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini
  • Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi
  • What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician's Guide to Rebuilding America's CommunitiesOne Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time, by Dar Williams


What’s on your summer reading list? And what do your students recommend? Like Crystal Eastman, but with a long list of book titles in hand, I say: “Now, we can begin.”


Photo Credit: April Lidinsky


We’re at that point in the semester when students are hitting Maximum Anxiety about Grades. The corollary for instructors is Maximum Anxiety about Grading All The Things. Here’s a cure for both ills: sharing the responsibility for evaluation with students.


I’d argue there’s no better measure of whether students understand your assignments and course goals than giving them the meta-cognitive opportunity to evaluate their own work with the tools you use as an instructor. After all, our hope is that long after students leave our classrooms, they will still be able to evaluate and strengthen their own work.  I’ll suggest two strategies I use to structure student self-evaluation in my classes, and I hope you’ll share your own strategies in the comments.


Strategy One: Cover Letters

In our chapter on effective peer review of drafts in From Inquiry to Academic Writing, my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I recommend asking students to write cover letters for drafts of their papers for two reasons: It provides a chance for a writer to reflect on their perceptions of strengths and weaknesses of that particular draft, and it offers a conversation guide to others in their peer workshops. We offer this model for an early draft, which could be adapted for your purposes. 

  1. What is your question (or assignment)?
  2. What is the issue motivating you to write?
  3. How have published writers addressed the issue you discuss?
  4. What is your working thesis?
  5. Who is your audience, and how do you want them to respond?
  6. What do you think is working best?
  7. What specific aspect of the essay are you least satisfied with at this time?
  8. What kind of feedback do you especially want today? (p. 355)


This line of questioning moves students from the disempowered position of “hoping to figure out what the instructor wants” to the empowered position of evaluating what they are achieving in their writing, with real readers in mind. Our experience is that these cover letters tell us as much about students as writers as the drafts themselves. Later drafts might call for cover letters shaped by general writing concerns of the course (integration of quotations, organization, addressing counterarguments, etc.).  Polished drafts might call for exactly the kind of self-reflection that all thoughtful writers should consider:

  1. What is your unique perspective on your issue?
  2. To what extent do the words and phrases you use reflect on who you believe your readers are?
  3. Does your style of citation reflect accepted conventions for academic writing?
  4. What do you think is working best?
  5. What specific aspect of the essay are you least satisfied with at this time? (p. 363)


Additionally, I ask students to explain what they are trying that is new in a draft, as a reminder that as writers, we all ought to keep stretching. (I reward risk-taking — even if the results are less than stellar — provided students can name and evaluate the strategy.) Students are sometimes nervous that pointing out their own weaknesses will steer me to problems I might have missed on my own. However, I remind them that their ability to point out where they need to grow is a significant goal of the course.      


Strategy Two: Using your rubric for self-grading and comments

Our second strategy is a simple one: Hand your grading rubrics to your students and give them the opportunity not just to evaluate and comment on their writing, but to grade it as well.  If you have ever tried empowering students to grade themselves, you know there might be a few outliers who claim their work is stronger than it is, but by far the majority of students are either on target or low-ball their own grades.  Once students have a chance to take ownership and weigh in on their work, the context is laid for you as the instructor to agree with them, or to point out strengths that they might have missed.


I don’t know a single instructor who looks forward to grading All The Things.  Empowering students to share ownership in the evaluation process helps them approach their writing from a strengths perspective rather than a deficit one, which is more clearly linked to what we know — that learning to write is a process. Our institutions may require us to enter a column of grades at the end of a semester, but if we invite students to share in the evaluation conversation, they will see that the letter grade is a mere stand-in for the much richer process of learning to write.



Meme generated at, original drawing by Allie Brosh.

The news of the death of Allan G. Johnson, path-breaking sociologist, was a punch to my gut. Most writing instructors have go-to authors whose foundational ideas become the central analytical lens of a course. For example, Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of “contact zones” shaped many semesters of my early teaching years in the 1990s, as did Gloria Anzaldúa’s theory of “new mestiza consciousness.” Similarly, Allan G. Johnson’s succinct definition of “systems of privilege” is a concept that can anchor an entire semester, providing a lens through which students can consider myriad issues. Johnson explains, “The concept of privilege refers to any advantage that is unearned, exclusive, and socially conferred” (455 in FIAW). It’s hard to imagine a topic in a writing class that would not benefit from this analytical lens.


For just this reason, my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I include Johnson’s helpfully clear and brief essay, “What is a ‘System of Privilege?’” in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing. While many students are familiar with the general concept of privilege, they sometimes react defensively. They might throw out challenges, either personal (“No one has ever given me a free ride!”) or drawn from the media (“What about Oprah?”) to critique anecdotally the claim that there is structural inequality in our culture. Anticipating these detractors, Johnson preemptively notes, “…privilege does not guarantee good outcomes for the privileged group or bad outcomes for everyone else” (456). Instead, privilege “load[s]the odds one way or another,” working like “rules in a game […] in which everyone participates” (456). Johnson’s point that we are all part of a system, whether we want to be or not, is a “click” moment for many students. We can’t opt out a structurally unequal society, but once we see that we are implicated in the system, we can begin to figure out how to maneuver, resist, and create change.


Johnson lays out categories of analysis that are easily graspable by students: “A system of privilege — a family, a workplace, a society — is organized around three basic principles: dominance, identification, and centeredness” (456). Each of these might offer analytical tools for in-class brainstorming that can form the basis of more developed student essays.


Dominance: Consider white privilege, in which “the default is for white people to occupy positions of power” (456) so that people of color are seen as exceptions to the rule. How many examples can your students generate, linked to your other readings, to consider the significance of phrases like “black director,” “Asian comedian,” “Latinx author,” or all the other ways whiteness is rendered “invisible” by being dominant?


Identification: Consider the way male bodies, for example, are seen as the standard for human beings. What examples might your students come up with, from medical testing, leadership in almost any industry, or films like Black Panther (since, despite strong women in the Black Panther plot, power moves are between men in this film about re-centering black identity)?


Centeredness: Johnson defines this as “the tendency to put white people and what they do at the center of attention” (456). How many examples can your students develop, based on looking at the front pages of newspapers, magazine covers, advertising, or, to return to our film example, the significance of black centeredness in Black Panther? (Students should discover that upending one system of privilege [racism] does not necessarily upend other systems of privilege [sexism]).


Once students grasp the multifaceted implications of “systems of privilege,” you can help them see how transferrable it is to almost any issue involving power, from the #MeToo movement, to #BlackLivesMatter, to the coverage of the Parkland high schoolers or to the many “evergreen” topics we often explore with our students, such as the meanings of identity, community, or inequality. Johnson’s insights have the power to become more than a tool for your classroom; the concept of “systems of privilege” can be a lens for understanding life.



Photo Courtesy of April Lidinsky


Economics has risen above its reputation as the "dismal science,” but it still may not seem like a lively topic for a composition classroom. However, in the spirit of inviting our students to grapple with meaningful material, let’s remember that our composition students are already thinking about economics in the form of student debt … and it feels deeply personal. While a composition class is certainly not Econ 101, a writing course devoted to understanding the ways experts make meaning is a (perfect) opportunity to empower students with tools for analyzing the financial context of U.S. education. 


Ask your students what they think about student debt, and they’ll have plenty to say. (I hope you will, and that you'll share their responses, below.) At my public university, where many students are first-generation, the conversation tends toward two directions: 1) Student debt terrifies them and they try not to think about it, and 2) They don’t understand why education costs so much, whether it's worth it, and how anyone could pay it all off. Why bring this negative energy and confusion into your writing classroom? Because understanding is power, and you have the tools your students need to make sense of an issue they know will affect the course of their lives.


I recommend assigning portions of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream (2016), by Sara Goldrick-Rab, a self-described “scholar-activist” with a backgrounding sociology and education policy. Stuart Greene and I include her engaging writing in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing, precisely because she models, with verve, the “habits of mind of academic writers” we cultivate in our classrooms. I will focus on two of those here:  


  1. Inquiring 
  2. Seeking and valuing complexity  


In our headnote and the “Reading as a Writer” topics that guide students in analyzing Goldrick-Rab’s writing, we dig into her questions about the history of student loans, shifting attitudes about the necessity of a college degree, and problem-solving examples of states investing in “first degree for free" programs in order to “reinvest” in communities (746). Goldrick-Rab invites us to explore the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, where the concepts she presents are being tested in innovative, scholarly ways. In Goldrick-Rab, students see an academic mind at work, using your course’s tools to understand a problem that matters to them. Goldrick-Rab sides with them:


         The first step in addressing the college affordability crisis is taking the problem seriously. Money matters. Lack of          financial resources is keeping students from succeeding. Suggesting that low-income students merely need to          learn how to live more frugally is usually a misplaced recommendation — and an offensive one, to boot. As Oscar          Wilde wrote, “To recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is          starving to eat less.” (747)


When even the musical our students are humming, Hamilton, suggests punching the Bursar, your composition class has the opportunity to inspire students to apply the skills you’re teaching to an issue relevant to them – to flex their academic “habits of mind,” rather than their fists. Plenty of instructors, also burdened by student loans, will find Goldrick-Rab’s insights timely, too. 



Image source: “student loan” by airpix on flickr 6/23/16 via Creative Commons 2.0 license

As another semester begins, I offer praise for a "less is more" approach in the classroom. In particular, teaching fewer readings than you might usually assign, and teaching them slowly, can allow students to practice close reading and “close writing" in transformational ways. Think of it as "slow reading” and "slow writing” — which, let's face it, is how practiced readers and writers actually work.


I offer poet and essayist Claudia Rankine’s work as exemplary texts for this approach. Andrea Lunsford has blogged about Rankine’s edge-of-the-seat keynote at the 11th biennial meeting of the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference. Lunsford followed up with a post on teaching Rankine’s book-length poem, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). Both entries reminded me why my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I include Rankine in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing. We chose Rankine’s essay, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” as a text to slow-read on the topic of race in the U.S.


In this densely woven but accessibly brief essay, Rankine threads back and forth in history to provide a context for her incisive claim: “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black” (458). Rankine’s essay title comes from a friend, the mother of a black son, who captures this brutal truth: “The condition of black life is one of mourning” (458). Rankine stitches this observation to an almost identical lament in 1955, from Mamie Till Mobley, who insisted the mutilated body of her son, Emmett Till, be placed in public view: “Let people see what I see …. I believe that the whole United States is mourning with me” (460). As Rankine argues, “[Mamie Till Mobley’s] desire to make mourning enter our day-to-day world was a new kind of logic” (460). Imagine inviting students to read those sentences aloud, and to explore what it means to call this violence "a new kind of logic."


Perhaps because she is also a poet, the rhythm and economy of Rankine’s sentences beg us to slow down and ponder the word choices. What could happen if you give your students the space and time in class to consider (on paper, in pairs, in small groups, or in a large group) the implications for the following claim: “We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses into their daily comings and goings. Dead blacks are a part of normal life here” (459)? What insights might emerge as your students connect these words shimmering with feeling — with other reading in your course about the media, identity, education, or any number of topics we often teach in composition classes? Imagine returning to Rankine’s rich text as a touchstone, throughout your semester, to see what emerges in the context of other texts — a practice that can become a transformational tactic for lifelong readers.


Rankine’s poetic prose implores us to slow down. These thick and weighty words remind us how wrong-headed the advice is that novice close-readers often receive: “Read between the lines.” No. Instead, we should urge students: Read the lines. Read the words themselves, slowly. Read them aloud. Read them in the context of another writer's ideas, and then again in the context of yet another writer. Read them, certainly, in the context of their own lives, too. See how close reading  slow reading — invites a proliferation of interpretations. That challenge, and that pleasure, is the heart of our courses, and that takes time. Give yourself and your students that gift.


Students came into class today on fire about the latest news of powerful men who have been fired for sexually predatory behaviors. Part of the conversational aftermath of the #metoo movement is the reminder that these abuses don’t just happen in Hollywood, journalism, or politics. This abuse happens to people who have far less power, who may have nothing to gain – and perhaps a lot to lose – by outing a manager at a fast food job they need, or a predatory president in small business that might contribute meaningfully to the local economy.  Of course, that default setting to “silence” is one way a “system of privilege” works.


My students have been analyzing the essay “What is a ‘System of Privilege’?’” by Allan G. Johnson. Johnson’s tightly written text anchors the chapter on sociological readings my co-author Stuart Greene and I included in the 4th edition of From Inquiry to Academic WritingBecause of the before-class chatter about predatory behavior, I led the students in a visual exercise about gender and privilege that is not original to me, but one I recommend. I wrote on the board: “What do you do every day to protect yourself from sexual assault?" I drew two columns, one for men, and one for women. I called on the men first.  “Uhhhhh….”  Awkward silence. Then laughter. A student ran his fingers through his hair in thoughtful embarrassment and said, “Uh — I keep my pants up? And I try to just … be aware?” That elicited some laughter, but by this point the women were on the edge of their seats, hands shooting up.


What followed was an avalanche of strategies, tactics, and survival skills that are second-nature to women socialized in U.S. culture. As my handwriting reveals, I could hardly write fast enough to keep up with the torrent of routine behaviors women use to keep themselves safe, from walking in darkened parking lots with “Wolverine keys” at the ready, to buddy systems to watch drinks and get home safely, to a range of small weapons tucked into purses. The air was charged. Women were angry, but also seemed vindicated to share this anger.


I made room for some silence as we looked at the evidence on the board before asking: “So, what do we make of this?”  One person immediately said: “That is privilege. Some people never have to think about sexual violence. Other people have to think about it all the time.”  Some of the men talked about how their female friends frequently ask them to serve as their “bodyguards” at concerts or at bars. Other men nodded, one noting, “Even though I’m smaller than some of my female friends, they still see me as their protector. I don’t know how to feel about that.”


We dove into Johnson’s essay, then, and students made connections to insights by Jean Kilbourne on “‘Two Ways a Woman Can Get Hurt’: Advertising and Violence,” and the lively analysis by Ken Gillam and Shannon R. Wooden of alternatives to toxic masculinity in animated films in the essay, “Post-Princess Models of Gender: The New Man in Disney/Pixar.”


With a little prompting, students could draw out intersectional insights that unpacked these simple categories of “male” and “female” behavior. As Traci Gardner reminds us in her powerful post Who Counts When We Talk about Sexual Harassment? repeating simplistic gender binaries erases the experiences of trans* and gender-nonconforming people, as well as sexual violence experienced by men. Further, an intersectional analysis reminds us that men of color receive fear responses that are often heightened, as the terrible record of police violence reminds us. Male students let down their guard as they revealed their hurt feelings when women cross the street to avoid them, or pull their purses close when they pass, or assume they are “players.” Privilege might empower some, but it warps the human experience of all.


At the end of class, dozens of students spontaneously lined up to take photos of the board to share on social media. Their words are now part of the cultural conversation.  #StudentsToo.


Photo Credit: April Lidinsky