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12 Posts authored by: April Lidinsky Expert

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


Why invite an economic theorist into your composition class? Recent Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler offers concepts that bolster what you already teach in your course about the craft of persuasion, but with some twists that students find very appealing. Let me give you a little nudge.


Thalers theory of choice architecture, developed with colleagues Cass R. Sunstein and John P. Balz, are the foundation of their 2008 best-seller, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. My co-author, Stuart Greene, and I include a generous slice of these insights in our chapter on Economics in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing. Choice Architecture explains the way that small details in consumer displays, software design, fee structures, and more can nudge us to make decisions in ways we may not notice but that profoundly impact our behavior.


Thaler is just the sort of expert we go out of our way to invite into our composition classrooms because his challenging ideas stretch our students vocabularies and conceptual understanding of the world, and the impact of these ideas is immediately clear to them. After all, who hasnt felt manipulated on occasion by a mandated choice? And how many of us can resist the path of least resistance or default decision-making behind the I agree to the terms check-boxes that we often click out of resignation rather than comprehension? (These are decisions we sometimes regret.)


By helping students see the structures behind the thousands of subtle nudges in our daily lives, Thaler and you, as a composition instructor  can help students understand the many default settings that shape every aspect of our daily lives, from consumer decisions, to our environmental habits, to the hundreds of decisions our universities make for us (all of us!) that are worthy of closer analysis. Im willing to bet any topic you pursue in your composition classrooms could be enhanced by the tools Thaler offers.


Like the most effective and provocative writers you invite your students to study, Thaler models the academic habits of mind we all seek to foster in our classrooms, including asking questions that reveal patterns, and analyzing those patterns to understand their significance in our personal lives and communities. Where better than your classroom to hand students the tools to better understand the power of persuasion, particularly the nudges we dont notice, even as we reach for that eye-level candy bar at the check-out stand?

Like many of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ longtime admirers, I was thrilled to hear the New York Times investigative reporter won a 2017 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for her culture-shifting analytical reporting on segregated schooling and racial injustice. 


The award confirmed for my co-author, Stuart Greene, and me all the reasons we chose to anchor our chapter on Education in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Argument with Hannah-Jones’ essay, “School Segregation, the Continuing Tragedy of Ferguson.”


Just as Hannah-Jones explains in this short MacArthur Foundation video, she models in her essay the method of inquiry that moves readers beyond simply reacting to a tragedy like the police shooting of Michael Brown. Hannah-Jones teaches us to ask why the neighborhood where Brown attended school was so segregated. She shows why it's important to ask about the specific policies that dismantled the very desegregation laws that benefited Michael Brown’s mother in the same school district just a generation earlier. She invites readers to examine the data comparing the vast disparities in academic proficiencies of students in the lowest-performing school district in Missouri, the Normandy district where Michael Brown attended school, with the top-performing predominately white district, Clayton, just five miles away. 


Finally, she demonstrates the power of asking the question we train all our students to ask: “So what?” Her response -- after weaving connections between personal, political, and historical examples -- is devastating: “Students who spend their careers in segregated schools can look forward to a life on the margins …. They are more likely to be poor. They are more likely to go to jail. They are less likely to graduate from high school, to go to college, and to finish if they go. They are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods as adults” (This citation appears on page 451 of the forthcoming edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing). In other words, moving from only gut-wrenching sorrow about police violence to inquiry and analysis can allow us to see systematic patterns that maintain inequality. And, seeing them, we can begin to recognize their characteristics, and act to disrupt them. 


While Hannah-Jones is a journalist, she models the academic habits of mind we strive to instill in our students — asking questions that reveal patterns, and analyzing those patterns to understand their significance in the lives of real people. Further, she models how to examine the implications for a nation whose pledge proclaims “justice for all," while policies deliberately work against this aspiration.


What texts have been particularly helpful for you in modeling habits of mind that engage your students in meaningful inquiry? Please considering sharing in the comments, below.


Click here to see more articles by Nikole Hannah-Jones.