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6 Posts authored by: Bedford New Scholar Expert

Cecilia SheltonCecilia Shelton (nominated by Dr. Michelle Eble) is pursuing her PhD in Rhetoric, Writing, and Professional communication in the English department at East Carolina University. She is entering her fourth year in the fall and expects to finish in May 2019. She has more than ten years of experience teaching college writing so she has taught lots of different courses. Her favorite course was one called "Critical Writing Seminar" that married critical theories, pop culture, and writing and tried to employ a code-meshing pedagogy. Most recently, she has been teaching Writing Foundations courses (first and second year writing), Writing for Business and Industry, and Scientific Writing. Her research interests explore the intersections of cultural rhetorics and technical communication in activist work and social movement theory. She is also a 2018 CCCC Scholar for the Dream and a 2018 recipient of ECU's Diversity and Inclusion Award.

 

Students and their professors often have very different visions for what should come of a writing course, but on this we can agree: the first-year writing course is overloaded with expectations. As the single course with perhaps the most stakeholders invested in its outcomes, participating in the first-year writing classroom as a teacher or a student is a high stakes endeavor. For students who enter the classroom with 13 years of conditioning against their nonstandard cultural rhetorical practices—spoken, written, and otherwise—the stakes are even higher and the students are risk averse because of it.

 

In my time as a writing center administrator and an English instructor at an HBCU, my pedagogy became rooted in teaching students to become critical consumers and producers of language. That goal means different things to different teachers and students; for almost all Black students—regardless of their preparation for and perceived skill in writing—it means grappling with the probability that their race will likely always influence the way their language use is consumed and interpreted no matter how precisely they align themselves with standard English. I think it can also mean teaching students to see their cultural rhetorics as linguistic resources (not deficits) in producing texts that speak truth to power in the academy.  

 

The texts we hold up in our classrooms as worthy of study and the values imbued in our assignments betray our language politics. My "Soundtrack of the American Dream" assignment was my first real attempt to align my pedagogy with my language politics. In it, I ask students to "prepare a creative interpretation of the American Dream by composing an album cover and writing a track list for an album." More and more rhetoric and composition scholars are challenging the cannon and disrupting stale notions of expertise to explore new voices as models in the composition classroom. But how often are scholars willing (or allowed) to invite the same kinds of disruptions from students?

 

The Soundtrack of the American Dream assignment is, essentially, a much more interesting version of a critical analysis essay. It asks students to resist assumptions and generalizations of the “American Dream,” and it requires them to find concrete examples that consider the component parts of this myth and the significance of those parts to the whole concept (in other words, analysis). But it does this on terms that the student sets for themselves.

 

By foregrounding music as a cultural artifact that reflects the American Dream, students are free to assign importance and value to the voices that they see as credible. Although class discussions root everyone’s exploration in the same popular associations with the American Dream—money, houses, marriage, family, self-determination, etc.—students can approach these associations through the lens of their lived experience. Perhaps most importantly, students are explicitly invited to use the linguistic resources that best serve the lived experiences that they want to amplify in explaining and reflecting on the American Dream.

 

Because this assignment is now more than five years old, I often think about how it is aging. When I was much closer to it, I wrote about the pedagogical exploration that it represents here: Disrupting Authority . Having taught first-year writing less and less as I accumulate teaching experience and sharpen my pedagogy, I haven’t had many opportunities to revisit and revise the assignment. I expect that many scholars with a number of years of teaching experience share this retrospective stance. What could I do better here? How does my current research trajectory and pedagogical stance inform a project like this one?

 

The political and social urgency of this moment has brought resistance and activist rhetorics to the center of my research agenda and pedagogical commitments. Not only am I interested in students becoming critical producers and consumers of language, but I am also determined to support their advocacy and intervention in the systems they observe. Stevens (2009) offers a perspective that challenges me to see new opportunities in my Soundtrack of the American Dream assignment. She argues that “rhetors have a responsibility to choose between social reproduction and change, and part of this responsibility is to choose whether or not to accept rhetorical situations, and the social relations that construct them, as presented” (50). She goes on to argue in favor of inappropriate rhetorical strategies or even outright rejection of the rhetorical situation as potentially effective responses for students in our writing classrooms.

 

What would it look like for my students to outright reject the premise of an American Dream at all? Given the realities of the lived experiences of many people in this country, that kind of response seems to reflect not only critical thinking but also a true exigence for their writing outside my classroom and with audiences beyond the academy. Am I inviting the kind of responses that enable this sort of disruption and academic success at the same time? Shouldn’t I be? Are you? How are we preparing students to use language to break systems, not just see them? 

 

Among all of the many ways that first-year writing courses have been customized to meet specific institutional (and other) contexts, I am most heartened by those that offer students a way to think about language over strict guidelines for its usage. In a contemporary knowledge economy where technology and artificial intelligence can do more and more of the sentence level work that props up our bigoted notion of a standard variety of English—I want to give students more—preparing them to engage as active citizens of the world who use their critical thinking and composing skills to advocate for equity and justice feels right to me.

 

To view Cecilia’s assignment, visit The Soundtrack of the American Dream. To learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board, visit the Bedford New Scholars page on the Macmillan English Community.

 

References

Stevens, S. M. (2009). Dreaming to change our situation: Reconfiguring the exigence for student writing. In Stevens, S. & Malesh, P. M. (Eds.) Active voices: Composing a rhetoric for social movements (47-68). Albany: Statue University New York Press.

Lizbett Tinoco

Lizbett Tinoco (nominated by Dr. Kate Mangelsdorf) completed her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition in May 2018 from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). At UTEP, she was Assistant Director of the University Writing Center and taught a variety of courses, including First-Year Composition, Technical Writing, Professional Writing and Writing Program Administration. Her research interests focus on writing program administration, community colleges, writing centers, and multilingualism. She joined Texas A&M University-San Antonio as an Assistant Professor of English in the Fall of 2018.

 

One of the major assignments I teach in my technical writing course is a job market portfolio. The job market portfolio includes a rhetorical analysis of a job ad. Then, students create a tailored resume and cover letter for the specific job. In addition to these documents, I also want students to practice the rhetorical skills necessary for preparing and engaging in a job interview.

 

The job interview portion of the job market portfolio has taken on various iterations over the years I have taught this course. A few years ago, I had students schedule individual mock interview appointments with me. As you can image, these took up a lot of time! After trying this approach for one semester, I realized that my students and I, both, did not have enough time to schedule individual mock interviews. I did not simply want to get rid of this assignment because, today, more and more interviews are being conducted online through various video conferencing platforms. I wanted to make sure my students were prepared for the demands they might face when on the job market. The following semester, I was assigned an online technical writing course, so this made me rethink the job interview assignment.

 

Since the technical writing course I taught was online, I asked students to record their job interview responses using their cell phones or other devices they had available to them. I provided students with different groups of questions and asked them to provide a response to one question in every group. This version of the assignment went well, but in the reflection of the assignment, many students discussed feeling somewhat awkward recording themselves. A lot of them felt like the experience did not simulate a real one.

 

When I started my first tenure-track position at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, I learned I was going to teach technical writing. During my new faculty orientation, someone from the Mays Center for Experiential Learning & Community Engagement provided us with information about the services they offer to faculty and students. One of the resources our institution has access to is Big Interview. This online program gives students the opportunity to practice their interview skills. The program offers sets of questions based on different job industries, but instructors also have the ability to include their own set of questions. Students in my course really enjoyed that an interviewer asked them the questions, and then, they provided responses. Students felt this a more realistic experience.

 

One of the biggest issues my students had while using Big Interview was the accessibility of the program. Like many online programs, students had login issues and difficulty navigating the interface of the program. More significantly, students could not use the program on their cell phones. As I’m preparing to teach technical writing again next semester, I’m debating whether or not to use Big Interview. I keep asking myself the following questions: Will students have access to the technology they need to use this program? If students don’t have access, will they have the time to use computers available to them on campus?

 

As I continue to develop assignments, I need to make sure I am mindful about access to resources and technology that are necessary for my students to successfully complete assignments.

 

To view Liz’s assignment, visit Job Interview. To learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board, visit the Bedford New Scholars page on the Macmillan English Community.

Today's featured Bedford New Scholar is Dara Liling, who completed her MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Maryland-College Park, where she also taught First-Year Writing and worked as an administrator in the Writing Center. Her thesis investigated contemporary multilingual activism rhetoric, particularly visual rhetoric including lawn signs and public art, and touched on issues of cultural citizenship, identification, and linguistic landscapes. She now works as an editor at NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

 

Most rhetoric and composition instructors are well-acquainted with debates of social justice that intersect with our work. Some main considerations we must grapple with on a daily basis include whether our expectations of good writing align with hegemonic constructs and the latent implications (racial, gendered, linguistic, etc.) that our assessments convey to students. While we may be used to contemplating these issues on societal, institutional, or programmatic levels, it is just as necessary to zoom in on social justice issues in writing pedagogy and assessment for individual writing assignments. For me, teaching and grading the annotated bibliography assignment has brought to light the necessity of paying deep attention to how we discuss and evaluate credibility, as well as the underlying messages about good scholarship that we perpetuate.

 

I suspect that the annotated bibliography assignment first-year writing instructors teach at the University of Maryland–College Park is pretty standard. This assignment is the first in a semester-long series of writing projects that each student completes on a topic of his or her choosing, culminating in a final 8- to 10-page research paper. The annotated bibliography entries are graded based on the degree to which students effectively address four criteria:

  1. summary of the source
  2. source use in upcoming assignments
  3. author bias
  4. credibility

 It is the final criterion that gives me pause when considering whether my assessments are socially just.

 

While credibility may initially seem like a straightforward criterion that a source either has or does not have, scholarship and personal experience complicates this assumption. In this past, I had taught my students (as instructors had taught me) that there are a few qualities a source can display that deem it credible:

  • Is it published in an esteemed, usually peer reviewed, publication?
  • Does it cite other credible sources?
  • Does the author have reputable qualifications, such as an advanced degree in the field or a history of publications and conference presentations?

While I still agree that these are positive qualities for a source to have, and that it is valuable to teach students how to identify these qualities, I have also come to realize that equally valuable resources get lost (or even silenced) when we hold these stipulations as immutable markers of useable works.   

 

Many before me have grappled with these lines of thought, questioning what forms of knowledge are vital for wholistic understandings and where these knowledge forms are present or absent. Much of this contemplation occurs in the realms of feminist rhetoric, public memory studies, and cultural rhetorics (to name a few). For example, Jones Brayboy and Bryan McKinley (2005) propose storytelling as an indispensable method for introducing marginalized experiences into canons of study, while lamenting that its validity is largely dismissed. Clare Hemmings (2005) proclaims that women and people of color have been excluded from big-name journals. And Nana Oesi-Kofi et al. (2010) acknowledge the lack of validity subjugated knowledge generally hold in academia. Together, this scholarship illuminates two premises:

  1. traditionally nonacademic forms of knowledge can be quite valuable to the learning and writing in which our students engage, but
  2. it is quite possible that such sources will not meet hegemonic definitions of credibility.

 

These issues transitioned beyond theoretical considerations for me when I was conferencing with a student during the annotated bibliography unit. He was inspired by personal experiences within his Filipino-American community to center his semester-long research on the lingering effects of colonialism on Filipino-American culture. He planned to investigate debates prevalent within the community about reclaiming traditional, pre-colonial culture versus creating a new culture that may abandon traditional cultural elements. (What an interesting topic!) However, some of his sources strayed beyond the credibility criteria. They appeared in publications that were outside of mainstream academia (and therefore cited in fewer academic articles than other sources); they pulled evidence from personal and community experiences, rather than academic sources. Did this mean, the student wanted to know, that these sources were not credible and unusable for the assignment?

 

Of course not. They capture viewpoints necessary for entering the key debates and responsibly representing multiple sides of the issue. So what could I do moving forward to better communicate these notions to my students? What could be done to improve my first-year writing pedagogy?

 

First, is to examine issues of public memory, situated knowledge, and exclusion early in the annotated bibliography unit. Encourage students to question and redevelop their own notions of credibility. How do they choose when a source they encounter in their personal lives is worthwhile to read or discuss with friends?

 

Second, is to revisit source use and expand on the purpose of this consideration. When is a traditionally credible source most appropriate? When is personal experience or other forms of situated knowledge most appropriate? What are the different effects of using one versus the other?

 

These are just two starting points for this social justice work, but hopefully promising places to push against hegemonic, limiting constructs of credibility. 

Today’s featured Bedford New Scholar is Rachel McCabe, a PhD Candidate in English at Indiana University Bloomington. She expects to finish in 2019. She teaches Analytical Reading, Writing, and Inquiry, and has taught multilingual and online versions of the course in the past. She also designed her own FYC theme-based course which focuses on the grotesque. She is an Assistant Director of IU’s FYC Program as well as their Professional Writing course. Her research interests include the relationship between reading and writing, affect theory and its impact on the reading and writing process (especially when using fictional and multimodal texts), and how shock and discomfort can be utilized as pedagogical tools.

 

In first-year writing courses, students often struggle to conceptualize the new ideas and perspectives they encounter through course readings. As Robert Scholes explains in his 2002 article, “The Transition to College Reading,” college students absorb reading material as though it reflects their world view. Rather than allowing the text to make its own argument, they force a connection between the way they see the world and what is written on the page. Scholes explains, “The problem emerges as one of difference, or otherness—a difficulty in moving from the words of the text to some set of intentions that are different from one’s own, some values or presuppositions different from one’s own and possibly opposed to them” (166). In breaking down this problem into contributing factors, Scholes concludes there are two central difficulties: “One is a failure to focus sharply on the language of the text. The other is a failure to imagine the otherness of the text’s author” (166).

 

Indiana University’s First-Year Composition (FYC) program has utilized a multitude of practices to help students separate themselves from the texts they read. We implement heuristics in the standard syllabus to get students to slow down when reading and notice small patterns and anomalies they might not otherwise pay attention to. We also use a collection of readings that specifically highlight a variety of perspectives, including Gloria Anzaldua’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” and Susan Wendell’s “The Social Construction of Disability.” We also practice “using a source as a lens,” a heuristic from David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen. This heuristic helps students figure out how to extract the perspective demonstrated in an author’s work and then use this concept to reconceptualize other materials.

 

These practices were in place before I joined as Assistant Director of Composition, and I took note of the ways in which they helped students to separate their identities and ideas from the ones represented in the readings. However, in structuring my own version of FYC, I wanted students to be able to practice this objectivity from the start of the semester onward rather than learning to do so by the middle of the course sequence. This was critical to the development of student analytical skills in my course, which focused on defining the term “grotesque” as well as its use and appearance in American culture and art. Since this course asked students to begin by understanding a definition, their ability to apply the term to primary texts was critical to the assignment sequence. As a result, while my first of three units grew out of the standard syllabus at Indiana University for “W131: Reading, Writing, and Inquiry,” it implements “source as a lens” as one of the first heuristics of the semester.

 

For our first two course readings, students analyze an excerpt from Wolfgang Kayser’s The Grotesque in Art and Literature and Michael Steig’s “Defining the Grotesque: An Attempt at Synthesis.” These two texts not only provide introductory definitions of the term “grotesque,” but they also demonstrate how academic conversations develop, as Steig builds his definition from the work provided by Kayser. Students then craft a “lens” from one of these two texts. In our class, this means re-evaluating texts including William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” or Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” through the perspectives provided by Kayser or Steig.

 

Students are encouraged to start their essays with their initial interpretations of the short story or poem, using textual analysis to determine why they initially viewed the short story or poem in a particular way. Then, their essays go on to explore how the student was able to re-see the primary text in a new light with the help of Kayser or Steig’s lens. This structure asks students to differentiate between their reading of the text and the reading that might be provided by either of these other authors. In order to adopt this lens, they first practice summarizing the texts and understand its main claims. They then use this knowledge to see the short story or poem from a perspective other than their own.

 

This heuristic ultimately serves as an approachable way for students to consider Kenneth Burke’s concept of the “terministic screen.” It alerts them to the ways in which their perspective is just one way to read any text or situation. As Burke explains in Language as Symbolic Action, people move through the world with their own unique perspective and interpretations. As a result, “many of the ‘observations’ are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made” (46). Moving between these screens constructed by our own terminology and experiences provides the flexibility of imagination to imagine another person’s perspective. By starting out with this exercise, students know that our writing course emphasis is not only on rhetorical analysis of texts, but also on broadening our points of view.

 

To view Rachel’s assignment, visit The Grotesque in American Culture: Essay 1, Applying a Definition. To learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board, visit the Bedford New Scholars page on the Macmillan English Community.

 

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Language As Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. University of California Press, 1966.

Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. Writing Analytically. Thomson Wadsworth, 2009.

Scholes, Robert J. “The Transition to College Reading.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, vol. 2 no. 2, 2002, pp. 165-172.

Today's featured Bedford New Scholar is Kristin vanEyk, a student in the Joint PhD program in English and Education at the University of Michigan. Kristin taught high school English for nine years before beginning her PhD in the fall of 2016. She expects to complete her degree in 2021. Kristin teaches first year writing at the university, and is especially interested in the ways students blend register and genre to create meaning. Kristin's research interests include translingual theory and practice, critical race theory and whiteness theory, and critical feminism.

 

A few weeks ago Leah Rang blogged here about the latest group of Bedford New Scholars (BNS) and promised (or perhaps warned?) that the BNS “notable newcomers” would soon be writing for this space. As one of the BNS cohort, I’m delighted to have this opportunity to ask a few questions and learn from you all.

 

I first started reading the Bits blog in May of 2018, the week Andrea A. Lunsford wrote about “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” and the ongoing efforts for more generous attitudes towards our students’ home languages (see her post African American Rhetoric and Other Englishes). Lunsford recommended Jerry Won Lee’s book titled The Politics of Translingualism: After Englishes (Routledge, 2017), which I had just finished reading, and she concluded her post with an invitation to continue the conversation about translingualism, an orientation where the theory and pedagogy sometimes miss one another. As we head into a new semester, it seems like a good time to revisit this conversation.

 

 Lee’s book helpfully clarified some of my confusion over the need for a distinction between multilingualism and translingualism, and why this matters in a writing classroom. Lee argues that “by focusing on and drawing attention to the simultaneous presence of multiple language resources in a particular utterance, moment, or space, we risk simultaneously gesturing to and reaffirming the disciplinarian linguistic ideologies that have aspired and perhaps conspired to keep such language resources in isolation from one another” (p. 9). My conception of the translingual orientation had been too narrow: code-switching vs. code-meshing or multilingual (parallel monolingualism) vs. translingual (through and beyond linguistic borders). Such stunted views of the translingual turn belied my own stunted imagination about what “counts” in academic writing and what rhetorical magic our students can muster if we convince them that we genuinely want to see what they can do.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about how translingual theory and anti-racist pedagogy can come together in meaningful and rigorous classroom practice. During my first semester of graduate school, I enrolled in a seminar taught by Anne Gere called “What Makes Writing Good,” which focused on justice-oriented pedagogy and anti-racist writing assessment practices. At the same time, I was working with linguist Anne Curzan on challenging deficit language ideologies in writing classrooms. These courses greatly shaped my approach to translingualism by bringing linguists and compositionists into conversation about the teaching of languaging.

 

I do worry about how my students will fare when they leave the safety of my classroom. As Deborah Cameron and Rosina Lippi-Green and others have demonstrated, there are many who insist on standard varieties of English as a litmus test for intelligence. If people in their lives will require conventions of a so-called “standard” variety of English, what does that mean for a composition teacher with a translingual orientation? How do I reconcile a conviction that I ought to teach beyond linguistic and other borders when I also believe that borders will hem my students in?

 

It seems very practical to ask students to answer these kinds of questions for themselves, to have students write about their own linguistic ideologies and to practice having conversations with people who use standards as a basis of judgement. It seems like part of my job, as a teacher of languaging, to help students find the language they want to use to correct the misinformation they will encounter about language. So that’s where my semester is moving: towards challenging students to think about how cultural language preferences are developed, how they are reinforced (and by whom!), and how they as informed students want to respond when they witness the perpetuation of hegemony.

 

One of my favorite writing assignments to teach is the Literacy Narrative. We read a few example texts in class, like Sherman Alexie’s “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me,” and then I ask my students to think about the literacy experiences that have shaped their own linguistic ideologies. Often they discover that reading and writing have played a more critical role in the development of their identities than they realized, and they appreciate the challenge of writing an argument about literacy and identity in a university writing course. As students peer review and share these essays they also expand their understandings of how language and identity are intertwined, and hopefully we all become more compassionate and courageous individuals.

 

If you have insights into how we can guide our students’ thinking about linguistic ideologies or how they can practice standing up for their developing beliefs, I certainly welcome the discussion.

 

To view Kristin's assignment, visit Literacy Narrative Assignment SheetTo learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board, visit the the Bedford New Scholars page on the Macmillan English Community.

Daniel LibertzToday's featured Bedford New Scholar is Daniel Libertz, who is pursuing his PhD in English with a concentration in composition and rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh and expects to finish in 2019. He teaches Writing for the Public, and he will be serving as Composition Program Assistant in 2018-2019. He has also taught Seminar in Composition at Pitt, a reading course at the United States Military Academy, composition at Howard County Community College, and English courses at the high school level. His research interests include quantitative rhetoric, public rhetoric, social media writing and algorithms, and writing program administration.

 

Toward the end of his book Introducing English: Essays in the Intellectual Work of Composition, James Slevin presents a letter responding to a former student who has become a teacher. Maggie asks Slevin a question he has been asked many times: “What should she do to prepare her students for writing in college?” (246).

 

Slevin says he never felt he gave a satisfactory answer to this sort of question. It is a complex question that, I assume, all of us continually think about throughout our teaching lives. After all, implicit in this question is how the writing in college is “different” from writing in high school—and for that matter, how writing in college is different from writing anywhere else. One of the more difficult, slippery concepts we all have to confront as writing teachers in higher education is figuring out what we mean by “academic” writing. What is it? How do we teach it? Should we teach it? Do we do enough to acknowledge the inherent value judgments and political nature of the way we teach academic language or address its close ties to whiteness?

 

These are big, difficult questions, but what I like about Slevin’s response to Maggie is that it focuses on academic writing as intellectual work, something that can occur in any genre, under any conventions, or in any language. Slevin writes that what matters is evidence. By evidence, Slevin does not mean having a thesis or using direct quotations. It is not about accumulating material. It is about what is done with material, and what is “done” depends on language. For Slevin, “the excitement of the academic life—of academic writing broadly conceived—is in the making of stuff (data, events, passages from a text, the work of other writers) into evidence” (246). Language is the tool that turns “stuff” into evidence—what Ann Berthoff calls (channeling I.A. Richards) a “speculative instrument” for making meaning out of, well, “stuff.”

 

I agree with Slevin that if there is anything that makes writing in the academy somehow different from writing in other places (though, not exclusively different as there is writing in many places that does what Slevin advocates for) it is how we use evidence to make knowledge through “supporting, testing, and complicating” our ideas (252).To put this idea into classroom practice at a very practical level, I like to have my students think about this at the level of the sentence. One way I do so is by asking them to find two sentences in any text that they have read for another class that they feel is certain and uncertain, respectively. I like the idea of having them look at texts outside our own classroom so that they see, explicitly, that academic writing very much resides outside of their composition class (and, hopefully, such a move helps to transfer this idea about writing to their other classes). Students can choose any text from another class—a textbook, a journal article, a blog post—if the sentences they choose convey certainty or uncertainty for them.

 

During the next class, we talk about the reasons students selected their sentences, and we put them up on the board. Several items typically come up: word choice (e.g., obviously, really, probably, very, possibly), sentence type (e.g., short, simple sentence vs. longer, meandering sentences), syntax (e.g., position of a qualifying dependent clause), etc.

 

We usually focus on the rhetorical aspects of such moves at first: why does a short, punchy sentence “sound” certain (e.g., multiple clauses may undercut the strength of a direct statement)? Why do words like “really” and “very,” sometimes, ironically, make the sentence sound less certain? Do qualifying clauses ever make a sentence, counterintuitively, sound more certain by building the writer’s credibility as well-read? Ken Hyland, for instance, notes that the use of hedges and boosters have a range of effects in academic writing: to show conviction, to show solidarity with an audience of peers, to differentiate between opinion and data-based knowledge, to express deference for peers.

 

As much as these moves are matters of persuasion, it is difficult to untangle them from matters of making knowledge. For Slevin, this would mean that we can and should look to such moments in our sentences to ask ourselves what we know and what we are trying to know—that is, how we are making sense of our “stuff,” of our evidence. Does the use of “really” or a sentence with three dependent clauses tip us off to anything we are struggling with knowing as a writer? Sometimes the use of the word “very” or “obviously” is used for stylistic emphasis. Sometimes a sentence with a series of qualifying dependent clauses adds necessary context to a complicated topic. Sometimes, too, these moments at the sentence level are a “tell” that more work is needed for a writer to turn stuff into evidence, in Slevin’s sense.

 

During the remaining time in class, I ask students to make these considerations while looking back at an in-progress piece of writing to find one sentence that they feel shows certainty or uncertainty. I then ask them to spend some time thinking about how those sentences might represent a larger pattern of thought in their draft.

 

Finally, I ask students to rewrite that sentence to make it more or less certain, followed by partner discussion about how it does or does not fit into the ecology of their larger paper.

 

By the end of the lesson, my hope is that students—via a notion of certainty—begin to see how the ways they choose words and arrange sentences can have an impact on the way they are makers of knowledge.

 

To view Dan’s activity, visit Writing with Certainty in the Disciplines: Sentence Confidence. To learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board, visit the the Bedford New Scholars tab on the Macmillan English Community.