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Tanya RodrigueToday’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodrigue, an associate professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.


“Technology is rotting our brains!”


“The screen is destroying our ability to understand what we read!”


“Students are so distracted by technology that they can’t focus on anything let alone researching or reading digitally !”


We’ve all heard these alarmist declarations about technology, and to some extent, they are not overly exaggerated. Multiple studies have revealed that students’ reading abilities have declined over time, and technology likely has something to do with it. Cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, reading scholar and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of Reading and most recently, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, argues that screen reading has transformed our brains, negatively impacting our ability to read in a way that invites strong comprehension. Distractions, stimuli, and digital reading practices such as skimming have all contributed to what Wolf calls a loss of “cognitive patience,” a mental state needed for deep, engaged reading. Based on this research, writing instructors must take note of the real possibility that students may not be comprehending digital texts that they read for homework assignments or for research-based writing assignments.


Yet, there are other reasons why students may have difficulty reading and engaging with texts in meaningful ways. Contrary to popular belief, 21st century students are not all “digital natives” or in other words, adept or fluent with technology. Thus instructors can’t assume students know how to effectively navigate digital texts. In fact, many current students have likely not been taught digital reading practices in elementary or secondary school. A recent qualitative research study I conducted on digital reading practices affirms such a hypothesis. In my study, I discovered that students utilized comprehension strategies, yet almost never engaged with reading strategies specific to digital texts like acknowledging or clicking hyperlinks, acknowledging or engaging with images and videos, and drawing connections between and among modes. The students in my study read digital texts like print texts.  


All of this means students need formal instruction in digital reading. Below I offer three pedagogical suggestions for how to teach effective digital reading practices.


#1. Teach Students that Digital Texts are Multimodal

Digital texts are comprised of multiple modes—alphabetic, aural, and visual. These modes are vehicles of communication and work to convey meaning and messages individually and collaboratively. Within these modes, there are specific features such as color, hyperlinks, charts, images, and maps. Teaching students how to interact and engage with modes and their features will make them stronger digital readers. 


#2. Teach Students that Digital Genres Call for Different Kinds of Engagement

PDFs look different from company websites which look and sound different from multimedia scholarly articles. Bring attention to these differences and point out that different genres call for different kinds of reading engagement.


Since writing conventions carry over from print to the web, so do reading practices. Thus one way to teach students how to engage with different digital genres is to ask them to draw on reading habits of print texts that are similar in nature to digital texts. For example, a student may draw on their antecedent reading practices of a print newspaper to engage with a digital newspaper. An instructor could then support them in adapting these strategies to engage with the unique features and rhetorical situation of that digital text.


#3. Teach Students How to Preview a Text and Construct a Reading Plan

Much like with a print text, previewing a digital text orients the reader and provides them with knowledge on how to approach reading that text. Ask students to activate their knowledge of digital text features, digital genres, and previous reading practices to preview the text and create a reading plan.


Julie Coiro, in “Making Sense of  Text,” offers one way students might preview a digital text:

(1) read the title of the page and site;

(2) scan menu choices without clicking on anything in effort to get a holistic sense of the text;

(3) make predictions about where each hyperlink may lead;

(4) explore interactive features, including pop-up menus and scroll bars;

(5) identify the creator and what this information might reveal about the digital text;

(6) acknowledge and practice using any electronic supports, such as an internal search engine;

(7) and make a decision about whether to explore the site further.


After previewing the text, students can compose a reading plan that clearly indicates how they will approach engaging with the text according to their purpose for reading it.

Tanya Rodrigue

Today’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodrigue, an associate professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.


Several years ago, I observed a writing class wherein the professor asked students to find a visual that represented their feelings about writing. One student brought in a picture of a young man standing at the top of a cliff. The young man looked terrified as he looked down, perhaps thinking he could tumble off the edge at any moment.
The message was clear: writing is scary.
Writing has historically been known to evoke feelings of fear and anxiety in many people, and our students are no exception. Many of them are scared to write for fear of “not sounding smart” or “not doing it right.” Many of them are scared to share their writing, especially with their peers, because they “stink at writing” or “don’t have any good ideas.”
Fear and anxiety yield all kinds of problems for writers. Some experience dread at the thought of writing; some experience severe writer’s block or paralysis; and/or some just try to avoid writing altogether.
So how can we help our students overcome their fears related to writing?
I orchestrated a brief, but surprisingly very effective activity to help students identify their fears about writing and support each other in facing these fears. The activity helped individual students gain confidence, but perhaps more importantly, it fostered a caring, supportive environment for a community of writers. In facilitating this activity immediately before peer review, students approached each other’s work with a kind of empathy and understanding that they had not previously had.

Step #1: Ask students to take out a piece of paper and respond to the following prompt. What is your biggest fear or challenge about writing?
Step #2: After students finish responding to the prompt, ask them to fold up the piece of paper and place it in a box. Then ask each student to randomly pick out a piece of paper from the box, making sure they do not pick their own.
Step #3: Ask students to write a response to their peers on the same piece of paper. Students may choose one of two options: write a suggestion to help your peer overcome the fear or challenge OR write an affirmation.
Step #4: One by one, ask each student to stand up and read their peer’s response and their response to their peer.  
Step #5: After the last person speaks, encourage students to give each other a round of applause.
In my courses, students provided excellent suggestions—ones that I never thought of myself. They also expressed solidarity and support with phrases like “I feel the same way” or “don’t worry, everyone feels like that” or “we’re in this together!” The activity energized the class and encouraged students to engage with each other’s work in a productive and caring manner. 


While this activity is useful to orchestrate prior to peer review or peer assessment, there are other instances wherein it would be effective. For example, students may benefit from facing their fears and feeling support from their classmates and professor on the first day of a writing course or at the start of any writing assignment, especially if students are composing in a foreign mode or genre. In slightly altering the prompt language, the activity could be used while students are engaged in the composing process or during the revision stage (What has been, or what do you think will be, a challenge in writing or revising this paper?) The prompt could also be altered to become a multimodal activity: students could draw or bring in a picture that represented their challenges or fears, and then their peers could respond to the visual.

Audrey WickToday’s guest blogger is Audrey Wick, a full-time professor of English at Blinn College in Texas. There, she is a writing teacher who writes. Readers can connect with Audrey to learn more about her projects at or on Twitter and Instagram @WickWrites.


The first time I taught Anthony Bourdain’s writing in my freshman composition class at an open enrollment community college in rural Texas, my goal was to get students to actually want to read what I assigned. For years, that had been a struggle.

So when I read the first chapter of Bourdain’s memoir Kitchen Confidential, I thought my students might love it as much as I did. I added it to my syllabus. Bourdain was sandwiched between writings by Deborah Tannen (a linguist) and John Krakauer (a mountaineer). Language, food, and the outdoors seemed like a sensible sequence.

Although most of the authors I assigned were contemporary, the majority of my students hadn’t heard of them. With Bourdain, that changed a bit through the years. Prior exposure to him grew due to his popularity on television and social media, though even this academic year, there were still only a handful of students in class who held a vague notion of who he was. Most in my composition course had not read anything by him. 

So I got to teach them. And what an honor that was.

Every time I taught Bourdain’s writing, I would start by having students share memories tied to food. We all have them, after all, and I wasn’t immune to sharing my own. I wanted them to feel the power of Bourdain’s overall message before we looked deeper at specifics.

Once we navigated that, I would then share photos of the author along with some television promo shots. I usually had a Parts Unknown clip cued up to play; my favorite was from one of his several trips to Vietnam.


In the video, Bourdain ate alone on a low plastic stool with scooters racing by. The colorful bowl he held in his hands steamed with something fresh, though even he admitted that he wasn’t quite sure what it was. He praised the merits of simple eating and adventurous living. His voice echoed through our classroom with the line, “This is the path to true happiness and wisdom.”

I never tired of seeing that video.

I also coined a fun phrase for students to help them dissect his writing techniques: “What Would Bourdain Do?” With “WWBD” on the board at the front of the room, students would work to uncover a variety of techniques that Bourdain displayed which they could reasonably apply to their own writing. Like learning to cook, they learned the essential ingredients of writing from Bourdain:


  • Create a compelling title. Make people want to read more.
  • Start strong. A crisp opening sentence with a singular main idea will do. 
  • Write honestly. Everyone has life experiences worth sharing.
  • Shock the reader. A well-placed emotional reaction is powerful.
  • Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability. Readers appreciate this.


Bourdain probably never intended his memoir to be a model for developing writers in a college class, but it was — and it still is. Hundreds and hundreds of my students have benefited over the years.

A particularly memorable portion of class was when we discussed the oyster section. Through several paragraphs, Bourdain describes the experience of eating a new food while on vacation with his family in the south of France. It was his first trip abroad, and he had just finished the fourth grade. Needless to assume, his palate wasn’t yet attuned to such a dish. He writes, “I had my first oyster. Now, this was a truly significant event. I remember it like I remember losing my virginity — and in many ways, more fondly.”

Typically, I would read this section aloud, seeing students squirm in their seats a bit by hearing it, letting the rawness and emotion reverberate through the room.

Of course, they laughed. I’m glad they did. Bourdain wrote humor well. I wanted them to see the power of that too.

My new class has reconvened for the academic year, but with Bourdain’s death, I haven’t been ready to teach his work. I don’t like talking about him in the past tense. Still, I realize that because of his death, he may be more accessible to students who have perhaps heard his name on social media or in news reports.


When I am ready to teach his work again, I could use an excerpt from Kitchen Confidential, A Cook’s Tour, Medium Raw, or even a transcript from Parts Unknown. Contextualizing it and having students read section A1 “Reading and writing critically” from A Writer’s Reference will prepare them for engaging with the selection. Then, in class, I can guide them through skills of active reading as we put into practice the specific techniques mentioned: previewing a text, annotating a text, conversing with a text, and asking the “So what?” question.


After all, “So what?” certainly sounds like a question Bourdain would ask.


There’s an allure to Bourdain’s writing, and I hope to be ready to share his work with students again soon. Until that time, I am grateful to the influence he had on students and on me.

Today's guest blogger is Audrey Wick, a full-time professor of English at Blinn College in Texas. There, she is a writing teacher who writes. Readers can connect with Audrey to learn more about her projects at or on Twitter and Instagram @WickWrites.


The start of the semester is an exhilarating—if not exhausting—time for college instructors. We juggle course prep, schedule changes, new policy implementation, technology updates, committee work, and much more before students ever appear in our classrooms on day one.

One unique challenge is adapting to a new course textbook when required. For new faculty as well as seasoned faculty, change can be stressful. Still, instructors are masters of adaptation. When it comes to Humanities instructors in particular, we’re at the forefront in many ways. After all, we routinely deal with style manual revisions, digital library updates, and technology changes. Like chameleons, we are adept at changing when our surroundings do.

New textbook implementation tests a Humanities instructor’s critical and speculative skills. It’s not always easy to overhaul instruction and curriculum once a new textbook is adopted, but it’s an empowering and important process to be in control of what we will teach students. Textbooks support teaching, so easing into a major change and keeping in mind the following tips can help ensure a smoother, more effective process of course building that is, ultimately, as exciting for the students as it is for us.  

1) Spend some quality time with the book. Explore it inquisitively, from the table of contents to the index. Consider the chapters. Weigh the importance given to certain sections. Consult ancillary material. Know what’s truly in the book before proceeding to plan a semester around it.

2) Lessen the amount of preparation by not starting from scratch. Whether it’s a former syllabus, an example provided by the publisher, or a template through a higher ed institution, using an existing model will minimize the challenging task of building something entirely from the ground up.

3) Think big picture; add details later. Consider course and program outcomes. Then, identify goals and choose readings/assignments based on what aligns to them. This will help streamline the process of week to week navigation for students.

4) Incorporate personal preference. It’s true: instructors are individuals, each with unique talents, expertise, and interests. So regardless of the text, focus on a few choice topics that are particularly exciting. Peppering those throughout the syllabus will help ensure that individual passion for the subject is sustained—because when instructors are passionate, their students are likely to be too!

5) Avoid trappings of stress. True, deadlines and minimum requirements must be met, though there may be ways to leave a little wiggle room in day-to-day or week-to-week handling of exact assignments, homework, and deadlines. In a first semester teaching with a new text, don’t be too hard on yourself to get everything perfectly aligned from day one. 

Change takes time, and just like it takes time for students to adapt to their learning materials, the same is true of instructors. Still, new opportunities are exciting. This year, my department has adopted a new handbook for use with our freshman writers, A Writer's Reference, 9th edition, by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers. While I don’t yet have all the answers for how to make the most of the text with my student population, the book is helping me find fresh ways to teach the concepts I love.

Today's guest blogger is Tiffany Mitchell, a Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.


Assessing multimodal compositions can often be challenging because the form and design vary so widely, whether because of the assignment parameters you establish or because of students’ stylistic choices. There are a few key categories by which most multimodal assignments can be assessed. Within each category, it can be helpful to work backwards by first considering what you envision students’ final projects should look like, then developing a rubric or list of expectations for the project. No matter your expectations, it’s important to remain flexible in assessing because creativity comes in many forms. Consider the following categories when developing assessment guidelines/rubrics for multimodal compositions:


Color choices

When assessing the color composition of a multimodal assignment, it’s best to consider how appropriate the color choices are for the topic as well as the project design. I jokingly tell students that if their color choices make their viewers jump back from shock or squint from blinding colors, then they should consider alternatives. However, even this has exceptions. Flexibility is especially important in this category; the same color choices can succeed or fail depending on topic and design differences. For instance, neon colors work really well for psychedelic or hallucinogenic related topics, but would not work well for human rights related topics. Directing students to use Adobe’s Color Wheel can help them make wiser color selections.


  • To assess color choices, consider if the colors are complementary or contrasting to one another. How well do the colors align with the topic and overall design? Do the colors work well together to express and evoke effective intended meaning for the project?


Spatial design/White space

Balanced spatial design can be crucial to the overall aesthetics of the multimodal project. Like résumés and other textual documents, multimodal creations need a good balance between text and whitespace--even if the background isn’t actually white. Showing students sample projects that have with good spatial design can help guide their whitespace considerations. As seen in the two sample assignments, balanced white space will vary from project to project, so stay flexible when assessing.


  • To assess spatial design, determine whether the project seems too crowded or if there’s a good balance throughout. Have they filled the available space with quality content or left gaps of blank space? Is there a good spatial balance between text and images/videos? Does the font properly fit the space?


Font options

The efficacy of multimodal assignments can be strongly affected by the font types students use. Similar to the color choices, the font choices should align with the topic as well as the overall design of the project. Students don’t always realize that the font they use can evoke different meanings and that it’s important to select the appropriate font; therefore, it’s important to stress to them that font choice matters. Assigning the students to read Purdue OWL’s Using Fonts with Purpose pages can help.


  • To assess, consider whether the font matches the topic of the multimodal project. Does the font align with the selected color scheme? Does it match the overall design of the project? Does it help evoke the intended meanings?


Images/Video/Audio Use

Images, video, and audio can be used in many different ways. These forms of media also come in all shapes, sizes, and types: artwork, memes, clipart, photographs, online and/or user-created audio or video, and even Creative Commons content. Assessing this category becomes more about what they used and where they used it in the text. It’s important to offer students specific directions on what types of media are allowed, how many of each may be used, and how they should cite these media sources. Whether or not the images fit with the content is also quite important, especially if the topic can be controversial, as seen in the magazine sample assignment. Again, remain flexible—possibly setting aside your personal perspectives if images fit the project.


  • To assess, determine if their projects used the images, video, and/or audio in the manners you stated they could. Then consider whether the media relates to and enhances the subject, color, and design.


Source Use and Citing

Hyperlinking, citations on a separate page, scrolling citations on a video, full citations in small font, in-sentence references: citing can happen in many ways in multimodal projects, so we have to be open to them all. Because students often forget that multimodal projects need citations too, assessing this part of the project is often more about did they cite than how they cited. It’s helpful to show students many ways to cite in their projects and to remind them that multimodal compositions need citations too--even for images, video, and audio sources.


  • To assess, determine if citations are present within the multimodal project in a manner acceptable to you.


These categories of assessment work best with multimodal projects that students create on their own, such as magazines, brochures, slide shows, infographics, etc. While some of these categories could apply to multimodal projects created in social media platforms, categories such as font, color, and spatial design are not adjustable in most social media. This is not an exhaustive list of assessment categories for multimodal assignments, but hopefully, this will get you started. And above all, stay flexible when assessing.




Magazine Sample (click to open)

Brochure Sample (click to open)

Today's guest blogger is Tiffany Mitchell a Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.


When assigning multimodal assignments, instructors may feel overwhelmed by all the options and choose to use simple templates that can limit students’ creativity. Alternatively, some instructors may offer too many format options and end up with a hodgepodge of assignments, rubrics/expectations, and file types that can confuse students. At different times, I've fallen into both categories, but I’ve learned that the most effective and engaging projects find middle ground between being limitless and being limited. The important thing is that the instructor is comfortable with what’s assigned and that students have fun and learn the skills and purposes behind these assignments.


Here are some ways to travel the multimodal middle ground…


1) Let them fly free but know where they’re flying. As with any assignment, students should have enough room for free expression but enough structure and guidance to keep them on task. Even with carefully crafted assignments, students can misinterpret instructions and go off the beaten path. The best way to establish middle ground for this is to do check-ins. Just like the writing process includes check-ins via drafting, revising, and redrafting, the multimodal process should have the same:

  • Discuss students’ multimodal plans before they begin designing.
  • Ensure that they understand the expectations and are working towards them.
  • Check-in with them at regular intervals throughout the project to make sure their work is still on task.
  • See if any design plans or outcomes have changed or if they need help with the technology they are using.

The goal of check-ins is to maintain a sense of what students’ multimodal creations will look like in their finished states, so that there are no bizarre, inappropriate, or completely off-track designs.


2) Encourage exploration but know how to help. We’re really good at teaching students how to critically think, read, and write because we’re really good at these things ourselves. The same should be true when teaching multimodal assignments.


For some instructors, knowing how to teach students the multimodal composition process is the most important aspect of the assignment. We know the process well, so we can always help with that. For other instructors, teaching the students how to use the technology for the assignments is on equal footing with teaching the multimodal composition process. When this is the case, it’s wise to keep at your disposal a cache of tech tools that you know how to use well.


In my classes, teaching the process and how to use the tech have always gone hand in hand. Encouraging students’ multimodal exploration has occasionally caused concern when students wanted to use technology that I was not familiar with. I was comfortable teaching the process, but I feared not being able to help with the tech. My concerns dissipated when students were quite comfortable with the tech they wanted to use, even if I wasn’t. Whichever approach an instructor takes with these assignments, we must remember that the ultimate goal is to teach the process, so the tech should bend to our wills and support what we do, not the other way around.


3) Simple is fine; boring is not. Simple formats can be amazing with proper ideas and guidance, but too often students see a simple format and think it also has to be boring.

Students frequently question the rhetorical value in doing an assignment that seemingly fits better in an art or graphic design class than an English class. Beginning with simple formats that offer a hybrid between text and graphics is an easy way to get students to see the rhetorical value in reformatting textual information into multimodal formats. To help them break out of the boring:

  • Ask them how they would rhetorically respond to what they’ve created.
  • Ask them what they’d like to see within that format’s parameters.
  • Ask them if it speaks to them, and if so, how?

If they think it’s boring, ask them how they think their audience would respond.

If they don’t respond well to what they’ve created, show them design features for color, font, borders, images, etc. Teach them how all of those things work together to make the whole thing amazing, then they’ll shift away from boring and towards spectacular.


4) Pre-select one or two genres to make management easier. As described above, a multimodal assignment with a single format could become boring without proper guidance but having too many options might overwhelm students. Multimodality can come in so many forms; an instructor might be inclined to let students pick any form of multimedia that fits the rhetorical situation. I was this instructor. At one point, I had to use four pages of expectations to cover all of the potential formats my students used. It became a muddled mess that was challenging to juggle.


I simplified by pre-selecting the genre(s) the students could use. By simplifying, I could:

  • Offer more detailed help
  • Develop clear expectations/rubrics
  • Engage with and assess and their final products better.

Selecting a genre for students but letting them decide their formats within that genre helps them consider the rhetorical choices they make, which reinforces the composing process.


5) Establish expectations/rubrics but be flexible. Regardless of the format options, students should always have clear expectations for the assignment. Having clear expectations does not, however, mean being inflexible. In fact, multimodality necessitates using flexible assessment for final drafts because there are so many components to consider: color and font choices, spatial design, length, content, images, audio, and video, among so many others.


How to assess these compositions is worthy of a much deeper discussion, which I will explore in my next blog post. Stay tuned for more to come. And in the meantime, comment below and let me know what you’ve learned about creating parameters for multimodal assignments.

Today's blogger is Jeff Ousborne, author of Writing Music: A Bedford Spotlight Reader.


All the essays in Writing Music model thoughtful and perceptive writing in a range of genres, from blog posts to scholarly articles. Students can read and adapt practical strategies for, say, moving from a general claim to a supporting example or using a paragraph to address an opposing point of view. That modeling process works at a deeper level, too: it means seeing writing not merely as an academic performance, but as a way of pursuing curiosity, answering questions, and correcting misunderstandings.


So how do we get students to identify with the curiosity and engagement of these writers? I have had success using a vintage technique: questioning. Every selection in the book lends itself to this approach (even the ancient excerpt from Aristotle). But let’s focus on a specific example.


Case Study

I’ve taught Will Wilkinson’s “Country Music, Openness to Experience, and the Psychology of Culture War” (page 105) several times now.  In a class comprised of many international students, but only a few dedicated fans of contemporary country, you’d think the topic would be a tough sell. But with a multimedia approach (I show music videos of the songs that Wilkinson discusses), students quickly apprehend the signals, symbols, and themes that he identifies in his argument.  The images also get students thinking about the writer’s wider claims: that a musical genre can mirror and express an ideology, and that a type of music can coordinate its fans as a community with shared values.


Several students were able to apply those insights to other genres, ideologies, and communities, which helped them place their own musical preferences in a broader context. For those students, one key to moving from Wilkinson’s text to their own writing was the low-tech process of asking the right questions about their topics. So in a class discussion, we essentially reverse engineered Wilkinson’s essay by identifying root questions that he attempts to answer. I put a few question prompts on the whiteboard; together, we worked through the answers. Here are just a few of them, with the brief explanations that Wilkinson’s essay provides:


  • What interests me about this topic?

While listening to a country song, the writer wonders whether its sentimentality is connected to the ideology of the genre, the psychology of country’s conservative fans, and the “stakes of the ‘culture wars.’” 

  • What do I know about this topic? What don’t I know, but want to discover?

What the writer knows: Contemporary music focuses on a limited number of subjects and themes; it seems to have a conservative ideology and represent a “side” in the “culture wars.”

What the writer doesn’t know, but tries to discover:  He does not know how, specifically, a preference for country music is related to cognition, personality types, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and social psychology.  

  • What are specific examples of this topic?

            The song that inspires the writer’s inquiry is “One Boy, One Girl” by Collin Raye:


In the original version of the essay, Wilkinson includes other examples, as well:

            “Small Town USA” by Justin Moore


                  “The Good Stuff” by Kenny Chesney

            These examples reinforce Wilkinson’s premise that country music has a worldview.

  • How is this topic misunderstood? What needs to be clarified?

Different views of country music reflect not differences in superficial “taste,” but more fundamental differences in psychology, ideology, and moral intuitions. Those with “high openness” personalities may find country music boring and nostalgic, but its fans understand that the genre celebrates traditions charged with transcendent meaning: “the  baseline emotional tone of a recognizably decent life.”

  • How has my attitude about this topic changed over time?

The writer comes to understand that country music works, in part, “to reinforce . . . the idea that life's most powerful, meaningful emotional experiences are precisely those to which conservative personalities living conventional lives are most likely to have access. And it functions as a device to coordinate members of conservative-minded communities    on the incomparable emotional weight of traditional milestone experiences.” That is, the writer moves from curiosity and intuition into a more precise, supportable, and debatable understanding of country music.  

 Again, these are just some of the questions that you can use (for more, see “Asking the Right Questions” section in this book’s “Preface for Students” (pages 2-6) or Critical Reading and Writing: A Bedford Spotlight Rhetoric (page 22)).


These questions encourage students to look for gaps, paradoxes, changes in attitudes over time, and other sources of tension and conflict. The question about specific examples also requires them to begin assembling specific evidence to support their claims. So after dismantling an essay from Writing Music by questioning it, ask your students to interrogate their own prospective topics in the same way. If they can come up with preliminary questions and speculative answers (or ideas for pursuing those answers), they have made significant progress in the writing process.

Today's guest blogger is Daniel Lambert, an educator, writer, editor, proofreader, and photographer. He teaches English courses at California State University, Los Angeles and East Los Angeles College as well as an online Literature course for Colorado Technical University. He was nominated for the Distinguished Faculty of the Year Award in 2017 from CTU and is the recipient of The Shakespeare Award for poetry from the City of Torrance, California."


“Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.”


This quotation is from Stephen King’s 1999 book, On Writing:  A Memoir of the Craft. I recommend On Writing to my composition students, despite the fact that it is written by a fiction writer. Throughout their educational and professional careers, my students will be called upon to write essays, memoranda, and reports: all examples of nonfiction writing. So, what can students learn from a fiction writer? What can writers like King teach us about writing nonfiction?


The answer is simple: “plenty.” Concepts such as process, structure, tone, style, and description are as important (if not more important) to fiction writers as they are to nonfiction writers. King covers these concepts (and more) in On Writing. Even better, he uses examples from his vast library of published novels. These novels are widely-available sources that students can use as examples when reading King’s book.


Have I ever assigned On Writing in a composition class? The answer is “not yet.” However, I often refer to King’s book in my lectures. In fact, King’s quotation from the beginning of this post appears at the beginning of my freshman composition syllabus. I routinely ask students on the first day of class to interpret this quote. Their answers vary, but they always lead us to a discussion of the importance of writing. New college students need to reflect on the everyday presence of writing as a communications tool: they already use writing to communicate on a daily basis before they set foot in my class.


King likens a writer’s skills – essentials like grammar and style – to the contents of a toolbox. By way of an analogy, he recalls as a boy accompanying his uncle to fix a broken screen. King’s uncle brought a giant of a toolbox with him to do the job. King asked why his uncle would lug such a heavy toolbox to complete a simple screen-mending: “It’s best to have your tools with you,” King’s uncle replied. “If you don’t, you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.” This is a useful analogy for composition instructors to ponder: one of our tasks as instructors is to provide our students with the tools they require to write college-level essays. 


On Writing is a breath of fresh air in a sea of writing manuals that students often struggle with. This book proves what King’s readers have known for years: the man is about much more than horror fiction. On Writing not only helped me hone my craft, but caused me to reflect upon the writing tools I share with my students.


Do you have any writers that have inspired you as you teach? Or any go-to writers or advice on writing you share with students?

Today's guest blogger is Tiffany Mitchell, a Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.


In May 2017, a colleague and I attended the Digital Media and Composition (DMAC) Institute at The Ohio State University: a weeklong workshop designed to help bring digital media tools and assignments into composition classes. Over the week, we had an intense crash course on multimodal projects that we could use in our classes. We learned about projects that people had recently completed in their classes and how well those projects worked, what kinks they encountered, and how to possibly resolve the kinks. We also completed our own projects. It was extremely informative and tons of work, but also a lot of fun.


The first project we completed at DMAC was an infographic. I'd always wanted to assign infographics, so I was quite excited at the prospect of this. I was less thrilled when the beginning of our infographic was purposely designed to be in analog form. We were asked to use arts and crafts supplies to first make an infographic by hand, then later make one digitally. We were offered all sorts of supplies: construction paper, markers, tape, colored pom poms, crayons, rolls of string, scissors, ribbon, etc. Making an infographic by hand seemed completely antithetical to an Institute with the word digital in its name. Initially, we laughed and rolled our eyes at the childlike assignment for a room of adults. As we worked, however, the value in the analog infographic took shape: it was designed to get us to slow down, cherish, and invest in the creation and design process. I hope to get my students to do the same and to help fellow colleagues and peers to see this, as well as to help them move into multimodality.


For our project, we chose to create an infographic that mirrored the purpose of creating the analog infographic in the first place: the multimodal composition process. In order to get students and apprehensive instructors to see that the multimodal process isn’t anything to fear or scoff at, we wanted them to see how the multimodal creation process mirrors the writing process. The writing process is like muscle memory for comp instructors. But for luddite-leaning instructors who are suddenly faced with becoming multimodal and teaching multimodality to students who might not always see the value in multimodality in a composition class, sometimes they all need to be reminded that the process is the same. If the instructors can see the similarities, then they can teach this new world to their students using a world (writing process) that they are very comfortable in. Slowing down the process helps with that. Looking back, I now realize the same doubtful reaction I had to the analog infographic project is the same reaction students often gave me when I told them we’d be using social media or other digital platforms to reconfigure their text-only arguments. They doubted the validity and purpose until the project was done, and then they realized it was and could be another form and medium for arguments.


So, we set out to design an analog infographic that demystified the multimodal composition process. We used terms that are common in the writing process to describe the multimodal process, such as brainstorm, research, edit, revise, etc. Feedback is so important to any type of composing process, so that term was centralized and linked to all other points of the process. We added related terms to each part of the process to help students and instructors understand what steps would be taken with each part. Creating this infographic in analog helped us create a map of what we wanted to do digitally. This would be similar to outlining for a text.



Shifting to the digital version of the infographic, we used Piktochart, but the Institute also showed us how to use Powerpoint and Canva to design digital infographics. Once we digitally recreated the infographic, we could see more options that we hadn’t considered in the analog mode. For instance, we could select images of shapes from templates rather than cutting them by hand, easily edit and revise any content, and even potentially add hyperlinks to the steps of the process. Slowing down the process and creating by hand forced us to appreciate the digital options and conveniences we have all the more.


All that I learned and experienced at DMAC translates into an infographic assignment for my students. Their infographic is designed to work with and accompany their researched argument essay. So, as they are forming their argumentative ideas from their research, they will also be forming the ideas for their infographics. In class, we will discuss how ideas, bits of data, images, tips of awareness, pie charts or bar graphs within their sources can all be turned into infographics for their arguments. I want them to slow down the multimodal composing process but also have it align and mirror the writing process. Just like they will plan, outline, and design their argumentative claims, they will also plan, outline, and design their multimodal infographics. Hopefully, they will see the value and beauty in creating in analog and digitally.

Tanya RodrigueToday’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodriguean assistant professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.


Over the past couple of decades, Writing Studies scholars have become increasingly interested in exploring aurality and promoting the teaching of writing with sound. The aural mode affords instructors the opportunity to teach writing and rhetoric, and more generally, strong communication abilities.


I recently orchestrated an in-class mini-project that alternates between sound analysis and sound writing. The project calls for students to engage in critical listening to identify sonic rhetorical strategies and their effects, then work to concretize and expand that knowledge with their own sound writing. By the end of the mini-project, students will have collaboratively produced a chart that identifies the potentialities of sonic rhetorical strategies, which can later be used as a reference for a high-stakes audio project. Also, they will have individually composed a low-stakes aural representation of a photograph, which is intended to teach them more about rhetoric, sonic rhetorical strategies, sound interaction, and the value of play and experimentation in audio composing.



The following activity has multiple steps: instructors may choose not to do all of them or assign some of the in-class work for homework. In its entirety, the mini-project requires approximately 4-6 hours of in-class time, depending on the class level and students’ previous knowledge, and two homework assignments. The activity, as it stands, assumes students will have already learned about the affordances and constraints of the aural mode and sonic rhetorical strategies as well as how to use basic editing techniques in Audacity, a free audio software program.



Step #1: Ask students to compose an alphabetic description of a personal photograph for homework, then bring the description to class. Explain the mini-project and its purpose. Supply them with a blank version of the below chart; the chart I’ve included here is for instructor reference and includes some of the rhetorical potentialities of the five sonic rhetorical strategies explained in Rodrigue et al’s “Navigating the Soundscape, Composing with Audio.”




Sound Effects

Sound Interaction


1. Establishes tone, atmosphere, and setting

2. Creates mood

3. Evokes emotion

4. Functions as a transition (that juxtaposes and bridges sound)

5. Situates something in a particular culture or moment in history

6. Evokes personal associations

7. Triggers collective cultural and generational memories

8. Captures and preserves personal memories

1. Evokes emotion (on its own or via stark contrast with another sound)

2. Brings awareness or demands attention

3. Allows time for audience to construct meaning, make connections, reflect, think, and ask questions

4. Provides structure (like paragraphs do in an alphabetic text)

5. Indicates shifts in time, location, or perspective

6.Signals change

1. Provides information about a scene

2. Serves as a cue reference

3. Assists in mood creation

4. Evokes emotion

5. Triggers memories

6. Denotes an idea

7. Functions as a symbol

8. Works as a transition

9. Provides coherence


1. Juxtaposes sound

2. Creates harmony among sounds

3. Creates emphasis

4. Constructs tone

5. Builds meaning

6. Provides cohesion

7. Creates an environment or denotes place, space, or location

8. Provides transitions between/among rhetorical strategies


1. Conveys emotions

2. Produces different effects based on vocal qualities (for example: vocal tension creates sarcasm; soft and breathy voice conveys intimacy; tense and unwavering voice elicits emotional detachment)

3. Establishes a person’s identity  

4. Builds a connection with the audience

5. Denotes a setting


Step #2: Divide students into groups and assign each group a sonic rhetorical strategy. Ask them to return to the reading on their assigned strategy (music, silence, sound effects, sound interaction, or voice) and begin filling in the chart, identifying the rhetorical effects discussed in the article.


Step #3: Voice Analysis and Voice in Sound Writing

  • Play excerpts of audio that work with voice in unique and interesting ways. I recommend using Erin Anderson’s “What Hadn’t Happened” and Love + Radio’s “A Girl of Ivory.” (These two examples prompt interesting discussion about voice mixing, voice merging, and giving voice to those who do not have one, and their rhetorical impacts). Facilitate a discussion about how voice functions rhetorically in each example, adding or clarifying the student-identified rhetorical potentialities of voice in the sonic rhetorical strategy chart.
  • Ask students to open up a new file in Audacity and begin composing the aural representation of their photograph with voice. Students can use their own or someone else’s voice. They can record using Audacity, a cell phone voice app (voice memo or TapeACall to record phone calls), or provided recorders. Alternately, they can rip audio from the Internet (click here for tutorials and resources). Remind them to be thoughtful about how they are rhetorically employing voice.
  • In a free-write or brief discussion, ask students to respond to the question: What did this step in the activity teach you about voice?


Step #4: Music Analysis and Music in Sound Writing

  • Play excerpts of audio that work with music in unique and interesting ways. Alternately, you might show them this brief video on the rhetorical nature of music. (Thank you to Kate Artz for introducing me to this resource.) Facilitate a discussion about how music functions rhetorically in each example, adding or clarifying the student-identified rhetorical potentialities of music in the sonic rhetorical strategy chart.
  • Ask students to incorporate music into their aural representation, using a song downloaded from Bensound or Adobe Music Loops & Beds. Remind students to be rhetorically thoughtful. Ask them to take notes responding to this question: How might the strategies function individually and together to help you achieve your rhetorical goals?
  • In a free-write or brief discussion, ask students to respond to this question: What did this step in the activity teach you about music and sound interaction?


Step #5: Sound Effects/Silence Analysis and Sound Effects/Silence in Sound Writing

  • Play excerpts of audio that work with sound effects or silence in interesting ways. I recommend using Danah Hashem’s A Week in March for sound effects and Kate Artz’s “The Conversation” for silence. Again, facilitate a discussion about how sound effects or silence functions rhetorically in the example, adding or clarifying the student-identified rhetorical potentialities of sound effects or silence in the sonic rhetorical strategy chart.
  • Ask your students to incorporate sound effects or silence into their aural representation, again reminding them to be thoughtful about the rhetorical effects they’d like to achieve with this strategy. Ask them to take notes responding to this question: How might the strategies function individually and collaboratively to help you achieve your rhetorical goals?
  • In a free-write or brief discussion, ask students to respond to the question: What did this step in the activity teach you about sound effects or silence and sound interaction?


Step #6:

  • At this point, students should have a complete aural representation of their photograph. Instruct them to save the Audacity file and export it as an mp3 file. Now, ask students to take up their aural representation and do something to alter its original form for a different or the same rhetorical purpose. Students may choose to add, edit, delete, or modify an asset, or remix the project or parts of it. In preparation for this step, I encourage instructors to facilitate Using Play to Teach Writing in efforts to teach students about the value of play in audio composing.
  • In a free-write or brief discussion, ask students to respond to the question: What did this step in the activity teach you about revision, play, and experimentation with sonic rhetorical strategies and audio in general?


Step #7: The final step in this mini-project is an alphabetic homework assignment that asks students to reflect on these questions: What did this activity teach you about the affordances and constraints of the aural mode, sonic rhetorical strategies, and rhetoric and writing in general terms? What kinds of insights, questions, or challenges emerged during our collaborative analysis of examples, mini-discussions, and/or the creation of your aural representation? After students submit the homework, I encourage teachers to facilitate a discussion about what students wrote in their reflections.

Today's guest bloggers is Eric Rawson, author of American Subcultures: A Bedford Spotlight Reader.


Rhetoric deals with matters of uncertainty and disagreement. In challenging our students to see their writing as a means of discovery as well as an articulation of ideas, we necessarily lead them into places of uncertainty. Their typical—and understandable—reaction when confronting strange territory is to seek safe ground, to fall back on familiar ways of framing arguments, such as the five-paragraph thought-killer. As writing instructors, we challenge our students to plunge into their confusion with the faith that they will find a path. Of course, we cannot sincerely pursue this course if we ourselves are unwilling to embrace a risk-taking model that welcomes uncertainty and doubt into our teaching practices.


Instructors are as prone to confusion as students, as I recently rediscovered as I worked on the American Subcultures topic reader. Particularly when our composition courses are organized around thematics, we often struggle to project our mastery of the material. Since we usually are not experts in American subcultures (or other comp-class thematics), we have to assimilate new material in a hurry. But teaching writing in the context of thematics outside our expertise can be a very good thing. It means that we experience some of the same confusion as our students do. Rather than present myself as an authority on American subcultures, I tell my classes on the first day that I’m not a sociologist, but that together we will explore the readings, discuss the issues, and respond in writing.


Embracing confusion has implications for assignment design. If we are to encourage our students to delve into material that requires thoughtful consideration—moving beyond the already clarified—then we do not want to overdetermine the writing tasks. We want to emphasize the point that for writing to lead to discovery and clarification, it must necessarily start from a place that is unknown and obscure.


  • Confusion and invention: Modelling the invention process is essential, leading students into confusion and showing them a way out again. One way is to solicit a random topic from the class so as to cast the instructor in the role of confused student, as the class “stepstones” through initial ideas, analyzing assumptions, making connections, developing a thesis and perhaps a points-to-make list. Modelling this process risks failure, but failure can be an important lesson. Admit it. Scrap the plan. Start again, having risked appearing foolish. Point out that confusion is a sign that we are asking novel questions. Worry if the students are never Use confusion as a way of generating creative questions worth writing about.
  • Confusion and drafting: Years ago, an Air Force pilot told me that he was trained that when confused about what to do in a damaged airplane, he should DO ANYTHING! Doing something means one can develop a course of action based on what happens next. The potter can’t begin to shape the pot without a lump of clay, and the writer cannot begin to shape an argument without a mess of prose to work with. Finding one’s way out of confusion requires action.
  • Confusion and revision: Early in the semester I show my students a clip from Henri Clouzots 1957 documentary “The Mystery of Picasso.” Using time-lapse photography, Clouzot compresses eight hours of Picasso at work into a few minutes. We watch a painting develop from its initial idea, passing through multiple revisions as the artist scrapes the canvas and begins again—and again— revisiting trouble spots, trying radically new approaches. At one point, Picasso stops the procedure and addresses the filmmaker: “This is bad. This is very, very bad.” Then he completes a masterpiece.


Having made the point that confusion brings rewards not only at the invention and drafting stages but also in the revision process, I turn the lesson to specific writing tasks, examining my own “time lapse”: the multiple drafts of a single introductory paragraph, for instance. It’s possible to oversell the work of close revision, with the unfortunate consequence of locking our time-pressured students in a dungeon of self-doubt. But if presented in a way that doesn’t demand prose at the level of a Nobel Laureate, imagining a reader’s confusion can guide the writer through the process of revision.


Ultimately, confusion generates creativity, exploration, discovery. Too much certainty drives all manner of things drab or dangerous, from depressing architecture to rigid politics. It’s boring. Confusion can be generative. Confusion leads to discovery; certainty rarely does. Certainty can set us in motion, but confusion can change our understanding of the world.


My first-year writing students and I both enjoy the topic of technology’s effects on language and communication, so I knew that I wanted to include this topic in my Bedford Spotlight Reader, Language Diversity and Academic Writing (LDAW, from here on). Unfortunately, what makes it a great topic for engaging students—constant change and up-to-the-minute currency—also makes it near impossible to do justice to in a textbook. I knew that any article about a specific technological change or language phenomenon was liable to be outdated before the book was even in print.


So I compromised: I included two articles—Tom Chatfield’s New Scientist column “OMG—It’s the Textual Revolution” and Naomi Baron’s Educational Leadership article “Are Digital Media Changing Language?”—that feel to me relatively timeless (to whatever degree that term can apply to the realm of technological change). They emphasize not specific technological developments so much as the general affordances and constraints of technology; they focus less on specific changes to language itself and more on general attitudes toward communication and change. In my experience, both articles serve as great jumping-off points for discussions that can pull in whatever tech or texting phenomenon is hot at the moment.


Right now, one of the most prominent players in the “language” of texting is emojis. Emojis are a particularly interesting phenomenon because they share many of the features of their alphanumeric textspeak predecessors while, at the same time, being decidedly more visual and less “language-like” (see McCulloch’s article linked below). They provide an excellent opportunity to reinforce general themes of language, such as the “in-group” nature of slang that Eble’s article introduces in LDAW Chapter 1, while also pushing us well beyond the basics of language change that are discussed in LDAW Chapter 3. (Even the word emoji itself is an interesting case of language evolution, as debates about its appropriate plural make clear.)

Interested in discussing the role of emojis in language and communication with your students? For the remainder of this post, I’ll offer a few emoji subtopics, with recommended readings, that I think can lead to fruitful discussion and writing.


Purposes of emoji use. The journal Computers in Human Behavior has published quite a few articles about emoji use in recent years. I find this journal’s articles great for first-year writing because they provide exposure to traditional academic research article structure but tend to be on the briefer side. I’ve taught one piece in particular, an analysis of common reasons for emoji use, in my own class alongside the Chatfield article in LDAW Chapter 3. The article emphasizes the meaning and conversational utility within emojis, making it a nice companion to Chatfield’s.


Miscommunication. Grouplens, a technology research lab at the University of Minnesota, has done some fascinating work on emoji-related miscommunication. As these researchers have found, different phones and operating systems often render the same emoji in quite different ways. For instance, a big grin with smiling eyes sent from a Google Nexus is received by an iPhone user as something more like a grimace. A quick, approachable summary of some of this research is on the Grouplens blog, and they’ve also posted a full scholarly research paper published by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.  


Emojis as a threat (or not) to language. As an “internet linguist,” Gretchen McCulloch researches recent developments in internet-influenced language. Her entire blog is worth a browse for articles that may interest your students. For an emoji discussion, I’m a fan of her article on The Toast titled “A Linguist Explains Emoji and What Language Death Actually Looks Like.” In it, McCulloch responds to the familiar worry that a recent technology trend is threatening the quality of writing (emojis being only the most recent culprit, of course, in a lineage of scapegoats that has included everything from text messaging abbreviations to inexpensive postal delivery and the decline of line engraving). McCulloch’s article makes an interesting companion to LDAW Chapter 3 readings like Robert MacNeil’s “English Belongs to Everybody”; students may hear echoes of MacNeil’s point that “experts who wish to ‘save’ the language may only discourage pleasure in it.” It also, with its discussion of “actual” language death, hearkens back to Romney’s Chapter 1 article about efforts to revive the Yurok language.


Have you found other emoji articles or resources? What other language and technology phenomena do you find interesting to discuss with students? I invite you to let me and the Bits community know in the comments.

Tanya RodrigueToday’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodrigue, an assistant professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.


I often take my three-year old son to a maker’s lounge at a nearby museum. He transforms popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, legos, paper cups, scraps of paper and whatever other materials available that day into his own creations. In his play, he makes things like spaceships and communication contraptions, which may or may not resemble a material object in the world.  My son learns through play: play in public places like the museum; play at his school, which operates from a play-based curriculum; and play at home with toys, cardboard boxes, costumes, and even flashlights.


Scholars have positioned play as optimal for learning: play fosters and invites problem-solving abilities, curiosity, exploration, discovery, inquiry, creativity, persistence, oral language, collaboration, intrinsic motivation, and strong engagement. While we know that play is a highly effective learning tool, it is often relegated to spaces where children learn. Positioned at the opposite end of the spectrum from “academic,” play is not often encouraged or integrated into classrooms in higher education. Yet, according to scholar Henry Jenkins, play—“the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving”—is one of the skills needed to be literate in the 21st century (Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture). Thus, as college instructors, teaching students how to “play” is now arguably part of our jobs.


In my pedagogy, I have recognized the value of play—both structured and unstructured, and material and intellectual play —as a means to learn about writing, rhetoric, and genre. One semi-structured material play activity I facilitate in my digital writing courses is the transformation of my class into a maker’s lounge. The purpose is four-fold: to motivate and nurture the 3-year old inside of my college students, evoking an excitement for learning and doing; to encourage creativity and innovation; and to position the writing process as a process of play, and writing itself as a play-based activity. I ultimately want my students to adopt the same mindset and approach they have and use in making something during this activity as they will when they compose a digital project.



Step #1: Bring in a plethora of materials students can use to build something such as legos, play-doh, string, tape, pens, paper.  Below is a picture of material I use. Spread the material out on a table.



Step #2: Tell students that they’ll be working with the material in three different ways. Then, one at a time, explain the steps. Set a five-minute timer for each step.

  1. Take some materials from the table and create something.
  2. Take two more pieces of material from the table and add it to your creation.
  3. Now, take the material you have and create something completely different.


Step #3: After students finish their creations, give them 10 minutes to respond to the following questions:

  1. How would you describe this experience?
  2. What did you create in each iteration of the activity, and in what ways did you work with the material to make these creations?
  3. How did it feel, both intellectually and emotionally, to add material to the creation in step 2 or to transform the material into something completely different in step 3?
  4. Why would I ask you to do this in a writing class?


Step #4: Ask students to share their responses with the class, and facilitate a large class discussion about the relationship between play and writing.



This activity yields a fun time, imaginative creations, and thoughtful reflections and realizations about writing and the writing process. Students’ creations have ranged from the simple—a bunny rabbit made with two pens and a paper plate later turned into a cat face—to the complex—a carousel with toy soldiers transformed into an elaborate military scene with a detailed storyline, complete with roles for each soldier. Students described the experience as “fun,” “creative,” “relaxing,” “engaging,” “silly,” “no-pressure,” and “simple.” Some students surprised themselves with what they made, either because they didn’t think they were creative and then recognized they were, or because an idea suddenly emerged, they claimed, out of “nowhere.” Other students talked about feeling uneasy about creating something or not knowing what they were doing while they were doing it, but eventually feeling excited about the finished product.


From this activity, my students exceeded my expectations, learning much about writing and the writing process. Some lessons they took away from the activity are:

  • the value of experimentation, play, revision, editing, and thinking “outside the box”
  • the realization that there are different ways to approach writing, and that constraints can yield creativity
  • the possibilities inherent in adding and transforming material, combining material (which some likened to modalities), and working within and against genre conventions and constraints
  • the recognition that there is no one “right way” to work with material when writing, and that it is possible to make “something” out of “nothing”

This activity can prepare students for a more structured activity in play with alphabetic or digital writing, and/or provide them with a frame of mind for approaching a composing task.


Photo by the author.

Kristin Ravel is pursuing her PhD in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research interests encompass multimodality, digital media studies, ethics in communication, and feminist theory.



As a cisgender instructor, I was always under an unchecked and unquestioned assumption that my courses were supportive to all LGBTQ+ students. I believed that standards of respect and responsibility I worked to prioritize in the classroom would take care of any situation.


I began to question my assumptions when a friend teaching an LGBTQ+ course asked me to recommend writing instructors in our program who were supportive of transgender and gender non-conforming students. I could name lots of instructors off the top of my head who were friendly, approachable, and understanding…but when I stopped to think about actual classroom practices and strategies tied to gender identity, I came up short for suggestions.


At that time, I was part of our WPA team as the English 101 course coordinator. I designed the standardized curriculum, trained new GTAs, and organized and ran the required instructor meetings. In my two years in that position, I couldn’t remember a single conversation, professional development project, or meeting that posed the question of how to support transgender and gender non-conforming students.


I don’t think I’m the only one in this position, and I’m hoping to make up for this neglect now by sharing some strategies for how I retooled my classroom practices.


  • Go out of your way to get educated about LGBTQ+ issues: Although there are a number of sources out there, I’ve found Sherry Zane’s article “Supporting Transgender Students in the Classroom” from Faculty Focus extremely useful for classroom practices. More generally speaking, it’s good to become familiar about issues surrounding the LGBTQ+ community. This could involve getting informed about gender identity yourself or asking what your college campus is doing to ensure there are gender-inclusive facilities, harassment policies, and proper healthcare and counseling available to students of all sexual orientations.


  • Model pronoun etiquette beginning on day one of class: On the first day of class, I tell students I go by she/her and include my pronouns on the syllabus. Additionally, I take a written poll that students turn in to me at the beginning of our first day (as opposed to reading students’ names off a roster). Here is the poll I used this semester:


  • Last name as it appears in university records:
  • Name you use:
  • Pronouns you use:
  • Major/minor/undecided?:
  • Please describe your access to and familiarity with technology (Smartphone? Laptop? Home computer? IPad? Access to Internet at home? Etc.)
  • Anything else you would like your instructor to know about you?


After the poll, students were asked to take turns sharing the name they use, their major, and something they are excited about this semester.

  • Find ways to support rather than draw attention to: It’s best to avoid the word “preferred” in front of pronoun. It’s just “pronoun” (see this video for more information and perspectives). Also, there is no need to force students to share their pronoun out loud in front of the class (see this article for more info). Some classes make the default pronoun “they” until everyone knows each other’s pronouns. In my class, I make it optional. Whatever you choose, it’s important to let students know you recognize their gender identities, but avoid outing.  In sum, pronouns don’t have to be a big deal, and we can make the situation better by treating them that way.
  • Make conversations about gender a part of your curriculum: One benefit writing courses have in allowing for the visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming students is that discussing language and how it transforms given social, political, economic, and cultural contexts is (often) already a part of the curriculum. Bringing in texts that discuss gender and the fluidity of gender may help further open these conversations.


For instance, I have found the short webtext “I Heart the Singular They” useful for talking about gender identity while allowing for productive conversations about multimodal rhetorical analysis. Students in my class have noted how the sweet, almost child-like nature of this text may help persuade those who are resistant to accepting singular “they” pronoun identities. Eventually, the discussion led to questions like: Who may be resistant to the singular they and why? Who oversees what we decide is a language rule? What issues or confusion may the singular “they” cause? How does the webtext work to resolve that?


After this discussion, students were asked to write an essay about “I Heart the Singular They” based on what they had learned about multimodal rhetorical analysis in Writer/Designer.


  • Be ready to make mistakes, but also be ready to keep learning: In no way am I perfect at supporting my transgender and gender non-conforming students. I have made and will continue to make mistakes—there is no doubt about this. But the difference, I have found is admitting those mistakes and finding ways to do better next time. Doing better next time, however, does not mean depending on the educational and emotional labor of the oppressed. There are plenty of books and online resources out there already. Rather than asking questions like “What can I do better?” directly, take the initiative to figure that out yourself (this goes back to point #1). Some of my favorite go-to resources are Black Girl Dangerous and Autostraddle. If you find them helpful too, it’s a good idea to throw some financial support their way so they can keep producing content.

I wanted to end by inviting others into this discussion: What are your favorite resources for supporting LGBTQ+ students? What about resources specifically for supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students? What do you do in your classes now or what do you hope to change?

Thanks to Bridget Kies, Kristin Prins, Ali Sperling, and Rachael Sullivan for all the help and conversations that made this post possible.

Tanya RodrigueToday’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodrigue, an assistant professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.


Instructors are currently tasked with the challenge of teaching students the 21st century literacies they need to live and work in the digital age. Engaging students with multimodal writing assignments is one way students can learn these literacies. Yet many instructors may be apprehensive about incorporating multimodal assignments into their curriculum: they may feel intimidated by technology, inadequate about their knowledge of media, or overwhelmed by the vast number of programs and platforms available to use for learning purposes. Even those who are comfortable working with technology may be unsure of how to incorporate it to best facilitate course learning goals or design thoughtful multimodal assignments.


In this blog post, I offer a reflective, recursive process that novice and experienced instructors can use to generate intellectual material needed to compose effective multimodal writing assignments. Follow the steps in the three stages below.


Stage #1 Preparing for Reflection

  1. Identify the course in which you’d like to incorporate a multimodal assignment and list the course learning goals.
  2. Decide the genre, digital tool, or digital platform you’d like to work with. The decision making process will vary among instructors. For example, an instructor who is new to teaching multimodal writing may choose a familiar genre like a podcast, while a more experienced teacher may choose an unfamiliar program with pedagogical potential like Storybird.
  3. Decide on the nature of the writing assignment (low-stakes or high-stakes). If you are a novice, I recommend a low-stakes assignment.


Stage #2: Identifying and Reflecting on Affordances

This process invites instructors to identify and reflect on three affordances—practical, conceptual, and pedagogical—of a genre, digital tool, or platform, and look at them in relation to one another at various points during Stage #2 and #3. Below I list definitions for each affordance and questions for instructors to ask themselves during this stage of the process. I recommend beginning with practical affordances, yet I encourage instructors to remain open to shifting between and among the affordance reflection questions as it seems appropriate. The more connections made, the more intellectual material yielded.

1. Practical affordances are the available functions, options, features, and capabilities of genres, digital tools, and/or digital platforms. For example, a practical affordance of a genre like a slide presentation is its ability to be transformed into a video, while a practical affordance of a digital tool may be its ability to change format and font color.

  • Questions for genre: What are the characteristics, constraints, purposes, obligatory and optional moves of the genre?
  • Questions for digital tools and platforms: What is the purpose and what options are available to achieve this purpose? What features distinguish this tool or platform from others? What are the constraints and how might they impact pedagogical and conceptual affordances?


2.Pedagogical affordances are available pedagogical practices or opportunities inherent in genres, digital tools, and or digital platforms. Some may be immediately apparent, such as the ability to teach audience awareness via a comment option, while others can be made visible when reflecting on the following:

  • Questions for genre, digital tools, and digital platforms: How might this help students achieve a course learning goal(s)? What are its constraints, and how might they influence what I can and cannot teach? How might I use it for its intended purpose and how might I transform it to more appropriately work for my needs?


3. Conceptual affordances are available cognitive moves students can make during the composing process that ultimately lead to discoveries or meaning making. The instructor must imagine how students may engage with the genre, digital tools, and/or digital platforms and the kind of thinking and invention that may occur as a result.

  • Questions: What course goals may directly or indirectly call for teaching students invention acts such as listening, interpreting, analyzing, identifying, imagining, assessing, deciding, reflecting, and making connections? What kinds of invention acts are valued in your discipline and in this class in particular? What do you want to teach your students about invention, invention strategies, and process, and their relationship to composing and working with technology?


Stage #3: Mining the Intellectual Material

The invention work of stage #3 requires taking up stage #2 responses and making connections between and among them in efforts to compose a multimodal assignment that works to achieve course learning goals. The process can be used multiple times; with each time, the pool of raw material grows and can be mined for additional multimodal assignment ideas.



Below is a concept map that charts out the intellectual material generated from engaging with this process for a first year writing course using the digital tool, Storify.



*This blog post was adapted from my recent article “An Epistemological Process for Multimodal Assignment Design” in Journal of Global Literacies, Technologies, and Emerging Pedagogies’ special issue on multimodality.*