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21 Posts authored by: Guest Blogger Expert
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.*

Today’s featured blogger is Andrew Hoffman, author of Monsters: A Bedford Spotlight Reader.

One of the clichés about today’s students is that they are visual learners. While that’s certainly not true for all of our students, many do seem glued to their screens – smartphones, tablets, or laptops. This orientation to visual learning can make it difficult when instructors such as myself want them to encounter monsters (the theme of my composition course and my book) in text-based materials.


Fortunately, with the use of Monsters as a textbook in the classroom, I can supplement the written word with video. Hollywood – as well as other international film capitals – has made hundreds, if not thousands, of horror and monster movies. In all likelihood, most students’ experiences with monsters have been significantly shaped by their encounters with them in movies, television programs, or even videogames. In my classroom, typically only a minority of students are readers of horror, science fiction, or mystery stories. I suspect this is true for most other instructors.


That’s why I like to bring video into my classroom. I teach in so-called “smart classrooms” that come equipped with computers and projection systems. The computers give me access to the Internet. That’s where the fun begins. I use YouTube clips, either trailers or scenes, to enhance the texts that are in Monsters, and also create new directions for exploration into the whole question of how monsters are present in our imaginations, our lives, our culture, our history, and in the larger world around us. I prepare for class ahead of time by going online to YouTube where I look for videos. I open up multiple Web pages to make them easily available for me during class time.


For example, if I want the class to discuss Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (a brief selection is in Chapter 1 of Monsters), I would likely use a trailer of the 1931 version starring Boris Karloff as the Creature.  This is the prototypical depiction, made popular with sequels, pop culture versions in television shows, commercials, and print ads, not to mention innumerable Halloween costume knock-offs. Then, I might show a scene from the 1994 version, starring Robert DeNiro as the Creature. This version was intended to be closer to Mary Shelley’s original story; students are often surprised to see that the Creature speaks – and speaks quite well at that.



I might then quote a passage from Shelley’s novel in which the Creature engages in sophisticated contemplations. Read, for example, from Shelley’s novel at Volume II, Chapter VIII, to show how the Creature speaks. (One witty student suggested that the Creature “sounds just like an English professor”!) This can open a door to a discussion about the nature of monsters than can speak versus those that do not. (Which are more frightening? Why?)  We then re-examine the question of what actually makes a monster a monster (and helps prepare students for a discussion of the human monster later in Monsters, Chapter 5).


I find that in the classroom, looking at different film adaptations of the same work can give rise to interesting discussions about author intent, audience (including how audience expectations change over time), and theme. The encounter with both text and video provides a useful opportunity to challenge students to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each medium in storytelling. The results are often rewarding: students are usually surprised to hear the Creature speak, and once they start thinking about the potential messages that lie within different portrayals of the Frankenstein story, they can come up with deeper, more probing analyses not only of the story but its connection to today’s world, and how we communicate messages. This can lead to broader discussions of today’s monsters, both fictional and real.      


Since new movies, television shows, videogames, and other forms of video-based entertainment seem to produce new conceptions of monsters at a staggering rate, I’ve decided that if I can’t beat them, I’ll join them. You should try it, too.