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7 Posts authored by: Stuart Greene Expert

I have been teaching my students to think about academic writing and argument as a conversation, a metaphor which incorporates many of the characteristics I associate with civil discourse: empathy, listening, compassion, understanding, and reciprocity. But I wonder how adequate this metaphor is at a time like this – when children are separated from their families, birthright citizenship is threatened, and the essence of one’s identity can be erased with the stroke of a pen. A number of writers have lamented that the inability to have civil conversations may be a greater issue than the policies that challenge conceptions of national identity, democracy, and social justice. But what would a serious conversation in the current context look and sound like? What middle ground is there?


These are questions that have occurred to me long before the current moment. I am reminded of a discussion with my students about an Ethnic Studies class Latinx educators adopted in a Tucson public school. The class immersed Latinx students at the school in the study of history, annexation, colonization, and community activism. Class discussions fostered a sense of cultural pride, agency, and power. But the superintendent of schools in Tucson led a campaign to eliminate the class because he felt the subject matter engendered hate for America. My students didn’t follow the superintendent’s line of argument, so I asked what they would say to the superintendent.


One student offered that it wouldn’t be worth responding to someone who was so dismissive of the effort to teach students their history, instill pride, and motivate them to strengthen their communities. Others indicated a desire to engage in a conversation to better understand why the superintendent eliminated the class. I, too, wanted to pursue the reasons why an ethnic studies course felt so threatening. Perhaps there was some fundamental misunderstanding about the class and maybe there was some other way to look at the problem – a view from the middle – that would facilitate a conversation.


However, I also wonder about my role as a teacher of writing and rhetoric when a student does not see any middle ground in issues about identity, social justice, and democracy. Is it more meaningful to understand why some educators limit what is taught in schools or to find ways to support initiatives in education that are culturally sustaining?


For a moment, I want to think about NPR host Krista Tippett’s reflections on what our most difficult conversations entail. That we can have these conversations at all requires building relations rooted in trust. A good conversation is motivated by our own convictions, she explains, and includes raising good questions that reflect “genuine curiosity.” So how do we create the kinds of spaces that foster “good conversations?” And how do we find “middle ground,” as Tayari Jones asks in a recent article? Can we assume that this middle ground “represents a safe, neutral and civilized space?”


I can’t say that I have answers to the questions that Krista Tippett and Tayari Jones ask. My co-author, April Lidinsky, and I describe the metaphor of conversation at length in From Inquiry to Academic Writing and stress the idea of empathy in trying to understand arguments that differ from our own worldviews. We write that empathy is the ability to understand the perspectives that shape what people think, believe, and value. To express both empathy and respect for the positions of all people involved in the conversation, academic writers try to understand the conditions under which each opinion might be true and then to represent the strengths of that position accurately. We adopt a Rogerian approach to argument that grows out of the give-and-take of conversation between two people and the topic under discussion. In a writing, this conversation takes the form of anticipating readers’ counterarguments and using language that is both empathetic and respectful.


Developing empathy entails looking critically at how factors such as race, class, gender, faith, and sexuality inform the ways we see the world and exist in relationships to one. These factors point to the multiple forms of oppression that individuals experience everyday. Before we can empathize, we must understand how power operates and disenfranchises. As educators, we need to acknowledge with our students the nature of intersectionality and challenge normative and reductive views of identity. At a time when we live in segregated communities and our friends are scattered geographically and virtually, it’s important that students understand how abstract ideas about citizenship, power, and identity affect day-to-day experiences.


I am mindful of Jones’s argument that establishing common ground is complicated. This is especially the case when those we disagree with overlook or ignore how people are directly affected by “policies or cultural norms.” I think of my student who said he would not try to engage the superintendent. As a student of color, my student took the elimination of the ethnic studies class as a personal affront to black and brown people who have spent decades struggling for equity and justice. The superintendent was not just making an argument that seemed to invite a response; he was creating policies that change people’s lives.


What middle ground exists when a student recalls the time when ICE surrounded his house and took his father away? When children are separated from their families at the border? When elected officials challenge the very foundations of how to define citizenship and treat civil and human rights as negligible? My student hears that he does not matter in policies that center whiteness and nativism. I understand why he and others would walk away from a painful conversation.


As teachers of writing, we can and should create spaces for difficult conversations built on relationships, trust, and reciprocity. But sometimes it’s fine to let our students rage without having to reconcile their feelings of vulnerability and anger.



Photo Credit: Pilar Berguido on Flickr 02/09/05, via a CC BY 2.0 License



I continue to think about the ways I can use my rhetoric and writing class as a space where my students can develop the skills they need to be civically engaged and connect what they think and write to equity and social justice. I have never felt more of a sense of urgency than this past week, although Howard Zinn’s words remind me that the Supreme Court has never taken as its mission the need to “defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law in order to uphold justice.” His words also remind me that I can help to inspire students to translate what they know into action they can take as activists.


Can writing be a civic action? Linda Friedrich, Director of Research and Evaluation at the National Writing Project, offers a resounding “Yes!” And she goes on to identify six ways that writing fosters civic engagement:


  • Raising Awareness
  • Establishing Public Voices
  • Articulating Writers’ Concerns, Hopes, and Dreams
  • Advocating Civic Engagement or Action
  • Arguing a Position Based on Reasoning and Evidence
  • Mobilizing for Dialogue and Action


I would add that as teachers of writing we can provide spaces for critical reflection so that our students think about the values that influence decisions, policies, and actions, what they value, and to defend what they think is socially just. Second we can provide spaces for critical questioning about how justice plays out in their own lives. And third, as I have explained in a previous blog, students need to practice democracy in contexts that matter.


Of these core ideas for civic writing that I have briefly outlined, I think critical questioning has been overlooked in teaching civic writing. As April Lidinsky and I point out in our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing, critical questioning is closely tied to reflection: What do I think is important? What keeps me up at night? What am I curious about? What’s at stake? Formulating a critical question is also tied to identifying an issue, a fundamental tension between two ideas that on their own might seem viable. We promote the idea of helping students formulate issue-based questions by capturing the relational nature of the world before us.


So for example, one could argue that economic development might mean displacing people from the neighborhoods where they live. But such a decision exists in tension with the real world consequences of disrupting the very fabric of communities that individuals rely on for emotional, social, and economic well-being. So one could ask: how is it possible to develop a neighborhood or community in ways that make it economically sound while protecting the interests of people who live in that community? Asking a question guides inquiry, prompts students to think about an issue in complex ways that resist easy answers, requires deliberation, and can mobilize dialogue and action.


I am reminded of the need to listen to students when I ask them to tell me what matters to them. Although they have their own experiences and frames of reference that can limit how they see the world, my own frames can also prevent me from fully understanding the value of the questions they are asking. We can gain a great deal from seeing the world from perspectives that we may not readily adopt.


In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer recounts a time when her adviser in college asked her why she wanted to study Botany. She answered that she was curious about why two plants, purple asters and goldenrods, grew together. Her professor did not think this was a particularly good question because Kimmerer focused on the beauty of the purple and golden colors animating each other in a reciprocal relationship. For her professor, her attraction to the combination of colors was not very scientific. But what he overlooked and what Kimmerer eventually learned was that bees are also attracted to this color combination, causing both plants to receive more pollination from bees than if they grew separately. Thus, what seemed like Kimmerer’s unscientific observation could actually have been the basis of a hypothesis that she (and her adviser) could have tested. I take from her writings the need to listen to our students’ ways of seeing and naming the world. By listening, we can support their acts of critically questioning the world around them and affirm the values they embrace.


As you help your students formulate an issue-based question, you might have them follow this five-step process that April Lidinsky and I describe in our book:

  • Explain the topic (e.g., the causes or consequences of what interests you)
  • Detail the reasons why you are interested in the topic
  • Explain what is at issue – what is open to dispute for you and others interested in the issue
  • Describe for whom this issue might be significant or important
  • Formulate an issue-based question (acknowledge audience by writing down what readers may know about the issue, why they might be interested, and what you want them to think about or do)


An issue-based question should be specific enough to guide inquiry into what others have written and help students accomplish the following:

  • Clarify what students know about the issue and what they still need to know
  • Guide their inquiry with a clear focus, so that they can answer their question with a sense of purpose
  • Develop an argument, rather than simply collecting information by asking “how,” “why,” “should” or the “extent to which something is true or not”
  • Determine what resources students have, so that they can ask a question that they will be able answer with the resources available to them (i.e., the available research that can reasonably support their claims)


Through developing their own issue-based questions, hopefully students will bring their own unique values and viewpoints to their civic writing.


Image Credit: Purple Asters by Nicholas A. Tonelli, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

While canvassing my neighborhoods as a candidate for the local school board, I ended up discussing with a parent the difference between reading on a screen and reading a book. It’s reasonable to think about the differences at a time when young people and adults typically shift from one media environment to another about 27 times an hour. We skim for information, and are easily distracted by alerts and responses to a new email or Twitter post.


The urgency to integrate technology in classrooms has been motivated by what educators believe will most engage students, since they are already immersed in screen culture. I have heard others argue that access to technology will enable students to function as citizens. It is this idea of citizenship that matters to me because I think schools should help students use the knowledge they acquire as participants in their communities. I’d even say that I’d like school to foster in students a sense of how learning can be used in the service of the common good.


But I wonder if the allure of technology ignores some important questions about how media affects what and how students read? If researchers are correct, then youth are at best taking in bits of information without processing this information very deeply.


How students process information matters a great deal if we expect them to become citizens in a world where the very idea of “truth” has been challenged and where we need to work together with compassion, empathy, and understanding in order to create a safer world for everyone. It is important, as Maryanne Wolf acknowledges in Reader Come Home, that technologies not cause us to lose sight of the real-time relationships that demand our attention. It is important to humanize individuals who are different than we are in our efforts to make a difference in the world.


I worry that the adoption of technology often precedes deep consideration of what we want students to do and the kind of people we want them to be: citizens who are deeply invested in things that matter, who understand the value of taking on the perspectives and feelings of others, and develop a questioning habit of mind based on sustained inquiry.


I’d like to think technology can serve as a tool that fosters students’ ability to be empowered. But it is only a tool. Students also need to practice citizenship in supportive environments where students see that learning is an integral part of what it means to be human. As Martha Nussbaum reminds us, then, “It is . . . urgent right now to support curricular efforts aimed at producing citizens who can take charge of their reasoning . . . to explore and understand their own capacity for citizenship” (Cultivating Humanity, p. 301).


What kinds of curricular efforts are others making to create spaces for the kinds of reflection that authors as diverse as Maryanne Wolf, Martha Nussbaum, and Sherry Turkle call for? What are some ways to encourage our students to read deeply in order to develop a sufficient knowledge base to respond critically to what they are reading? How do others encourage students to read patiently, to resist binary thinking, and pass over into others’ experiences as empathetic readers who value complexity? How do we quiet students’ minds amid the avalanche of information that competes for their attention in what feel like increasingly brief moments of contemplation and stillness? These are pressing questions for me because democracy and citizenship require us all to have such moments of contemplation and stillness if we are to make responsible decisions.



Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1910184 by Wokandapix, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


I have been talking with my students about the integral role that writing plays in building community and practicing democracy. Our discussions have followed the mapping exercise I described in my last blog entry. They drew maps to shed light on the lack of access to goods, services, and educational opportunities – where literacy happens – in economically depressed communities. The spatial inequality represented in the maps they drew led to questions about policies that have affected the lack of equity we witnessed: how have policies affected the built environment that surrounds us and what actions can we take to mitigate the effects of poverty on children and families? How can what we write frame conversations that prompt residents, educators, and policymakers to engage with one another to create access to what children and families need?


Addressing these and other questions has opened up spaces to discuss the ways writing is about creating relationships and changing conversations from problems to possibilities. Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging has provided a useful frame through which to understand the importance of using writing – especially stories – to invite disparate groups to the table, so to speak, and engage with one another. For Block, writing serves as an invitation to strengthen the fabric of communities by creating a sense of belonging. Individual transformation is not the point as much as imagining collective responsibility, relatedness, and forward action. Moreover, building community is also about seeing assets in a community, including people. Thus community change is not simply about identifying deficiencies and problems that need to be solved.


Block’s ideas have challenged some of the ways April Lidinsky and I have written about writing as conversation and the strategies for entering a conversation of ideas: understanding what writers have written before, what they may have overlooked or ignored in addressing a problem, and using writing as a way to fill gaps. These are useful ways to think about writing and Block’s formulation simply broadens the metaphor:


If we want a change in culture . . . the work is to change the conversation – or more precisely, to have a conversation that we have not had before, one that has the power to create something new in the world. This insight forces us to question the value of our stories, the positions we take . . . and our way of being in the world. (p. 15)


In this light, conversation can be broadly conceived and includes all of the ways that we use image and text to communicate in meaningful ways to one another in the different public spaces we inhabit.


Block goes on to explain that some stories we tell ourselves can limit our imagination and the possibilities before us. For example, my students and I discussed the extent to which policymakers and educators often place blame on individuals and the deficits that characterize children and families living in poverty. We shift the conversation by asking questions about the causes of poverty and by identifying the assets in a community that can increase social capital and civic engagement. The shift in conversation is from one of problems and fear to one of possibility and restoration. Thus the stories we tell are those that give meaning to our lives and enable us to lift up our voices.


In our writing, my students and I have framed the conversation in ways that Block has inspired: what can we create together to foster inclusion, relatedness, and perhaps reconciliation? Moreover, how can we use all forms of rhetoric as an invitation to ensure all voices are heard in building community and in ways that allow community members to take ownership in creating something that really matters? What new stories can a community create together that can become part of the public debate regardless of the current political context? How can we heal the fragmentation of communities and incivility as active citizens?


The conversation we enter, then, is the step that my students and I agree makes an alternative future possible. And entering conversations is the step toward active citizenship in communities where we are accountable to one another.


Image Source: “7-Eleven” by Mr. Blue MauMau on Flickr 5/17/16 via Creative Commons 2.0 license


I have been talking with my students about the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School last month, and we have discussed and debated the rhetoric around the murder of 17 students and educators – how the media represented what occurred, especially the language used to describe the shooter and the students who survived. We could not ignore the vexing question of race. Black student protesters are cast as violent criminals – whether during the Youth March in Birmingham or lifting their voices against police violence in Black Lives Matter – while the white students have been called “actors” (by the most cynical), “victims” and even “heroes.”


In both cases, we have witnessed youth practicing democracy. The composition classroom can and should be a space where we equip students to have a voice, identify the sources of social problems as critical readers and writers, and enter into conversations. Although I think this assumption has motivated many teachers of writing for decades, others lament a civic education gap. Dahlia Lithwick’s point in a recent Slate Magazine article is that schools no longer focus on the arts, civics, and enrichment that once ensured education was rooted in the day-to-day lives of students and their families. However, she also calls attention to the kind of privilege the students at Stoneman Douglas High have experienced. They have access to a system-wide debate program, a forensics program, and an exceptional drama program. Educators there are committed to supporting speech and journalism programs as the means through which to promote student activism. She observes, “These kids aren’t prodigiously gifted. They’ve just had the gift of the kind of education we no longer value.”


The classroom should be a place where students can practice democracy. But it is not enough to argue that democratic values are as important as traditional academic priorities. We must also ask, what kind of democratic values? What political and ideological interests are embedded in or attached to varied conceptions of citizenship? Unfortunately, education reform and economic development have ignored these questions and the very skills and perspectives necessary for building a socially just world in which we want to live.


When my students and I talk about education in general and literacy specifically, it is with the understanding that learning and development cannot be considered apart from social environment. But how should we talk about literacy? Winn and Behizadeh, among others, are right to argue students need to have access to literacies – students’ own creative and cultural literate practices, academic literacy, and critical reading and writing skills. These are tools students need to navigate and transform the world around them, evidenced in the Stoneman Douglas students’ who are speaking out and helping to propel a movement. They have learned the language of power.


However, it is one thing for my students and me to discuss who has access to literacies that promote a questioning, critical frame of mind. It is another to step beyond classroom boundaries into the lives of others where my students can experience worlds quite different from their own – to see firsthand who has access to resources young people need to thrive and who does not.


Using Neuman and Celano’s study of four neighborhoods in Philadelphia as a model, we set out to map the key places and resources in the neighborhoods surrounding our campus. (April Lidinsky and I include an excerpt of their research article in the 4th edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing.) Neuman and Celano are particularly interested in the resources and potential disparities in print environments – the likelihood children will find access to books and other resources.


As my students and I begin to map the neighborhood surrounding our campus (an example of which is pictured above), we start to make a list of places where literacy occurs. This list, as it turns out, is limited to the coffee shop where we observe people having conversations and reading material on their computer screens. When we go into a 24-hour convenience store, we spot just a few magazines and the local newspaper, but cannot locate any books for adults or children. Next, we pass a bank where we see several people making transactions, and four slow fast food restaurants where customers look at their phones. No bus stop that might take people to their jobs. No full service grocery store. What do these limited resources tell us about what matters and for whom? It matters a great deal if you are a child who attends a public school just a ¼ mile away that will close at the end of the current school year. The loss of a school exacerbates the persistent inequality that affects mostly children and families of color who look to that school as a source of stability and social capital.


Walking gives us an opportunity to look critically at our environment, to question the decisions that determine who lives in the neighborhoods we observed, and to write about what makes a flourishing community. I want my students to reflect on what makes a neighborhood thrive, develop a critical habit of mind, and use their skills as speakers and writers to move people to action. I want them to see that all children, that everyone, should have the gift of an education that values their voice and equips them to practice democracy. And it can begin in the writing and rhetoric classroom when we honor our own students’ voices and cultivate the kind of citizenship exemplified by the Stoneman Douglas High students.



Student Literacy Map Courtesy of Sheila Roohan

File:MLK mugshot birmingham.jpg


I often discuss with students the rhetorical power of using both images and text to help readers understand the nature and stakes of a given problem, and to move readers to action. Civil rights activists have long understood this lesson, particularly Martin Luther King, Jr., whose “Letter from Birmingham Jail” underscored the importance of challenging unjust laws. These laws were designed to disenfranchise black people in their struggle for racial justice and the full rights of citizenship. It’s hard to forget the words that rang out from his cell: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” But equally hard to forget are the images of police using fire hoses and dogs to disperse youth marching peacefully at the Children’s March in Birmingham in 1963, images which moved JFK to promise passage of a Civil Rights Act.


To further understand the power of words and images, I invite readers to listen to a National Public Radio interview with photojournalist Matt Black, who describes his experiences traveling across the United States. Black captures images of poverty, now included in an exhibit called “The Geography of Poverty.” It is one thing for Black to speak about the abject poverty he has witnessed at a time when, he explains, many of our nation’s leaders have expressed their confidence about economic recovery, low unemployment rates, and tax cuts. It is quite another thing to view photographs of the lived reality of the people left behind.


In one of Black’s photographs, a black woman peers out from her kitchen. She stands next to a battered stove in a shack in the Mississippi Delta – an area which was the site of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s aggressive efforts to register black sharecroppers to vote in 1961. Sharecroppers risked their lives in order to have the right to vote and access to all of the opportunities citizenship affords.


The image of a black woman living in a tiny shack among rusted paint cans offers an arresting sense that a dream has been deferred. This image underscores the level of poverty that exists, even as the nation celebrates Dr. King’s dream and our leaders tout economic achievements. Black’s words add power to the image when he observes in the interview, “Many of the benefits of that era and of that movement went elsewhere.” And the images he has captured make his words all the more powerful in an argument that economic recovery is not evenly distributed.


In teaching writing, I want students to consider the types and forms of argumentation that might benefit from being presented visually. The power of an image inheres in its ability to make us aware of the gravity of an issue and convey its force, strength, and urgency. But how does a visual image contribute to arousing emotions in readers and motivate them to act?


An image of children may very well be an effective means of conveying a sense of urgency to readers about hunger in America, while using a map communicates different information. A map tells a story of where food insecurity exists, its prevalence, and perhaps how food insecurity correlates with other problems, including lack of employment opportunities and residential segregation among different racial and ethnic groups. With numerical data in the form of tables and graphs, students can create a powerful narrative, conveying a sense of immediacy, urgency, and importance.


I ask students to think about the following questions in developing a visual argument.

  • What is my purpose for including an image, such as a chart, map, graph, or photograph? What trends or patterns do I want to emphasize?
  • What story does the image help me tell?
  • How does this image complement or highlight my written argument?
  • How do I want readers to respond to this image(s)? What ideas and emotions do I want to evoke?
  • What sort of caption should I include to help readers understand the context and meaning of the image?


These are the kinds of questions that place rhetoric at the center of the students’ decisions about the best way to present their argument – if, and how, images can help them fulfill their goals as writers.


In From Inquiry to Academic Writing, April Lidinsky and I provide the following practice sequence as they read and then begin to compose their own essays.

  1. As a class or in small groups, discuss the strategies authors use to integrate image and text in the readings in this section.
    • When does using a map make sense? What about a photograph?
    • Are there instances when the authors might have combined strategies to fulfill their purpose as writers?
    • Are there some best practices you can come up with for telling stories that ensure readers understand the importance, immediacy, and urgency of an argument?
  1. Given your own purpose for writing, write down how you would follow the steps for integrating visual images in a written argument.
    • Identify your purpose. What is the story you want to tell?
    • Analyze your audience’s values and knowledge base to determine how they might react to different kinds of media.
    • Evaluate which kind of images will create a sense of importance, urgency, and immediacy.
    • Question the source of the data you want to use. Does the source of data tell us anything?
    • Integrate the text you have written and the image(s) you include. What conclusions can readers make from what you might include?


I encourage students to use their voices to share what they know. I want them to capture the humanity of people and places that matter, much in the way of Humans of New York.


Given the different models of writing instruction that appear in Bedford Bits, I wonder: what strategies do others encourage students to use to challenge persistent problems; writing strategies that move others to action?

I have been reflecting upon and writing about the ways that using photography (i.e., photovoice) and digital storytelling help open up spaces for students to develop a sense of agency and to be more civically engaged. So I was delighted to see that guest blogger Tanya Rodrigue contributed a piece on on multimodal assignments (See 3 Step for Creating a Multimodal Assignment). I appreciate the kinds of questions that she prompts instructors to ask in order to examine the different affordances of a given genre or digital tool. For example, “What is the purpose and what options are available to achieve [the writer’s] purpose? What features distinguish this tool or platform from others? What are the constraints and how might they impact pedagogical and conceptual affordances?” These are important questions that challenge us as teachers to consider the extent to which different tools foster democratic engagement, voice, and agency apart from the pedagogical context that encourages students to act on their convictions.


Here I am thinking about providing contexts for sharing power; creating spaces for critical conversations about inequality, racial struggle, and injustice; examining the sociopolitical contexts that stand in the way of change; or encouraging the intergenerational conversations that connect students to the communities we encourage them to be a part of. The work before us as educators entails examining the tensions, contradictions, and promises of educating youth for participation and leadership amid contexts that often demand compliance more than change.


My concerns about the contexts of teaching students to be more involved in their communities led me and my co-author, April Lidinsky, to include a number of readings in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing. These are readings that challenge students to reflect upon the kinds of tools we often take for granted in discussions about the conditions that foster change. Dana Radcliffe explains in “Dashed Hopes: Why Aren’t Social Media Delivering Democracy?” that media platforms alone cannot create a movement, Instead, it’s useful to think about the importance of defining what we mean by deliberative democracy. I would add that it is important to center our attention on developing relationships that humanize individuals in our efforts to make a difference in the world. We have included additional readings that also invite students to think about different media platforms and the ways they work to achieve a given writer’s goals (e.g., Dan Kennedy’s “Political Blogs,” John Dickerson’s “Don’t Fear Twitter” and Steve Grove’s “Youtube”).


I wonder what other teachers of writing are doing to create the kinds of contexts that will enable students to develop a sense of voice and agency, while also looking critically at the tools we encourage them to use as ways to create meaningful change. What kind of citizens are we trying to shape? What kinds of democratic values? What political and ideological interests are embedded in or attached to varied conceptions of citizenship?