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51 Posts authored by: Susan Naomi Bernstein Expert

A recent discussion of the Writing Program Administrators listserv asks the questions,How many of us have asked students their voter registration status?” Respondents submitted practices based on their varying perspectives and teaching locations. Some respondents offer their students extra credit opportunities to register to vote. Others bring registration forms to class or show voter registration websites. Additional respondents believed that offering extra credit was coercive, while others stated that extra credit for registering to vote would not be equitably available to all students because of immigration status or status in the criminal justice system, and still others suggested alternative extra credit options, noting that voter education plays a vital role in rhetorical education.


Here is my experience. Many years ago, in the months leading up to a presidential primary, I brought to class a stack of voter registration forms procured from a table in the lobby of our classroom building. I presented the cards in what felt like a neutral, non-partisan manner, discussing the history of voting rights, the importance of voting no matter one’s political affiliation, and so on.


My students listened patiently. A few students politely pocketed the cards. But by far, the majority of students in the class said:


“Dr. Bernstein, I am not a US citizen.”


In that moment, I experienced a sense of humility that I have carried with me to this day. That moment is held with other sacred memories of voting-- and not voting: accompanying my mother into the voting booth as a preschooler and watching her flip the little levers of the old-fashioned voting machine; registering to vote for the first time at eighteen; voting for president for the first time absentee as a first-year college student far from home (and watching the debates for that election on television at night in the student union).


Yet the memory of my students, disenfranchised even as they paid taxes, troubles me still. As recently as 2016, some of us in the county where I was living-- myself and my colleagues included-- were denied the right to vote in the presidential primary because our voter registrations were misfiled as “independent,” rather than with a specific political party needed to vote in that state’s closed primary system. At the same time, in that same county, other citizens found themselves waiting to vote for many hours. The county government had drastically reduced the number of polling places. Poor communities of color were especially hard hit with the reduction of polling places.


All of these experiences have helped me to consider the necessity, and the difficulty, of addressing the intersections of political and rhetorical education in the classroom. Given the speed with which events cycle in and out of the news, my inclination is to return to my training in close reading gleaned from rhetorical history and comparative literature, and to share practices of textual explication with students. We first apply these practices to Civil Rights Movement readings, and texts that are densely packed, such as speeches by James Baldwin, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Then I invite students to apply those same practices of persuasion and analysis to their own writing.


Currently in my classes, students are nearing the completion of their first writing projects, a culmination of a series of assignments that have unfolded over the last six weeks. The process looks something like this:


Reading: Read not only for main idea and supporting evidence, but also at the sentence level and for word choice and repetition.


Writing: Write the body paragraphs first, and summarize the text, not only in terms of thesis and support, but again, for how the text is constructed, and the role of construction in effective persuasion of the reader.


Revising: Divide long paragraphs into shorter ones, and make sure that each new paragraph has an introductory and concluding sentence to help with transitions between them, adding additional citations from the text as needed for evidence.


Reframing: Add an introduction that dives directly into the main idea of your own essay. Offer a conclusion that presents the main idea as powerfully as possible, so that the reader is persuaded to accept, or at least to consider, the significance of the main idea.


These steps then become the grading criteria for the essay.


In fast-paced times, this work can feel slow, difficult, and painstaking. Yet the aim of this work is that students will learn not only to analyze dense material through reading and writing, but also that, through reading and writing, they will learn to explore the possibilities of imagining in challenging historical moments, with Baldwin or King and others a more hopeful and productive future.

Over the summer, I moved across the country, from the southwestern United States back to New York City, and from full-time lecturer back to work as a term adjunct. These changes have allowed me to pay close attention to new classroom situations, and the necessity of reexamining my approaches to teaching in order to fit ever-changing circumstances.


My work with charting such shifts began on the second day of class as I reconsidered an activity I had adopted a few years ago, the File Card Discussion: A Beginning-of-Semester Activity. Two years ago, I wrote about this activity because I appreciated its relevance for building classroom community, especially for students who appreciate alternatives to traditional class discussion.


In the File Card Discussion, students worked individually to come up with questions about the course syllabus. Those questions, written at the beginning of the second day of class, were submitted to me anonymously, and I spent the entire class period clarifying writing and reading assignments, due dates and extended deadlines, grading criteria, and other course policies. This activity was intended to familiarize students with the course syllabus and with the work of the course as described by the syllabus.


But on the first day of class where I am teaching this fall, in each of the locations where I am teaching, the synergy felt different. The first day was spent diving into the work of the course, engaging briefly with the syllabus, then moving into the first reading of the year. Students seemed eager to engage with one another, and with the work of the course. So on the second day of class, the File Card Discussion very quickly became Ask Me Anything.


For Ask Me Anything, I invited students to:


  • Form groups of 2-4 members.
  • Introduce themselves to each other.
  • Compose 4 or more questions as a group, attending to individual questions as well as to questions that the group shared.


The questions covered a much broader range of subjects than anything I had tried in recent years. Students asked not only the usual questions about the course, but also questions about the readings, and questions about my own schooling. They wanted to know about my favorite books and authors, and why I felt so strongly about writing. Students also were interested in my reasons for choosing James Baldwin’s “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” as our first reading. (See Why Is Writing So Hard? A Writing Assignment for Difficult Times)


Additionally, I added a culminating activity for the first week, Exit Tickets. In the last several minutes of class, Exit Tickets ask students to:


  • Reflect on the first week of college, including our writing course and other experiences, inside and outside the classroom.
  • Respond in writing to the question: What did you learn this week?


This activity has two goals. First, student often will be asked to make sense of complex ideas in a short amount of time. Exit Tickets provide students with an initial experience to process those ideas in writing. Second, I read the Exit Tickets carefully to see what themes emerge from the students’ brief writing, often no more than a sentence or a quick paragraph. From these themes, I will become better able to plan future course activities.


At the end of each class, students left Exit Tickets on the table, and I eagerly awaited the train ride home to consider and absorb their thoughts and concerns. From this early work, our classroom communities would begin the arduous journey of learning and growing together as writers.

This post is the third in a series on Memorable Reading. For the first post and second posts, see Memorable Reading, Part 1: Fiction, Poetry, and Drama and Memorable Reading, Part 2: History, Philosophy, and Psychology


It is August, and the minds of many of us are turning back to school and the need for creating new syllabi, retooling old ones, or learning how to teach the ones that we are required to use. As I began the process of course preparation, I thought back to the many texts in my education that stuck with me. Especially significant were texts I discovered in times of transition, between high school and college, post-college employment and my MA, the MA and the PhD. I remember the readings that kept me motivated through difficult moments, and the texts that opened my mind to new possibilities.


I wanted to know what still inspired other educators in and out of school, so I posted my question to my Facebook timeline and to several Facebook groups engaged with writing studies. The responses are listed in two separate blog posts. The first post covers fiction, poetry, and drama and the second post concentrates on philosophy, pedagogy, and non-fiction. Some responders listed more than one text across genre lines. In this case, I have grouped their responses with the first genre mentioned.


The purpose of these lists is to reflect on texts that has inspired the responders over time, rather than to fashion a new canonical mandate. For me, these inspirations, read in aggregate, are powerful reminders of how much good writing matters, and how, for many of us, good writing, carefully read, can help to shape the course of life and vocational choices.


My hope is that the lists offer memories of our own inspirations and, in doing so, allow us to make wise choices as we prepare our courses for the coming term.


Hive mind: What is one reading from your education that you still remember? That transformed you, perhaps? That sticks with you, even though it's been years? NOT something that you taught, but something that impacted you deeply as a student -- in or out of school?

WHY do you still remember it? What impression did it make on you? Why was it relevant to the rest of your life?

I'm considering compiling these readings in a blog post, so let me know if I can use your name, or if you would rather be anonymous.

Thanks in advance for all responses !


Brett M Griffiths In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens and 1955 by Alice Walker. Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, everything. I discovered them in the library on vacation around 3rd grade, bottom shelf, halfway back, poetry section at the Leland public library. Spent days each summer reading and memorizing and considering.


Bri DiBacco So many. But I keep going back to Lad Tobin's Writing Relationships. It continues to remind me that a sense of community is vital to good writing.


Caitlin Howell For grad school it was definitely The Rhetorical Stance by Wayne Booth. Something about how seemingly simple it was really struck me, and I do make it a point to cover the issues from that text in my teaching (and I teach it when I teach critical thinking courses). This article combined with various post-process theory research forms a large portion of my pedagogy.


Cara Minardi-Power Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary because it helped my understand some students' struggles as well as my own.


Charlene Cambridge Paolo Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed did everything it said that literacy should do. It confirmed everything I instinctively knew about the way I was educated. It allowed me to have compassion for myself and my teachers.


Christian Sisack Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary, which I read early in my graduate career. This incredible book gave voice to my views on the relationships between class and education and the lives that could be changed despite/because of that. As importantly, the book (and all of Rose's work) was and remains for me a model of absolutely beautiful and precise and human(e) prose.


Deborah SanchezI Won’t Learn from You” by Herb Kohl! His own experience of subconsciously not learning Yiddish in order to be in solidarity with his mother sticks with me.


Debra Berry Peter Elbow—every student has something to say and the ability to say it.


Jim Lee Errors and Expectations by Mina Shaughnessy taught me that there is no normal in teaching beginning writing. I must meet the students on their level and work with them toward proficiency.


Lee Einhorn Herbert Kohl's essay "I Won't Learn From You"—the reflections of a K-12 teacher coming to terms with the resistance he finds from his students and learning how to meet them at a place of empathy, mutual understanding, and progress; turned me into a teacher and a better human being before I knew what either meant.


Paul T. Corrigan Parker Palmer's To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey. It was recommended by a teacher during college. It really spoke to me at a time when I was deciding to be a teacher myself. I had a sense that I would spend my life trying to live out the vision of that book. I am rereading it now, more than a decade later, and it's interesting to see how the book feels now that I'm in a very different place.


Sandra Kolankiewicz “Just Walk on By”...Brent Staples. When I am in hostile environments or places where others might feel intimidated by me, such as the first day of class in a dev ed classroom, I whistle too.

This post is the second in a series on Memorable Reading. For the first post, see Memorable Reading, Part 1: Fiction, Poetry, and Drama.


It is August, and the minds of many of us are turning back to school and the need for creating new syllabi, retooling old ones, or learning how to teach the ones that we are required to use. As I began the process of course preparation, I thought back to the many texts in my education that stuck with me. Especially significant were texts I discovered in times of transition, between high school and college, post-college employment and my MA, the MA and the PhD. I remember the readings that kept me motivated through difficult moments, and the texts that opened my mind to new possibilities.


I wanted to know what still inspired other educators in and out of school, so I posted my question to my Facebook timeline and to several Facebook groups engaged with writing studies. The responses are listed in two separate blog posts. The first post covers fiction, poetry, and drama and the second post concentrates on philosophy, pedagogy, and non-fiction. Some responders listed more than one text across genre lines. In this case, I have grouped their responses with the first genre mentioned.


The purpose of these lists is to reflect on texts that has inspired the responders over time, rather than to fashion a new canonical mandate. For me, these inspirations, read in aggregate, are powerful reminders of how much good writing matters, and how, for many of us, good writing, carefully read, can help to shape the course of life and vocational choices.


My hope is that the lists offer memories of our own inspirations and, in doing so, allow us to make wise choices as we prepare our courses for the coming term.


Hive mind: What is one reading from your education that you still remember? That transformed you, perhaps? That sticks with you, even though it's been years? NOT something that you taught, but something that impacted you deeply as a student -- in or out of school?

WHY do you still remember it? What impression did it make on you? Why was it relevant to the rest of your life?

I'm considering compiling these readings in a blog post, so let me know if I can use your name, or if you would rather be anonymous.

Thanks in advance for all responses !


Aaron Kerley The Ethics of Ambiguity. It freed me from thinking being an individual as an intrinsically selfish pursuit.


Christina Fisanick Judith Butler's "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution" because it helped me understand how reality is social constructed AND that not only could I read thick cultural theory, but I could understand and teach it!


George Yatchisin Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” Still so pertinent.


Jeff Cook Ken Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything. He convinced me that seeing a work through multiple perspectives is better than trying to solve its riddle and find it’s ‘meaning.’  After Wilber, (which sounds like a Mister Ed biopic) I started asking those questions about all of my life. ‘What’s another way to see it?’ It got applied to dirty dishes, car crashes, and people who wear socks with sandals.


Joanna Howard I remember my grad school professor giving me a copy of an essay “I and Thou” in which Martin Buber discusses the difference between having a job and having a vocation—and while I can’t remember if it related to teaching, our discussion did, and I have thought of that conversation from time to time over the years.  The significance was that I was a grad student who wanted to be a community college instructor, a teacher, and this conversation and Buber’s piece validated my choice.


Let me add that theology classes in high school and my coursework in grad school often helped me reflect on what I was doing in my life, what did I want it to become, what did I want to do, which is why Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be Of Use” was (and is) a poem that I keep coming back to in moments when I feel I’ve lost direction. Buber and Piercy’s works are like rudders prodding me back to a considered direction. Buber reminds me to view my students as ”Thou” and not “It,” I have been my happiest and most successful with this perspective, and have gained the most as a fellow human being from it. (No pun intended.)


Lynn Reid As an undergrad When Abortion Was a Crime was transformative in my thinking about Roe v Wade. And a book called The Tattooed Soldier might be the one I most remember reading (and later teaching). Women of Sand and Myrrh, too. In grad school, Time to Know Them by Marilyn Sternglass.


Pf Lengel I and Thou, by Martin Buber. Buber, in collaboration with the beloved late Ken Morrison, opened a pathway between my mind and my heart, a path where life and relationships live in infinite Presence. I can't always find my way to that place, but it is my enduring vision and my most cherished aspiration.


Sophia Snyder A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. I read it my freshman year of college and it was my first introduction to the power of academic feminism. I was familiar with popular feminist political writing about the present day (this was 2003, in the midst of the heyday of the feminist blogosphere!) but I had never encountered the idea that we never finish re-writing history, and that *who* writes the history books and sees value in what historical documents is vitally important.


Steve Cormany Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Try not to complicate things. Live life in an elemental way. Be conscious of your place in the universe. It allows you to live your life carefully.


Susan Naomi For me it was “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus. As a student struggling to transition from high school to college, life often felt like rolling that rock up that mountain, only to see it tumbling away me at the peak and having to start all over again. Now, as I reread The Myth, I focus more on the moment of joy, on Camus's notion that: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Valorie Worthy Maslow’s Toward a Psychology of Being— self actualization and peak experiences!  

It is August, and the minds of many of us are turning back to school and the need for creating new syllabi, retooling old syllabi, or learning how to teach syllabi that we are required to use. As I begin the process of course preparation, I think back to the many texts in my education that stuck with me. Especially significant were texts I discovered in times of transition. I remember the readings that kept me motivated through difficult moments, and the texts that opened my mind to new possibilities.


I wanted to know what readings inspired other educators in and out of school, so I posted the question to my Facebook timeline and to several Facebook groups engaged with writing studies. The responses are listed in two separate blog posts. The first post covers fiction, poetry, and drama, and the second post (next week) concentrates on history, non-fiction, pedagogy, philosophy, psychology, and writing studies. Some responders listed more than one text across genre lines. In these cases, I listed their responses under the first genre mentioned.


The purpose of these lists is to reflect on texts that has inspired the responders over time, rather than to fashion a new canonical mandate. For me, these inspirations, read in aggregate, are powerful reminders of how much good writing matters, and how, for many of us, good writing, carefully read, can help to shape the course of life and vocational choices.


My hope is that the lists offer memories of our own inspirations and, in doing so, allow us to make wise choices as we prepare our courses for the coming term.


Hive mind: What is one reading from your education that you still remember? That transformed you, perhaps? That sticks with you, even though it's been years? NOT something that you taught, but something that impacted you deeply as a student -- in or out of school?

WHY do you still remember it? What impression did it make on you? Why was it relevant to the rest of your life?

I'm considering compiling these readings in a blog post, so let me know if I can use your name, or if you would rather be anonymous.

Thanks in advance for all responses ! 


Angela Rhoe Sonia Sanchez’s We A BaddDDD People, my introduction to the Black Arts Movement. This collection of poems about the power, beauty, and strength of black people blew my mind and helped me to unequivocally love myself and embrace my blackness. Life changing!!


Ann Etta Green  Not an essay, but the first book where I recognized myself in an educational setting was The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute. It set me on a path so when I found Calling Home, Janet Zandy’s collection of working

class women’s writing, Dorothy Allison, Sandra Cisneros, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker all clicked.  In terms of short stories, “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker. I attempted my first piece of feminist criticism on that story and failed. But a good failure.


For me as an undergraduate, I was deliberately seeking out female teachers and women writers because there was such a lack of them in my experience. I didn’t have a theory of why—I was just looking. And I was also looking for examples of people like me who didn’t know people in college, other first generation college students or working class writers, but I didn’t have that word yet.


Simultaneously, I was trying to “catch up” by taking canonical courses because somewhere along the way, I had the idea that I should prioritize canon, to know the canon but reject it.


Bill DeGenaro Early in undergrad: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Was awestruck by the world-building and convention-exploding. I grew up loving horror novels so at the time the chapter narrated by a dead body blew my mind. Years later, the whole book’s audacity sticks with me, the idea that breaking rules as a writer and provoking readers smartly can unleash so so much.


Cecilia Ready When I started college women were absolutely marginalized. But though I identified with male characters, I never lost my identity as a woman. Thus Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist had a huge impact on me. Naturally I fell in love with Stephen Daedalus, but his statement, “Non servium” resonated with my already rebellious nature. Of course, my rebellion consisted of refusing to follow traditional female career paths.


James Wermers I took a class as an undergrad in modern Catholic novelists, and much of what we read in that class has stuck with me. Mauriac’s Therese Desqueyroux, Greene’s End of the Affair, and Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop in particular challenged me, consoled me, pushed me, and forever changed me. As much as anything I have ever read, they taught me the complexity of faith, failure, love, and humanity.


Keith A. Waddle This quote from George Eliot's Middlemarch: "for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

My appreciation for that quote and the overall wisdom of that novel grows the older I get.


Lisa Blankenship Undergrad: Egalia’s Daughters by Gerd Brantenberg; Toni Morrison; Shakespeare. Grad: Rhetorical Listening, Kris Ratcliffe; Anticipating China, Hall and Ames. ED is a satire switching gender roles in a (would it be?) dystopian society; opened my eyes about sexism and one of my first intros to feminism. Morrison same about black terror and trauma in the US historical and ongoing. Shakespeare: used to read it and weep alone in my dorm room, feeling maybe less alone than ever. Rhetorical Listening helped me as a white woman be quiet and listen to women of color hopefully a bit more. Anticipating China: most powerful book on comparative rhetoric and philosophy I’ve ever read.


Natasha Murdock The Yellow Wallpaper” had a pretty profound influence on me. It taught me to recognize the way I was being stifled and abused by my marriage, to be honest. It was monumental in helping me regain a sense of myself as a writer as I was going through my divorce.


Paulette Stevenson The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (in HS). I was appalled at the treatment of animals and workers. I remember thinking how much these people were getting screwed over by others for just trying to live a better life in the US. I was 14, living in a small town in the Midwest, and the novel allowed me to experience oppression like I hadn’t seen before. Oh and I also became a vegetarian after reading it. Note: I haven’t read it since, so I’m not sure if it holds up to my take.

Ted Fristrom "The Distance of the Moon." I always wanted to be a musician, but I had this weird notion at the end of high school that being a writer might be acceptable as well. After reading Cosmicomics, I thought being Italo Calvino would be more than acceptable. Perhaps that's circular answer to the relevance question. Why would I want to emulate Calvino? I don't know. Who wouldn't want to be Calvino? I had a short attention span and liked things that were a little surreal; it seemed to break up the monotony of my childhood.

[This post originally published May 23, 2011.]


This time of year, thoughts often turn to summer book lists. The International Writing Centers Association discussion list includes a query and recommendations for summer reading. The University California at Berkeley publishes a summer reading list with archives dating back to 1985; while intended for incoming first-year students, teachers will find many titles here that invite participation in the three Rs of summer: reading, reflection, and renewal.


My own summer reading list overlaps with my summer writing, which includes the revision of  Teaching Developmental Writing: Background Readings for a fourth edition. As I revise, I want to consider more of the historical context out of which basic writing and open admission college education emerged for poor and working people in New York City and other urban locations. So my reading list includes Mina Shaughnessy’s essays and Manning Marable’s new book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.


As a child born and raised in the American Midwest who now lives in one of New York City’s five boroughs, I am intrigued by the journeys of other Midwesterners to New York. Mina Shaughnessy (1924–1978: Lead, South Dakota; Evanston, Illinois) and Malcolm X (1925–1965: Omaha, Nebraska; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Lansing, Michigan) both took this journey, although their roots were quite different. Shaughnessy studied theater at Northwestern University and acted in summer stock productions. Malcolm X dropped out of school after eighth grade, moved from Lansing to Boston, and became absorbed in reading and writing while incarcerated in a Massachusetts prison.


Because Manning Marable’s biography is a cultural history, I look forward to learning more about this earlier generation and the world into which I was born. Like my parents and many of my teachers in K–12 public schools, Mina Shaughnessy and Malcolm X grew up in the catastrophic years of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and came of age in the midst of the tumult of World War II in the 1940s.


In 1965, I was a small child living in a segregated suburban Chicago, and I do not remember Malcolm X’s was assassination in New York City. I first read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, cowritten with Alex Haley, several years after I finished my BA. My copy of the book was old, and the yellowed pages often fell out of the binding as I read. That first reading left me confused, intrigued, and hungry for more. Although it was never assigned in any of my classes in undergraduate or graduate school, I have many times since reread and taught the Autobiography.


Similarly, I did not learn about Mina Shaughnessy’s work until I began my MA program in English in the mid-1980s, not quite a decade after Shaughnessy’s death from cancer. Yet in becoming a writer and in teaching writing, I recognized the struggles and potential transformations described in Errors and Expectations, and in Shaughnessy’s essays, and I felt a strong attraction to basic writing and to urban open admissions education.

So my summer reading focuses on political, historical, and cultural contexts that helped shaped basic writing and urban open admissions programs for poor and work-class college students. With these plans, I look forward to a summer of passionate engagement with reading and writing—and perhaps a time or two at the beach.


What will you do for the three Rs of summer? What are your plans for reading, reflection, and renewal? Where do you hope your reading will take you? And what will you do once you get there?

Written with guest blogger Steve Cormany.


For this month’s post, I have asked my life partner, Steve Cormany, a writer and retired writing teacher, for an oral history of his first published piece of writing. His first publication was written under personally traumatic and historically tragic circumstances in 1970, one day after the Ohio National Guard killed four students at Kent State University, where Steve was a nineteen-year-old first-year college student.


In our home, as in many others, we are following the devastating developments at the US border with Mexico. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is arresting adults who are legally seeking asylum in the US. ICE has separated the adults from their children, and both children and their parents are incarcerated as they await immigration hearings. Steve and I wonder together what we can do, and what role writing might play.


In the course of our discussions, I invited Steve to tell me about what writing meant to him after the Kent State killings. We hoped that revisiting this event through writing would provide historical context for teachers and students to address current events, and the trauma invoked in our deeply embodied experiences.


To help Steve shape his response, I asked him to revisit the details of his writing process. My thought was that focusing on the writing would allow him to concentrate on providing concrete description. Similarly, in the classroom, I often suggest that students pay attention to specific detail as a means to develop their writing. I posed four questions that could be applicable to framing oral histories, or any assignment that invites students to consider a significant piece of their own writing.  


  1. What did you write and where and when did you write it?
  2. Who asked you to write it?
  3. Why did they ask?
  4. What were the results? How did you and your audience respond?


While the questions are simple, they allow writers to practice 5Ws + H, a basic journalistic process for evoking details which, by addressing kairos - or context and circumstances - also can serve to invoke ethos and emotion.


Here is Steve’s story.


On May 4th, 1970, the Ohio National Guard killed four students at Kent State University in northeast Ohio. The students were killed at a campus protest against the Vietnam War. As a first-year student at Kent State, I was an eyewitness to the killings, and the next evening, I was asked to write a brief newspaper column about what I had experienced.


I had come home from Kent because the campus was closed, and I was trying to talk with my friends at home about what had happened. All of us thought that the killings were legally and morally wrong. We were expressing our thoughts in response to a local television show. The reporters on the show also were against what the Ohio National Guard had done. However, viewers in the Cleveland area had called into the show to say that more of the students should have been shot because the students were troublemakers.


One of my friends who attended a nearby small liberal arts college invited me to a meeting of the college newspaper’s staff about the Kent State killings. My friend took me to the newspaper office where that evening, May 5th, 1970, I wrote a column for the next day’s campus newspaper.


I was excited to do this. It was to be a short piece, about 300 words, and it needed to be written by the deadline. It took me an hour to compose, while my friend, a reporter for the newspaper, was anxious for me to finish because he needed to drive both of us back home. Despite having to wait longer than he wished, my friend was pleased with the results and the column was published the following day, on May 6th.


It felt really good to publish this writing, even euphoric, because it was my dream to become a writer, and the column was on something that was very serious. I had tried to offer a detailed narrative of what I had experienced. People that I spoke with afterward liked what I had written because it addressed an important subject. They said that the column was very direct and didn’t mince words.


I felt gratified by this feedback, but I had written about an ongoing catastrophe. I felt conflicted about whether or not I did a fair job of describing what happened. It was difficult to recount the events because I was still in shock.


If the writing changed anything, it was inside the writer. It gave me some confidence in myself and confidence to write. Many years afterward, I earned a PhD in twentieth-century American literature, and I taught college classes in first-year writing and literature for twenty-five years. In the wake of my own horrific first-year experience, it is important for me to give back to others. That is why I agreed to tell this story, although it has not been easy.

Guest blogger Steve Cormany with life partner Susan Naomi Bernstein and their cat Destiny.

The late spring and early summer months are seasons of moving for many of us, and last month, my partner and I and our orange tabby cat Destiny left Arizona to return to Queens, New York. While uprooting from a familiar place and grounding roots in a new community may not be easy or seamless, such transitions offer challenges that can keep our minds sharp and resilient, even through difficult moments. The lessons I learn relocating across the country remind me of the hard work of moving into new classroom spaces, whether we experience these transitions as teachers or as students. 


Destiny, an orange tabby cat, looks out the window at a view of city apartment buildings from his new home in Queens, New York.


My reflection on transitions come from an experience that my partner and I could not anticipate in advance. The morning after we moved into our new home in Queens, we awakened to find Destiny panting in respiratory distress. It was 6 a.m. on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and we needed to find a vet who could diagnose and treat him. This process eventually became a daylong journey, and at its inception a positive outcome was not guaranteed. While the diagnosis was inconclusive, it seemed at the very least that Destiny was suffering from anxiety. Destiny had come to us as a stray early in our stay in Arizona five years before. The desert was the only home he had ever known, and he needed time to adjust to the decidedly unfamiliar space of a small city apartment. We would need to make major changes to our plans to care for Destiny’s immediate needs. 


Destiny’s transition from college-town house cat to apartment-dwelling city kitty especially teaches me to hit the ground running, to build new forms of participation into transitions, and to expect the unexpected. Even as these lessons have become common practice in my classrooms, relocating has caused me to try to reframe these lessons for a variety of settings.


  1. Hit the ground running: Create a plan to become involved with your community as soon as possible. Dive right into the curriculum on the first day of class, and offer an activity that represents a core value of the community that you hope to create with students. For example:
  • Try not to read the syllabus aloud or highlight only the key points of the syllabus (texts needed, major assignments, attendance policy, and so forth). Alternatively, you can invite students to study the syllabus together in pairs or small groups to prepare for a brief syllabus quiz on the second day.
  • Listen to a reading or watch a video together, then discuss it afterwards in small groups. Be sure to offer students a chance to ask questions and to write about what they have experienced.
  • Co-create an activity together. Brainstorm topics for a first writing assignment, or have students make lists of what they already know about writing and what goals they have for completing the course. Share the lists to find challenges and commonalities.


  1. Not everyone wants to participate immediately. Build alternative forms of participation into the transition. Offer a more inclusive curriculum through universal design that can help shy students and allow students with learning differences and differences in attention span and executive function to engage on an individualized level.
  • Try not to offer a “diagnostic” writing assignment. Students are not patients with symptoms that need prescribed treatments. Instead, present the first day essay as an opportunity for students to introduce themselves to you as writers. What values or experiences do students bring to their writing? What do students want you to know about how they learn, about what helps their learning and what may be a roadblock to learning?
  • Offer lots of opportunities for ungraded, directed free writing. Even as topics can be co-created in class, students gain a great deal from individualized practice without the pressure of formal evaluation.
  • Create a forum for students to ask anonymous questions about the first writing assignment, or about the course syllabus and classroom policies.


  1. Expect the unexpected. Try to approach this new transition without expectations for anything going as planned. Give yourself space as a teacher to deal with challenges that may arise at the beginning of the term. The internet may crash, or inclement weather may cause difficult commutes and late arrivals, but your classroom community can learn to adapt to unanticipated changes or delays.
  • Return to analog activities. Have students practice writing with paper and pen.
  • Draw or write salient points on the board, leaving a record of your activities.
  • Use pair shares or small groups to have students introduce themselves to each other and to the rest of the class.


This experience with our move and with Destiny’s adjustment reminds me not only of the hard work that our students do to adjust to new circumstances, but also the work that we must do as teachers to move from the imaginary classroom constructed in the syllabus to the reality of the desires and needs of the students with whom we share our new classroom community. We can learn a great deal from observing not only our students, but also ourselves. Even as Destiny continues to adjust to his new and unexpected circumstances day by day, we work toward transitioning to new space in our shared community that we hope will benefit all of us.

Before the beginning of the spring semester, as I planned our assignments for the course, I tried to imagine where we might be by the end of the semester. I thought of skills to be practiced and outcomes to be measured, and I also considered multiple means of fostering persistence and resilience through the processes and products of writing. Through these means, I returned to a genre I had used in the past, the graduation speech.


The end of the semester and the end of the school year can be a difficult time for many students in ways that they understandably may not be willing to share with us. They may struggle with intersecting issues of community and family, with food insecurity and racism, with the need to hold several jobs and to take a course overload to try to accelerate their education. In other words, the end of the year is a time when students need to keep most focused even as low energy levels may impede concentration.


What to do?


At the end of the semester, through the #redfored movement, public school teachers demonstrated against prolonged state defunding of K-12 education. The demonstrations began at the end of the last week of classes, impacting our community economically, politically, and emotionally. School defunding began during the recession of 2008, and accelerated over the ensuing nine years, or for half of the time that my traditional-aged first-year students had been alive.


In the early part of the recession, in the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama had been invited to give a graduation speech at our institution. The speech became controversial, as described in the links connected to the assignment, when some people suggested that the President had not yet accomplished enough to earn an honorary degree. President Obama decided to speak at graduation anyway and wove the controversy into his remarks that demonstrated an exemplary understanding of kairos, or the rhetorical circumstances of the situation.


Because this story held local interest for my students, I offered the speech as a reading to help understand the genre of the graduation speech. Also included was a website that listed fifteen themes and other suggestions for composing graduation speeches (see the link below).


But the main point of assigning the graduation speech as a final assignment was to give us an opportunity to imagine the future in a positive light. Students not only needed to write a speech, but also to envision themselves as graduating and being chosen to address their classmates. They had to consider the kairos that had produced such circumstances, and to focus on what it would mean to arrive at that historical marker in their own lives.


In the conclusion for their speech, one student wrote:

Take this speech as a lesson, pass it down to others, give them courage, and give them confidence. Tell them they can do it, those 4 little words mean a lot to people. Makes them push that much harder. Be the one to make the difference in someone’s college experience, and college career. That’s what I am here to do today, you guys don’t need this, you already made it. Give this to others and help them be better, you could be the difference maker.

Under the intense pressures that students endure in the culmination of their first year experiences, offering courage and confidence to others can be a significant gift not only to students’ sense of community, but also to students’ developing sense of themselves as writers. As this student suggests, that gift can make all the difference.


Take what you have learned and experiment with a different genre: a speech that you have been invited to deliver to your college graduating class

  • Revise the letter that you wrote to a younger audience as a speech for your class and audience members at your graduation
  • Include your reading from earlier writing projects as references
  • See this link for a list of 15 themes and suggestions for writing graduation speeches. Choose one of these themes for your graduation speech.
  • Look at former President Obama’s 2009 graduation speech at ASU-Tempe for another example. See these links for the transcript, the video, and the historical background of this speech.

    Music educators performing in the #redfored band at the Arizona state capitol in Phoenix on April 30, 2018. The writing on the drum says: “The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and his life for the welfare of others.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.       Photo by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Teaching basic writing involves imagining more accessible classrooms for students that account for hearing losses of all kinds. That is, the loss of audible sound, and the signs of loss or trauma that may be inaudible and invisible for us, but not necessarily for our students. What if the seemingly glazed look, the head on the desk, the fingers busily at work on phone screens do not signify boredom or disrespect?  What if we, as teachers, learned to read “inappropriate behaviors” as part of a system of cognitive dissonance, a frustration with the incongruity of home, school, and working lives? What would it mean to think of hearing loss as the absence of audible sound, and also as listening to loss as expressed through audible and inaudible actions of our students?


HEARING LOSS: Several years ago  I began to notice the benefits of universal design at conferences that I attended. For instance, I watched emotions unfold on the faces of the sign language interpreters at general sessions and discovered a dimension to language that I had not imagined before. At a meeting of the CCCC Committee on Disability Issues, I learned about CART and felt more relaxed reading the captions. I added closed captions to videos we watched in classes, as well as at home and in the office.


Then I noticed in class that the steady hum from the projector seemed to muffle sound in the classroom. Students’ voices grew softer. I wondered if the changes were issues with auditory processing, a difference that can be associated with depression. But rather than self-diagnose, I visited an audiologist who confirmed moderate hearing loss. Universal design and the consciousness around accessibility gleaned from Disability Studies helped to ease the way.  Indeed, this is the purpose of accessibility, to create inclusiveness, to transform the stigma of difference. In a more accessible world, seamless transition is precisely the point.


LISTENING TO LOSS: The writing process may involve dealing with emotional self-disclosures that students will rightfully not wish to reveal to teachers or classmates. This semester I am attempting to honor this wish while still offering students access to emotion through other means. In reading and writing about the works of Gloria Anzaldúa, James Baldwin, and Terry Tempest Williams, students can identify with the emotions of loss and resilience without having to write about such events in their own lives. At the same time, if students do make the choice to disclose their experiences, they are offered a resonant perspective for comparison and exploration.


In practice, writing about “difficult times” often appears as writing that needs more development, specific details, and extended analysis. After reading through a recent round of rough drafts, I composed a letter to students that offered suggestions for riding out the storm. Here is a key recommendation:

Be as specific as possible throughout the essay. Rather than saying “times are difficult,” mention specific events that SHOW your perspective on why times are difficult. Here are some examples (insert your own experience or opinion in place of these statements, and of course, as ever, only what you feel comfortable sharing):

    • Tornado drills and school lockdowns made me feel unsafe in the classroom.
    • The startling differences between the troubles of Oakland, California, and the fantastic beauty of the uncolonized nation of Wakanda, moved me to tears. Throughout the second half of Black Panther, I wept openly.
    • The #metoo movement helped me to better understand my own situation because so many people openly discussed pain that had once been silenced.


I invited students to consider my “English teacher” style as an example and not as a model, further suggesting that students explore their own styles of academic writing. In discovering how our style grows and changes over time and through particular genres, we also can gain access to hearing our own loss.


By hearing the losses of others, we bear compassionate witness to experience in the lives of students and colleagues, no matter how different those lives may seem from our own. In recognizing hearing loss, I gain new perspective on the lives I encounter, moving closer to softer voices, and learning along with students to be as specific as possible to carry the weight of difficult times.

This semester, students have been invited to engage with reading a whole nonfiction book from a choice of three twentieth-century texts: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, and Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge. I chose these three books because excerpts from them are frequently anthologized in first-year essay collections, and each text deals with a still-contemporary issue of relevance to my students: decolonial theory (Anzaldúa); racism (Baldwin); and climate change (Williams). Students could chose to work individually or in groups on a creative project that would merge in-school and out-of-school concerns.


The assignment for the creative projects is copied later in this post. The general invitation asks students to create a multimedia piece that is not necessarily digital, but that can be digitally documented, such as a handmade collage or mural that can be photographed, or spoken word lyrics that can be transcribed to a document and uploaded to our institution’s eportfolio system.


A creative project, according to the assignment, is essentially a rhetorical act that asks students to seize the circumstances of the moment (kairos) to persuade audiences to move toward action, or at the very least to pay attention to issues that have long been ignored and that continue to provoke dire consequences.


One example of a previous creative project that I shared with students (and previously on Bedford BitsA Single Story (audio file)) was a song based on Chiminanda Ngozi Adiche’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” The song riffs on the theme of Adiche’s talk, inviting listeners to consider the complexities of identity that resist stereotypes and that move beyond a “single story.” The three assigned books also address complexities of identity, and work rhetorically to persuade readers to consider everyday life as deeply embodied in its complications.


This semester, the introduction to the creative projects was preceded by a moment of silence for victims of gun violence. Our classes met the day after the walkout efforts initiated by the students in Parkland, Florida, to commemorate the first-month anniversary of gun violence and the murders of seventeen people at their high school. The walkout and activism surrounding the many recent occurrences of gun violence are examples of creative projects, as a student noted by drawing the class’s attention to a recent exhibit of murder victims’ shoes on the lawn of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.


At the end of this project, students will write an analytic essay that asks them to reflect on their processes of making their creative project and the insights gained from reading the book they selected. We are just at the beginning of this work. I hope to report back later in the semester.



Writing Project 2: CREATIVE PROJECT

For WP 2, you are asked to make a creative project based on the book you have chosen. The creative project contains two parts:


PART 1: Create a multimedia piece that shows your relationship with the book.

  • For the multimedia piece, you can create (alone or in collaboration with others in class):
    • photography, music, video, artwork, poetry, spoken word, podcast, interview, poster, collage, graphs, charts, experiments, blueprints, demonstration, performance, fiction, memoir, zines, graphic novels, service project, and so on.
  • The piece can relate to your major, to interests outside of your major, or to interests outside of school.
  • Post your piece on our eportfolio system. The original piece need NOT be digital, but make sure that you can make a digital record of your work to post online.


PART 2: Write an analysis that focuses on your relationship with the book, your process work for the multimedia piece, and your final multimedia product. Here are some questions to begin, but remember to go deeper as your work moves forward:


  • Your RELATIONSHIP with the book
    • What seems most significant?
    • What causes cognitive dissonance?
    • What connections did you find to 21st-century thought and action?
    • What points seemed confusing?
  • Your PROCESS work for the multimedia piece
    • How did you decide what to create?
    • What steps did you take?
    • What successes did you have?
    • What frustrations did you find?

  • Your final multimedia PRODUCT:
    • Does the multimedia piece truly reflect your relationship with the book?
    • If so why?
    • If not, why not? What would you change?


“Yet one must also recognize that morality is based on ideas and that all ideas are dangerous — dangerous because ideas can only lead to action and where the action leads no man can say.” Student-selected quote from “Stranger in the Village” by James Baldwin (Notes of a Native Son 1955).



The following activity is adapted from several journal entry assignments that students were invited to write as part of preparing to draft the first essay of our spring semester course, the second semester of Stretch. Many of the students spent the fall semester of Stretch reading and writing about Baldwin, and some had requested that we continue this work in the spring. Because several new students joined our cohort, we began the semester with new material from Baldwin, a refresher for students enrolled in the fall semester and an introduction for students new to the cohort in the spring semester. We began with the often-anthologized essay “Stranger in the Village,” then continued with “Letter to My Nephew,” which serves as a model for the first writing assignment in the course.



Our first writing project asks you to write a letter to a younger audience about a contemporary issue of significance to you and to future generations. An example of this genre is James Baldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew,” first published in The Progressive in 1962, and republished in 1963 as part of Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time.


James Baldwin uses this genre to introduce his main idea to his immediate audience (his nephew) and his wider audience (the general public and readers of The Progressive). After reading this letter, return to the first three paragraphs to observe how Baldwin creates an extended introduction.


  1. The first paragraph details Baldwin’s writing process and shows Baldwin’s relationship to his nephew and to his nephew’s father (who is Baldwin’s younger brother). Baldwin also introduces his main purpose for writing.
  2. The second paragraph describes Baldwin’s relationship to his brother.
  3. The third paragraph elaborates on Baldwin’s purpose for writing.


You can model your own opening paragraphs on this template:


First paragraph = direct connection to audience

  • Describe your writing process
  • Discuss your relationship to the audience
  • Introduce your purpose for writing


Second paragraph = background about why I am writing (choose from the following or add your own):

  • Events as you imagine them to be in the future
  • Current or recent events
  • Historic events that still hold relevance


Third paragraph = develop your specific purpose for writing:

  • To describe a specific problem faced in the current moment
  • To discuss a specific hope for the future
  • To create a specific plan for the future


The following is a student’s draft of a first paragraph, based on the model.


I have tried writing this letter and have evidently struggled to find the words to express the importance of words. It’s strange that something used in our daily lives could be so influential and important if used correctly. Words can either damage or heal and most importantly change the world. My hope is, dearest readers, that you never lose the fire in your soul. That you face the monsters under your beds with the utmost confidence and vaporize them with the power of your voice.


We workshopped this paragraph as a whole class, and discussed specific revisions:

  1. We pointed out the main idea of the paragraph (in bold), and suggested revising the paragraph to clearly present this main idea
  2. We were concerned that “dearest readers” was too broad an audience for the specific focus needed for this assignment.


Our suggestions here centered on finding a more concrete audience, even if that audience was imaginary for traditional-aged first-year students (grandson, grandniece, great-grandchild of my best friend, etc).


There is, I know, a vast amount of privilege that comes from making an imperfect rectangle on the first day of class. The chairs and the tables have to be moveable, not nailed down to the floor. We—the students and I—have to be situated in the same room, face-to-face. It helps that there is natural light streaming through windows that face the sky.


But having taught in windowless classrooms, in damp basements and old-fashioned science labs with sinks and immovable tables, I no longer take for granted any of these seemingly mundane details. Indeed, even our presence together in a face-to-face classroom seems an immense luxury.


The first week of class, the classroom computer and projector did not work, so we created a “slow” classroom dependent on analog technologies, including paper, handwriting, and the dry erase board. I invited students to write letters to me, first on what motivates them in their work, then on their expectations for the course. I answered questions about the course and about myself.


For me, one of the highlight of the week was an icebreaker that invited students to find three things that they shared in common. These three things needed to go beyond the mundane. For instance, the groups could not say that they were all students, all studying at the same university, and all enrolled in this writing class. After several minutes in groups of 2-4 students, the smaller groups were asked to join with another group, and to repeat the exercise, this time finding five common attributes among them.


I participated in this activity in a community diversity discussion group at our local public library. Unlike the library group, which included high school students and retirees, most of my students are the same age and are beginning their second semester on our university’s largest campus. But at the same time, similar to the diversity group, the students are diverse in ethnic, language, racial, and social class backgrounds. The similarities they found ranged from having dogs in their lives, having traveled out of the country, and liking to cook—especially grilled cheese sandwiches.


The icebreaker is an introduction to the idea of synthesis, finding commonalities beneath the surface of obvious differences. We live in a moment when synthesis is not much practiced in our lives outside the classroom. It seems as if we are in the midst of composing an ongoing comparison/contrast essay, focusing on what divides us, what separates us, what makes us deeply different and isolated from each other. In a sense, comparison/contrast is an easy approach because these differences seem obvious, on the surface, readily available.


The similarities are more difficult to find, but perhaps not as uncommon as we have been led to believe. The imperfect rectangle allowed us to slow down to find these connections. In the past in that classroom building, the students sat in rows, all pointed toward the teacher, the computer, and the screen as the centers of attention. Many students sat in the back row, and saw only the backs of their classmates as well. The imperfect rectangle shifted that center. Like Socratic dialogue in high school, a student remarked.  


The winter desert sunlight played on the tabletops. A new semester had begun.


Key words: #first day activity #icebreaker #first-year writing #synthesis #community

Today's guest blogger is Meghan Kelsey, who is completing the MFA program in poetry at Arizona State University. An experienced teacher and zine artist, she has just finished her first semester of teaching in ASU’s Stretch First-Year Writing Program.

 On beginning my first semester teaching Basic Writing, I created my syllabus by choosing a handful of essays from my textbook and created projects centered on text response and argumentative writing. It was flat and I could feel its depersonalizing effects during the first week of school; I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to really connect with my students because it felt too structured, not even close to approaching learning in a more viable, alive, and humanistic way.


When I got to know my students better, I learned quite a few of them were enrolled in the School of Business with a focus in Sustainability. They began making connections from some of the assigned readings like Gandhi’s On Moral and Economic Progress to conversations about how their own lives fit into the political and economic equation, and how sustainability was factored in. For most of my students, this was their first semester at the university, living in a dorm away from home; we also explored the social and cultural implications of this lifestyle during discussions.


Organically, my projects began to take shape and were re-written into the syllabus. The new accompanying readings were strange and different on purpose, taking after a Surrealist tradition I now know as Ostranenie, or defamiliarization. I gave them poems ranging from contemporary American to Italian Futurist, we looked at photo essays written by young adults from the suburbs of LA, and I made them participate in Autopilot, an activity in which writers deconstruct an automatic movement or thought of their day and become an active participant in changing that routine. My idea was that if I wanted students to arrest their current thought patterns and learned formulaic ways of writing, they needed to be exposed to unique and non-traditional texts and writing activities.


With this idea in mind, for the first writing project of the semester, I invited students to explore space using only primary research (see project description below). This was at first challenging for the students, as they seemed to be more comfortable using outside research to say something about the world instead of drawing on their own experiences. My hope for this project was that once students began seriously deconstructing the physical spaces they embodied in the university, they would become more adept at breaking open the vastly creative interior spaces that perhaps had been stifled or ignored. The French writer Robert Escarpit once said, “Place is an object under the assault of your imagination and little by little, it changes its form, without entirely dissolving, and reveals unknown dimensions.”


As a poet, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of space: cosmological space and its influence on our small world, architectural space and how it dictates our lives, the blank space in poems between words that represent caesuras of the unknown, the possibilities of what could exist on the page, ideograms, languages and their infinite combinations and connections.


Project One: Investigation of Space

What constitutes the memory of a place? Who decides what places hold specific meanings and uses? Often we drift through spaces unconscious of their meaning, purpose, and history. Your goal for this project is to help your audience see a public place differently from how they might otherwise through primary research only (evidence you gather on your own, rather than evidence gathered through books, research articles, or online sources.)  This analysis will offer the reader a cultural observation of a public space in or around ASU that will raise questions of social relevance. For this project, you will write a four page, double-spaced essay examining, by observation, your space. Your goal will be to develop effective primary research methods in order to study and closely examine your chosen space, take careful notes based on your own observations and analysis, and ultimately defend your personal interpretation of this space and its implicit or explicit arguments and values. You might ask:


  • What activities does this space encourage or discourage?
  • Who uses this space—why this group of people, and not another group?
  • What features of this space strike me; how do they make me feel?
  • Why is this space arranged or constructed in this way? What planning might have gone into this arrangement?
  • What are the historical influences of this place/area and how does that affect people today?


The students’ response was enlightening. They seemed to have liked writing from their own experience. They discovered something about themselves, their peers, or the university—both positive and negative. The project gave them the space to explore their own feelings and opinions about their daily lives which often can fall by the wayside with such a large educational institution serving as their backdrop.


The discussions around the 2018 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) convention in Kansas City, Missouri, are provocative and inspiring and offer substantial motivation for me to search my conscience on where I stand and why. Because of Missouri Senate Bill 43 and the NAACP Missouri Travel Advisory, CCCC caucuses and standing groups have announced plans to withdraw from face-to-face meetings in Missouri out of concerns for the safety of their membership, primarily people of color and other historically marginalized groups.


This post ends with a final writing project for the fall semester, a commentary on the call by James Baldwin and others for a boycott of Christmas 1963. I begin, however, with my reasons for boycotting the CCCC 2018 convention in Kansas City, Missouri. The more I researched the past and current histories of white supremacy and civil unrest in Missouri and the surrounding region (especially in my home state of Illinois), the more a boycott of the convention made sense.


The town of Ferguson, Missouri, is not unlike the town in Illinois where I lived until the age of seven. Both towns have shifted from majority white to majority black populations in the postindustrial years of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. My Illinois town, on the other side of the Mississippi River and far north of the Missouri border, was created after World War II. Private developers built a planned community to address a Chicago-area housing shortage. However, the developers decided that the new housing would not include black people, which at that time was legally permissible. From the late 1950s onward this plan changed so that Blacks were allowed in certain areas of the town, designated by the town city council members, one of whom was my grandfather. In the early 1960s, he was instrumental in adopting this idea of “planned integration.”


The town that was my early childhood home in Illinois is not unlike Ferguson in that years ago, it welcomed white people almost exclusively. Then, as industry and development moved elsewhere and gentrification increased in the cities, older suburban housing was left to deteriorate. The city of Chicago decided to implode its housing projects, without providing new housing equally available to displaced residents. This initiative was called The Plan for Transformation. Many of the houses in my Illinois town became part of Section 8 and the federal housing vouchers that followed. A divide grew in the town between the middle class white folks who remembered an idyllic past, and the newcomers who were often poor and often Black. The newcomers did not share in the nostalgia of the townies. How could they, when they were not allowed to participate in shaping the future of the town that they now called home?


My schools in that town were segregated. My classes, which included new and experimental programs for teaching reading and writing, were de facto for white children only. In that atmosphere, I learned how to read and write through alternative methods. Later, when my family moved to an older and more conservative school district (also segregated), I could overcompensate through reading and writing. Because of undiagnosed ADHD, I struggled in subjects that relied on rote memorization and small motor coordination. But I could write my way out of anything, a skill I acquired through white privilege.


Those years are long ago and far away. But as white adults raised in segregation, we may feel unable to act, and we may think that our boycott of CCCC in Kansas City, Missouri, will not have an impact on the problems of white supremacy in Missouri or elsewhere. If we attend CCCC, white privilege in hand, we will advance our careers and we will be able to talk to others in the field. That, we may believe, will have more lasting results than refusing to spend money in Missouri.


Nonetheless, it is significant to note that there is a precedent for boycotts in our profession, and that in two cases the boycotts were for causes that marked racial injustice. CCCC moved the 1993 conference out of Phoenix, Arizona, and NCTE in 2010 moved their conference out of Phoenix, Arizona—both in response to national boycott initiatives The two events that triggered these boycotts were Arizona’s refusal to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday holiday in 1993, and Arizona SB 1070, the 2010 anti-immigration bill, some of which was later declared unconstitutional.


I am boycotting CCCC because I need to take responsibility for my own actions that, unwittingly or not, contribute to white supremacy. I am using the word boycott because it was the word used by James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and countless others in times as troubled as our own. I am boycotting the convention because, for me, it is a matter of white privilege to assume that my presence as another nice white lady in Kansas City matters more than standing in solidarity with the caucuses and standing groups who choose not to compromise their safety by travelling to Missouri.


I also stand in solidarity with colleagues who are compelled by their employment situations to attend CCCC, regardless of the physical burdens and mental anguish attendance may incur. Matters of necessity and matters of conscience are deeply personal. As Adam Grant recently suggested in the New York Times, I also believe in the need to “make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective.” Over the years, CCCC has played a significant role in my professional development. I value CCCC as a venue for presenting new research and pedagogy, and for learning about Writing Studies projects that are taking place across the country.


It could be argued that many states are in the position of Missouri, and it also could be argued that not honoring a boycott allows us to bear witness to current conditions and to honor workers in Missouri, as well as the Executive Committee of CCCC who made the decision to keep the convention in Kansas City. I am not convinced by these arguments. Missouri’s ongoing issues with white supremacy and racism are evident, and provide a compelling case for the NAACP Travel Advisory and a boycott.


My perspective also is shaped by the difficult decision I needed to make shortly after the 2010 boycott of Arizona was called. I travelled to Phoenix to celebrate my father’s eightieth birthday. I bought my airline ticket before the boycott was announced, and I considered asking for a refund.


In that case, I was an individual travelling for family reasons, not part of a large group of people convening in that state to spend time and money for business and tourism. This reason is not an excuse, but a statement of our common dilemma. My decision to travel to Arizona was marked by frustration. Since 2010, I have learned a great deal more about the history of white supremacy, and the structural racism which may seem invisible, but in which so many of us participate everyday.


Indeed, my decision to travel to Arizona in 2010 informs my decision to boycott CCCC in Kansas City. My personal experiences of inconvenience and existential frustration cannot compare to the consequences of current and historical violence and oppression against people of color, which includes not only civil unrest in Ferguson and St. Louis and campus uprisings in Columbia, but also the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre in Illinois. The East St. Louis Massacre terrorized and devastated the lives of Black people on both the Illinois and Missouri sides of the Mississippi River. Blacks migrating from the south settled in heavily segregated East St. Louis because Missouri segregation laws limited available housing in neighboring St. Louis, and settled in Illinois suburb of East St. Louis. White workers felt threatened by job loss, and used this perceived threat to terrorize the black community in July 1917. As many as 100 black people died, perhaps more, while others escaped over a bridge to St. Louis, and after the bridge was closed, took to the waters of the Mississippi River separating the two states.


In attending CCCC, I would be choosing to travel on business to an event that brings in a substantial amount of money spent on site for food, lodging, and other expenses. This choice demonstrates to the business community in Missouri that I am comfortable to travel to and to do business with a state with a law that discriminates against marginalized groups in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations, and where violence toward communities of color is commonplace. If the business community earns less money than expected from CCCC in Kansas City, then perhaps attention will be paid.


That has proven to be the case in Arizona, and the results of the Arizona boycotts also matter in my decision. Although I did not live in Arizona at the time of either boycott, I moved here in 2013, and I have seen the difference that withholding business and tourist dollars can make. This difference was especially present in the veto in 2014 of a religious freedom bill. The governor vetoed that bill because another boycott was threatened. The previous boycotts had been financially difficult, and thus very sobering for Arizona’s economic interests. The threat of a new boycott was enough to convince the governor to veto the bill, and for no other religious freedom bills to be passed by the legislature, or signed into law by the current governor (as of 2017).


In 1963, when James Baldwin called for a boycott of Christmas, I was in Kindergarten and my family did not celebrate Christmas. But that did not exempt us from the benefits of white privilege. At home and at school, we did not discuss the murder of the four little girls in the church in Birmingham. Perhaps the community believed the murders were not an appropriate subject for young children. Indeed, when President Kennedy was assassinated a few months later, school was dismissed early and confusion left our community unable to address its shared sadness. This lack of attention to tragic consequences of terrorism shows the depth of what segregation does to all of us. We, as white people, are removed from an understanding of the situation and its relationships to the larger structures of power, and we are then unable to connect with the anger, pain, sadness, and helplessness evoked by such catastrophes.


So I will not see you at CCCC in 2018, dear readers. But like you I will keep teaching and writing and trying to make sense of a difficult world. With this in mind, here is the final writing project I will assign this term, based on James Baldwin’s call for a Christmas Boycott in 1963.


Writing Project 3: Presenting an Argument

For WP 3 you will need to read “Support Christmas Boycott,” an article by James Baldwin written with performing artists and writers Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Odetta Gordan, John O. Killens, and Louis Lomax. You also need to imagine that the readers for whom you write do NOT share your opinion. Your job in WP 3 is to respectfully invite readers to consider your opinion, and perhaps to persuade readers to change their minds. Choose one of the following prompts to focus your writing.

  1. In 2017, James Baldwin (who died in 1987) would have turned 93. Imagine that he is still alive and still writing strong—and that, as the 2017 holiday season approaches, he is considering republishing “Support Christmas Boycott.” In addition, imagine that Baldwin has written to you asking your advice on whether or not to post “Support Christmas Boycott” on social media. What advice would you give him? Why?
  2. Imagine that it is 1963. Write a response to Baldwin’s call for a boycott. Engage his most significant ideas. From this engagement, figure out your own position. Do you agree or disagree? Do you agree with some ideas but not others? Do you find contradictions? What would you do if you were an adult in 1963 faced with this decision?
  3. In 1963, James Unger, a Boston College student wrote “Santa Claus Boycott” for the Boston College newspaper In the Heights. Most significantly, Unger suggests that people have grown tired of reading about Civil Rights and that the situation will improve with time. It is better, Unger writes, not “to press too hard and too fast.“ 55 years have passed since the boycott proposal of 1963. Write a response to Unger from 55 years in the future, addressing how Unger’s predictions for the future actually turned out.
  4. Christmas 2017: Boycott—yes or no. Explain your response in detail.