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Animaker LogoIn my last post, I shared Lumen5, a site that allows you to make short videos by pairing free-to-use images with the text from a webpage or handout. Today, I’m sharing another simple, free tool that you can use to make short videos for the classroom. Edify Animaker offers a suite of tools to create “Animated Videos, Done Right!” The tool boasts an impressive collection of Fortune 500 clients, including Google, Adidas, GE, FedEx, Ebay, and Walmart.

How Animaker Works

Its website describes using Animaker as a straightforward process: “Click and Choose. Drag and Drop. Edit and Play. That's Animaker.” That overview is a bit of an oversimplification, but the process is relatively easy to master. There are two broad ways to go about creating your video: (1) begin with a template for a specific genre of video, or (2) create a video of your own from a blank project file.

If you choose the template option, Animaker asks you to “Click and Choose” one of ten different video templates:

  • Explainer Video
  • Facebook Video
  • Cartoon Video
  • Advertisement Video
  • YouTube Video
  • Birthday Video
  • Christmas Video Greeting
  • Video Presentation
  • Lyric Video
  • Instagram Video

The alternative option begins with the video equivalent to a blank page. After you “Click and Choose” one of these options, you move on to the “Drag and Drop” portion of the project. Regardless of the option you choose, you next can “Drag and Drop” assets into your video, picking from a variety of included characters, properties, and backgrounds. In addition to the included assets, you can upload your own images and sounds (within certain file size constraints) to use in your production.

Finally, you move on to the “Edit and Play” part of the process, adding transitions, setting how much time the assets spend onscreen, and choreographing the various parts of the video. You can preview the video as often as you'd like. When you are satisfied, you export the video. The free option of Animaker allows you to export to Facebook and YouTube. Once the export is complete, you’re ready to share the video with students.

An Example Video

To test Edify Animaker, I created the video below, which addresses the question, What Is the Grace Period in Your Technical Writing Class?

Most of the copy for the video came from course documents, such as the general explanation of the grace period on the course syllabus. The Animaker video did take a bit longer to create than the Lumen5 video, as Animaker's tools are more sophisticated. While Lumen5 videos were a simple combination of background images and overlaid text, Animaker videos include options for backgrounds, characters, properties and text. Each of the assets in an Animaker video can be manipulated for time on screen and beginning and ending transitions.

Constraints of Animaker

Most of the constraints of Animaker are clearly outlined on the Pricing Plans page, which compares four plans (Free, Personal, Startup, and Business). The free plan creates only two minute videos in SD quality. Additionally, the free plan limits users to only five exports per month. As a result, if you use the free version, you must be careful to edit and preview completely before you export to ensure that you do not run out of resources.

Educators can take advantage of the Premium pricing on the Edify-branded version of Animaker. The Premium plan costs $ 0.20 / month for students and $10/month for teachers (billed yearly). The Premium pricing model increases the maximum video length to 30 minutes, allowing for Full HD, HD, and SD quality videos. Further, the Premium plan increases the number of exports to 200 (from five on the free version).

As is typically the case with free plans, Animaker’s most basic plan offers only a limited collection of image and sound assets. This constraint can easily be overcome by uploading your own images and sounds to supplement the basic library. The Premium plan for educators includes the highest number of assets (identical to the Business Plan).

While the free version does not allow you to download the video, savvy users can export the video to Facebook or YouTube and then download from either site in order to create a personal backup or edit with another program (e.g., Camtasia). These downloaded versions will not be as flexible as the project files on the Animaker site.

As was the case with Lumen5, students with visual impairments will need a transcript of the text of the Animaker videos. The text in the video is not readable by a screen reader. That said, downloading the video from the intermediary site may be necessary to customize closed captions and transcripts. YouTube can automatically create captions from the audio soundtrack; however, it will not be able to convert text that appears on the screen alone for the visually impaired.

Final Thoughts on Animaker

The free version of Animaker allows users to create more sophisticated videos than Lumen5 does, including the ability to upload a voiceover recording. Naturally, I prefer to use the free version as long as I can. If I found myself needing additional resources from Animaker, the Premium Plan for educators seems like a reasonable upgrade, for only $10 a month.

Much like Lumen5, Animaker is also simple enough for students to use. I would not use Animaker as students’ very first video production tool; however, once students have created some basic videos using their smartphones or animated slideshow presentations, they would have the skills to step up to the additional features that Animaker offers.

I encourage you to take an hour or two to try out Edify Animaker this summer. You should find yourself able to make a relatively polished video that you can use in the classroom, even with the free version of the tool. Once you try Animaker, come back and tell me what you think. I would love to hear what you think about the features that it offers and how you might use the tool to create resources for your classes.

Today’s guest blogger is Kim Haimes-Korn, a Professor of English and Digital Writing at Kennesaw State University. Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning and critical digital literacies, and focuses on students’ powers to create their own knowledge through language and various “acts of composition.” She likes to have fun every day, return to nature when things get too crazy, and think deeply about way too many things. She loves teaching. It has helped her understand the value of amazing relationships and boundless creativity. You can reach Kim at or visit her website Acts of Composition.


My friend, Andrea Ellinor shared with me an idea she learned from the Artist’s Way (Cameron 20) – the idea of “filling the well.” Andrea was an early adopter of technologies and was always seeking out innovation.  She worked tirelessly, but every once-in-a-while, she would stop and say, “It’s time to fill the well.” She realized that innovation, energy, and creativity need new experiences and ideas to remain vital. For Andrea, filling the well was visiting new places, meeting new people and considering new ideas.  It was the process of “making the familiar strange” (a term from cultural anthropology) and   of letting go of the intensity of work for a while to allow the mind and body to rejuvenate and grow. 


This concept applies to us as teachers.  Some of us have the opportunity to leave the classroom for a while and have our summers to recover.  Others still teach but move at a slower pace during the summer.  Breaks are our time to heal and fill the well to refresh and keep our teaching creative, innovative, and moving ahead.  As we know, teaching is a full time job.  Even in our time off, we think about our students, assignments, and classes and continually work to develop our curriculum and pedagogies. Although much of our work happens in the classroom, it is these places between where we often make connections and generate new ideas. 



Summer Kim’s Ideas for Filling the Well

I have enjoyed the good fortune of taking a break during my summers.  Every year, I ceremoniously transition from School Year Kim to Summer Kim -- who has a different perspective and can live a less scheduled life for a while (a break for which I am very grateful).  I always prioritize fun and relaxation over breaks but also work to develop simple, mindful practices of creative productivity to fill the well.


Summertime . . .

A Time of Reflection – I take the time to look back on the previous year and consider how things worked in my classroom and in my professional life.  I look at student feedback, modify assignments, and try to figure out what was successful and unsuccessful.  Innovative teachers know that it is ok to fail and that it usually takes more than one run to figure out our assignments and curriculum.  We always have our lists of “shoulda dones” at the end of a class or semester.  We can use this time to recognize our moments of success and be open to change things that did not work.


A Time of Reading and Research – During the school year, I regularly curate articles and books that I want to read.  Summer is the perfect time to catch up and fill the well with new ideas.  This means reading for ourselves (personal reading, beach books, People magazine – gasp!) and reading to enrich our professional and teaching lives. I go back to my archived bookmarks and read and annotate articles in leisure when my mind is not cluttered with school-year content. I talk to friends and colleagues to generate recommendations and stack reading around the house  (journals, articles, books, textbooks) to read in small bits. I actively extend my knowledge in areas I hope to pursue or deepen. 


A Time for Technology – The thought of learning new technologies during the school year is a nightmare.  We are all too familiar with the dread of our LMS switching vendors, online certifications or trying to keep up with the changing pace of technological developments. Online classes and tutorials help us keep up with our students and learn how users create and respond to new technologies.  This work involves learning new software, analyzing audience trends, and studying cultural shifts in technology use. 


A Time to Integrate Multimodal Assignments I can’t leave this post without talking about multimodal assignments.  Now more than ever, our students need these content creation skills to fully participate in both personal and professional conversations.  We can rethink traditional assignments and integrate multimodal components into our curriculum. We can design new digital assignments, clarify instructions, find new resources, curate examples, scaffold steps, and imagine instruments for assessment, evaluation, and feedback.


A Time to Connect and Brainstorm I try to get together with people I have missed during the busy school year.    My most creative ideas come out of open-ended brainstorming and sharing with friends and colleagues.  One of my colleagues and I even arrange a scholar weekend (we try to do one every quarter) to just talk, think, share, and work – uninterrupted. Our talk is always a lively tapestry of personal, professional, and intellectual conversation – and laughing. These collaborative communities keep us connected and engaged.


A Time to Clear Out: Operation 50% – It is hard to fill the well when it is full with other things. You can’t bring in the new until you let go of things that are no longer useful or weighing you down.      Every summer I launch Operation 50% - in which I attempt to get rid of 50% of my stuff.  I start small because it is overwhelming but I visit spaces like my kitchen junk drawer, my pantry, or my bookshelves and try get rid of half of the contents. The method applies to cleaning up my teaching materials to get ready for the next semester.  I clean out file cabinets and organize data for my research.  I reorganize my online classes and resources, eliminate duplicate files, fix broken links, and replace dated resources that are no longer relevant and I work on improving usability on my sites. I rarely reach my 50% goal but it keeps me moving and helps me break the overwhelming maintenance into achievable goals.


Ultimately, our breaks remind us to live in the now. We all need to stop every now and again, practice mindfulness and actively “fill our wells.”  Teaching is an all-encompassing job that demands our rapt attention most of the time. Our passion for what we do drives us and provides boundless creativity and meaningful service to others. We draw energy from student relationships and embrace our responsibility to engage and enlighten. It is our challenge to make our breaks productive and peaceful and develop ongoing habits of mindfulness that take us through the school year.  I have learned these practices throughout the years and they have helped me remain a strong teacher and afforded me the energy and desire to love my teaching life. 


Last week I wrote a bit about the plenary talk I had the honor of delivering at this year’s RSA meeting, brilliantly arranged by incoming President Kirt Wilson with assistance from Christa Olson, Roxanne Mountford, and Bill Keith. Their efforts—along with those of many others who helped out—paid off big time with a program packed with exciting speakers and panels. As always, I learned a lot from attending, and it was especially fun to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the organization and to look back to 1968, the year of its founding, and trace the accomplishments of RSA over the decades.


And talk about an embarrassment of riches: I didn’t get to see 10% or even 5% of the panels I would have liked to attend since there were probably a dozen at every time slot that I knew I would be interested in. But here I will mention a few that I particularly learned from. “Teaching and Writing about Demagoguery in Dangerous Times” featured talks by Jennifer Mercieca, Michael Steudeman, and Paul Elliott Johnson: I took copious notes on how teachers of writing could help students build “rhetorical citizenship,” on how to deal with “asymmetric polarization,” and on how to focus on explaining rather than arguing, especially in tense or potentially agonistic settings.


In a session on “Reinventing Rhetoric through Undergraduate Research,” Jenn Fishman, Jane Greer, Sean Patrick O’Rourke, Trish Roberts-Miller, Dominic DelliCarini, and Jack Selzer inspired me with their descriptions of the kinds of research projects undergraduates are carrying out at their schools. Refusing to accept the view of college and college writing classes as “preparation” for something that comes later, these scholars view colleges as a “site of practice” where students are doing research that can help to shape disciplines and disciplinary knowledge. I felt very pleased to know that Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric shares this view of student research and to see that it is spreading across the country. Far from the old “research paper” that I did in college, or the kind of assignments that ask students to use a pre-chosen set of sources as a basis for research (perhaps as a way to combat plagiarism?), the assignments this panel discussed were far-ranging, sophisticated, and often carried out in the field.


Brad Lucas, Scott Mitchell, Jess Boykin, and Valerie Gallagher and Keon Pettiway presented “Remembering and Remediating the Civil Rights Movement,” which was especially poignant given this 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Especially intriguing was Gallagher and Pettiway’s description of North Carolina State University’s Virtual MLK Project, which immerses attendees in the sounds and sights of part of the Civil Rights Movement, including a recreation of King’s “Fill up the Jails” speech in Durham, NC, of which no known audio recording exists. Hearing about this project, and the amazing opportunities it offers to students at NCSU and elsewhere, made me want to get down to Raleigh as soon as possible to take it in.


In “Looking Forward in Latinx Rhetorics,” Jaime Mejia, Sonia Arellano, Ana Milena Ribero, and Ruben Casas held me spellbound as they talked about the challenges facing Latinxs attempting to “assimilate” into the academy; about “tactile rhetoric” and its instantiation in the Migrant Quilt Project, based in Tucson and memorializing migrant deaths; about how “undocumented” youth are using rhetorical strategies in their resistance and resilience; about how MigraZoom—a project that began in 2013 and distributed Kodak cameras to migrants and asked them to photograph their journeys—captured the everyday, sometimes mundane but almost always beautiful landscapes, people, animals, and other quotidian objects captured on film. All of these talks challenged those of us in the audience to re-think or re-imagine the ways we use technology in our teaching and learning.


I could go on and on, about the two-day seminar on Diversity and Rhetorical Traditions sponsored by the American Society for the History of Rhetoric, about the panels celebrating 50 years of RSA history and featuring many luminaries of our field, about queer identities and queer worldmaking, and so much more, so much more. For those who weren’t able to attend the conference, I hope this post gives you some idea of the riches available there as well as some names and topics to find out more about. As always, I came away wanting to share insights and to bring them to bear on writing program curricula and pedagogy.


I can be critical of Aristotle sometimes, but I do think he was right in arguing that learning is among the greatest joys of life. So thanks to RSA for reminding me of that fact!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2316268 by Broesis, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

I have been writing about ways to build grammar awareness through reading activities.  I began with an exploratory look at threshold concepts for grammar in the composition classroom. I also addressed activities that encourage students to notice grammatical features in target texts. In the last post, I discussed applying a principle of contrast to texts so that students can construct and refine grammatical hypotheses.


Another strategy that can be applied to texts involves the creation of grammatical frames to illustrate critical grammar points. Consider the following example, taken from an editorial by Steven Pinker:


If electronic media were hazardous to intelligence, the quality of science would be plummeting. Yet discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying.


The first of these two sentences is a counterfactual (also called unreal) condition, which follows a standard format: If + subject + past tense verb, subject + would + base form of the verb. The next sentence introduces the real or factual counterpart to the conditional; as a contrast, this sentence is introduced with “yet.” In combination, these sentences illustrate a useful grammatical pattern for argumentation, a pattern that students can employ for themselves. Provide students with a simple frame, and then invite them to play with the language in the context of their own ideas:


            If _________ were _______________, (then) _______ would _________.  But (yet) ______________________. 


            If ______________________ (verb in past), _______________ (use “would”) __________.  But (yet) __________________.


Next, students could predict what the following sentence might logically contain. In this case, the next sentence could be a result clause beginning with “so” or “therefore.” Or the writer might choose to provide additional facts as a contrast to the conditional, as Pinker actually does (note his use of the words “other” and “likewise”):


Other activities in the life of the mind, like philosophy, history and cultural criticism, are likewise flourishing, as anyone who has lost a morning of work to the Web site Arts & Letters Daily can attest.


Patterns and frames can also be used to help multilingual writers and English language learners build lexical knowledge. One of the most challenging aspects of English language acquisition is verb complementation: whether a verb can be followed by a noun, prepositional phrase, gerund, infinitive, noun clause, or adjective – or some combination of these—is lexically determined. In other words, the individual verb determines what grammatical structures follow it. Vocabulary development for academic writing involves a growing awareness of which verbs occur in which patterns.  Reading exercises can foster this lexical awareness. Consider the following sentence from Pinker’s essay:


Search engines lower our intelligence, encouraging us to skim on the surface of knowledge rather than dive to its depths.


“Encourage” is one of several verbs which can be followed (among other patterns) by a noun or pronoun and an infinitive: encourage someone to do something. Students can begin to build a repertoire of verbs that follow this pattern, looking for additional examples in class readings (urge someone to do something, expect someone to do something, etc.). But instructors can also point out verbs students will not find in this pattern, such as “recommend” or “suggest.” 


Whether the frames are invoked to illustrate a grammatical construct such as a conditional or a lexically-determined complement, invite students to play with language in the frames in low-stakes activities.  


This use of frames or patterns is similar to the approach of Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in They Say, I Say. Some have criticized the Graff and Birkenstein templates as formulaic or detrimental to the thinking process (as in this article by Phyllis Banay). My use of frames, however, differs from the They Say, I Say template approach in a couple of ways. First, frames are derived from course readings; they are not presented as a pre-determined list. Second, while frames may be connected to rhetorical moves (as in the case of Pinker’s use of counterfactual conditions to introduce evidence against a claim), the primary focus of the frames here is to build grammatical and lexical confidence. Finally, I would not require that students use a particular frame in a graded writing assignment; ultimately, my goal is to build student confidence to make grammatical choices—not dictate those choices for them.  


Want to offer feedback, comments, and suggestions on this post? 

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Recently, I gave a webinar on community partnership pedagogies and writing across the curriculum (mentioned in my previous post, leading up to this event). Some of you may have attended - if so, I hope the discussion offered insight on how you can utilize community partnership projects in your classroom, department, or institution.


If you were unable to attend, you can review the recording below.



I hope this will begin a dialogue, and would love to hear how you integrate writing communities and teach across the disciplines. What projects have you undertaken with your students and colleagues?

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.

Jack Solomon

Building a Religion

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Jun 7, 2018

As I head into the summer recess for my Bits blogs, I find myself contemplating the cultural significance of the rise and apparent fall of Theranos, the troubled biotech startup that was once heralded as a disruptive force that would revolutionize the blood testing industry, and, not so incidentally, produce a new generation of high-tech entrepreneurs to rank with Stephen Jobs and Bill Gates. On the face of it, of course, this would not appear to be a topic for popular cultural analysis, but bear with me for a moment, for when it comes to the new technologies, everything relates in some way or another to the manifold currents of everyday life that popular culture expresses.


What has drawn my attention to Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos saga is the publication of a book by the Wall Street Journal writer who first blew the whistle on the company in 2015: John Carreyrou's BAD BLOOD: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. A brief synopsis of that book appeared in Wired just as it was being released, and it was a single sentence in that synopsis that really got me thinking. It appears in Carreyrou's narrative at the point when things at Theranos were beginning to unravel and various high-ranking employees were abandoning ship. In the wake of such resignations, Elizabeth Holmes allegedly summoned every remaining employee to an all-hands-on-deck meeting to demand loyalty from them. But she didn't call it loyalty: according to Carreyrou "Holmes told the gathered employees that she was building a religion. If there were any among them who didn’t believe, they should leave."


Building a religion: Holmes was telling a truth that was deeper than she realized. For when we situate the story of Theranos in the larger system of post-industrial America, we can see that our entire culture has been building a religion around what Fredric Jameson has called America's postmodern mode of production. On the face of it, the object of worship in this system is technology itself, which is viewed as a kind of all-purpose savior that will solve all of our problems if we are just patient enough. Steven Pinker's new book, Enlightenment Now, makes this point explicitly, but it is implicit every time some new tech startup promises to "fix" higher education, clean up all the trash in the ocean, and use architecture to save the natural environment (see, for example, Wade Graham's "Are We Greening Our Cities, or Just Greenwashing Them?", which provides both a survey and a critique of the eco-city movement: you can find it in the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the USA). The religion of technology also produces its own demi-gods, like Elon Musk, who can announce yet another delay (or change of plans) in his money-losing product line and still see his Tesla stock rise due to the unwavering adoration of his flock.


Oddly enough, as I was writing the first draft of this blog I came across an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education that examines a related angle on this phenomenon. There, in a take-down of the "design thinking" movement (an ecstatic amalgamation of a Stanford University product design program and the Esalen Institute that promises to transform higher education into a factory for producing entrepreneurially inclined "change agents"), Lee Vinsel compares the whole thing, overtly, to a religious cult, acidly remarking that the movement "has many of the features of classic cult indoctrination, including intense emotional highs, a special lingo barely recognizable to outsiders, and a nigh-salvific sense of election" —concluding that "In the end, design thinking is not about design. It’s not about the liberal arts. It’s not about innovation in any meaningful sense. It’s certainly not about 'social innovation' if that means significant social change. It’s about commercialization. It’s about making education a superficial form of business training."


Thus, I think that Vinsel would agree with my contention that behind the religion of technology is something larger, older, and more universal. This is, quite simply, the religion of money worship. Minting instant billionaires and driving an ever-deeper wedge between a technology-fostered one percent and everyone else, the post-industrial economy dazzles most through the glitter of gold, which overcomes every other moral value, from Facebook's willingness to allow its platform to be exploited for the purposes of overt political manipulation to Theranos's performing a million blood tests with a technology so flawed that the tests have had to be invalidated, at who knows what cost to the patients (one should say, victims) involved.


And what does America do in response? It makes movies, like Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network, and John Carreyrou's own Bad Blood, a film said to be starring Jennifer Lawrence, and due out in 2019, thus turning social anomie into entertainment, and promising even more offerings on the altars of extreme affluence.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1761832 by kropekk_pl, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


In 1994, Anne Haas Dyson and Celia Genishi published a collection that made a big impression on me. The Need for Story: Cultural Diversity in Classroom and Community demonstrated how important stories are in helping us to understand the world and ourselves in it—a need that, they argued convincingly, is universal. At the time, I was very glad to see that the old traditional “modes of discourse” (argumentation, exposition, description, and narration) had been displaced in writing curricula, especially since they “bled” into each other constantly. Moreover, I thought then, and do even more so today, that narrative can play a part in all discourse, from memoirs to business reports. And I began tracking the use of narrative in discourses that had traditionally been thought of as outside the “academic” discourse taught in most writing classes, particularly those of African American, Latinx, and Native American traditions.


So I’ve been thinking about narrative, and the power of narrative, for a long time. But in the last 18 months or so, I’ve grown more and more concerned about the use of stories to spread misinformation, distortions, and even lies. In a 2009 Ted Talk, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pointed out “The Danger of a Single Story”—what happens when whole groups of rich, complex people are reduced to a single narrative. Adichie says that it’s fairly simple to create such a single story: just “show people as one thing and one thing only, over and over again, and that is what they will become.” Adichie notes that stories are enmeshed in structures of power, that how they are told, when they are told, how many are told are all dependent on power, and “the ultimate power is to tell the story of another person—but to make it THE definitive story of that person.” And I would add “of that people” or “of that culture.”


Such stories surround us today: “immigrants are rapists and animals”; “guns don’t kill people”; “climate change is a hoax.” You can fill in the blanks with dozens of other stories that are repeated with stunning and mind-numbing regularity, even though they are demonstrably untrue.


So when I had the amazing opportunity to address the Rhetoric Society of America on its 50th anniversary last week in Minneapolis, I spoke of the need to examine and challenge narratives and stories that crush dreams, choke freedoms, and leave people voiceless and instead to pursue what I am calling narrative justice, because it occurs to me that our efforts to achieve social justice cannot advance when people are trapped, silenced, and demeaned by stories that simply will never allow for it.


I believe that teachers of writing are in a perfect position to foster the work of narrative justice, first by guiding students in identifying and understanding dangerous “single stories,” then analyzing and critiquing them. And we can go the next step as well, guiding students in creating alternative narratives that do justice to the truths of lived experience and that reflect their deepest values, their best sense of self, their vision of a just society. That’s a tall order for sure, but it’s also one that writing teachers are already working to fill. In this time which some call “post-truth” and others “a tower of lies,” doing so is our privilege and our responsibility.


I’m hoping to make my talk available on the web soon, for anyone interested.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1245690 by Free-Photos, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Donna Winchell

Selling Lies

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Jun 1, 2018

Cato is generally credited with defining an orator as a good man skilled in speaking. A successful speech, by classical standards, was based on reason but was also strengthened by the knowledge that the person speaking was moral. As I write that, it amazes and depresses me that I have to use past tense and include the qualifying prepositional phrase. There was—and, yes, still is—an art to presenting oneself in such a way as to be trusted and believed. The term sophist was used in Cato’s time for a teacher of rhetoric in general, but eventually came to be associated with a man who presented what seemed to be a logical argument but was actually fallacious or specious. Thus the derogatory term sophistry


Donald Trump has long used the term fake news for much of the negative press that he receives. In doing so, he provides an interesting twist on rhetorical strategies used to present one’s self as an ethical speaker. A comment that he made to Lesley Stahl in passing when she interviewed him during the 2016 presidential campaign has attracted attention lately because of what it reveals about his alternative rhetorical strategy. Speaking to fellow journalists recently, Stahl reported that she asked Trump about his constant attacks on journalists. She told him, “You know, that is getting tired. Why are you doing this? You’re doing it over and over. It’s boring, and it’s time to end that.” His response: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”


We’ve long since passed the point where news was simply news. If news was as objective as it should be, it wouldn’t matter if we got it from Fox or CNN, but we all know how much it does matter. The line between news reporting and commentary on the news has become so blurred that it doesn’t even exist anymore. And we are all aware how easily news reports can be slanted based simply on what is included and what is left out. Even our entertainment reflects this understanding. The Newsroom was a television show that ran 2012-14. One viewer explained its premise in this way: “A news team attempts to create a news show that reports the news in an ethical and reasonable way. They take real, newsworthy events from our world as they're happening (such as bin Laden's justified killing, NSA spying, etc) and report on them as if they were an actual news station that followed rational and moral guidelines, in a biting criticism of our popular press and a clever blurring of art and reality.” Unfortunately, the reality of how news is handled these days comes closer to what happens in the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, summarized in this way by a viewer: “After being caught in a scandalous situation days before the election, the president does not seem to have much of a chance of being re-elected. One of his advisers contacts a top Hollywood producer in order to manufacture a war in Albania that the president can heroically end, all through mass media.”


News as manufactured truth is not news. More importantly, it’s not truth. There have always been sophists. What we need now is a term for those willing to accept manufactured truth. 


Image Source: “truth” by Jason Eppink on Flickr 10/4/05 via Creative Commons 2.0 license


I’ve been thinking about African American discourse and African American rhetoric (along with other indigenous rhetorics) since 1973, when members of CCCC were debating what would become the resolution known as "Students' Right to Their Own Language," eventually passed in 1974. That debate helped me think long and hard about the hegemonic status of "standard" English, about the home dialects and languages of my students, and about my own home dialect of the Appalachian mountain south, a language I grew up with, inhabited with ease, and loved, but which I seldom used as an adult in speaking, and never in writing.


At the time, I hoped that most other teachers of writing and reading would welcome this resolution, take its message to heart, and adjust their attitudes toward what counts as "proper" language use. Alas. Twenty-five years after the resolution, the debate still goes on, though "standard edited American English" has been challenged, seriously and serially, for decades now, from those who advocated during the Ebonics controversy to those who advocated for code switching and now to those who argue for code meshing and for "translingual" dispositions to language use.


As I travel around the country, visit schools, and go to conferences, I don’t see agreement across these lines of argument. Far from it. But I do see movement toward more progressive attitudes toward language variety and language use. And I also see very encouraging scholarly work addressing these issues, from Jerry Won Lee’s wonderfully insightful The Politics of Translingualism: After Englishes (Routledge, 2017) to Bonnie J. Williams-Farrier’s "'Talkin' Bout Good & Bad' Pedagogies: Code-Switching vs. Comparative Rhetorical Approaches" (a must-read essay in the December 2017 issue of College Composition and Communication), to the hot-off-the-presses On African-American Rhetoric by Keith Gilyard and Adam J. Banks (Routledge, 2018). I could name a number of others, but let’s stick with these three for a start: if you have not read them, you are in for a treat. I’ve learned so much from each of these texts, and as a result feel I can understand and embrace what Lee calls "translingual dispositions," and I am becoming more familiar with the moves and strategies of African-American rhetoric, thanks to Gilyard and Banks, as well as with the tropes, schemes, and syntactic moves of what Williams-Farrier calls African American Vernacular Tradition. I will write more, and more specifically, about what I’m learning soon, but in the meantime, if you’ve read any or all of these texts, I’d love to hear what you have learned!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2667529 by StarzySpringer, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

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


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


Color choices

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


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


Spatial design/White space

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


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


Font options

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


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


Images/Video/Audio Use

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


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


Source Use and Citing

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


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


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




Magazine Sample (click to open)

Brochure Sample (click to open)

One of my all-time favorite readings from past editions of Signs of Life in the USA is Andy Medhurst's "Batman, Deviance, and Camp." In that analysis of how the original muscle-man clone of Superman morphed into "Fred MacMurray from My Three Sons" in the wake of Fredric Wertham's notorious accusation in 1955 that Batman and Robin were like "a wish dream of two homosexuals living together," only to be transformed into the Camped Crusader of the 1966 TV series Batman, and then revised once more into the Dark Knight of the 1980s and beyond, Medhurst reveals how cartoon superheroes change with the times, reflecting and mediating the cross currents of cultural history. So as I ponder the rampant success of the second Deadpool film in this emergent franchise, I find myself wondering what this new entrant into the superhero sweepstakes may signify. Surely this is a topic for semiotic exploration.


What particularly strikes me here is the difference between the gloomy and humorless Batman of the Miller/Burton/Nolan ( era, and the non-stop wisecracking of Deadpool. It isn't that Deadpool doesn't have a dark backstory of his own, as grim as anything to be found in Bruce Wayne's CV. And, surely, the Deadpool ecosystem is even more violent than the Batworld. No, it's a matter of tone, of attitude, rather than content.


Now, if Deadpool was the only currently popular superhero who cracked wise all the time, there really wouldn't be very much to go on here, semiotically speaking. But Deadpool isn't the only wise acre among the men in spandex: various Avengers (especially Thor), along with the latest incarnation of Spiderman, have also taken to joking around in the midst of the most murderous mayhem. If the Dark Knight soared to superstar status on the wings of melancholy, a lot of rising contenders for the super-crown appear to be taking their cue from Comedy Central. Something's going on here. The question is, what?


I'm thrown back on what might be called "deductive abduction" here: that is, moving from a general condition to a particular situation as the most likely explanation. The general condition lies in the way that wise-cracking humor has been used in numerous instances in which a movie whose traditional audience would be restricted to children and adolescents (think Shrek) has broken through to generational cross-over status by employing lots of self-reflexive, topically allusive, and winking dialog to send a message to post-adolescent viewers that no one involved in the film is really taking all this fantasy stuff seriously, and so it's safe, even hip, for grown-up viewers to watch it (of course, this is also part of the formula behind the phenomenal success of The Simpsons). Stop for a moment to think about the profound silliness of the Avengers movies: who (over a certain age) could take this stuff seriously? Well, the wise cracks—which are generally aimed at those who happen to be over a certain age—are there to provide reassurance that it isn't supposed to be taken seriously. Just sit back, be cool, and enjoy.


So, given the R-rating of the Deadpool movies, I would deduce that the almost excessive (if not actually excessive) self-reflexive, topically allusive, and winking dialogue to be found in them works to reassure an over-seventeen audience that the whole thing is just a big joke. No one is taking any of this seriously, and so it is perfectly safe to be spotted at the local cineplex watching it. Hey, there's even a postmodern inflection to Deadpool's fourth-wall dissolving monologues: what could be more hip?


Since most cultural phenomena are quite over-determined in their significance, I do not mean to preclude any other possible interpretations of the super wise ass phenomenon, but the interpretation I've posted here is one I feel confident of. At any rate, the topic could make for a very lively class discussion and an interesting essay assignment.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2688068 by pabloengelsused under a CC0 Creative Commons License. 


This time every year, I look forward to meeting students who have won awards for their work in first and second year Program in Writing and Rhetoric classes at Stanford, and this year brought a very special treat. On May 16, the eighth annual Lunsford Oral Presentation of Research Award ceremony was held in the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking, and the presentations I heard there literally took my breath away. Every term, instructors nominate their students’ best presentations, and two are chosen to receive an award during this spring ceremony. Of course, I’m very much interested and invested in these awards, and every year I look forward to meeting students and learning about the kind of research these sophomores are doing. I’ve always come away impressed with the quality of student work. But, as I noted, this year I was more than impressed, for two main reasons. First, the nature of the research undergraduates are undertaking seems to have deepened exponentially as they tackle more and more serious and complex issues. Second, the student award winners this year had done original, primary research.


Won Gi Jung, for example, in his “A Tale of Two Cities” studied how the colonial contexts of Korea under Japanese rule had affected the Korean detective novel, and thus the culture. In addition to deploying post-colonial theory and close reading to outstanding effect, he had used quantitative mapping methods to track every site appearing in the novels of the 1930s, and compared his findings to a map of Seoul of the time. This analysis led to strikingly original discussion of the rhetorical situation of that particular time and place.


For a presentation on the Death Café Movement, Michelle Chang (pictured, left, with her instructor Selby Schwartz) carried out extensive field research, using ethnographic and autoethnographic techniques to show how this movement responds to the medicalized experience of death and dying, with its accompanying lack of agency, solitude, and artificial divisions. As a result of this research, Chang hosted a “mobile death café” across the U.S., bringing this resource to rural and more remote communities.


Still another student, Swetha Revanur, not only studied the sex trafficking taking place on sites such as, but she also used artificial intelligence to analyze data derived from the site to help understand geographic trends, to study the use of emojis that send special nonverbal messages, and to begin tracking telephone numbers associated with the site. And more: she also developed an “intelligent algorithm” that detects sex trafficking attempts with 80% accuracy. In her second year of college, thank you very much!  


These writers/rhetors are using sophisticated research methods to explore difficult and important issues: research at a very high level indeed! I was truly thrilled to be a witness to their work.


Finally, the student presenters this year were the most polished I have seen in the eight years the award has been given: they knew their material cold and they were poised; easy on their feet; eloquent; accessible; and, to me and the audience assembled at the Hume Center, captivating. So bravo and brava to undergrad researchers and presenters everywhere. And double congratulations to their instructors!


Image Credit: Andrea Lunsford

As a general rule, anyone who did not vote for Donald Trump for president wants to know why anyone else did. Along those lines, I was thinking about the way I introduce motivation when discussing argumentation, in terms of needs and values. In Elements of Argument, we explain an argument’s appeal to needs by citing Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy, explained in his 1943 “Theory of Motivation.” The most basic needs that motivate a human being are physiological: the need for food, water, sex, etc. Next comes the need for safety—security of one’s person, the family, health, property. It is difficult to focus on any other needs if one is hungry or lives in fear. Later Maslow revised his theory to explain that people’s needs on one level do not have to be completely met before they can concern themselves with the higher levels. Still, it is, as Maslow theorized, a hierarchy of needs. Only when physiological and safety needs have largely been met can people worry about the need for love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.


A surprising number of authors have applied Maslow’s Hierarchy to the 2016 presidential election. Jamie Beckland does so in this way: “The biggest lesson for any political candidate is that they must speak to the lowest common denominator need on Maslow’s hierarchy that a majority of the electorate will relate to. A political campaign that helps people believe that they can become self-actualized, and achieve their highest and best dreams, can only win if the majority of the electorate believes they are safe; that they belong; and that they have self-worth. On the other hand, if the majority of the electorate does not feel confident in having food, clothing, and shelter, then a campaign focused on self-actualization is doomed.” Beckland writes about how Clinton “spoke to building a sense of community – of being Stronger Together. This appeals to our need for ‘Love and Belonging,’ and many people voted for Clinton because she represented this need. The need for Love and Belonging manifests itself in ideas like: The need for safe spaces, where minorities and historically oppressed groups can express their perspectives without fear of persecution. The need for women to have a voice in the political establishment, and to believe that any qualified person would be judged on their qualifications for the presidency, and not by their gender. The need to see yourself as part of the great American experiment, where people of different creeds and colors assemble under a shared vision of freedom and opportunity.” Beckland argues that Clinton lost because Trump appealed to more basic needs, to which voters responded more strongly.


The fact that the Trump campaign understood the lesson Maslow had to teach is evidenced by its emphasis on job security, affordable healthcare, and security from threats posed by illegal aliens. Phil Fragasso explains, “At its most basic level, Trump’s harsh rhetoric appeals to the bottommost layers of Maslow’s hierarchy - physiological and safety needs. He’s going to deliver more jobs at higher pay, make ‘winning’ so common it becomes boring, and ensure that Americans are protected against terrorists domestic and foreign, can shout ‘Merry Christmas’ from the highest rooftops, and stop Mexicans from taking the jobs that Americans don’t want.” Fragasso differs from some other analysts in arguing that the next two levels on the hierarchy “best explain Trump’s core character and his continuing support: esteem and love/belonging.” Fragasso’s own bias is clear as he goes on, “Most tellingly, Trump provided his loyal supporters with something they rarely experience: the very same esteem and love/belonging [that Trump himself experiences]. Trump voters tend to reside on the fringes where they are often afraid to voice their politically incorrect (and often abhorrently [sic]) beliefs and opinions.”


For Trump, as for any president, success and continued support from those who voted for him depend on whether or not he is able to fill the needs to which he appealed when he won their votes.



Image Source: “Louvre Pyramid - Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs” by pshegubj on Flickr 6/30/12 via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 license.


In response to a posting I wrote a week or two ago, Steven Kapica shared an image on Twitter of one of his students’ writing spaces. I’m wondering if other readers have images of writing spaces, and if so, if they would share them with us.


I’m asking particularly because I’ve just read a very interesting and provocative article in the February issue of College Composition and Communication, Hannah Rule’s “Writing’s Rooms” (402-432). I was first attracted by the title, which gives writing the agency: writing’s rooms, thus suggesting—indeed arguing—that writing is embodied in spaces, that it shapes as well as is shaped by spaces, and that it is always, in her words, “emplaced.”


Rule’s essay reviews three studies that focus on writing’s rooms: one by Susan Wyche, who asks students to respond to detailed questions about where, how, and with whom they write and then interviews them about their thoughts on these questions. A second study by Paul Prior and Jody Shipka focuses on writing room practices, asking participants to draw pictures of these spaces which, in Rule’s view, “shows how non-alphabetic modes capture the constructedness and lived experiences of writing’s rooms.” In the third study, an ethnography of undergraduates, Brian McNely, Paul Gestwicki, Bridget Gelms, and Ann Burke use “visual ethnography methods”—photographs—to reveal more about writing’s rooms and writing practices. These photos show “the ‘extra stuff’ around and involved in the inventional, compositional action the researchers were studying, and their accrual “delivers a sense of these students’ ‘theatre of composition.”


Finally, Rule reports on a study she and her graduate students did, in which the students first made two drawings of their writing processes and wrote about what was shown there. Then they video recorded several sessions of writing, which, along with the drawings, provided material for follow-up structured interviews. Rule’s descriptions of this study are vivid and fascinating, and they support her conclusion that such multimodal methods are “especially useful for writers in our classrooms”:

To pursue writing’s rooms is to continually uncover the inhabited ‘theaters’ of composing processes: the emplaced embodied movements, the unintentional and accidental interactions that exceed awareness, the ineluctable and myriad ways that writing always (and all ways) takes place. (430)


I appreciate Rule’s careful review of previous research, her elegant account of her own study, and her call for composition researchers to continue a focus on the places, the spaces, the rooms (and automobiles, buses, benches, other nooks and crannies) where writing happens.


If you have other examples of student writing spaces/rooms, please share in the comments below or on social media!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 828911 by Free-Photos, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License