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As impeachment proceedings advance, as conflict in the Middle East escalates, as candidates for president bombard us with television messages, and as Facebook decides that it will not even bother trying to eliminate lies and misinformation posted by bots and trolls, I keep repeating the lines of W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” Like many others, I have whole swaths of poetry inscribed in my memory: I surprised myself recently by reciting a Shakespeare sonnet I hadn’t thought of in years. But Yeats’s poem is one of those indelibly etched in my memory to which I turn with increasing frequency: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

 

Yeats was writing amid the horrors of the “Great War” in 1919, but his words haunt our current scene. Today it seems that the worst among us are the ones whose “passionate intensity” is being heard. Many students tell me they are so distressed and confused by the torrent of what Howard Rheingold calls the “tsunami of hogwash” inundating us that they have tuned out: no news is preferable to passionately intense hogwash, they say, and with some justification. But giving in to that urge, which I often share, means giving up on what I have taught and believed in for 50 years: rhetoric as ethical communication. I don’t think we can give up; I think we must not give up. Never has it been more important for us to embrace and practice ethical communication, to model it, to analyze and explain it, and to engage with our students in it. Teachers of writing everywhere have an urgent obligation to help students understand the pervasive forces appealing to our worst instincts and to our worst versions of ourselves—to understand these forces and to build tools capable of revealing these negative and destructive forces for what they are. And to provide students with the rhetorical knowledge and strategies that can lead not to a “lack of conviction” but to its opposite, to what is true and honest and honorable and good.

 

As it turns out, the humble first-year writing course is the very place where such instruction can and does take place. As John Duffy puts it, “First-year composition is more than an introductory writing class. It is a course in ethical communication, one that offers students and the rest of us a hopeful alternative to our debased public discourse.” Duffy’s words—and the work of first-year writing courses and those who teach them—give me hope, and courage. As we move into this momentous election year, when so much is at stake for democracy and democratic institutions, we need to hold fast to these ideals.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 534751 by Fotocitizen, used under the Pixabay License

 

Now that the Academy Awards sweepstakes for 2020 is in full cry, with the Golden Globes functioning as a kind of stand-in for the Iowa Caucuses in the tea-leaf-reading business of trying to guess what picture is going to win the golden statuette, it seems to be a good time to have a semiotic look at Quentin Tarantino's latest entrant into the annals of Hollywood cool. Keep in mind that the purpose of such an examination is not the same as that of a film review: how well a movie does what it does is not equivalent to what it signifies. After all, the epic critical and commercial failure of Cats, the movie, has been due, one might say, to a massive, across-the-board wardrobe malfunction, not to anything that it might signify culturally. Conversely, a film can successfully accomplish what it sets out to do, winning commercial and critical acclaim along the way—as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has certainly done—and still pose interesting problems from a cultural standpoint. And that is something Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does, as well.

 

While it isn't what I wish to focus on here, it would be remiss of me not to mention the most common semiotic critique of the film that I have seen so far: that is, the way that it celebrates the days when men were men and completely dominated the entertainment industry. While I'm a little surprised that I haven't seen any mention of the way that this rather archetypal male buddy flick appears to be a self-conscious effort to reproduce the star-power of Robert Redford's and Paul Newman's collaboration in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which (coincidentally?) was released in 1969 (the time frame of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Tarantino's nostalgic homage paid to a perhaps not-so-bygone era has certainly not gone unnoticed.

 

But what really strikes me here is what Tarantino does with history. Yes, I know that we are forewarned: the "once upon a time" in the title not only alludes to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, it also clues us into the fact that this is a fairy tale, a fantasy from which we should not demand historical accuracy. And after all, Tarantino is famous for playing around with the facts, having already created such revisionist revenge fantasies as Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds. So deciding to completely rewrite the history of the Manson Family and the Tate-LaBianca murders is quite in character for Tarantino, whose audiences have come to expect this sort of thing from him.

 

Well, no one ever said that Hollywood is a history department, and I am under no serious apprehension that anyone is going to walk away believing that the Manson murders did not take place. The reversal of history presented in the movie is so total that it does not present the problems that ostensibly "historical" films that get the history wrong do. As I've said, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairy tale, not a documentary.

 

Still, when we pull back from the film to look at the context (or historical system) in which it appears, a somewhat less reassuring significance begins to loom. For this is the age of "fake news" and conspiracy theories, a time when large groups of people, quite deliberately, invent their own "truth" (what Steve Colbert has satirically called "truthiness") from which they cannot be shaken, no matter how much evidence can be produced in contradiction to their claims. So while there is no risk that the fantasy presented in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will ever be taken seriously as a historical text, its substitution of a wish-fulfillment for the grim facts of history is very much in keeping with the times. In this sense, the movie is a sign—a symptom, not a cause—of the postmodern tendency to regard historical truth as something that is always open for negotiation, with reality itself, as Jean Baudrillard always insisted, being nothing more than a simulacrum of a simulacrum—indeed, one might say, a Hollywood movie about Hollywood movies.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 2355686 by Wokandapix, used under Pixabay License

 

Last week, I wrote about Merriam-Webster choosing “they” as the word of the year for 2019, and then, serendipitously, I received my copy of Dennis Baron’s What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She the very next day. I knew Dennis had been working on pronouns and gender for, well, forever, and I’d even been able to read a few excerpts from the manuscript in progress. So I was looking forward to being able to hold the book in my hands and dive in. And did I ever! This book is more than worth waiting for: it answers so many questions I’ve had about the debate over the third-person singular pronouns and many others I hadn’t even thought to ask, and it does so with wit and generosity and grace.

 

Since the push for nonbinary pronoun use has been so much in the news these last few years, many may think of this as a hot “new” issue. Baron demonstrates that this is anything but the truth, that people have been searching for “the missing word” for hundreds of years: he includes an eye-popping sixty-page chronology at the end of the book to prove it, beginning with Robert Baker’s 1770 declaration that “he” is the first gender-neutral pronoun, through the OED’s 1871 blend of “s/he,” to Alfred Speltz’s early 1930s suggestion of “se, sem, serself, semself,” to Coca-Cola’s 2018 Super Bowl ad featuring the line, “There’s a Coke for he… and she… and her… and me… and them.” Singular “they.”

 

Indeed, it is singular “they” that Baron shows has had the real staying power. After determining that generic “he,” singular “they,” and a new coined term are the “only three serious contenders” in chapter 1 and demonstrating conclusively that generic “he” was never really generic (citing hilarious examples of legislators across the country turning themselves into pretzels trying to argue that generic “he” either included or, more usually, excluded women from exercising certain rights or holding office) in chapter 2, Baron takes readers along on a tour of coined terms proposed to replace generic “he”—and then to a fascinating discussion of the very important role pronouns play in many people’s lives, as he examines the politics and legalities of pronoun use in referring to transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people.

 

Then in my favorite chapter (5), Baron declares “the missing word is ‘they’” and explains why he has come to this conclusion. Opening the chapter with a quotation from rhetorician Fred Newton Scott,

The word “they” is being used as a pronoun of the common gender every day by millions of persons who are not particular about their language, and every other day by several thousands who are particular. (185)

Baron tells us that the OED “traces singular they back to 1375, in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf” (the werewolves knew!), citing linguists, philosophers, and famous authors (George Eliot and Jane Austen among them) who agree, even in spite of occasional ambiguity, and ending with an even-handed look at the pros and cons of both new coined pronouns and singular “they.” He comes down, however, on the side of the pros in noting “the worthiness of ‘they’” and concluding that “two things do seem sure: generic ‘he’ is stake-through-the-heart dead, and however you answer the question ‘What’s your pronoun?,’ nobody answers, ‘My pronoun is… “he or she.”’”

 

May generic “he” rest in peace. And may we all be grateful in this new year for Dennis Baron’s meticulous and insightful research.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 1798 by PublicDomainPictures, used under the Pixabay License

(A Brief Homage to Wendy Bishop)

 

I was lucky to learn from and collaborate with the late Wendy Bishop, whose loss—more than sixteen years ago now—is still hard for me to accept. Wendy was a force of nature, a whirlwind of ideas about how to create better writers and better teachers of writing. Her early focus was on employing composition scholarship to inform the teaching of creative writing, but she quickly became just as, if not more, interested in ways that creative writing could bring life to expository writing courses.

 

Wendy’s first book, Released into Language, was published in 1990, the year I began full-time college teaching, so she has been a constant presence in my thinking about pedagogy. Whenever I encounter a new teaching challenge, I wonder how Wendy would face it, and now that nearly all first-semester composition courses in California’s community colleges are accelerated, I’m returning once again to her work for ideas and inspiration.

 

Always ahead of the curve, Wendy seems to have intuited acceleration’s insight that students are ill-served by what Katie Hern calls “layers of remedial coursework.” Wendy writes in Released into Language that it “is no longer effective to remain tied to hierarchical ways of thinking,” arguing:

 

We should not assume that “basic” writing instruction should take place at “lower levels,” while upper-level classes exist merely to sort the “best” writers into smaller and smaller cadres. Instead, teachers need to look at the beliefs, goals, and pedagogy for each of these levels and to dismantle artificial “class” boundaries that have been formed, mainly, by a relatively unstructured historical progression. (xvi-xvii)

 

Wendy’s punning on “‘class’” is particularly appropriate to acceleration, as one of its chief goals is to break down the class (and racial) barriers that keep students entangled in pre-college-level classes.

 

Another aspect of Wendy’s work that is especially germane to acceleration is her persistent turning from the theoretical to the practical. Yes, she was concerned to ground her pedagogy in writing research, but she was never content to leave an idea alone until she could figure out how to apply it in the classroom. For all its cutting-edge scholarship, Released into Language is also a goldmine of specific ways that teachers can help their students become better writers. Wendy emphasizes the importance of course design and generative writing, which, are crucial in acceleration, where students benefit from clearly articulated goals and lots of help early in the writing process, when the blank page or screen can look so forbidding.

 

Accelerated composition instructors often teach Carol Dweck’s work on growth and fixed mindsets and Angela Duckworth’s ideas about grit, but Wendy was there much earlier, letting writers know that failure is not only okay, it’s inevitable—and temporary. “‘Take Risks Yourself’” was the title of an interview I published with her, and she was forever pushing herself, and the writers around her—both student and professional—to experiment and expand their repertoire of rhetorical moves, even if it meant falling on our faces.

 

Wendy loathed the Old School workshop model, with the bored professor fixated on taking down his—almost always his—students a peg or two, but she loved to create settings in which students could share their work with one another. Above all, she was keen to shift the focus “from the production of texts to the development of students as writers” (Bishop and Starkey 38).

 

Accelerating students are often underconfident because they don’t yet have a language for talking about when and where their writing is, or isn’t, working. In The Subject Is Writing, Wendy maintains that “a well taught composition or creative writing class should allow you to explore writing beliefs, writing types (genres) and their attributes and your own writing process. You will be successful to the degree that you become invested in your own work” (251). Metacognition, which is so essential to acceleration, was second nature to Wendy: a writing task was never complete until the writer had examined and learned from it.

 

Most importantly, she though writing was fun, an insight I am always trying to convey to my students. Wendy wrote all the time, and sometimes seemed to put as much passion into her emails as she did into her poems, essays and books.

 

I received my last email shortly before she died on November 21, 2003, at the age of 50 from complications caused by acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She talked briefly about her illness, but her focus, as always, was on the work ahead of her. Afterwards, I remember thinking, How she loved to write! As an epitaph, I think that would have made her smile.


 

Works Cited

Bishop, Wendy. Released into Language: Options for Teaching Creative Writing. NCTE, 1990.

---. “When All Writing Is Creative and Student Writing Is Literature.” The Subject Is Writing, edited by

Wendy Bishop, Boynton/Cook, 1993, pp. 249-260.

Bishop, Wendy, and David Starkey. Keywords in Creative Writing. Utah State UP, 2006.

Hern, Katie. “Some College Students More Prepared than Placement Tests Indicate.” EdSource, 12

Nov. 2015, edsource.org/2015/some-college-students-more-prepared-than-placement-tests-

indicate/90418.

Starkey, David. “Take Risks Yourself: An Interview with Wendy Bishop and Gerald Locklin.”

Writing on the Edge, vol. 7, no. 1, 1995, pp. 100-110.

It’s January, and my social media feeds are filled with suggestions for keeping resolutions, especially those related to wellness, healthy eating, and exercise. But I am also finding some pleas for encouragement from colleagues and friends who have set (or are setting) writing goals. One colleague facing a self-imposed dissertation progress deadline sought inspiration to combat writer’s block; the comment thread following her post illustrated the power of a writing community—a blend of support, encouragement, commiseration, and offers to read or brainstorm—as well as reminders of past challenges overcome and promises of future success. That online writing community, like other writing groups (structured or informal) provides a Janus outlook, a backwards glance for perspective and an impetus forward.

 

In the ideal classroom I envision for first-year writing students, the same sort of community forms and offers new college writers a platform to find their footing (all of my 2019 resolutions were designed to foster this kind of community). One of the challenges I face in corequisite first-year writing courses, however, is absenteeism. It’s hard to build the writing community in a face-to-face course (even with a solid online component) if the students don’t attend. Attending is so much more than presence, of course, although being present in the room is a logical starting point. But in that learning space I envision, students, tutors, and faculty alike attend; they stretch (Latin tendere) minds and words and sentences, or, as the OED puts it, they “direct the mind or observant faculties, to listen, apply” themselves.

 

And that brings me to the challenge of the moment: devising an attendance policy that promotes community, not punishment. We have considerable flexibility when it comes to attendance policies; the central requirement is to have such a policy and state it clearly on the syllabus. Many faculty I know stipulate a certain number of allowable unexcused absences; additional absences will lead to grade penalties or potential administrative withdrawal. Having a stated maximum (or mid-term maximum) allows instructors to initiate withdrawals—a process that can help a student with an already sagging GPA avoid an F. Others choose to reward presence with a participation grade of some sort. My emphasis on process—up to 40% of the students’ grades—supports attendance indirectly by awarding points for good faith investment in the process: participating in discussions, collaborative exercises, peer reviews, conferences, etc. 

 

Still, I’ve seen students who struggle to connect in class or who must miss multiple classes for unavoidable reasons. Some students who abide by the absence policy still fail to attend, insofar as attendance entails engaging and finding a sense of community. They do not seek collaboration on writing challenges. Other students cannot keep within the allowable absences as stated by the policy, but they manage to find small group communities by leveraging resources like online discussions, out-of-class meetings with writing tutors or fellows, or instructor office hours.

 

The perfect attendance policy probably does not exist – certainly not one that covers all situations and contexts. But I know I want a policy that reflects community (not punishment), recognizes student realities, invites participation via alternate pathways when needed, ensures accountability, and fosters strategic self-advocacy. 

Here’s what I’ve got at this point for my spring syllabus. I am open to any and all feedback! What attendance policy are you implementing in your first-year and corequisite writing courses this spring?

 

Attending class is crucial to your success in this course. The University expects students to attend all regularly-scheduled classes for instruction and examination, but more importantly, the writing portfolio you construct this term will be strengthened by in-class collaboration with your colleagues. When you are in class, you benefit from the insights and contributions of others, just as they benefit from your suggestions and ideas.

But I recognize that you cannot always be in class; sometimes, you may not want or be able to tell me why. When you need to miss a class, make sure you let me know. Check the syllabus on D2L to see what we are doing in class that day, and you can choose from the “attendance options” below to earn attendance credit and make up any points you miss. Generally, the points/attendance should be made up within a week of the day you miss class; if you need more time (or if you need to miss more than one class), email me so that we can discuss a timetable for participation.

 

Finally, if you do have documentation for an excused absence (see the following section), email that to me as soon as possible. I will keep these on record in case there is an administrative issue about withdrawals or grades later in the term.

 

Attendance Options

  • Come to class and participate (the default, and always the best option!)
  • Attend a small group conference with our SI or one of the writing fellows (especially if you miss a class and we are working on an early version of a draft)
  • Visit the writing center (especially if you miss a peer review or other late-stage draft review)
  • Check in with your group to get notes/information and provide comments/contributions to collaborative assignments via Google Docs or the Discussion Board

 

I may initiate an administrative withdrawal for students who stop attending class altogether (via one of the options above) and do not stay in contact with me.

  • A grade of W may be assigned to students who miss 25% of class meetings (5 classes) prior to the midpoint of the term.
  • A grade of WF will be assigned when students stop attending after the midpoint, or when the total number of absences reaches more than 25% of the class meetings (10).

 

Every year I look forward to finding out what words will be singled out as especially important or noteworthy for the preceding year. This year, though, I approached this subject with special trepidation: given the events of 2019—over 40 mass murder “events” that killed 211 people, the highest on record; temperatures warming much faster than anticipated; lies and misinformation pouring out via presidential tweets; “natural” disasters like wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and polar vortexes multiplying; and news cycles reeling from one crisis to another—well, I just couldn’t imagine what the word of this year could possibly be. So many candidates, so little time.

 

Indeed, several sources named words of the year related to these circumstances. Oxford dubbed “climate emergency” its word (or phrase) of the year, denoting “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and potentially irreversible environmental damage,” and underscoring Time magazine’s choice of Greta Thunberg as their Person of the Year and highlighting the youth movement she has inspired. Surely their work will grow more urgent and more important in 2020; Oxford notes that this phrase rose from “relative obscurity” to become one of the most prominent terms of 2019 and one of the most often searched for online. Dictionary.com announced that “existential” was its word of the year, noting the ubiquity of the word not only in political news but also in popular culture, such as Toy Story 4, in which Forky faces an existential crisis in terms of his identity as a toy (or not).

 

These words and phrases all reflect the crisis-driven 365 days of 2019. And they are all well taken, and well argued for. But Merriam-Webster took a somewhat different tack, choosing “they”—used to refer to persons whose gender identity is nonbinary—as their word of the year. Noting that searches for “they” increased by 313 percent in 2019 over the previous year, the dictionary went to say that “English famously lacks a gender neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone, and as a consequence “they” has been used for this purpose for over 600 years.” So singular “they” enters the dictionaries, along with “themself.” About time.

 

Of course, this word of the year also has big political implications since it signals approval of greater inclusivity and tolerance and empathy; it’s not likely to be applauded, much less accepted, by Trump’s base, though. But it is a big step forward anyway, in this 600-year-old search for a path beyond the he/she binary. Good choice, Merriam-Webster!

 

Which word of the year do you like best? Do you have a different word (or phrase) that you think should be word of the year? And more importantly, what do your students think? Asking our students to analyze and evaluate the chosen words and then to suggest words of their own is always a great writing prompt or discussion starter for the beginning of the semester. If you do this activity, I’d love to hear what your students come up with!  

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 846089 by Free-Photos, used under the Pixabay License

Jack Solomon

Why Richard Jewell Now?

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Dec 19, 2019

In my last blog, I presented a semiotic interpretation explaining how the movie Ford vs. Ferrari reflects a larger cultural signification that goes well beyond the history of Formula 1 racecars and their driver/designers. I wish to do something like that in this analysis by looking at the current release of Clint Eastwood's biopic Richard Jewell, a film that, on the face of it, would appear to focus on a rather unlikely subject for mass-market cinematic appeal. But, as we will see, the time is just as ripe for Richard Jewell as it is for Ford vs. Ferrari, and what the two movies have in common says a great deal about the current state of American consciousness.

 

To begin, then, when I first started seeing promotional billboards for Richard Jewell while driving to work, I had no idea who Richard Jewell was and why there should be a movie about him. It isn't that I have forgotten the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, nor Jewell's ordeal when he went practically overnight from hero to suspect; I simply hadn't remembered the name. And I’m probably not alone in that.

 

But this is what makes the appearance of this film so semiotically interesting. Biopics are usually about household names, and "Richard Jewell" is not exactly a household name. We can (as I do), deeply sympathize for what he had to go through, but his experience doesn't rise to the historical level of, say, the infamous railroading of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. So why, I wondered, was this film made at all? Who was its intended audience?

 

A clue to the matter can be found in a description of the movie that appears on the main page when you perform a Google search on Richard Jewell. Here's what I've read: "American security guard, Richard Jewell, heroically saves thousands of lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Olympics, but is unjustly vilified by journalists and the press who falsely report that he was a terrorist."

 

Note the emphasis in this plot description on "journalists and the press," which ignores the role of the FBI, whose leaks brought Jewell into the glare of the public spotlight in the first place. Note also how the movie has already raised a good deal of controversy for the way that it treats the Atlantic Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs, who first broke the story. Put it all together and an explanation for what Richard Jewell semiotically signifies begins to emerge.

 

For Richard Jewell tells the story of an ordinary lower-middle-class man who was nearly destroyed by the actions of what are widely regarded as "media elites" by those who comprise the current populist political movement in America. Such a movie is tailor-made for such viewers, who will identify with the "ordinary Joe" figure of Richard Jewell and see in his suffering a proof of their suspicions. And it may be no accident that the release of the film was timed for the run up to a presidential election that will pit a populist favorite against the "elites" that they fear.

 

These same viewers, on a more positive but related note, tend to regard people like Carroll Shelby as cultural heroes and identify with them. Muscle cars, NASCAR, automobiles cherished as signs of freedom and prosperity: all these phenomena are touchstones for an America where Shelby's triumph over the elites at Ferrari are the dream version of Richard Jewell's personal nightmare. Ford vs. Farrari, one might say, is simply the sunny inverse of Richard Jewell.

 

Further evidence for my interpretation lies in the fact that Clint Eastwood made the movie. This is not an attack on Eastwood: my point is that his films particularly appeal to populist audiences (consider the success of Sully, and, more strikingly, American Sniper). Please also note that I am not saying that making movies with populist appeal is a bad thing. After all, Michael Moore has made a career out of his own sort of populist vision, albeit one that is diametrically opposed to the kind of populists I am writing about here. The key point to keep in mind when teaching cultural semiotics is that semiotic analyses are not political judgments. They simply try to explain what things mean.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 1608127 by YazanMRihan, used under Pixabay License

 

During a visit to St. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA, I had an opportunity to observe some student Writing Advisers (a.k.a. tutors) working with fellow undergraduates on their writing. These Advisers work in the Center for Writing Across the Curriculum (CWAC, which on this campus is pronounced “quack” —hence the little rubber duckies everywhere!). The day of my visit, the Advisers were working with students on an upcoming essay assignment, and they were using a strategy CWAC refers to as post-outlining: “the art of analyzing a work that’s already written, whether yours or someone else’s.” These sessions started with the Adviser asking the student to read the opening paragraph(s) aloud, and then to identify the thesis or main purpose. (In one instance, the student could not identify one and so set to work to draft one on the spot and jot it in the margins.) Next the Adviser asked the student to describe the function of the paragraph(s)—what role it or they played in the essay and how well it/they were doing. This process took some time, as the student writers articulated their major purposes and talked about how satisfied they were (or not) at this point in the draft.

 

The Adviser then moved systematically through the rest of the draft, paragraph by paragraph, listening as the students read them aloud and then asking them to identify and mark the main idea(s) in each one, noting unclear passages or ideas to come back to. The focus throughout was on the ideas, the major points, and their relationship to one another and the overall structure of the essay and the coherence of the developing argument.  At some point in the session, each Adviser asked the student to return to the prompt for the assignment to see if the draft was fully addressing it and considering how each paragraph contributes to that goal. If time allows (in the hour-long session), the students read the introduction and conclusion aloud to see how well the first leads to the second and how they create an “argumentative arc.” Finally, they asked the student writers to spread the entire draft out on the table (and at this point, I realized why they had asked students to bring drafts printed on only one side) to look at the entire structure, look for parts that might be out of place, check for transitions, and for “flow.”

 

When I heard Tereza Kramer, Director of CWAC, describe “post-outlining,” I thought it sounded a bit cut and dried, a paint-by-the-numbers strategy that could easily become rote and deadly dull. I still think that is a possibility. But the Writing Advisers I observed were definitely not plodding inexorably through this exercise in revising and rethinking a draft. Rather, they posed questions tailored to the specific draft a student was working on, making time for students to articulate and elaborate on their points while keeping their eyes on the big picture—what the draft is trying to accomplish and specifically how it is doing so. The student writers seemed pleased with the process, marking up their drafts, jotting notes to themselves in the margins, and essentially talking their ways through the entire piece of writing. I estimated that the students did 75% of the talking—and I was struck once again by the crucial importance of talking to writing development. In fact, one of the students remarked at the end of the session that she was beginning to think she could “do this on my own.” “But,” she continued, “it’s better to have someone to talk to.”

 

I had to agree—it is better to have someone to talk to, and a well-trained, experienced undergraduate Writing Adviser—at this college at least—fits that bill very nicely.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 3196481 by Aymanejed, used under the Pixabay License

We are wrapping up our semester, and as I have done for the past several semesters, I am asking students to reflect on their beliefs about writing, reading, and grammar—and how our writing and revising during the term has shaped those beliefs. Students submit this reflection just a few short days after the final portfolio.

 

In the first few reflections I have read this week, several themes have arisen: a growing awareness of the power of genre, a realization that a single high-school pattern would not suffice for all academic writing situations, and an increased willingness to seek and use feedback to revise writing. These broad reflections suggest that students are thinking carefully about their writing experiences. At the same time, however, these reflections still show a lack of development based on specific examples from written work produced during the course. The reflections are insightful, but without detail.

 

I’ve written about ways of promoting reflection many times: “The Fabric of Reflection,” “A Time to Reflect,”All’s Well That Ends Well,” and others. These posts discuss instructions for reflections written after specific assignments are complete, as well as the final reflection assignment. But they don’t address strategies for helping students organize their own writing as data to support their final reflections.

 

In my first-year composition courses, students practice organizing information as part of the writing process, particularly in the development of a researched synthesis essay. We talk about collecting, sorting, connecting, and framing information as a paper takes shape, and students explore various technologies for accomplishing these often messy but creative tasks. They may use paper, sticky notes, and colored pencils; they might make digital charts and embed links. But in the end, they have a framework for writing.

 

What they are doing in this process, in fact, is illustrating a lovely Greek word that often shows up during Advent readings. That word comes from Luke 2:19: “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (NIV). The word translated “ponder” is συμβάλλω, a verb that combines the preposition σύν (“together with”) and βάλλω (“throw”); basically, “pondering” is the process of throwing information together for consideration.

 

While my pre-portfolio assignments assist students with this “συμβάλλω” process, the students don’t have similar support for the final reflection. The technology I use in the class, in fact, may work against the process. Early student drafts are not separate documents; students do all drafting on Google Docs, so to access early drafts requires reviewing the document history online—a process that may be difficult to navigate, particularly when there have been multiple revisions over several weeks. In addition, students frequently resolve comments as they work through feedback. The comments can be accessed again, but doing so again requires finding and searching through the entire stored comments thread. How can I help them find and manage data from their own writing in support of their final reflections?

 

In writing this post, I used a tag filter on the Bedford Bits site to find my content related to reflection. Searching by tag made the task of finding posts written over a period of nearly three years easy and straightforward. 

 

For next term, I’d like my students to have a searchable revision log or journal to help them work through the “συμβάλλω” process in preparation for the final reflection. The log might include a simple entry format, like the one that follows, for use after each draft (initial, post-peer review, post-conference, and post-written feedback):

 

Date/Paper

Process Stage or Source of Feedback

Focus Areas of Revision

Aha moments, Questions, and Notes

Tags

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Students will manage their journals in an online document that we update regularly in class, using a student-generated list of tags (audience, evidence, capitalization, comma splices, topic sentences, stance, engagement, etc.). Students can then use these logs at the end of the term to craft writer’s memos for the individual pieces in their portfolios, as well as organize their thinking—and their evidence—for the broader reflection piece.   In doing so, they may find it easier to identify salient aspects of their own writing development, and by searching the document tags, identify specific drafts or comments as support for their insights and conclusions. 

 

How do you encourage your students to reflect broadly over an entire semester? Have you used logs or journals? If so, I’d love to hear what has worked for you.

As accelerated composition courses become more widespread, the co-requisites attached to them have inevitably come to take many forms. Co-requisites may be mandatory or voluntary; assessment-driven or open to anyone; held in the same classroom as the college-level course or convened in a different space; computer-assisted or reliant only on pen and paper; taught by the college-level instructor or someone else entirely. And that’s just a sampling of where things have gone so far.

 

Granted, flexibility is one of the strengths of the co-requisite. However, whatever the course format, there are certain pitfalls instructors are likely to face. While my two previous posts discussed what an ideal co-requisite might look like, the following advice, generated once again with the help of my Express to Success Colleagues at Santa Barbara City College, offers some warnings about what to avoid.

 

Don’t Make the Co-requisite Feel Like an Obligation

As more and more states eliminate assessment restrictions for college-level composition courses, enrolling in co-requisites may become a choice—as it is at SBCC—rather than a requirement. And students who are compelled to enroll in the courses may feel punished in comparison to their peers who aren’t. Therefore, as former ESP director Kathy Molly notes, it is crucial “that teachers approach the co-requisite class in a positive way and that they help their students see this course as a huge advantage for them.” Sarah Boggs agrees, believing that “the co-req should be framed as a special, valuable opportunity to be more successful” in the college-level course.

 

Obviously, no matter what the course, we always want our students to feel as though coming to our classes is a stroke of good luck, but that can be extra-difficult with the co-requisite, which may feel like one more hoop students must jump through. Consequently, we should try, like Jennifer Baxton, to encourage students to see co-requisites as a chance “to grow their skills and for instructors to serve as coaches for students. To that end, instructors should frame the function of the co-requisite with speech that is intentionally asset-based, rather than a deficit-model approach. That way, students…can be agents for their own growth.”

 

Don’t Approach the Co-requisite as Though It Were Just a Shorter Version of the College-Level Class

While some co-requisites do include all the students in the main course, most co-reqs are made up of students who can benefit from extra writing practice. Bonny Bryan takes advantage of the smaller number of students to provide individualized instruction. Her goal is “to attend to each student, one-on-one, during each class.” That’s an ambitious objective, but it does speak to the fact that the co-requisite is a space for sustained personal interaction with students.

 

I like to make use of the smaller roster by giving students short writing assignments related to their essay prompts, then going around and reading each response—an activity I wouldn’t have time for in the larger class. In fact, I’ve found one of the best ways to envision how to spend time in the co-requisite is simply to ask myself, “What can you accomplish here that the restrictions of the larger class preclude you from doing there?”

 

Don’t Fall Back on “Skills and Drills”

Barbara Bell points out that “skills and drills should, of course, be avoided in any writing class,” but the brevity of the co-requisite may make rote work “more tempting” as instructors look for short, easily quantifiable uses of classroom time. To make the co-requisite instruction as accessible and relevant as possible, Bonny Bryan relies on “student writing to shape course content,” as does Sandy Starkey, who warns against “any kind of work that is not directly related to the writing the students themselves are doing for the course.”

 

Don’t Move Too Quickly

Experienced instructors take advantage of the extra time offered by the co-requisite. Bonny Bryan believes that “slowing down enables you to be thorough in your instruction and gives the students the time to both process the information and practice what they are learning.” For Bonny, slowing down means being more thorough with every aspect of instruction: “For instance, rather than looking at two examples of effective quote integration, I focus on multiple examples. I have students locate examples in their assigned reading, ask them to generate examples in their own writing, then have them share their examples with each other and with the group.” 

 

The speed at which new material comes at accelerating students can be daunting; it’s the reason too many of them bail out before they’ve had a chance to realize that they are, indeed, capable of handling the work. It’s important, therefore, to create a sense of the co-requisite as an oasis, a place where students can catch their breath, and catch up on what they’ve missed.

 

Don’t Be Too Hands-Off

While the co-requisite should provide a safe space to ask questions and take risks, the comfortable atmosphere shouldn’t lead to a sense that it’s okay to goof off. Even as they encourage students to delve more thoughtfully into their own work, professors need to keep an eye open for those who can benefit from an intrusive instructor presence. As Jennifer Baxton notes: “Ideally, the instructor should set up each class session in terms of what goals the students can achieve that day and help make their progress transparent.” Yes, variety is the spice of any co-requisite, but students should feel responsible for achieving some tangible outcome by the end of each class.

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 khaimesk@kennesaw.edu or visit her website: Acts of Composition

Overview

I recently attended the Conference on Community Writing in Philadelphia. This wonderful conference recognized many community engaged projects in which students move beyond the walls of the classroom to contribute to the greater good of their communities through writing. The vision of the Coalition for Community Writing supports:

Writing as a mindful, creative, and social practice, forged in community partnerships, to promote socially, economically, and environmentally resilient communities. We are reimagining how communities write themselves; how writing is used as a tool for public awareness and expression, for dialogue across difference, and for community building; and how higher education and communities can collaborate toward these ends. We envision a transformation of higher education to encourage impactful curricula and research as essential outputs of institutions that serve as a vital part of their communities.

I attended many thoughtful, passionate sessions in which teachers from a variety of institutions presented on writing projects that focused on immigration, homelessness, social justice and other important community partnerships. I was moved by understanding the impact we can make through including these kinds of hands-on learning opportunities in our writing classes. Many universities now include community engagement and service learning to promote this kind of involvement for their students as part of their institutional missions.

 

Digital writing and multimodal composition provide many opportunities for students to create artifacts that contribute to awareness campaigns for all kinds of community engagement. Students can work with their campus communities, community partners, and participate in online conversations through social media campaigns and participatory journalism. Some of these projects are ongoing and supported by our institutions and others are one time, limited projects that support an immediate community need. I have included examples in the resources section below for consideration and brainstorming. I have worked with many types of community-engaged projects (large and small) throughout my career that focused on different populations, organizations and community issues. Sometimes I have students come up with projects on their own and other times I come to them with established partnerships.

 

Here is one example of an ongoing partnership in which, over the past couple of years, my students have worked with an organization, Rescue Dog Games that brings awareness to the importance of pet adoption:

Rescue Dog Games brings these strong pet rescues and organizations together to bring awareness to the need in the Atlanta area “to adopt—not shop.”

This group works together with local and national rescue organizations to create partnerships and promote awareness for pet adoption along with an annual festival that “shines a light on the importance of pet adoption and encourages people to get outside and PLAY more with their dogs.”

 

For this project, my students collaborated with Rescue Dog Games and 20 of their community partners for a rescue dog event to promote awareness and create community connections between rescue organizations. Students created digital content for each organization to tell the stories of the organizations and to promote the festival. Each student created an interactive feature article and a digital story. The students worked in content design teams to organize, edit, and manage project components.

 

 

These stories now appear on the Rescue Dog Games website story page and are used by the partner organizations to showcase their stories and to promote their goals. This relationship with this organization has gone beyond this single class and semester as subsequent classes created digital stories of the event day and have started a digital story archive for adoption stories that feature individual dogs that have found their “fur-ever homes” in new families.

Background Readings and Resources

 

 

Assignment Overview:

Goal: To work with a community partner to create a human/dog interest digital story and interactive feature article written and produced to be used on the Rescue Dog Games website and in the Rescue Dog Games social media and other media outlets.

 

Interview and Visual Content Curation: Each student coordinates an interview with the community partner to research the group and curate visual content for the story.

 

Compose, Revise and Edit feature articles and digital stories

 

Content Design Teams will work together to give feedback, revise and edit the content to deliver to the client. Teams responsible for organizing communication, tasks, goals and deadlines. Teams create a Google drive team space to keep minutes of their meetings, curate images, storyboards, scripts, peer response and final deliverables.

 

Note: All content must adhere to professional communication practices including citation and attribution, sourcing of images (that are not original) and the use of copyright free music.

 

Reflections on the Activities

I have found that when students work with real-world community partners, their sense of engagement and ownership is increased. Not only are they contributing to larger conversations about important issues, they also get the opportunity to work in real professional settings that require them to shape strong professional communication and work ethics. They learn about deadlines, client feedback, style guides and professional collaboration. This kind of work also moves their classroom work into public spaces and allows them to create showcase pieces in their developing writing portfolios. More than ever, employers are looking for the kinds of skills students gain from these kinds of projects. What better use of our classroom time than engaging students to use their writing skills to contribute to the greater good?

Salena ParkerSalena Parker (recommended by Katie McWain) is pursuing her PhD in Rhetoric with a concentration in World Literature at Texas Woman's University. She expects to finish in December 2021. She teaches Composition I and II and serves as an English Professor at Collin College in McKinney, TX. She has also taught College Readiness Writing, Introduction to Humanities, and ESL abroad. Her research interests include post-modern literature, rhetorical agency, contemporary global literature, memoirs, rhetoric & composition, photography, and feminist literature. 

 

Is there an instructor or scholar that helped shape your career in rhet/comp? How? 

Although my time with her was short, Dr. Katie McWain shaped my entire outlook of rhet/comp. With her teaching and advice, I’m able to see rhet/comp as a more fluid, yet intricate area of research that I can mold with my many, many interests. 

 

Katie was the epitome of professionalism, adaptability, and grace; she instigated and worked with us to contribute to meaningful conversations about the gaps in research that exist in rhet/comp, as well as how we can integrate aspects like multimodality, transfer, and embodiment in our research/classrooms. Katie went beyond knowledge and skills and really listened to our questions and problems and did her best to help us in every way she could. When we had Focus Fridays (Professional Development opportunities), Katie put her all into giving us tips, advice, and information that we can adapt and use inside and outside the classroom. Her hard-working mentality kept me motivated and eager to do more.

 

I’m humbled that she chose me for this program, and to have worked with her as a GTA. Though she’s gone, I will strive to keep Katie’s light and enthusiasm with me as I teach my scholars and encourage others to do their best. 

 

What is the most important skill you aim to develop in your students? 

I’d have to say agency, for sure. Free will is a privilege, and as adults we should all have a form of agency in education and the working world. However, I don’t know if I provide agency for students; I’m thinking that I instead provide the opportunity for scholars to investigate—and sometimes wrestle with—their own sense(s) of agency. There were a few moments in my undergrad career where I was able to sit down and really think about how I handle different academic situations, especially stressful ones. My goal is to give those kinds of introspective opportunities to my scholars; identifying one’s sense of agency is hard, and using agency is even harder. Yet, I think we all need to be aware of how agency functions in academic environments and communities. Having that “a-ha moment” where a scholar finds their agency and how they want to use it—that’s what I’m hoping and looking for each semester. Sometimes, those moments happen, and other times they don’t. Either way, I’m going to keep working to give scholars opportunities to search for and wrestle with their self-awareness of agency. 

 

What’s it like to be a part of the Bedford New Scholars program? 

The Bedford New Scholars program is all about learning, sharing, and growing as emerging scholars of our fields. Each member of the program has stories and experience(s) to share and learn from—our collective Assignments that Work are testament to this fact. We’re given opportunities throughout the year to lend our voices and ideas to projects that will directly affect student learning, adjunct/instructor/professor workload, and best of all, we can share this knowledge with our respective communities across the nation. 

 

At the Bedford Scholars Summit in Boston, we were able to interact with members of the Marketing, Editorial, and Media departments and get insight into the teaching and academic support instructors receive from outside the college/university. We collaborated with one another on current problems/lacks of research in our field(s) as well as how we can grow to be more inclusive, more diverse, and more engaged inside the classroom. There were fun times to be had, too—touring the Boston Public Library and traversing bustling Boston streets gave all the Scholars the chance to increase the strength of our friendship and shared mission to be the best scholars and teachers we can be. 

 

What do you think instructors don’t know about educational publishing but should? 

I think instructors should know that there is a lot of adaptability to be found in educational publishing. Instructors can contribute to student success in academe by using educational publishing as an opportunity to hone skills used in college/university teaching; interpersonal communication, content development, multimodal inquiry, and hands-on experience are just a few skills that can be explored. Using Bedford/St. Martin’s as an example, instructors can also have numerous (possibly more) opportunities to expand network communities in places that they might not have thought of before, like content marketing, publishing operations, and application management. There are innovative, different ways to build on content expertise and educational practices besides instructing in a classroom; educational publishing is one of the options instructors can take to diversify themselves and their pedagogies. 

 

Salena’s Assignment that Works

During the Bedford New Scholars Summit, each member presented an assignment that had proven successful or innovative in their classroom. Below is a brief synopsis of Salena's assignment. You can view the full details here: Research Project Paper 

 

The main goal of my Research Paper assignment is to assist scholars with balancing their writing processes with rigor, patience, and enthusiasm via a research-based assignment. The assignment centers on a process of invention, investigation, editing/revision, and—most importantly—communication. Each scholar is allowed to research a topic they find to be impactful to their livelihoods or education and show their audiences why their topics and research matter inside and outside the college classroom. The Research Papers are created through brainstorming activities, writing days, and Workshop Days, with Workshop Days being the most important part of this assignment. Everyone comes to class on that day with copies of their work and pre-made questions to discuss as they communicate with one another about what works, what doesn’t work, and what can be improved upon in their respective papers. Most of my scholars appreciate Workshop days the most because it’s communication and research in action; they can share their frustrations, preferences, and “lightbulb moments” with one another in a productive, generative space. After they turn in their Research Papers, they have the opportunity to reflect on the process, if they wish, and tell me what worked and ways I can improve the assignment for future courses. 

 

Learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board on the Bedford New Scholars Community page.

 

I’m writing this post at a time when first-year programs across the country are being questioned. Unfortunately, same old, same old: these challenges come in cycles, every ten years or so, and they come to first-year writing courses because they (we) are often seen as “just remediation” that universities should not have to offer, or as sources of money that the university could use elsewhere on other, “sexier” programs. During my career, I’ve faced these challenges at every turn and at three universities: it’s pretty much always the same story. As I write this, my university is involved in a review of undergraduate education, and while I believe that under the brilliant leadership of Adam Banks and Marvin Diogenes the Program in Writing and Rhetoric will continue to prosper and to offer essential knowledge to our undergrads, I have watched as other parts of the University put forth programs that could “substitute” or “count for” PWR. Might sound good at first, but scratch the surface and you’ll find that these “substitute” programs are not grounded in rhetorical theory and practice and are not writing courses. And so it goes, as writing program directors and faculty continue to do work that, in poet Marge Piercy’s words, “is real.”

 

In fact, first-year writing programs have never been more necessary, more crucial to our students and to public discourse than they are today. Speaking to The Academic Minute, John Duffy, Director of the Writing Program at Notre Dame, notes the dismal state of public discourse so apparent everywhere, and goes on to argue that we have at hand the remedy for an onslaught of toxic rhetoric in—wait for it—the first-year writing course: “First-year composition is more than an introductory writing class,” he writes. “It is a course in ethical communication, one that offers students and the rest of us a hopeful alternative to our debased public discourse.”

 

I am grateful for John Duffy and for this “academic minute.” It sums up in just a few words the reason I define the rhetoric I teach as “the art, theory, and practice of ethical communication.” It’s why I put emphasis on ethical considerations in all of my classes, in my writing center work, and in all of my textbooks: because these considerations lie at the heart of what it means to be an honest communicator today.

 

Writing program directors and faculty know this in their bones. But we need to make this case more strenuously and persistently, making sure that our students understand it and that we are spreading the message throughout our campuses, especially among policy makers.

 

In the meantime, you can hear (and read) John Duffy’s “academic minute” here.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 3052244 by Studio32, used under the Pixabay License

By the time of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, America had just concluded a bad decade. Watergate, Kent State, rampant inflation, the abject failure of the Vietnam War, Soviet adventures in Afghanistan, and the Iran hostage crisis had all taken their toll on the national morale, and people were feeling rather down and morose. So, when a young and inexperienced American hockey squad defeated the defending- champion Soviet team in what wasn't even the gold medal round, the country seized upon the occasion as grounds for a national celebration. One would have thought that America had just won the First and Second World Wars combined to judge from the level of elation and patriotic pride that greeted the victory, as "going for the gold" became the unofficial national motto for what would soon be known as the Reagan eighties.

 

America, of course, isn't the only country that treats international sports victories as surrogates for military success—after all, that is what the original Olympic games were for—but it does make the most movies about such events. And it is in this context that we can understand the enormous popularity of the recently released Ford vs. Ferrari. So, let's have a look.

 

Ford vs. Ferrari belongs to a genre of sports movies—often "based on a true story"—in which the protagonist beats the odds to achieve some kind of athletic triumph or another— a genre that includes such fictional films as Rocky and Breaking Away, and such real life movies as Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story and Rudy (Chariots of Fire is a British version of this sort of thing). The key thing about these movies is their focus on an underdog, someone (or an entire team) whose eventual triumph serves as a kind of parable of the American dream. At first glance, then, Ford vs. Ferrari would seem to belong to a very different kind of sports film, pitting the gigantic Ford Motors corporation against a boutique Italian race car manufacturer, but by pitting two ageing driver/designers against the Ferrari legacy of track dominance, the movie manages to create a David vs. Goliath scenario after all, with Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles playing the role, in effect, of America's Lake Placid hockey team, and Ferrari standing in for the Russians.

 

Which explains why such a film would be conceived and produced now, and why it should be such a success. Because America is having another bad decade. Increasingly divided along ideological lines, still suffering from the after-effects of the Great Recession, watching the war on terrorism turn to an infinity war, and nervously monitoring the rise of China to superpower status, Americans are badly in need of a good shot in the arm. Enter Hollywood, right on cue, with just what the country needs, remaining true to the slogan that in America when the going gets tough, the tough make movies.

 

Now, if only they could come up with something to make us feel better about the global climate crisis that our love affair with the internal combustion engine has helped create. Hmmm. I wonder if Greta Thunberg plays hockey.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 152088 by OpenClipart-Vectors, used under Pixabay License

 

I recently had the chance to visit a former student who now teaches at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, where we spent an evening talking about the research his students have been doing to study important local issues. In one of his classes, he engaged students in studying the cruise industry and its relationship to Juneau, noting that this small city of 32,000 receives “about one and a half million cruise ship passengers” every year. (I have been such a passenger; you may have too.) Most of his students took this state of affairs for granted and were grateful for the jobs created by the industry; most said they’d never thought much about it. That was before, however, they began their own research. Working in small groups, they began to gather data about the history and impact of the cruise industry on their city—on air and water quality, on quality of life, on employment and education, even on homelessness. They began to trace the web of connections between the desires of the cruise companies and local government policies.

 

As the progressed in their research, the students made use of Historypin, a not-for-profit organization that partners with cultural and civic organizations to help build better and stronger communities. According to their website:

 

We collect, curate and structure stories to bring people together, one story at a time…


Through our projects we bring communities together. We get people talking. About shared experiences. About their connections with each other. About the places they’ve lived, worked and played. About the history that’s alive in the buildings and spaces around them.


If you run our programme in your local café, library or museum you’ll unlock new connections and understanding. We can also help you present the stories on our interactive mapping platform historypin.org

 

The students used this platform to “map” the connections they were finding, creating a dense matrix that began to reveal certain trends and facts about how their city was being affected—in ways none of them could have begun to imagine just a couple of months before. As their teacher remarked, “The act of ‘pinning’ constitutes a visual special tactic in that they make visible sites and experiences that are often invisible, unknown or disregarded.” In short, these students were becoming powerful researchers, creating new knowledge that could be of great importance to their community.

 

Their teacher, Richard Simpson, is at work on a long essay detailing this classroom project even as he plans for a new project on a new subject for the coming term. I will write more about it when this article is published. In the meantime, if you do not know about Historypin and its many programs, checking it out may give you some great ideas for local projects your students could take on.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 2650303 by piviso, used under the Pixabay License