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Donna Winchell

Argument and Aesthetics

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Jan 11, 2019

All claims, whether of fact, value, or policy, are the thesis statements that arguments support. It may seem a bit counterintuitive that claims of fact need to be supported, but keep in mind that readers or listeners may need to be convinced that a statement of fact is indeed true. Consider, for example, the resistance to the claim that global warming is changing the earth’s climate.


Less surprising, perhaps, is the need to support a claim of value. One of the large areas in which to support a claim of value is aesthetics. Judgments about art are value judgments and are expressed through claims of value. Any time you express an opinion about a painting, a film, a book, a concert, or any other work of art, you are making a value claim. Others don’t have to agree with you, but well-written argument supporting a claim of value will rely on clear references to specific elements of the work and try to convince others that your opinion is valid.


The recent Golden Globe awards elicited a flurry of responses about the values implicit in the choice of winners. Two of the big winners were Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody. Audiences clearly liked Green Book, the story of talented black musician Dr. Don Shirley and his foray into the American South of the 1960s accompanied by his newfound chauffeur/bodyguard, rough cut Italian bouncer Tony Vallelonga. The film is a feel-good story that, while recording the animosity and blatant racism that Shirley faces in the American South, also focuses on Vallelonga’s growing realization of how ridiculous the rules are. The climax is reached when Dr. Shirley is preparing to perform for four hundred white guests, but he, in his elegant tuxedo, is not allowed to eat in the same room with them.


Less favorably impressed than many critics and moviegoers were the ones who knew the real Dr. Shirley best—his family. While audiences applauded the friendship that blossomed between the two men, the family denied that a friendship ever developed, arguing that it was merely a business arrangement. To his credit, Mahershala Ali, who played Shirley, acknowledged after the awards show that he was not aware that there were close family members of Shirley that he could have talked to in order to learn more about Shirley’s relationship to his family, which is presented negatively in the movie. To their credit, Shirley’s family congratulated Ali on winning the award for Best Supporting Actor for the movie, praising his acting ability. In depicting the relationship between Shirley and Vallelonga as he did, the film’s director chose a picture of racial harmony that people wanted and needed to see over fidelity to truth. As such, the value the movie is accorded depends on whether a viewer wanted accuracy or sentimentality.


A similar judgment call had to be made in the making of Bohemian Rhapsody. Ironically, what some view as the limitations of the movie were caused by the directors’ attempt to please surviving members of the rock band Queen featured in the film. One criticism is that director Bryan Singer and his replacement Dexter Fletcher tried to make the PG-13 movie that the remaining band members wanted by downplaying the reality of the life of lead singer Freddie Mercury. Mercury was brilliantly played by Rami Malek, and it is obvious that Mercury was bisexual, but the portrayal of his same-sex relationships is so delicate that it almost comes as a surprise when he is diagnosed with the AIDS that killed him. Some critics wanted a warts-and-all expose of Queen’s—and Mercury’s—backstory, but felt they got a sanitized stereotypical biopic instead.


As with most arguments, arguments about aesthetics are received differently by different audiences, as are the artworks themselves. A scene from an even more recent movie, All Is True, has Kenneth Branagh as Shakespeare state, “When I dip the ink and make the mark, all is true.” The quotation is more memorable than accurate.


Photo Credit: “Golden Globes Hosts Sandra Oh, Andy Samberg Preview "Crazy-Pants" Show”by Marco Verch on Flickr, 1/3/19 via a CC BY 2.0 license.


As always at this time of year, I’m checking to see what words have been called out as especially characteristic or indicative of the year we have just endured. The first one I came across was from Merriam-Webster, which chose “justice,” their Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski saying that “the pursuit of justice and the potential of obstruction of that pursuit are at the eye of the storm” today. Sokolowski goes on to note that people looked up the term “justice” in surges, especially around the time of the Kavanaugh hearings and the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, and during President Trump’s many attacks on the Department of Justice.


The venerable Oxford English Dictionary opted for “toxic,” defining the word as “poisonous” and noting that it captured the atmosphere in many countries this last year. went for “misinformation” for absolutely obvious reasons, as we are currently awash in what the dictionary calls “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.” And the Cambridge Dictionary chose “nomophobia”—the fear of being without a mobile phone or being able to use it—as their word of the year.


Others weighed in with their own nominations. In an article for the Cleburne Times Review, Steve and Cokie Roberts lamented the government’s current “amnesia” regarding two important words: “debt” and “deficit.” They argue that “rapidly rising debt payments will squeeze the government’s ability to serve as a safety net for needy Americans,” that our government will spend more money on interest than on children in the coming year, and that the fact that half of our national debt is held by China and other foreign countries all means we face “a dire threat to our economic and national security.” They then choose their word of the year, saying “But when it comes to that threat, the word of the year from most official Washington is simply ‘silence.’”


Of all these offerings, I gravitate most to “toxic,” which seems to capture in five letters the sense of ill-will, distrust, and sickness—both physical and mental-- that seems to permeate the air we are breathing these days. So I could certainly go with that as a word of the year. But as I’ve tried to think what one word I have heard over and over and over in the past year, another one comes to my mind: “unprecedented,” meaning something that hasn’t been done before. I believe I have heard this word at least several times on almost every newscast I have heard during 2018, most of them attached to something that our current President has done—or not done. From “unprecedented actions on asylum,” to “unprecedented actions against gun control,” to “unprecedented move to install a right-wing activist on the National Security Council,” to “unprecedented number of unfilled government positions,” and to “unprecedented unilateral decisions affecting national security”—not even to mention unprecedented tweeting. During one evening news cycle during December, I counted 18 uses of the term! Of course, unprecedented things can be good or bad, but my informal survey suggests that when this word is attached to the current government, its connotations are almost always negative.


Maybe teachers of writing should get in the act, naming our words of the year and asking our students to do the same. I wonder, for example, how students would evaluate the words offered here, how they would define them, and what better nominations they might have in mind. We could do a lot worse than begin the new year with a careful and thorough analysis of words that characterize our current moment. For my part, I’m going to be watching Congress closely to see if they take some unprecedented actions that will help lead to justice and to peace.


What is your word of the year? Leave a comment below!


Credit: Pixaby Image 698538 by StockSnap, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Typing content by Search Engine People Blog on FlickrThe last three assignments in the Incubator series of assignments that I have designed for my technical writing courses are directly related to one another. Students write a Short Proposal for the White Paper and the Research Poster projects that they will complete during the second half of the term. In today’s post, I will share the assignment for the Short Proposal.

Because I want them to focus their energy on the major report (the white paper), I ask for a short, memo-based proposal, rather than a longer document. The assignment gives students very specific guidelines to follow so that the more in-depth coverage from the textbook does not lead them to do more than they need to. My underlying goal for the activity is two-fold: I want them to learn to write a proposal, but just as importantly, I want to spot-check their topics for the white paper and research poster before they get too far into the project.

As with previous assignments in this series, the assignment below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. References to “Markel & Selber” in the assignment refer to chapters in the class textbook Technical Communication by Mike Markel and Stuart Selber.

Short Proposal Assignment


You will write a short proposal that presents the topic you will explore for your white paper and poster presentation. Your proposal should explain not only what the topic is but how it relates to your company (and therefore your career field and major) and the incubator goal of public outreach and education.

The Scenario

Today, you received the following memo, asking you to submit a proposal for a white paper and related poster presentation:

Ut Prosim Incubator logo Ut Prosim Incubator

   1872 Inventors Way, Blacksburg, Virginia 24060


   Interoffice Memo



To: All Incubator Companies

From: Traci Gardner, Ut Prosim Director

Subject: RFP: White Papers and Poster Presentations for December Publication

Date: October 1, 2018

Our Public Outreach Office is requesting proposals for white papers and research posters that will inform non-expert readers about a technical topic relevant to the work and mission of your company. These documents will share what we do and why we do it with the university, alumni, and local community. Your documents will also contribute directly to our goal of public outreach and education by adding to our growing library of documents that inform website readers about how science, technology, and engineering work.

As an objective white paper, accepted documents will either provide knowledge or information about a subject relevant to your company or provide solutions to a problem or challenge that relates to your company—or even a combination of both goals. These white papers will also be the basis of a presentation that will be part of the quarterly poster session we sponsor for the local community in December. As an extension, additional investors and clients also attend the session, so you have the potential to make critical connections for your business.

These white papers and poster presentations are due by November 26 [Portfolio 2 due date] and will be published in the December 2018 release on the Incubator website.

White Paper Expectations

  • Length: 25 pages or less.
  • Document Design: Polished, professional layout that relies on design strategies that increase the document’s readability. You are encouraged to use a non-traditional format that incorporates sidebars, columns, and other visually-interesting design strategies. Please do not include a cover page.
  • Graphics and Visual Elements: Include relevant graphical elements (e.g., photos, illustrations, graphs, tables). All graphical elements must be your company’s intellectual property, or you must provide complete documentation. Graphical elements that are not your own intellectual property must meet fair use guidelines.
  • Research Support: Information must be supported by fully-documented research, including relevant quotations. In addition to citing published research studies, you can take advantage of the campus community by tapping university experts on the topic you are discussing.
  • Documentation Format: APA citation style (or the appropriate style for your field, if desired—for instance, an electrical engineer can use IEEE).
  • Submission Format: *.doc, *docx, *.pdf, or Google Document link.

Additional criteria and examples will be provided once proposals are accepted.

Poster Presentation Expectations

  • Size: 48" X 36", presented in landscape orientation (horizontal).
  • Document Design: Polished, professional layout that relies on design strategies that increase the document’s readability. Must use appropriately-sized headings, text, and images.
  • Graphics and Visual Elements: Include as many relevant graphical elements (e.g., photos, illustrations, graphs, tables) as necessary to present your ideas. All graphical elements must be your company’s intellectual property, or you must provide complete documentation. Graphical elements that are not your own intellectual property must meet fair use guidelines.
  • Research Support: Information must be supported by fully-documented research, including short, relevant quotations. In addition to citing published research studies, you can take advantage of the campus community by tapping university experts on the topic you are discussing.
  • Documentation Format: APA citation style (or the appropriate style for your field, if desired—for instance, an electrical engineer can use IEEE).
  • Submission Format: *.ppt, *pptx, or Google Slides link.

Additional criteria and examples will be provided once proposals are accepted.

Proposal Requirements

Your proposal should be in memo format, be no more than four pages in length, and provide the following information to help us gauge the appropriateness of the topic for December publication:

  • Background (or Introduction)
    Give some background on your topic, your experiences with it to date, what you already know, etc. Then clearly state, “[We, OR your company name, OR similar] would like to produce a white paper and poster presentation on [your topic] for the following reasons: . . . .” In your statement, explain your motivations for sharing information about the topic with the public.
  • Areas to be Studied
    Provide more details on the proposed topic for your white paper and poster presentation so that the Public Outreach Office understands the approach you will take. Consider the following questions:
    • What are the key points you will explore or explain?
    • What are some questions you will ask and try to answer in this white paper and poster presentation?
    • How do the areas to be studied relate to your company’s mission?
    • What ethical and/or intercultural and global issues will you consider as you examine the topic you have chosen?
  • Methods of Research
    Explain how you will gather the information that you present in your white paper and poster presentation. Tell the Public Outreach Office your research strategy by outlining exactly how are you planning to gather information and find answers to your questions explored in the white paper and poster presentation.
  • Timetable
    Share a calendar that includes the target dates for various milestones that will lead to completion of your white paper and poster presentation. Be sure that your schedule allows you to finish by the white paper and poster presentation due date, November 26 [Portfolio 2 due date].
  • Qualifications
    Explain why you are qualified to do this research and outline the skills you have that will help you deal with this topic effectively.
  • Request for Approval
    Ask for approval; ask for guidance, articulate your biggest concerns at this point; ask for suggestions about next right steps; provide contact information.

Due Dates

October 8, 2018: Proposal submitted as a memo, addressed to me and to Manolito Reyna Bautista, Manager of the Public Outreach Office

November 26, 2018: Finished White Paper and Poster submitted [in Canvas, as part of Portfolio 2]

Any Questions?

If you need any help with your proposal, please let me know or contact my assistant, Leslie Crow <>.

Relevant Details

Note: These details apply to all of the projects you include in your portfolio.

Your company’s address is [Your Company Name], Ut Prosim Incubator, 1872 Inventors Way, Suite #[you choose a number], Blacksburg, Virginia 24060. Your company’s phone number is 540-555-5555. You may create a fictional Internet domain for your company, and use that domain for a web page address and your email addresses. If you’d like, you may create other information (including a logo) for your company as appropriate. Be sure that you use the information that you create consistently across all of your projects.

The Project Assignment

Step 1: Decide on the focus for your white paper and poster presentation(which you will write as future projects).
Your focus will be to inform non-expert readers about a technical topic that is related to your company (and therefore, related to your career field and major). Try to limit yourself to topics with which you have some expertise (or at least some experience) to simplify the research process. These example white papers may help you think of appropriate topics and/or approaches:

Step 2: Examine the information about proposals in Markel & Selber.
The textbook provides complete details on how to write proposals. Follow the textbook as you work on your project. In particular, be sure that you do the following:

  • Follow the “GUIDELINES: Demonstrating Your Professionalism in a Proposal” (starting on page 430 of Markel & Selber) to ensure you adopt the appropriate tone.
  • Use the “ETHICS NOTE: WRITING HONEST PROPOSALS” (starting on page 430 of Markel & Selber) to make your proposal professionally acceptable.
  • Work through the “GUIDELINES: Introducing a Proposal” (starting on page 432 of Markel & Selber) to gather information for your proposal’s Background section.
  • Explore the information in the “Tech Tip: Why and How to Create a Gantt Chart” (starting on page 436 of Markel & Selber) to see an effective strategy for explaining your timetable.

Step 3: Write the proposals for your white paper and poster presentation.
Compose your proposal, as requested in The Scenario above, with all the details you have gathered. Review the assessment guidelines below to ensure you have met all the requirements for the proposal. As you work, also keep the following points in mind:

  • Use plain language to make the ideas in your proposal are easy to find and read. Refer to the resources from Module 2 as needed.
  • Follow all relevant ethical guidelines as you work using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Chapter 2 (on page 40 of Markel & Selber).
  • Follow the suggestions for emphasizing important information, using the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 9 (on page 211 of Markel & Selber) to check your work.
  • Use the Writer’s Checklist for Chapter 11 (on page 288 of Markel & Selber) to ensure that your document takes advantage of design principles to make it reader-friendly.
  • Make a good impression with accuracy and correctness. Your document should be polished and professional.

Step 4: Check your draft against the Writer’s Checklist.
Be sure that you include the required features for instructions. Review your project, using the Writer's Checklist for Chapter 16 (on page 439 of Markel & Selber) and the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 5: Review your draft for design and basic writing errors.
Everything you write should use accurate/appropriate image editing, grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting. These are important basic writing skills that you should have developed in high school. Review your project, using the Writer’s Checklist at the end of Markel & Selber, Chapter 10 (on page 242 of Markel & Selber).

You can also consult the information on “Sentence-Level Issues” in Markel & Selber, “Appendix, Part D: Guidelines for Multilingual Writers (ESL)” (on page 683 of Markel & Selber). While the section is labeled for multilingual writers, it is useful for everyone. It includes explanations and examples for many common mistakes writers make.

Step 6: Submit your draft to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Post a rough draft of your Proposal to your Writing Group in Canvas in the 10/04 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas. Additional instructions are in the Discussion. If you do not post your draft by noon on Sunday, October 7, your group may not have time to provide feedback.

Step 7: Provide feedback to your Writing Group in Canvas.
Provide feedback to the members of your writing group in the 10/04 Draft Feedback Discussion in Canvas, by October 8 (end of the grace period). Use the information on the Writing Groups page to provide constructive feedback that will help your group members make concrete improvements to their drafts. You are not obligated to provide feedback for any drafts posted after noon on Sunday, October 7.

Step 8: Revise your draft.
Use the feedback that you receive from your group members to revise and improve your document. You can share your draft again with your Writing Group, if you desire. As you revise, keep in mind the advice in the steps above, as well as the Assessment Criteria below.

Step 9: Include a polished version of your project in Project Portfolio 2, due November 26.
Have your Proposal finished and ready for submission in your Project Portfolio 2, which is due Monday, November 26. The grace period for Project Portfolio 1 ends at 11:59PM on Thursday, November 29.

Assessment Criteria

For All Technical Writing Projects

All technical writing projects should meet the following general criteria:

  • Makes a good first impression as a polished and professional document.
  • Meets the needs of the intended audience.
  • Demonstrates how to emphasize important information.
  • Uses layout and formatting that makes information easy for readers to find and read, and that follows the standards you have set for your company.
  • Is written in plain language, which communicates the ideas clearly.
  • Follows all relevant ethical guidelines.
  • Uses accurate/appropriate grammar, spelling, punctuation, mechanics, linking, and formatting.

For Proposals

Your project should meet the following criteria for effective proposals, based on the checklist at the end of Chapter 16 of Markel & Selber:

  • Meets the guidelines established in the request for proposals (see The Scenario, above).
  • Demonstrates professionalism and honesty.
  • Includes an introduction that indicates the following:
    • the problem or opportunity.
    • the purpose of the proposal.
    • the background of the problem or opportunity.
    • your sources of information.
    • the scope of the proposal.
    • the organization of the proposal.
    • the key terms that you will use in the proposal.
  • Provides a clear, specific plan for research and justifies that methodology.
  • Describes the qualifications and experience clearly outlining
    • relevant skills and past work.
    • relevant equipment, facilities, and experience.
  • Includes full documentation for all ideas, words, and visuals that the work of others (see Part B, “Documenting Your Sources,” in Markel & Selber).

This assignment has gone relatively well. The most frequent issue has been confusion about memo format. Students either didn't follow the instructions and used other formats, or they did not follow the format accurately. The most serious issue that has come up has been failure to provide enough details and development of the proposal. I wonder if the emphasis on a “short” proposal has misled some to think that general and underdeveloped ideas were adequate. When I use this activity again, I will work to address both of these issues.

My next post will share the instructions for the white paper, which is the next project students worked on. Be sure to come back to read more about that activity, and in the meantime, if you have any feedback to share, please leave a comment below.


Photo credit: Typing content by Search Engine People Blog on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Miriam Moore

Be It Hereby Resolved

Posted by Miriam Moore Expert Jan 9, 2019

It’s January, and I am seeing signs of resolutions everywhere: explicit declarations of relationship, health, and professional goals, along with tacit commitments indicated by images of tracking devices, fitness equipment, organic fruits and veggies, garden plans, drawers or closets awaiting organization, and booklists. 


Resolve—along with related forms resolution and resolute—is a rich and powerful word, brought into English as a verb from Latin and extended via functional shift to serve also as noun. We resolve (make resolutions) to address what is unresolved—dissonant, jumbled, confused, unsettled, or lacking—in music, in labs, in institutions, in government, and in ourselves. 


After spending a day with colleagues and workshop leader Asao Inoue reflecting on our pedagogy and, in particular, our assessment and feedback practices, I am ready to make some resolutions for my FYC and IRW co-requisite classrooms this spring. I am also inspired by Traci Gardner’s "My New School Year’s Resolutions."


Here are my resolutions for this semester:


  1. Expand use of social media/technology to support collaborative activities outside the classroom, with an overarching goal of fostering a deeper sense of community within the class. Collaborative activities—from shared reading experiences to peer review—is difficult to establish (much less sustain) in the 150 minutes we are together weekly. And all too easily, these activities within my classes can become perfunctory, not constructive. As a starting point, I want to explore joint annotations of some sections of our more difficult readings using Google Docs.
  2. Give students more options and opportunities to negotiate our classroom activities and (some) assignment parameters. One of the “big ideas” or threshold concepts that I use to structure my writing course is that all writing involves choices that affect meaning, whether words, structures, details, punctuation, or organization. But I suspect it’s difficult for students to accept the potential power of (and responsibility for) smaller writing decisions when they have little sense of agency for broader learning activities in the classroom.
  3. Make a meaningful portion of a student’s grade related to the labor the student has invested in the process of the course (see Traci Gardner's post, as well as Asao Inoue’s Labor-Based Grading Contract). I am an Alabama Crimson Tide football fan (I hope I won’t lose too many readers at this point!), and I have read a several articles about Nick Saban’s approach to coaching, which centers on what he calls “the process.” He asks his players to commit to the process—the rigorous and regular work that goes into a season and into each individual game—not to a specific outcome. Players can control the time devoted to the process, but they cannot control (not fully!) the outcome. I am going to play with an analogy to Saban’s coaching this semester, asking my students to commit to a rigorous process that requires time: completing drafts, participating in workshops, reading (and annotating readings collaboratively), and exploring language with me. I am asking them to trust this process, and a significant portion of their grade will be derived from their willingness to devote time to this process, regardless of the final outcome or product.
  4. Introduce vocabulary and concepts from rhetorical and systemic-functional grammars. I have been using a writing-about-writing foundation for my FYC and co-requisite courses for a few years now, and I am pleased with the results. But I am not yet satisfied with my approach to grammar within that framework, and I’d like to experiment with the metalanguage of rhetorical grammar and SFG as strategies for helping students re-envision their grammatical choices.  
  5. Reduce the number of major writing assignments so that students can spend more time on them, seeing their investment in the process of these assignments yield intellectual insights that encourage them to continue reading and writing. Similarly, I plan to increase opportunities for low-stakes, exploratory writing and reflective writing.


My resolutions come from the tensions I have been wrestling with for the past couple of years: fair, meaningful, and useful assessments; effective collaboration; grammatical instruction that empowers student choices.


What are your resolutions for teaching in the coming year?

Cecilia SheltonCecilia Shelton (nominated by Dr. Michelle Eble) is pursuing her PhD in Rhetoric, Writing, and Professional communication in the English department at East Carolina University. She expects to finish in May 2019. She has more than ten years of experience teaching college writing so she has taught lots of different courses. Her favorite course was one called "Critical Writing Seminar" that married critical theories, pop culture, and writing and tried to employ a code-meshing pedagogy. Most recently, she has been teaching Writing Foundations courses (first and second year writing), Writing for Business and Industry, and Scientific Writing. Her research interests explore the intersections of cultural rhetorics and technical communication in activist work and social movement theory. She is also a 2018 CCCC Scholar for the Dream and a 2018 recipient of ECU's Diversity and Inclusion Award.


Students and their professors often have very different visions for what should come of a writing course, but on this we can agree: the first-year writing course is overloaded with expectations. As the single course with perhaps the most stakeholders invested in its outcomes, participating in the first-year writing classroom as a teacher or a student is a high stakes endeavor. For students who enter the classroom with 13 years of conditioning against their nonstandard cultural rhetorical practices—spoken, written, and otherwise—the stakes are even higher and the students are risk averse because of it.


In my time as a writing center administrator and an English instructor at an HBCU, my pedagogy became rooted in teaching students to become critical consumers and producers of language. That goal means different things to different teachers and students; for almost all Black students—regardless of their preparation for and perceived skill in writing—it means grappling with the probability that their race will likely always influence the way their language use is consumed and interpreted no matter how precisely they align themselves with standard English. I think it can also mean teaching students to see their cultural rhetorics as linguistic resources (not deficits) in producing texts that speak truth to power in the academy.  


The texts we hold up in our classrooms as worthy of study and the values imbued in our assignments betray our language politics. My "Soundtrack of the American Dream" assignment was my first real attempt to align my pedagogy with my language politics. In it, I ask students to "prepare a creative interpretation of the American Dream by composing an album cover and writing a track list for an album." More and more rhetoric and composition scholars are challenging the cannon and disrupting stale notions of expertise to explore new voices as models in the composition classroom. But how often are scholars willing (or allowed) to invite the same kinds of disruptions from students?


The Soundtrack of the American Dream assignment is, essentially, a much more interesting version of a critical analysis essay. It asks students to resist assumptions and generalizations of the “American Dream,” and it requires them to find concrete examples that consider the component parts of this myth and the significance of those parts to the whole concept (in other words, analysis). But it does this on terms that the student sets for themselves.


By foregrounding music as a cultural artifact that reflects the American Dream, students are free to assign importance and value to the voices that they see as credible. Although class discussions root everyone’s exploration in the same popular associations with the American Dream—money, houses, marriage, family, self-determination, etc.—students can approach these associations through the lens of their lived experience. Perhaps most importantly, students are explicitly invited to use the linguistic resources that best serve the lived experiences that they want to amplify in explaining and reflecting on the American Dream.


Because this assignment is now more than five years old, I often think about how it is aging. When I was much closer to it, I wrote about the pedagogical exploration that it represents here: Disrupting Authority . Having taught first-year writing less and less as I accumulate teaching experience and sharpen my pedagogy, I haven’t had many opportunities to revisit and revise the assignment. I expect that many scholars with a number of years of teaching experience share this retrospective stance. What could I do better here? How does my current research trajectory and pedagogical stance inform a project like this one?


The political and social urgency of this moment has brought resistance and activist rhetorics to the center of my research agenda and pedagogical commitments. Not only am I interested in students becoming critical producers and consumers of language, but I am also determined to support their advocacy and intervention in the systems they observe. Stevens (2009) offers a perspective that challenges me to see new opportunities in my Soundtrack of the American Dream assignment. She argues that “rhetors have a responsibility to choose between social reproduction and change, and part of this responsibility is to choose whether or not to accept rhetorical situations, and the social relations that construct them, as presented” (50). She goes on to argue in favor of inappropriate rhetorical strategies or even outright rejection of the rhetorical situation as potentially effective responses for students in our writing classrooms.


What would it look like for my students to outright reject the premise of an American Dream at all? Given the realities of the lived experiences of many people in this country, that kind of response seems to reflect not only critical thinking but also a true exigence for their writing outside my classroom and with audiences beyond the academy. Am I inviting the kind of responses that enable this sort of disruption and academic success at the same time? Shouldn’t I be? Are you? How are we preparing students to use language to break systems, not just see them? 


Among all of the many ways that first-year writing courses have been customized to meet specific institutional (and other) contexts, I am most heartened by those that offer students a way to think about language over strict guidelines for its usage. In a contemporary knowledge economy where technology and artificial intelligence can do more and more of the sentence level work that props up our bigoted notion of a standard variety of English—I want to give students more—preparing them to engage as active citizens of the world who use their critical thinking and composing skills to advocate for equity and justice feels right to me.


To view Cecilia’s assignment, visit The Soundtrack of the American Dream. To learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board, visit the Bedford New Scholars page on the Macmillan English Community.



Stevens, S. M. (2009). Dreaming to change our situation: Reconfiguring the exigence for student writing. In Stevens, S. & Malesh, P. M. (Eds.) Active voices: Composing a rhetoric for social movements (47-68). Albany: Statue University New York Press.

We know that many students who enter our colleges and universities are underprepared for the various challenges they face. We also know that, for a number of these students, the more traditional forms of academic support offered to them, like pre-curriculum or remedial courses in specific subject areas, simply have not been getting the job done. It comes as little surprise, then, that institutions across the nation continue to experiment with ways to support the academic success of underprepared students. Some, for example, have implemented a co-requisite model of instruction, which eliminates remedial courses in favor of integrating developmental support (in the form of a course, a lab, or additional activities, etc.) as part of, or offered concurrent with, their corresponding college-level courses.


The community colleges in NC are required to implement such a co-requisite model of instruction by 2020, and there are far-reaching implications for this mandated shift for those who direct, teach, or otherwise offer support for the community colleges’ courses in English composition, including ENG 111 and 112. For a number of years now, An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing (IGAW) has assisted ENG 111 and 112 instructors and students across the state as they worked to meet the goals and achieve the outcomes of their courses. We believe it can continue to be a valuable resource for NC community colleges' faculty and students as they transition to a co-requisite model of instruction for their courses. To that end, we’re providing some suggestions below for how IGAW might help support the co-requisite model.


One challenge that students in need of developmental support often face is a lack of familiarity with the college experience, including expectations for their academic work. As we indicate in our Preface, IGAW is designed specifically “to help college students, new to the world of higher education, to learn the territory, language, skills, codes, and secrets of academic writing.” Chapter 1, “Inside Colleges and Universities,” for instance, is designed to help students learn the “territory,” to investigate their local college or university context, and to position themselves as learners within their specific context. The chapter further helps students to identify college-level expectations for their research and writing and invites them to explore how writers learn to write in new contexts.


Additionally, Chapter 2, “Writing Process and Reflection,” is concerned with fostering students’ metacognitive awareness. Metacognitive awareness is a critical component of academic success for all students, but especially for those who may be underprepared for, or who struggle to acclimate to, college. The book supports such awareness by helping students identify and understand their own writing processes and by emphasizing the value of reflective practice through guided activities. All of these elements work together to help students identify critical parts of their own writing process, develop mechanisms and habits to support those elements, and build confidence in their approach to writing assignments moving forward.


Part 1 of IGAW also provides support for students’ analysis of various rhetorical situations using models that they can easily transfer from one writing situation to another. Students receive step-by-step support for the development of their own arguments, including guidance on conducting research and integrating primary and secondary sources as part of their arguments.


The heart of IGAW, Part 2, is its writing-in-the-disciplines approach, which, at its core, is about facilitating students’ enculturation into the various academic contexts they are likely to encounter as part of their college experience. The chapters in Part 2 attend to students’ development as “insiders” by asking them to investigate, analyze, and participate in the literate practices of professionals and other students working across the disciplines, including the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. In this way, IGAW makes students’ learning immediately applicable to their college experiences. The book’s attention to enculturation, or to the process of students’ development as academic “insiders,” is particularly important for underprepared students, who often lack familiarity with the habits of mind and “codes” of communication specific to disciplinary communities.


For students who struggle to see the applicability of academic writing to their futures, Part 2 also provides students with opportunities to apply the transferable skills they learn throughout the book to a variety of popular career paths, including health fields, education, business, criminal justice and law, among others.


Along with the material in the book itself, there is additional support in the LaunchPad for IGAW.  In the digital space, we have included comprehension quizzes for every reading in the book, so that instructors know right away whether a student is off track.  It also includes LearningCurve, which is adaptive grammar and citation quizzing. For students who already ‘get’ a given topic, they can complete the quizzing easily, moving through increasingly difficult material.  When students struggle, they are given additional questions and the questions respond to their answers, becoming easier or more difficult as they work through the material.  Guidance for finding solutions is also provided so that students are never perpetually ‘stuck.’ These resources can help to take some of the learning necessary to get on-level out of the classroom without leaving a struggling student unsupported.  


With its writing-in-the-disciplines approach to composition, IGAW introduces students to the communication practices of various academic and applied fields and works to make those practices less mystifying. In so doing, it welcomes students into the fold, making academia less daunting and their chosen careers more achievable. We created An Insider’s Guide with the idea that it could help all students succeed, regardless of the experience they are bringing to their composition classroom. We’d love to hear ideas that you have for how to engage with a co-requisite model, regardless of the teaching materials you’re using.

Donna Winchell

The Year in Review

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Dec 21, 2018

Each year sees headlines that capture a wide range of political controversies and shape national discourse. The year drawing to a close, though, has been a banner year for controversy in a nation more divided than it has been in a long time. I have noted before that “the news” on television, radio, and the Internet is largely not the objective reporting expected in the past, but biased commentary on events. It may not be a great time to be an American, but it seems to be a great time to study argument in today’s headlines – or it would, were it not for the fact that some positions are so extreme they provide better examples of poor reasoning than of argumentative discourse. Robert Mueller and his team may be drafting the most compelling arguments here at year’s end, but they are too heavily redacted to read and analyze.


In a year of controversy, here are a few of the many questions that have shaped public discourse:


  • Is the Electoral College outdated in modern America?
  • How do we eliminate party politics as the basis for selecting Supreme Court justices?
  • How do we respect the victims of the #MeToo movement without condemning those falsely accused?
  • What should our nation’s response be to the murder in a foreign country of a journalist working for an American newspaper?
  • What are the dangers when members of the press are viewed as enemies of the state?
  • Is a tweet a formal statement of public policy?
  • Should the proposed wall on our southern border be built?
  • What is the alternative to separating children from their parents at our border with Mexico?
  • Are immigrants guilty of more crimes than other Americans? Are illegal immigrants?
  • Can a sitting president be indicted for a crime?
  • What changes are needed in the Affordable Care Act?
  • What can be done to make our elections fairer?
  • What restrictions, if any, should there be on gun ownership?
  • What should be done about foreign interference in US elections?


These are large questions. Some of them do not have clear cut answers. They are all argumentative, even those that can be answered yes or no. They won’t be answered this year, or maybe even next year. Some have been around for decades, if not centuries. They are the substance of argument, the type of argument that shapes and shakes our country every day. They are the types of questions that our students need to be able to tackle with more than emotion.


Photo Credit: “Concept of important day” by Marco Verch on Flickr, 12/11/18 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

Jack Solomon


Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Dec 20, 2018


One of the more interesting recent news items from the world of American popular culture has been the announcement that Netflix, rather than cancelling its streaming reruns of that Gen X TV blockbuster, Friends, on January 1, 2019 (as many viewers feared), has actually decided to up its payments for the rights to the series from $30 million to $100 million per year. The continuing popularity of this pop culture icon in an era decades later than the period in which it originated offers a particularly good topic for semiotic analysis, revealing how the same cultural sign can signal entirely different meanings when the context in which it appears changes.


When we look at those contexts, the striking thing about the early 1990s and the mid-twenty-teens is their similarity. For the early 1990s, too, was a time of reduced expectations in the wake of a searing recession. Though Millennials and iGens today may not be aware of it, Generation X too was identified as the first generation that expected to do more poorly in life than their parents. Theirs was the Grunge era, when youth culture, making the best of a bad situation, turned to a shabby-chic aesthetic, reviving the thrift-shop consumer ethos of the late 1960s and shrugging off the glitz and glam of the "go-for-the-gold" 1980s. The cast of Friends—in a thoroughly unrealistic evocation of the new spirit with their West Village digs—accordingly made personal relationships more important than material possessions, and thus became role models for a generation that felt left out of the American dream.


Sound familiar? After all, today's young, whether Millennials or iGens, are coming of age in the long shadow of the Great Recession, and so can find much in common with these six young adults whose portrayers are now, after all, the age of iGen parents. So with both Gen X nostalgia, and iGen relatability, on its side, it's no surprise that Friends should be worth $100 million to Netflix, as the streaming service maneuvers to survive in an era of intense competition.


But a little more research into the enduring popularity of Friends reveals something of a surprise, a difference upon which we can hang a semiotic interpretation. For it appears, according to an article in the New York Times, that for iGen viewers the appeal of Friends lies not in the personal relationships but in the thoroughly laid back lifestyles of the friends in question. This group of people prefers hanging out with each other at their favorite coffee house—and otherwise taking time out from their jobs—to the frantic pursuit for career success. It isn't that they don't have certain career aspirations, but they don't get all worked up about them. They'd rather fool around.


This reveals the dismal reality facing today’s youth – the worst of all possible worlds. At a time when the gateways to socio-economic prosperity and career satisfaction are either narrowing or slamming shut entirely (especially if technology isn't your thing), the cultural pressure is to achieve a big money, career success – to be the next Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. The Grunge era said, in effect, "if the opportunities aren't there, wealth isn't where it's at anyway: learning to live with less in the way of material prosperity by turning to your friends and lovers is the way to go"; while the Google era says, "if you can make it to the top, join the club, your TED talk invite is in the mail; otherwise, tough." No wonder at least some young fans of Friends feel nostalgia for an era they never experienced.


I think that there may be an added dimension, another difference, that accounts for the enduring popularity of Friends in a new era. For in that dim and distant time before smart phones, when these six friends wanted to get together, they really got together, in person, not via text, Facebook, Instagram, or whatever. Today, the smart phone is the center of social attention, and a continuing stream of news reports cite an accompanying teen despondency over an inability to socialize with others in person. Facebook has swamped face-to-face.


Thus, it is highly likely that younger fans today are responding to something that has been taken away from them. So here is a case where popular culture, which so often reflects the need for each generation to step out of the shadow of the previous, presents the spectacle of youthful nostalgia for what is effectively the world of their parents. Once a sign of Gen X adaption to tough times, Friends is now a signifier, paradoxically enough, of loss.


Photo Credit:  Pixabay Image 3774381 by mohamed_hassan, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


I hope that teachers of writing everywhere are finishing up their last grading of the term, seeing students off for the break, and enjoying some quiet, peaceful, loving holiday time. While we all have much cause for concern—and alarm—at the state of our country and our planet, while many are suffering from unspeakable loss and pain and grief, my hope is that this holiday season will provide at least some bit of respite and some time for repose and rejuvenation.


Just this week I’ve finished reading Michelle Obama’s remarkable memoir, Becoming, and reading her words has given me many moments of respite from the cares and woes of everyday life along with great inspiration. In case you haven’t read it yet, here is the final paragraph of this fabulous book:

In sharing my story, I hope to help create space for other stories and other voices, to widen the pathway for who belongs and why. I've been lucky enough to get to walk into stone castles, urban classrooms, and Iowa kitchens, just trying to be myself, just trying to connect. For every door that's been opened to me, I've tried to open my door to others. And here's what I have to say, finally: Let's invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. It's not about being perfect. It's not about where you get yourself in the end. There's power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there's grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become.


I can’t think of better words, or better goals, to aim for in 2019. I’m wishing the grace Obama speaks of for all of you, along with good health and happy teaching in the coming year.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2953722 by rawpixel, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Lizbett Tinoco

Lizbett Tinoco (nominated by Dr. Kate Mangelsdorf) completed her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition in May 2018 from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). At UTEP, she was Assistant Director of the University Writing Center and taught a variety of courses, including First-Year Composition, Technical Writing, Professional Writing and Writing Program Administration. Her research interests focus on writing program administration, community colleges, writing centers, and multilingualism. She joined Texas A&M University-San Antonio as an Assistant Professor of English in the Fall of 2018.


One of the major assignments I teach in my technical writing course is a job market portfolio. The job market portfolio includes a rhetorical analysis of a job ad. Then, students create a tailored resume and cover letter for the specific job. In addition to these documents, I also want students to practice the rhetorical skills necessary for preparing and engaging in a job interview.


The job interview portion of the job market portfolio has taken on various iterations over the years I have taught this course. A few years ago, I had students schedule individual mock interview appointments with me. As you can image, these took up a lot of time! After trying this approach for one semester, I realized that my students and I, both, did not have enough time to schedule individual mock interviews. I did not simply want to get rid of this assignment because, today, more and more interviews are being conducted online through various video conferencing platforms. I wanted to make sure my students were prepared for the demands they might face when on the job market. The following semester, I was assigned an online technical writing course, so this made me rethink the job interview assignment.


Since the technical writing course I taught was online, I asked students to record their job interview responses using their cell phones or other devices they had available to them. I provided students with different groups of questions and asked them to provide a response to one question in every group. This version of the assignment went well, but in the reflection of the assignment, many students discussed feeling somewhat awkward recording themselves. A lot of them felt like the experience did not simulate a real one.


When I started my first tenure-track position at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, I learned I was going to teach technical writing. During my new faculty orientation, someone from the Mays Center for Experiential Learning & Community Engagement provided us with information about the services they offer to faculty and students. One of the resources our institution has access to is Big Interview. This online program gives students the opportunity to practice their interview skills. The program offers sets of questions based on different job industries, but instructors also have the ability to include their own set of questions. Students in my course really enjoyed that an interviewer asked them the questions, and then, they provided responses. Students felt this a more realistic experience.


One of the biggest issues my students had while using Big Interview was the accessibility of the program. Like many online programs, students had login issues and difficulty navigating the interface of the program. More significantly, students could not use the program on their cell phones. As I’m preparing to teach technical writing again next semester, I’m debating whether or not to use Big Interview. I keep asking myself the following questions: Will students have access to the technology they need to use this program? If students don’t have access, will they have the time to use computers available to them on campus?


As I continue to develop assignments, I need to make sure I am mindful about access to resources and technology that are necessary for my students to successfully complete assignments.


To view Liz’s assignment, visit Job Interview. To learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board, visit the Bedford New Scholars page on the Macmillan English Community.

Kim Haimes-KornToday’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.


Compositionists have always valued reflection. The collaborative collection, Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts for Writing Studies (2015), identifies reflection and metacognition as one of the important threshold concepts for teaching writing. Kara Taczak, in her threshold essay, defines the difference between cognition and metacognition. “Reflection is a mode of inquiry: a deliberate way of systematically recalling writing experiences to reframe the current writing situation. It allows writers to recognize what they are doing in that particular moment (cognition), as well as to consider why they made the rhetorical choices they did (metacognition)” (78). Writers experience the most effective learning when they shuttle back and forth between these concepts that ask the questions: What did I do? and Why did I do it?


It is especially important for multimodal composers to reflect upon their rhetorical choices because it involves non-linear and multidimensional thinking. “The need for metacognition assumes special importance when writers find themselves required to work in unfamiliar contexts or with forms with which they are unfamiliar” (Taczak 78). When students are immersed in multimodal writing projects, they are working on discreet tasks but reflection and metacognition asks them to take a step back and look at a range of skills and a body of work. It also encourages writers to realize the value of the work they have produced, build on prior knowledge and transfer skills to other contexts.


We often assign reflective assignments at the end of the term that ask students to review their work in our classes and articulate their learning through touching back on the writing and projects they have completed over the term. I use many kinds of reflective activities throughout my classes but I find these final course reflections the most rewarding (for both students and teachers) as they demonstrate learning and create conscious awareness.


In traditional classes, students can refer back to and cite specific examples from their work, including quotations. When I assign a final reflection in a multimodal classroom I ask them to crosslink (internally) to their work and create an interactive document in which the reader can immediately access their coursework by clicking through to the finished documents. I have students compose these reflections on their blogs but you can also use any type of electronic document (Word, Google Doc) that allows for hyperlinks.


Background Readings and Resources


Steps of the Assignment:

  1. Prompt students to review and annotate their work, noting areas of success and struggle along with rhetorical choices they made along the way.
  2. Ask them to reflect, in writing on these rhetorical choices and support their ideas with examples, references, and quotations from their texts over the course of the term.
  3. Crosslink to particular examples that support their ideas and allow readers to immediately access their work.
  4. Ask students to include visual representations (images and captions) that represent their experiences as writers in the class and demonstrate digital literacies and multimodal competencies.


Reflections on the Activity

Evaluating writing is one of the most difficult things we do as writing teachers. I find that these final reflections provide closure and give context to student work while revealing the processes and rhetorical choices students make along the way. I always hope that students take certain ideas and practices from my classes, and this assignment shows me that they have a conscious awareness and can identify these lessons for themselves. They give me a solid overview that is substantiated with artifacts generated as part of the experience.  



Work Cited:

Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth Wardle. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Utah State University Press, 2015.


I just returned from a meeting sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the subject of strengthening undergraduate education. Led by Pam Grossman, Dean of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Mike McPherson, former president of the Spencer Foundation, the meeting included scholars from many disciplines and universities as well as from foundations and other agencies. Topics ranged from how students learn best (active learning, evidence-based practices) to how to assess student learning, to methods for advancing “skillful teaching practices” and ways in which disciplinary organizations can support such practices.


At the opening session, speakers identified three major trends across colleges and universities and organizations: increased attention to teaching and professional development; increased attention to practitioner inquiry/teacher research; and a disconnect between research on teaching in K-12 settings and in higher education.


I came away encouraged about the field of rhetoric and writing: more than other disciplines, and often much more, our field exemplifies the first two trends and has answers to the questions the meeting leaders posed—along with a rich and now voluminous volume of research to support what we know. The intense efforts of teachers and researchers in our field over the last forty years have certainly paid off: in terms of questions of pedagogy especially, we are far ahead of other disciplines.


What I was most impressed with during this meeting, however, was the clear connection established between research and teaching. Anna Neumann from Teacher’s College reported on a study that followed forty university professors for five years following tenure, asking them how and where they pursued their ongoing scholarly learning: 66 percent reported that they did so through research, and 90 percent said that they did so through teaching. I was surprised by this finding because her study covered a number of fields—but it is exactly what I would have expected for the field of rhetoric and writing studies, though the 90 percent might have been closer to 95 percent!


Another study conducted at San Francisco State also caught my attention. This study was conducted as part of that university’s Metro College Success Program, which focuses on preparing teachers to practice what they call “social justice pedagogy,” which aims at truly inclusive practices, on presenting material through low-stakes practice and timely and relevant examples, and that recognizes that students who arrive “underprepared” do so not through some deficit in themselves but because a system characterized by conscious and unconscious biases doesn’t allow them to be “prepared.” The study attempted to measure the learning and pass rates of students in four different groups: a control group that received no intervention; a group that received supplemental instruction; a group that had small classes; and a group that had faculty trained in social justice pedagogy. The results: those in the control group had a 64.5 percent pass rate, which matched the average pass rate for the entire program. Those in the small group experienced a 69.2 percent rate, in the supplemental instruction group a 72.3 percent rate, and in the social justice pedagogy trained faculty group a 74.4 percent rate. Students who had all three advantages—small classes, supplementary material, and trained teachers—achieved an 88 percent rate.


Again, I am encouraged to know that many rhet/comp programs are already firmly grounded in research and that they work steadily for smaller classes, for excellent supplementary materials, and for ongoing professional development for those teaching in the program. But I also see many programs whose ability to embrace a social justice pedagogy is impeded by the dependence on more and more contingent and part-time faculty and brand new graduate students whose working conditions leave precious little time for training, much less for research. Nevertheless, the argument scholars in writing studies have been making for many decades now clearly holds true: the more research and teaching mutually inform one another and the more teaching faculty are engaged in research aimed at improving not what we teach but HOW we teach, the more likely the curriculum is built for student success. And that’s a goal all writing teachers embrace.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 918449 by Free-Photos, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Guest Blogger: Michelle Kaschak is an Assistant Teaching Professor of English at Penn State Lehigh Valley. She teaches IRW courses, first-year composition, and upper-level social science and technical writing courses


When I was child, I loved connect-the-dots books and worksheets. They helped me learn to see the big picture as I connected each line to the next number or letter.  As a writing teacher, I am always looking for ways for students to practice writing outside of the classroom or to help them “connect the dots” to help them understand that writing isn’t always at a desk or on a computer. That we can stretch our writing skills to other locales and other purposes.  


In this effort to change locales and make connections, I tried to find ways to utilize resources on our small campus. In my basic writing classes, I started using our campus art gallery to have students practice descriptive writing with a touch of art appreciation. 


I am fairly certain many of my students have not spent any length of time looking at or writing about art. Although we have a small campus and a small gallery, we do have rotating exhibits that offer everything from pen and ink drawings to large sculptures and photography. 


The class before we go to the gallery is a practice class. I had them look at a sculpture of a dancer and watch a short video of a ballet performance. We wrote down different words to describe both. They even had to stand up to pose like the sculpture, so they could write about the kinesthetic feeling of the movement. It ended up being quite fun.


For the next class in the art gallery, I had them do what I called an “Art Gallery Walk.”  I asked to look at three different pieces of art in the gallery and get them to write down as many adjectives as they can for each one. I urge them to think about how a word like small or weird could be rewritten to be more specific.    


Some of the adjectives they wrote down were life-like, chilling, weathered, prickly, jubilant, and even ethereal. It stretched their vocabulary skills, though some students were stronger at this than others. After writing their adjectives, they had to turn those descriptors into a short paragraph describing at least one of the pieces of art.   


A sample response from one student: 



“I believe this is a Cuban woman since cigars are big in Cuba and it still is. Cuba is very old fashioned and this woman shows that; she looks like she’s been out in the sun and is smoking a cigar. Cuba is a part of her and she is a part of Cuba.  I really enjoyed this piece and felt a connection to it.” 


What the students get from this exercise is the ability to think about word choice in writing. I try to guess which piece of art they wrote about by looking at their paragraph. If I cannot guess, they need to think about how they can be more specific and clear in describing it.


Overall, this lesson provides them with a concrete item to write about. It gets them in the gallery looking at and critiquing art. It’s not uncommon to hear, “I don’t like that.”  Or “This piece is weird.” But then they have to learn how to explain why. They learn to use their vocabulary skills to go beyond the typical words. That, to me, is the fun part of doing this assignment. 


In turn, I think the students learn to “connect the dots” between what they see, what they think and what they write. 


What are your strategies for helping students build vocabulary and “connect the dots”?

Wrong Way Street SignWhat happens when your plans for a term suddenly don’t work? How do you adjust? This fall, I’ve had to do some hard thinking about these questions.

If you follow this blog, you know that I disappeared in mid-October. On the evening of October 14, I fell, after tripping over a small baby gate that we use to separate the dogs when they are eating. I ended up taking an ambulance ride to the emergency room. After many x-rays, I was diagnosed with a severe hematoma and sprained knee. I was sent home with prescriptions for pain killers and instructions to use a walker for the foreseeable future.

That night, I didn’t think a knee injury would upend my teaching plans. I am teaching fully online, so I didn’t need to get to a classroom. I had everything for the week of October 14th already queued in Canvas (our LMS), so there was nothing to worry about. Wow, was I wrong!

When I attempted to get out of bed the next morning, I realized how badly injured I was. Just getting my leg off the bed was a major adventure. I had to loop a rolled sheet under my foot, like a stirrup, and then lift my leg onto the floor. I found that sitting at the computer for any length of time was impossible. Without my usual time at the computer, I couldn’t keep up with students, prepare materials for future classes, or grade their work.

Coping Strategies

  1. Let the department stakeholders know ASAP. Even though I didn’t need my department to do anything to help me, I wanted them to know what was going on in case students came to them with questions.
  2. Let students know next. If I were teaching in an on-campus classroom, students would have noticed immediately if I were to hobble into the classroom with a walker and a bandaged knew. My online students had no way to know. I not only told them what happened, but I also told them what kinds of delays to expect as a result.
  3. Look for shortcuts. I have a cache of daily posts that tie to various topics I teach, and I raided that collection for discussion and instructional ideas. I normally try to write several new things each week. With the injury, I had to take the shortcut of using what I already had.
  4. Get ahead on whatever you can. Since I could only sit at the computer for short sessions, I had to find a way to use that time effectively. I found that I could copy over one or two of those daily posts, revise lightly, and queue them to publish later during those short sessions. I was able to set up daily posts for a few weeks in advance this way.
  5. Change what you need to. After a few days of struggling to get work done, I knew that the original plan was not going to work. I reworked the course schedule so that I could drop a major writing assignment. I hated giving up the activity, but it was the right choice. Ultimately, the change gave me some extra time to grade and let students have more time to write their longer reports.
  6. Realize that it’s okay to lower your expectations for yourself. Probably the hardest task for me was recognizing that I simply couldn’t be the teacher I wanted to be this term. Last spring I used screencast feedback on students’ projects. They loved it, and I planned to use it again this fall. Unfortunately, that kind of feedback takes two or three times as long to produce, so I had to lower my goals and go back to a combination of annotations and end notes for feedback.

Fortunately, the term is nearly over, and I am doing much better. I can even sit at the computer for as long as I want to again! It’s been a challenging term, but I think I will make it through just fine. Perhaps more important, I gained a lot more sympathy for students who suffer major setbacks during the term. I certainly don’t want to fall again any time soon, but all in all I may have improved a bit as a teacher as a result this fall (pun intended).


Photo Credit: WRONG WAY by David Goehring on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

There are moments in our teaching lives that can feel epic, as much for what happens outside the classroom as inside. This semester was my first semester teaching in New York City after five years away, and it has often felt like a journey with a strong sense of purpose: non-linear, a quest or picaresque narrative, where kairos matters more than destination. Nonetheless, we have arrived at the end of the semester, and it is time for final reflections.


The reflection assignment for this term invites students to consider their first semester in college and their first college writing course as a journey. My hope is that this reflection will invite students to consider writing as a process that goes hand-in-hand with their self-discovery in their first semester.


Good journeys to all!


End-of-Semester Reflection

Consider your work in this writing course as a journey that began in August 2018 and that culminates in a significant destination in December 2018. As part of that journey, reflect on the significance of our theme: The Rhetorical Power of Stories. Your reflection should be 600-800 words and can be arranged in paragraph form. Select at least 3 (or more) of these questions to frame your reflection.


  1. What are some of the most important stories about this journey?
    • Beginning or end points?
    • Stopping places?
    • Places of celebration and/or frustration?
  2. Where does your WP 3 fit into this journey?
  3. What did you learn about the rhetorical power of stories from our course texts?
  4. What is your philosophy of writing?
    • What wisdom did you gain that you can call on in future writing experiences inside or outside of the classroom?
    • What awareness did you achieve about writing that you would like to share with others, including the professor and students just beginning the writing course?
  5. What do you want to add that isn’t included here?