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Do you remember being 19? I do. The last thing I wanted to be was correct—or (in most circumstances) appropriate. I wanted to be … independent! Creative! Envied! I did want to write well, and I understood that doing so involved correct grammar and the use of appropriate language. I just didn’t like to think of it that way.


Lately I’ve been wondering what a better way to think of it might be. What are we really asking students to do when we tell them to write correctly and appropriately? We’re asking them to conform to standards of language and conventions of genre and discipline. Unfortunately, conformity is another thing that young people may not be interested in working hard to achieve. “Why are we supposed to do X?,” they’ll want to know.


These are much the same issues as come up when someone is learning a sport. The coach will say, “Hold the bat/club/racket like this,” and the learner will be more inclined to remember and follow through if the coach offers a reason, such as “It will give you a stronger swing.” Saying only “This is the correct way to do it” is not only less helpful but also less persuasive.


With sports, people learn many of the rules and the reasons for them by, over time, watching, asking questions, and playing. With writing, we learn by reading, asking questions, and writing. Some reasons are obvious; just seeing the rule broken shows what its purpose is. The reason not to write run-on sentences, for instance, becomes clear if you have to struggle through a few run-ons that someone else wrote. Or consider repeats. In my work as an editor, I mark phrases like “The supervisor is responsible for supervising …” or “Currently, the currents in the Atlantic Ocean …” and suggest changes. Authors do ask me why I’ve suggested certain changes, but none has ever asked me about these. Evidently they realize what’s wrong without asking.


Other reasons can be hard to figure out. For instance, why do we look down on the passive voice in most fields and genres but consider it standard when writing in scientific disciplines? If the active voice is stronger and more forceful in journalism or a memoir, why isn’t it more forceful when describing a scientific experiment? It’s because, in science, who performed the experiment is generally beside the point. A sentence like “Jamie Gonzales placed the mice into the maze” puts the focus on the wrong thing; “The mice were placed into the maze” is what readers need to know; who did the placing doesn’t really matter. Ideally, experiments will be replicable—anyone might follow the same procedure and achieve the same results. To that extent, the passive-voice convention makes sense.


Not even expert writers always know the reasons underlying some of the writing standards and conventions they observe. Often, to begin to understand a convention, we need to critically read examples of its being observed or not, and we need to consider how the convention evolved over time. It would be an interesting assignment to have students read passages in various genres, possibly all on the same subject—say, an abstract from a scientific journal, a newspaper article about the same study, and an editorial discussing its implications—and discuss the differences they perceive. How do the purpose and audience of each genre influence the conventions used within?


When the reason for a writing standard or convention is opaque, we may have to ask students to take it on trust that there is a reason. That trust will be easier for them to come by if we explain as many reasons as we can for other standards and conventions, rather than simply telling them what’s correct.


Do you have questions about language or grammar, or are there topics you would like me to address? If so, please email me at bwallraff


Barbara Wallraff is a professional writer and editor. She spent 25 years at the Atlantic Monthly, where she was the language columnist and an editor. The author of three books on language and style—the national bestseller Word CourtYour Own Words, and Word Fugitives—Wallraff has lectured at the Columbia School of Journalism, the Council of Science Editors, Microsoft, the International Education of Students organization, and the Radcliffe Publishing Program. Her writing about English usage has appeared in national publications including the American Scholar, the Wilson Quarterly, the Harvard Business Review blog, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine. She is coauthor of
In Conversation: A Writer's Guidebook, which will be published in December 2017.

Infographic on How Project Feedback WorksMy summer course began last week, so I’m getting back into the habit of making new resources and revising old ones. This week, I want to share an infographic that I developed to explain how the project feedback process works in my courses.


My course this summer is 100% online. I never see the students in person. Most of them are not geographically near campus. This situation means that everything for the course must be communicated in writing. Even if I created videos, I need to have a written transcript to go along with them.


The challenge is getting students to read all that writing. I’ve found in teaching online courses previously that I can write very explicit explanations and instructions, but students frequently don’t read them or, at best, only skim them. My solution has been using infographics to explain course policies and content.


Explaining the feedback and assessment methods that I use would take only a few minutes if I were meeting face-to-face with students; writing them out, however, resulted in a full page of text, which I can’t be sure that students will read carefully. In the infographic that I created to explain the process, I hoped to explain the process while making it clear that there can multiple revisions before a project is accepted.


While explaining feedback and assessment, I wanted to emphasize the general requirements for major projects. The first step, where I check for completion, also highlights the importance of the self-assessment information in the process. I ask students to complete a checklist and add reflective comments with every project. In the past, students often forgot to include that self-assessment information, so the infographic stresses that they will not get feedback on the content or design of their work until they submit all the required information.


I have worked other information into the process in a similar way. I wanted to demonstrate that acceptable projects need both strong content and a strong document design. I created those two steps to indicate that expectation. In practice, I don’t strictly separate content from design, of course; however, showing them as different steps helps emphasize that both are important.


Finally, I wanted to reinforce the expectation for the involvement of writing groups in the revision process—and the writing process, overall. The revision section of the infographic shows specific steps for asking writing groups for feedback and for incorporating that feedback.


Students will receive the infographic later this week, and I look forward to hearing their reactions. One thing is sure: they are more likely to read through the infographic than they are to read the page of text that explains the process. If you have ideas on how to improve the infographic or ideas for explaining feedback to students, I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

HPIM7056 by vxla on Flickr, used under a CC-BY licenseA few weeks ago, I shared Ten Activities Focusing on Visual Design that I plan to use to give students ongoing practice in document design principles. Another idea I want to try is a semester-long scavenger hunt.


I have a list of ten design tips that I refer students to if they need support on any particular design area:


  1. Use lists to organize information clearly. See Formatting Vertical Lists by Grammar Girl (check all 4 pages or listen to the podcast).
  2. Contrast is a critical ingredient in every design. Ensure good contrast between text and background.
  3. Make sure that your headings and subheadings create information-rich signposts for readers.
  4. Avoid presenting a "wall of text" by "chunking" text and visual elements.
  5. Limit typefaces to two per document. Any more than that gives your text a messy or unprofessional appearance.
  6. Use flush-left, ragged-right body text. Save centered text for graduation announcements and party invitations.
  7. Emphasize ten percent or less of text to make sure the key information stands out.
  8. Add consistency with repetition of design elements. Repeating patterns unify a document.
  9. Use alignment to organize a document visually, drawing the reader’s eye to the important info on the page.
  10. Group related elements together, in proximity to one another, to emphasize the connections visually.


Each week or so during the term, I will introduce a challenge related to one of these tips. We will go over the design principles and tips, and then we will look at an example that relates to the principle. In the case of contrast, for example, we can look at the image shown in this entry and talk about how increasing contrast could improve the sign for Advantage Wireless. Once students understand the principle involved, they are ready for the challenge:


 As you go about your daily activities, watch for documents that demonstrate the importance of contrast in document design. The documents can be positive or negative examples. Review the examples in this post, if your find has already been posted, you can like and/or comment on it. If you’ve found something new, take a photo of what you find and post it in the Contrast Discussions thread. Explain how contrast influences the document and, if relevant, what you would change to improve it.


During subsequent class sessions, I can pull examples from the class responses to discuss in class. I will leave the threads open so that students can add to threads from previous weeks when they find examples. Students will need to find two or three examples during the term, not one every week.


By the end of the term, I hope that students will have developed a stronger sense of how document design affects everything around them, from billboards to posters on the bulletin boards in the hallway. That understanding should improve their own documents and their feedback during peer review.


What do you do to teach document design principles? Share an idea in the comments below.



Credit: HPIM7056 by vxla on Flickr, used under a CC-BY license

EMCC_Kiev_Day2_01 SD by ELSA International on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licenseWhile collecting materials for my summer course, I found the Writing Group Starter Kit from the University of North Carolina’s Writing Center. This fantastic resource is intended to help students organize writing groups independently; however, it has materials that with a little tweaking are perfect for writing groups in the classroom, as well.


The site has a series of six worksheets that help independent groups both manage the logistics of their meetings and communicate effectively about their writing projects. Admittedly, I was taken in by the title of the handout Thirteen Ways of Talking About Writing Groups. I was expecting something connected to Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Instead, I got thirteen questions intended to help a writing group set up its ground rules—very good and helpful questions, just not the poetic treatment I was expecting. Despite misleading me, I will use the Thirteen Ways to talk about how I am using the UNC resources.


First, I need to provide some details on the goals for the UNC resources and the needs of my course. The UNC resources are meant to help writers who are organizing their own groups. Presumably they will be bringing their own goals to the group, which will apparently meet in person. They will set all their own expectations for what is shared, when it is shared, and how the group will interact. The students in my course will have some freedom in how they work together, but there are some decisions that are either dictated by the course or by my teaching philosophy. For example, I am teaching a 100% online course and students are not geographically nearby. They will not be able to meet in person, so questions about where to meet are irrelevant.


Since the UNC resources will not work for my course as is, I am going to divide the questions into two groups: (1) those that are predetermined or that I will decide about for the course, and (2) those that students can decide about. I am going to use the first group of questions to help explain the way that writing groups work in the course. By working through those questions, I can make sure that I include all the important details. I plan to use the second group, which students will answer, as inspiration for a Google Forms survey. A survey will organize the responses so that the online groups can move quickly through the process of making their final decisions. If students were to answer all the questions in a discussion forum or by email, I fear that they would be quickly overwhelmed by the length and variety of the answers. Since Google Forms provides a summary of results, the tool will make it easier for students to compare the options and make decisions.


So that’s how I plan to use the Thirteen Ways questions. I plan to take a similar approach to some of the other worksheets from the UNC Writing Center to help ensure students have the structure they need to make their writing groups successful. Strong writing groups should help with my overarching goal this summer to improve online discussion in the course as well. Do you have any strategies for supporting writing groups you can share? Please share in the comments below.



Credit: EMCC_Kiev_Day2_01 SD by ELSA International on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

On a visit to see my beloved grandnieces Audrey (now 13!) and Lila (9), we had lots of time to talk about the school year, review accomplishments, and discuss plans for next year (when Audrey will be in 8th and Lila in 4th grade). They were both upbeat about their EOGs (end-of-grade tests, a new term to me) and, in fact, Audrey even won a medal following the results of her French exam, and Lila had made great progress in math (her nemesis). Lots of excitement about summer camps: two leadership camps, a sleepover singing camp at UNC Greensboro, a two-week farm camp with lots of time to learn about and play with animals, and a couple of others—a busy summer, I thought.


But then Lila said, “but don’t forget reading and writing!” Indeed, she is already signed up for her local library reading program and is busily choosing the books (lots of animal books!) she will read as she competes for points and prizes. But then there’s writing! During my visit, Lila had mentioned (over and over!) that she wanted a particular kind of journal, which she described in great detail. We went to Target, where she thought her friend had seen it, and looked at every journal in the huge store, dozens and dozens of them. We pointed out any number of attractive journals, but without luck: Lila wanted this very particular journal and nothing else would do. I’ll admit to being a little exasperated—a journal is a journal, or so I thought. But Lila insisted this one was different: “it has plans in it,” she said, “and it gives you ideas.” Back to the drawing board . . . and online to search.


Eventually we found it: Your Diary: Your Own Unique Reality.



And sure enough, it did have plans in it, and a lot of prompts:





You can see the “heavenly” jacket Lila drew along with her “perfect backpack” and the beginning of her discussion of what made her day so “incredible.” What surprised me was how invested in this journal Lila was: she began working on it as soon as we got it and practically had to be separated from it by force at bedtime. The next day she was back at it again, having such fun writing stories, making up jokes, drawing pictures, and recording details of her life. Before I left, she said, with a huge smile on her face, “I’m going to go to college and major in writing.”


Now that’s music to any writing teacher’s ears! I look forward to following along as Lila writes in her journal throughout the summer and as she reads through the stack of books she has accumulated. It occurs to me that there couldn’t be much better preparation for 4th grade, or for life, than reading and writing for pleasure over the summer. And I say “bravo, brava” to all the libraries running reading programs and for all those publishers creating journals that captivate young minds!


Credit: Photos by Andrea Lunsford

This will be my last blog post.  I’ve been writing for this blog for at least six years, though I suspect it’s been a bit longer, and it’s been a wonderful pleasure sharing my random thoughts and engaging the wider world.  But I need to focus on other areas of my research for a time and can’t manage to juggle that task with the sustained attention this blog needs and deserves. 


So, I just wanted to say thanks to everyone—to everyone at Bedford who makes Bits happen (and there have been many over the years), to all the other contributors in the Macmillan Community, to all of you out there in the cyberspatial interwebs.  I appreciate having had this platform and look forward to joining other conversations in the field in other places.

Alphabet 1 by Brenda Clarke, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 licenseIn every writing assignment, I ask students to use what they know about layout and design to create a project that is clear and easy to read. The work that they turn in tells me that I need to incorporate more support to help them understand new document and online design work. Students seem able to copy the models that I share, but they tend to be lost when there are no models or when their content doesn’t fit the model precisely. It’s time to reflect and rethink.


What I Have Been Doing

I always spend a week on assignments related to design. Students read the chapter(s) in our textbook and I ask them to discuss various examples. I particularly like Robin Williams’ discussion of the use of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity (2014), so I add resources that include those ideas. Most recently, I have used tutorials that demonstrate the ideas, as students have free access to the videos at Virginia Tech. In addition, I share these infographics, which repeat and demonstrate the principles: 



We discuss these principles in our online forums, and I ask students to apply the principles to some of the documents in the course. I ask students to apply the principles to the infographics themselves, for instance, to give them some experience in paying attention to visual design. Finally, I ask them to apply the ideas to their projects specifically by mentioning it in peer review guidelines, revision checklists, and project rubrics.


As it stands now, I think students do not get enough practice in actually working through design principles. They analyze design, but their actual work is limited to applying that information to their projects. Additionally, I think students are trying to do too many new things at once. Because they focus on the content and requirements for their projects, design becomes a secondary concern, and, thus, it doesn’t get adequate attention.


New Strategies to Try

Here are a number of ideas that I have brainstormed (in no particular order) to give students more practice with design. In each, I have given students existing content so that they can focus their effort on design. For these particular activities, I am excluding video and audio projects.


  1. Plain to Formatted. Students will take a plain chunk of text, about one page long, and use the principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity to make the text more readable. The original and the formatted version must designed to be printed with a printer that only has black ink (e.g., no colors). They can use any basic typography (fonts, size, and so forth) as well as any layout strategies. They may revise the text to fit their new design, but for this particular activity they are limited to typography and layout. They may not add images, photos, clipart, or shapes.

  2. Highlight Your Inspiration/Beliefs. Choose an inspirational or important quotation related to your professional goals. The author of the quotation might be a business leader, a well-known scientist, or a relevant historical figure. Aim for a quotation that is no more than 10 to 12 words. Use document design to create an 8.5" by 11" poster that features the quotation. Use the principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity to make the key ideas stand out. Use color, images, photos, and/or shapes to complement your message. Your design should be something you would be willing to print out and hang up in your office at work.

  3. Increase the Wow Factor. Visit the Campus News site and choose a story that would be of interest to students at the university. Use the content from the news story to create a one-page, single-sided 8.5" by 11" poster that could be posted on the many bulletin boards in the hallways of buildings on campus. Sticking to the facts of the original news story, create a poster that will catch the attention of students casually walking down the hall. You can use any document design elements, and you can revise the text of the story, as long as you do not change the facts or add misleading information.

  4. Revise to Solve a Problem. Find a short document (no more than one 8.5" by 11" page) that violates one or more of the principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and/or proximity. Use the document to create a how-to explanation on how to improve the design in order to increase readability and interest. Your how-to should show the original document and a revised, improved version (a before and after).

  5. Focus on Headings. Choose a page from the Historical Digest pages for any Virginia Tech President. These pages are basic text, broken into paragraphs. Copy the historical information to your word processor, and add headings that provide information-rich signposts to the document. Once your headings have been added, a reader should be able to scan down the page and see the key achievements or events relevant to the particular president.

  6. Convert the Table. Review the content from the table on the Virginia Tech Enrollments page. While the information is clearly arranged, because there are over 100 lines in the table, you may find that it is hard to do more than scroll up and down the page. Use what you know about document design to present the information in a better way that will be more readable for visitors to the site. You can use any document design elements, but do not change the facts or change the layout or design in ways that would mislead readers.

  7. Pin It! [Part One] Find three images online that demonstrate each of the principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity (for a total of 12 images). Copy and paste the images into a word processor document, and add a description that explains which principle the image illustrates and explains how the image demonstrates the principle. Alternately, if you have a Pinterest Account, you can make a Document Design board, and pin the images you find to that board. Be sure that you include the description.
    [Part Two]
    Once you have gathered your 12 images from online documents, go through your own work and find two more examples for each design principle (for a total of 8 more). Take screenshots or photos of your work, crop the images to focus on the use of the design principles and add them to your word processor document or Pinterest board.

  8. Syllabus Redesign. Take a section from a syllabus from another course that you are taking, and use the document design principles to revise the information to make it more readable. A student who looks at the syllabus after your revision should have an easier time finding information in the section and understanding the details related to the course. Turn in your "before" and "after" versions of the syllabus section with a description of what you changed and how the changes reflect better document design. For the purposes of this assignment, you may not use any syllabus or course documents that the instructor has written.

  9. Slideshow Redesign. Choose either a slideshow that you have created for another course OR a slideshow that someone else has created. Find a slide in the slideshow that can be improved by applying document design principles. Revise the slide to improve its readability, paying attention to how the slide will be projected onto a screen. Think in particular about the size of fonts needed for the audience to read the information. If needed, you can convert your one slide into more than one slide to make it more readable. Turn in your "before" and "after" versions of the slide with a description of what you changed and how the changes reflect better document design. For the purposes of this assignment, you may not use any slideshows that the instructor has written.

  10. Show Your Style. Create a style guide for yourself, your company, or an organization you belong to that outlines the key elements of document design that you will follow, including typography, color, contrast, and layout. The goal is to create document design guidelines that will give the work you compose unity and coherence. The guidelines should help set a document design brand for you, your company, or your organization. Once you have established your guidelines, apply them to a short piece that you have written recently. Incorporate the "before" and "after" versions in your guidelines to demonstrate how the principles should be applied.


What activities do you use in your classes to teach students document design principles? I would love to hear from you in the comments below.


 Credit: Alphabet 1 by Brenda Clarke, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license

Donna Winchell

Et Tu?

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Jun 16, 2017


File:Carl Theodor von Piloty Caesars Death.jpg

A heated controversy arose recently following the publication of a photo of comedienne Kathy Griffin, who was shown holding a (clearly fake) decapitated head representing President Trump. In a world that has seen hundreds of memes mocking Trump and dozens of Photoshopped images making him look foolish or worse, Griffin's photo was judged to be a step too far by some while defended as legitimate comedy by others. Not all of those attacking Griffin have been the usual Trump supporters.


Even more recently, Delta Airlines and the Bank of America have withdrawn their support from a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that opened last week at New York's Public Theater. It is not the only production of that play that has been performed this year with Trump as a stand-in for Julius Caesar. According to Michael Paulson and Sopan Deb of the New York Times, "Defenders of the production, including some theater critics, describe the Public's 'Julius Caesar' as nuanced, complex and loyal to Shakespeare's text--a cautionary tale about the costs of political violence. But the production is also explicit and graphic, featuring a blond Trump-like Caesar whose bloody stabbing is seen as offensive and inappropriate to some who have seen it." One woman who saw the performance declared, "I don't love President Trump, but he's the president. You can't assassinate him on a stage."


Apparently the line between theater--or visual comedy--and real life is a critical one. Neither Griffin nor the producers of Julius Caesar are considered criminals although Griffin's career has taken a serious blow because of the photo and the play has lost financial support. However, making a threat on the life of the President on social media is considered a crime and can lead to jail time even if the poster was "only joking." Even teenagers who have been warned once have been jailed for posting threats a second time. So a cautionary tale here as well: a joke among friends is one thing but posting a threat, even in jest, on social media crosses the line into criminal behavior. 


Credit: Caesar's Death by Carl Theodor von Piloty (1865) on Wikimedia Commons (shared under Public Domain) 

Jack Solomon

The Uses of Objectivity

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Jun 15, 2017

I take my title, and topic, for my last blog before the summer break from two pieces appearing in today's (as I write this) online news. One, John Warner's essay "The Pitfalls of 'Objectivity,'" appears in Inside Higher Ed, and the other is a news feature in The Washington Post on the prison sentencing of a Sandy Hook hoax proponent who sent death threats to the parents of one of the children murdered at the Connecticut elementary school. I'll begin with John Warner's essay.

Warner is a blogger for Inside Higher Ed, whose blog, "Just Visiting," describes his experiences as an adjunct writing instructor. As a voice for the much-beleaguered, and ever-growing, class of adjunct writing professors in this country, Warner is a very popular Inside Higher Ed blogger, whose columns consistently garner far and away the most commentary (almost always positive) of any other blog on the news site, often from grateful instructors who are justifiably glad to see someone expressing their point of view for once in a prominent place. Heck, Warner gets more comments on each blog post than I have gotten in all the years I have been writing this blog, so it's hard to argue with success.

But in this era when "fake news" and "alternative facts" have come to so dominate the political landscape, I feel obliged to respond to Warner's thesis, which is that, "One of the worst disservices the students I work with have experienced prior to coming to college is being led to believe that their writing – academic or otherwise – should strive for 'objectivity.'” Warner's point—which, as a central tenet of cultural studies generally, and the New Historicism in particular, is not a new one—is that "there is no such thing as purely objective research." This position cannot be refuted: writing and research always not only contains, but begins, in subjectivity. Even scientific investigation starts with an hypothesis, a conjecture, a subjective cast into an ocean of epistemic uncertainty. And if one really wants to press the point, there has never been a successful refutation of the fundamental Kantian position that knowledge is forever trapped in the mind, that we know only phenomena, not noumena.

So, the question is not whether or not subjectivity is an inevitable part of writing, thinking, and arguing. Rather, the question is whether we really want to throw out the objective baby with the bathwater, which is what I think happens when Warner argues that, "Strong writing comes from a strong set of beliefs, beliefs rooted in personal values. Those underlying values tend to be relatively immutable." And that takes us to the Sandy Hook hoax community.


To put it succinctly, the Sandy Hook hoaxers believe that the massacre at the Sandy Hook School was a "false flag" that either never took place at all or was perpetrated by the Obama administration (there are various claims in this regard), and which was planted in order to justify the seizure of Americans' guns. The hoaxers have written at length, and with great passion, about this, producing all sorts of "facts" (in the way of all conspiracy theorists). One could say that their texts come "from a strong set of beliefs . . . rooted in personal values . . . that tend to be relatively immutable." And there's the problem.

Now, Warner is hardly promoting conspiracy theorizing, or being tied to immutable beliefs. For him, "An effective writer is confident in communicating their beliefs, while simultaneously being open to having those beliefs challenged and then changed as they realize their existing beliefs may be in conflict with their values." But the problem is that without objective facts, a contest of beliefs is only that, with no basis for settling the debate. You don't like the facts? Shout "fake news!" and produce your own "alternative facts." I'm sure you see where this heading.

As with the legacy of poststructuralist thinking that I have often written about in this blog, Warner's apparently generous and liberal approach to writing leads to unintended results. By undermining our students' acceptance of the existence of objective facts—and the objectivity to pursue them—we are underpinning a political environment where hostile camps hole up in their echo chambers of shared beliefs and simply shout at each other. And while I know that we, as writing instructors, can't end that—any more than we can come up with a final refutation of Kantian and poststructuralist subjectivism—if we really want to do our bit to resist the current climate of "fake news" claims we should be encouraging our students to see the dialectic of subjectivity and objectivity, the complex ways in which the two can complement each other. It isn't easy, and there can be no easy formula for doing so, but simply denigrating objectivity to our students is not going to help us, or them.



corn, food literacy, Andrea Lunsford, Navajo Nation“I could learn another song, perhaps another ceremony. Maybe I could heal one more person. I am hopeful, grandson. Life is so short. So precious.” The speaker, the 101-year-old grandfather of Navajo poet, playwright, and leader Rex Lee Jim, is responding to his grandson’s question of why he wished to live another decade or so. His grandfather says he is “still learning” and “still walking”: “I am Home God, walking. I am at the center of the wide cornfield, walking. I am planting the white corn, walking.”


For Rex Lee Jim and his grandfather, food—and perhaps especially corn—is sacred. But, he asks, “when does corn stop being sacred?”


Blue corn pancakes for breakfast. Kneel down bread (corn meal rolled in corn husks and baked in the ground). Awesome meals! Then we started washing it down with way too much fructose drinks. Coke. Pepsi. Root Beer. Dr. Pepper. No doctor at all. Today obesity reigns. Diabetes terrorizes. Yes, when does corn stop being sacred?


This question, and its answers, grew out of writing workshops and exchanges held between students from the Navajo Nation and students from Fern Creek High in Louisville, KY, who are all involved in a food literacy program that aims to change “the world by first changing ourselves, and we change ourselves by changing what we plant in the garden between our ears.”


I’ve written about the Navajo Kentuckians before (see here and here!) and the remarkable partnership that has brought Rex Lee Jim from the Navajo Nation and Brent Peters from Louisville, KY together to create such life-changing programs. Peters and his colleagues are now finishing a book—called Tigers Feeding Chickens—that all teachers of writing need to read, and to act on. I’ll be writing more about the book in another post.


For now, I want simply to point to the depth and breadth of this food literacy program, which is experiential, hands-on, student-centered, inquiry-based—and enormously effective. In it, students learn about where food comes from, about its relationship to mental, emotional, and physical health, and about food traditions in their own and other cultures. And they become questioners, interrogators of their family’s eating habits and traditions, connecting the dots and drawing up plans for enhancing and enriching their relationship to food and, in some cases, for transforming that relationship. The student writing that grows out of these experiences is mature, insightful, deeply moving: they teach themselves—and in turn they teach each other and their teachers and family members as well. As Rex Lee Jim puts it:


The essential step to becoming a true learner for life is an experience in humility and vulnerability, which leads to genuine communication with and deep understanding of our youth culture, the most abundant, energetic, and daring resource available for us.


In courses and programs that focus on learning for life, writing is not about skills and drills, not about five-paragraph essays, not about standardized tests and exams. Rather, writing becomes an essential by-product of learning, a way of crafting and sharing knowledge, and a means of putting that knowledge to work for the good of communities. That’s writing that can change lives for the better—and that’s writing infinitely worth teaching as we and our students continue to learn together, to continue to plant that garden between our ears.


Credit: Pixaby Image 1898198 by Daria-Yakovleva, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

It seems that I need to revisit my policy on personal portable technologies in the classroom just about yearly now.  I’ve for a long time moved away from banning them and towards learning how to use them responsibly (so, for example, if you need to take that call or send that text, simply step out the classroom to do so).  I think, though, I am moving ever closer to a full integration.


My own use of these technologies is driving my reconsideration.  I always have either my laptop or my phone (or more likely both) at meetings these days.  I use it to review documents for the meeting and to take notes but increasingly I find myself doing spot research in the course of a meeting: searching through old emails to find out just how we handled this situation last time, checking our Collective Bargaining Agreement for the specific language about a faculty policy, or even heading to Wikipedia to get a quick background on a scholar or critic mentioned in passing.


If I assume that I am working in a professional setting (which clearly I am) and if I assume students in my classes will be in similar settings (which I dearly hope they will) then I think my own habits of technology should inform my expectations for students as well.  That is, I would hope they would learn to use technology to enhance and supplement the work before them as well.


This summer I am teaching a class on gender and sexuality and prompting students to use these technologies productively comes in handy.  I might make a historical reference, ask if anyone knows it, and then ask someone to web search it for the class when it’s clear no one has the answer.  The availability of ancillary knowledge is useful. Teaching students when and how to use technology in these settings is even more useful.  I can’t say that it’s a total success (I am sure some are still on Facebook and Snapchat) but I think it’s moving in the right direction and so I will continue to model these professional uses and will continue to revisit my policies on technology, as well.

Computers & Writing Doge MemeI love image-based memes like the doge graphic on the right. Their combination of linguistic text, visual image, and arrangement makes a perfect example for discussions of multimodal texts. Everything matters with these images. The linguistic text has to connect to the image. Separately, the words alone or the image alone would have an entirely different meaning. The arrangement of the image and the words changes the meaning further. In the case of the doge image, the words float around the image, mimicking the idea of thoughts that the animal is having. You can learn a lot more about this particular meme on the Know Your Meme site.


Kitten memeA few years ago, I began adding memes to the daily course blog posts. I either found or created memes that somehow tied to the activities we were working on or to current happenings. The kitten meme on the left is one of the favorites of those that I created. This poor, sad kitten showed up on the class website on the day that we discussed the importance of documentation. As students worked on their multimodal projects, it can be tempting to save assets (like images they find that relate to their projects) as they come across them. If they don’t also write down where these assets come from, they too will be sad kittens when it comes time to all documentation to their projects. You can see all the other memes I have collected in my Tumblr collection.


Because I enjoy these memes so much, I love sharing them with other teachers, so at the 2017 Computers and Writing Conference (hashtag: #cwcon) earlier this month, I presented a mini-workshop on using memes in the classroom. My session was titled, Write Like You Meme It: A Hands-on Intro to Memes in the Classroom.


During the workshop, we explored reasons to incorporate memes in the writing classroom, looked at a variety of examples, explored tools for making memes, talked about potential challenges, and then created memes using simple, free tools. You can find links to the free tools, background information, possible assignments, and other resources on the session webpage. We had a great deal of fun making our conference and teaching themed memes. The doge meme above was created by the whole class. I displayed the Doge Meme Generator on the screen, and attendees shared phrases to add to the image. The bottom-most phrase, “Go Elkie,” refers to the conference chair, Elkie Burnside.


To end this week’s post, I want to share the other memes that were created by attendees during the session. Just click the Play button below to see them all:




Have you used memes in your classes? My students always enjoy the chance to make memes. I have created a similar slideshow of Student-Created Memes that you can view to see their work, and check out the session webpage for details on the guidelines and assignments that I share with them. If you use memes with your students, tell me about your experience. I would love to hear more in the comment below!

I recently had a chance to join Susan Thomas, Alyssa O’Brien, and students in the University of Sydney’s beginning writing class (to be renamed “Introduction to Academic Writing” in 2018) via Skype to talk about the role writing should (will!) play in their lives. I met the students in an auditorium (there are nearly 200 enrolled in the class) during their once-a-week, one-hour “lecture,” which is augmented by another hour spent in tutorial groups of 25 and a third hour of online writing activities.  Susan is working to include more tutorial time next year, as data gathered from students indicates that they would prefer that, as would Susan. In describing the course, she goes on to say:


While WRIT1000 is a first-year course, students can take it at any time, including summer and winter school. It's not unusual for third and fourth year students to enroll just prior to graduation, to brush up on writing skills for job applications, etc. In fact, in one of my tutorials this semester, not a single student is a first-year!


There are five short assignments in the class, with each building on/towards the others in a portfolio style. We have a sentence task, a paragraph task, a research task, a peer review task, and a final reflection task. Each person teaching the course does the grading for her tutorials. We focus on sentences and paragraphs and the analysis of these, with the idea being that students leave WRIT1000 ready to write essays in WRIT1002, our advanced writing course; and we have two 2000-level courses focusing more on rhetorical analysis. We have two 3000-level courses, one focusing on workplace writing and the other on rhetorical theory. We have five graduate courses on professional writing and editing, ESL/EAL, and thesis (dissertation) writing.


These courses are all part of the Writing Minor in the Department of Writing Studies, which will launch in 2018. In addition, some years ago Susan founded the "Writing Hub" at U Sydney, which is their writing center and which will also be part of the new Department. All very exciting!


lecture classroomDuring the hour I spent with the WRIT1000 class, I was delighted to find the Australian students (who were majoring in a wide variety of disciplines) engaged as well as very engaging. I spoke for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, sharing the findings of some major research studies that link the ability to communicate effectively, in both writing and speaking, to success in many fields—from astronomy to zoology and everywhere in between. Since Susan had told me that many of her students take a fairly dim view of collaboration (which seems to fly in the face of the importance their culture places on self-reliance, at best, and might be a form of cheating, at worst), I took some time to talk about how much we know about the value of being able to work (and write) effectively with others, an ability highly valued by many professions and absolutely necessary in an age when it is increasingly difficult (or impossible) for a single researcher working alone to solve the kinds of complex problems facing many organizations and companies today. Noting the Stanford Study of Writing finding that “dialogic interaction” was key to major learning experiences in the college years, I asked how many had collaborated with others, in learning or in writing. A few hands went up, and I hope to follow up on this question with Susan as the term progresses.


During the Q and A session that followed, students stepped up with alacrity, asking important and substantive questions—from intellectual property conventions in terms of collaboration, in general, and collaborative writing, in particular; to why conventions shift from discipline to discipline (such as the use of first person or the passive voice); to tips for revision for both monolingual and multilingual writers.


Any worries I had that the hour might be filled with awkward silences proved completely unfounded, and at the end of our time together I only wished to extend it further. I’m hoping some of the students might take up my invitation to write to me: I have a lot of questions I’d love to ask them about their experiences with writing in and out of class at Sydney—as well as about how they define writing and what they think writing is most useful for. So bravo and brava Aussie writers!


Credit: Pixaby Image 2093745 by Wokandapix, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

Barclay Barrios

Summer is Here

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert Jun 7, 2017

We’re already a couple of weeks into our first summer semester here, but wherever you are I hope your semester is ending smoothly.  I’ve written before about the challenges of teaching in summer but thought I would revisit this topic, thinking more specifically about some of the unique opportunities that summer teaching brings.


At my school, summer classes run six weeks, meeting two times a week for three hours each.  The challenge for summer teaching for us is three-part: squeezing sixteen weeks of learning into six, balancing the work that can be done between classes (when students have maybe a day to do the work), and filling a three hour class in a way that’s productive.  I’d like to invert those challenges.


Three hour classes allow me a lot more time to make writing happen in the classroom.  They also open the possibility for showing more video, something I am doing this summer.  Having a class that meets twice a week means that students reinforce writing skills more often, and more intensely.  And working with a six week semester forces me to distill the course into a set of essential skills.  There just isn’t room for anything not necessary.


What is summer semester like at your school?  And how do you meet its challenges, perhaps turning them into advantages?  I’d love to hear…

Even able writers who try their best to “be clear” may fail miserably. A couple of months ago, I was reminded of how subtle clarity can be—and how greatly it can matter.


In March the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Maine, handed down a controversial decision—one I heard about the same way you probably did, in coverage by the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, NPR, and other news outlets. The court reversed a lower court decision in a Maine labor law case to rule in favor of the plaintiffs, dairy-truck drivers, on the grounds that the absence of a comma in a state law made it ambiguous.


The law says that the usual regulations mandating extra pay for overtime do not apply to the following categories of work: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution” of perishable foods. Because no comma appears in that series after “shipment”—because the series lacks a serial, or Oxford, comma—about 75 drivers are entitled to four-plus years of back overtime, the court decreed. That overtime is worth millions.


As the Times explained the Court of Appeals’ reasoning, “The phrase could mean that ‘packing for shipment or distribution’ was exempted, but not distribution itself.” So, arguably, people who distribute perishable food do not belong to an exempt category, and they do therefore deserve overtime pay.


My first thought when I read this was, No, sorry—nothing against truck drivers, but the law does not say that. If what was exempt from overtime was packing for either of two purposes (shipping or distribution), the phrase should have ended, “… marketing, storing OR packing for shipment or distribution.” The missing “or” is the clincher, not the serial comma, which would unimportantly appear, or not, after “storing.” As written, the single “or” can’t, correctly, be part of the phrase “shipment or distribution” because it’s busy tying together the series as a whole. The two distinct work categories of packing and distribution are being declared exempt.


But then I stepped back from the grammar and thought, The higher court found the law ambiguous! If the justices couldn’t agree on what the law means, what more do we need to know? And I noticed that the sentence does contain a bit more evidence pointing toward ambiguity: canning, processing, … and packing are all -ing forms of verbs, specifically gerunds, whereas shipment and distribution are not. The form of these two nouns subtly encourages us to think of them as different from the gerunds in the series. Might they be a pair of objects of the preposition for?


Further, let’s acknowledge that not every law on the books is well written or even up to code grammatically. So never mind that the manual for drafting laws in Maine, according to the Times, advises against using serial commas. (The manual is said to give “trailers, semitrailers, and pole trailers” as a don’t-do-it example, and “trailers, semitrailers and pole trailers” as one to emulate.) It’s crazy that the meaning of this section of the law in question depends so heavily on one optional comma.


To me, this episode demonstrates why we should all routinely use serial commas. “The canning, processing, packing for shipment, or distribution” of perishable foods—that’s clear, no?


But it also contains a broader lesson about looking out for readers. I doubt that any of us can write anything worth reading if we’re constantly considering possible misreadings and ambiguities in sentences as we draft them. So we need to take that step after drafting and read our work over with sharp, skeptical eyes. I think of it as pretending I’ve never before seen what I just wrote. When I have time to put the work aside overnight, or at least while I go out for a walk, I do it. It makes the little trick of imagination I’m playing easier. Alternatively—or usually also—I ask someone to weigh in who really has never before seen what I wrote and who understands that I’m not just seeking praise.


While looking out for our readers, we must also give them credit as critical thinkers; we don’t need to tell them things over and over. Trying to see through their eyes what we’ve written doesn’t have to lead to dull repetition. Rather, the idea is to meet readers more than halfway.


Looking out for readers may not be worth millions to them—let alone to us—but still it’s worth a lot.


Do you have questions about language or grammar, or are there topics you would like me to address? If so, please email me at bwallraff


Barbara Wallraff is a professional writer and editor. She spent 25 years at the Atlantic Monthly, where she was the language columnist and an editor. The author of three books on language and style—the national bestseller Word CourtYour Own Words, and Word Fugitives—Wallraff has lectured at the Columbia School of Journalism, the Council of Science Editors, Microsoft, the International Education of Students organization, and the Radcliffe Publishing Program. Her writing about English usage has appeared in national publications including the American Scholar, the Wilson Quarterly, the Harvard Business Review blog, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine. She is coauthor of
In Conversation: A Writer's Guidebook, which will be published in December 2017.