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Though there have been some very high profile participants in the "movement" (can you spell "Elon Musk"?), I am not aware that the #deletefacebook movement is making much of a real dent in Facebook's membership ranks, and I do not expect that it ever will. For in spite of a seemingly continuous stream of scandalous revelations of Facebook's role in the dissemination of fake news and the undermining of the American electoral system—not to mention the way that Facebook, along with other digital titans such as Google, data mine our every move on the Internet—all signs indicate that, when it comes to America’s use of social media, the only way is up. Even the recantations of such former social media "cheerleaders" as Vivek Wadhwa (who have decided that maybe all this technological "progress" is only leading to human "regression" after all) are highly unlikely to change anyone's behavior.


The easiest explanation for this devotion to social media, no matter what, is that Internet usage is addictive. Indeed, a study conducted at the University of Maryland by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda, in which 200 students were given an assignment to give up their digital devices for 24 hours and then write about their feelings during that bleak stretch, revealed just that, with many students reporting effects that were tantamount to symptoms of drug withdrawal (a full description of this study can be found in chapter 5 of the 9th edition of Signs of Life in the USA). To revise Marx a little, we might say that social media are the opiate of the masses.


Given the fact that our students are likely to have lived with the Internet all of their lives, it could be difficult, bordering on impossible, for them to analyze in any objective fashion just how powerful, and ultimately enthralling, social media are. It’s all too easy to take the matter for granted. But with the advent of digital technology looming as the most significant cultural intervention of our times, passive acceptance is not the most useful attitude to adopt. At the same time, hectoring students about it isn’t the most productive way to raise awareness either. All those “Google is making America stupid” screeds don’t help at all. So I want to suggest a different approach to preparing the way for a deep understanding of the seductive pull of social media: I'll call it a "phenomenology of Facebook."


Here's what I have in mind. Just as in that phenomenologically influenced mode of literary criticism called "Reader Response," wherein readers are called upon to carefully document and describe their moment-by-moment experience in reading a text, you could ask your students to document and describe their moment-by-moment experience when they use social media. Rather than describing how they feel when they aren't online (which is what the University of Maryland study asked students to do), your students would describe, in journal entries, their precise emotions, expectations, anticipations, disappointments, triumphs, surprises, hopes, fears (and so on and so forth) when they are. Bringing their journals to class, they could share (using their discretion about what to share and what not to) what they discovered, and then organize together the commonalities of their experience. The exercise is likely to be quite eye opening.


It is important that you make it clear that such a phenomenology is not intended to be judgmental: it is not a matter of “good” or “bad”; it is simply a matter of “what.” What is the actual experience of social media usage? What is it like? What’s going on? Only after clearly answering such phenomenological questions can ethical questions be effectively posed.


Not so incidentally, you can join in the exercise yourself. I’ve done it myself. You may be surprised at what you learn.



Credit: Pixabay Image 292994 by LoboStudioHamburg, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


It seems like every year around this time I find myself way behind in my journal reading: something about the spring, I guess. But recently I’ve had a chance to begin catching up, thanks to some long cross-country flights. Two issues of College English kept me busy and thinking hard: every essay had good lessons to teach, and I came away from these two issues admiring the current work in our field as well as the editors of CE.


The January 2018 issue featured compelling essays by Abby Dubisar (on MADD and activism), Crystal Colombini (on hardship letters and the politics of genre), Kim Owens (a fascinating look at the ethnic studies classes that were outlawed in Arizona), and Lois Agnew (on “cancer wars” in the U.S. from 1920 to 1980). These essays led me to reflect on how I was reading them and how my reading practices (or habits) shift according to how engaged I am, what my preconceptions and biases are, and what I already know about the topic.


And these reflections set me up for the review in this issue, Kelly Blewett’s “In Defense of Unruliness: Five Books on Reading.” I love the notion of “unruly” reading, taken from Mariolina Salvatori and Patrick Donahue’s Stories about Reading. In their discussion, they reject the “students can't read” and “reading is a problem” arguments in favor of acknowledging that “students have capacities and abilities we have yet to pay adequate attention to.” So in spite of the doom and gloom reports that say students can’t read proficiently and that pleasure reading is “dead,” what I see around me is quite different. Students today are reading constantly, on all manner of devices, and they are writing up a storm as well. It’s just that the kinds of reading they are doing doesn’t seem to “count” for many people, which is just more proof that we aren’t yet paying adequate attention to what young people are actually doing.


Blewett takes this approach in reviewing five very different books on reading, which “collectively bring to composition studies a reclamation of the complex and elusive nature of reading which is surprise-provoking, possible, self-reflexive, and interperetive.” This review sent me looking for books I hadn’t heard of, like Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read, “a book comprising words and images that explores how readers visualize prose” and offers insights about the mysterious and always partial nature of reading. Certainly this review is worth reading, and re-reading, so that’s part of my recommended reading.


The most recent issue of College English (March, 2018) contains only three essays, but all three were fascinating to me. Chris Mays’s essay on creative nonfiction and the controversy over how much such work must adhere to the “truth” is thorough and thoroughly provocative. Bethany Mannon’s piece on three ways of looking at and engaging with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project renewed my commitment to what Maria Lugones calls “world traveling,” and showed how digital storytelling projects can further that goal. And Cynthia Lewis’s report on a course she teaches on “Radio Shakespeare” took me inside the experience she and her students had as they prepared The Merchant of Venice for broadcast: just learning about the logistics involved—from voice coaching and use of special sound effects to the intricacies of interactions among members of the cast—left me wanting to be part of such a class myself.


All this reading has also left me wondering what more I can do to bring active, engaged, delightful, unruly reading into more classrooms. I’d very much like to hear from those who have ways of doing so. Leave a comment below!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1869616 by Pexels, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Ideally, every video that I upload to YouTube has closed captions and a transcript. Unfortunately, things are not always ideal in my world. When I have time, I have been using Screencast-O-Matic to add captions to the videos that I make for my students. Here’s an example video that I made to show students how a new blog commenting system works.

Viewing Tip
Click the closed caption icon that is shaped like a box with lines of text in it, in the lower right band where the controls are, to see the captions on this video. The icon is shown in the image below, all the way to the left.

To make the captions on this video, I used the speech-to-text capability built into Screencast-O-Matic Pro. Unfortunately, you do have to upgrade to use the speech-to-text tool, but the cost is an economical $18 annually. The tool created a rough draft of the captions, but I had to go through and edit them by adding words and phrases that it missed and correcting things that it misheard.

The whole process took a little over an hour, which may not seem bad until you consider the length of the video. The video is only 3½ minutes long, so I spent about twenty times the length of the video to make the transcript. Now extend that time commitment to a 10 minute video, and you need to plan at least three hours. That’s quite an undertaking for something that will only result in 10 minutes of curriculum material.

Fortunately, YouTube includes a setting that allows a video creator to crowdsource the captioning for the videos that she uploads. From my perspective, it’s the most important setting on YouTube. Just follow the instructions to Turn on & manage community contributions and anyone can add captions to your video. The system allows you to review, change, or reject the captions.

I already have an assignment that invites students to crowdsource transcripts. This YouTube setting facilitates their contributions to the course smoothly, and as a bonus, it reduces the work I have to do since the captions are added directly to the videos. In addition, students can contribute by adding to existing captions if they notice a correction is needed. I still plan to create captions for all my videos, but it’s nice to know that these alternatives exist.

Do you have suggestions for improving the process of providing transcripts and captioning for video and audio content? I would love additional ideas and assignments. Please tell me about your ideas by leaving a comment below.

Barbara Wallraff

Just the Facts, Folks

Posted by Barbara Wallraff Expert Apr 25, 2018


“Avoid Exaggeration…. When you’re writing for readers who don’t know you well, it’s important to show that you’re reliable and not overly dramatic. Readers have a sense of what the world is like. Exaggerations tend to affect them much the way insults do: they begin to mistrust the writer.”


In some contexts now I can feel a bit silly about having written that advice in Mike Palmquist’s and my new textbook. Academic writing is not one of those contexts. Fields that involve statistics, for instance, have strict rules about what does or doesn’t constitute exaggeration, and researchers are trained to respect them reflexively. They write things like “X intervention led to a 2.5 percent increase in Y, but that result is not statistically significant.” That is, they don’t just present the information they’ve gathered; they also acknowledge its significance. When it doesn’t mean much, they make sure to point it out.

In less quantifiable disciplines, a writer might want to argue, say, that Lyndon Johnson was “the greatest civil-rights advocate of all time,” or she or he might quote an authority as having said that. But academics rarely state such things in passing as though they were settled fact. They know that doing so would undermine their credibility.

Outside academia, obviously the rules against exaggeration fly out the window. All the same, I feel strongly that here too avoiding exaggeration pays off. The speech that the Parkland shootings survivor Emma Gonzalez gave on February 17 at a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale is a case in point. The speech was widely described as emotional and powerful. And yet it covered a lot of information, including:

  • The House of Representatives did not observe a moment of silence for the Parkland victims, as is generally done after mass shootings. 
  • “In Florida, to buy a gun you do not need a permit, you do not need a gun license, and once you buy it you do not need to register it. You do not need a permit to carry a concealed rifle or shotgun. You can buy as many guns as you want at one time.”
  • Australia had one mass shooting in 1999, introduced gun safety laws, and hasn’t had one since.
  • “Japan has never had a mass shooting. Canada has had three and the UK had one and they both introduced gun control.”
  • President Trump’s electoral campaign received $30 million from the NRA.
  • If you divide that dollar amount “by the number of gunshot victims in the United States in the one and one-half months in 2018 alone, that comes out to being $5,800.”
  • “President Trump repealed an Obama-era regulation that would have made it easier to block the sale of firearms to people with certain mental illnesses.”


Gonzalez presented other things, too, as facts—but those are most of the major ones. Given how prevalent false assertions are, I rooted around online to see if I could find out whether any of them were exaggerations. (Some of the results of my research can be found in the links above.)

There are certainly websites and transcripts and videos that claim Gonzalez was exaggerating or worse. For instance, NRA board member Ted Nugent had this to say on a nationally syndicated radio program after Gonzalez spoke at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington D.C., on March 24: “These poor children, I’m afraid to say this and it hurts me to say this, but the evidence is irrefutable, they have no soul.” And after the host showed him clips from the speech, he responded, “The dumbing down of America is manifested in the culture deprivation of our academia that have taught these kids the lies, media that have prodded and encouraged and provided these kids lies.”

All of that’s obviously opinion, not fact. (“The evidence is irrefutable” that Gonzalez and other young activists have no soul?!) Numerous other partisan discreditings of her facts have themselves been discredited—and around it goes. But what I wanted to find out is whether websites that are respected across the political spectrum, such as centrist news and fact-checking sites, “called BS,” to borrow Gonzalez’s memorable phrase, on specific information she had shared.

Politifact reports that the information about gun purchases and permits in Florida “tracks with” material from the NRA itself, but calls the claim “You do not need a permit to carry a concealed rifle or shotgun” “probably the weakest line of the speech.” It explains, “There is no permit available to carry a concealed rifle or shotgun, because concealed carry of those weapons is not allowed.”, another fact-checking site, rates the assertion that Trump repealed the Obama-era regulation only “Mostly true,” inasmuch as it’s a simplification. And that’s about as much truth-stretching in the speech as numerous credible sources seem to have been able to find. Gonzalez’s speech was emotional and powerful because it was factual.

There’s no denying that it’s possible to exaggerate widely and often and still succeed in public life. But if ever there was a teachable moment to show your students how much words can matter—specifically words from young people like them, and specifically accurate words—Emma Gonzalez’s Fort Lauderdale speech would be it.


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


Image Credit: "How to Spot Fake News" by IFLA on Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license


In talking to my students about the common logical fallacies, I stress that it is not as important that they are able to label a fallacy as it is to recognize when there is a problem with the logic in a given statement. The list of fallacies in our text and in every other argument text on the market, with variations, is useful for alerting them to what can go wrong with logic, but knowing the difference between a straw man and a red herring is less important than recognizing that the logic is skewed. That applies to seeing fallacies in what they read and hear, and also in what they write.


You don’t have to look far in today’s newspaper or online news or listen too long to the news to hear logical fallacies. Our hope is that news reports will present facts and that commentary, where cases are built for or against interpretations of those facts, will be clearly labeled as commentary. Unfortunately, the line between hard news and commentary has become increasingly blurred. All it takes is comparing the coverage of an event by CNN and by Fox News to see that. Any controversial topic brings out flawed logic. The more controversial the issue, the more flawed the logic is likely to be because when emotions get involved, they can outweigh reason. Bias can change the way a story is covered simply because of what is included and what is left out. To be fair, reporting the facts alone of a case often includes a person’s stated reasons for his or her actions, and these reasons often include their own faulty logic. A fight breaks out aboard an airliner because one person is afraid to sit next to another because of the color of the other person’s skin or the clothes he is wearing. That’s a hasty generalization. To assume that to limit the sale of automatic weapons will lead to taking away everyone’s guns is a slippery slope. To justify one politician’s indiscretions because another politician is equally guilty of indiscretions illustrates the two-wrongs-make-a right fallacy. (They don’t.)


For years, advertisers got away with false use of authority. An early ad claimed, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” Actors who played doctors on television advertised all sorts of medications and cures. In an interesting recent play on that tradition, a group of television doctors admit in a series of Cigna ads that they only play doctors on television, but that they still want you to get an annual checkup. Is Marie Osmond or Jennifer Hudson any more qualified than any other user of a weight-loss program to argue for its efficacy? The claim to authority is only valid in such a case if the celebrity actually used or uses the product.


In the political sphere, President Trump has actually been accused of ordering attacks on Syria as a red herring to draw attention away from the Stormy Daniels story. His administration has been compared to the early days of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, which most would classify as a false analogy, but some would not. Is blaming Hillary Clinton’s loss of the presidential election on a letter written by James Comey a post hoc fallacy or not?


These examples are enough to suggest that students won’t have to look far if they are asked to bring in examples of logical fallacies from the news or from advertising. The class can discuss what is wrong with the logic and why. They can start to think about where logic goes wrong and maybe start to notice flawed logic when they see or hear it. Peer critiques of their argumentative essays can point out flawed logic that is so hard for a writer to see in his or her own writing. The terms matter much less than an eye or ear attuned to errors in reasoning.



Image Source: “I Can Be Persuaded” by Martha Soukup on Flickr 10/30/10 via Creative Commons 2.0 license


In April 2014, I had the great pleasure of attending the First Symposium on Teaching Composition and Rhetoric at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. With the theme of “Let Our Voices be Heard,” the symposium was held at NC A&T and sponsored by publisher Bedford/St. Martin’s. Shortly after the symposium, I wrote about it, focusing on a powerful and provocative keynote address by Vershawn Young. (I also gave a keynote but didn’t need to talk about that!) As always happens when I get to visit an HBCU, I learned a ton–especially from the talented and vocal students who attended.


Everyone at that first symposium left hoping for another one, and this year our wishes came true: again sponsored by Bedford/St. Martin’s, chaired by David Green, and held at Howard University and at the United Negro College Fund offices in DC, this Symposium on Teaching Composition and Rhetoric at HBCUs: Remembering Our Pasts, Re-envisioning Our Future certainly lived up to my high expectations. Keith Gilyard closed out the first day with his keynote, “Paying the Price to Make the Mic Sound Nice,” in which he urged all of us to begin with who our students are, not where they are, and to put autobiography and an exploration of the “I” at the center of our teaching and writing. In Gilyard’s view, progressive education is characterized by “rigorous and democratic development of ‘I’” and by exploration of the social/political world our students inhabit.


The other conference keynote was delivered by my fabulous colleague Adam Banks. In “Hold My Mule: Black Twitter, Digital Culture, and a Renewed Version of Students’ Right to Their Own Language (SRTOL),” he offered a holistic view of what it means to “do language work,” demonstrating the influence of GIFs and memes especially in articulating and disseminating black culture. Arguing that if technology and technological issues are a key area of inquiry and if “Black expressive culture is on the rise, the goals in composition classes must change.” A renewed vision of SRTOL, then, would put an emphasis on Black language and rhetorical practices that go “far beyond the linguistic”; would go well beyond print; and see remix as an indisputable part of Black culture. These new foci would help us to completely rethink intellectual property (which, as Larry Lessig has long argued, we absolutely must do) and to create pedagogical and social spaces where young people can “come with the remix” as accepted and valued practice.


These very brief summaries don’t do justice to the rich talks given by Gilyard and Banks: for more from them, you can pre-order their forthcoming book, On African American Rhetoric.


While no open conflict erupted, it was clear that not everyone at the symposium embraced these “newfangled” ideas, and there were those who advocated adherence to standard edited English, citing a 2010 study that found that 58% of those using AAVE have writing problems and 73% have reading problems (see Abha Gupta, “African-American English: Teacher Beliefs, Teacher Needs, and Teacher Preparation Programs”). In spite of a lack of unanimity, I came away reminded, once again, that English has always been a plastic language, shifting and changing shape as it absorbed new features from many other languages and from many dialects. And there’s nothing I’d love more than a “renewed vision of SRTOL!”


Every panel I attended during the conference left me instructed and inspired. From Corrie Claiborne and Jamila Lyn’s description of a program they developed to work with young men at Morehouse around issues of gender and of sexual harassment, to ALEXANDRIA LOCKETT’s exploration of “Gender Politics of Excellence at HBCUs,” to Kendra Bryant’s forceful evocation of “Black Student Writers in the Social Media Age,” to Khirsten Echols’s “Turning the Page, Shifting the View: Considering HBCU Literacies,” and to a very powerful closing roundtable on the “Challenges and Triumphs of HBCUs” (featuring a searing testimonial by Faye Spencer Maor on why her work at HBCUs has been central to who she is and why she is where she is today) as well as Jason DePolo’s haunting reminder that “faculty working conditions [which are sorely lacking at most HBCUs] are student learning conditions.”


I could go on and on about this remarkable gathering, and I am grateful for the opportunity I had to learn from all these remarkable scholars. Best of all, I learned that there will be a THIRD symposium on HBCUs, this one to be held at Morehouse College in the Fall of 2019. You know I’ll be there!


To view the full program from this year's symposium, visit the HBCU Forum.

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


When assigning multimodal assignments, instructors may feel overwhelmed by all the options and choose to use simple templates that can limit students’ creativity. Alternatively, some instructors may offer too many format options and end up with a hodgepodge of assignments, rubrics/expectations, and file types that can confuse students. At different times, I've fallen into both categories, but I’ve learned that the most effective and engaging projects find middle ground between being limitless and being limited. The important thing is that the instructor is comfortable with what’s assigned and that students have fun and learn the skills and purposes behind these assignments.


Here are some ways to travel the multimodal middle ground…


1) Let them fly free but know where they’re flying. As with any assignment, students should have enough room for free expression but enough structure and guidance to keep them on task. Even with carefully crafted assignments, students can misinterpret instructions and go off the beaten path. The best way to establish middle ground for this is to do check-ins. Just like the writing process includes check-ins via drafting, revising, and redrafting, the multimodal process should have the same:

  • Discuss students’ multimodal plans before they begin designing.
  • Ensure that they understand the expectations and are working towards them.
  • Check-in with them at regular intervals throughout the project to make sure their work is still on task.
  • See if any design plans or outcomes have changed or if they need help with the technology they are using.

The goal of check-ins is to maintain a sense of what students’ multimodal creations will look like in their finished states, so that there are no bizarre, inappropriate, or completely off-track designs.


2) Encourage exploration but know how to help. We’re really good at teaching students how to critically think, read, and write because we’re really good at these things ourselves. The same should be true when teaching multimodal assignments.


For some instructors, knowing how to teach students the multimodal composition process is the most important aspect of the assignment. We know the process well, so we can always help with that. For other instructors, teaching the students how to use the technology for the assignments is on equal footing with teaching the multimodal composition process. When this is the case, it’s wise to keep at your disposal a cache of tech tools that you know how to use well.


In my classes, teaching the process and how to use the tech have always gone hand in hand. Encouraging students’ multimodal exploration has occasionally caused concern when students wanted to use technology that I was not familiar with. I was comfortable teaching the process, but I feared not being able to help with the tech. My concerns dissipated when students were quite comfortable with the tech they wanted to use, even if I wasn’t. Whichever approach an instructor takes with these assignments, we must remember that the ultimate goal is to teach the process, so the tech should bend to our wills and support what we do, not the other way around.


3) Simple is fine; boring is not. Simple formats can be amazing with proper ideas and guidance, but too often students see a simple format and think it also has to be boring.

Students frequently question the rhetorical value in doing an assignment that seemingly fits better in an art or graphic design class than an English class. Beginning with simple formats that offer a hybrid between text and graphics is an easy way to get students to see the rhetorical value in reformatting textual information into multimodal formats. To help them break out of the boring:

  • Ask them how they would rhetorically respond to what they’ve created.
  • Ask them what they’d like to see within that format’s parameters.
  • Ask them if it speaks to them, and if so, how?

If they think it’s boring, ask them how they think their audience would respond.

If they don’t respond well to what they’ve created, show them design features for color, font, borders, images, etc. Teach them how all of those things work together to make the whole thing amazing, then they’ll shift away from boring and towards spectacular.


4) Pre-select one or two genres to make management easier. As described above, a multimodal assignment with a single format could become boring without proper guidance but having too many options might overwhelm students. Multimodality can come in so many forms; an instructor might be inclined to let students pick any form of multimedia that fits the rhetorical situation. I was this instructor. At one point, I had to use four pages of expectations to cover all of the potential formats my students used. It became a muddled mess that was challenging to juggle.


I simplified by pre-selecting the genre(s) the students could use. By simplifying, I could:

  • Offer more detailed help
  • Develop clear expectations/rubrics
  • Engage with and assess and their final products better.

Selecting a genre for students but letting them decide their formats within that genre helps them consider the rhetorical choices they make, which reinforces the composing process.


5) Establish expectations/rubrics but be flexible. Regardless of the format options, students should always have clear expectations for the assignment. Having clear expectations does not, however, mean being inflexible. In fact, multimodality necessitates using flexible assessment for final drafts because there are so many components to consider: color and font choices, spatial design, length, content, images, audio, and video, among so many others.


How to assess these compositions is worthy of a much deeper discussion, which I will explore in my next blog post. Stay tuned for more to come. And in the meantime, comment below and let me know what you’ve learned about creating parameters for multimodal assignments.

There is a terrific article in the March issue of NCTE’s Council Chronicle by Trisha Collopy, laying out both a rationale and some practical strategies for incorporating challenging and complex readings in community college classrooms at all levels. Much of the content in the article will resonate with integrated reading and writing (IRW) instructors; we know that deep reading will make a difference for our students—as they discuss “reading that matters” (12).


But I would suggest that such readings also offer an opportunity to revisit our approach to grammar (where we so often resort to decontextualized sentences, prescriptive rules, and worksheets – none of which seems to have a demonstrable effect on the quality of student writing). What if we invited students to consider language structure as a reading strategy, a means of reading closely, constructing meaning, and interpreting rhetorical moves and stances? What would that look like? What would it require for instructors?


I’d like to explore the instantiation of a “reading for grammar” pedagogy over the next few weeks. The foundation of such a pedagogy, however, rests on a linguistically and rhetorically consistent definition of grammar. Perhaps what is needed is a set of threshold concepts to frame and undergird the pedagogy, akin to Adler-Kassner and Wardle’s Naming What We Know


Here is a first attempt at such a list, garnered from studies in applied linguistics, language acquisition theory, and the composition classroom. I would welcome an opportunity to revise, expand, and refine the list as others share expertise.


  1. Grammar is a rule-governed system for producing and interpreting language.
  2. All speakers possess a grammar; speakers may access multiple grammars for different purposes.
  3. Grammars are neither “good” nor “bad.”
  4. The specific rules of grammar are derived from the habits of communities of practice.
  5. Grammars change.
  6. Knowledge of a word includes knowledge of the grammatical structures in which that word participates.
  7. Academic/written grammars are acquired; they are not native to anyone.
  8. Conventions of written language are arbitrary.
  9. Grammatical knowledge can be both tacit and explicit.
  10. Speakers working within a particular grammar make choices.
  11. The effectiveness of a grammar choice is related to the listener/reader’s ability to interpret that choice.
  12. People make judgments about others because of grammatical choices.
  13. People establish and maintain identities through the language choices that they make.
  14. Grammar is informed by previous experiences with language in a variety of discourse communities.
  15. There is no such thing as complete mastery of academic grammar. (Or perhaps there is no such thing as a common academic grammar.)
  1. Educated speakers can disagree about practice (Oxford comma, “healthful” vs. “healthy”).
  2. Grammar is contextual, rhetorical, and meaning-driven.


What else? I would love to hear your thoughts.


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

Join the Macmillan Community to get involved (it’s free, quick, and easy)!

There are 60 million people with disabilities in the US banner by Yahoo! Accessibility Lab on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA licenseWhen students compose assignments, I expect them to pay attention to accessibility in addition to the usual issues of content and format. After all, even the most brilliant document will be unsuccessful if readers cannot access it.

When students are turning in PDF files, the basic process is to create the document in a word processor and then use that word processor file to generate a PDF. To guide this process, students can use any one of dozens of checklists and resources for help. In particular, the Checklist for Making Accessible Microsoft Office and PDF Documents from Johns Hopkins is thorough and includes links to additional information.

The information in such checklists can be overwhelming, however, especially for students who resist the additional step of ensuring accessibility. To simplify the process, I focus on these three steps in my instructions to students:

  1. Use built-in tools for document styles.
    Word processors have built-in style templates for a document’s title, headings, and lists. Screen readers  – software applications that assist sight-impaired users access what is on the computer by means that are not sight-dependent  – look for these templates as a key to the organization of a document. If the document has created its own style markers (say, using a bold, 12-point font for primary headings), the screen reader won’t recognize that information as headings. Beyond making documents accessible for screen readers, the built-in tools create a professional design without any extra formatting work.
  2. Choose meaningful names for hyperlinks.
    Screen readers read all of the links in a document in a kind of menu. These links are read without the surrounding text that provides their context. To ensure that your readers find the right hyperlink, use the name of the document that a hyperlink connects to, rather than vague text like “Click Here.” Because of the way that screen readers read the links, “Click Here” doesn’t make sense since the context is missing. Basically, readers have no idea where “Click Here” will take them.
  3. Use Save As PDF... and never Print to PDF.
    If a PDF does not include text (words and other characters), screen readers don’t know how to interpret the information. That’s the problem with the Print to PDF command: it saves an image of the document rather than the text. The resulting PDF may look the same to someone with sight, but the screen reader can’t use it. Additionally, any special features like embedded hyperlinks will be gone in a document created with the Print to PDF command. Instead, always use the Save As PDF command, which maintains text recognition and features like embedded hyperlink. For extensive information on how to save your documents, I recommend PDF Accessibility: Converting Documents to PDF from WebAIM. Microsoft also has instructions on how to Create Accessible PDFs.

There is much more that can be done to make a document fully accessible, but this bare minimum goes a long way toward ensuring that someone gets at least the basics of what the document is trying to communicate. For other ways that I address access, you can read details on how I tell students about accessibility in my courses as well as how I ask students to crowdsource accessibility documents for the course.

Do you have any activities or instructions that you use to talk about accessibility with students? Tell me about them in the comments below. I’m always eager to find new resources I can use in class.



Photo credit: There are 60 million people with disabilities in the US banner by Yahoo! Accessibility Lab on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA license.

For the past several weeks, I have been meeting with faculty from across our university. The meetings have been part of an effort to build a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) emphasis at our institution. When originally asked to be part of this effort, I was a bit surprised. WAC was not a term I typically applied to my teaching or my own research on community partnership/literacies. Yet as I talked to faculty from Geography, Psychology, and Mathematics, I was struck by the overlap in our goals as teachers committed to creating classrooms where writing was an important part of the learning process.


In fact, it seems that my emphasis on Writing Beyond the Curriculum might actually be deeply enmeshed with the goals of Writing Across the Curriculum. As a result, I found myself rethinking how key frameworks from community partnership/literacy might allow me to more freely build amongst courses and programs across the university.


Research Communities

One of the tenants of community literacy is that every community has its own unique way of studying and framing solutions to problems. The belief is that if we listen deeply enough to how communities cite evidence, we will see patterns of argument and action through which we can form productive partnerships. Our work as teachers is to enable students to hear these latent community strategies, instead of imposing their own viewpoints. These same pedagogical values of rhetorical listening can frame research within classes across the curriculum. Instructors in every class need to find ways to teach students to hear the strategies of their disciplinary community, to see how evidence is gathered, and to develop a productive conversation. Indeed, unless such an engaged conversation is developed, it is not clear the student has actually come to understand the values and goals of that discipline.


Writing Communities

As students engaged in community partnerships continue to work in a community, they must also consider what forms of writing are seen as important to a particular neighborhood. In the process, they must think through what types of questions those genres support as well as how they might work with the community to expand genres and conversations to create new possibilities. Similarly, for university faculty, a key goal becomes demonstrating to students the affordances of the genres which mark their discipline, the questions such genres support, and how those questions push the limits of convention. Indeed, teaching students how to both inhabit and expand the possibilities of a discipline’s ways of writing becomes the way to initiate them into the creation of new forms of knowledge.


Addressing Communities

Producing writing designed to circulate and be read in a community necessarily implies a sense of audience. One of the struggles students in community projects often face is that for most of their academic careers they have not actually had to address a real audience. Instead, they see writing as something transactional between the student and the professor. The reality of real readers in a ‘real’ community causes them to take much greater care with their writing, develop a much more nuanced sense of language, tone, and style. There is a sudden need to make sure each sentence produces the intended results, functioning in harmony with community goals. It could be argued, however, that university classrooms should offer a similar sense of urgency and importance to writing. Students are not so much addressing a professor, but addressing a field, a discipline. Often, this is not the framework of a typical assignment. If classroom writing was reoriented along a community partnership axis, assignments could be restructured in ways that ask students to develop a sense of the community being addressed – the issues and stakes in using one term over another, how each term locates them differently in a community debate. Bringing in community partnership/literacy pedagogies, that is, might enable such an attention to writing to emerge within any university classroom.


Changing Communities

Inherent in almost any community partnership/literacy effort is a sense of needed change. Whether the change is as small as a tutored student’s manipulation of sentences or as large as a struggle against gentrification, there is a sense that the status quo is incomplete. That a better world is possible. Lessons learned by students in community partnerships include how to understand what type of change and scale of action is necessary, what skills need to be brought to the task, and how to assess success/failure. These lessons are also inherent in any university classroom – an attempt to demonstrate the value of endlessly seeking a more accurate sense of the issues at hand, a constant learning of the skills required for this to occur, a need to assess the success of the effort. So if “producing change” became a framing narrative of the course, students might be able to better understand the stakes, the scale of the work at hand, and find value in the work being asked. They might see themselves as part of a collective effort, no matter how small their role, to create change dedicated to a deeper sense of truth, a better framework from which to guide their actions outside the classroom.


Of course, there is much more to say on these connections, more time needed to connect community partnership pedagogies to the work of writing across the curriculum. And in a discussion devoted to learning with and from communities, a single authored blog post seems a bit of a contradiction. It is out of this context that on Thursday, April 19th at 3pm EST/12pm PDT, I hope you will join me at a Bedford/St. Martin’s sponsored conversation on this very issue – how writing communities can support writing across the curriculum. If you are interested, you can register for the webinar here.


I would love to learn from your insights and to begin a dialogue which can bring these seemingly distinct parts of our field into productive alliance for our students.

Today's guest blogger is Amanda Gaddaman adjunct instructor in the First-Year Writing Program and the School for New Learning at DePaul University. She holds a B.A. in English with a concentration in Literary Studies and a M.A. in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse with a concentration in Teaching Writing and Language from DePaul, and her research interests include first-year composition, adult and non-traditional students, and writing center pedagogies.


I think I’ve been doing multimodality wrong—or at least, I’ve been doing it the same way that I’ve always done it since I began teaching years ago. When creating opportunities for multimodality in the classroom, I have focused primarily on the outcome and how students can fulfill an assignment objective by incorporating multiple or alternate media in their final product.  It only recently occurred to me, during a conversation with a student about her writing process and the challenges of stagnation, that multimodality might also be effectively integrated as part of the writing process, even if the final product looks like a traditional academic essay.


If creating multimodal texts helps communicate ideas in rhetorical ways tailored for particular audiences, then multimodal prewriting and revision activities may also help tailor the writing process for a writer’s individual needs, challenges, and strengths. The goal of the follow suggested multimodal writing activities is to encourage students to embrace the constructive value of multimodality during the drafting and revision processes, instead of just in its expressive value in an end product.


Background Reading

The St. Martin’s Handbook

  • Chapter 3: Exploring, Planning, and Drafting
  • Chapter 4: Reviewing, Revising, Editing, and Reflecting

The Everyday Writer (also available with Exercises)

  • Chapter 8: Reflecting
  • Chapter 22: Making Design Decisions

EasyWriter (also available with Exercises)

  • Chapter 6: Learning from Low-Stakes Writing
  • Chapter 11: Creating Presentations


The Activities

The following activities are merely suggestions to get you and your students thinking about how to incorporate multimodal writing into the writing process. There are countless options out there to which students may respond, and those options may also depend on your classroom, your schedule, and your assignments. I recommend that you follow up on these activities with a post-writing reflection component to encourage students to evaluate the effects of multimodal drafting and revision on their work.


  • Free vlogging
    For a multimodal twist on free writing, challenge students to set a ten minute timer and record themselves talking through their early ideas, questions, and/or issues related to their writing topic. As in written free writing, they should try to continue talking for the entire ten minutes—even if they run out of things to say or veer off topic. Not every minute of the video will be useful once they review the footage; however, by first verbalizing their ideas and subsequently evaluating them, students will gain a better perspective on where they’re at in the writing process, where the roadblocks and questions remain, and what they need to do to forge ahead.

    In the reflection component, you might ask students to compare their experiences with traditional free writing and free vlogging: In what ways are each effective for you? Ineffective or challenging? How might you incorporate this activity in future writing projects?


  • Interactive outlining
    Many students are tied, for better or for worse, to traditional outlining because it was required in high school or middle school composition courses. Fans of the traditional outline might consider using Prezi to create an interactive outline that highlights the relationships between ideas through movement and visual connections.

    For reflection, consider asking students to comment on the idea of “flow,” a buzzword often used in relation to writing and revision, but rarely defined. Interactive outlining may help students more clearly conceptualize what they mean by “flow” and how they might revise and reorganize their work to more effectively incorporate it into their final essay.


  • Reflexting
    One of my greatest challenges as an instructor is not knowing what students do with or think about my written comments on their work. Part of the issue, I think, is that sometimes students don’t know what the comments mean or don’t take the time to adequately engage with the feedback before revising their work and submitting it.


Ask students to use a free, online text message conversation generator like to create a conversation between your written comments and their reactions, questions, and plans for revision, all texted from their phones. Encourage them to embrace the genre by using emojis, gifs, and discourse-specific language rules to create their responses. Doing so will force students to engage with each and every comment, better equipping them to create a plan for revision. In the post-writing reflection, ask students to think about the degree to which they incorporated your comments compared to previous feedback experiences.  



The activities suggested here and the countless other opportunities out there for incorporating multimodality into the drafting and revision processes are easy to fit into your existing course structure because they can complement nearly any scheduled writing assignment. Instead of just giving students time to draft, encouraging (okay—requiring) them to try something new and different might help them adopt practices that actually work, rather than those which are merely familiar. Perhaps most importantly, utilizing multimodal composing in this way allows both you and your students to expand preexisting definitions of pre”writing” and create essays with more depth and creativity.


We’re at that point in the semester when students are hitting Maximum Anxiety about Grades. The corollary for instructors is Maximum Anxiety about Grading All The Things. Here’s a cure for both ills: sharing the responsibility for evaluation with students.


I’d argue there’s no better measure of whether students understand your assignments and course goals than giving them the meta-cognitive opportunity to evaluate their own work with the tools you use as an instructor. After all, our hope is that long after students leave our classrooms, they will still be able to evaluate and strengthen their own work.  I’ll suggest two strategies I use to structure student self-evaluation in my classes, and I hope you’ll share your own strategies in the comments.


Strategy One: Cover Letters

In our chapter on effective peer review of drafts in From Inquiry to Academic Writing, my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I recommend asking students to write cover letters for drafts of their papers for two reasons: It provides a chance for a writer to reflect on their perceptions of strengths and weaknesses of that particular draft, and it offers a conversation guide to others in their peer workshops. We offer this model for an early draft, which could be adapted for your purposes. 

  1. What is your question (or assignment)?
  2. What is the issue motivating you to write?
  3. How have published writers addressed the issue you discuss?
  4. What is your working thesis?
  5. Who is your audience, and how do you want them to respond?
  6. What do you think is working best?
  7. What specific aspect of the essay are you least satisfied with at this time?
  8. What kind of feedback do you especially want today? (p. 355)


This line of questioning moves students from the disempowered position of “hoping to figure out what the instructor wants” to the empowered position of evaluating what they are achieving in their writing, with real readers in mind. Our experience is that these cover letters tell us as much about students as writers as the drafts themselves. Later drafts might call for cover letters shaped by general writing concerns of the course (integration of quotations, organization, addressing counterarguments, etc.).  Polished drafts might call for exactly the kind of self-reflection that all thoughtful writers should consider:

  1. What is your unique perspective on your issue?
  2. To what extent do the words and phrases you use reflect on who you believe your readers are?
  3. Does your style of citation reflect accepted conventions for academic writing?
  4. What do you think is working best?
  5. What specific aspect of the essay are you least satisfied with at this time? (p. 363)


Additionally, I ask students to explain what they are trying that is new in a draft, as a reminder that as writers, we all ought to keep stretching. (I reward risk-taking — even if the results are less than stellar — provided students can name and evaluate the strategy.) Students are sometimes nervous that pointing out their own weaknesses will steer me to problems I might have missed on my own. However, I remind them that their ability to point out where they need to grow is a significant goal of the course.      


Strategy Two: Using your rubric for self-grading and comments

Our second strategy is a simple one: Hand your grading rubrics to your students and give them the opportunity not just to evaluate and comment on their writing, but to grade it as well.  If you have ever tried empowering students to grade themselves, you know there might be a few outliers who claim their work is stronger than it is, but by far the majority of students are either on target or low-ball their own grades.  Once students have a chance to take ownership and weigh in on their work, the context is laid for you as the instructor to agree with them, or to point out strengths that they might have missed.


I don’t know a single instructor who looks forward to grading All The Things.  Empowering students to share ownership in the evaluation process helps them approach their writing from a strengths perspective rather than a deficit one, which is more clearly linked to what we know — that learning to write is a process. Our institutions may require us to enter a column of grades at the end of a semester, but if we invite students to share in the evaluation conversation, they will see that the letter grade is a mere stand-in for the much richer process of learning to write.



Meme generated at, original drawing by Allie Brosh.

In 1971, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin reconfigured a popular British sitcom featuring a bigoted working class patriarch (Till Death Do Us Part) to create America's All in the Family. A massive hit, All in the Family continued on not only to top the Nielsens for five years running but also went a long way towards mediating the racial, generational, and sexual conflicts that continued to smolder in the wake of the cultural revolution. A new kind of sitcom, All in the Family (along with other such ground-breaking TV comedies as The Mary Tyler Moore Show) provided a highly accessible platform for Americans to come to terms with the social upheavals of the sixties, thus contributing to that general reduction of tension that we can now see as characteristic of the seventies. The decade that came in with Kent State went out with Happy Days.


So the recent reboot of Roseanne in a new era of American social conflict is highly significant. Explicitly reconstituting Roseanne Barr's original character as an Archie Bunkeresque matriarch, the revived sitcom raises a number of cultural semiotic issues, not the least of which is the question as to whether the new Roseanne will help mediate America's current cultural and political divisions, or exacerbate them.


In short, we have here a perfect topic for your classroom.


To analyze Roseanne as a cultural sign, one must begin (as always in a semiotic analysis), by building a system of associated signs—as I have begun in this blog by associating Roseanne with All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. There are, of course, many other associations that could be made here within the system of American television (Saturday Night Live, Family Guy, and The Simpsons loom very large here), but I'll limit myself now with the association with All in the Family because of the way that, right off the bat, it reveals an important difference—and semiotic significance is always to be found in a combination of associations and differences—that points to an answer to our immediate semiotic question.


This difference emerges from the well-known fact that Norman Lear was quite liberal in his politics and intended his show to be a force for progressive television, while Roseanne Barr is an outspoken conservative—a situation that has already produced a good deal of controversy. Consider C. Nicole Mason's Washington Post piece "‘Roseanne’ was about a white family, but it was for all working people. Not anymore," a personal essay that laments the Trumpist overtones of Roseanne Barr's new character. On the flip side of the equation, the new Roseanne has been an immediate smash hit in "Trump Country," scoring almost unheard of Nielsen numbers in this era of niche TV. Pulling in millions of older white viewers who prefer the traditional "box" to digital streaming services, the show is already reflecting the kind of generational and racial political divisions that burst into prominence in the 2016 presidential election. As Helena Andrews-Dyer puts it in the Washington Post, "The ‘Roseanne’ reboot can’t escape politics — even in an episode that’s not about politics."


Thus, while it may be soon to tell for certain, I think that the new Roseanne will prove to be quite different from All in the Family in its social effect. Rather than helping to pull a divided nation together, the signs are that Roseanne is going to deepen the divide. I say this not to imply that television has some sort of absolute responsibility to mediate social conflict, nor to suggest that Roseanne's appeal to older white viewers is in itself a bad thing (indeed, the relative lack of such programming goes a long way towards explaining the immediate success of the show). My point is simply semiotic. America, at least when viewed through the lens of popular culture, appears to be even more deeply divided than it was in 1971. Things have not stayed the same. Roseanne isn't Archie Bunker, Trump isn't Nixon, and everyone isn't laughing.


In the age of screens and social media, with everyone talking (often at the top of their lungs), it’s easy to forget that silence can be a powerful communicative act. Think of Edvard Munch’s silent The Scream, or the horrifying silent scream in Mother Courage. Cheryl Glenn has written eloquently about silence (See Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence) and its wide range of uses and powers. I also think of Mary Belenky and her colleagues’ influential book, Women’s Ways of Knowing. In the first edition of that work, they referred to “silence” as the stage of knowing when women are completely dependent on powers external to them. But in the second edition, they changed “silence” to “silenced.” That added “d” changed everything; it’s one thing to be silent, another to be silenced.


During the last month, we have heard from many young people who are responding to the Valentine’s Day murder of seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Almost immediately following the tragedy, students began raising their voices, using the media skillfully to underscore their outrage and enumerate their demands for school safety. Their voices were echoed across the country, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, leading to a national school walkout and a March for our Lives on March 24, held in Washington DC but with sister marches occurring across the country. These young people demanded to be heard, staring down state legislators as well as members of Congress and speaking their own truths to power.


They also knew that silence can have power: we could see it in the dramatic pauses they inserted into their speeches. But no one used the rhetorical power of silence more effectively than Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Douglas who took the mike on March 24, announcing that it had taken all of 6 minutes and about 20 seconds for the shooter to end seventeen lives, calling out the names of the dead and noting all the things that they would now “never” be able to do. As the New York Times reported, Gonzalez

spoke for just under two minutes on Saturday before tens of thousands of demonstrators at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, describing the effects of gun violence in emotional detail and reciting the names of classmates who had been killed.


Then she said nothing for four minutes and 26 seconds.

The huge crowd was absolutely silent as Gonzalez spoke, and they remained silent as she herself fell silent. Early on in the silence, some began to chant . . . but those chants quickly faded away as the crowd stood in mute testimony to those lives lost. As Cheryl Glenn has said, silence can be a powerful rhetorical act, and on March 24, Emma Gonzalez proved the point in her moving, riveting, silent call to action.


I think it’s worth pointing out to our students that they too can be powerful users of silence, in class discussion, in oral and multimedia presentations, even in their writing as they leave certain things unsaid or use punctuation, line breaks, and white space to signal silence.


Sometimes silence can speak much more powerfully than words.


Credit: Pixabay Image 2591660 by StockSnap, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

Since I am currently teaching technical writing, progress reports are on my regular list of assignments this term, but I also use them in both my first-year composition (FYC) and my digital media classes. The assignment works well in the middle of a longer project, be it something like a research project in FYC or a documentary video project in a digital media class.

At its most basic, the progress report is a simple genre with an organizational structure that makes sense to students. I ask students to focus on three sections:

  • Section 1: Tell me what you have done
  • Section 2: Tell me what you still need to do
  • Section 3: Tell me how you will get the remaining work done and let me know about any of your concerns

Students can often accomplish the task in a quick one-page document. The activity works well as an in-class writing exercise, since it requires no research and has a set structure with clear requirements. When students work on progress reports outside of class, I can step up the expectations. For instance, I frequently ask students to include a calendar or a table that shows their remaining milestones or to add specific information that shows their progress.

One of my favorite additions focuses on using visual elements in their progress reports to demonstrate something about the work they have completed or the work they plan to complete. To explain the expectations for this visual addition to the assignment, I post the following description and example on the course website:

Visualize Your Progress

You can often show trends and comparisons with graphical elements better than with text descriptions. Consider the difference between describing the performance of a stock or a portfolio during the last year and showing that performance with a line graph. Here’s an example from the Student-managed Endowment for Educational Development (SEED) 2016 Annual Report [an investment portfolio managed by a student at Virginia Tech]. Which seems easier to read and process to you?

Text Description

The portfolio performed relatively in line or slightly below the respective benchmark until the final quarter, as shown in Exhibit 1. We included the Consumer Price Index as a preservation of spending power benchmark to monitor changes in our real returns. From mid-November to year-end, the portfolio significantly outperformed and finished 2016 with an active return of 5.13%. In order to calculate our risk-adjusted return, we incorporated our portfolio’s beta of 1.2 and historical average for yields on the 1-Year Treasury note (1.84%) in order to compute a CAPM-based implied alpha. This calculation resulted in an implied 2016 alpha of 3.11%.

Line Chart

SEED 2016 Performance

For my money (pun intended), the line chart is much easier to understand quickly. In many circumstances, you will include both a text description and a graphical representation, which helps ensure accessibility for all readers. The point of today’s post is that the graphical version is not just an illustration. It is critical to showing the reader information about the topic.

Think about how you can add graphical representation of information in your progress report. The infographic How to Think Visually Using Visual Analogies from Anna Vital to see a collection of charts and graphs you can use to communicate information. Once you explore the options, add a pertinent visualization to your progress report.

After this reviewing this information, students have improved their progress reports by adding visual elements like pie charts and timelines as well as photos and screenshots that show their work. It’s definitely one of my favorite class activities because it takes students from reflective text descriptions to considerations of visual rhetoric in just one class session. Have you tried an activity that teaches students to make and use visual elements in their writing? Please share your ideas in the comments below. I’d love to hear about what works for you.


Image credit: Graph from the Student-managed Endowment for Educational Development (SEED) 2016 Annual Report.