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Today's guest blogger is Jeanne Bohannon (see end of post for bio).
As I travel back from a trip to Northeast Normal University (NENU) in Changchun, China, I am thinking about Andrea’s Top 20 Student Grammar Mistakes, which I explored with first-year students at NENU. I have employed the indomitable Top 20 in my digital grammar courses each semester but was a bit pensive taking it “on the road” to a class of students who major in English in a School of Foreign Languages. Before my arrival at NENU, my colleague, Professor Fuhui Zhang, took a poll of her fifty students, asking them to rank their own grammar challenges out of the Top 20. Here’s what they came up with:

NENU Class Supper and Grammar Practice



Among student-reported mistakes, faulty sentence structure (especially complex ones with two or three or more subordinate sentences) and wrong word are number 1 and number 2, respectively.


Anecdotal Results of Grammar Attitudes

The results showed a few commonalities with their American counterparts. The Top Ten below represents elements of grammar reported by all students, in order of descending occurrence.

  1. Faulty Sentence Structure
  2. Wrong Word
  3. Problems with Quotations/documentation
  4. Vague Pronouns
  5. Unnecessary/Missing Punctuation
  6. Unnecessary Shift in Verb Tense
  7. Unnecessary Comma
  8. Sentence Fragment
  9. Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement
  10. Fused (run-on) Sentence


Interestingly, #4 (pronouns) was close on the list with my American students in 2017 (#4), when I posted about my students’ Grammar Diagnostics when I last measured these grammar elements for this blog. Comma usage showed up #1 for American students, but for Chinese students ranked at #7. Both sets of students still report issues with verbs, semicolons, and specific uses of punctuation.


Professor Zhang further confirmed that she has noted the same issues in students’ writing.

Together, she and I determined to employ a learning strategy that, while completely new to students, might increase their application of grammar and help them to not only recognize mistakes, but avoid them. We landed on a flipped class model.


Learning grammar in a flipped class model is a low-stakes opportunity that uses traditional grammar tools to create dialogic growth between students in a class and helps students take ownership of their grammar challenges by teaching others. Students at NENU reviewed a PowerPoint presentation adapted from Stanford’s Hume Center for Writing and Speaking that detailed The Top 20 list prior to my arrival, which they used to rank the list based on their own writing experiences and grammar challenges. They narrowed their choices down to a Top 10 to fit within our class time parameters.


Measurable Learning Objectives

  • Examine results of the Top 20 for areas of improvement
  • Compare attitudinal results to others’ in an open discussion forum
  • Synthesize content-meaning through a flipped class model


Background Reading for Students and Instructors
Acts of reading and viewing visual texts are ongoing processes for attaining learning goals in dialogic, digital writing assignments. 


What We Did in Class

Students began by posting and discussing their perceived Top 10 grammar issues in their course LMS, called “QQ.” They then participated in the interactive PowerPoint, guessing answers to prescribed mistakes, sometimes reciting correct answers and at other times writing them on the chalkboard. Students also chose to participate on Weibo and WeChat, two Chinese social media platforms where they hashtagged #ProfessorJeanne to post their reflections and view others’ thoughts on the grammar lesson.  After working with students to vocalize their Top 10 grammar challenges in Mandarin first and then English, I encouraged them to step behind the instructor podium and teach content, demonstrating a deep understanding of each grammar element.


Did Students Appreciate Our Flipped Class?

Out of twenty-five students, twenty-one reported that they learned more about their own specific grammar pitfalls and how to avoid them by participating in the interactive lecture, social media posts, and flipped class. Accordingly, all of them thought their syntax-level American English grammar improved because they knew their specific concerns up-front.

Students flipping the class

Students further narrated their thoughts on postcards:


Learning the Snow App




My Reflection 
For me, strategies such as flipped classes engage students in participatory learning, without fear of grading or making mistakes. This assignment is multimodal because students use real-time ed-tech to see a snapshot of their grammar issues and then participate in face-to-face interactions with other students with similar concerns, supplemented by social media. “Flipped Grammar” counts for me, in terms of multimodal composition, because it encourages students to reflect on their own grammar challenges and become active participants in community-driven, digital conversations about writing. Try the “flip” and let me know what you think!


Do you have an idea for a Multimodal Mondays activity or post? Contact Leah Rang for a chance to be featured on Andrea's blog.


Jeanne Law Bohannon is an Assistant Professor of English in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Kennesaw State University. She believes in creating democratic learning spaces, where students become stakeholders in their own rhetorical growth though authentic engagement in class communities. Her research interests include evaluating digital literacies and critical engagement pedagogies; performing feminist rhetorical recoveries; and growing informed and empowered student scholars. Reach Jeanne at and

iPhone charging


Off and on (mostly on) since 1990, I have spent a good part of my summers at the Bread Loaf Graduate School of English, near Middlebury in Vermont’s Green Mountains. You are probably already aware of this MA program, certainly so if you have read my posts over the last six years, and know that I am a big fan of Bread Loaf—especially of the teachers who arrive each summer to pursue the study of language, literature, writing, rhetoric, and performance.


This summer I am not teaching (I’m now supposed to be retired!), but I spent a week on the mountain reading, writing, and talking with teachers about their students, about student writing and reading, and about their plans for this next school year. As always, I came away deeply inspired by what I learned. While I could talk glowingly about the Ken Macrorie writing centers, which I helped to start a few years ago and which are thriving under the leadership of Beverly Moss, or about the fabulous courses Brenda Brueggemann is teaching about disabilities and literature and about writing pedagogy, or about the brilliant production of Othello that the theater group mounted from scratch, I came away most excited about the Next Generation Leadership Network, an initiative of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network (led by Beverly and Dixie Goswami), Middlebury College, and Georgia Tech’s Westside Community Alliance (spearheaded by the incomparable Jackie Royster).


Funded by the Ford Foundation, the NGLN will engage young people, ages fifteen to twenty-one, in underserved communities across the nation. The program will help in developing robust knowledge and leadership, as well as organizing networked social, civic, and academic activities aimed at strengthening public and community-based education. The leaders of this project draw on grass roots initiatives in Lawrence, MA; Atlanta, GA; rural South Carolina; Appalachian Kentucky; the Navajo Nation; and rural Vermont to form social action teams aiming to change the national narrative about the capabilities, passions, and dreams of youth often viewed as deficient—or simply ignored. Through youth-centered think tanks, where young people and their mentors will gather physically and electronically, the teams will develop strategic plans for individual and collective social action. NGLN is founded on a deep and abiding belief in the strengths of young people to create and share knowledge, to build from experience, and to engage in strategic problem solving that can deeply enrich our understanding of 21st century literacies as multimodal and action centered performances.


Thanks to the determination and very hard work of people like Dixie Goswami, Jackie Royster, Beverly Moss, Lou Bernieri, Ceci Lewis, Brent Peters, Rex Lee Jim, and a host of others, the Next Generation Leadership Network is gearing up for a year of organizing and meeting—and, most of all, listening to young people across the country as they discuss how they hope to realize their potential as national leaders in literacy education. I am expecting big things from all of them!


Credit: Pixaby Image 2286442 by rawpixel, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

(A Sample Writing Prompt from Philadelphia-based Project.)


It is the second week of class. Students’ initial enthusiasm about working with Syrian human rights activists and North African students on confronting ISIS recruitment efforts has turned to apprehension, confusion, and concern. (See  my previous post on the teaching challenges of this topic and approach.) The political theory and regional histories have both emphasized the complex reality of the work and seemingly positioned such work as impossible.


As a teacher, it is at these moments that I have often turned to the drafting of writing prompts, which is an important way to shrink the project into a manageable size. The work becomes solely focused on that initial conversation with a community partner.  While initiating a conversation with communities who are in Syracuse and in North Africa might seem particularly difficult, the process of using writing prompts as a tool to explore hidden assumptions remains pretty much the same.  In general, I ask students to develop the prompts through a series of drafts.


1. The Prompt as Summary of Assigned Readings

As students begin to complete the assigned readings that provide a theoretical framework for the class, I ask them to draft a writing prompt that will begin their conversation with one of our community partners. Almost by default, the students tend to draft prompts that echo the terms of assigned readings and, really, are versions of writing assignments they might receive in other classes. We use these prompts to talk about the difference between ways of speaking in an academic community versus “everyday” communities. They are then tasked, in groups, to keep the intellectual framework in class intact but to revise one student’s writing prompt into more ordinary language. I also stress the variety of possible genres – poetry, memoir, photography, etc.


2. The Prompt as Rhetorical Invitation

As the students begin to revise a prompt for an “everyday” audience and share them in class, the language begins to reveal how they imagine their relationship to the community. Students often imagine themselves in the position of providing a service to an “impoverished community.” The prompt questions will ask partners to share hardships – not successes, positioning the community partner’s neighborhood as full of problematic issues – not as possessing attributes of collective insight and actions. Students are then asked to return to drafting the prompt, paying attention to how the community is framed.


3. The Prompt as Equal Invitation

As prompts are being revised into gestures of respect toward the community, the students must also turn their attention to choosing a topic which can begin to open up a dialogue with the community. The goal is to frame a conversation where the full life and school-based experiences of all those involved are seen as valuable to the work at hand. In a university environment premised on “expertise,” finding appropriate language to create this space is a particularly challenging task.


4. The Prompt Completed

Once the language of the prompt is completed, design becomes a key issue. Handing out photocopied sheets full of blank ink shows disrespect for everyone in the project. For that reason, once the writing is done, images need to be found that echo the stance of the prompt. As with all other elements of this process, choosing an image is also an opportunity for students to question their cultural assumptions about the community and their own relationship to it. Images of “urban poverty,” a typical first suggestion, might ultimately be replaced with images of collaboration, collective work, and visions of progress.


5. Community Review

Finally, any completed prompt will be reviewed by the lead community partner – the ally with whom the project was initiated. This might involve the partner attending a class session to point out where the language/images could be unintentionally insulting or misrepresenting the community’s self-image. This is a vital step and, as with all other moments in this process, demonstrates what it means to establish a partnership in terms of equality and respect – where everyone is working together on the issue to be addressed.


There is one final point to make about writing prompts: students should not be the only source. Rather, prior to the first common meeting, each partnering group should develop their own prompts. This ensures that everyone is in the position of “asking questions” and that each group goes through the same process of testing their cultural assumptions about other communities while practicing language that invites full participation by those communities. (As the partners take on such work, I often find it useful to be there as well.) The community’s creation of prompts may not be as time intensive as the students, given they will often have life responsibilities, but it is just as important.


When all the partners finally talk as a collective, one prompt from each group will be used to begin that conversation. This process can be as organized as directly assigning the prompts to specific selected groups. It can be as improvised as allowing individuals to choose a prompt then forming groups according to what prompt was selected. In both cases, the opening session should include individuals reading the results of their work – enacting the moment when community dialogue begins. (If possible, all the writing produced should be collected, as it provides insight into how individuals are imagining their emerging community as well as material for any possible publication.)


As I write this, my class and our community partners are still actively producing their prompts, exploring cultural assumptions, and thinking through that opening moment of conversation. It is difficult work, often frustrating to students. Still, my students also seem to be finding comfort and security knowing that the immensity of the work to come can become as focused as the conversation through which the work will emerge.

Las Vegas Mandalay Bay by Anthony Quintano on Flickr, under a CC-BY 2.0 license

Image Long Description: Color close-up photo of the iconic lighted "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign.

I stayed up all Sunday night into Monday afternoon, listening to the radio traffic from the Las Vegas police. Somehow it seemed more truthful than the repeated loops of phone videos on CNN, videos that seemed primarily to show jostled phones rather than anything informative. I couldn’t tell everything that was going on, but I could hear the active work to care for the safety of the people in Las Vegas. At a time when I didn’t (and still don’t) have the ability to actively work against the tragic events, it was somehow soothing to hear the voices of people who could and were doing something.


As I write this now, colleagues on the discussion list (WPA-L) of the Council of Writing Program Administrators are talking about whether to address the shooting with students and if they do address it, what they should say. Their discussion thread has the subject line Responding to Las Vegas in Class? Teachers are weighing in there with advice and strategies.


For my students, I wish I had a magic ability to know what to say to make it better, but no one can take the tragedy of it all away. My students are juniors and seniors, taking business writing and technical writing. The shooting doesn’t really connect to the subject matter, but I want to give them space to talk if they need it.


As I considered how to set up a place for their conversation, I was reminded of a piece that I wrote for NCTE ten years ago, in the aftermath of another tragedy. I shared a slightly revised excerpt on the WPA discussion list, and I want to share it here with you as well. While this piece refers to a middle-school journal, the idea is relevant for all levels.


Stories of Tragedies

Revised from the April 17, 2007 post of the NCTE Inbox blog


In his Voices from the Middle article “Difficult Days and Difficult Texts,” Bob Probst talks about the value of stories. “Stories,” he tells us, “will save us, if anything will” (50). Writing of the events of September 11, but just as applicable to the events in Las Vegas, Probst explains, “Part of the problem with understanding . . . was that we had an event, but didn’t yet have a story. All we had at that point was an image, a happening” (53). No matter how old the students we may interact with are, our job as teachers is to help them find the stories:


  • stories of their connections to people in Las Vegas,
  • stories of their own reflections on the events,
  • stories of police and rescue workers who responded,
  • stories of political reactions and implications,
  • stories of the social networks supporting them,
  • stories of the news media’s coverage,
  • stories of their own outrage, sadness, and horror,
  • stories of their fears and where they have found security,
  • stories of how such a thing could happen, and
  • stories of how we all can and must continue on.


As we meet with students and difficult events come up, the most important thing we can do is invite stories and respond to them as empathetic and encouraging readers. As Probst says, “Stories will save us, if anything will.”


The Tragedy of Needing This Post

 There are too many tragedies, as we all know. I have had to share a version of this post three times now—after the shootings at Virginia Tech, after the shootings at Newtown, and now, after the shootings in Las Vegas. I would love to never revise it again, but the reality of today’s world leaves me little hope.


For now, I will do what I can by asking students to share the stories they want and need to and to work together to find ways to move beyond the tragedy. It doesn’t feel like the active work that we need as a society to stop these tragedies from occurring, but it’s what I can do and what students need. That has to be good enough for now.


If you have a response to the tragedy that you can share, particularly advice on how to talk with students, please leave a comment below to help all of us do what we can to help students move forward.



Credit: Las Vegas Mandalay Bay by Anthony Quintano on Flickr, under a CC-BY 2.0 license

One of the most common objections from students whose instructors use popular culture as a basis for teaching writing and critical thinking skills in their classes is that it (pop culture) "is only entertainment," and that any attempt to think critically about it is "reading something into it" that isn't there.   Well, I think that the results of the latest round of Emmy Awards should finally put an end to any such complaints, because the sweeping triumphs of The Handmaid's Tale and Saturday Night Live have made it quite clear that the entertainment industry is now a direct participant in American politics.


This is a point that has been stated explicitly in every edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. (including, of course, the 9th edition, due out in a couple of weeks), in which students are taught that the traditional line between entertainment and everyday life has been so diminished that it could be said that we live in an "entertainment culture," in which all of our activities, including the political process, are required to be entertaining as well.  The blurring of this line does not simply refer to entertainers who have become successful politicians (like Ronald Reagan, Al Franken, and, um, Donald Trump), but to the way that television shows like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show have become major players in American electoral politics.


Lest the recent results at the Emmy's give the idea that the politicization of entertainment is a one-way street, navigated solely by entertainments and entertainers on the left, the same thing is going on on the right as well, and this is something that cultural analysts often miss, pretty simply because those entertainers do not tend to be part of the taste culture of cultural analysts.  Of course, it isn't only cultural analysts who have neglected the place of what I'll call the "ent-right" in American politics: by relying virtually exclusively on the support of entertainers like Beyonce´ and Lena Dunham—not to mention the crew at SNL and Jon Stewart—Hillary Clinton completely miscalculated the power of those entertainers who appeal to the voters who voted for Donald Trump.  The results of this miscalculation are hardly insignificant.


To give you a better idea of just how American entertainment is now parsing on political grounds, I'll provide a link to a New York Times feature article that includes fifty maps of the United States geographically showing which television programs are viewed in which regions of the country.  Referred to as a "cultural divide" in the article, what is revealed is equally a political divide.  So striking are the differences in television viewership that it would behoove future presidential election pollsters to ask people not who they are going to vote for (a question that the 2016 election appears to demonstrate is one that people do not always answer honestly) but which television programs they watch (or what kind of music they listen to, etc.. Who knows what the outcome of the 2016 election would have been if Hillary Clinton had a prominent country music icon on her side).


In short, popular cultural semiotics isn't merely something for the classroom (though it can begin there); it is essential to an understanding of what is happening in this country and of what is likely to happen.  And one has to look at everything, not only one's own favorite performers.  Because the purpose of analyzing entertainment is not to be entertained: it is to grasp the power of entertainment.


Line of library books


Check out the Academy for Teachers for an inspiring look at what one group is doing to celebrate teaching in America. As the website announces:


 We honor and support good teaching, which means we’re all about passion for a subject, creativity in the classroom, and devotion to students. The Academy brings strong teachers together with leading experts and artists for inspiring events held in partnership with New York City’s great institutions. In so doing, we raise respect for the teaching profession.


The brain wave of Sam Swope, teacher and author of wonderful children’s books (see The Araboolies of Liberty Street, The Krazeees, and Gotta Go, Gotta Go!) as well as of I Am a Pencil: A Teacher, His Kids, and Their World of Stories. Through personality, perseverance, and panache, Swope called on a number of institutions in and around New York City, and particularly the New York Public Library, to join forces with him in founding this Academy, for which teachers are nominated by personalities including the novelist Daniel Alarcón, New York Times writer Frank Bruni, African American folklorist Maria Tatar, and many many others.


I know that the teachers who are part of this program benefit enormously from it, and I know that they take their new knowledge back to their students. But what most impresses me about the Academy is its quiet insistence on the importance of teaching, of its focus on the reach good teachers have across generations of students, and of its reflection of our deep need, as a society, to recognize and celebrate these teachers and their work. Toward that end, the Academy has launched a new initiative, publication of tiny chapbooks in which contemporary authors write about a teacher who inspired them. I’ve read several of the chapbooks so far and have been entranced with the stories they tell. For example, Karen Russell, whose first novel, Swamplandia!, was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer in fiction writes


But then there was Mr. Blackmon, who was in a category all his own. His . . . courses were on par with the best classes I have taken at the graduate level. . . . It’s not an exaggeration to say that Mr. Blackmon’s teaching changed the course of my life. He took us on a field trip to the University of Miami library, showed us how to research using their amazing, labyrinthine archives. I sat in a glue-scented study carrel next to bona fide college students, reading a biography of Julius K. Nyerere. I wrote twenty-page papers for Mr. Blackmon about African socialism in Tanzania, about the politics of the Panama Canal... I have never studied harder for any class . . . and in the process we became more conscious and deliberate and flexible and knowledgeable and curious. We argued, we listened to one another’s positions, we learned to ask better questions, we read and read and read, we redrew our maps of where we could go, who we might become. We grew up.


It strikes me that most of us teachers of writing could write our own chapbooks about a Mr. or Ms. Blackmon, about a teacher who meant the world to us, who helped us grow up and into ourselves. And perhaps we should write those, and, in the bargain, honor the spirit of the Academy for Teachers. If you have any stories of those teachers, feel free to share them in the comments—or, if you take it upon yourself to create your own chapbook, feel free to send it my way.


Credit: Pixaby Image 24564874 by StockSnap, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

In my last post, I introduced the first part of a writing about writing assignment for students enrolled in both my FYC course and an ESL co-requisite support course.  In a course-long project, students are exploring, describing, and analyzing a discourse community.  The theoretical framework for their use of sources comes from Joseph Bizup’s 2008 article, “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing.”


This past week, students began to look for their sources, incrementally building what my colleague Ruth Holmes has called a Progressive Annotated Bibliography, or PAB.  For the first PAB entry, students looked for a general background source, something which provides an overview of the discourse community—its membership, goals, authorities, and purposes.  Each PAB installment includes three parts:  the MLA works cited entry for the source, a paragraph-length summary, and a source trail/comments paragraph, in which students describe their process of finding source (including any leads that took them in the wrong direction and sources they reviewed but abandoned) and their assessment of the value of the source for their investigation. 


My students are studying a wide variety of communities, including surgical technology, accounting, importing/exporting with Latin America, cybersecurity, and language teaching.  Their first PABs were, for the most part, well-constructed and insightful, particularly in their evaluation of the source quality and their search process.


PAB #2, however, has proven problematic.  After reminding students of the purpose of the research project, I explained the goal for our second source, which is an exhibit source (in Bizup’s terms).  Specifically, I asked the students to find an example of a text written by the discourse community for its members.  Our strategy was (I thought) straightforward: find the website of a relevant and recognized professional organization and select an article or text that communicates about an area of interest for discourse community members.  As I illustrated the search process, I reminded students that our goal was to understand how members of this discourse community create texts, share information, and use language—all parts of what Gee has called Discourse.


Emails began filling my inbox within a few hours after class, and most suggested confusion about how to evaluate the sources they found.  I realized students were wrestling with a mismatch between what I was asking of them and what they had done in previous courses:


  • I found the professional website, but it’s a .org, so it’s probably not reliable. Can I just go to a database?
  • I can’t find an article describing how members of the group communicate. What should I do?
  • I searched for “communication and discourse” with my group, but I didn’t find anything that talks about secondary discourse. There’s nothing about how the group communicates.
  • I found this blog on the organization website, but blogs are not good sources.
  • I don’t think my source is peer-reviewed. Will you count off for that?
  • Can I use Wikipedia?
  • Does the article have to be from this year?


These questions reveal a great deal about previous instruction in research methods, and they indicate that while my students are familiar with some of the vocabulary of information literacy (credibility, reliability, peer-review, scholarly, etc.), they define these terms as absolutes, rather than seeing them as contextually defined.  Moreover, the students were puzzled by the notion of an exhibit source—suggesting a narrow understanding of the purpose of academic research.  That the research process can use sources in different ways--and that context determines what reliability or relevance actually means--does not match their previous experiences. 


I think the students are encountering threshold concepts about research–ideas which are troubling because they do not necessarily align with previous instruction or experience.  Specifically, they are wrestling with some of the threshold concepts for information literacy as identified by Association of College and Research Librarians: “authority is constructed and contextual,” “searching as strategic exploration,” and “scholarship as conversation.”  


One of the advantages of beginning a research process early in the term is that we still have 11 weeks to work through some of these questions, and students will be able to revisit sources, summaries, and their growing understanding of not only their target discourse community, but also the complexities of information literacy.


Want to offer feedback, comments, and suggestions on this post? Join the Macmillan Community to get involved (it’s free, quick, and easy)!

Kristin Ravel is pursuing her PhD in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research interests encompass multimodality, digital media studies, ethics in communication, and feminist theory.



As a cisgender instructor, I was always under an unchecked and unquestioned assumption that my courses were supportive to all LGBTQ+ students. I believed that standards of respect and responsibility I worked to prioritize in the classroom would take care of any situation.


I began to question my assumptions when a friend teaching an LGBTQ+ course asked me to recommend writing instructors in our program who were supportive of transgender and gender non-conforming students. I could name lots of instructors off the top of my head who were friendly, approachable, and understanding…but when I stopped to think about actual classroom practices and strategies tied to gender identity, I came up short for suggestions.


At that time, I was part of our WPA team as the English 101 course coordinator. I designed the standardized curriculum, trained new GTAs, and organized and ran the required instructor meetings. In my two years in that position, I couldn’t remember a single conversation, professional development project, or meeting that posed the question of how to support transgender and gender non-conforming students.


I don’t think I’m the only one in this position, and I’m hoping to make up for this neglect now by sharing some strategies for how I retooled my classroom practices.


  • Go out of your way to get educated about LGBTQ+ issues: Although there are a number of sources out there, I’ve found Sherry Zane’s article “Supporting Transgender Students in the Classroom” from Faculty Focus extremely useful for classroom practices. More generally speaking, it’s good to become familiar about issues surrounding the LGBTQ+ community. This could involve getting informed about gender identity yourself or asking what your college campus is doing to ensure there are gender-inclusive facilities, harassment policies, and proper healthcare and counseling available to students of all sexual orientations.


  • Model pronoun etiquette beginning on day one of class: On the first day of class, I tell students I go by she/her and include my pronouns on the syllabus. Additionally, I take a written poll that students turn in to me at the beginning of our first day (as opposed to reading students’ names off a roster). Here is the poll I used this semester:


  • Last name as it appears in university records:
  • Name you use:
  • Pronouns you use:
  • Major/minor/undecided?:
  • Please describe your access to and familiarity with technology (Smartphone? Laptop? Home computer? IPad? Access to Internet at home? Etc.)
  • Anything else you would like your instructor to know about you?


After the poll, students were asked to take turns sharing the name they use, their major, and something they are excited about this semester.

  • Find ways to support rather than draw attention to: It’s best to avoid the word “preferred” in front of pronoun. It’s just “pronoun” (see this video for more information and perspectives). Also, there is no need to force students to share their pronoun out loud in front of the class (see this article for more info). Some classes make the default pronoun “they” until everyone knows each other’s pronouns. In my class, I make it optional. Whatever you choose, it’s important to let students know you recognize their gender identities, but avoid outing.  In sum, pronouns don’t have to be a big deal, and we can make the situation better by treating them that way.
  • Make conversations about gender a part of your curriculum: One benefit writing courses have in allowing for the visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming students is that discussing language and how it transforms given social, political, economic, and cultural contexts is (often) already a part of the curriculum. Bringing in texts that discuss gender and the fluidity of gender may help further open these conversations.


For instance, I have found the short webtext “I Heart the Singular They” useful for talking about gender identity while allowing for productive conversations about multimodal rhetorical analysis. Students in my class have noted how the sweet, almost child-like nature of this text may help persuade those who are resistant to accepting singular “they” pronoun identities. Eventually, the discussion led to questions like: Who may be resistant to the singular they and why? Who oversees what we decide is a language rule? What issues or confusion may the singular “they” cause? How does the webtext work to resolve that?


After this discussion, students were asked to write an essay about “I Heart the Singular They” based on what they had learned about multimodal rhetorical analysis in Writer/Designer.


  • Be ready to make mistakes, but also be ready to keep learning: In no way am I perfect at supporting my transgender and gender non-conforming students. I have made and will continue to make mistakes—there is no doubt about this. But the difference, I have found is admitting those mistakes and finding ways to do better next time. Doing better next time, however, does not mean depending on the educational and emotional labor of the oppressed. There are plenty of books and online resources out there already. Rather than asking questions like “What can I do better?” directly, take the initiative to figure that out yourself (this goes back to point #1). Some of my favorite go-to resources are Black Girl Dangerous and Autostraddle. If you find them helpful too, it’s a good idea to throw some financial support their way so they can keep producing content.

I wanted to end by inviting others into this discussion: What are your favorite resources for supporting LGBTQ+ students? What about resources specifically for supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students? What do you do in your classes now or what do you hope to change?

Thanks to Bridget Kies, Kristin Prins, Ali Sperling, and Rachael Sullivan for all the help and conversations that made this post possible.

Vignette 1: American Sports History

Perhaps, dear reader, you have just read the title of this week’s post and you are thinking:

“Because the writers in my classrooms do not know the conventions, they do not know when they have broken conventions.” Or “My department/program/institution requires students to produce a writing sample for assessment that shows adherence to conventions. I don’t have any choice but to teach the conventions.”


Yet I invite you to consider recent US sports history. On September 24, 2017, according to the New York TImes, “N.F.L. players across the country demonstrated during the national anthem on Sunday in a show of solidarity against President Trump, who scolded the league and players on Twitter this weekend.” In doing so, these football players were following the lead of of Colin Kaepernick who, in 2016 in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement, would not stand for the national anthem.


The convention appears to be, “Everyone stands for the national anthem before a football game.” However, with Kaepernick’s protest and with the protests of other NFL players on September 24th, a rule that seemed written in stone has been broken again and again. Historically relevant to these protests are the direct actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in the months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, as well as the more recent example of Knox College women’s basketball player Arianya Smith in St. Louis County in the wake of civil unrest after the death of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, who was African American, at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

When considered from a rhetorical standpoint, the action of breaking with convention is not only a matter of how, but also a matter of why. Kairos, the rhetorical context of deciding to break convention also is significant. Shannon Carter and her colleagues from the Remixing Rural Texas project offer an especially moving example of the importance of paying attention to Kairos in their video John Carlos: Before Mexico City.


Shannon Carter, John Carlos, and Susan Naomi Bernstein at 4C13 in Las Vegas, Nevada.


Vignette 2: Grammar Conventions

Dear reader, forgive me for taking the long way around in responding to your initial concerns about conventions. In order to respond, however, I need to trouble the idea that students have no knowledge of conventions. Perhaps, as Mina Shaughnessy and others have offered, our students know the rules all too well. When they are internalized with inflexibility, rules can become serious roadblocks to successful writing. In Errors and Expectations, Shaughnessy offered that students interrogate the reasons for conventions, and then work on revising and reapplying their approach to conventions. Shaughnessy’s suggestion was adapted as a class activity in early editions of Teaching Developmental Writing.


This year, on the third day of class, I offered another adaptation that included a close reading of James Baldwin’s “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.” Here are the questions I wrote on the board:

In small groups:

  1. Make a short list of rules for writing that you have learned over the years
  2. Find examples of places in Baldwin’s text where the rules are broken
  3. Discuss why Baldwin may have decided to break these rules
  4. Discuss the questions: Are these rules appropriate for you to break in Writing Project 1? Why or why not?
  5. We will discuss this activity as a larger group.

This activity provided us with opportunities to read Baldwin’s work more deeply. Students’ examples of Baldwin’s writing breaking with convention were clear and direct: Baldwin writes run-on sentences, they said. Baldwin writes with comma splices. Baldwin writes fragments. A conversation about form and content followed:


SUSAN: Perfect. Let’s take on the fragment rule. Where did you find a fragment?

STUDENTS: On page 51, there are a series of fragments. The first is: “Soldiers don’t.”

SUSAN: Okay, let’s try breaking down that fragment. Note that don’t is a contraction.

All of sentences in the series begin with “don’t.”

SUSAN (writes a grammatical convention on the board):

Soldiers + don’t. = Soldiers + do not.

Subject + Verb = Complete Sentence

SUSAN: Why might Baldwin use this series of contractions on page 51?


STUDENTS: For repetition. Repetition emphasizes Baldwin’s point about poets and artists

understanding the truth about people.


SUSAN: Yes. Baldwin is showing us the relationship between form and content.

Can you try something like this in your own writing?


STUDENTS: We don’t know. Can we?


SUSAN: Yes, you can. You can do it strategically based on audience and purpose.

For some academic audiences and purpose, contractions may be too informal. The verb disappears in a contraction, and some reader may mistake your sentence for a fragment. We know from the example, however, that the verb is still there and that the sentence is complete. In this way, language is like music.

The writer can practice shaping form to fit content.


Later, as I read journal entries, I discovered that students were intrigued by this activity. A seemingly unbreakable rule turned out to be a rhetorical convention that writers could adapt as needed to fit their message and their rhetorical context.


Anarchy did not ensue.


Vignette 3: James Baldwin

Reader, I ask your patience once more while I offer you personal context for the Kairos of reading James Baldwin, a circumstance I could not have anticipated a month ago when I wrote my initial post for the semester.


On the Wednesday after Labor Day, I learned that my beloved had been taken to the hospital emergency room after collapsing from heatstroke on a public sidewalk. The high had been 109 degrees that day. I spent that Wednesday night on a loveseat in a hospital corridor near the ICU, not knowing the damage my beloved’s body had sustained, and whether his condition would worsen or improve.


Over the next twelve days, through hospital care and rehab, we learned that my beloved, with time, was expected to recover. Only later did we realize that we had broken with healthcare conventions, especially when my beloved spent eighteen hours in rehab with no medical attention for severe stomach pains. My beloved could not digest the food in rehab, and staff perceived our request for healthier food as a demand for special treatment. Even so, we found one dish, a vegetable medley, particularly concerning. Neither of us could recognize the vegetables, and we worried about the efficacy of any patient’s recovery in such circumstances.

Indeed, our worry was reinforced when the discharge nurse reminded us to make sure to eat a healthy diet. In rehab, this had not been possible.


What pulled us through this experience was reading Baldwin together. One especially difficult evening, I read to my beloved the words the students and I had discussed in class over and over again:

Everybody’s hurt. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what torments you is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive.

Then in a whisper, I breathed out the next sentence: “This is all you have to do with it.”


Both of us held back tears. We grasped the significance of the events that had brought us to this space, of all that we had shared together as teachers, as writers, and as human beings.


In Baldwin we found meaning enough to move toward the future.

Accessibility Lab by Bill Scott on Flickr, used under a CC-BY license

Image Long Description: Color photo of a white sign, indicating the location of an Accessibility Lab, on the side of a frosted glass wall. The sign shows the accessibility icon of a white human symbol in a blue circle. Below the image the location name is written in Braille, which shows as black dots on the white background.

In the best of all possible worlds, my course materials would include a variety of media, intended to support the many learning styles that students bring to the course. Every one of these resources would be accessible in multiple ways. Every video would have closed captioning and a transcript. Every image would have an alt attribute and, when appropriate, a long description. Webpages would have high contrast alternatives and never show errors when analyzed with the WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool.


Unfortunately, I do not live in the best of all possible worlds. I know that there are gaps in my course materials. I am eagerly attending workshops this term to improve the accessibility of my online materials, and I am a member of a year-long cohort that focuses on inclusion and diversity. The problem is that I only have so much time, and it can be challenging to add all the resources that are needed. I try my best to ensure that whatever I produce is accessible, but some of the outside resources I include, like infographics and videos, don’t have captioning, transcripts, or other accessibility features.


So what to do? I decided to involve students themselves in the solution. Grades in my professional writing courses relate to the labor that students put into the course, following Asao Inoue’s anti-racist assessment model (2014). To explain very briefly, students must try a number of specific tasks that range from simple log entries to major writing projects. If they put in the effort and try the required activities, they can earn a B in the course. To earn a grade higher than a B, students must take an ongoing leadership role by helping to teach the class new things and significantly adding support to the writing community. I provide students with a list of ways to contribute. You can read more about the course arrangement on the Requirements page for this semester.


With the need to provide options for adding to the course in mind, I added an activity that invited students to create the missing transcripts and text descriptions for resources used in the course. Here is the assignment that I am using:


Optional Accessibility Transcript Activity

Ideally, everything in this course should be accessible to everyone. For instance, videos and audio recordings need transcripts, and images need alt attributes and long descriptions that explain what they show.


The goal of this activity is to create the transcripts and descriptions that are missing for some of the resources used in the course. Your work will focus on accurately presenting the words from the original as well as applying document design principles to ensure that the transcript is easy to read and navigate.


These resources provide how-to information and tips:


How The Activity Is Graded

The transcript activity is completely optional. If you create a transcript, I’ll check it for accuracy to the original, standard correctness, and good document design. If necessary, you can revise a transcript until it is usable for the course. Your transcript will be graded either Complete or Incomplete, meaning you can revise.


If you are working toward a grade higher than a B in the course, you can create a transcript as part of the extra work you do to build community in the course and share ideas. This transcript activity is just one of several options available to you.


How To Participate

Creating a transcript is an independent activity. You won’t interact with anyone other than me, unless you ask your writing group to give you feedback. Here’s the process you’ll follow:


  1. Choose a resource that is missing a transcript. They will usually be things that are posted in our Daily Discussion posts.
  2. Email me with the details on the resource you want to work with. I will check your request to make sure the task is not too big or too small. After I check it, I will send you an approval. Wait for that approval before you begin your work.
  3. Use the resources above for tips on how to create your transcript.
  4. Use a word processor to type and format the text from the video or image that you have chosen.
  5. Submit your transcript in Canvas in the Optional Transcript Assignment once you have finished.
  6. If your work is finished, I will mark it Complete in Canvas Grades, add it to the course website, and credit you. If it needs to be revised, I’ll mark it Incomplete in Canvas Grades, and you can revise and resubmit.


To make the assignment work smoothly, I add a note on every page that I publish that indicates which elements already have transcripts or and which need accessibility support. In the month that the activity has been available, several students have volunteered to create the missing materials. As a result, I now have support for resources that I had no time to take care of myself. 


I particularly like the multiple benefits that grow from this activity:


  • Students gain a better understanding of the needs of those with disabilities.
  • Students learn how to create accessible documents.
  • Students participate in an authentic writing and document design activity, with a concrete purpose and audience.
  • Students can focus on on editing and design skills, since the content itself already exists.


All that and I get resources that make my course materials more accessible too. This activity is definitely a keeper.


How do you talk about accessibility with your students? Do you have any assignments or classroom activities to share? Please leave a comment below with your comments or questions.


Credit: Accessibility Lab by Bill Scott on Flickr, used under a CC-BY license.

If you read past today’s folderol about the Tweeter-in-Chief, you’ll get to an article about the first day of school for the new curriculum in Turkey. From this point forward, students will be spared learning about Darwin. At university, those who opt-in will have a chance to learn about the man credited with first formulating and then working out in detail the theory that species evolve. And those who opt out will be spared the whole messy business.


We are surrounded by light, and yet we live in darkness.


I can safely say that today is the first day I’ve ever given any thought to what the Turkish national curriculum is. I don’t say this with pride; I’m just conceding my parochialism. I have spent considerable time thinking about curricular issues at my home university, though. Here, one could encounter Darwin or not; it would really depend on the route one chose to take through the labyrinth of “core” requirements. Do students in the U.S. graduate from high school able to articulate the gist of Darwin’s theory of evolution? Are they able to say why it matters, one way or the other, whether Darwin is taught or not? Do the answers to those questions change if we make them about college students in the U.S.?


In the classes I teach, it is not uncommon for students to say to me: “I am not a Christian, so I know nothing about the religion.” Some are embarrassed by this; some are not. Yesterday, in my office hours, I had a student offer a version of the Annunciation to me that was wrapped around Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, and conflated the Virgin Mary with Mary Magdalene. As far as I can tell, the ignorance in the student population about the general tenets of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism is only slightly greater. Of course, there’s no required course in World Religions, either at the high school level or in the “core” requirements at my home institution, so what most students know about religious belief extends no further than the edge of their personal experience.


Of course, we’ve reached a point where the difference between education and advocacy has been so blurred that it is now understood that to teach anything is to advocate for that thing. My students express this general attitude when they apologize to me for not being a believer: they assume that, by assigning Genesis and reading it with care, I am expressing my belief in the text at hand, rather than my modeling what it means to have a trained mind. I won’t speculate here about the root cause of this conflation of education and advocacy. I’ll note only that one direct consequence of the confusion is a deadening of curiosity. In a tsunami of digital information, students elect not to use search engines to seek out what they do not know. It is as if they thought their search histories might someday become public and they would be called to account for having an interest not only in their own educations, but in education in general.



If the digital age has, in fact, plunged us into darkness, it has also provided us with a foundational infrastructure for mounting a Re-Enlightenment. If we use our classrooms to cultivate curiosity-driven research; if we allow for open-ended explorations; if we reward individual efforts to venture into what defines “the unknown” for students individually, we will be creating spaces where students acquire the skills necessary to become lifelong learners.

A person writing in a notebook with a pen


School is back in session in many places, which means it’s not too early to start thinking about Halloween! It was my favorite holiday when I was a kid and one I still look forward to. These days, I welcome goblins and princesses and superheroes (I wonder how many Donald Trump’s there will be this year?); I will admire the costumes, hand out sweet stuff, and talk to the attendant parents. But this year I’m thinking, too, of all the ghost stories we used to tell, sitting around the fireplace and scaring ourselves out of our wits; sometimes, we even wrote them out and hid them in our siblings’ beds, hoping for an especially big scare.


I don’t remember any writing in school that featured Halloween, but today I expect students everywhere are invited to write about Halloween (or the Day of the Dead). In addition, there are contests galore, such as the Annual Ghost Story Writing Contest, or the National Ghost Story Competition from the Writer’s Mag site. They also host flash fiction writing contests (limited to 513 words) on various themes, one of which is inevitably “horror.


So, as summer is winding down, how about turning our thoughts to autumn and to entering one of these contests, or just asking students to write a 513-word story about an autumnal theme or subject? You’ll have just about two months to come up with an assignment, to invite students to enter contests, etc. This has the potential to be a great graphic novel or other multimodal project. I’d love to hear about any results! Feel free to post them in the comments below, or let me know that you have an example you would like to share privately. And an early happy Halloween to you all!


Credit: Pixaby Image 1850177 by Pexels, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License



The accounts below are from survivors of torture conducted by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s police and military. (Warning: Graphic Testimony/Images of Torture in the links.)


Nothing Else But Non-Violence

A Child and A Bird (video)


These testimonies were collected by Syrians for Truth and Justice, a human rights organization that I have been part of creating over the past several years. In addition to collecting testimonies from survivors of human rights abuses by Assad, ISIS, and proliferating militia, STJ also works with a network of human rights activists based in Syria who document on-going human rights abuses, including a recent report on the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun.


Engaging in such work quickly teaches you that Jalal Nofar’s testimony represents just one of many moments of torture and human rights abuse, just one voice among the many that were told to be quiet but continued to speak. It is a lesson I want my students to also learn.


Over the next several months, then, I will be asking students in Syracuse (university and community-based) to join in the work of STJ as well as support high school students in North Africa attempting to work against ISIS recruitment in their community. As a collective, we will be thinking through how to produce print, digital, and performance-based artifacts that can support this important human rights work – work occurring in local moments across the Middle East and North Africa but with resonance for our own communities in Syracuse. Throughout, they will be working at forming a transnational conversation on their responsibilities and role as human rights activists.


It is, perhaps, one of the most challenging community projects I have ever undertaken.  


Already, some of the individuals in our network of international partners have faced government repression and threats. Elements of the project has been hampered by our need to have individuals or messages cross international borders in a time of restrictions and travel bans.  And the imagined promise of a fluid digital culture across space and time now seems a bit naïve. My students are already beginning to recognize how such work has real implications, real effects, in spaces to which they may never travel.


And I have had to recognize that the scholarly  work on community partnership and publication on which this course is premised is primarily situated within a certain understanding of U.S. culture. There is a latent faith in the right of individuals to speak, a latent faith in the safety of engaging in such speech, and, perhaps, an optimism that such actions will produce change. The challenges made by movements such as Black Lives Matter have been important interventions in asking all of us to reconsider how we are situated differently to such a faith. Still, with broad brushstrokes, I would argue much of our scholarship swims in such waters.


How, then, to position community literacy paradigms, skills, and practices within contexts that seem to trouble such beliefs? How to provide students with frameworks that do not romanticize the United States (brushing over the marginalization many populations feel) or present individuals in the Middle East/North Africa as victims to be saved? Tentatively, I intend on taking the following disciplinary/pedagogical steps.


1. Create a Complex Historical Narrative

Given the current political debates around the refugees and conflicts emerging from the Middle East and North Africa, I decided to begin my class not with rhetorical theory, but with historical research. I used academic research, online news sources, and current affair blogs, to situate my students popular culture understandings within a history of collective struggle by activists in this region for democracy and human rights. In doing so, I am also indirectly highlighting how such rights have histories outside the context of the United States.


2. Provide Models of Political Change

Within public discussions of the Middle East/North Africa, there are critiques/concerns expressed about a continual failure to establish democratic states. For this reason, I believe that my students need a model of political change, a theory through which they could test how public discussion was framing the situation in a country such as Syria, but also test the theory against their own work. (Here I am latently making the point that many of us inhabit a model of political change of which we are not always fully cognizant.)


3. Understand the Risks Involved

Speaking out always carries risk. Yet often in community publishing contexts that risk is not fully understood, articulated. Perhaps the university is seen as a guarantor of safety for all those involved. After warning about the graphic nature of STJ’s work, I will ask students to explore the site, taking note of the risks each of these individuals faced in their own lives for their public work. We can then discuss how such risks exist for everyone in the United States, though differently situated depending on individual identity. Here I want them to gain an overt understanding of the real-life context of this work and that while I would step in when necessary, they were entering projects where actual risks are involved.


Only then will we turn to the field’s work of community partnership and publishing.


I recognize that discussions of Syria, the Middle East, and human rights might seem far afield from the typical work of our writing classrooms. Yet what I have learned from this “exceptional” class is that any class which engages in community partnership work needs to create a complex historical context of that community, provide a model of social change to frame the work, and enable students to understand the risks being asked of community members. It needs the insights of other disciplines, such as history and political science. Our community writing classes might be about writing, that is, but more than writing theory is necessary to make our work successful.

Tanya RodrigueToday’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodrigue, an assistant professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.


Instructors are currently tasked with the challenge of teaching students the 21st century literacies they need to live and work in the digital age. Engaging students with multimodal writing assignments is one way students can learn these literacies. Yet many instructors may be apprehensive about incorporating multimodal assignments into their curriculum: they may feel intimidated by technology, inadequate about their knowledge of media, or overwhelmed by the vast number of programs and platforms available to use for learning purposes. Even those who are comfortable working with technology may be unsure of how to incorporate it to best facilitate course learning goals or design thoughtful multimodal assignments.


In this blog post, I offer a reflective, recursive process that novice and experienced instructors can use to generate intellectual material needed to compose effective multimodal writing assignments. Follow the steps in the three stages below.


Stage #1 Preparing for Reflection

  1. Identify the course in which you’d like to incorporate a multimodal assignment and list the course learning goals.
  2. Decide the genre, digital tool, or digital platform you’d like to work with. The decision making process will vary among instructors. For example, an instructor who is new to teaching multimodal writing may choose a familiar genre like a podcast, while a more experienced teacher may choose an unfamiliar program with pedagogical potential like Storybird.
  3. Decide on the nature of the writing assignment (low-stakes or high-stakes). If you are a novice, I recommend a low-stakes assignment.


Stage #2: Identifying and Reflecting on Affordances

This process invites instructors to identify and reflect on three affordances—practical, conceptual, and pedagogical—of a genre, digital tool, or platform, and look at them in relation to one another at various points during Stage #2 and #3. Below I list definitions for each affordance and questions for instructors to ask themselves during this stage of the process. I recommend beginning with practical affordances, yet I encourage instructors to remain open to shifting between and among the affordance reflection questions as it seems appropriate. The more connections made, the more intellectual material yielded.

1. Practical affordances are the available functions, options, features, and capabilities of genres, digital tools, and/or digital platforms. For example, a practical affordance of a genre like a slide presentation is its ability to be transformed into a video, while a practical affordance of a digital tool may be its ability to change format and font color.

  • Questions for genre: What are the characteristics, constraints, purposes, obligatory and optional moves of the genre?
  • Questions for digital tools and platforms: What is the purpose and what options are available to achieve this purpose? What features distinguish this tool or platform from others? What are the constraints and how might they impact pedagogical and conceptual affordances?


2.Pedagogical affordances are available pedagogical practices or opportunities inherent in genres, digital tools, and or digital platforms. Some may be immediately apparent, such as the ability to teach audience awareness via a comment option, while others can be made visible when reflecting on the following:

  • Questions for genre, digital tools, and digital platforms: How might this help students achieve a course learning goal(s)? What are its constraints, and how might they influence what I can and cannot teach? How might I use it for its intended purpose and how might I transform it to more appropriately work for my needs?


3. Conceptual affordances are available cognitive moves students can make during the composing process that ultimately lead to discoveries or meaning making. The instructor must imagine how students may engage with the genre, digital tools, and/or digital platforms and the kind of thinking and invention that may occur as a result.

  • Questions: What course goals may directly or indirectly call for teaching students invention acts such as listening, interpreting, analyzing, identifying, imagining, assessing, deciding, reflecting, and making connections? What kinds of invention acts are valued in your discipline and in this class in particular? What do you want to teach your students about invention, invention strategies, and process, and their relationship to composing and working with technology?


Stage #3: Mining the Intellectual Material

The invention work of stage #3 requires taking up stage #2 responses and making connections between and among them in efforts to compose a multimodal assignment that works to achieve course learning goals. The process can be used multiple times; with each time, the pool of raw material grows and can be mined for additional multimodal assignment ideas.



Below is a concept map that charts out the intellectual material generated from engaging with this process for a first year writing course using the digital tool, Storify.



*This blog post was adapted from my recent article “An Epistemological Process for Multimodal Assignment Design” in Journal of Global Literacies, Technologies, and Emerging Pedagogies’ special issue on multimodality.*

Ilford 1973 by Jussi on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 licenseThis academic year, I am a member of a learning community that is exploring strategies for inclusive pedagogy. As a result, I’m thinking about ways to include issues of diversity and accessibility in my teaching. Most recently, I have been developing materials that address racial discrimination, particularly ethics and race. I shared three scenarios and a moral compass technique September 5th, and three more scenarios last week. This week, I’m sharing the last four ethics scenarios for discussing race and discrimination, completing a serialized list of ten.


The Scenarios

  • You have been asked to create a diversity policy for the use of images in your advertising materials. There have been recent complaints about racist and sexist images, so your company is especially interested in ensuring that all ads in the future celebrate diversity. After examining the problematic images, you decide that it will be best to describe the best kinds of images to use, rather than to list everything that would not be acceptable. Your coworkers disagree. They worry that without an understanding of the specific things to avoid, employees will continue to choose inappropriate images. Despite their feedback, you decide to go with your own feeling. You believe that listing all the possible wrong images would be impossible and that it could easily offend employees. Did you make the right choice? Is there a better strategy?
  • Your company encourages employees to dress in costumes for Halloween every year. Last year, some employees wore inappropriate costumes that offended other employees and clients. Most of the problem costumes generically adopted culture as costume (e.g., Native American princess, Mexican bandito, geisha). While your company’s executive director is all for Halloween costumes and a bit of fun, she is worried about a repeat of the inappropriate costumes from last year. She emails all employees an announcement of a Halloween party during the company’s afternoon break. She invites everyone to wear costumes to work. To address the inappropriate costume issues, she adds this information to her email: “Please remember to choose an appropriate costume. If you are worried that your costume may not be okay, ask someone in HR about it.” Did she choose the right way to handle the situation?
  • The employees from your division go out for lunch to celebrate a coworker’s birthday. While you are all waiting for your orders, the group is chatting about family and plans for the weekend. Doug speaks up, saying, “You know that reminds me of a joke.” He then tells a racist joke. Most members of your group laugh outright. A couple appear bothered by the joke. You consider speaking up and pointing out that the joke is inappropriate and that Doug should not share such things at work. It appears though that most people did not notice that the joke was offensive. You decide to avoid the issue and say nothing. Everyone is out to have fun, and you don’t want to make everyone uncomfortable. Did you make the right decision? Is there a better way to handle the situation?
  • You handle customer service through your company’s social media accounts. The company has launched a series of television and online commercials that show diverse families enjoying their products. In response, protesters are complaining about these depictions on social media in posts filled with stereotypes. Some protesters admit they buy your company’s products but will find alternatives if the diverse images are not stopped. The large volume of protests is distracting you from your main task of providing customer service. You tell your manager about the situation, and she instructs you to block and report all protesters. You disagree with her, arguing that the protesters are still customers and that blocking will bar them from getting support. You disagree even more with reporting these protesters, who you believe have the right to complain. Your manager is not convinced. She states that you can block and report the protesters or she will find someone who will to take over your job and assign you elsewhere. You bow to her request and begin blocking and reporting all protesters. Have you made the right decision? Has your manager?


The scenarios above are phrased for technical and business writing classes (since that is what I am currently teaching). They could be used “as is” in first-year composition, or they can be customized. For instance, students could consider a diversity policy for images used on the university’s website and in printed promotional materials.


This week, I also tried to create scenarios that could turn into writing assignments. After discussing the first scenario, students can write their own diversity policy for the use of images. For a business or technical writing course, students can focus on company documents, such as the use of images in advertisements, slideshow presentations, and website resources. First-year composition students can create policies for clubs or groups they are involved with, for the university, or for the texts they write for the course. Whichever kind of policy they compose, students will have to balance specific explanations of the policy with persuasive strategies that will convince readers to follow the guidelines.


I hope you find the ten scenarios I have shared this month useful. If you have questions or suggestions about them, please leave me a comment below.



Credit: Ilford 1973 by Jussi on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.