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Jack Solomon

The "Momo Challenge"

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Mar 14, 2019

 

When I first started writing about popular cultural semiotics in the 1980s, the Cabbage Patch Kids were the biggest thing going in children’s consumer culture. Not too many years later there was the POGS pandemic, followed by the Pokemon outbreak, which has since crossed its original generational boundaries to continue on as what may be the most lucrative gaming phenomenon of all time.

 

The common thread running through all these mega-fads is the way that they all were disseminated—at least in their beginnings—via a mysterious children’s grapevine unknown to adults, a vast international playground of sorts in which word about the Next Big Thing got passed without the assistance of social media. And now that the grapevine has gone digital, as it were, the propagation of new kiddie fads is accelerating at Warp speed, with unsettling results.

 

A couple of recent articles from The Atlantic and the New York Times provide a case in point. Describing the apparition of an online poltergeist called "Momo" who pops up unexpectedly on social media and dares kids to, among other things, commit suicide, they tell of a burgeoning panic among parents, police departments, and major news outlets around the globe. The new fad is called "the Momo challenge," and it would be pretty scary—except that it's a hoax.

 

Taylor Lorenz sums up all the confusion rather nicely:

On Tuesday afternoon, a Twitter user going by the name of Wanda Maximoff whipped out her iPhone and posted a terrifying message to parents.

 

“Warning! Please read, this is real,” she tweeted. “There is a thing called ‘Momo’ that’s instructing kids to kill themselves,” the attached screenshot of a Facebook post reads. “INFORM EVERYONE YOU CAN.”

 

Maximoff’s plea has been retweeted more than 22,000 times, and the screenshot, featuring the creepy face of “Momo,” has spread like wildfire across the internet. Local news hopped on the story Wednesday, amplifying it to millions of terrified parents. Kim Kardashian even posted a warning about the so-called Momo challenge to her 129 million Instagram followers.

 

To any concerned parents reading this: Do not worry. The “Momo challenge” is a recurring viral hoax that has been perpetuated by local news stations and scared parents around the world. This entire cycle of shock, terror, and outrage about Momo even took place before, less than a year ago: Last summer, local news outlets across the country reported that the Momo challenge was spreading among teens via WhatsApp. Previously, rumors about the challenge spread throughout Latin America and Spanish-speaking countries.

 

The Momo challenge wasn’t real then, and it isn’t real now. YouTube confirmed that, contrary to press reports, it hasn’t seen any evidence of videos showing or promoting the “Momo challenge” on its platform.

 

If Momo is a hoax, why, then, has she produced such a panicky reaction? John Herrman's take on the matter is instructive. "Screens and screen time are a source of endless guilt and frustration" for modern parents, he writes, "so it makes sense to need to displace these feelings on a face, a character, and something, or someone, with fantastically evil motives, rather than on the services that actually are surveilling what the kids are up to, to ends of their own."

 

In other words, if "Momo" isn't real, the way that the corporate Net is invading our privacy, "mining" our data, and leading our children down a Pied Piperish path (one which makes the exploitations of traditional television look like a nineteenth-century Fourth of July parade) is, and grownups are accordingly getting very jumpy. "Momo" may be a hoax, but Slender Man wasn't, and therein lies the real "Momo challenge": the Internet is growing faster than our ability, or even desire, to shape it to human needs, rather than corporate ones. And the kids, who usually know what's going on before their parents do, could actually be the canaries in a creepy digital coal mine.

 

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 2564425 by StockSnap, used under the Pixabay License

 

When this blog posting goes up, I will be in Pittsburgh at CCCC celebrating Cheryl Glenn’s brilliantly deserved Exemplar Award and reveling in what looks to be the most diverse and exciting program in years: bravo to Vershawn Young!

 

I will surely be writing about the conference in the weeks to come, reporting on what I have taken away from as many sessions as I can possibly attend. But for now, I am thinking of Stanford’s students at this time of year: what I call the end-of-winter-term-doldrums. They are up to their ears in midterms and working furiously to finish up their research-based multimodal arguments that I always assign. They have spring break to look forward to but after that is the long, slow slog of spring term, which stretches well into June. So they are often in a fairly desperate mood—and could use some comic relief.

 

I was thinking of these students when my 14-year-old grandniece told me that she had finally gotten to see BlacKKKlansman and it was Spike Lee’s genius use of humor that kept her from screaming throughout the film: “it’s the most impactful movie I’ve ever seen,” she told me. I was also thinking of students during a Saturday Night Live sketch when the brilliant Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant could not keep themselves together and broke up while playing the owners of “Smokery Farms Meat Gift Delivery Service” who complained about way too many heartwarming stories about animals, like “Pig Teaches Deaf Dog to Bark.” The audience was in stitches, whether over the characters McKinnon and Bryant were playing or the fact that they couldn’t keep a straight face while delivering these joke lines. I hope a lot of students were watching in and got one of the best gifts of life, which is a good, long laugh.

 

I’ve found that loosening up the syllabus a little during this time of the term and asking students to have some fun always pays off by giving them some comic relief that can release some of the stress they are feeling. So we might take that joke headline from Bryant and McKinnon and write joke headlines of our own, comparing them to ones we can find in The Onion or fake/clickbait headlines we can find online. The funnier, the better. Trying our hands at parody can also be lots of fun: a group of students in one of my classes made a parodic video of our class that left us all laughing with and at ourselves.

 

At other times I might go for an imitation exercise, asking students to imitate an author they really admire (or really can’t stand) and to do so by writing the opening of a children’s story in the style of that author. Here’s one student (a chemistry major!) telling the opening of “The Three Little Pigs” in the style of Edgar Allan Poe:

It began as a mere infatuation. I admired them from afar, with a longing that only a wolf may know. Soon, these feelings turned to torment. Were I even to set eyes upon their porcine forms, the bowels of my soul raged, as if goaded by some festering poison. As the chilling winds of November howled, my gullet yarned for them. I soon feasted only upon an earnest and consuming desire for the moment of their decease.

This student had read four or five Poe stories, noting vocabulary choices and figures of speech like similes, and he read the stories aloud trying to capture some of the rhythm. Then he wrote his imitation—much to the delight of everyone in the class, many of whom tried to outdo him with their own over-the-top imitations.

 

Taking a light-hearted break from the grinding demands of the quarter system always paid off for me and my students. It gave us a chance to take a deep breath, enjoy some good laughs, and then return to the end of term rigors feeling at least a little bit refreshed. As Shakespeare demonstrates in his most devastating tragedies, some comic relief is good for the soul.

 

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2193585 by Alexas_Fotos, used under the Pixabay License

Overhead shot of a white woman doing research on a library computerWhen I create an assignment, I intend the information I include about research requirements to suggest starting points and to encourage exploration. Instead, students probably use that information to determine the bare minimum required, doing only the research described instead of jumping off into deeper exploration.

Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg (2010) examined “How Handouts for Research Assignments Guide Today’s College Students,” finding that students use assignments less as a guide and more as a road map. If the assignment handout calls for three sources, students use only three sources. Directed by the assignment handout to use at least two books and an online site, students meet the requirement and find little or no more.

In an earlier study, Head and Eisenberg (2009) reported that “Almost every student in the sample turned to course readings—not Google—first for course-related research assignments. Likewise, Google and Wikipedia were the go-to sites for everyday life research for nearly every respondent” (3).

I’m left with a conundrum: I want students to look beyond the course textbooks, Google, and Wikipedia, but I don’t want to prescribe the kinds and number of resources they should consult. My ultimate goal is to teach students how to thoroughly research a topic on their own, choosing the best tools to use and gathering relevant sources for their research projects.

I designed the following activity to kick off students’ research. In it, I ask students to evaluate the available research tools and then plan how to use those tools to conduct their research project.

The activity below has some minor changes to remove specific information that is relevant only to the students in my classes. I took the six kinds of research tools from a list from the course textbook, Markel and Selber’s Technical Communication (12th edition). You can easily customize the activity for your class by using the list of resources from your own textbook. Any textbook that covers writing research projects will include a similar list.

Finding Useful Research Tools for Your Project

The section on “Understanding Research Tools” (pp. 121–122) in Markel and Selber’s Technical Communication discusses the following six kinds of resources you can consult when you conduct research:

  • Library catalogs
  • Online databases
  • Newspaper and periodical indexes
  • Abstract services
  • Web search engines
  • Reference works

For each of the six research tools, provide the information below. Your answer will map out how you will conduct research for your project.

Step 1: Determine the Usefulness of the Research Tools

Indicate how each of the six research tools is (or isn’t) appropriate for your research project by responding to the following questions.

  1. What specific research tools in the category are available for your topic? For example, name the online databases that are appropriate for your topic.
  2. What kind of information are you likely to find using the particular tool?
  3. How relevant is the information to your research project?
  4. Based on your evaluation, how appropriate is the kind of tool for your research project?

Step 2: Plan Your Use of the Research Tools

For each tool that is appropriate for your research project, explain specifically how you will use the tool.

  1. What keywords will you use with each tool?
  2. What kind of research sources will you look for with each tool?
  3. How will you manage the sources that you find? In other words, indicate how you will save or borrow the sources.

The answers to these questions may be similar for the different research tools. Try using a table to organize the information to simplify your response. You do not need to use full sentences for Step 2.

I’ll supplement this activity with links to some specific resources from the campus library, such as these Research Guides for Various Subject Areas. I will also suggest that students consult a librarian for help.

I think my assignment meets my goal. It encourages students to research beyond the familiar sources like their textbook and Google. At the same time, it guides students toward easily accessible resources without telling them exactly what to do. Next week, I will share a follow-up activity that asks students to report on the specific resources they have discovered.

Do you have an activity to share that helps students engage in deeper exploration when they conduct a research project? I’d love to hear from you. Tell me about it by leaving a comment below.

Photo credit: All She’s Armed With Is Research. by Markus Binzegger on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Skye RobersonSkye Roberson (nominated by Katie Fredlund) is pursuing her PhD in Composition Studies in the English department at the University of Memphis. She is currently the graduate assistant director of the Center for Writing and Communication. Prior to that, she taught first-year writing at the University of Memphis and Arkansas State University and served as a writing consultant for five years. Her research interests include feminist rhetoric, history of composition and rhetoric, labor inequality, and writing centers. Her most recent publication, “'Anonymous Was a Woman:’ Anonymous Authorship as Rhetorical Strategy” will appear in the edited collection Feminist Connections: Rhetorical Strategies from the Suffragists to the Cyberfeminists.

 

Scaffolding multimodal assignments is essential in pedagogies that embrace inclusivity. It’s tempting to assume that students in the first-year writing program are digital natives, and therefore have a wealth of pre-existing knowledge about technology. Those assumptions risk harming students from marginalized backgrounds who may have limited exposure to technology, including students from low-income areas, non-traditional students, or those whose physical or mental disabilities are barriers to access. By scaffolding multimodal assignments, it puts each student in the class on equal footing and increases their confidence when working with digital tools.

 

One of the major assignments in the second sequence of the first-year writing program at University of Memphis is the New Media Project, where students transform their written researched arguments into digital compositions. Before this assignment, roughly halfway through the semester, I assign the Multimedia Group Presentation, a low-stakes collaborative project that provides scaffolding for the New Media Project. I dedicate two weeks for them to work on the project in-class. During this time, they learn how to interact with a digital tool of their choice, build a small sample project, and prepare a presentation on the strengths and weaknesses of the tool they selected. I act as facilitator while they work as groups. On the final day, students lead presentations followed by Q&A sessions where the class has opportunities to ask deeper questions about how the digital tools work.

 

This assignment provides layers of scaffolding for the more difficult New Media Project at the end of the semester and accomplishes the following:

  • The process of learning and sharing digital tools helps students understand how they work, which (for me) is the hardest part of teaching a course steeped in multimodality. This gives the students the essential knowledge they need to develop their own projects later in the semester.
  • The freedom of the assignment introduces time for play and exploration in the classroom. Students are allowed to use unstructured class time to test out their tools without worrying about being graded or judged. The purpose is to promote possibility rather than perfection.
  • By discussing the strengths and weaknesses of a given tool, students begin thinking critically about the functionality and potential applications of multimodal platforms. They shift from being passive learners to critical thinkers.
  • This project signals my changing role in the classroom, giving more authority to students as the semester progresses. For this assignment, they control what happens during class time. As the semester goes on, I assume a more decentralized position as a facilitator, and they have greater control of how we use class time.

 

The Multimedia Group Presentation is the only scaffolding I have built in before the New Media Project. Each semester, I wonder if I’ve done enough to prepare my students to work on their own. Even though students typically rate the Multimedia Group Presentation as their favorite assignment, there are still some who struggle when working alone. I worry most about students who have never done a multimodal project because they can become demoralized when they can’t figure out how to solve problems alone. A similar problem is that students sometimes limit themselves to the tool they learned to use in the group project rather than embrace the options presented by their peers.

 

Since I last taught this assignment a year ago, I have wondered how these issues might be addressed. An idea I’ve considered is having students work in collaborative units where they learn to use a new tool each day. Rather than have them do a formal presentation, the project will end with a class discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of each tool. By doing this, each student is equally exposed to the digital tools at their disposal. This is something I’m considering when I teach this course next semester.

 

What kind of scaffolding do you use in a multimodal composition course? How do you make digital tools accessible? How do you promote access in your pedagogy? 

 

To view Skye’s assignment, visit Multimedia Group Presentation. To learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board, visit the Bedford New Scholars page on the Macmillan English Community.

When he turned eighteen, Ethan Lindenberger sought advice about how to get vaccinated. The title of a Guardian article about him by Anna Almendrala sums up his situation: “‘God Knows How I’m Alive’: How a Teen Defied His Parents to Get Vaccinated.” As Almendrala explains, “Lindenberger was raised to believe that vaccines cause brain damage, autism, and other developmental issues. But nearing the end of high school, he had come to think differently.” His parents believed that vaccines were some type of government scheme and never had him vaccinated. “But doubt crept in at 13 or 14, after seeing the angry and aggressive responses to a post his mother had written on social media about the dangers of vaccines. People called his mother’s post propaganda and false information, Lindenberger told the Guardian. ‘Why has this thing that has been so black and white suddenly seem like there’s a lot more to it?’”

 

Lindenberger went to the authorities in his search for the truth. He read what sources like the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization had to say about vaccinations. He learned about the now-debunked and retracted 1998 article that linked vaccinations to autism. He learned the logic on the other side of what had been to him a black-and-white issue. There is no reputable scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism. A fallacy called the post hoc fallacy—propter hoc ergo post hoc (after that because of that)—has led some parents to assume a link because signs of autism often become noticeable around the time early vaccines are scheduled. The timing does not mean that one causes the other.

 

One cause-effect relationship that is scientifically verifiable is the increase in the incidence of mostly eradicated diseases in areas where there are clusters of anti-vaxxers, as people like Lindenberger’s parents are called. The problem has hit the headlines recently with a measles outbreak in Washington state, where an unusually large number of children have not been vaccinated.

 

The anti-vaxxers’ claim that their children should not be vaccinated rests on the assumption that vaccines cause developmental delays such as autism. Their claim is invalid if the assumption is not true, and the assumption is invalid if you accept the authority of organizations such as the WHO and the CDC. Another assumption behind the claim is that vaccinations are a government scheme. This assumption needs support if the claim is to be accepted. Some parents do not like for the government to interfere with their parenting, just as some motorcycle owners do not believe the government has the right to mandate the wearing of helmets. Motorcycle riders may feel they have the right to risk their own safety by not wearing helmets. A better analogy, however, would be whether a parent has the right to decide that his or her child should not wear a helmet while riding on a motorcycle.

 

On the other side of the debate are parents who do not believe their children should be put at risk by unvaccinated children. We would like to think that vaccination is 100% effective, but since it is not, vaccinated children who spend time with unvaccinated sick children are still at risk. Though far fewer children who have been vaccinated will contract a disease like measles, and the illness will be less severe for them, they can still become ill.

 

The question that then arises is whether schools can force parents to have their children vaccinated. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are no federal vaccination laws, but all fifty states have certain vaccination requirements. All fifty states also allow medical exemptions. All but three have exemptions based on religion or philosophy (for people who have sincerely held beliefs that prohibit immunizations). A partial solution under consideration by some states is tightening these exemption policies. Those states will face the difficult job of drawing a line between medical and religious reasons for opposing immunization and philosophical ones. Is a parent’s philosophical opposition to vaccination enough to let that parent’s child put other children at risk?

 

Lindenberger personally hopes to become a minister and “to continue to be a voice for scientific evidence on the importance of vaccines.” Few individuals so far are taking his route and having vaccination once they come of age. Teenagers are so well informed via social media, however, that they may begin questioning at an earlier age just what their parents are doing and why. The parents of another young man introduced in Almendrala’s article stopped having him vaccinated after he had a bad reaction to an immunization at an early age and had to be hospitalized. Almendrala writes, “He’d only realized his family approached things differently at the age of 16, when he began laughing at ‘anti-vaxxer memes’ on Reddit, but soon realized that his family might be the butt of the joke. ‘I thought it was funny,’ said John. ‘Then my mom started talking about it, and I was like, ‘Oh, shit, I’m one of those kids.’” For John the situation came to a decisive point when a military scholarship for college required him to be vaccinated. His mother is now helping him catch up on his immunizations so that he can attend.

 

 

Photo credit: “Flu Vaccination Grippe” by Daniel Paquet on Flickr, 10/22/10 via a CC BY 2.0 license.

 

Writing in The New York Times in 2011, Neil Genzlinger bemoans “the problem of memoirs,” opening with this notable illustration by Timothy Goodman. Genzlinger is ostensibly reviewing four recently-published memoirs, but he spends most of his time elaborating on four principles for would-be memoirists: that you had parents and a childhood does not qualify you to write a memoir; readers don’t want to “relive your misery”; don’t jump on the memoir bandwagon just because it’s there; and “if you must write a memoir make sure you are the least important person in it.”

 

This is not bad advice, but potential memoir writers seem not to have heeded it. In 2011, Genzlinger notes that if you want to browse memoirs on Amazon, you better be in a comfy chair since you will get 60 to 120,000 “hits” depending on how you search. Today the number is even greater.

 

Why the avalanche of memoirs? Genzlinger attributes it to “me-ism,” an age of narcissism. While there is no doubt some truth in that assertion (pretty much all of us, after all, like to talk about ourselves), I think it ignores other important factors. I first noticed the huge uptick in memoirs about 20 years ago and often commented on it and discussed it with my students. After years of worrying the issue, we came up with two factors that seemed to be associated with the rise of this particular genre. First is the resistance to what Lisa Ede and I have called “radical individualism” by theorists of many different stripes, who point out that the long-held assumption that we were the “masters of our fates, the captains of our souls” is belied at every turn, that we are rather shaped by forces far beyond our control. Hence “the death of the author” and the concept of “author functions” that so exercised theorists in the 80s.

 

These were frightening concepts to many, and the ensuing culture wars stirred up passions on all sides. Feminist rhetoricians and compositionists noted a bitter irony: just at a time when women and people of color were able to come to voice, establishment theorists told them that such voices were really constructions, not results of their own agency. And many in society at large felt vaguely that the concept of selfhood as they had known it for centuries was called into question.

 

In addition, the 21st century brought with it enormous advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, moves that presaged something like the industrial revolution on steroids, with huge categories of jobs being taken over by machines. As I write, Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur running for the Democratic presidential nomination, is criss-crossing the country, demonstrating in graphic detail how many jobs—indeed entire professions—are already being taken over by robots and other machines and talking about how to “save jobs from automation” while at the same time facing the necessity of introducing a guaranteed monthly income for all.

 

These changes are threatening on an existential level—to many, they threaten the sense not only of self but of self-worth. In such times, it is no wonder that we see signs of writers trying to reclaim a traditional sense of self, of saying with every new memoir published, “Here I am. Look at me. I count. I really count.”

 

Students today are caught in this maelstrom of change, this industrial revolution on steroids. But far too little of what they talk about and study in college acknowledges these realities or engages students in responding productively to them. That doesn’t need to be true of writing programs and courses, however. We are well positioned to tackle these issues with our students, to engage them in tracing challenges to traditional notions of the self as well as technological change in order to better understand the relationship between the two. We are also well positioned to ask students to write about their own relationship to these issues. They might even decide to do a bit of memoir-writing themselves, focusing throughout not on ME ME ME but on how to understand self always in a web of contextual relationships that includes other people as well as other important factors in their environments, including machines with which (or whom?) they may well find themselves engaged in more ways than they can imagine.

 

To pursue these ends, teachers of writing might well begin with a recent essay in Rhetoric Society Quarterly: “The Ethics of Memoir: Ethos in Uptake.” In this essay, Katherine Mack and Jonathan Alexander show how the concept of ethos “illuminates memoir’s rhetorical potency and its dubious ethics,” noting particularly the way that the over-personalization of memoir bemoaned by Genzlinger can yield to a critique that insistently embeds the ethos of the memoirist within “larger social, cultural, and political debates” like those I have been describing. Mack and Alexander put their recommendation into very good practice in an analysis of two very recent memoirs, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. They conclude that we need many more critical studies of memoirs and especially in the context of “uptake,” that is, how readers “talk back” to them: “At a time when the ‘personal’ and ethos are used to justify a variety of often contradictory positions, a revitalized study of the genres of the personal, such as memoir, and their rhetorical deployment, strikes us as more pressing than ever” (68).

 

Mack and Alexander’s astute analysis will give teachers of writing a lot to think about—and provide another way to engage students in examining, critically, the “problem of memoirs.”

 

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1149959 by Free-Photos, used under the Pixabay License

I am continuing to look at suggestions for working with multilingual students in FYC and IRW corequisite classrooms. One area of concern for many instructors is plagiarism and patchwriting with multilingual writers. A number of researchers and pedagogical experts have weighed in on the causes of this particular challenge and ways to address it (see articles by Howard, Serviss, and Rodrigue, as well as Pecorari, for example).

 

I would echo one of their findings: for many multilingual writers, patchwriting often results from a novice attempt at paraphrase – an attempt that can be improved with an increased focus on instruction and practice. 

I begin a discussion of paraphrase early in my FYC and corequisite courses, since much of our text-based writing requires integration of source material via summary, paraphrase, or quote. When I introduce the concept, I ask students to consider how they are already making use of paraphrase in their daily lives. Multilingual students frequently negotiate conversations in multiple languages, and paraphrase is a strategic resource they deploy when moving between languages and audiences. We talk about the quizzical look we might get in our daily conversations, a look that signals that we have not communicated well. So we try again: we re-phrase, and we paraphrase. We also put paraphrase to work in teaching, coaching, parenting, mentoring, training, and encouraging—roles many of my multilingual students are quite familiar with. 

 

What students are able to see quickly is that paraphrase outside of the classroom is not about checking a box on a rubric; it’s all about communicating a message so that a particular audience can understand it. Our purpose is explanation, and the goal is comprehension. What we do in writing is essentially the same thing: we encounter interesting and sometimes challenging concepts and ideas from the texts we read, and our goal is to communicate those ideas clearly for our own readers. 

 

Having established the purpose of a paraphrase, students note quickly that paraphrase requires an understanding of the information being shared. The first step is successful paraphrasing is reading for understanding – often reading many times. 

 

I next tell students I am going to tell them how NOT to paraphrase. I take a sentence or two from a difficult text we are working with, such as this one from Elizabeth Wardle’s essay in Bad Ideas about Writing. We talk about what it means to “put something in our own words,” and I show them a strategy that doesn’t work: we go through and substitute synonyms or related words for each major content word in the passage. Students may use a thesaurus or translator for this activity. Then we look at the results we get. I ask the students to consider whether or not the paraphrase is successful, and most will readily agree that it is not: it doesn’t explain, and it makes no sense. Our criteria for judgment is not how many words are copied before one is changed; rather, it is the effectiveness of the paraphrase in explaining the ideas in the original text.

 

We also take a look at paraphrases generated by online paraphrase tools, which usually produce a word salad akin to the paraphrase we generated in our first version. We wrap our introductory overview of paraphrasing by looking at a variety of successful and no-so-successful paraphrases, with example of patchwriting thrown in. Setting up the discussion with the purpose of paraphrase allows students to focus first on the meaning communicated in the paraphrase, and second on the language used to convey that meaning.

 

Finally, I have students work in collaborative groups to practice. I ask a targeted question about a concept from something we have read, and I ask the students to draft a paragraph in which they first quote from the target text to answer the question and then paraphrase the quote they’ve chosen. Finally, they extend the paragraph with an example from their own experience, and we review the paragraphs to see if readers can identify the parts (quote, paraphrase, and expansion) and the boundaries between them.

 

In peer responses to the paragraphs, students get one more shot at practicing paraphrase: they read a classmate’s paragraph and attempt to paraphrase the topic sentence (main idea), using the following frame.


     

       “Let me get this straight. You’re saying that __________________, right?”

 

This intensive practice prepares students to work with blending partial quotes, paraphrases, and summaries later in the term. While the class sessions devoted to paraphrase practice early on do not fully eliminate patchwriting and plagiarism, they provide students with a strong base for continued practice and discussion.

Recently I needed a resource to help students understand brainstorming. I knew that they generally understood the idea, but I wanted to encourage them to try some new strategies and stretch their invention skills a little. After a few disappointing Google search results, I found myself at the “Tips & Tools” page of the UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center site.

There, I found perfect resources to share with students, including a Brainstorming tip sheet and this Webbing video:

I quickly realized that the site had much more to offer. The “Tips & Tools” page features nearly a hundred resources, organized into four categories:

  • Writing the Paper
  • Citation, Style, and Sentence Level Concerns
  • Specific Writing Assignments for Contexts
  • Writing for Specific Fields

The handouts range from ideas on Thesis Statements to basic strategies for working on a Dissertation. Some of the resources focus on general writing advice, such as dealing with Procrastination and Writing Anxiety. Others address topics frequently heard in the writing classroom, like how to use Gender-Inclusive Language and ways to work with Writing Groups effectively.

Perhaps one of the best things about the site is that the handouts are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 License. That means, as the site explains in the footer, “You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.” If you need a supplement for your class or a specific student, these “Tips & Tools” have you covered.

Have you found an online resource that is particularly helpful in the writing classroom? Please share your recommendations in the comments below. I’d love to see the sites you use with students.

Bohannon HeadshotToday’s guest blogger is Jeanne Law Bohannon, an Associate Professor of English and the Interim Director of Composition at Kennesaw State University. She believes in creating democratic learning spaces, where students become stakeholders in their own rhetorical growth through authentic engagement in class communities. Her research interests include evaluating digital literacies; cultivating community engagement pedagogies; and growing informed and empowered student scholars. Reach Jeanne at jeanne_bohannon@kennesaw.edu and her KSU Faculty Page.

 

As I have reflected on some recent tweets calling out Spike Lee for his Oscar acceptance speech, I’ve also thought Atlanta Student Movement Signabout how we, as teachers of writing, can affect positive rhetorical growth for our students as they too reflect on social justice and turning their thoughts into scholarly action. Our students depend on us to provide mentoring and writing opportunities that help them engage at cultural points of need. In today’s post, I want to invite readers to check out and contribute to an assignment series that engages students as public, digital researchers with a topic connected to civil and human rights.

 

Context for Assignment

By researching historical civil rights movements and then developing digital content curating the rhetorical activities within these movements, students gain a deeper understanding of human struggles and are able to insert their own voices into recovering and analyzing them for 21st-century contexts.

 

Measurable Learning Objectives for the Assignment

  • Investigate a civil or human rights campaign
  • Apply peer review as recursive writing process
  • Create digital texts in a blogging genre for public audiences

 

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. Below, I have listed a few foundational texts. You will no doubt have your own to enrich this list.

 

 

Digital Deliverables for Classroom Use

 

In-Class/Out-of-Class Work

Students watch excerpts from a Civil Rights History video to introduce them to some key people and places connected to the 1960s movement. As a class group, students then choose two topics connected to the movement. Our class chose the Rich's Department Store sit-ins in Atlanta. Then, students diAtlanta Sit-Insvide into groups to craft two blog posts per group on people and places connected to their chosen civil rights topic (from either of the above sources), using the Blogging Guidelines. Drafting blog content can occur outside of class, but revision and editing are best-completed in-class. Use the Feedback Checklist to maximize effective peer time. If you can't get a computer lab (a frequent occurrence on my campus), host a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) day. Some of my students' best revisions are made on their tablets and phones! Budget time for at least one revision and two editing sessions, where students collaborate to research and insert tags, refine their conversational tones, design multimodal elements, check for accessibility and even integrate SEO analytics. 

 

This assignment lends itself to digital, democratic learning and unique contributions across types of classes, because students choose their methods of composition, reflect on their process, and have the opportunity to present their work to their peers and publics. 

 

Student Blog Examples

 

Check More Out...

Our class took these blogs a bit further and curated all of the blogs into a website: Anyone Sitting Here. Please also view a sample page: The Rhetorical Activism of Lonnie King. If your students have more content to add to our website, send it along, and we'll help get it published!


Our Reflections and Continued Work

Our class community engaged authentically with this assignment and it generated sustained work, writing and designing texts. The work brought all twenty of us together as a group, each person contributing expertiseAtlanta Student Movement Project and learning from everyone else. Our research has resulted in a living digital archive and a student-produced visual timeline of the Movement’s genesis (special thanks to Kelly Key, John Phelps, and Madison Urquart). As Andrea Lunsford has taught us: our writing is valuable when we share it with the world. Try this assignment and get in touch with us to contribute to our academic website

 

 

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

For quite some time now I have been intimating in this blog that entertainment may not be the most effective way of achieving political goals, due to the way that it can distract its audience from the task of actual political engagement. Thus, I was inevitably struck by Steve Almond's forthright argument to this effect in a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. But while reading Almond's essay I found myself beginning to question my own position, and while I'm not quite ready to abandon it entirely, I do believe that it may need some modification in the light of recent developments in American political culture.

 

To see why, let's start with Almond's thesis. Arguing that the superb political comedy that has erupted in the wake of the Trump presidency has only played into the hands of a man "who relishes and exploits his beefs with comedians . . . [and who] doesn’t see them as degrading the office of the presidency so much as transforming that office into an adjunct of the entertainment industry, where what matters most is your ratings," Almond suggests that the "towering irony here is that the essential mission of comedians in the Age of Trump is identical to that of the man they mock." Thus, both Trump and his opponents "preach that our political and media classes are essentially corrupt. Both use shtick to convert our distress at this dysfunction into disposable laughs. In other words, both turn politics into show business." The upshot of all this, Almond concludes, is that "Halfway through his reign, Trump has reaffirmed a truth that extends from King Lear to Norman Lear: A kingdom that relies on court jesters to confront mad rulers is doomed. The Fool is not a redeemer. His role is to defuse, by means of laughter, the moral distress that presages redemption."

 

In short, comedians like the cast of SNL and Steve Colbert are making their audiences feel too good to actually go out and do anything (like vote). But there's a certain paradox here, for if Trump used comedy to capture the White House, so too can his opposition. In other words, if Almond's argument is right, it's also wrong. What worked for one side can work for the other. Maybe SNL and Steve Colbert (et. al) can help lead the revolution.

 

Only the future will reveal whether this will prove to be true, but for now we can take away one surety from Almond's essay: America's entertainment culture has engulfed our entire society so thoroughly that none of the old barriers between "high" culture and "low" truly exist anymore. Popular culture, with its mandate to entertain, is our dominant culture, for better or for worse.

 

 

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3774381 by mohamed_hassan, used under the Pixabay License

Andrea A. Lunsford

Pay Attention!

Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Feb 28, 2019

 

It’s no secret that I am a fan of style and of teaching style, the third canon of rhetoric and, by any measure, an extremely important one today. So I’ve focused on style in all my textbooks and done a fair amount of research and reading about the history of style and about the fusion of style and “content.” More recently, I’ve thought long and hard about why style seems so important to me today and so necessary to teach our students to think about and to experiment with.

 

I’ve been deeply impressed with rhetorician Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention, which I’ve read twice and refer to often: in that book, Lanham argues that style is of the utmost importance to writing and speaking today because it is through style that we can get and hold an audience’s attention. Lanham traces the move from a “stuff” economy (think industrial revolution, Fordist principles, and manufacturing) to a “fluff” economy that deals not so much in concrete material objects but in immaterial ideas and information. Add to this shift the enormous changes wrought by technology, changes that make information more available to us than ever before, and the problem Lanham discusses comes into view: the ideas and information that will be effective and successful (often in monetary terms) are those that people attend to. Thus the “economics of attention” Lanham sees at work everywhere today. His analysis is astute and his advice straightforward: if you want to be heard in today’s society, you have to get people’s attention. And the major tool you have to do so is style.

 

Media consultant Howard Rheingold also writes extensively about the difficulty of getting and holding attention in Net Smart, another book I have learned a great deal from reading and studying. These two books are fairly old now, but they still strike me as prescient and accurate. Now I see “attention” commanding attention everywhere. In a recent issue of Wired, James Vlahos notes that “[In] the economics of the online world, …attention is everything,” and everyone from business CEOs to medical practitioners are talking about the “crisis” of being able to get their messages across and to capture the attention of audiences. Some of these folks are simply interested in building the bottom line or in making more and more money. But not all. Vlahos, for example, worries that the tech world’s search for “the perfect single answer” promised by Alexa and Echo and company (not quite there yet, Vlahos says, but very close) will reduce options and leave us at the mercy of single answers that have been chosen for us—and in that way choosing what we are able to pay attention to. Others like Lanham and Rheingold worry about how the truth (small “t”) can hold its own in getting attention with clickbait and lies.

 

As teachers of writing, we have a big stake in these debates and discussions, as do our students. In the long run, rhetoricians and compositionists need to be in on this conversation, carrying out research that can contribute to it in important ways. In the shorter run, we need to alert our students to the issues and especially to the need for them to focus on style as a means of getting and holding attention, and thus of having a chance to get their voices out there where they can and will be heard. Luckily, we know a lot about rhetorical strategies that can help command attention: everything from crafting electrifying titles and opening sentences to syntactic structures and word choices that pull readers/listeners along, to the use of visuals and graphics to hold attention, to the power of figurative language, and to the equal power of silence.

 

Still, I find that many teachers of writing say that there’s just no time to focus on style, that helping students with invention, with critical thinking, with organizational frameworks and drafting—all time-consuming and very important goals—seem more fundamental than style. I think it’s time, though, to question this assumption and to look at style as inseparable from inventing, thinking critically, drafting, and organizing. And then to create curricula that allow for this integration.

 

I would very much like to hear responses to these ideas and especially to hear of ways in which teachers of writing are already responding to the move I’m calling for. Please leave a comment below or write back to me directly at lunsford@stanford.edu. And thank you!

 

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2365812 by rawpixel, used under the Pixabay License

Screenshot from Practical Strategies in Technical Communication showing a Thinking Visually featureI love the “Thinking Visually” resources in Mike Markel’s Practical Strategies for Technical Communication (2nd ed.). The example shown in the screenshot on the right outlines the six major characteristics of a technical document.

As you flip through the pages of the textbook, these full-page graphics stand out, catching students’ attention with their strong contrast and reader-friendly presentation of the information explored in more detail in the text.

The textbook’s “Preface for Instructors” explains the goal of this new feature:

Reflecting the increasingly visual nature of today’s learners and of technical communication itself, the Second Edition includes new “Thinking Visually” graphics, developed with feedback from instructors. This feature provides an accessible, modern take on key principles and concepts throughout the text.

The feature this quick summary presents definitely stands out, even in a highly visual textbook like this one.

[NOTE: The “Thinking Visually” infographics mentioned in this post are available in the short version of the text (mentioned above), Practical Strategies for Technical Communication.They are not included in the full version of the text, Technical Communication.]

I decided to create my own infographic resources to persuade students to think visually about the concepts in Technical Communication. I’m starting with documentation. Students typically struggle with that topic, and its coverage in most textbooks is dense and text-heavy.

I began with this page (shown as an image) on the question, “Why Use Documentation?” It is also available as a Google Doc or a PDF to provide full accessibility to students.

Image of the Why Use Documentation? page

The three reasons that documentation is important listed in the resource come from the Appendix on “Documenting Your Sources.” The infographic is rather simple, but I hope clear and direct—just like those from Practical Strategies for Technical Communication. Tell me what you think. I plan to make several more before students begin their major research projects in a few weeks, so I can definitely use some feedback. Just leave me a comment below.

 

NOTE: Practical Strategies for Technical Communication has just been published (2019) in a third edition, but I only have access to the second edition presently. The “Thinking Visually” are included in the third edition as well.

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

 

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had several conversations with faculty and graduate students about "buy-in" in the classroom.
 
Current and future teachers wonder: how do I get students to buy-in to the idea that writing and learning how to write well is important?
 

I’ve posed this question to myself many times over the course of my career and have actively sought different ways to foster student buy-in. Some ideas have worked and some have not. While there are many factors that play a role in the extent to which instructors can foster student buy-in, I have had success at different institutions with the activities and strategies below.

 

  1. Discuss the importance of writing inside and outside of the classroom

For a 15-20 minute in-class activity, ask students to respond to the following questions in a freewrite.

 

  • What do you want to do after you graduate from college?
  • What kind of writing do you think you’ll do at your job?
  • What do you think might happen if you’re unable to communicate effectively at your job?
  • What do you think might happen if you’re really good at communicating effectively at your job?
  • Based on these questions, why do you think writing and learning how to write is important?

 

Ask students to share what they wrote and make a list of responses on the board. Orchestrate a conversation wherein students engage with the list and brainstorm about what we need to learn and practice in class to in order to strengthen our writing abilities. I encourage instructors to be transparent about how the skills, abilities, and knowledge gained in the course are transferable across writing situations, including the situations they’ll encounter in the future workplace.

 

(I usually have this discussion on the first or second day of class, but it’s never too late to do so.)

 

  1. Assign lots and lots of low-stakes writing assignments

Ask students to write every day in class and out of class. For example, you might provide a brief prompt at the beginning of every class intended to either help get them thinking about course material or just to practice writing in general. Here are some interesting prompts that you may consider using in your class.

 

You can explain to students that research has proven informal writing assignments support student learning and function as ripe sites for invention work. Perhaps most importantly, research states that the more people write, the better writers they become. All of the writing students do in your class will sharpen their writing abilities and communication skills, which in turn will help them learn and succeed in other college courses and in the workplace.

 

  1. Analyze writing in the workplace

Ask your students to engage with research that reveals the importance of writing and learning how to write. For example, you may assign sections of two studies on workplace writing: “Writing: A Ticket to Work…Or a Ticket Out” and “Writing: A Powerful Message from State Government.” The findings from the first study reveal that most people (2/3 of 8 million surveyed) in business have writing responsibilities and that writing abilities play a significant role in promotion, demotion, and job loss. The second study reveals that all 2.7 million state employees surveyed have writing responsibilities and all agree writing is important. This study is perhaps most persuasive for student buy-in because it demonstrates that jobs and careers that may not appear to demand strong writing abilities and skills may in fact do so.

 

Reflection

In using these activities and other variations of them, I’ve recognized that pedagogical and curricular transparency is effective in fostering student buy-in. When we tell our students why we’re doing what we’re doing and how our decisions are informed by research in the discipline, they are more likely to recognize the value of the work they do in the class. Further, I’ve learned that discussions and activities that draw connections between school and the workplace and that emphasize transferability make a strong impact on students, especially students taking required classes or classes they think are unrelated to their major or future career. In positioning students to think about other courses they will take as well as their futures, they are more likely to be persuaded that writing and learning how to write matters.

Guest Blogger: Rochelle Spencer is currently a scholar in Dr. Maryemma Graham's Black Book Interactive Project at the University of Kansas. Rochelle is author of AfroSurrealism: The African Diaspora’s Surrealist Fiction (Routledge 2019) and co-editor, with Jina Ortiz, of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (Univ of Wisconsin Press, 2014). A VONA alum, a former board member of the Hurston Wright Foundation, a current member of the National Book Critics Circle, and co-curator for the Digital Literature Garden and Let's Play, Rochelle recently defended the first dissertation on AfroSurrealism.

 

How do we demonstrate radical love and trust towards our students, especially when exploring painful or traumatic subjects? If we, as a writing community, teach arguments and logos, ethos, and pathos, then it seems to me that we are left with critical questions: How do we create empathy? How do we decide when it’s “convenient” to care about someone?

 

These questions point to a community-centered pedagogy. Years ago, a student of color told me about being harassed by police right in front of the campus where I then taught. That student was Asian, and I am Black. I understood the student’s fear because I’ve been harassed by the police too. Last fall, as I prepared to teach a lesson on #BlackLivesMatter, I realized the bullying and intimidation my former student experienced may have happened to other students. Or they may have friends or family who have experienced police violence, perhaps while arrested or incarcerated.

 

Addressing these traumas while teaching argumentation, I have found that we’re always thinking about representation. I want to suggest to students that they don’t have to fit any particular image to be treated fairly. If someone’s skin is dark, or their pants sag, or if they wear a hijab or speak a language other than English, then should they be subjected to harassment or life-ending violence? It’s more than problematic to decide someone’s humanity based on whether they’re wearing a suit or tie--or a skirt with a slip. (We have a history of telling women and perhaps non-binary genders that sexual violence can be a result of the way they’re dressed. And I realize our brothers are raped and sexually violated but this specific condemnation seems mostly aimed at women.)

 

At the same time, I understand how people respond to those who [outwardly] convey power, through their dress or speech. We want our students’ voices to be heard and we want them to be taken seriously, especially as they work to create positive changes in their communities.

One lesson plan that grew out of this idea centered on visual arguments. In class, we watched  this video from CNN about Botham Sean Jean, who was killed inside his apartment by an off-duty police officer in Sept. 6, 2018, and Frank Ocean’s Nike 2016 video, which juxtaposed images of Trayvon Martin with sensual and surreal images. Using the following questions, we held a class discussion as a prelude to our writing assignment on visual argument:

 

  • Botham Jean’s family attorney says Jean “lived his life virtually without blemish,” how is that life portrayed in the video? Do you feel empathy towards Jean? Do you think this video generates empathy?
  • What do you think of Ocean’s incorporation of the Trayvon Martin photograph? Do you think it serves a purpose? Do you think the photograph is used respectfully? Why do you think Ocean juxtaposes so many contrasting images alongside the photograph? Does Ocean’s video create empathy?

 

In their in-class writings, which addressed these questions, my students helped me to understand the Ocean video as commentary on our emotional landscapes. While a few students viewed the Ocean video as a disjointed arrangement of startling scenes, others argued Ocean‘s kaleidoscopic images make it difficult to view a man of color, such as Ocean--or anyone really--through a one-dimensional lens. These students argued for Ocean’s video, with its multi-racial and intergenerational cast, as depicting a pluralistic society and the ways people must work together and fight for each other’s survival.

 

If Ocean's work exploits respectability politics, then history's portrayal of Rosa Parks only further reveals their complexity.We know about Rosa Parks’ work as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Movement but, in the 1950s, if a young, pregnant, and unmarried woman  had led the movement, would her sexual history--rather than the cause--have been the topic of discussion?  We create narratives about people that omit details. I think we tend to think of Parks, perhaps, as a silent image; we remember the quiet and dignified black-and-white photo of her sitting on the bus, but less known is Parks’ work as an outspoken and ardent investigator and activist who fought for justice for Recy Taylor, a black woman raped by six white men.

 

The challenge for our students, and for all writers whose work concerns people and our relationships to each other, is figuring out how to show our complexity, our totality--while helping our readers understand and care about our stories.

One of the most common logical fallacies in argumentation is the either/or fallacy. We see this fallacy a great deal these days because our two-party political system is as deeply entrenched as it has ever been, and each party accuses the other of the most extreme positions on hot topics, as if no center ground is possible. Often, the either/or fallacy leads to the straw man fallacy, as the other side finds itself defending against a much more extreme position than what it truly supports.

 

President Trump wants a wall on our southern border. That leads Republicans to support the unfair assumption that anyone who opposes the wall is for open borders; Trump even went so far as to accuse House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of supporting human trafficking because she opposes the border wall. However, immigration is not an either/or proposition. Both sides are in favor of border security, but if the Democrats must defend themselves against the false charge that they want no restrictions at all on immigration, they waste time and energy that could be spent on reaching common ground. Thus the straw man that Democrats are distracted by and find themselves attacking instead of the real issue.

 

New York’s new legislation about abortion is another example that can be examined in light of either/or logic. Some of those who oppose abortion assume that those who cheered the passage of the legislation must be willing to accept killing an infant in the process of being delivered. The law actually stipulates very specific circumstances under which a late-term abortion can be performed. That “if” clause is what opponents of abortion do not hear. The either/or fallacy comes in accepting that either one opposes abortion under any circumstances or accepts it under any circumstances. If those who support a woman’s right to choose have to defend themselves against the charge that they think it is okay to kill a baby during delivery, they are attacking a straw man rather than addressing the real issue of why a woman would choose a late-term abortion.

 

Any time a speaker or writer argues that if you don’t believe this, you believe that, it is worth pausing to consider if that dichotomy really exists. Is it true that anyone who supports gun control wants to take all guns away from every law-abiding American? Is it true that parents who allow their children to be vaccinated do not care about their children’s welfare?

 

The whole idea behind Rogerian argument is that it seeks common ground from which to work toward reconciling opposing or differing positions. That’s not easy when the issue is something as heated as abortion or the killing of black men by white police officers. It’s not easy because the first step toward reconciliation is being able to accurately state your opponent’s position. As long as every statement is weighed first in terms of its political impact, that step toward common ground will be slow in coming.

 

 

Photo credit: “Democratic Donkey & Republican Elephant - Caricatures” by DonkeyHotey on Flickr, 2/12/14 via a CC BY 2.0 license.