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Critical thinking, I like to believe, is at the core of what I do in the writing classroom. One of the reasons I love to teach with Emerging is that the readings place ideas front and center.  Students learn critical thinking in my classes by first finding the ideas, then understanding the ideas, then using the ideas.


Finding the ideas is the first step and doing so takes careful reading of the essays.  We go over how to annotate while reading so that students can mark critical quotations and parts in the argument of the essay.  I reinforce this work in class with group exercises where students locate the most important concepts and their meaning in a particular reading.


Understanding those ideas is the next step.  Group activities are again very helpful.  Groups can work to explain the ideas and offer examples from outside the text, ideally by looking to other readings.  That work of locating examples is then the first step in using the ideas.


Using the ideas, I like to say, doesn’t mean swallowing them whole.  Part of the work of critical thinking is figuring out when a concept doesn’t work and why it doesn’t, often prompting students to offer a development of the concept and thus offering new knowledge as a contribution to the conversation.  I find that working connectively across multiple readings (2 or 3 work best) is a great way for students to develop facility in testing and modifying concepts.  Along the way they start to develop concepts of their own, and that for me is the most exciting part of critical thinking.


How do you use readings in your class to develop these skills?

When Your Grades Are Based on LaborI have been working this year to shift my assessment practices toward grading students less on error and more on the labor that they bring to their writing for the courses that I teach. Ever since I heard Asao Inoue’s plenary on “Racism in Writing Programs and the CWPA” at the Council of Writing Program Administrators Conference last summer in Raleigh, North Carolina, I knew that I wanted to give the strategy another try.


It is a pedagogical tactic that I have been developing on and off since my first year of teaching. At this point, I am in an in-between place: I am currently blending in some of practices that Inoue describes, and I am developing resources for a more complete conversion by the fall.


Recently, I have been focusing on that ways that the grading system is discussed. The contract that Inoue used at Fresno State is long and, well, contractual. It’s a three-page document that outlines everything about how the work in the course is assessed, beginning with the approach and ending with details on requirements and logistics. As you would expect of a syllabus-style discussion of course requirements, it is explicit and detailed.


Obviously, courses need this kind of document, but I wanted to break the explanation up into a series of shorter pieces. To begin, I wrote When Your Grades Are Based on Labor, a webpage that introduces the key aspects of the system from a student’s perspective. As I explained last month, I have been using Infographics as Readings in an effort to align course materials with students’ reading styles, so I also created the infographic on the right to present the ideas.


My goal is to list the basic details in the infographic, with additional information explained on the webpage. I would love to get some feedback on whether I’ve succeeded in the comments below.


Additionally, if you would like to know more about this assessment strategy, read Inoue’s publications on anti-racist assessment and on grading students’ labor on his page.



Credits: Infographic was created on Icons are all from The Noun Project, used under a CC-BY 3.0 license: report by Lil Squid, Fluorescent Light Bulb by Matt Brooks, analytics by Wilson Joseph, aim by Gilbert Bages, Switch Controller by Daniel, and Gym by Sathish Selladurai.

 Today’s guest blogger is Kim Haimes-Korn (see end of post for bio).


This week I have an important assignment for multimodal composers. When we have students work in digital spaces as content creators, there are often questions about ethical citation and usage practices and how to share content. Although we have many great resources, these notions are complicated when students share content, post images, and embed links on blogs or within other projects. Digital writing involves remixing and sharing content, but it complicates issues of plagiarism and ethical use. Even when you look for examples, you will notice that there is disparity and a great variety of possibilities. It is by no means an exact science.


I like the idea of having students create a Style Guide for Digital Citation and Usage that becomes the class reference for these practices. In addition to their handbook, I start them with some readings that address the subject. I also show them sites like Creative Commons and other ways to find copyright-free images that are in the public domain or labeled for reuse. It is also important to show them that large blogging sites have usage guidelines that are specific to their situation. In order to be a good digital writer you have to have the knowledge and motivation to dig a little deeper. For example, the site Hubspot has plenty of content to share and is happy to have people use it according to their Content Usage Guidelines. These guidelines explain usage and permission rights along with expectations defined by the group.


It also gets complicated when you want to share data or ideas that have been repurposed multiple times. It is important for students to critically read these sources to try to get to the original source rather than citing the last place they found it. In the worlds of digital writers there is a term, newsjacking (coined by David Meerman Scott), in which authors pull stories trending in the news and add them to their own sites for marketability. Basically, it is a way to draw on the Kairos of an existing situation to boost and enhance your own content.


The Assignment
Images are essential to successful online content. Students need to know not just how to cite them but where to find them. This exercise asks students to share copyright-free image sites and other strategies for understanding the usage guidelines. For example, when you conduct a Google Image search, you can go to the tools menu for a drop down list of usage rights where student can choose from a list of suggestions. When they choose, “labeled for reuse,” Google filters those images that fit the category. The internet has a lot of information on these topics, such as this infographic created by the Visual Communication Guy, Can I Use that Picture, which provides a visual representation of these concepts. It is useful to have students go to these different types of sources (textual and visual) to try to make sense of and enter the conversation. This assignment helps them to think critically about the choices they make as content creators.

  • Have students read and review online sources (articles, infographics, blogs) for citation practices and usage guidelines.
  • Put them in small groups to discuss what they found, looking for overlaps and distinctions. Discuss the ways these definitions are communally constructed. Ask each student to summarize a source on a presentation slide and present it to the group.
  • As a group, assimilate the information and create a collaborative style guide slide that simplifies and defines the citation and usage practices for the particular classroom context from the summarized sources. Place this slide at the front of the presentation for easy future access.
  • Share the presentation with the class – revise and shape through feedback.
  • Publish the style guide in a place where students can access it for reference for future writings in the class.


Reflections on the Activity

It is always easier for students to remember information when it is communally constructed on their own terms. This exercise allows students to critically explore these issues in relation to their own real needs and expectations. The assignment defines a consistent methodology for these practices within a single classroom but also makes students aware that these practices are fluid and constantly changing. The class style guide invites them into the conversation and makes them aware of their ethical responsibilities as digital writers.


Guest blogger Kim Haimes-Korn is a Professor in the English Department at Kennesaw State University. Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning, critical digital literacies and focuses on students’ powers to create their own knowledge through language and various “acts of composition.” She likes to have fun every day, return to nature when things get too crazy and think deeply about way too many things. She loves teaching. It has helped her understand the value of amazing relationships and boundless creativity. You can reach Kim or visit her website Acts of Composition.

I recently returned from the National Association of Developmental Education (NADE) annual conference in Oklahoma City, and I then headed to Portland for the CCCC annual meeting. On the plane to Oklahoma and back, I was able to catch up on some much neglected scholarly reading. I attended the 4Cs with three colleagues, and we took advantage of the coast-to-coast travel time to discuss some of the thorny issues we have been grappling with as a department – issues for which there is never enough time in our regular schedules. Participation in regional and national conferences, for me, is the best and most effective professional development available, keeping me connected to the discipline, to colleagues, and to my identity as a scholar and teacher; it is development I bring back to my local context.


But even as I write this, I am aware that many of my colleagues teaching composition in two-year colleges do not take advantage—cannot take advantage—of this professional development. For many, there is no travel budget for national or regional conferences. For others, there is no time amid teaching schedules that may require 5, 6, or 7 courses per semester. For some, there is no incentive to attend, for top-down, completion-driven agendas prevent faculty from being agents of innovation, research, or change. At NADE, in fact, only one other faculty member from the Virginia Community College System attended, and he and I discussed and lamented barriers to involvement in professional communities.


The sessions I attended at NADE stimulated and challenged my thinking: Peter Adams, for example, explained the local context that led to the development of the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) at the Community College of Baltimore County and traced its evolution over the past 10 years. Jennifer Ussery and Christine Moore of Phoenix College challenged participants to update CSU-Chico’s CRAAP test to reflect the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy as well as local and disciplinary contexts – a great exercise for my own college, which is currently developing a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) targeting information literacy. Cheryl Burk, Lori Dees, and Laura Kalbaugh of Wake Tech Community College offered a rebuttal to a working paper from the Community College Research Center (CCRC), providing a local context from which to question the research methods and conclusions presented in that paper. Alexandros Goudas presented a careful review of data on accelerated learning programs and questioned the wisdom of mandating variations of ALP which have not been subjected to rigorous study.


In all of these sessions, I kept coming back to two words: disconnect and local. The sessions I attended revealed a number of disconnects which affect community colleges: disconnects between theory and practice, policy and theory, policy-makers and practitioners, faculty and researchers, faculty and librarians, those whose research focuses on developmental education and those whose research addresses composition and rhetoric.


These disconnects frustrate teachers and researchers, and perhaps none is more irksome than the disconnect between talking points from national think-tanks and local, institutional voices. Those local voices are critical. ALP, for example, grew out of a very specific local context, and it was implemented by a local faculty cohort who controlled the structure and content of the courses. Phoenix College’s revision to the CRAAP Test was the result of a local faculty and library partnership. Wake Tech Community College’s response to the CCRC working paper arose from faculty questions about the extent to which research methods and conclusions reflected local curriculum and teaching practice. Finally, TYCA’s White Paper on Placement Reform emphasizes the need for local context and local control.


NADE members at the Friday plenary were urged to reconsider the narrative they tell about the work they do. That narrative must speak to national trends and policies, of course, but it must also, ultimately, be a local story. In order for two-year college faculty to have a platform for shaping and telling that story successfully, they will need professional recognition, recognition which includes power to make locally-informed decisions, as well as support for participation in state, regional, and national professional organizations. When that recognition is afforded to two-year college faculty, they may overcome some of the disconnects highlighted at NADE and change the narrative at the local level.


Tune in next week to hear local stories from my two-year and four-year colleagues at the 4Cs in Portland.


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Flying home to SFO after this year’s CCCC gathering gave me time to reflect on this conference and its long history as well as on its evolution. Bigger than ever (I gave up trying to count the number of sessions) and replete with poster sessions, think tank sessions, and caucus meetings, the program offered more than any attendee could possibly say grace over. Yet in spite of the profusion of panels, I missed some of the excitement I used to feel in looking through the program for sessions of particular interest to me. There was very little on history or historiography, very little on rhetorical history, theory, or practice, few student voices. In recent years, at least as near as I can tell from looking at CCCC programs, our field has turned away from rhetoric as our foundational discipline; and for that, I am sorry.


Still, I came away very glad to have been in the company of so many smart and dedicated scholars and teachers and, as always, I learned from inspiring work. I will write more in another posting about some of the great sessions I attended, but today I want to share just one presentation that taught a powerful lesson. The presenter was Dion Simmons, from the University of Kansas, and he spoke (with eloquence and passion) about what he termed “interrogative feedback,” starting with its importance to his own learning. He told of his experiences at a primarily white institution, where, as a beginning undergraduate turning in essays for his composition class, he fell back (as we all do) on familiar and comfortable ways with words. He remembers that he had an affinity for the phrase “I just feel like,” which helped him get started, to get into a topic, or to sum up a response. This phrase was his, and he liked it, though he hadn’t thought much about it. But his teachers didn’t agree, responding with comments such as “Your feelings don’t matter” or “This is opinion; I need facts.” These comments told Simmons, loud and clear, that this wasn’t a good phrase, that he should not use it.—but nothing more. Then, as I recall the story, he moved to an HBCU, where he once again turned in an essay including this familiar phrase. This time, however, his instructor did not offer criticism or warnings but instead one simple word: WHY?


red pen and essay, essay with edits, copyediting, proofreadingThat one word, that “interrogative feedback,” led him to think hard, not only about why he felt a certain way but why he used that particular phrase, and subsequent discussions with his instructor, who went onto become his mentor, led him to understand that he was trying to get his own voice into his writing, to use it to establish some authority, however tenuous. He kept asking “why” as he grew as a writer and thinker and as he completed his undergraduate studies and began pursuing his Ph.D. Now he is teaching students of his own, asking them questions and using these questions to help students learn why they make the choices they do, where those choices come from and what implications they hold.


This was a lesson I can never learn too often, especially because it’s an easy one to forget: rather than leveling a criticism, why not ask a question that will allow student writers to explain what they are doing and why? Looking back, I realize I first took this lesson to heart when I read Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations, in which she demonstrates over and over again that listening to students, asking them about their choices, and taking in their explanations, is the key to teaching them effectively. Ask questions. And then listen hard. That’s the way to open the door to learning.


Credit: Pixaby Image 1870721 by 38344328, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

The following headline caught my attention today, and I thought I'd give it a semiotic treatment. 

Here it is: "Why 'Beauty and the Beast' will be the biggest box-office hit of the year so far".


I'm not interested in the reasons given for the predicted success in the article but, rather, in the larger picture that this apparently sure-fire box office bonanza presents.  It's worth looking into because it re-illustrates a number of points that I have made over the years in this blog about Hollywood semiotics.


The first, and most obvious, point to make is that this Disney live-action reprise of its own animated smash is a signifier of what could be called the "if at first you do succeed, do, do again principle." That is, with so much at stake financially in the modern movie business, commercially successful films tend to become franchises for the studios that produced them, and clone-opportunities for the studios that didn't.  Why take a creative risk when a little new technology can let you redo the animated original with real people this time around, and be pretty darned assured of a big-time box office hit?


Another fairly obvious point (though it took the movie industry a little while to get it ) could be called the "forget the fourteen-year-old boys for a moment and focus on the little girls realization."  That point has been amply made by such absolute blowouts as Titanic and all the Harry Potter films.  Heck, just to make certain, Disney has brought back Hermione Granger, I mean Emma Watson, as the Beauty.  And did I mention The Hunger Games trilogy?


Then there's what I'll call "the prince and princess paradox":  that is, in our proudly egalitarian democracy, one of the best ways to ring in the cash is to make a movie about princes and princesses—especially Nordic ones.  (Beauty is really a king's daughter in one of the early versions of the tale.)  For some reason, American middle-class desire still seems to be fixated on Old World privilege—which is a point I made on this blog when Frozen was still fresh a few years ago.


Related to "the prince and princess paradox" is the long-standing medieval revival, which has swept American popular culture ever since The Lord of the Rings exploded in popularity in the 1960s, and subsequently was given a postmodern makeover by Star Wars, a British "public school" inflection by Harry Potter, and a grand guignol do-over by Game of Thrones.  The paradox here lies in the way in which New World America, which has no actual medieval history of its own, continues to be obsessed with a fairy tale world of hereditary aristocrats, swords, and sorcerers. 


This brings me to my final point - When I cast the "new" Beauty and the Beast into a system of associated entertainments, I find in that system two somewhat similar shows that are also significantly different.  These are the 1987-90 television series Beauty and the Beast, and the DreamWorks franchise, Shrek.  The TV B & B was significant because it took the old fairy tale about what might be called a dis-enchanted prince into modern times, and turned the beast into a kind of mutant homeless person (who's actually rather handsome in his leonine way —one wonders what audience reaction would have been if Beauty was male and the beast was a female, however), who lives, literally, in the Manhattan underground.  The series was drenched in socio-political overtones, with the Beast being really a beast and not an enchanted prince who will go back to being a prince as Beauty's happily-ever-after reward.  While rather soupy and over-the-top, the series did, at least, Americanize the old story.


Then there's Shrek.  While rather cornball and over-the-top, Shrek gleefully shredded the old prince-and-princess framework entirely to give us an ogre-and-ogress happy ending, with a really creepy Prince Charming thrown into the saga just in case we didn't get the point.  Shrek, who first appeared in print form in 1990, was a creature from the Age of Attitude, the Bartman days when Bart Simpson, and not Homer, was the Simpsons star, and irreverence was a national pastime. 


So, I wonder about this back-to-the-Beauty stuff.  There's a New Yorker cartoon from Roz Chast that I'm reminded of here.  In the cartoon, entitled "Comes the Revolution Fairy Tales," "Cinderella" is retold with Cinderella ending up running away with "Henri, an idealistic student," as Prince Charming meets a gruesome end.  Now that's a fairy tale for the land of Thomas Paine.


A common complaint from students is that they have nothing to say in response to an assignment.  Part of the challenge hiding behind that complaint is, I think, the very challenge of assuming a voice of academic authority a la David Batholomae’s “Inventing the University.” But sometimes the problem isn’t finding an academic voice, but breaking down the assignment and what it’s asking for.  And sometimes, yet again, the issue is understanding what an argument is and what it looks like.  I thought I would share some of the strategies I use with students when they feel like they have nothing to say.


First, I encourage them to come into my office hours to discuss the reading.  In part I offer that to make sure they’ve done the reading and more importantly that they understand the reading, but I also start there because when they start talking through the reading they also start saying something.  I might prompt them with questions (“What did you underline?” “What felt important?” “What does this author really care about?” “What part confused you the most?” “What did you think was the most compelling evidence the author used?”) but just having them talk through the reading gets them saying something and often helps them increase their overall comprehension of the work.


Next, I walk them through the assignment to make sure that they understand it. Often we do this work in class and I will also often have groups work on sample arguments for the assignment that we discuss and assess as a whole.  In office hours this work can be even more focused.


Then I help them find an argument.  Again I find a conversational model useful.  I ask them to talk through a response to the assignment and then jot down key words and phrases that I feel have the most potential to lead them to an argument.  I offer these back to them as seeds they can use or as a scaffold for a developing argument.

Of course often what students mean by not having anything to say is that they don’t know how to meet page length requirements.  They’re afraid that they won’t have enough to say.  I tell them that working closely with quotations from the text is the best remedy to that, as each quotation (and its accompanying analysis) adds length and strength to the paper.  Once they have an argument sketched out, I will also ask them to find some quotations that they think might work in supporting the argument.


Often when students leave, they have all of the material they need for a solid draft.  It usually takes only a bit of hand-holding and, as they reflect on the process, they find that it’s all work that they can do on their own for the next paper.  Each successful draft, even if it’s not a successful argument, reinforces that they have something to say, even as they continue to acquire the requisite skills to say it well.

Recently, I had a chance to visit with colleagues and students at the University of Oklahoma, where the writing program, with the leadership of Roxanne Mountford, is implementing a new curriculum that they have worked long and hard to develop. Indeed, as I travel around the country, I am seeing more and more writing programs engaged in similar exercises, and for very good reason. As the U of Oklahoma group realized, while they have been working on this curriculum for some time, it is particularly pertinent—indeed kairotic—at this moment in time, given the new administration and its programs.


Andrea Lunsford with Roxanne Mountford and Susan Kates at the University of Oklahoma

At Oklahoma, the new curriculum focuses on understanding and interrogating values in its first term course, “Principles of English Composition I.” In this course, students work through a sequence of four linked projects. The first asks them to identify a value that is important to them, to define that personal value and to show how their personal history/experience led to the articulation and evolution of that value. After this deeply self-reflective assignment, students move on to analyze a “group value,” by identifying a campus group that they do not belong to and then identifying a meaningful value that group members hold and how they put that value into practice. Students then conduct research in order to understand the group value as thoroughly as possible. In the next assignment, students explore a text that “offers a point of view that differs from your own on a current social or political issue.” As you may imagine, this assignment draws on Ratcliffe’s work on rhetorical listening that leads to understanding first, analysis second. The goal of the assignment is not to argue for or against the values represented in the text but to explain “why the author of the texts holds the position and what values connect to that position.” The final assignment asks students to write a reflective essay on their term-long interrogation of values and the representation of values. The entire sequence then leads into the second-term course, which focuses on values-based arguments of their own, delivered in both written and spoken forms.


I very much admire the way such sequenced curricula guide students in the practice of critical inquiry and analysis, but without prescribing either what they can write about or the position they should take. This slow and steady approach to becoming critically aware seems to me especially effective with students who may be wary of what they’ve been told is the liberal agenda of higher education in general.


This curriculum is already being tested in the crucible of the classroom, and it will be evaluated and refined and revised as the group works to make it engage with all students. I look forward to learning more about this evaluation and about student response to it.


While at the University, I also had a chance to visit the Writing Center, directed by Michele Eodice, and to meet a student working away there. And to have a reunion with Roxanne Mountford and Susan Kates was, as always, pure pleasure.


Credit: Photos by Andrea Lunsford

Barclay Barrios

Teaching Online

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert Mar 15, 2017

At my school there’s continued pressure to offer fully online classes. The state has issued a mandate that 40% of state university undergraduates be enrolled in online classes by 2025.  Our Center for eLearning is well-funded, we’ve moved to Canvas as our online learning management system, and we’ve started placing more and more degree programs fully online.  My own experience with online teaching has been decidedly mixed and the class I am teaching online this semester, an introduction to interdisciplinary studies, has only confirmed that.


I’ve always felt that the challenge in teaching writing online is that writing courses are process courses and not content courses, and the best way to teach process is a lot of guided practice.  When I hear about teaching writing online it sounds as challenging to me as teaching violin or painting online (though, of course, such courses exist).  Continued evolution in technologies will, no doubt, assist but I am wondering how people have faced the more fundamental process versus content challenge.  I know any number of writing programs offer classes online so I am also wondering how you do it.


If you have experience teaching writing online I’d love to hear about it.  We’re offering some small test sections online here at school but additional advice or insight would be great.  What’s your experience been?

Dear Students,


An important goal for writing this literature review is to practice thinking outside the box for drafting and revising an essay. We have spoken about the differences between written product and writing process. But it has come to my attention that many of you have still attempted to draft your essays by beginning with the thesis and the introduction.


In longer essays and especially with researched essays, beginning with the introduction may lead to significant frustration. You may not have found your subject yet, especially if you are at the beginning of your research. With that in mind, I offer four photos with helpful hints for completing the Literature Review assignment.


Photo 1: The product is different from the process.

This first photo illustrates the product. Inside the template are 9 rectangles, each representing a section of the final essay. The introduction will address the connections between Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and a third subject that will grow out of your review of the literature. The seven middle sections focus on the summary and analysis of each separate source. Please note that your writing for a single source may be 2-3 paragraphs long. The conclusion is a recap of your essay. The printing on the side of the template indicates that your third topic will be a combination of 5-7 sources that show connections with “Allegory” and “Letter.”


The final essay, as you can see from the template, looks neat and precise. This is the finished product. But the process of achieving that final product looks quite different, as we have discussed.


Photo 2: The process is messy and includes much trial and error.

Here are the 7 steps to help complete the Literature Review:

  1. Find your sources
  2. Summarize and analyze each source. A summary responds to the question: “What does this source say?” An analysis responds to the question: “What does this source mean?”
  3. a. Find the common theme between sources and b. Between Plato and King and c. write it down!
  4. Choose 5-7 sources from #1 and #2 above.
  5. Arrange sources in appropriate order for body paragraphs.
  6. Write introduction.
  7. Write conclusion.


Photo 3: Use file cards to keep track of your sources.

Index cards (a 20th-century technology) serve several purposes. First, using handwriting can work kinesthetically to enhance memory. Plato Theatre also was a kinesthetic activity, using movement to connect to “Allegory” and its persuasive appeal to emotions (pathos). Second, the index cards allow writers to file the sources in categories that make sense. Here, I have color coded the different sources. Yellow for books, red for legal encyclopedia entries, blue for articles, green for archival documents, and purple for films. Third, summaries and analyses can be written on the back. Be sure to use additional space as needed. Finally, please note that there are a total of eleven sources here. In other words, use strategic over-thinking for this part of the process. As sources are summarized and analyzed in writing, the third topic for the literature review will eventually emerge.


Photo 4: Sort, arrange, and rearrange the file cards in an order that makes sense. This process will help with selecting the third topic.

In the end, I chose five sources. Each sources is a historic account of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March. I arranged the sources according to points of view. The first source is an article written by a journalist immediately after the March in 1965. The second source (a book) and the third source (a documentary) are records of the events of the March composed by historians. The fourth source (another documentary) and the fifth source (a graphic narrative) focus more specifically on Congressman John Lewis’s experiences of the March. I chose these sources based on my interpretation of Plato and King: that the light of the sun shows us that there is no “alternative truth,”, especially where racism is concerned. Note that I arrived at this connection between sources through abstract thinking and interpretation. From the initial sources (Photo 3), I could have chosen a number of different connections. The experience of emerging from the Cave engages my attention the most, and I found this connection in each of the sources in Photo 4.


Good luck with your work, and please let me know if you have questions or concerns. I will be happy to address them.



Dr. Susan N. Bernstein

Today’s guest blogger is Jeanne Bohannon (see end of post for bio).


A thread came across the WPA listserv last week that reminded me of a post I wrote a couple of years ago (Multimodal Mondays: No Fear Gramm(r) and Students' Top 5 Lists for Rhetorical Growth), which described a low stakes grammar assignment using Andrea's Writer's Help diagnostics and her Top 20 Student Grammar Mistakes. I have used Writer's Help to create individualized exercises for upper-division writing majors as well as to measure rhetorical growth with first-year writers. In my classes we call it “No Fear Gramm(r),” deciding to intentionally misspell/(re)spell the word in order to indicate the no fear aspect of the label. As students increasingly ask for prescriptive grammar help in their writing courses while simultaneously seeking assistance in applying those conventions across digital writing genres, I have found the below series of tasks beneficial for both generating conversation and demonstrating the transformative uses of digital grammar.


No Fear Gramm(r) is a low-stakes opportunity to use traditional diagnostic tools to create dialogic growth and community. In a class of eight professional writing majors, students not only take the diagnostic, but they then share their top five grammar issues with each other in a discussion forum, responding to coursemates and finding commonalities among everyone’s usage mistakes.


Students take a Grammar Diagnostic from Writer's Help 2.0 for Lunsford Handbooks. I don’t assign points to this assignment, but I talk with students on the first and second days of class about how we will use the results as departure points for the entire semester to grow specific qualities of our grammar usage. Although I don’t use the Gradebook option, Writer's Help does have one, so you can assign and grade the Diagnostic as well as the accompanying grammar exercises.


Measurable Learning Objectives

  • Examine results of a grammar diagnostic for areas of improvement
  • Compare diagnostic results to others’ in an open discussion forum
  • Synthesize content-meaning through dialogic writing and shared semantics


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.

Writer's Help 2.0 for Lunsford Handbooks: “Diagnostics”

The St. Martin’s Handbook: “The Top Twenty”

The Everyday Writer: Ch. 1, “The Top Twenty: A Quick Guide to Troubleshooting Your Writing”

Writing in Action: Ch. 1, “The Top Twenty: A Quick Guide to Troubleshooting Your Writing”

EasyWriter: “The Top Twenty”


Before Class: Student and Instructor Preparation
My students and I run this writing assignment during the first week of the semester as a low-stakes icebreaker and departure point for semester-long evaluation. To prepare, I embed the Writer's Help link in our class LMS as a Newsfeed item; I also email students before the first day of class with the same link and an explanation of what we are going to do.


In Class and/or Out

Students begin by posting and discussing their perceived Top 5 grammar issues in our course LMS. They then join our Writer's Help course and take the Diagnostic Pre-test. You can either have students complete the diagnostic in-class if you teach in a writing lab or have them complete the assignment on their own. I have tried both and have found better results when students work on this assignment outside of class. Since this assignment is low-stakes, I really only care about their authentic participation, however I can elicit it.


After students receive their results (immediate), they write up a comparison of their top five grammar issues versus their perceived ones, then post them, along with a reflection, in our online discussion forum. They interact with classmates in the forum, seeking out connections and discussing why these issues exist. We re/group in our face-to-face class the next week and examine interesting conclusions together. Students keep their Top Fives at-hand as they work through informal and formal writing opportunities during the semester. They also take a post-test diagnostic at the end of the semester to measure their growth in their Top 5 errors.


Anecdotal Results

This semester I have thirty students (two are non-native speakers), and the results showed many commonalities. The Top Five below represents elements of grammar reported by all students, in order of descending occurrence.

  1. Comma Usage
  2. Semicolons/apostrophes
  3. Pronouns
  4. Specific uses of Punctuation
  5. Sentence Structure/verbs

Interestingly, #3 (pronouns) was the #1 mistake in 2015, when I last measured these grammar elements for this blog. Comma usage shows up #1 this time, and was missing in 2015 altogether. Students still report issues with verbs, semicolons, and specific uses of punctuation.



Do Students Appreciate It as Much as I Do?

Every student I surveyed in an IRB-approved assessment of this assignment series reported that they learned more about their own specific grammar concerns by taking the diagnostic pre-test.  Accordingly, all of them thought their syntax-level grammar improved on the post-tests because they knew their specific concerns up-front.


Students further narrated their thoughts regarding the grammar diagnostic:

"The Grammar Diagnostics helped me better understand where my grammatical problems lay. For the most part, everything made sense in understanding why a convention that I used was incorrect and what the better one was, but some of the questions in the diagnostic seemed a little questionable. The only other thing about the Diagnostic that I didn't like so much was that it was multiple choice driven, which does not reflect the actual grammatical process of writing a research paper or other scholarly activity."


"My only concern is that I wish it included a longer pool of observation in the questions. For instance, I don't think that three questions concerning comma usage is enough evidence to prove if I am skilled or not at using them. Also, there should be extensive explanation of 'why' I answered a question wrong and what would be the correct answer and 'why' that answer would be correct. I just wish it had deeper explanations attached to each wrong answer."


"I feel they help to identify errors I've made a habit of using/not using."


"I think the Grammar Diagnostics is a great tool and should be introduced earlier in a college course. There are so many grammar 'rules' you should have learned in high school, but never do."


My Reflection
For me, low-stakes writing means “no worry” opportunities, where students can write and discuss their rhetorical concerns openly, 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 digital forums to connect with other students about the same concerns. “No Fear Gramm(r)” counts for me, in terms of multimodal composition, because it encourages students to reflect on their own writing practices and become active participants in community-driven, digital conversations about writing. Try the assignment 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

Donna Winchell

Rhetoric and Reality

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Mar 10, 2017


One of my former colleagues was angered recently when NBC Nightly News on March 1st announced its story about President Trump’s speech to the joint houses of Congress with a banner that read, “Rhetoric & Reality.” His response on Facebook: “No no no! I can’t stand this Platonic framing anymore. Rhetoric and Reality are not opposed! Rhetoric and reality are on the same side, and lying and falsehood are on the other! 


Even a basic understanding of rhetoric could have saved our country from so much turmoil. However, when those on the side of lying and falsehood understand the power of rhetoric better than the average voter, rhetoric does become the enemy of reality and truth. The fact that the average voter was often getting his or her “news” via relatively new social media led to a victory of false rhetoric over the truth of the sort that has happened in the past only when other would-be dictators realized that shaking people’s faith in standard news media gave them the power to make people believe anything.


During the election, all of us saw things that we wanted to believe. Many of us did what has to be done when a claim is put forward: we looked to see what evidence there was behind that claim and what warrants it was based on. We looked at the source and the reliability of that source. Hopefully, we did this before we hit “share.” Politicians and supporters on all sides of the issues seem to understand the willingness of the American populace to hit “share” without questioning the source or the validity of the argument far better than most of us, even those of us educated in the field of rhetoric.


What does it take to shatter that belief in a single source of “truth”? The immediate future of our country depends on our ability to find an answer to that question. Those who believe that their single source of information are not willing to hear the arguments on the other side. They may be truly ignorant, but many of them are also willing know-nothings. Their faith in their “truth” is reinforced by one good speech that stays on track and sounds presidential. They can see and hear the support for the claims they want to believe, but opposing arguments are seen as only sour grapes because the other candidate didn’t win. One of the most frightening responses is the attempt, through bizarre unconstitutional legislation, to silence opposing voices. If they feel that campaign promises are being kept, they close their eyes to the effects of carrying out those promises.


Three sources of hope: we can hope that some eyes will be opened to the truth when promises kept start to negatively impact those who wanted to believe in those promises—when the absence of illegal workers starts to affect agricultural businesses, when families lose their health care, when the next would-be shooter is able to buy a gun because there is no legal reason he can’t, in spite of his mental illness.


We can hope that some eyes will be opened to the truth when promises are not kept —when the next terrorist is homegrown and not stopped by new immigration laws, when new pipelines are not built using American steel, when jobs are not saved.


We can hope that truth will win out when there are indisputable facts proving collusion with our enemies, indisputable facts proving that power in our country can be bought and sold, indisputable facts proving that the American public has been lied to.


True, those most willing to accept false reasoning have not yet been swayed by facts. The tipping point will come when enough of those in power and enough of those who hold the power of the vote over them listen to the voice of reason, listen to rhetoric in its finest form, and stand up for it.

Credit: View from the press seats by JoshBerglund19 on Flickr, used under a CC 2.0 License 




I’m a bit behind on my journal reading, but I finally got around to the December 2016 issue of CCC. It’s a good issue—with Joyce Carter’s powerful 2016 CCCC Chair’s address on “Making, Disrupting, Innovating”—but one article especially stood out to me: Jerry Won Lee and Christopher Jenks’s “Doing Translingual Dispositions.” This essay builds on Horner, Lu, Royster, and Trimbur’s “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach” (College English, 2011, 303-21), which defines translingual disposition as one distinguished by “a general openness toward language and language differences.” Lee and Jenks go on to say


This disposition allows individuals to move beyond preconceived, limited notions of standardness and correctness, and it therefore facilitates interactions involving different Englishes. Considering the historical marginalization of ‘nonstandard’ varieties and dialects of English in various social and institutional contexts, translingual dispositions are essential for all users of English in a globalized society, regardless of whether they are ‘native’ or ‘nonnative’ speakers of English. (319)


I see the lively conversation around translingualism as one very positive outgrowth of the work done forty-five years ago by the group of scholars working on "Students’ Right to Their Own Language," first as a resolution and later as an NCTE publication, with full documentation. It’s worth remembering this resolution, voted on in 1972:


We affirm the students' right to their own patterns and varieties of language -- the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.


The last sentence in the resolution touches on what I have always thought of as “attitude,” that is, the attitude of teachers of
English toward varieties of English as well as toward other languages. Often it’s easier to pass a resolution (though this one was vehemently opposed by some members at the time) than it is to change attitudes. And in spite of this resolution and the research and scholarship that supported it, attitudes changed slowly: teachers of writing could and did talk the talk but didn’t yet come close to walking the walk. But we kept working at it: I can remember taking a cold, hard look at my syllabi, at the readings I chose, at my assignments, and noting the many many ways that attitudes regarding “proper” English were there inscribed. So I kept trying to make what I felt were my attitudes toward language variety (all upbeat and favorable) show forth more clearly in my classroom. And roughly twenty years ago, I wrote a new chapter for one of my reference books, on “Varieties of Language,” the first such chapter to appear in a composition handbook and one that argued for the validity of all varieties of English and of all languages.


So I’ve been thinking about these issues for most of my professional life, and I am encouraged by recent developments to recognize and nurture “translingual dispositions.” What I especially like about Lee and Jenks’s essay is that they see clearly that our field hasn’t yet worked out a strong pedagogy for teaching translingual dispositions, much less for teaching what Suresh Canagarajah and others call code meshing. But they persist in paving the way for such a pedagogy, showing that “even students who can be considered monolingual in the most traditional sense of the term have the capacities to develop translingual competence and do translingual disposition” by sharing research that demonstrates some students beginning to make the move toward such new dispositions.


Lee and Jenks are also clear-sighted about the role that teachers of writing must play in developing such dispositions: it won’t be enough for us to embrace this concept intellectually. Rather, as their title suggests, we have to DO translingual dispositions. I’d say that nearly fifty years on from the Students’ Right resolution, it’s time we take that step. And thanks to Lee and Jenks for moving us in the right direction.


Credit: Pixaby Image 705667 by wilhei, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

One common response to the semiotic study of such popular media as film, television, and music is that "it's only entertainment."  If you use popular culture as a thematic topic in your composition classes, then you may have encountered something of the sort, which is why the general introduction to Signs of Life in the USA carefully describes the historical process by which America became an "entertainment culture," and why that means that entertainment in America is always meaningful.


And if anyone still wants to object that entertainment is only entertainment, I give you the 2017 Oscar Awards ceremony.


No, I'm not referring to the mistaken best-picture-announcement-heard-round- the-world (how could they have just stood around waiting for the poor producers of La La Land to complete their victory speeches before breaking in with the correct envelope?!); I'm referring to the expectation that, like the Golden Globes, the ceremony was going to be another skirmish in the ongoing war between Hollywood and Donald Trump.  And that expectation, largely due to the opening monologue by Jimmy Kimmel, was not disappointed.


With Kimmel openly taunting the president (indeed, daring him to live-tweet the event), one doesn't need to go through every joke to get the point.  Which is, that with Saturday Night Live taking the lead with regularly scheduled take-downs (and enjoying a "ratings roll" ever since the election), and major awards ceremonies becoming platforms for presidential critique, the entertainment industry is emerging as the foremost institution of political opposition in the country.  I don't think that I am exaggerating: how often do we hear anything like it from the opposition party in the Senate and the House?


But if the entertainment industry has successfully taken up the cudgels against the Trump administration, will that action be successful itself?  Here's where things get tricky.  There is a lyric from a Tom Lehrer tune spoofing the folk-song-led 1960s protest movement called "The Folk Song Army," which goes like this:


Remember the war against Franco?
That's the kind where each of us belongs.
Though he may have won all the battles,
We had all the good songs.


There is no question that the entertainment industry has all of the good jokes (and speeches) when it comes to the anti-Trump resistance, but given that Trump's support comes from people who view Hollywood as a lot of out-of-touch elites, these jokes may only prompt them to dig in their heels (or "double down," as everyone seems to insist on saying these days) when it comes to their support for the president.  Indeed, a Washington Post report suggests that just this is happening, as 53% of those polled in a recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal national poll believe that "[T]he news media and other elites are exaggerating the problems with the Trump administration."   And "other elites," in American discourse, always include Hollywood.


Still, there is also the fact that entertainment is what Americans heed.  Donald Trump himself (as one of the new selections for the upcoming 9th edition of Signs of Life in the USA points out) used reality television as a springboard to the White House.  So perhaps the entertainment industry may indeed prove to be the most effective warrior in the anti-Trump opposition. 


This takes us back to our original premise: in America, entertainment matters.  A lot.  And that's why we teach popular cultural semiotics.


I suppose many of us are grappling with the significant changes to MLA citation in the organization’s eighth handbook.  I know I am.


Change happens, particularly as our technologies of publication continue to evolve rapidly in a digital age.  That’s one of the reasons that increasingly I don’t teach the mechanics of citation per se, but instead a meta approach to citing sources.  I tell my students that there are only 4 things they need to know about citation.


  1.         It exists.
    The most critical thing to know about citation is that it exists. That means that writers are responsible for acknowledging there sources.

  2.         If it’s not absolutely right, it’s wrong.
    Every little bit of a citation is critical, since these systems are designed to accurately document sources used. Getting citations perfectly correct is essential to the integrity of the work.

  3.        Know what you’re citing.
    I spend time talking about the kinds of sources that could be cited, as students often don’t know the differences between an anthology, an edited collection, a book, a journal article, a website, and more. Before any source can be cited, it’s important to know the kind of source it is.

  4.         Know how to find the answer.
    This step is crucial since it encourages a kind of meta-literacy. Citation systems change all the time, so making sure students learn the eighth edition MLA formatting is of limited use.  What’s more, only a fraction of the students in my courses will move into disciplines that use MLA.  It’s not at all important that they master the intricacies of MLA, but it is assuredly important that they master sets of tools that will help them find the correct answer.  In class, we discuss the range of tools they might use: a good handbook, a reliable web resource (including ones provided by our school’s library), and a spectrum of software tools that will help them construct a citation.


Encouraging citation literacy is my solution to the ever-changing nature of all citation systems.  I know that, personally, I often have to research and review how to do citations of even the most basic sources.  I share the strategies I use in the hopes that students will adopt similar ones.