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OK, so here we are just a couple of weeks into the Trump administration and facing a barrage of misinformation, lies, distortions, and “alternative facts.” So much so that two professors at the University of Washington are mounting a new course on “Calling Bullshit” (see “The Fine Art of Sniffing Out Crappy Science”); legal experts are showing how a ban on people from seven countries is a deceptive, sleight-of-hand-way of instituting a Muslim Ban; and teachers of writing across the nation are struggling to help students distinguish between facts and lies, which is easier said than done given the power of manipulation and misrepresentation at work.

Detective Researching 

In an interview with Robert Manning after he won the Nobel Prize in 1954, Ernest Hemingway said “Every man [and woman] should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside. It should also have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.” Today, every single citizen needs one, or more than one! Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, the University of Washington professors, offer a cogent definition of such crap, or what they term “bullshit”: “language, statistical figures, graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.” As this definition suggests, Bergstrom and West are particularly interested in the use of statistics and visual representation of data to misinform or confuse, in essence to say “look, here are the statistics, and we ran the latest machine-learning algorithm on it, and here’s a fancy data visualization” to put up a smokescreen. Such deception can certainly be delivered  verbally, they say, but “more and more we see it done quantitatively with figures, data graphics, and with appeal to algorithms that generate results but which no one can understand.” Purposefully. 


With the help of Edward Tufte, writing teachers have gotten considerably more sophisticated about analyzing the visual representation of data and helping students see that “big data” can often obscure rather than reveal valid claims and that there is more than a little truth in Mark Twain’s suggestion (which he attributed to Benjamin Disraeli) that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But today, we need to work harder than ever to help students read between the lines (or words or graphs) and to challenge “facts” that are presented without any evidence or proof to back them up. More specifically, we must provide students with opportunities to practice:

 

  • Being skeptical—check the author, check the publisher, check the sources: how reliable are they?
  • Looking for unstated assumptions behind claims—and questioning them.
  • Distinguishing between facts, which have verifiable support, and claims, which may or may not be completely empty
  • Learning to triangulate—never take single source as sufficient for belief
  • Becoming fact checkers themselves. Of course, they can start this process by becoming familiar with non-partisan political fact checkers like Politifact, Factcheckers.org, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, the Sunlight Foundation, and Snopes.com.

 

These sources can certainly help our students get started, but as Hemingway reminds us, we need to build our own “crap detectors” and keep them running at all times.

 

Credit: Pixaby Image 1424831 by GraphicMama, used under a CC0 Public Domain License

Jack Solomon

It's Only a Game...Not

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Feb 16, 2017

For the pure fan of the game, Super Bowl LI was the stuff of sports history: a young, fast team finally losing out to a seasoned veteran who knew exactly what to do when the chips were down.  I mean the whole thing had "TV Movie" written all over it, and one could almost imagine the ghost of Gary Cooper rising from the grave to reprise Will Kane as Tom Brady, coolly gunning down the pass defense and striding to an impossible victory.

 

Except that it is impossible to be a pure fan of any games in America anymore, not when everything has become a symbol of the bedrock contentiousness that is dividing the country.  Today, everyone is a semiotician, and rightly so.

 

We can start with the teams themselves.  By some freakish chance of history, both the coach and the star quarterback of the New England Patriots just happen to be fans of the newly elected President of the United States, which unavoidably turned the contest into a kind of allegory of the election.  Then there was the equally freakish coincidence that Melissa McCarthy's Kia ad, which had been filmed well before the game, emerged as Super Bowl LI's most popular commercial, scarcely twenty-four hours after McCarthy's devastating takedown of presidential press secretary Sean Spicer on SNL.  So, score one for the president, one for the opposition.

 

The whole night was like that.  Days before the game itself, for example, there was the controversy over the Anheuser-Busch origin-story ad, with a lot of Trump fans objecting that it was pro-immigration propaganda.  But such objections generally missed the most important signifier in the ad's sepia-toned narrative: the instantaneous glimpse we are afforded of the young Aldophus Busch's immigration papers being stamped.  That detail crucially distinguished the Anheuser-Busch immigration narrative from the 84 Lumber commercial, whose anti-Trump, pro-immigration symbolism was, by contrast, quite explicit—so much so that the ad was quite literally censored prior to its broadcast.

 

But the fact that the Anheuser-Busch commercial, as tradition-minded as it was, did attract controversy is a sign of just how fraught the situation is in America today.  While the company has claimed that it had no intention of getting tangled up in the heated national debate over immigration and was only telling its own story, the reaction shows that that was never really possible.  Though the ad's narrative referenced all of the classic elements of the nineteenth-century immigrant experience—complete with sea voyage and arrival at Ellis Island—it could not possibly escape its twenty-first century context.  Trying to have things both ways, the commercial combined conventional Statue of Liberty style nostalgia with sympathy for contemporary immigrants who face nativist hostility —as we can see signified in the street scene where the young Busch is angrily told to "go back home."  Indeed, to make certain that we see the folks at Anheuser-Busch as being on the side of social progress, the ad's creators even threw in a glancing river boatshot of young Busch nodding in a comradely sort of way to a black slave (this was 1857, after all, on the Mississippi River).  But to no avail: threats of Anheuser-Busch boycotts (read the comments section on YouTube), demonstrate that you can't have it both ways in America when it comes to immigration.

 

So, semiotically speaking, Super Bowl LI was a giant symbol, a grab-bag of signifiers all pointing to the same dismal message.  When the most successful quarterback in the history of the game becomes a Donald Trump surrogate, and the ads become a battleground over national immigration policy, you know that nothing can be simply what it is in American popular culture any longer.  This may be good for semioticians; it isn't good for the country.

 

As I write this post, a series of presidential directives have already touched on the always-sensitive areas of abortion and reproductive rights.  This is something I don’t usually teach because it is so charged and so polarized, but I am not sure it’s something I can continue to avoid.  I’m wondering if and how others have broached the topic in the writing classroom.

 

My avoidance of the topic is manifold.  For starters, I find that it’s the kind of topic that fosters debate rather than discussion, and the kind of debate that allows for only two sides with no middle ground.  It’s that lack of middle ground, of subtlety and complexity, that most concerns me since it also suggests it’s the kind of topic that’s extra challenging for students to think about critically, as they have collapsed an enormous issues into a singular stance they all too often are unwilling to examine.

 

The political and religious dimensions are tricky, too, though not in themselves reasons for me to avoid the topic.  Ultimately, it’s the difficulty of getting students to think about the issue that has historically prevented me from bringing into the classroom.

 

But perhaps I have been wrong along.  What strategies do you use to discuss abortion or reproductive rights in the classroom?  How do you keep it from being a divisive and polarizing issue?

In my last post Writing about Writing in the Community College: Another Classroom Perspective, I described how I am implementing a writing-about-writing (WAW) approach to first-year composition in a community college.  This week, I’d like to continue that discussion with a look at the workshop assignments I use in my course.

 

In the first four weeks of the semester, my students read articles by Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle, David Jolliffe and Allison Harl, Cheryl Hogue Smith, Rebecca Moore Howard and colleagues from the Citation Project, and several others. We spend time in class examining how these pieces are structured and how the authors have used their sources.

 

To help students practice summarizing, selecting, and integrating sources, I have them do a series of what I call “workshop assignments,” beginning in the third week of class. These assignments are not high-stakes; students earn points for participation and completion, regardless of the ultimate quality of the work. My goal is hands-on practice in working with sources in writing, and specifically, in building a coherent literature review that characterizes an on-going scholarly conversation and ultimately invites the student to join that conversation.

 

I generally start with a question for the first part of the workshop. Depending on what we have read, for example, I might ask the students to explain what academic discourse is (and whether it exists in some universal form), or I might ask them to characterize a “novice” reader or writer. The students must answer the question in a 1-2 page Google Doc, using at least two of the articles we have read as background before introducing their own opinions. In the following class, we look as a group at a couple of samples from previous semesters, noting how writers introduce sources and provide context; we focus on developing a conscious sense of our readers when we are working with complicated source material.

 

The students then share their work with others in their groups (usually 3 or 4 other students). They use the commenting feature in Google Docs to ask questions, make suggestions, and respond to the writer’s work. Student comments generally vary: some address the mechanics of citation, while others ask questions to elicit more explanation or clarification from the authors.

 

I then ask students to revise the piece at home, taking into consideration what their classmates have said. But I also ask them to bring a classmate’s voice into their revision, connecting something they read in a classmate’s paper to their own analysis as a way of expanding it. The students must summarize, quote, or paraphrase another student in their revision, with an appropriate citation.

 

At this point, many students ask for my input on their work. Many of them resist taking peer reviewers’ comments seriously, and some even say that they don’t want to change anything until they know what I think—but I don’t respond at this point.

Once students have revised their pieces at home, I make general comments on their work, responding both to the writers and to the peer reviewers, but I try to avoid evaluation. Instead, I focus on highlighting strengths, asking questions, and offering citations that might help students evaluate their own work more effectively.

 

At this point, we will have been working on this single piece of writing for nearly two weeks. For the next workshop assignment, I ask the students to expand this piece to include at least one additional source from our classroom reading as well as some kind of additional data (something I share from my own research, data from published research, or from a simple survey in the classroom).  The expanded piece is reviewed once again by peer groups, revised, and then submitted for a grade.  Students who have worked through the process earn full credit for two workshops. More importantly, they have experience to draw from when they begin writing their own literature reviews a week or so later.

 

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

I have been thinking a lot lately about the work community partnerships can do in classrooms and in communities. And I’ve been trying to understand if there are common frameworks and outcomes that exist across my experiences over the past twenty years. Somewhat to my own surprise, I’m increasingly thinking that much of my work has really been occurring within the context of Writing Across the Curriculum.

 

It is well known that community partnerships in Composition Studies exist within in a wide network of sites, such as schools, issue-based organizations, and community groups; they occur in resource-poor and research-rich environments; and they cross diverse heritages and national borders. Most importantly, each type of partnership produces writing that is public, powerful, and productive for all those involved – students and community participants.

 

As I reflect back, I have come to realize that such partnerships can also take place beyond the composition classroom, moving outwards across departments and across colleges. When they do so, they can begin to show how core concepts associated with effective writing – concepts of audience, genre, and style – can be an inherent part of any college classroom. I’ve come to understand how such partnerships can provide students with an opportunity to consistently consider how academic writing across their coursework can be linked to important work in the community. In a sense, partnership work can produce a metacognitive sense of writing that moves not only across coursework but across the college and the community.

 

As such, partnerships can also provide a common nodal point among diverse faculty to consider their work not only as disciplinary experts but also as writing teachers and community members.

 

Case in Point: For the past decade, I have been working with a colleague in Anthropology. Our initial reason to get together was to discuss whether I might be able to help publish some oral histories of Syracuse community activists. That idea ultimately fell through. What continued was a discussion of how the process of having students engage in community oral history and publishing projects allowed them to gain a deeper understanding not only of writing in each of our respective classes, but also of how to imagine themselves as authors across different disciplinary classes and local communities.

 

At one point, we actually tested this “thesis” by creating a set of community projects focused on immigration, gentrification, and Native American Rights. We would bring these projects into our classrooms, then discuss whether the need to respond to public contexts had given our students a sense of writing that transferred beyond the disciplinary conversations of our courses. (It should be noted that this work has led, and continues to lead, to conversations on whether he is really a Composition scholar or whether I am really an Anthropologist.) And out of this series of conversations and initiatives, we built a community engagement fellowship program for undergraduates, which drew together students across the college and university to focus on one specific community project. (That broad narrative of this work is discussed in “Sinners Welcome: The Limits of Rhetorical Agency,” College English, vol. 76, no. 4, July 2014.)

 

Ultimately, over the past decade, I have worked and planned classes with scholars in Religion, Education, Communication, and Visual Arts. Partnership work has also allowed me to connect with scholars in Geography, Women’s Studies, International Relations, Urban Education, and Philosophy, to name a few. While my colleagues and I have never done a study on how these floating conversations or consistent set of commitments to partnership work has altered our sense as teachers, I think we would all agree that the nature of projects – the inherent demand for writing, research, and analysis that emerges from a discipline and moves across classes toward a community – has enriched our pedagogies and assignments. And not for nothing, this latent writing across the curriculum work has certainly enriched my professional life.

 

What I have ultimately come to reflect upon is how the possibility of collaboration that partnership work provides across the curriculum is particularly important at this current moment. I’ve been saying this a lot recently, but in a “post-fact” media landscape, we need to provide students with consistent opportunities to understand how strong research and writing (across disciplines) is vital for effective change to occur.  Within that context, perhaps partnerships across the curriculum can also show students the power of different insights coming together through writing as an important tool in the pursuit of a more just world.

Traci Gardner

Infographics as Readings

Posted by Traci Gardner Expert Feb 14, 2017

Detail from Communicating in the Modern Workplace: How Millennials and their Managers CompareI believe that students’ reading styles have changed. There is still a place for textbook chapters and journal articles, but students have become accustomed to short, fast-paced texts like Tweets, Tumblr posts, and YouTube videos. They’re more likely to share a pin on Pinterest or a gif on Imgur than recommend a textbook reading.

 

Given the chance, students can easily apply these literacy skills in class, and that is why I have been assigning relevant infographics this term as part of the course readings. The first week in my business writing classes and my technical writing classes I asked students to consider the following infographics, which present details about writing in the workplace:

 

 

After reviewing the infographics, students considered whether they agreed with the ideas, how believable the research behind the infographics is, and what information they might add to improve them. The result was a vibrant conversation on our Slack site. Rather than generalizing about the readings, students pointed to specific claims that the infographics made and addressed them from personal and professional perspectives. The infographics seemed to add something to the class dynamic that traditional readings didn’t always provide.

 

My guess is that the readings were successful because they were short and direct. Students didn’t need to search around for the important tidbits. Everything was clear and obvious. Further, the visual aspects of the infographics allowed them to communicate with words and images. The detail shown above, for instance, not only states “nearly 3 in 4 employers rate teamwork and collaboration as ‘very important’” but also illustrates that idea by graying out one of the human icons shown. Whatever the reason, the infographics worked, so I have continued to include at least one infographic each week along with the other readings.

 

Some days I daydream about creating an infographic-driven text for these classes, but I am not arguing that infographics should completely replace more traditional readings in the classroom. There’s room for both. What do you think? How would you incorporate more visual texts, like infographics, in your writing classes? Please leave me a comment with your ideas.

 

 

Credit: Detail from Communicating in the Modern Workplace: How Millennials and their Managers Compare

The setting: The Cave: a face-to-face classroom on a cool and cloudy desert southwest winter morning.

 

The text: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (previously described in First-Day Activity: What Is Truth?)

 

The task: Teaching integrated reading and writing through appeal to pathos: how and why “Allegory” creates persuasive language through emotional appeal.

 

The questions: What emotions does the text evoke? What does the writer hope the audience will think and do as a result of evoking those emotions? In other words, what is the writer’s purpose for evoking the writer’s emotions?

 

The problem: The lesson that you have beautifully planned is going nowhere. You have not successfully appealed to your own audience (the students) and you definitely have not evoked any emotions.

 

The process: As you stand before your students, you explore the recesses of your brain, much as a word processor searches for a file buried deep in the hard drive or the cloud. You remember that one of the most important skills for teaching basic writing is flexibility. That is, learning to reframe a lesson to address students’ immediate needs.

 

The emergence from the Cave: With your students, you will co-create an activity called “Plato Theatre,” an approach that will demonstrate the significance of integrated reading and writing.

 

Steps for Plato Theatre:

  1. Select a short passage for analysis. Copy and paste the passage into a Google Doc.
  2. Ask for student volunteers to come to the front of the class.
  3. Read the passage aloud. Invite students in the audience to stop you when they encounter descriptive language (phrases or whole sentences) that evokes emotion (appeal to pathos). One example of emotional persuasive language is “he will suffer sharp pains” (Plato).
  4. Ask the students in the audience what emotions Plato evokes with this language. You and the student volunteers act out those emotions - the more dramatic, the better.
  5. Invite students in the audience to discuss Plato’s purpose for evoking those emotions. In other words, what does Plato hope the audience will think or do as a result of this emotional appeal?
  6. In the Google Doc, highlight the language that the students selected. Then, summarize the students’ thoughts (from 3-4 above) in a comment for each highlighted phrase. (See screenshots for finished project).
  7. After Plato Theatre ends, have students write anonymous feedback that comments on the lesson. What did students learn? What questions, comments, or confusions do students still have?
  8. The next week, in group conferences, refer to Plato Theatre as a reminder of the differences between analysis and summary. The embodied and performative aspects of the lesson, as well as the Google Doc, can serve as kinesthetic and visual catalysts for integrated reading and writing.

 

Creativity: Creativity also plays a role in Plato Theatre. Students have an opportunity to act out and give voice to complicated emotions as a means of critically thinking outside the box. The text literally jumps from the page to demonstrate the innovations of emotional appeal, and students take part in multimodal work to arrive at deeper understandings of how and why language works to create meaning.


Truth: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave offers an example of truth that disrupts the contemporary model of “alternative truth.” Even as they leave the Cave, the prisoners emerge into a sunlit world that allows space to grapple with shadow and illusion.

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

  

I have always viewed teaching as a journey in which we travel along and pick up new ideas and practices along the way. Through every class, student, and experience we are offered the potential to see teaching as a dynamic, ever changing landscape. Although we operate in the present, reflective practitioners are always looking to the horizon for new opportunities for growth. Like physical travel, each time we return to a location we do both things familiar and try new things with each additional visit.

 

This creative perspective towards curriculum design and multimodal teaching offers countless ways to revise and extend assignments when we return to them each term. Not only has the rhetorical context changed, but there are many new digital choices that were unavailable the last time we ran the assignment. Sometimes we make large curriculum overhauls while other times we modify or extend existing assignments. I have always viewed curriculum design as a creative and evolving process in which research, theory, and practice are intertwined—and improved—through reflection.

 

That was then . . . As an example of this kind of recursive pedagogy, I go back to an earlier assignment and post to this blog, Kairotic Moments and Historical Perspectives, in which I asked students to analyze the rhetorical and historical progression of a product or industry. For this project, they used text and image (sample historical ad artifacts) and analyzed their rhetorical progression. Along with teaching them rhetorical analysis, this assignment involves students in the habits and practices of multimodal composers such as embedded links, visual rhetoric, and ethical citation practices. It was a good assignment.

 

This is now . . . Flash forward to this semester. Different classroom, different students, different cultural context. I liked the assignment originally but I was looking for ways to extend it and include another multimodal component to stretch student skills and digital rhetorical strategies. I was also thinking about how I would like each of the assignments in this digital writing class to include both an academic analysis in which students read and respond to outside sources and hands-on digital projects of their own creation.

 

The extension involves a new activity that asks students to create a digital slideshow/video in which they draw from their research and written work to show the evolution of their product along with their perspectives and analysis. They had to take the elements from their electronic text (Part 1) and communicate the same content and meaning through a different medium—adding motion and sound along with visuals and associated text. I also added an expanded list of rhetorical lenses to help deepen their analysis. This digital slideshow/video is embedded in their blog and is designed to act in tandem with the written post.

 

The Assignment: Digital Analysis of a Product or Industry

Here is the re-write of the steps to the assignment that now has Part 1 (Analysis) and Part 2 (Production).

 

Part 1: Rhetorical Analysis: This part of this assignment asks you to use rhetorical terms and lenses to compose a digital analysis of the history and progression of a product or industry that is represented through advertising artifacts – print or video.

  • Conduct an image search to find early, middle, and current examples of visual rhetoric (in the form of advertisements) that speak to the product or industry.
  • Analyze the rhetorical situation (purpose, audience, subject and kairos (context)) you associate with these artifacts. Refer to Sean Morey’s The Digital Writer to define and apply the following rhetorical terms and concepts (summarized in the chart below).
  • Describe, in your post, the progression and the ways that these artifacts are connected to the cultures and contexts from which they arose.
  • Include embedded links that provide additional information and select multimodal artifacts for visual reference (See Kairos post for full assignment and examples).
  • Pay attention to ethical citation practices and include links and references to your sources.

 

Rhetorical Situation

Rhetorical Appeals

Ideologies

Purpose/Intentions

Audience

Subject

Context

Ethos

Pathos

Logos

Kairos

Beliefs and Values

Expectations

Experiences

Message

Argument

Visual Rhetoric

Digital Rhetoric

Claims

Reasons

Evidence

Design (color, typeface, layout)

Medium

Genre

 

Part 2:  Create a Digital Slideshow: This second part of the assignment asks you to use the research and ideas from your written post to communicate your ideas through a different medium. Using your found images and ideas from Part 1, create a 2-minute, self-advancing digital slideshow or video—a digital story, a visual narrative—in which you combine text, image, and sound (music, narration).

 

The challenge is to represent the progression of your product along with selected ideas to communicate your distinct meaning/analysis. It is not enough to edit the images together; your project should communicate a deeper meaning that speaks to your rhetorical analysis and distinct perspective. Give your show an engaging title and include your references at the end. Leave your audience with something to contemplate. You can use whatever programs you like. Embed this slideshow in your blogpost along with purposeful context and a caption to guide your audience.

 

Reflections on the Activity

This activity shows students that multimodal composition is generative and has the potential to triangulate meaning through presenting similar ideas in different forms. It helps them move through different digital genres and emphasizes their ability to shift through varied rhetorical contexts. It teaches habits of mind such as selection and summary and visual thinking. It also, combined with Part 1, teaches ethical citation practices across these digital projects.

 

Student Examples

I have included some examples of student projects (an industry and a particular product) from their blogs that include the embedded links for the digital videos. Enjoy.

 

Alex’s analysis focuses on the rhetoric of advertisements from the Pharmaceutical Industry (left).Mia’s analysis focuses on a particular product, and reviews the evolution of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes (right).

 

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 at khaimesk@kennesaw.edu or visit her website Acts of Composition.

 

 

Donna Winchell

The Rhetoric of Protest

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Feb 10, 2017

Three people, three signs:

“I’m the autistic kid, and I’m scared.”

“I’m the neuro-typical brother, and I’m scared.”

“I’m the mother, and I’m scared.”

 

No, the participants in the Women’s March on Washington in January were not just whiners who were upset that Hillary didn’t win. They weren’t just a group of angry women holding vulgar signs. Okay, there were a lot of angry women, and there were vulgar signs, but those holding them would argue that they were merely responding to candidate Trump’s own language: “This p*ssy grabs back.” “Keep your laws off my [silhouette of cat.]” “Just say NO to the Groper in Chief.” “Thou shalt not mess with women’s rights. Fallopians 20:17.” And in the vein of Dr. Seuss:  “I do not like u down my shirt. I do not like u up my skirt. I do not like you near my rump.  I do not like you, Mr. Trump.” Okay, angry AND creative.

 

Future generations will need a good bit of context to understand some of the signs and some of the sentiments: “If only my uterus shot bullets, it wouldn’t need regulation.” “I thought we resolved this sh*t in the ‘70’s.” “Trump, urine over your head.”  We’ll let this generation’s kids grow up before we try to explain that last one.

 

Many of the signs were a response to the ethos of Donald Trump, his ethics or lack thereof. What sort of person had, the day before, been inaugurated? What sort of people were the marchers? How did their rhetoric reveal that? How did their actions? In Arkansas, marchers were attacked online for their violence because a bus carrying four Arkansas high school students, among others in town for the inauguration, was attacked by protestors and had its windshield broken. Some who commented on the story said that marchers should be arrested. One said that they should be shot and left dead in the street. The story and the time stamp on the video capturing the incident made clear that the episode took place several hours after the march was over. No protestors were arrested. With this one exception, none were violent.

 

The rhetoric of the march had a lot to do with anger, but it also had a lot to do with fear. Arguments are based on fact and hard data, but they also appeal to people’s needs and values. A friend commented on Facebook that people who had not lost any rights had no reason to protest. People who feel their rights are in jeopardy do. That was the major focus of many of the arguments summed up on signs at the march:  We are afraid of losing our healthcare.  We are afraid of the effects of climate change. We are afraid of losing ground. We are afraid of being discriminated against because we are women, black, transgender, gay, Mexican, Muslim, disabled. Thus the trio of signs with which I began.

 

 The march had a mission statement:

“In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.

 

President Trump’s response, characteristically, was a tweet: “Why didn’t these people vote?”

 

In large part, they did. Some voted for him. If they didn’t vote in 2016, it’s a good bet they will in 2018.

 

Photo Credit: Donna Winchell

Jack Solomon

The MTM Effect

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Feb 9, 2017

The outpouring of affection upon the recent death of Mary Tyler Moore is not only a tribute to a popular television icon, but it also draws attention to the series that made her more than just another TV star: The Mary Tyler Moore Show—a program that offers teachers of popular cultural semiotics an unusually rich topic for analysis.

 

As always, we can begin such an analysis with an identification of the particular system with which The Mary Tyler Moore Show can be associated.  This system is the television genre we call the "situation comedy," but the moment we identify that system a rather glaring difference appears when we compare The Mary Tyler Moore Show with the prominent sitcoms that preceded it, including, of course, The Dick Van Dyke Show. This difference is the key to the whole analysis.

 

The MTM difference, and its significance, is obvious: The Dick Van Dyke Show, along with such iconic family sitcoms as Father Knows Best, Leave it To Beaver, and My Three Sons, were fundamentally patriarchal television series devoted to the presentation of a certain ideological vision of the American family.  As feminist scholars of popular culture have long since pointed out, the family sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s functioned to persuade American women that the non-domestic roles they were allowed to play during the Second World War were only temporary and "unnatural."  Rosie the Riveter, as it were, had to be shown that her real happiness lay in a middle-class suburban home, taking care of the house and the children for her bread-winning husband.  It was all, as Antonio Gramsci might have put it, a gigantic act of cultural hegemony.

 

This is why it was such a very big deal when Laura Petrie reappeared—only four years after the conclusion of The Dick Van Dyke Show—as Mary Richards, a single professional living an independent life in the big city.  Pioneering what could be called "the mainstreaming of the women's movement," The Mary Tyler Moore Show (its very name, as an inverse image to The Dick Van Dyke Show, was significant) marked the moment in which sneering at feminists began to cease to be the default position in American popular culture.

 

But The Mary Tyler Moore Show does not only signify a crucial moment in the history of the women's movement; it also helped open the door to such other socially conscious sitcoms as All in the Family, and, perhaps more significantly (if far less remembered), Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.  For while All in the Family brought racial and cultural conflict into America's living rooms, it remained, at base, a sitcom.  Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, on the other hand, could really be called the first dramedy, its mixture of soap opera with satire offering a not-so-funny exploration of the crumbling edifice of married domesticity.

Like The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (a 1980s proto-dramedy that also explored the darker side of women's lives in a more or less comic setting), Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman didn't last very long, but it helped pave the way for Desperate Housewives, Orange is the New Black, and every other contemporary TV series that blends bitter humor with socially conscious drama. 

 

I do not think it is an accident that the dramedy is, more often than not, a woman-centered television drama.  The most popular sitcom on TV today—The Big Bang Theory (actually, it is simply the most popular show on TV today)—is a strikingly masculine series, and it has no dramedic echoes whatsoever, nor any particular social significance beyond the way it signals the new popular cultural prestige of science and technology (I think of The Big Bang Theory as Seinfeld-meets-Friends-meets-Flubber).  It's very funny, but it isn't game-changing. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was game changing, and a lot of contemporary television is playing by its rules.

 

Thirty-four years ago, Lisa Ede and I published a brief essay in Rhetoric Review called “Why Write . . . Together.” In response to that question, we offered a number of strong reasons for writing collaboratively, including the ability to mount larger research projects and answer more complex questions. And we embarked on a research study of collaborative writing across seven fields, which we reported on in a number of articles and a book, Singular Texts / Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing (1990, SIUP).

 

Our persistent calls for collaborative writing and our insistence that most work in the academy is done collaboratively, whether we recognize it or not, fell on many deaf ears—until the digital revolution made it abundantly clear that collaboration is the new normal, with Wikipedia being one prime example. In addition, the research I did for the longitudinal Stanford Study of Writing showed that our students are happily collaborating on everything imaginable outside of class—and that they are increasingly collaborating on course assignments as well. And of course, scholars in STEM disciplines have been collaborating on their work, almost by definition. Perhaps, we thought, the tide has turned.

 

But maybe not, as evidenced by a recent report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which asks “Is Collaboration Worth It?” in regard to a panel at the 131st meeting of the American Historical Association. This report suggests that the tide has not yet turned in the Humanities, where the single-authored monograph is still the gold standard and the sine qua non for tenure and promotion.

 

    A panel here Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association explored the pros and cons of co-authorship in what some argued should be a particularly collaborative field (uncovering and interpreting the past is not a one-person job), but isn’t. Asked to answer the session’s titular question – “Is Collaboration Worth It?” – panelists offered a lukewarm but hopeful consensus: it may not count, but it is, in some sense, worthwhile.
   By “crass” accounting, collaboration is “absolutely not” worth it, said Ben Wright, an assistant professor of historical studies at the University of Texas at Dallas who helps lead a free, online, collaboratively built American history textbook effort called American Yawp. Though the project takes up much of Wright’s time, it will nevertheless be an ancillary piece of his tenure file, he said. “I’m not going to hinge my career on this project.”

 

The encouraging note in this article is that the young scholars quoted all recognize the importance of collaboration for their own intellectual and personal and professional growth, even when it is not recognized by their departments. So I continue to hope that as these scholars mature they will begin to change the tenure and promotion policies in their department. But such change is amazingly slow: 35 years is a long time to have made so little progress!

 

In the meantime, I see a special opportunity, and an obligation, for writing teachers not only to provide assignments that call for meaningful collaboration and collaborative writing but also to introduce students to the very large body of research that supports the efficacy of such practices. It is a commonplace now for employers, from Main Street to Wall Street to Silicon Valley, to hire those who are good collaborators, good members of teams. And writing teachers know that good members of teams are not “yes” people, but rather those who look at problems from every angle, arguing out all possibilities and listening to varying viewpoints, and who know when and how to compromise without forgoing sound principles. These are abilities that teachers of writing know how to develop in students, just as we know how to create assignments that call for these abilities and that engage students in co-authorship.

 

So I’m encouraged that we teach students who will become history majors—and many other majors as well. We have an opportunity to send then into their majors with a strong understanding of the need for collaboration—and the knowledge of how to work and write collaboratively. Those are gifts that I hope will keep on giving and that will eventually lead to the kind of change that will make the question “Is collaboration worth it?” not even worth asking.

 

Image from PIXELS with CC0 License

How do you balance the need for students to offer anonymous feedback on courses with the need to protect faculty from hate speech?

 

One of my colleagues in English received some extremely disturbing comments on his course evaluations for one of his classes this past fall.  Here at Florida Atlantic University, as at many schools, I imagine, students complete these evaluations anonymously in order to protect them from any possible grade reprisals; the evaluations are also only released the next semester once all the grades are in and done.  Just recently, we’ve also moved to online evaluations, an uneasy transition, but one which makes it even easier for students to offer feedback unconnected to anything recognizable like handwriting.

 

We don’t have any specific policies regarding hate speech, though the Student Code of Conduct does prohibit “Acts of verbal, written (including electronic communications) or physical abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment, coercion or other conduct which threaten the health, safety or welfare of any person.”  We also have an Anti-Harassment regulation.  The comments on the course evaluation clearly violated both.

 

The matter has been referred to Student Affairs for review and investigation.  I don’t know that they are able to identify the student who made the comments.  I don’t know if they should be able to.

 

I’m wondering if anyone out there has dealt with something similar.  If so, what happened and what was the result?

While I am a fierce advocate for revision in all my classes, showing students over and over again how much good, strong revision can improve their writing—can even make it “sing”—I will admit that I HATE to revise. For me, the excitement of writing that first draft, of seeing my ideas take shape on the screen or the paper, pales when it comes to the tedium of looking at every word, every sentence, and trying to improve. I’d rather move on to the next exciting research or project, feeling that my draft should be good enough.

 

BUT IT NEVER IS. And so I bite the bullet and revise away, hating almost every minute of it. Still, when the job is done, I always know that the revising has been worth it, that it is necessary, absolutely necessary.

 

Ironically enough, I was working on revising a long essay when I ran across Jill Lepore’s “The Speech,” an article on presidential inaugural addresses that appeared on January 12, 2009. She writes that the president’s inaugural address wasn’t a given, wasn’t mentioned in the Constitution. But after his inauguration, George Washington went to Congress and delivered a speech, as did Jefferson in 1801. In 1817, James Monroe delivered his post-inauguration speech outdoors, but only because the Capitol was undergoing renovations. Slowly, however, the tradition of addressing not the Congress but the American people took hold, and by 1829, 20,000 people turned up to attend Andrew Jackson’s address.

 

Lepore passes judgment on a number of inaugural addresses, judging some much better, some much worse, but the most interesting part of the essay to me came in her discussion of revision, where she shows how even the best of inaugural address drafters were improved by revision, sometimes revision by someone else. Then she comes to Lincoln’s first inaugural address, the draft of which Lincoln turned over to William Seward for response. Seward, in turn, “scribbled out a new ending, offering an olive branch to seceding Southern States”:

I close. We are not, we must not, be aliens or enemies, but fellow-countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I am sure they will not, be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battlefields and so many patriot graves, pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angels of the nation.

But then Lincoln took up his own revising pen, and wrote the passage that we remember, honor, and admire today:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the union, when again touched as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

 

Lincoln’s revision is masterful, his stylistic sense strong and sure, and his address has inspired many presidents since, including most notably Barack Obama. We know that Obama worked hard on revising both his first and second inaugurals, and many believe they will go down as among the most powerful in U.S. history, right alongside Lincoln’s. Donald J. Trump’s inaugural address was of a different nature—very brief, very dark, and very much aimed at his base rather than all Americans. Columnist George Will called it “the most dreadful inaugural address in history.”

 

I don’t have a good basis for comparison, but I can say that this was the least memorable inaugural address I can remember. In a recent essay, John McWhorter helps to explain why when he describes Trump’s inaugural address as more like casual talking and less like “speaking”:

The issue is talking versus “speaking,” a more crucial distinction than we have reason to think about until someone as linguistically unpolished as Trump brings talking into an arena usually reserved for at least an attempt at speaking. . . .

 

McWhorter goes on to point out that many capable and intelligent people talk the way Trump does in everyday discourse, or over a beer or two. But most public officials and leaders have tried to move up the linguistic ladder, creating more coherent and memorable and carefully crafted public speeches. McWhorter says we should have seen this coming (perhaps with George W. Bush and Sarah Palin), as social media-speak moved into the White House. So, he says in his article, we may need a new way of listening for this kind of talk.

 

I’m not so sure that a new way of listening will help very much. While I have been a strong advocate for the vernacular throughout my career, and indeed have posted about this issue on several occasions, what Trump is doing does not seem to me to represent a triumph for but rather a diminishment of vernacular English or “talk,” which can have a strong power and beauty of its own. So for me and many other teachers of writing, Trump’s inaugural address demonstrates the need not for a new way of listening but some good old-fashioned revision: perhaps he did seek and receive advice from his trusted advisers about a draft of his speech; perhaps he did revise. If so, all I can say is that more and better revision was called for.

In October, Mark Blaauw-Hara wrote about his experiences Teaching Writing about Writing in the Two-Year College. I hope more instructors join that conversation, and in this post, I’d like to add my experiences.

 

My college is part of the Virginia Community College system; our service area includes suburban and rural areas in the northern part of the state. Like Blaauw-Hara’s institution, my college has seen significant changes in developmental courses, fueled in large part by a state-wide redesign of developmental education implemented in 2013. Since then, our developmental enrollment has plummeted; each year, we have reduced the number of low-level courses (ENF 1 and 2) and ALP courses (ENF 3) that we offer. In the upcoming year, we anticipate further change based on a system-wide change in placement policy: students with a high school GPA of 2.7 or higher will be eligible to enroll in either college composition or the ALP course, depending on the GPA. The ultimate impact of these changes is not yet known.

 

In our first semester course, we use a reader organized by traditional rhetorical modes, along with a handbook. Our second semester course covers both research and an introduction to literature. With eight full-time faculty and 20 adjunct faculty across two main campuses, a significant shift in the department’s approach and texts is not likely to occur any time soon.

 

Nonetheless, I have been interested in adapting a writing-about-writing (WAW) approach for my classes since I first read about it a few years ago. I first experimented in my second semester course (ENG 112), requiring that the research paper address writing or language and adding scholarly articles from composition, rhetoric, and linguistics to the reading assignments. An explicit discussion of genre and discourse communities frames our introduction to writing about literature. Since then, I’ve added a writing-about-writing/writing about language (WAL) paper to my first semester ALP course as well.

 

Like the students described in Blaauw-Hara’s piece, my students have struggled with the readings, the vocabulary, and the conceptual framework. In my second semester course, the students read sections of the seminal article by Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle, “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions,” to start the term. I always have some students who tell me they just can’t do this. But we press on, and by mid-semester, the students are connecting new readings back to the Downs and Wardle piece in creative—if not yet sophisticated—ways.

 

This semester, about half of my second semester students took the first semester ALP course with me (or our ESL version of the ALP course). These students would certainly have been labeled “at risk” when they began last fall, based on a host of challenges including learning disabilities, lack of financial resources, lack of academic experience, or lack of time in the United States. The second semester course no longer provides additional class hours for support, although most students could benefit from that support. Looking at my roster—and feeling the external pressure of getting students through a pathway as quickly as possible—I developed my WAW/WAL syllabus while full of doubts.

 

But once again my students have (after a sluggish start) begun to engage with the material. As I conferenced with students today on their research topic choices, I found myself getting excited. What rhetorical choices do sports commentators make in their tweets and posts on social media? How does code-switching affect the lives of community college ESL students? What sorts of writing do architects do—how could I describe that discourse community? I wasn’t taught cursive in school; is that affecting the way I write now? How do bilingual (and translanguage) educators deal with monolingual parents who don’t like what’s going on in their child’s classroom? Can a change in body language really change how we are perceived in the workplace? What makes up “the canon” when it comes to graphic novels? These are just some of the topics my students are working on this term.

 

My experience with these students echoes what Blaauw-Hara found: they need to build skills, but they are also willing and capable of grappling with “weighty ideas,” and they thrive in a “rich intellectual environment.” I have set aside two office hours for my WAW/WAL students each week, and they are coming, ready to talk and full of questions.

 

I hope others will pilot WAW sections in community colleges and share their stories. Perhaps a session at the 4Cs in 2018?

 

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Michael Clark, our guest blogger this week, is currently an MA student in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Florida Atlantic University, having completed a BA in English and a minor in psychology while working as a hairstylist.  His research focuses on the application of queer theory and gender analyses to film, literature, and popular culture.  His thesis explores gay men’s spectatorship and identification with female protagonists in the “women’s film” genre, specifically focusing upon films directed by Todd Haynes, a self-identified gay man.

 

I asked Michael, who teaches in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program, about how he teaches with writing.  At first he didn’t think he taught with writing at all, but the more we talked the more he realized (and I learned) how writing works in a non-writing class.  I asked him to write up something to share his insights.

 

Even though I’m currently teaching Introduction to Sexuality and Gender Studies, I often find written assignments useful to assess students’ understanding of course concepts.  Without these assignments, I find it difficult to evaluate students based solely on exams since memorizing and identifying definitions, significant names, and important dates doesn’t give me a sense of a student’s growth in knowledge.  I like using class reflections, current event reflections, and essays to reach these goals and to give me a better sense of how students are progressing in class. 

 

Since half of the students’ final grades is determined by the midterm and final essays, the remaining assignments serve to assess both participation and critical thinking. For example, current event reflections are meant to allow students to find very real-world applications independently, demonstrating critical thinking.

 

I frequently use the last ten minutes of class to have students complete a quick response paper pertaining to the class discussions of the readings. These end-of-class reflections tell me a lot about the individual student (I can see if that student is following the discussion), the class as a whole (I can see if there are any concepts that many people still find confusing), and myself as an instructor (I can see if there’s something I just didn’t explain clearly in class).  But the reflections aren’t meant to be just a summary of the class discussion or a test for a comprehension; they’re also meant to demonstrate the application of critical thinking. 

 

These writing assessments can also help me see the difference between an individual that’s struggling and one that’s resistant to the material (given the sensitive nature of this particular course with its focus on sexuality).  I can ask struggling students to meet with me to clarify terminology while opening a dialogue between myself and the student.  For those that are resistant but understand the material, I often attempt to meet them halfway by finding readings where the author may have had beliefs similar to the student’s in the past but found ways to become more accepting or tolerant.  I find resistant students are more open to such readings. For example when I see a response paper with a student struggling with course concepts because of religious beliefs, I bring in excerpts from Prayers for Bobby

 

I also like the way these reflections show my effectiveness as an instructor immediately.  When a majority of the class struggles with a reflection assignment, there’s obviously something more I need to clarify, which helps me in that class and also helps me figure out how to approach that topic more successfully next time I teach it.

 

These small writing assignments also allow me to provide students feedback on multiple occasions.  I follow that with a proposal for the final paper, which gives me another opportunity to offer feedback. Each assignment throughout the course is structured to allow for incremental improvements based upon considerable feedback; in the end, I feel as though this is the best way to assess students’ growth.

 

At the course’s conclusion, students should ideally be able recognize and identify how the material covered within this course applies to real-world events and cultures; they should be able to arrive at their own informed opinions, and, no matter what their opinion is, they should be open to the idea that differing opinions exist, accepting that opinions differing from their own are not necessarily wrong, and willing to listen to others with an open mind. I find using writing in my class, even if it’s not a writing class, helps me to do that.

 

Our school also has a Writing Across the Curriculum program that uses writing assignments more extensively, but I find it interesting to think about how small writing assignments can serve multiple purposes in a non-writing class (while also reinforcing the connections between writing and critical thinking).  Do you have a sense of where else writing happens at your school?