While it is not true that American popular culture disappeared over the summer that is just coming to an end, it often felt that way, what with the pandemic's effect on sporting events, live entertainment, and the movies—not to mention the ways in which the shutdown has revealed the peculiarly shared nature of pop culture, the interpersonal connections that no amount of virtual "happy hours" and celebrity YouTube collaborations can entirely replace. But far more important has been the dark cloud cast by the pandemic itself and by the ongoing revelations of an America so politically divided that the simple question of whether to mask or not to mask has emerged as a signifier of party affiliation and personal ideology as well as an incitement to occasional violence. Add to all this the shooting war that has recently erupted on the streets of Portland, and the stark image of a country increasingly at war with itself has come to overshadow just about everything else that is happening in the U.S. today. All of which lends particular urgency to the upcoming election, an election that, no matter how it turns out (and there are very real concerns that it will not be decided on November 3 or any time soon thereafter), is not going to resolve the underlying conflict that is tearing at the very fabric of the republic. Given the considerable attention paid to the fundamental contradictions and conflicts that divide us today—especially as they are reflected in our popular culture—in the soon-to-appear 10th edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. I would have liked to have known the outcome of the election as I worked on the text, but I knew that the semiotics of the situation would be the same regardless of the ballot results. This is why, as a kind of sequel to the analysis of such films as Captain America: Civil War that appeared in the 9th edition of Signs of Life, I turned to Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame in the 10th, movies that envision an "infinity war" indeed, whereby no victory is ever truly final and implacable opponents can always reappear to fight it out again. . . and again: a fitting reflection of electoral seasons focused less on partisan politics than on out-and-out regime change. No one should have any difficulty persuading one's students that America is caught in a cross-fire these days, and using popular culture in the classroom, more than ever before, can be a way of mediating the current crises in a manner that can raise the critical issues you want to cover in your classes without raising the temperature too severely. At the same time, a focus on popular culture can help you make that connection between learning and personal experience that has come to be regarded as a pedagogical best practice in the era of COVID-19. This is not to say that the picture is entirely negative. For as a new chapter in the 10th edition of Signs of Life on the "Tangled Roots" and "Cultural Politics" of popular music in America reveals, the often racist history of American music has been turned around by the triumph of the Black musical tradition in the emergence of hip hop and rhythm-and-blues as the nation's most popular musical genres. Similar signs of our times are to be found in the blockbuster success of the Black Panther cinematic franchise, along with the Oscar winning breakthrough of Parasite. All in all (with a nod here to Paul Simon), it's all happening in pop culture, and I'll be updating my analyses of what we can learn from it in my blogs to follow in the coming months. Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 3594094 by Mohamed Hassan, used under Pixabay License
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Since its inception, I have had the great good fortune to be associated with La Casa Roja, and I have learned many, many lessons from attending meetings with the Navajo leaders and youth who make up the group. Here’s how they describe La Casa Roja: La Casa Roja is a non-profit organization founded by Bread Loaf Teacher Network Members Carissa Brownotter, Rex Lee Jim, and Ceci Lewis. The purpose of La Casa Roja Youth Advocacy Team is to promote healthy, sustainable solutions to problems that indigenous youth face. Founded in 2014, La Casa Roja has its roots in Navajo country, its heritage, traditions, culture, values, songs, prayers, and stories, which informs its work with other partners like the Bread Loaf Teacher Network, Andover Bread Loaf, and the Navajo Community Health Outreach. Recognizing that youth are the answer to the current problems that plague the world, La Casa Roja is invested in providing leadership opportunities for indigenous youth globally. I have known Rex Lee Jim, former Vice President of the Navajo Nation and a distinguished poet, playwright, and activist, for decades. His wisdom, intelligence, and insight run deep, as does his faith in and commitment to youth leadership. It’s from Rex and Navajo young people that I have learned how to be a better listener, as I’ve sat in a roundhouse observing how Rex attends to others, how he more than leans in, how he radiates receptiveness and encouragement. And how he is so very quiet, silent, waiting for words and actions to be fully absorbed and comprehended before speaking. I’ve learned to recognize and to appreciate the rhythms of conversation in such a setting, and to listen and learn. Recently, I had the chance to join a La Casa Roja discussion on research (via Zoom of course). A grant is supporting a project for young people to gather stories from their elders about how they have managed in hard times (such as the current pandemic), and they were discussing how they would go about carrying out this work. At the beginning of the session, they were talking about “interviews” as the method they would use to gather the stories. But as the discussion progressed, the word didn’t seem to fit well with their goals or with their interpersonal relationships. Indeed, “interview” is a word associated with white Western ways of gathering data: it just didn’t fit well with what these young researchers wanted to do, or to know. Rex Lee Jim had been listening intently, as he always does, to this discussion. After a long pause, he began to speak about Navajo ways of storytelling and story sharing, about Navajo ways of showing that you are paying close attention, and that you understand and empathize. And more. Much more. It’s not always easy to listen on Zoom—the little Hollywood Squares boxes, with their varying backgrounds, can be distracting, and sound quality is often not good. But none of that mattered on this Zoom meeting: everyone there was laser focused on what we were learning about how to carry out culturally appropriate and respectful research. As the discussion continued and the youth began to describe situations in which they might carry out this research project, they decided that “conversations” captured what they wanted and needed to do much better than “interviews.” I said very little during this two-hour session and was reminded once again not to imagine that students who sit silently in my classes are somehow not engaged or participating—because I was participating to the hilt! I was hanging on every word and thinking hard about how limiting, how restrictive, traditional Western “research methods” can be. This two-hour discussion left me with much food for thought about listening, and about ways of interrogating the biases inherent in the methods I bring to any research task. It also left me looking forward to my next opportunity to learn La Casa Roja lessons, which I will certainly continue to pass on. Please stay safe. Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1868612 by Pexels, used under the Pixabay License
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In August, as I was still revising my Fall 2020 syllabi, a former student shared a Reddit post on social media that stopped me cold: “If teachers go back to school without a plan to talk to their students about Black Lives Matter, Police Brutality, and COVID-19, it will be the gaslighting of a generation.” “The gaslighting of a generation.” Wow. I needed that reminder. I admit I’d been struggling—like many of us—with a desire to re-assert some “normalcy” in the classroom, er, Zoomroom, while recognizing that Fall 2020 is an anything-but-normal semester. Pandemic fatigue has set in, and students have said they’re irritated by instructors who repeatedly apologize for the necessity of remote learning (e.g. “In a normal semester, we’d be doing X, but because we’re not in-person, we’ll be doing Y”). However, that Reddit post reminded me to direct my energy to the educational potential of our complicated present. What writing teachers do best is invite students to use tools to better understand our world. That means including BLM and COVID-19 in my materials. Absolutely. In fact, I opened class by asking students to grapple with poet Caroline Randall Williams’s challenging New York Times column, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument.” This tour de force essay could be used to teach the power of defining and re-defining. Ask students to highlight all of Williams’s definitions of “monument” and you’ll find that the conversation takes off. Or, you could use the text to launch a discussion of ethos, pathos, and logos, or the value of multiple disciplinary lenses, or an examination of proof and evidence. Williams’s essay is also an invitation to engage—seriously engage—with the impact of generations of racism and the meanings of that history, both politically and personally. This is a text a class could return to many times over the semester as you introduce additional writing skills and engage students with big ideas from other readings or news stories, including police brutality. This is an essay that says to students: I will not gaslight you in this Fall 2020 classroom. Even if we are “remote,” these issues are present and pressing. The writing skills in this course will help you understand these issues with insight and enter these conversations with nuance. The other part of that Reddit post, identifying COVID-19 as a second theme we must be talking about, could spark classroom conversations about visual literacy—as I began discussing in this March post. Or, you might invite students to examine the layers of meaning in national or university COVID dashboards in relation to your campus dashboard or those of your state or county. I would love to hear how you are using these sources. Really, I’d like to hear all the ways you are not gaslighting your students in this momentous time. Are you using the 1619 Project or other collections of voices from this moment? I’m ready to learn from you all in this semester like no other.
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Image description: With a welcome bubble of words over her head, Prof. Susan ruminates at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College in NYC on Halloween 2019. NOTE: There is a content alert for the post and the links, some of which include graphic and often violent depictions of struggles for racial and economic justice, including violent language and epistemic violence. Encounters with these texts|videos might demand disproportionate emotional labor or exacerbate trauma. * About a week before school began, I asked students in my new courses to send me their favorite music video for a class playlist. This project helped me to focus on the hard work of preparing new online classes, and gave me a chance to learn what mattered to the students. Through this activity, we created an archive of the music that shapes our community of writers in the fall of 2020. The idea for the playlist evolved from a question my online training could not answer: As someone who values the emotions, as well as the faces and voices and body language in the room, how would I facilitate the growth of a new community of writers? This question was especially troubling because most of us, students and teachers, left face-to-face education in March as our city became the global center of the pandemic. In light of these events, reading the emotions behind the screen became even more critical. On the first day of classes, I shared my gratitude in a welcome letter to the students. Here is an excerpt from the letter: Here is the Fall 2020 Playlist. Thank you for sending your music! With each new link, I unwrap unexpected gifts, postcards of our future together as a writing community. The videos for the playlist begin with Kendrick Lamar’s “i” , my favorite video at this current moment in history. I thought of my first term as a first-year student in college, Fall of 1976. The song I would have chosen that year was Freddie Mercury’s (and Queens’s) “Bohemian Rhapsody ”, and I have added it to our playlist, the official remastered video with Freddie in his white jumpsuit. For me Freddie and Kendrick are connected in their concerns with searching for their own humanity in struggles with everyday life and in the larger world around them. Kendrick Lamar’s “i,” I think, is a good introduction to our first reading, “ The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity ,” by James Baldwin. Lamar and Baldwin share a deep concern with Black life and Black love. These two sources, Baldwin and Lamar, placed together, introduce us to a Beloved Community and Civil Rights writing . This writing is a core theme of our course. With class preparation completed, I didn’t expect to feel butterflies returning to my stomach on the first day of school. The sensation reminded me of all that preceded the preparation. After spending 90 days, an entire season, inside in social isolation with my partner and my cat, after turning the bedroom of our 1-bedroom apartment into a Zoom-casting studio, after hearing day after day and night after night the sirens and the helicopters because we live 3 miles away from the hospital that was at the center of the pandemic in April and a half block away from refrigerator trucks serving as morgues at another hospital, after weeping when the curfew warning erupted from my phone for several nights at the end of May and the beginning of June (the same siren sound I remember from tornado and dust storm warnings), after applause for essential workers at our window every night at 7 pm and waving at our neighbors a block away, after reading journals written at 2 am, emails and essays about struggle and loss and grief and James Baldwin and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis and Black Panther and Beloved Community , after (and during and still) the catastrophic loss of Black lives to police violence and to the violence of the virus—after all of this, still the butterflies came even before I hit Zoom’s “start meeting” link. Welcome to this new term. In grappling with my own white privilege and the privilege of having a job that allows me to teach online at home, I struggle with anxiety as well. Yet, I welcome the new discomforts that inform my work now, and I welcome the chance to learn from the new community of writers on the other side of the screen. In memory of Breonna Taylor , George Floyd , John Lewis , Chadwick Boseman , and the many thousands gone .
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The following interview with Peter Adams, author of The Hub, was conducted via email in July and August of 2020. This is the first of four parts. * David Starkey: Peter, in my opinion, you are the leading expert on accelerated composition, so I’m very happy to have the opportunity to share this conversation with Bedford Bits readers. You’ve conducted more than 200 workshops on accelerated learning around the country. What issues do instructors ask you about most often? Peter Adams: At almost every school I’ve visited, instructors ask me how to structure the two courses in a 101/coreq pair or, as the question is usually worded, “What do we do in the coreq section?” DS: And what’s your response? PA: I begin by pointing out that the goal of a corequisite course is entirely different from the goal of a traditional developmental writing course. Traditional courses viewed students through the lens a deficit model—students were missing knowledge and skills they should have developed back in high school or, perhaps, middle school. And that knowledge and those skills were what we needed to teach. As a result, to students, traditional developmental courses felt a lot like seventh grade all over again . . . exacerbating many students’ fears that they didn’t really belong in college. DS: And we know from experience that when students don’t feel they are “college material,” it’s sadly not too long before many of them depart college altogether. PA: Very true, David, and an important goal of corequisite courses is to address and this the many other non-cognitive issues that can derail students. To avoid the deficit approach, corequisite courses no longer see their goal as reteaching what students seem to have missed in middle or high school; instead it is to provide whatever support students need to succeed in the ENG 101 course. The curriculum is “backward designed” from 101 and tailored to each cohort of students. In the coreq section, students are reading the same challenging texts and writing the same college-level essays as they are in the ENG 101 section, just more slowly, with more scaffolding, more opportunity for practice, and more individual attention. As a result of this design principle, there are four major activities in most co-rec courses: Activities designed to review, reinforce, and answer questions about the material just covered in the 101. Activities designed to prepare students for what is coming next in the 101. Activities designed to improve students’ ability to read challenging texts. Activities designed to address the non-cognitive issues that too often cause students to give up and drop out. DS: I know from experience that this can be a lot of material to cover in a 50-minute course! How do you juggle and prioritize these various activities? PA: It is a lot of material. In a traditional developmental writing course, all we addressed was writing issues. At my school, Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC), we call our corequisite model the Accelerated Learning Program or ALP. In ALP or other corequisite courses, in addition to writing issues, faculty have also taken responsibilities for helping students grow as readers while we also need time to address those non-cognitive issues. Because of all the material now loaded into the corequisite course, I strongly recommend that it meet three hours a week, although financial situations at some schools have made it necessary to limit these courses to just one or two hours a week. Part 2 of this conversation will appear next month.
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Week 4 of the semester is about to begin—perhaps the most difficult semester I’ve ever had. Nearly eight years ago, I taught a full load of composition and ESL courses at a community college while going through chemotherapy. I wore hats to cover my hair loss, and fatigue kept me seated and perhaps a bit quieter than usual in the classroom. But the challenges of treatment were lightened by being at school: my colleagues and students offered normalcy and respite from relentless reminders of cancer. We lack even a semblance of normalcy this semester, and no respite from relentless reminders of Covid-19. I told myself getting ready to write this blog post that I wouldn’t “go there.” But I don’t know how not to. The pandemic is draining in its ubiquity. I don’t want to delve into “simple strategies for creating discussions” or “four things to do when you get to class on Monday” or “the best technologies for live streaming a class,” although there is a need for those sorts of posts. Instead, I will offer three reflections that give me hope. First, we are still teaching—in countless difficult but equally viable ways. I am teaching a “hybrid” course: in my Tuesday/Thursday class, I have half the group on one day, and half the other. I am also doing individual Zoom meetings, mini-videos in which I screen-capture content to share, online discussions, and a number of surveys and emails. And I may change this up next week, depending on what is happening with my students. Even when I have them in class, what I would normally do is not possible—and I’ve seen the effect of spaced out seating and masks (which we must, must, must have) on conversation and shared thinking. Even when we collaborate in the classroom, digital lines of communication mediate the shared work. We are learning to learn differently. I am exhausted at this moment, but I am learning. I have colleagues who are live-streaming, colleagues who are fully online, colleagues who are using Slack or Twitter or GroupMe, and some who are combining all of these. Then students test positive, and we juggle our teaching to accommodate both students fully online and those in person. We shift again. We savor the moments when the class latches on to a concept or a reading—they play with the language or the assigned text—and for just a moment or two they aren’t consumed with the logistics of doing a college class during a pandemic (how do I turn this in? Can I go to the writing center in person? If my internet is down, what I do? Can I send you a screen shot?). Second, students are still learning. “Aha” moments still occur in our Zoom meetings, discussions, individual video conferences, and social media chats. For some of my students, I think the invitation to do classwork is like a luxury now, a space away from the latest news cycles. For some, it is a means of coping, and for some others, it has added a new layer of stress to their already stressful lives. And when a student tests positive, we see the ripple-effects in their lives, the lives of their families, their workplaces, and our classrooms. In my hybrid space, I ask yet again: was this worth it? But students submit assignments, ask questions, revise and rethink. They are still learning, just as I am. Third, we are still collaborating as a profession. I miss office and hallway conversations, and I regret the cancellation of conferences. But new opportunities have arisen, and we are still—perhaps even more so—connected. I’ve been to virtual camps and virtual seminars. I’ve “attended” meetings on countless different platforms in virtual spaces, and scholars have shared their work in all sorts of forums. (Witness the Brazilian Linguistics Association, Abralin , which hosted a phenomenal summer gathering of some of the foremost thinkers in linguistics—all accessible and free). MacMillan hosted boot camps for corequisite instructors, too. And in the midst of all of this, I think I have connected more with instructors in my department and across campus locations than ever before. Our questions—How are you? Are you ok?—are not perfunctory. We have surely made mistakes in this season, just as our administrators and institutions have. Accountability is required, and we will have to address the failures in the weeks and months to come. But at the same time, I am encouraged. We can talk about what we are doing in this particular moment, using the present progressive—action in process: We’re still teaching. Students are still learning. We are learning along with them. We are forging connections and innovations in the now, present progressive. And these on-going actions result from who we are, simple present tense, across times and contexts: we teach. Students learn, and so do we. We create, connect, and innovate. We teach. How are you teaching in this moment? What are you learning? What gives you hope? I look forward to hearing from you.
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Photo Credit: Kyle Brett Sarah Heidebrink-Bruno (recommended by Jenna Lay) is pursuing her PhD in English, with a concentration in literature and social justice pedagogies, at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. She expects to finish her degree in 2020 or 2021. She teaches a range of composition and rhetoric courses, including English 1, 2, and 11, in addition to interdisciplinary courses in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies as well as Africana Studies. She has also taught online courses in English and WGSS, with a focus on pop culture themes, including modern relationships. Her research interests include restorative justice practices, women's literature of the 1960s-present, feminist theory and praxis, and writing center tutors' instruction.
How do you hope higher education will change in the next ten years?
In the next ten years, I hope to see folks in higher education intentionally divorce themselves from the “ivory tower” image and embrace education as a truly equalizing experience — by prioritizing access to the most vulnerable and historically marginalized among us, including BIPOC, LGBTQIA folks, and differently abled, faculty, and staff. I would like to see a concerted effort to serve the community in which colleges and universities are located, in ways that the community deems desirable and appropriate. Moreover, I’d love for all of the stakeholders in colleges and universities to have a greater focus on holistic students’ experiences — ideally, academic and student affairs would work in tandem to recognize students as complex young adults, rather than essentializing one aspect of their identities in one space.
How does the next generation of students inspire you?
I am constantly inspired by my students. Though my colleagues have sometimes suggested that students are generally apathetic and only interested in getting good grades/a degree, I think this stereotype ignores the larger structural issues that students must face in order to not feel the pressure to just “get it done.” In my experiences, I have been lucky to see students blossom through their research and writing processes into conscientious young adults who have strong values and ideas about the ways in which education — and the world — can change. They constantly amaze me with their curiosity and their willingness to ask difficult questions and challenge ideas that seem untrue or unjust.
What have you learned from other Bedford New Scholars?
I relished the opportunity to learn with and from my fellow Bedford New Scholars during our summer orientation meetings. Specifically, I really liked learning about the different writing assignments and classroom activities that my peers have used — which I am eager to try myself! I learned a lot from their feedback and insight on my work, which I intend to use to improve my teaching this coming semester. Finally, it was reassuring to hear that we are all facing similar struggles, especially at this difficult time, and that they were willing to share different solutions and moral support for dealing with these challenges.
What is it like to be a part of the Bedford New Scholars program?
I really appreciated the chance to meet and work with the dedicated staff at Macmillan who organize the BNS program. I admit that I had little insight into the publishing world and the process that scholars undergo as they progress from an idea to a fully-formed reference guide or handbook, etc., but I enjoyed learning about the inner mechanisms of the publishing world and the ways in which writers seek feedback from their peers as well as their editors throughout the process. (Admittedly, it was also cool to see exclusive content prior to its public release!) It was clear to me how much the editors and staff members really care about the authors they work with and that they are dedicated to producing thoughtful and helpful teaching materials (among other products).
Sarah Heidebrink-Bruno’s Assignment that Works During the Bedford New Scholars Summit, each member presented an assignment that had proven successful or innovative in their classroom. Below is a brief synopsis of Sarah’s assignment. For the full activity, see Student Information Sheet.
For my “assignment that works,” I shared a version of my Student Information Sheet, a form that I typically hand out during the first week of class as a way to
Establish the tone of the course;
Get to know more about my students and their learning needs;
And finally, gather information that I then use when I am lesson planning.
In the sheet, I ask them about their preferred names (if any), their pronouns (if they feel comfortable sharing that information with me), and what kinds of learning environment and activities they prefer. For example, I include a list of possible activities, such as Think-Pair-Share, answering questions in small groups, Check Out tickets, and more. They can either check off boxes in the list of options or add additional suggestions.
After everyone has completed the sheet, we then discuss how we best learn and what kind of learning spaces have been the most impactful. I tell them about my own learning and teaching techniques that have worked for me in the past, with an explicit emphasis on the fact that I need and expect for them to give me feedback on pedagogical choices and activities in the classroom to make sure that I am reaching folks where they are.
I will note that although I’ve used a hard copy of this form in the past, it would be very easy to create a version in Google forms (or another digital space), which would also allow the instructor to easily see what the most popular choices are. The instructor could then use that information for an ice-breaker activity or discussion at the beginning of the next class.
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A lot of our formerly “normal” lives has been intermittently or completely shut down over the last seven months—schools, churches, restaurants, and live performances of all kinds, from sporting events to concerts and plays. What has NOT shut down, however, and has in fact grown dangerously, is the flood of mis- and dis-information, lies, and conspiracy theories afloat on social media, streaming into our lives through our devices. I’ve written about this state of affairs before, and I’ve looked for ways to prepare students to distinguish truth from lies, fake photos from real ones, and I’ve included straightforward tips for doing so in all of the books I’ve written (or co-written). I’ve been modestly encouraged by recent decisions by Facebook to label misinformation as such and to block, when they can find it, the attempts by foreign agents of governments (read: Russia) to pose as “true Americans” and post false information intended to benefit a particular political candidate (read: Trump). Last week I came across a new tool for detecting and dealing with misinformation that I think is worth sharing with students, especially since they are now doing so much of their work online. It’s called Misinfo Mondays and it’s a series of posts created by the Mozilla Foundation on their blog, dedicated to upholding the Mozilla Manifesto that “The internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible to all.” That goal might suggest that on the Internet, anything goes—including lies and fake photos—but Mozilla would disagree, describing their mission this way: The direct work of the Mozilla Foundation focuses on fueling the movement for a healthy internet. We do this by supporting a diverse group of fellows working on key internet issues, connecting open Internet leaders at events like MozFest, publishing critical research in the Internet Health Report, and rallying citizens around advocacy issues that connect the wellbeing of the Internet directly to everyday life. Aiming for a “healthy” internet means, among other things, being able to identify and resist unhealthy uses of it (you can check out their Internet Health Report for more on this). And that’s where Misinfo Mondays comes in. This is a weekly series that aims to “give you the tools, tips and tricks needed to cut the crap and find the truth.” I’ve read two of the posts so far and have found them informative and useful. This week’s post, “Deepfakes and Other Trickery in Imagery,” distinguishes between “deepfakes”—that is, doctored videos—from “cheapfakes” —videos or images taken out of context. It explains how deepfakes are computer-generated videos, but they differ substantially from CGI used in films: CGI is “entirely fabricated in post-production by digital artists,” whereas deepfakes involve “digitally mapping new faces or mouth movements onto footage that already exists” using algorithms. And while deepfakes are certainly concerning, the post warns that cheapfakes are more prevalent: “Cheapfakes are incredibly easy to do, since they generally only require you to copy/paste,” such as “taking an old photo of a crowd and saying it was an anti-Covid 19 protest.” The post provides many examples of deepfakes and cheapfakes throughout—and offers two cautions: first, that AI-generated images are increasingly easy to create and use for unethical purposes, and second, that such imagery has at least the potential to do some good (as in some forms of virtual reality therapy). The challenge, then, is for users to grow sophisticated enough to not only learn to spot deepfakes, just as we have learned to recognize photoshopped images, but also to learn to spot the simple cheapfakes using images out of context. For writing teachers, that means teaching reading to include the ability to read images—real and fake. And Misinfo Mondays is there to help us do so. Image Credit: Pixabay Image 925856 by StockSnap, used under the Pixabay License
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Greetings to writing teachers everywhere as I’m writing this on the last day of August, 2020. Oh my goodness, what a summer this has been. I have spent the last seven months at home on the northern California coast, going out only to the post office, grocery store, and any doctor’s appointments; going to Zoom meetings and doing workshops and presentations online; missing family and friends that I can no longer visit; and trying to advocate for racial justice and for free and fair and unobstructed voting—which hasn’t been easy cooped up in my home office in this fairly isolated rural community. What has kept me going has been getting to teach a small class for teachers pursuing master’s degrees at the Bread Loaf School of English. Virtually, of course, via the ubiquitous Zoom. With in-person classes at the Vermont campus cancelled, Bread Loaf declared a “summer of writing” and asked students (all teachers) if they wanted to sign up for small tutorial classes during which they would work on a major writing project. So I met for six weeks with three teachers—twice a week via Zoom and then individually through FaceTime conversations and over email, a mini version of the kind of online teaching that so many of us will be doing this fall and perhaps all year. The luxury of working in such a small group isn’t lost on me—I feel incredibly lucky to have had this experience. And I have learned so much by working along on the three projects: one on the way clothing works in multiple ways to both constrict and liberate characters in contemporary Latinx fiction; one on the nontraditional and very effective rhetorical strategies used in CCCC Chair’s addresses by scholars of color; and one on the history and development of Afrofuturism that argues for its inclusion as a central feature of high school English curricula. All brilliant projects. But I also had the privilege of getting to know what these teachers are facing as fall term approaches, what their fears and hopes are, and what they expect their students to be struggling with when they meet them (partially in person, partially online). This pandemic that affects every aspects of our lives is leaving its mark on our students in so many ways. Teachers find themselves delivering lessons and books (along with meals and even medicine) to the homes of students, looking for workarounds for students who have no access to internet or no place to work quietly at home, working with technologies that are necessary but also very frustrating, arguing with local and state officials hell bent on fully opening the schools no matter what, and, most of all, worrying about how best to keep students safe, not to mention their families and themselves. Add to all this the polarization of our communities, the stoking of hatred and bigotry, and the veritable tsunami of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and outright lies arriving minute by minute through social media and other sources intent on creating ever more chaos and division. It’s a lot. It’s enough make us despair, to give in. But teachers are not likely to do so. In fact, teachers I know are more determined than ever to teach, even against all odds, and to learn and to help their students learn. That’s why I’ve seen—all summer long—teachers across the country creating imaginative ways of engaging students online, exciting curricula to get and keep their attention, determined ways of making real connections with students, and ongoing commitment to creating spaces for listening, for understanding, and for civil discourse. I know it’s a tall order. But if anyone can deliver on it, writing teachers can. I’d so love to hear from you about what your teaching will be like this fall and about how your students are doing. Stay safe. Image Credit: Pixabay Image 768696 by Free-Photos, used under the Pixabay License
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Michael S. Garcia Michael S. Garcia (recommended by Kimberly Harrison) is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at Florida International University. He expects to finish in April 2021. At FIU, he has taught Writing and Rhetoric, Writing in Action, Essay Writing, and Creative Writing: Forms and Practices. He has also taught 11th and 12th grade English at a Title I high school. As a writer, he has published short stories, essays, web articles, and poetry.
What is the most important skill you aim to provide your students? We are currently living in an important social and political moment—a time rife with conflict, strife, and disinformation. Never before has there been so much (mis)information coming at us from all sides, all the time. I believe my most important role as a writing and rhetoric teacher is two-fold: I must teach students how to evaluate information through a critical lens, so they can filter out the noise and arrive at well-informed opinions; simultaneously, I must empower my students with the skills, knowledge, and confidence to express themselves in an accurate, thoughtful, and ethical way.
How will online or remote learning affect your teaching? While teaching remotely is not ideal, I have chosen to view it as a learning opportunity, a chance to grow into a more effective teacher. Keeping students active and engaged can be a challenge in the very best of times, but now, with all our teaching happening through digital tools, it is more crucial than ever to focus on student engagement. In my in-person classes, I really focus on trying my best to implement lessons and activities that engage students and keep them interested, but it is so easy to become distracted or fatigued when meeting through digital platforms like Zoom, so this aspect of my teaching will be even more important now than ever.
Also, while I already make use of digital tools and platforms in my usual in-person teaching, I will rely on them now more than ever before. I suspect that I will become more adept at using a variety of digital tools as part of the teaching process.
I anticipate that what I learn from remote teaching—not just in terms of student engagement and technology, but perhaps in other areas I haven’t considered yet—will turn this challenging time into a net-positive for my development as an educator, increasing my effectiveness as a teacher in the long term.
What is it like to be a part of the Bedford New Scholars program? The Bedford New Scholars program has turned out to be an invaluable experience for my personal and professional development. I have learned about the process behind creating and publishing educational materials, something I had very little idea about beforehand. The program also gave me the opportunity to collaborate with a great group of accomplished scholars from around the country that I may not have met otherwise.
Additionally, the opportunity to preview and give feedback on upcoming Bedford/St. Martin’s texts and tools that are currently being worked-on is a really cool experience. It’s great to see the thought and care that the people at Bedford/St. Martin’s put into their projects, and how important it is to them to collaborate with a varied and diverse group of educators—I think this collaborative approach helps ensure Bedford/St. Martin’s texts and tools are effective and relevant to both teachers and students.
What projects or course materials from Bedford/St. Martin's most pique your interest, and why? I was very impressed by the wide array of texts Bedford/St. Martin’s offered in my subject area; it seemed there was a text for every approach, something I wasn’t aware of before the Bedford New Scholars project.
The project I was most interested in was the Achieve learning platform. I think it’s great how the platform empowers instructors to create effective, multimodal assignments, while also encouraging and enabling collaboration—not only between the student and their instructor, but among students and their peers. It is intuitive and easy-to-use while also having depth in what it is capable of. I’m excited by the opportunities and possibilities that Achieve presents, not only in the composition classroom, but in teaching the subject of English overall.
Michael’s Assignment That Works During the Bedford New Scholars Summit, each member presented an assignment that had proven successful or innovative in their classroom. Below is a brief synopsis of Michael's assignment. For the full activity, see Discourse Community Profile.
My “Assignment That Works” is the Discourse Community Profile , the first major assignment I assign as part of the first of FIU’s two-course introductory writing sequence. For this assignment, students are asked to write a profile on a discourse community of their choice; this involves describing the discourse community, citing specific examples of discourse from this community and where it occurs, and examining what can be gleaned about this community from analyzing its use of language. Students are asked to conclude the profile with a reflection on their relationship to this discourse community, why they chose to write about it, and what they learned in the process.
The assignment sheet is designed with question-and-answer format to make the assignment prompt as clear and concise as possible. We spend the first unit of the course scaffolding up to this assignment with foundational lessons about rhetorical awareness, rhetorical strategies, how to choose the appropriate genre (this is where they learn what a “profile” is), and code-switching. Students are asked to submit a “first steps” topic proposal to ensure they understand what is being asked of them. They submit a low-stakes first draft for instructor comments and peer review, giving them time to polish their work before the final draft is due.
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Allison Dziuba (recommended by Jonathan Alexander) is a PhD candidate in English at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). She teaches courses in the lower-division writing sequence, in person during the school year and online during the summer. She also teaches the Summer Bridge writing lab, a pre-college course for incoming UCI first-years. She has served as the editorial assistant for College Composition and Communication and Rhetoric Society Quarterly. She is currently the Campus Writing & Communication Fellow at UCI. Allison's research interests include college students' self-sponsored literacy practices and extracurricular rhetorical education, and intersectional feminist approaches to rhetorical studies. What is your greatest teaching challenge? Time management. Whether I’m teaching a 50- or 80-minute class session, the time seems to fly by. I was advised early on to plan lessons around just one main point or activity. Planning more concise lessons allows me to better explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It also provides space for students to shape each class with their questions and interests. As a teacher, I want to better adapt to my students’ needs, to let them drive the agenda. In sketching out the full term, it’s important for me to set reasonable goals, too. Because my university is on the quarter system, we only have 10 weeks together as a class. I have to tailor my expectations based on this relatively limited time frame and prioritize the skills and experiences I hope will be most valuable to my students (more on this below). What is the most important skill you aim to provide your students? I teach lower-division writing, which means that, for many of my students, our class is their first college-level writing experience. It’s often the smallest class that they’ve taken so far (around 20 students), so they have an opportunity to get to know their instructor and peers. Understanding that this is a potentially crucial moment in their undergraduate careers but also a brief and largely introductory one, I focus on rhetorical flexibility. That is, we aim to address the question, how does a rhetor craft messages in different genres and modes to communicate their purposes? I care deeply about what my students have to say, and so my hope is that helping to cultivate their rhetorical know-how will allow their voices to reach a variety of audiences. Students explore how they can shape communications and how messages move through the world; in so doing, they engage with the often overlapping communities to which they belong—home, college, local/regional, transnational, etc. This process of discovery animates my dissertation research as well—how do college students develop their rhetorical educations and their sense of belonging within campus and broader ecologies? What is it like to co-design or work with the editorial team at Bedford/St. Martin's? I’ve enjoyed working with the English composition editors because they’re knowledgeable about the world of writing instruction and they’re attentive to the needs of instructors. These traits, combined with their close familiarity with the Bedford catalogue, make for generative working relationships. For example, one of the workshops during the BNS summit was about developing writing assignments that are transparent in their aims—a topic that I and other teachers think about a lot—paired with a preview of a forthcoming book focused on tackling writing problems. Special kudos to Leah Rang and her team for organizing a virtual summit experience this summer that ran smoothly, covered a wide range of topics, and provided both graduate students and editorial staff opportunities to get to know one another and to ask each other productive questions about composition pedagogy. What have you learned from other Bedford New Scholars? I value the creativity and generosity of my BNS colleagues. In particular, I’m inspired by the assignments they’ve shared and their explanations of how these activities function in their classrooms. A few examples are Corinne’s gamification of teaching about the (potentially unintended) circulation and re-appropriation of texts, Kalyn’s step-by-step approach to analyzing rhetors’ source synthesis, and Sierra’s engagement of visual composition practices, as inspired by her pre–grad school career. I plan to incorporate elements of these activities into my own teaching practice. Overall, gathering this group of inquisitive, like-minded folks together for the summit lead to fruitful discussions about teaching and what we care about as teachers. These conversations and my peers’ commitment to their students will help to sustain my academic journey, and I hope to continue to cultivate these connections. Allison’s Assignment that Works During the Bedford New Scholars Summit, each member presented an assignment that had proven successful or innovative in their classroom. Below is a brief synopsis of Allison's assignment. For the full activity, see Opinion Barometer Activity I’m sharing the “Opinion Barometer,” an in-class activity that aims to help students recognize the knowledges that they bring to the classroom and to explore nuances of rhetorical stances, beyond mere pro/con. I credit a fellow graduate student writing instructor with the spatial and interactive structure of the activity, and I’ve developed it over time to align with course assignments and to be relevant to the populations of students I’m teaching. Students are given statements or claims and are asked to move to a point in the classroom to indicate how much they agree or disagree with the statement. I’ve used this activity with first-year students who are encountering college-level courses and college life for the first time; the sample questions are crafted particularly with new college students in mind. I feel that the Opinion Barometer facilitates honest discussions about my students’ goals and expectations for their college careers. I’ve also used this as a warm-up activity before diving into an op-ed assignment. My intention is to boost students’ perceptions of their own expertise and to begin brainstorming topics that they have opinions about. I’d like to think more about how this activity could be adapted for an online teaching environment. Thanks to my fellow Bedford New Scholars for considering possible modifications. For instance, Sidney recommended gauging students’ opinions via an online poll and then asking them to write brief rationales for their positions.
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Sidney Blaylock (recommended by Kate Pantelides) is pursuing his PhD in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University. He expects to finish in May 2021. He teaches Expository Writing and Research and Argumentation. His research interests include multimodality, rhetorical analysis, new media, cultural rhetorics, digital rhetorics, film, and afrofuturism. What is the most important skill you aim to provide your students? The ability to understand how to critically read and assess both texts and situations. Higher education should give students the ability and the resources to evaluate information and ideas that they come in contact with and to make informed choices. This practice should not only extend to what students read or write but to their daily lives. I want students to understand that the ideologies of close reading can give them strategies that can inform their interpretation of popular culture texts in addition to great literature, which helps them find meaning in the texts they interact with on a daily basis. I also want students to understand that the idea of the rhetorical situation undergirds human activities and human communication whether it is as important as giving a presentation to colleagues on the job or as mundane as ordering a coffee at Starbucks , so that they can navigate the world as successfully as possible. Without being able to critically read and assess texts and situations, I feel that students are at a disadvantage, especially from those seeking to misuse power or misrepresent facts and situations. What is your greatest teaching challenge? Getting students to understand that opinions, especially those that confirm a student’s own beliefs, are not facts, and cannot be relied on without question. I want students to challenge assertions found on social media, something many seem reluctant to do. I want students to look at the author of the information and to see if that person is credible--are they an expert in their field or a normal person, do they have a particular bias that you can determine, or do they seem impartial? Where does the information come from--an academic journal with multiple authors or one person’s social media account? How old is the information? My greatest teaching challenge revolves around getting students to ask questions and not simply take the information presented as fact. All humans have biases, things that they like or dislike, and I want students to understand that our biases, along with the biases of the person who is communicating with them, all are aspects of communication that must be negotiated before one can make a cogent and reasoned decision about a subject. What have you learned from other New Bedford Scholars? While there were many things that I learned from my fellow New Bedford Scholars during our time together at the Summit, there are three that I thought were highly important. First, like myself, I learned that getting students to learn critical thinking skills is a primary focus for all of us. We want students to understand the richness of thinking for themselves and learning how to critically evaluate information. I also learned that we each have diverse interests and experiences that inform our instruction. It is in this diversity that our strengths as educators come to the fore. I learned that my fellow Scholars have a wealth of knowledge and resources that I can draw upon to help better my own teaching. This was especially true in looking at the variety of assignments presented during the Summit. It was amazing to see the various types of assignments that integrated multimodal ways of learning. Seeing all of this amazing work helped to inspire me for the upcoming semester. I, too, want to create innovative and highly multimodal assignments that my students will see as fun, challenging, and inspiring, in addition to being informative. What is it like to be a part of the Bedford New Scholars program? It is an amazing experience! Not only are you working with the editorial team at Bedford/St. Martin’s, you also have access to nine other scholars who are in your field. This allows you to collaborate and interact in order to help shape the future of student learning. The editorial team at Bedford/St. Martin’s are an extremely knowledgeable and friendly group of people to work with, and are exceedingly helpful by explaining the reasons behind the decisions that are needed in the publishing world. Moreover, they also listen , which is a rare quality these days. They actively solicit feedback and truly want to know when something is working well, so that they continue it or expand it. However, they also want to know when something isn’t working, so that they can find a way to address the issue and fix it so that it works better the next time. Finally, being part of the Bedford New Scholars program is fun! The editorial team made sure that we found time to socialize and to collaborate in several fun and interesting ways--even on Zoom . Sidney Blaylock Jr.’s Assignment that Works During the Bedford New Scholars Summit, each member presented an assignment that had proven successful or innovative in their classroom. Below is a brief synopsis of Sidney's assignment. You can view the full details here: "Go Forth and Find" “Go Forth and Find” is a short lesson, designed to be mostly done over a class meeting or two. At the beginning of the unit discussing genre, I ask students to pair off and use their phones to take pictures of various “genre” items in the room, in the hall, in the building, and around campus (this can be modified to safe areas for virtual learning). I ask them to find information/instructions, a bulletin board, a poster, a graphic/image, a sign, and a “wildcard” (which can be any interesting item they found during the search). We then come together and discuss the various items that we’ve found, specifically noting the various affordances and constraints of the genre — looking for ways the items follow convention or the ways in which they deviate from the norm. This assignment tries to encourage critical learning and thinking in a fun way that helps students learn from (and with) their peers. Also, since the assignment happens early in the semester, it is a great way to, hopefully, form the bonds that will allow the class to grow into a strong learning community together.
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You may have noticed that the Bedford Bits blog has undergone a recent update. I unfortunately wasn’t able to post while the site was being updated, but I wanted to make sure I posted one more time before taking a break from blogging for the summer. And so, I am writing this post on June 6, twelve days after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis. I have wept and grieved, contributed to Black Lives Matter and the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, marched while keeping a distance and wearing a mask in the little village I live near in northern California, and looked into my heart, searching for my own unacknowledged racism. And I’ve listened to the eloquent young people telling us of their suffering, of their relentless, ongoing fear, of their emotional and physical exhaustion. And I’ve been remembering the decades of protests telling us the very same thing, over and over and over. Perhaps this time is a movement rather than a “moment.” Perhaps we are at a watershed. I hope that we are and that students in the coming years will be able to write and speak about civil rights and about police reform and about social justice in a more hopeful, less exhausted way. And when they do, I hope they will look back not only on today, but to events from the 1960s, and particularly to this day 55 years ago, on June 6, 1965, when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, three months after Martin Luther King Jr. led the Selma to Montgomery “Bloody Sunday” march. I’ve spent most of the day revisiting that year, and those leading up to it, and especially listening to the words of Dr. King. Surely it’s no coincidence that today I received a message about that year from the Kronos Quartet, whose work for peace and justice is now in its 46th year. During the pandemic, Kronos—like all arts groups—has been unable to perform live. But they have not been resting. Rather, they have been searching for new ways to continue their work. So on this day, June 6, 2020, they released a recorded video excerpt from Zachary Watkins’s Peace Be Till, a piece commissioned and performed by Kronos featuring words from Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” that “symphony for social justice,” as Clarence Jones described it. Jones, now nearing 90 and King’s friend, speech writer, and counsel, was there on August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, watching and listening as King began to speak, only to pause as Mahalia Jackson, near him on the stage, called out “Tell them about the dream, Martin; tell them about the dream.” And Jones watched as King discarded prepared marks and launched into his unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech. As Jones remembers it, he turned to the person next to him and said “that sea of folks out there better get ready, because they’re fixin’ to hear a sermon.” It was a sermon for the ages, one that helped to bend the arc of history. I hope you will take a few minutes to revisit that time and place and to hear Clarence Jones read Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, accompanied by Kronos playing Watkins’s powerful score and by a searing series of images from the time. I hope that you will share it with your students and ask them to write about what “I Have a Dream” means to them today. I hope that you will ask them to write about what the current movement can mean to the future of our country. Black Lives Matter. Image Credit: Pixabay Image 5285954 by konkarampelas, used under the Pixabay License
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This blog post was originally posted on May 28, 2020. Maybe you remember the first Big Read from 2012: Moby **bleep**, 135 chapters in 135 days, a radio extravaganza dreamed up by Philip Hoare and Angela Cockayne; read by the likes of Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry, Mary Oliver, and many others; and illustrated during the streaming by contemporary artists who created images for each chapter. (It’s still available online here.) Years ago, I read Moby once every year, so the chance to hear it read, brilliantly, over a span of months was an unforgettable experience. Well, it’s now 2020 and Hoare and Cockayne are at it again, this time delivering Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which Hoare, in an article for The Guardian, calls “a founding fable for our time.” In Coleridge’s nightmare, he says, The slain albatross hangs around the fated sailor’s neck like a broken cross, an emblem of his sin against nature. It is all too relevant today, as a statement of isolation and despair: “Alone, alone, all, all alone, / Alone on a wide, wide sea!" The poem presents a story within a story, as a wedding guest approaches the church where a wedding will take place but is held back from entering by an ancient man whose skinny hand seizes him and demands that he hear his story. The wedding guest succumbs, takes a seat on a stone, and the long, sad, harrowing story begins. Hoare says that this project, hosted by the University of Plymouth’s Art Institute as a free-access digital event, has been in the works for over three years and that he and his collaborators could not have imagined that they would complete this project in the midst of a world-wide pandemic. But they have, and listening to this poem from 1798 seems not just right at this particular moment but perfectly right. I’ve listened to the first three (of forty) parts, mesmerized by the reading of Jeremy Irons, Jeannette Winterson, and Hilary Mantel. Still to come are Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithfull, Willem Dafoe, and a great, great, great, great, great nephew of the poet himself. As I’ve been listening and revisiting this true horror story/poem, I’ve also done a bit of writing: what is a story that I badly need to sit still and listen to, even if it comes from someone I don’t know or don’t like? What crimes against nature have I committed—ones I wish I could undo? What is the albatross that I can’t seem to rid myself of? And why? What loneliness do I find deep inside and where does it come from? Am I surrounded by metaphorical water and yet “not a drop to drink”? And who is the Mariner today who is telling us his story, over and over again? These are questions that seem particularly relevant today as we struggle against the coronavirus and as we seek to be together while staying apart. I would guess that not many of our students have read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or know its story. Perhaps this is another online resource we can provide to students during these strange times and they might listen to the poem as it comes to life in these free online readings. They can analyze the techniques each narrator uses when reading the poem, or perhaps they might write about the questions the poem raises for them. Perhaps some might write their own poems, tell their own stories, and share them with you. Image Credit: Pixabay Image 384385 by Hans, used under the Pixabay License
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This blog post was originally posted on May 21, 2020. Inspired by the work of Laura Aull, I’ve been introducing students to corpora as a way to find information about writing in various disciplines—they can, for example, easily check whether professional writers in the sciences use the first person pronoun—and sometimes just for the kinds of curious poking around that is so much fun to do in large databases. Aull found, in an early study based on data drawn from corpora, that professional writers use more “hedges” (that is, qualifiers like “most” or “some”) in their writing than do first-year students, while first-year students use more “boosters” (words like “very”). I asked students to compare their own use of hedges and boosters in a sample of their writing and then us/e the Corpus of Contemporary American English to see what professional writers in other fields did. My students responded well to using the corpus and really liked analyzing their own writing for specific usages. They said doing so helped them feel they had “more control” over their writing. Last week, I learned of a brand new corpus—Coronavirus Corpus—and took a look to see how students might use it for research. Here’s how the website describes the corpus: The corpus (which was first released in May 2020) is currently about 279 million words in size, and it continues to grow by 3-4 million words each day. At this rate, it may be 500-600 million words in size by August 2020. The Coronavirus Corpus allows you to see the frequency of words and phrases in 10-day increments since Jan 2020, such as social distancing, flatten the curve, WORK * home, Zoom, Wuhan, hoard*, toilet paper, curbside, pandemic, reopen, defy. . . . The corpus also allows you to see the patterns in which a word occurs, as with stay-at-home, social, economic, or hoard*. You can also compare between different time periods, to see how our view of things have changed over time. (And you can even compare between the 20 countries in the corpus). Interesting comparisons over time might include phrases like social * or economic * that were more common in Jan/Feb than in Apr/May, or words near BAN or OBEY that were more common in Apr-May than in Jan-Feb. I was able to dig around in this corpus to find out how many times the word “liberate” appears in the corpus and in what context, to look for how often the word “suicide” appears and whether or not its use increases across time, and so on. I think your students might also enjoy working with the corpus. They could, for instance, search the database for collocates (words near to each other) to see, first, how often “Clorox” or “disinfectant” appears and then see how often it appears near the words “virus” or “COVID-19.” Or they might search for “masks” and then see how often that word appears near “resistance.” Using corpora in these ways can help students identify what Kenneth Burke called “terministic screens,” that is, the way words work together to form a network (or screen) that creates or reinforces certain impressions or ideas—see Burke’s discussion of terministic screens in Language as Symbolic Action; I often start my classes with a discussion of this concept! Students taking their writing courses from home could find this new corpus—and others, like Brigham Young University’s Corpus of Global Web-Based English or the Corpus of Contemporary American English—useful for projects they may be working on, or for inspiring them to pursue other research questions. Learning to use available corpora can play a role in any rhetorical analysis they may be doing now or in the future. If you use corpora in your teaching, I’d love to hear from you! In the meantime, I’ll go back to washing my hands. . . Image Credit: Pixabay Image 943739 by TBIT, used under the Pixabay License
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