The requirement to keep cameras on and mics unmuted assumes that students have access to quiet and privacy. This also assumes that having live faces in the Zoom squares somehow replicates a “real” classroom. They don’t and it can’t. No, I don’t know if my students are playing Fortnite or sleeping or otherwise disengaged when their squares are blank. But in face-to-face classrooms, students can disengage in other ways-- prepping for exams on their laptops, scrolling through Instagram on their phones, sleeping in the back of the classroom because they worked the late shift and came directly to school from work. The distractions and catastrophes that students faced in the years before the pandemic interrupted their ability to be fully present, to take part in group activities, and to listen to lectures.
And this year, students who are recent high school graduates have had their schooling interrupted for nearly two years because of Covid-19. I’m not talking about “ learning loss ,” which as Rachael Gabriel suggests, does not exist. Rather, I mean that we need to honor the learning that has happened in the last two years, especially learning that happens outside of formal classrooms and that cannot be measured by standardized tests, some of which were suspended in 2020 .
So -- when we talk about remote learning, we need to consider the purpose and the place of asynchronous work, of alternatives to group work, of somehow creating community despite the odds. With these thoughts in mind, I invited students to photograph either their writing spaces, their writing tools, themselves writing, or some other combination. The assignment was optional, and I offered journal credit for students who submitted photos and wrote brief captions to include in the collage. The collage would be called Writing Spaces.
Across two sections, about half of the students participated. No one sent photographs of themselves, which was not surprising. The absence of faces allowed me to reconsider the blank screens and muted mics on Zoom. Indeed, the photographs in the collage helped me to understand that students were in fact present behind those screens and muted mics.
For Writing Spaces, students created the particular spaces they needed for writing amidst the cacophony of their everyday lives. Some students sent photographs of spaces that included pets, flowers, and plants. Other students sent photos of their laptop screens featuring our course assignments. One student sent a photo of a space in the reopened college library. Another student sent a photo of their rough draft, suggesting that the act of writing was a means of creating space.
Taken together and reassembled in a video , the collage of photos became a means of introducing our second writing project, a synthesis essay-- from many parts, we can create something new. In other words, working separately and collectively at the same time, students created their own tool for teaching and learning conceptualizing writing.
There are no easy solutions to blank screens and muted mics because, it seems to me, there aren’t any. But what I learned from our collage is the significance of rethinking how to approach the teaching and learning of writing. The goal is not to somehow replicate a pre-pandemic classroom, the conditions for which no longer exist. Instead, the hope is to create something new with the tools we have before us. We also need to refuse the deficit model of “learning loss. Instead we must offer our students the means to consider and build on their strengths. Zoom can only do so much, but remote learning can do so much more than perhaps many of us believe.
Remote learning is an imperfect tool for troubled times, but we have to make use of all the instruments at our disposal. I try to remember that blank screens are not a cause for sorrow, but yet another affordance for all of us to learn to use together. Blank screens seem an appropriate metaphor for the promise that writing has to offer. At the same time, we must be unafraid to build on what we know to face what we do not yet know. Writing, in the end, can still become a process of discovery, and perhaps a practice of recovery as well.
KEY WORDS: online learning; first-year writing, writing assignments, journals, Covid-19
Caption: Teaching and Learning on Zoom (Zoom immersive background)
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My twenty-something sons have a keen interest in—okay, an obsession with—the history of media. My older son teaches film and is currently teaching a course on the future of film. That requires, of course, looking back at the past and considering how digital media have changed how films are distributed. My younger son is intrigued by the idea that his even younger cousins have never lived in a world in which YouTube didn’t exist. Having been a child when VHS tapes still had to be protected from melting in a hot car, he feels like the “old man” of media who can educate the younger generation about a world they never knew. They both use their iPhones or laptops constantly to research movies. Is it obvious to note, though, that they don’t use Facebook to do research? Or that we don’t expect our students to cite Facebook as a source in a documented essay? My older son uses Facebook to disseminate his opinions about films, just like he uses a blog. Facebook is, after all, a social media or social networking service. How, then, have we reached the point of congressional hearings examining Facebook’s role in disseminating disinformation harmful to America’s youth? Facebook creates communities of users, some much larger than others, who exchange updates on their lives and information they think will be of interest to their online community. However, the information shared is only as reliable as the community member who shares it. Facebook was never meant to be a news source, except as far as personal news was concerned. Then came the Trump administration, telling its followers that the mainstream media were not to be trusted as sources of national and international news. Some people began to put more faith in what a “friend” shared on Facebook than what a major news network reported. All of us have probably been guilty of sharing information on Facebook without thinking too critically about where that information came from. Sometimes we are glad to see someone out there reinforcing what we believe and pass it along without thinking about whether it is even true. Publishers of print media have been, and continue to be aware of the danger of printing libelous content. Now those who allow disinformation in digital form to go unchecked are facing some of the same type of scrutiny. Those who run Facebook have tried to restrict what gets passed along as truth. Frances Haugen, the whistleblower who has released thousands of pages of Facebook documents, has testified about those efforts but argues that they fall far short of what it would take to eliminate the dissemination of misinformation. She points out that Facebook did tighten restrictions about what users could post in the days leading up to the 2020 Presidential election, for example, but relaxed those restrictions once the election was over—even in light of the events of January 6th—because it was profitable to do so. A portion of Haugen’s testimony has been about the lies and conspiracy theories being spread about COVID-19 via Facebook. What is posted on a social media site can seldom be considered a matter of life and death, but lives literally are at stake if readers of a post believe that Ivermectin is a cure for COVID or that vaccinations are a Democratic conspiracy. Mark Zuckerberg and the other higher-ups at Facebook can try to put in place a plan to block disinformation. In their daily lives, as they argue politics in the heated atmosphere that currently exists in our country, Facebook’s users still must bear the responsibility that any person who constructs an argument must bear for checking out the reliability of their sources. In arguments made in the context of their academic or professional lives, the rules of research and documentation haven’t changed. An argument in support of a claim is only as good as its sources and the warrants that build a bridge between claim and warrant, no matter how funny the meme or how convincing the post is on Facebook. Image Credit: "facebook is dead" by Book Catalog is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
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In my last blog I analyzed the cultural significance of the “The Crown,” this year's toast of the Emmy Awards and a major signifier of America's continuing fascination with upper-class life. So when I read L.A. Times theater critic Charles McNulty's evisceration of the Netflix soon-to-premiere-on-Broadway musical "Diana," I decided that this would be a good opportunity to explore a different angle of the topic. So, as I am prone to say at the start of many of my semiotic analyses on this blog, here goes. To begin with, any critical review that begins by calling its subject "a crassly commercial noise machine," is clearly not going to be a piece of puffery. In fact, McNulty simply loathes the thing, cutting it off at the knees with such pronouncements as "There were lyrics so deranged I felt compelled to jot them down, almost like a psychiatrist keeping a log of a patient’s more unhinged utterances," and "'Diana' clarified for me why some people not only hate musicals but also loathe those who unabashedly do." When reading such jabs one can't help but think, "C'mon Charles, don't hold back, tell us what you really think." I confess to a certain fondness for such directness, but there is a deeper cultural significance to McNulty's takedown of which the critic himself is completely aware, remarking how "During the long pandemic pause, Broadway has been forced to confront not only its dismal record on race but also its checkered history on the rights and dignity of its workers. Cluttering the space with commercial mediocrity sadly suggests a return to business as usual. For this reason, 'Diana' isn’t just bad but dangerous." Such critical passion raises the more dispassionate question: "What do we expect from musicals, anyway? Are they art or mere entertainment?" And this is the question I wish to explore in the rest of this blog. For the musical is a genre which, from its origins in the "light" operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, occupies a liminal space between "popular" culture and "elite" culture, "low" culture and "high," commercial entertainment and art. "Higher" than the proletarian "music hall" and "lower" than, say, the royal opera, Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas defied easy cultural classification, as does the tradition that they inspired. Even the music defies easy classification, with modern composers from Andrew Lloyd Webber to Lin-Manuel Miranda digging deep into contemporary pop music as they cross over from Broadway to Billboard, and back again. McNulty's pronouncement that "Artistically, 'Diana' is soulless. The raison d'être seems to be to make money," reveals what is at stake for proponents of a Broadway tradition that, in their view, should aim high rather than low—a pop cultural standard that has been embraced ever since the Beatles and Bob Dylan raised expectations for rock music as well. So it isn't the fact that "Diana"'s score is rock-oriented that bothers McNulty (it was composed by Bon Jovi's David Bryan); the problem is that it is "composed in the cheesiest Broadway rock." But the medium, as they say, is the message, and Netflix—a wholly commercial enterprise—is a medium that isn't designed to aim high. Its purpose is to cash in. So what we are seeing here is a repetition of what happened in the very early days of television itself, when hopes that the new medium would bring high culture into the homes of the masses collapsed into a lament that TV had instead devolved into what FCC Chair Newton Minnow famously called a "vast wasteland" in 1961. So as traditional TV comes to be overtaken by the new media, the message remains the same: cultural production within a system of corporate capitalism is guided by the imperatives of the profit motive, not the nebulous and shifting values of "high" art. The result, as I have noted so many times, is the creation of an "entertainment culture" that has transformed cultural capital into just plain capital. Image Credit: "File:Curtain-939464.jpg" by tommybuddy is marked with CC0 1.0
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Like many other writing teachers, I have spent much of the last pandemic year reading and learning about how to be more inclusive and equitable in our schools and universities and about how to practice antiracist pedagogy. It’s been a year of the most intensive learning I can remember. As an old(er!) white woman who grew up in the segregated South and came of age in the 60s, that’s saying something: in those early days I confronted my own racist background, my own racism. Or I thought I did. What I’ve learned in the last couple of years is that I have much more work to do and much more to learn about what being inclusive in thinking and teaching really means.
Thanks to the outpouring of brilliant scholarship from so many Black scholars, Indigenous scholars, and other scholars of color, teachers of writing (and especially white teachers of writing) have a chance to adopt new practices of inclusion.
One of the many scholars I’ve learned from this last year is University of Central Florida professor Esther Milu, whose advice as a member of our Advisory Board for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the 8th edition of EasyWriter was so invaluable that I asked if she would have a follow up conversation with me. She graciously agreed, and I remain indebted to her for her perceptive advice and insights. (To learn more about the advisory board, visit the EasyWriter catalog page and select “DEI Advisory Board” under the “Preview” tab.)
So when I picked up the July issue of College English, I was excited to see an essay by Esther Milu as the lead article, and one that provides another example of the kind of groundbreaking scholarship I mentioned earlier. In “Diversity of Raciolinguistic Experiences in the Writing Classroom: An Argument for a Transnational Black Language Pedagogy,” she calls our attention to what should be obvious: that Black students are part of a very diverse group. Yet too often, teachers seem unaware of this diversity, assuming that if students are Black, they must speak Black Vernacular English. Milu offers multiple examples of African students who have no experience with BVE:
Because US raciolinguistic ideologies are based on US-centric racial and linguistic formations, writing and literacy instructors tend to subsume all linguistic practices of Black students in one racial category—Black. (416)
In Milu’s experience, this tendency to lump all students who are Black into one language category leads to unfortunate results, particularly for Black students who come from a very wide range of other cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Furthermore, as Samy Alim points out, the “sociolinguistic order of things” in the US works to maintain the status quo, with white middle-class English “at the top of the language hierarchy.” But this focus on English, Milu notes, “fails to account for how other imperial languages of Europe . . . have historically contributed to a racist and oppressive ‘sociolinguistic order’ globally” (417). Ironically, raising student awareness about the hegemonic forces at work in (white) US English may fail to alert transnational and immigrant African students’ to the way that their indigenous languages have been erased or suppressed by European languages.
Milu then introduces us to five African students who “are not descendants of enslaved Black people,” and specifically to writing they have done about their experiences in a white US institution, writing that theorizes their language histories and identities and reflects on how those histories relate to their language development in general. Here is Osa, a second-generation Nigerian born in the US:
Americans view me as a foreigner. As soon as the see or hear my name, they assume that I am not an American. They assume that I am from out of the country and that I cannot speak English. They always ask, “Where are you REALLY from,” like I did not just tell them I was born in New Jersey. Also as a black girl that speaks African American Language (Ebonics) people marginalize me to be the stereotypical black girl. People from the black community assume that when I speak Sandard English I am trying to be something that I am not. They think that I am trying to be white. (433-34)
Osa’s writings point out the real complexity of her linguistic and cultural identity and underscore Milu’s call on teachers to recognize this complexity, with all its implications for our teaching. Texts like Osa’s are the heart of Milu’s essay, and I hope everyone will read the gripping stories these students tell.
Their stories, of course, are a large part of what leads Milu to recommend a move to a “transnational Black language pedagogy” (436), which she locates theoretically in the early research of Geneva Smitherman, with references to Smitherman’s own grounding in the work of Black scholars such as Beryl Bailey, Lorenzo Turner, and W. E. B. Du Bois. This pedagogy calls for “teaching slavery, colonialism, and racism together to better reveal how they contributed to raciolinguistic ideologies, racialization practices, and racist sociolinguistic order in US and various Afro-Diasporic contexts” (436-37). To do so, Milu says, writing teachers will have to “familiarize themselves with various approaches to language decolonization in Africa and other Afro-Diasporic contexts” and adopt translingualism as an “option to language decolonization in Africa . . . because languaging practices in post-colonial Africa, especially among the youth, are translingual” (437). In Milu’s view, a translingual approach to writing makes room for and values linguistic heterogeneity and “gives agency to users to draw language resources from their linguistic repertoire to achieve various writing and communicative ends” (438).
Some will push back against Milu’s advocacy of a translingual approach, arguing that it does not focus strongly enough on race (Milu mentions April Baker-Bell as one who might make this criticism). Milu acknowledges the conversation in progress among those who theorize and advocate for translingualism, critical language awareness, and various forms of antiracist pedagogy. More importantly, her perspective—and her presentation of a transnational Black language pedagogy—add a great deal of substance to the ongoing discussion.
Image Credit: "Black Student Leadership Conference..." by COD Newsroom, used under a CC BY 2.0 license
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Today’s guest blogger is Kim Haimes-Korn, a Professor of English and Digital Writing at Kennesaw State University. Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning and 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 email@example.com or visit her website: Acts of Composition Overview There will never be a really free and enlightened state until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived. ~ Henry David Thoreau, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849) In my classes, I challenge students to practice strong critical reading strategies and to learn to locate themselves in a range of voices as they read and interact with texts. Many times, students stop at only interpreting the text at hand, but I encourage my students to also seriously consider the ways the texts integrate with their own thinking and lives. Strong critical reading and writing asks students to move back and forth between the text, context, and their own ideas. Critical thinking happens when we become aware of and engage with important cultural conversations and become engaged citizens on our own terms. Please click on the slide above to see an example of a completed "What Do We Stand For?" slideshow. For this assignment I use Henry David Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience to frame our discussion and ask students, “What do you stand for?” Thoreau has inspired generations to consciously resist injustice and develop personal frameworks for action through peaceful protest, passive resistance, and taking a stand. Many have taken up the call to stand up for injustice, or what civil rights icon John Lewis calls “good trouble.” We use the text as a starting place to discuss historical examples of civil disobedience such as the Boston Tea Party, Underground Railroad, civil rights sit-ins, women’s suffrage, the Stonewall riots, and other acts of courageous individuals who took a stand despite personal risk. Students work in teams to talk about their ideas and consider what is important to them at this time. They create a collaborative slideshow: What Do We Stand For: A Contemporary Response to Civil Disobedience. The goal is not to reach consensus but to work to create a list of issues and ideas for which they stand along with examples to support their ideas. There is always a risk when we open our classrooms up to potentially controversial issues and multiple perspectives on hot-button cultural conversations. As teachers, we can choose to avoid or downplay these issues or to create safe spaces where we can engage in productive, civil discourse and heightened cultural awareness in which students explore their conscience. The purpose of this assignment is not to persuade others to change their minds or even to engage in the conversations themselves. Instead, it is about identifying the larger issues that are important to students and to begin to situate themselves within these conversations. Resources The St. Martin’s Handbook – Ch. 9, Reading Critically The Everyday Writer (also available with Exercises) – Ch. 7, Critical Reading EasyWriter (also available with Exercises) – Ch. 8, Reading and Listening Analytically, Critically, and Respectfully Steps to the Assignment Have students read Thoreau’s On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (full text from Project Gutenberg). Ask them to compose 3 thought-provoking questions and pick one passage from the text to include on a team Google Doc. Teams discuss questions and passages and work to interpret the text. Move to full class discussion in which students share passages and ideas. Present and discuss historical and personal examples of civil disobedience. Instruct students to gather in teams and discuss what they currently stand for as a group. Explain that the purpose of the assignment is not to persuade but to identify these cultural conversations and decide what is important to them. Create a Google slideshow, titled “What Do We Stand For?” Each team posts a bulleted list to a Google slideshow template (one slide for each team). Click here to see an example. Ask students to include a representative, copyright free image on their slide. (This is also a good time to teach students about searching and identifying copyright free images and using Creative Commons.) Each team then presents their slide and ideas to the class as students build upon each other’s ideas. Reflections on the Activity This activity is quite simple in structure but impactful in its depth. It gives all students an opportunity to have their voices heard and to consider what is important to them as individuals and as a group. It engages them in the cultural conversations and asks them to consciously explore their relationships to these ideas. Many people identify this generation of students as apathetic and unaware. This assignment demonstrates that this notion could not be further from the truth. It also helps students realize how to be morally responsible citizens and consider ways to stand up for what they believe. By engaging in these conversations, students find the courage to speak their minds and engage in civil public discourse in productive ways. Through critical reading and thinking, they understand that change begins with the individual and that it is important to stand up, not just stand by.
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This morning, I set a travel mug of coffee on top of my car while I grabbed the rest of my belongings for class. It happened to be raining, and the umbrella I had so carefully balanced over myself and the open car door caught the edge of the mug just as I picked up my book bag. I got a hot coffee bath down my shoulder and back—followed by quick cooling relief: having dropped the umbrella, I was drenched by rain. All in all, not a great start to the morning (and the odor of coffee lingering on my blouse constantly reminds me of my folly). I chided myself, of course, as any teacher and parent would: what was I thinking? Why didn’t I leave that travel mug safely in the cup holder? My typical routine (mug on car) generally works effectively, but not so much in a downpour. So, the obvious lesson is to be cautious when dealing with bookbags, umbrellas, and coffee mugs. Perhaps this should even be a rule: never put a travel mug on top of the car when it’s raining. But of course, that rule might not protect me from all possible mishaps. Maybe I should revise my rule: never put a travel mug on top of the car, period. Or maybe I should just give up coffee. This is ridiculous, of course. In certain contexts, a travel mug waiting on top of my Chevy Blazer makes perfect sense. And there’s no reason to abandon my morning caffeine altogether. Why would I create and enforce a quick-fix rule, when a context-bound principle is needed? In my FYC course (a section combined with corequisite support), we have been discussing citations and the process of building a works cited list. When I asked my students what they already knew about these research practices, they articulated two rules: never cite Wikipedia (in fact, don’t even look at it!), and always put a parenthetical citation after a quote—or at the end of a paragraph. I probed a bit: why not cite Wikipedia? “Because it’s not reliable and usually wrong… and my last teacher said not to.” Why do you need a parenthetical citation after every quote, or every sentence, or every paragraph? “Because. . . that’s the way they said we have to do it.” The students confused principles (check for the reliability of the information, practice ethical attribution of sources) with specific rules (Thou shalt not consult Wikipedia; thou shalt always put something in parentheses after sentences in research papers). The problem, of course, is that neither rule adequately captures the purpose of the principle—at least not in all situations. In fact, each might inhibit potentially productive research or documentation strategies. Wikipedia, for example, can be effective for what I call topical “toe-dipping”: just as we stick our toes in the water to assess temperature and depth, we can get a sense of a topic from Wikipedia. So, for instance, when I encounter something new to me, perhaps an esoteric school of linguistic analysis, a Wikipedia entry can give me key names, dates, associated institutions, or seminal works. It can be a point of entry to further investigations. All complex activities require some rules and boundaries: football cannot be played without clear borders to the field and some ground rules, nor can we drive safely without an agreement to adhere to road signs and traffic signals. But as a teacher, particularly at the threshold between high-school and college, I need to resist the urge to replace complicated considerations (constructing and managing an ethos, engaging a variety of readers, assessing contexts, deciding parameters for success and completion) with a rule that may later be applied without the exigence of the original context. Such rules ultimately make choices for writers; principles, in contrast, give writers a basis for making those choices for themselves. I’ve encountered a steady flow of social media posts purporting to offer “Ten Rules for ________” (saving money on groceries, writing stronger introductions, giving more inclusive feedback, losing baby weight or menopause pounds, simplifying daily routines, engaging neurodiverse learners, detoxing, eating locally, boosting metabolism, managing difficult colleagues, etc.). I suspect my students see the same thing. All of these activities are valuable. All are worth our consideration. And all are complicated, nuanced, contextualized endeavors that cannot be reduced to a set of quick and easy rules. Writing, teaching, living a healthy life, building relationships, doing research—there is no formula for these which, once mastered, allows us to check off a completion box. We can’t say, “I follow these ten rules; I’m a good teacher now.” Today I’m pushing myself to think about where I’ve shortchanged myself or my students by offering pseudo-rules as a shortcut for the tough work of applying principles to contexts in order to make decisions (as a teacher or a writer). Where have I said, “Just don’t….” instead of asking students about the choices before them and talking through their options with them? Granted, students don’t always make the decisions that I would, nor are the decisions always successful. Sometimes, we get covered in coffee. But that’s ok. So, I’ll brew another cup in the morning, fill my travel mug, let it rest on my blazer while I get my bags together, and head into the classroom. We’ve got writing to do.
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On September 29, 2021, twenty days after her 74th birthday, Lisa Ede shuffled off this mortal coil, the field of rhetoric and writing studies lost one of its bright lights, and I… well, I lost the friend of a lifetime. In the few days since her death, I have been heartened by the outpouring of tributes and testimonies from friends and colleagues across the country and beyond, by all those who spoke of what Lisa and her work meant to them and of the many acts of kindness, mentorship, and unflagging support she was so well known for. And I’ve smiled through tears as I remember Marvin Diogenes saying “Lisa gives the best hugs.” She did indeed. And so much more. Lisa and I met in the fall of 1972 when I arrived at Ohio State to begin my Ph.D. Though I was five years older, Lisa was ahead of me by two years (and in more ways than one!) and like everyone else there at the time, she was focusing on literature. Back then, she was a Victorianist, and went on to write her dissertation on Lewis Carroll and the “nonsense” poets. But change was in the air, and when a few grad students started agitating for courses on rhetoric and writing, Lisa got more and more interested. She went on to study with Edward P. J. Corbett and with Richard Young in an NEH Seminar devoted to invention, and then landed a position in writing studies at SUNY Brockport before moving west to join the faculty at Oregon State and develop the writing program and the legendary Center for Writing and Learning there. Along the way, she published seminal essays on authorship, on collaboration, on audience, and on writing center theory and practice, as well as important textbooks. Also along the way, she was honored with the CCCC Braddock Award, with the MLA Mina Shaughnessy Award, with an Oregon State symposium on her work, and with the Lisa Ede Mentoring Award given by the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition. These are the bare outlines of a rich and full career. As I grieve for her now, I think of that career, to be sure, but I think of so many other small, everyday moments of her life. Of the evening, probably forty+ years ago, when Lisa and I and several others were gathered at her and Greg’s house and we found ourselves pulling out the print version of the Oxford English Dictionary to settle an argument over the definition of wetlands: fens, bogs, mires, swamps, whatever—when the doorbell rang. We all went to open it, dictionary in hand, and Lisa greeted two students who were turning in late essays. They took us in in one sweep and the look on their faces said it all: “So this is what English professors do on Friday nights—read aloud from a gigantic dictionary.” And Lisa, smiling sweetly, shaking their hands, thanking them—and then collapsing with laughter as we shut the door. English professors on Friday nights. Of the summer we celebrated finishing “Audience Addressed / Audience Invoked” by making FORTY-THREE jars of pesto with basil harvested from Greg’s garden, taking a photo of ourselves sitting proudly behind the fruits of our labor. Of the weekend we celebrated sending off the revised manuscript of Singular Texts/Plural Authors with a trip to Canned Foods (!), one of Lisa’s favorite haunts in Corvallis. Talk about the big time…. Of the time we spent preparing refreshments to serve at Jon Olson and Cheryl Glenn’s wedding, arguing over ingredients and recipes and especially over how many of this or that we should make—and loving every single second of it. And of the darkest time of my life, when Lisa was there, with compassion, wisdom, and the steadiness that pulled me through. Thank you, Lisa. In the days since her death, I have been drawn to a poem Lisa loved, one we often recited together, called the “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry. You can click here to read the poem in its entirety, but I will include a short excerpt here: “When despair for the world grows in me // I come into the peace of wild things // I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” What I wish tonight, for all teachers of writing everywhere, is that you have a friend like Lisa—and that you can, as often as possible, rest in the grace of the world. Image Credit: Andrea Lunsford
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Emerging's fifth edition is here, and it contains some great new readings - including Gavin Haynes's discussion of purity spirals. See this video blog for ideas about teaching with this reading, the portability of the purity spiral idea to other readings and contexts, and how to develop student insight into what holds communities together or tears them apart.
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Whether you are teaching in person or online, we are all witnessing the social-emotional cost of students trudging through the 18th month of the pandemic. In one-on-one meetings with all my first-semester students, I was struck by how many described themselves as feeling “socially anxious,” having “anxiety,” or just feeling overwhelmed and “awkward” about being around so many other humans every day. It takes a lot of energy, for sure. As an introvert who works hard to turn on extrovert energy for the class period (I am sure I am not alone), I empathize. Even students who seem fluent in the classroom have confessed to being maxed out by the human tasks of getting dressed, showing up to class, and turning in assignments, over and over. My small data set of anxious students jibes with larger studies that show high levels of social anxiety in our student populations. For incoming students who have limped through their final semesters of high school online, the leap to college-level expectations might be especially anxiety-producing. Rather than feeling we must push students to “get up to speed” for college learning, we might honor students’ rawness—and our own (after all, we’re also 18 months into this pandemic slog)—by refocusing on how we learn, and the time and risks it can take to stretch as writers. For these reasons, I have lingered over Miriam Moore’s description of respecting the necessary slowness of the writing process, and sharing the experience with her students of being “stuck.” I also appreciate Andrea Lunsford’s recommendation for slowing down to set affirmations about our writing intentions. Rather than pretending we are back to “before times,” we might do well to question our previous expectations of student “performance,” and reexamine what learning means in our newly challenging context. I have written before about the “Ungrading” movement and the social-justice shift it requires of instructors to value learning over grading in our classrooms. The “game” of schooling (meeting deadlines or being punished, following rules exactly or being punished), which fell apart for many students during the pandemic, is perhaps one we should stop playing forever. After all, so many of those rules are out of step with how scholars actually work. Consider how many manuscripts are submitted late, or articles are given feedback for a “revise and resubmit.” What might our courses look like if we offered students the grace we receive as scholars? On my campus, our “Ungrading” faculty discussion group is about to start back up. I encourage you to start one on your campus, too. You might begin by reading Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards for some provocative theoretical grounding. Or, you might dive right into an anthology like Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum. Even a small step, such as allowing students to re-submit assignments after receiving feedback, can help your students focus on their own learning and growth, and might assuage some of their anxiety about this semester. What is working for you as you acknowledge your students’ pandemic anxiety and help them focus on their learning? If the rich discussion on our campus and in Bits posts is any indication, we can be one another’s best allies as we turn another challenging semester into an opportunity for pedagogical innovation. Image Credit: Photograph of a laptop and textbook on an outdoor table taken by the author, April Lidinsky
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We know from our own experience, and from mountains of research (see Iowa State’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching to get a sense of what’s out there), that students need to feel like they belong in our classrooms if they are going to succeed. We foster this sense of belonging in everything we do: from the way we greet students on their first day in class to the way say goodbye on their final day. For me, though, course design is the first area of focus that comes to mind when I think about how to ensure students feel they are an integral part of the class. We can help our students feel at home even before they arrive in our classrooms by carefully planning the fifteen weeks we will share with them so that our time spent together is equitable, clear, relevant, and reflective. The Course Design Equity and Inclusion Rubric available at Stanford’s Teaching Commons offers a helpful way to evaluate one’s own course content. The rubric features categories such as “Personal Connections and Relevance,” “Transparency of Content,” “Diversity of Perspectives” and “Diversity of Media” that will remind instructors—especially those of us who have been around a while—to take a fresh look at not only what material we are assigning but how we expect students to respond to it. The pandemic has reminded us how reliant we have become on technology to enable learning, but also how tentative our connections to that technology sometimes are. It’s vital, therefore, that while we take advantage of the learning resources that are at hand, we make no easy assumptions about students’ access to or competence in the technosphere. As Clint Smith points out in his 2019 Atlantic article “Elite Colleges Constantly Tell Low-Income Students That They Do Not Belong,” it is wrong to treat all students “as homogeneous…, as if they all navigate these schools in the same way.” Naturally, our course homepage and syllabus should be easy to read and easy to navigate. We not only model clear writing for our students in these documents, but we also ensure that our expectations and theirs are in concert. And it is here that we demonstrate—by assigning diverse authors and content-creators in varied genres—that we honor a range of ways of expressing ideas and opinions. Of course, students cannot succeed unless their basic needs are met. Even the most dedicated student will necessarily prioritize shelter and food over a problem-solution essay. Our awareness of our campus’s full resources, and our ability to guide students directly to the resources they need, is a clear sign that we believe all students belong in our classes. Instructors in every discipline take for granted the importance of their own field of study, but those of us in English probably feel that the importance of our subject is self-evident. It’s obvious to us that success in college will depend, to a large extent, on one’s ability to communicate clearly and persuasively. However, our discipline’s relevance may not be immediately apparent to a student planning to study Chemistry or Computer Science, and we need early and often to connect the value of effective written and spoken communication to success across the curriculum. In a study of college students from nonmajor sections of biology, psychology, and English, researchers found that students feel an increased sense of belonging to the course in which they are enrolled when they perceive that “academic tasks are interesting, important, and useful” (Freeman et al 205). Finally, we must plan time throughout the semester for students’ self-reflection. In my experience, these meta-conversations about college that students may initially feel are off-topic, may wind up being as important as any discussion of course content. Maithreyi Gopalan and Shannon Brady recommend creating an environment “that helps students feel connected to each other, to faculty and staff, and to the institution.” Among their suggestions for fostering this sense of belonging is foregrounding the idea that “certain kinds of challenges in the transition to college…are common, shared by many students from diverse backgrounds, and likely to abate over time. Such thoughtful outreach seems to be especially powerful for Black, Latinx, Native, and first-generation students.” Granted, Day One of any class is a crucial one, but “Day Zero”—the planning that takes place before the course even starts—is just as important.
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Leah Washburn Leah Washburn (recommended by Wallace Cleaves), Bedford New Scholar 2021, is pursuing her PhD in English Literature at The University of California, Riverside and hopes to graduate in Spring 2023. She graduated from University of Central Florida in 2018 with an MFA in Creative Writing, where she taught Intro to Creative Writing. She also worked two years on The Florida Review, coordinating undergraduate interns and providing administrative support. During her undergraduate years, she worked as a writing fellow at Rhodes College for three years. Her research interests include digital media, ludology, narratology, contemporary speculative fiction, and postmodern fiction. What do you think is the most important recent development or pedagogical approach in teaching composition? I don’t know if I would consider it recent, but the increase in contract grading and understanding that effort is not the same as product. Product- versus process-oriented learning has been the shape of the field for the past decades, and I think the contract grading system is just a more equitable continuation of that. I first heard about in Asao Inoue’s Anti-Racist Writing Pedagogies , where he outlines the contract he gives to his student and spends a whole class period negotiating it with them. Giving students agency and power is important in a class where they have to repeatedly share writing, an act that makes them extremely vulnerable. I appreciate that more and more the idea of effort and “productive failure” is prioritized in the composition classroom. I’m a former athlete, so it always seemed strange to me that classrooms would not give students safe spaces to fail and then learn from the failure. I’m glad that more and more pedagogy is prioritizing the student learning process and giving them safe spaces to learn from their mistakes. What is the most important skill you aim to provide your students? Critical reading and thinking are a vital part of the argumentative rhetorical process, and in brief semesters—or even briefer quarters—I think this gets overlooked for the sake of writing mechanics. A lot of times students hear critical reading and critical thinking and their mind goes to deep analysis of “literature” that relies on an encyclopedic understanding of fancy literary terms. That’s not what critical thinking is. They often do critical thinking in their everyday life. Questioning whether it’s better to buy off-brand cereal or the Kellogg’s bee; debating what they should wear to party; deciding how to manage their inventory in a video game. Our students are doing acts of critical thinking all the time. In my classroom, I just try to make them aware of this and then apply that to a text. Why did the author make this decision? Ok, this sentence made you feel sad—why? Encouraging the inquiring spirit is vital to building their critical reading skills. What’s it like to co-design or work with the editorial team at Bedford/St. Martin’s? Working with this editorial team was very wonderful because, clearly, they all listened. I know that seems like such a small thing, but (especially in academia), there tends to be times where you hit a wall where people just stop taking feedback. While maybe we Scholars didn’t know the logistical side of making ideas come to life, the editorial staff was happy to answer questions and eager to learn from us. It always felt like a conversation open to discussing how to make something the best version it could be. What have you learned from other Bedford New Scholars? No one is perfect, and the funkier the assignment, the better. Let me clarify: the more creative and personable an assignment is to your class, the better it goes. Student’s write tons of essays, but having them do something that is unique and new allows them to stretch their writing brain. And there are a lot of ways to twist an “essay” into something that fits the course requirements but also invites the students to think differently. Leah'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 Leah's assignment. For the full activity, see Dungeons and Dragons in the Composition Classroom. This assignment is designed to introduce students to the “Analyzing Stories” essay from the St. Martin’s Guide to Writing , but it can be tailored for any assignment or classroom. The goal is to help students critically think and read without revealing to them that they are actually doing it. For my class, I created four different puzzles designed to help them move toward the essay. Students got into groups of 4-5 and then each person chose a “character” to play from 6 options. Each group could only have one of each character. My challenges were geared towards citation, essay structure, analyzing stories, and general argumentation, but you can substitute whatever areas you think your students need to work on. The materials provided are the ones I came up with but change them as you will. The goal is to give students opportunities to make choices and think critically about the challenge in a “game-like” way that sneakily introduces them to information they need to know.
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If you have used Elements of Argument or Structure of Argument through multiple editions, you have seen us change our use of the basic Toulmin term warrant. It is a difficult term for students to understand, compared to the other two elements of the triad, claim and support. Although we still acknowledge Toulmin’s use of warrant, we have shifted to the more common term assumption. Whether we talk about warrants or underlying assumptions, however, today’s headlines make clear just how critical an understanding of those underlying beliefs is to argumentation and why, at this point in our political history, common ground is almost impossible to achieve. A shared worldview makes agreement easy. If you are “preaching to the choir,” or communicating with people who share your views, you don’t really have to do any convincing. If a reader or listener does not already share your views but is open to considering what you have to say, you may be able to persuade them by elaborating upon your opinion. It can be as basic as advocating one product over another. A more expensive dishwashing detergent may not seem like a good buy until you point out that it is more concentrated and actually does more dishes for less money. Since you and your audience probably both like to save money, bringing someone around to your point of view is usually not too difficult. The battle raging in America over vaccines will surely go down in history as one of the most significant clashes over values in our history. Humans have died for their values before. Martyrs throughout history have died for their religious or political beliefs. People who have fought in our many wars have died for various values they believed were worth their own sacrifice. In my state, the number of deaths from COVID-19 just surpassed the total number of soldiers who have died in all wars since World War I. Think about that. More people have died of COVID here than died in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom combined. Many died before there was a vaccine. A tragically large number continue to die. What is it in their belief system—what assumptions underlie their reasoning—that make it impossible for some, even on their deathbed, to admit they are dying of COVID, a terrible disease, but one for which there has been a safe and effective vaccine for months? We know from our study of logic that a conclusion is only as valid as its premises. If the major premise is that a vaccine should not be taken if it is dangerous, and the conclusion is that they should not take the vaccine, there are a range of statements that serve as the minor premise of their syllogistic reasoning: It’s toxic. Hundreds of thousands of people have died from the vaccine. It was developed too fast. It’s experimental. It will make me magnetic. None of those statements is true, and thus the conclusion cannot be true, based on those minor premises. People continue to deny facts about the vaccine because they have been told not to trust the mainstream media, where those facts are readily available. Others argue that the government does not have the right to mandate vaccination, in spite of the fact that vaccinations have been required for decades for public school attendance. Other requirements designed for public safety, such as mandatory seat belts and motorcycle helmets, have also been around for years. Refusal to comply in the case of the COVID vaccine is especially adamant because the issue has been politicized beyond all reason. It boils down to the belief that the government does not have the right to force American citizens to be vaccinated, or even to wear a mask. Will anything change the minds of those opposed to the vaccine? Some have changed their minds after recovering from COVID; more seem to change their minds when it is too late for them to be saved but may not be too late for their loved ones. Short of that, the concern for others around them that might be infected, including children too young to be vaccinated, has not been enough to outweigh the concern that their rights are being taken away. Workers have been attacked for trying to enforce mask mandates or a vaccination requirement. Airplanes have had to return to the terminal because passengers refuse to wear a mask. A popular meme reads, “I was asked, ‘You’re willing to lose friends over politics?!!’ I said, ‘I am willing to lose friends over morals. HUGE difference.’” The warrants that underlie our arguments about such issues as abortion, racism, gender identity, immigration, and COVID are deeply embedded in our moral code. Thus, the strong feelings and, yes, the anger continue to engulf our country. As bad as the pandemic is, the rift in our country will unfortunately still be here when COVID is gone. Image Credit: “Anti-Vaccine Activists Spread Fear About COVID Vaccines" by Francisco Antunes is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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American television was born and came of age during a mid-twentieth century economic expansion that—assisted by strong unions, a progressive income tax, and the G. I. Bill—vaulted an unprecedented number of people out of working-class poverty into (relative) middle-class prosperity. Reflecting, and in many ways, ideologically shaping this transformation, the situation comedy (sitcom) emerged as the preeminent TV genre of the era with its comfortable, but never economically extravagant, households idealizing a peculiarly American institution: the suburban middle-class nuclear family. Other prominent genres of the period included variety and game shows, along with the highly mythologized (and now almost entirely extinct) Western, but it is the family sitcom that sticks in our collective memories as most representative of that time, bringing to America's living rooms images of a middle-class idyll in which a man's suburban ranch house might be his castle—but not literally. That is why I was so struck by this year's Emmy Awards, in which The Crown—a Netflix series that dramatizes the post-war history (well, quasi-history as a number of critics have hastened to point out) of the British Royal Family—walked off with most of the top honors. A glance at the Netflix website to find out more about the show further piqued my attention when I saw displayed there old world upper-class soap operas such as Versailles, Reign, Bridgerton, The Cook of Castamar, and The English Game (with its Upstairs, Downstairs-like casting). "Something is definitely going on here," I thought; "the semiotic question is 'what'?" It isn't that soapy costume dramas set in Europe (especially England) are anything new. Indeed, the aforementioned Upstairs, Downstairs headlined a constant stream of such programs on PBS's Masterpiece Theater in the 1970s, and the franchise continues (under the new name Masterpiece) to this day. There has even been a brief effort to bring back Upstairs, Downstairs. But fifty years ago, this was something new, a departure into television fare that was at once popular and somewhat exclusive, with WGBH (the Boston PBS station that introduced Masterpiece Theater to America) enjoying a highbrow reputation as the go-to network for America's cultural elite. And this is the kind of difference upon which semiotic analyses can be built. It is highly significant in this regard, then, that even as PBS was turning towards British imports featuring English high society in the seventies, ABC, NBC, and CBS were producing working-class comedies like All in the Family and Laverne & Shirley, while at the same time American popular culture as a whole was going "country," with truck drivers (Convoy) and country music stars (Coal Miner's Daughter) enjoying a kind of populist moment in the sun. This, after all, was also the era of Hee Haw. But something else was also going on, for the 1970s marks the era during which the American middle class began to fracture, with an emergent upper middle class (spearheaded by the notorious yuppies) drawing further and further away from what can best be called the struggling middle class. The current success of The Crown, and other closely related series like Downton Abbey (am I the only one who wanted the Crawleys to lose their precious estate?) is a plangent signifier of this divide, for here is elite television in more ways than one, a real-life fantasy of the ultimate in power and privilege for an ever-more-prosperous upper-middle-class audience. And what is everyone else watching? According to Variety, the three most viewed television programs (by a wide margin) in 2020-21 were 1. NFL Sunday Night Football, 2. NFL Thursday Night Football, and 3. NFL Monday Night Football—all traditional bastions of middle (and working) class viewership. Interestingly, and perhaps significantly, a show called The Equalizer is tied for number 6. Image Credit: "Windsor Castle" by Francisco Antunes is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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I’ve just read Asao Inoue’s new book, Above the Well: An Antiracist Literacy Argument from a Boy of Color—and I think you would like to read it too. I’ve known Inoue since he was a graduate student at Oregon State—that is to say, a long time—and I have followed him and his career with great interest. Listening to him over the years hasn’t always been easy: what seems to me to be the strident and combative style often on display in his presentations can rub my feminist collaborative leanings the wrong way, and I haven’t always felt that the policies he argues for, such as those regarding grading, hold up under close scrutiny.
But I have always listened, always wanted to hear and to understand—as best as a privileged, white, cisgender, aging woman can. And I am very glad I have because now comes this new book that, to me, sets forth Inoue’s antiracist project in the most powerful terms possible. From the first sentence (“Our language participates in racial violence”) to the closing discussion of deep attentive reading as a way to “make deeper sense of things, perhaps more compassionate sense of things,” I felt I was in conversation with a passionate, insightful guide helping me to see and to hear not only what racist language hath wrought but also what doing antiracism can mean.
Inoue’s opening line about language and racial violence took me instantly back to Elspeth Stuckey’s The Violence of Literacy, which was published in 1990, the same year I coauthored a report on a 1988 MLA-sponsored conference on The Right to Literacy. That conference focused on literacy as a fundamental right of all people—and featured panels, like one presented by health care workers in Georgia who spoke about the struggle for literacy when powerful forces were bent on denying it—so I was keenly aware of the vast discrepancies at work in who had access to literacy. Nevertheless, Stuckey’s book was stunning in its revelations of the relationship between language and violence, and especially race-based violence. As a young white teacher, I had viewed language and literacy in a wholly positive light, as ways to gain power and come to voice. From the mid to late 80s on, I had to question those naïve views more and more.
Thanks to Stuckey and others (primarily Geneva Smitherman), I grasped the double-edged nature of literacy—as potentially oppressor and liberator. What other scholars of color since then and Asao Inoue most recently have pointed out is the need to look deeper into literacy, to ask what kind of literacy, whose literacy, oppresses—and whose potentially liberates.
The kind of literacy that has oppressed so many is American Standard English/literacy, or Edited Written English/literacy or Standardized English/literacy—or just White English/literacy. Whatever we call it—and the terminology is being debated right now—this form of literacy has worked persistently and all too often silently to confuse and silence and oppress huge numbers of people, often in the name of trying to “help” or “advance” them.
This is received wisdom today. But its message comes alive again, and brilliantly, in Inoue’s book, in his experiences as a “boy of color” with big dreams who has the wit and the grit to sense when he is being bamboozled or given one of the blank checks described so eloquently by Martin Luther King.
It’s hard for me to point to my favorite part of Inoue’s book, with its rich mix of autobiography and memoir, historical analysis, argument, and mythic imagining. But at the top of my list is Inoue’s engagement with Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style (first written by Strunk in 1920 and elaborated by White in 1959—and still a bestseller on Amazon today). I can remember ranting against this book as a graduate student, saying that it made sense only to those who already knew what everything in it meant: that is, advice to “be brief” is meaningless unless you already know how to do so. So reading Inoue’s definitive put-down of this book was particularly gratifying to me. But that personal reaction is insignificant given the portrait Inoue paints of a young student writer caught in the web of confusing, often contradictory, arbitrary, and even nonsensical nostrums:
The text says, “Do not use periods for commas.” Okay, so when I can use commas? Now I’m not sure if I’m using periods right, either. I’m feeling more confused. How this explanation help anyone? This tells me the rule, but not in a way I understan. I tell myself to think like a White kid. Things start to get shakier fo me. When the hell I use commas and periods? I can feel the anxiety rise in me. This school-shit feels so arcane, I think. Yeah, arcane, that’s the word, like in D&D.” (76)
Yep, it tells the rule, all right, but in a way that only privileged White students who already know what it means can follow. Here Inoue’s evocation of the feelings associated with the violence of literacy is pitch-perfect powerful.
In this and so many other places in his book, Inoue demonstrates why this kind of (White) language use and policy is simply unsustainable, not to mention undesirable. The case he makes seems to me invincible. And sprinkled throughout are suggestions of what can and must replace it, the kind of language use and policy that can and should be sustainable. As a teacher, I would have liked to hear more (and more) about these suggestions, more about what must come next. I look, with hope, to Inoue and others who are leading the way in arguing for and demonstrating what must come next. In the meantime, I hope you will go to the WAC Clearinghouse to read this book and learn more about how to support Inoue’s antiracist work.
Image Credit: "Two stacks of books next to each other" by Horia Varlan, used under a CC BY 2.0 license
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Hello! I am excited to announce the launch of a new series on Bedford Bits: Tiny Teaching Stories, and to invite your participation.
What are Tiny Teaching Stories, you ask? See our introductory video:
To get us started, I'd like to share my own Tiny Teaching Story with you.
We were small zoom squares, remote, distant, across 4 continents. In our online writing class, I talked about the need to create a classroom community; they filled the chat box talk with fears about the pandemic, who had died, and who was in hospital. Isabelle, in Vietnam, sprawled on her pink ruffled bedspread; Zara, in Pakistan, turned off her video to leave class for morning prayers. We understood that we would never see each other in person; we would always be at a distance, always in gallery view. And yet, when I missed class on the day my mother died, from across 4 continents they sent me poems of consolation and a bouquet of sunflowers.
Now, we want to hear from you. Send us your Tiny Teaching Story!
Submit your Tiny Teaching Story to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Guidelines for submission:
Stories should be no more than 100 words.
Include with your submission the attached release form.
Tiny Teaching Stories can be published anonymously or with attribution; please indicate your preference in your submission and include a brief one to two sentence biography for non-anonymous publication. If you would like to, we encourage you to also submit your social media handles and a headshot (optional).
Please change identifying names and details of students to protect their privacy.
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