In my last post I wrote about my deepening sense of grading as a social justice issue, inspired by an early summer faculty book group discussing Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), a collection edited by linguistic anthropologist Susan D. Blum. I’m persuaded that the uneasiness so many of us feel about grading is justified. As law professor Anna Lund puts it: “What's ungrading, you ask? It means moving away from ranking students.” Building on a body of research demonstrating that grades curb student learning, “ungrading” approaches instead focus on student metacognition and guided self-assessment.
Our book group on Ungrading included instructors from humanities, social sciences, and science and health sciences backgrounds, all thinking through how “ungrading" might work in our disciplines. We speculated what this shift could mean for students in their first college semester all the way through their graduate courses. If you hatch these conversations with colleagues, you might hear some resistance. After all, there is utility, of a kind, in the sorting and ranking we have been taught to reproduce. However, Blum and the writers in this volume offer persuasive evidence that could counter any of the “buts” you might hear, including ways to incorporate ungrading principles in STEM and general education classes, as well as multi-section and larger classes. (See her final chapter titled “Not Simple but Essential” for some inspiration.)
Here are some ungrading-inspired strategies I have been using, which I plan to develop into broader approaches for my fall courses. I hope to learn from you, too, what you are trying in the spirit of this pedagogical movement.
Ungrading and class participation
I plan to continue to give my students (from first semester undergrads to grad students) control over their participation scores, devoting time in our early class meetings for them to develop together what it will mean to show up, to prepare carefully, to take risks and try new skills, and to articulate their own goals for growth. Frequent check-ins throughout the semester help students foster the metacognition about learning that is a central tenet of ungrading. I offer time during a penultimate class day for students to write up these self-assessments. They are often quite moving to read.
Rationale: As a feminist, I encourage students to assess and value their growth and abilities, a self-advocating skill that is particularly important for marginalized people in every field of work.
Ungrading and cover letters for drafts, polished drafts, and end-of-semester reflections on writing
I have written about cover letters in another post, but here’s the brief and adaptable assignment, intended to be completed on due dates during class time, so that it doesn't become one more assignment.
Write a reflective 1-page(ish) cover letter to me about:
* Your research and drafting process. What are you continuing from your last assignment, and what are you trying that is new? Why?
* What are you most pleased with in this draft/final draft? Be specific, and explain why.
* What are you struggling with, and what kind of feedback would help you?
* Is there anything else you'd like to comment on or ask me about?
* For the end of the semester: Consider your growth over the semester as a researcher and writer, and tell me what you're proud of, what you plan to take into other classes, and what you plan to keep working on.
Rationale: Fostering metacognition about the research and writing process is essential to our ongoing growth as thinkers and writers. I use variations on this assignment for all my courses, from first-year seminars to graduate courses.
Ungrading and assignments done in groups, or which require high risks
For any assignment that requires students to take especially high risks, creatively or collaboratively, I have begun offering class time for students to develop goals for the assignment at the start. Students can then use those goals as a touchstone after the assignment for reflecting on the ways they stretched themselves, surprised themselves, and what they learned about themselves and the skills they are developing. I use this for “Reacting to the Past” assignments, group projects, and attempts at new genres (most recently, collectively written feminist manifestos, inspired by Penny A. Weiss’s Feminist Manifestos: A Global Documentary Reader).
Rationale: Students have appreciated the freedom to experiment and challenge themselves, knowing they will be able to assess their own growth, rather than waiting for outside judgment. I learn a lot about them, and about the effectiveness of the assignments.
Of course, this move toward ungrading is as much about us as instructors as it is about our students. In the closing pages of Ungrading, a quotation has stuck with me from Therese Huston’s Teaching What You Don’t Know: “What could our classrooms look like if we modeled learning rather than modeling already knowing?” (Ungrading 224). I’ll hold that challenge in mind as I hatch plans for my next classes. What ideas are you incubating over the summer?
Image Credit: Photograph of an egg taken by the author
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At Stanford, May has always been my second favorite month of the year. First is always September, when fall term opens and we welcome a new class of students: nothing can match the excitement and anticipation I feel then. But May comes very close because that is the month we celebrate writing, with awards presented to first-year writing students, second-year writing students, and students in writing in the majors courses. Over the decades, I have been consistently elated by the depth of research, the quality of thought, and the unique voices that these awards honor.
Traditionally, these awards—like similar ones all over the country—were presented at receptions on campus, with friends and family and instructors there to congratulate and celebrate the writers. But then came the pandemic, the shutdown of the entire area, and the shift online. Like teachers everywhere, the Program in Writing and Rhetoric instructors at Stanford, under the always brilliant leadership of Adam Banks, Marvin Diogenes, and Christine Alfano, worked ceaselessly to adapt to the new learning and teaching environment and to meet students—and student needs—wherever they were. And like students everywhere, our students worked to meet the challenges of online writing seminars, learning to work together in online teams, to deal with the glitches and intricacies of Zoom and other virtual meeting spaces, and to try to stay connected, to build and maintain a virtual classroom ethos.
It hasn’t always been pretty: I’ve talked with teachers across the country who were exhausted, frustrated, and stretched beyond the limit, and more than once I’ve wondered whether I shouldn’t be thankful to be retired (I taught a small online grad class in summer 2020 but nothing more).
Yet here we are, over a year after the lockdown and shift, and I’m wondering how best to recognize and celebrate the student research and writing and speaking that occurred during this pandemic, online year. Thinking through this issue led our writing program to make this announcement:
Since Spring 2020, all PWR 2 courses have been taught online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Typically, Lunsford award [the award for second-year writing students] honorees would present in front of a live audience and two winners would be selected. Giving and recording an oral presentation in an online environment provides both new challenges but also new possibilities and we saw a range of creative and powerful responses to oral presentation research. We've created a gallery of Spring/Summer 2020 honorees, Fall 2020 honorees, and Winter 2021 honorees, featuring the exemplary work that students produced in their fully online environments.
So this year, the program decided to honor every student nominated by an instructor—and to create a gallery of the work of these students for all to enjoy. I’ve been dipping into these galleries for the past week and I have been impressed, over and over again, by both the research these students have conducted during this very strange and very trying year and their presentation of that research. So once again, May is bringing me great happiness in the form of these remarkable presentations. Please dip in too!
I’ll be taking a summer break from blog postings as I anticipate a new fall term and some form of returning to campus. I will be catching up on reading, doing some writing and research, and working in my community organic garden. And I will be thinking of teachers of writing everywhere, and of our students, wishing for a healthy, productive, and restorative summer for all.
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This blog series is written by Julia Domenicucci, an editor at Macmillan Learning, in conjunction with Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. Somehow, the end of the year—and the start of summer—is here again! This blog post asks students to evaluate their writing from the past few months, using podcasts to consider their areas of success and skills that need improvement. Podcasts are well-established, but their popularity seems to increase every day—and for good reason! They are engaging and creative, and they cover every topic imaginable. They are also great for the classroom: you can use them to maintain student engagement, accommodate different learning styles, and introduce multimodality. LaunchPad and Achieve products include assignable, ad-free Grammar Girl podcasts, which you can use to support your lessons. You can assign one (or all!) of these suggested podcasts for students to listen to before class. Each podcast also comes with a complete transcript, which is perfect for students who aren’t audio learners or otherwise prefer to read the content. To learn more about digital products and purchasing options, please visit Macmillan's English catalog or speak with your sales representative. If you are using LaunchPad, refer to the unit “Grammar Girl Podcasts” for instructions on assigning podcasts. You can also find the same information on the support page " Assign Grammar Girl Podcasts ." If you are using Achieve, you can find information on assigning Grammar Girl in Achieve on the support page “ Add Grammar Girl and shared English content to your course .” If your English Achieve product is copyright year 2021 or later, you are able to use a folder of suggested Grammar Girl podcasts in your course; please see “ Using Suggested Grammar Girl Podcasts in Achieve for English Products ” for more information. Using Grammar Girl Podcasts to Reflect on the Semester Pre-Class Work: Ask your students to think back over their assignments from this semester. You might ask them to consider assignments from just your course, or you may open it up to all courses from this semester. Each student should brainstorm for a few minutes, listing at least 3 writing areas or skills they feel they have used successfully, and at least 3 areas that they still feel they need to improve. If your students are struggling to come up with topics, ask them to reflect on the following and categorize them as either “successful” or “needs improvement”: use of active/passive voice comma usage use of citations audience awareness subject-verb agreement metaphors and similes Assignment A: Ask each student to choose and listen to a Grammar Girl podcast that relates to one of the the items on their “needs improvement” list. If there is time, they might listen to more than one! Or, ask students to share their lists with you, allowing you to assign podcasts to the whole class based on what students had the most trouble with. (Tip: If you are using LaunchPad, direct your students to the “Menu of Grammar Girl Podcasts”; if you are using Achieve you will need to make the podcasts available using the instructions at “ Add Grammar Girl and shared English content to your course .”) Then, ask students to list out 3 things they learned from the podcast(s) about their topic, 2 ways they will work to improve their writing in the following semesters, and 1 question they still have about their writing or about a particular skill. Reflection for Assignment A: Ask students to write 1-3 paragraphs about what writing skills they hope to learn in the future. This could be as simple as improving grammar or usage (such as use of commas) or as complex as learning a specific type of writing (such as lab reports). Assignment B: Ask students to choose one of the skills they identified as successful. Then, either assign a short Grammar Girl podcast or listen to one together in class. Any topic will work, although you might suggest a podcast focused on something you would like your students to learn more about. Using the Grammar Girl podcast as a model, students should then draft a short podcast script outlining their best tips for success in their chosen area. If time allows, students might record a rough draft of their podcast as well. Students should aim for 1-2 minute podcasts. If you are in person, put students in small groups and have them share their podcast scripts. Or, match students together online and ask them to share digitally. Reflection for Assignment B: Ask students to list one thing they learned from each peer’s podcast script. Then, ask them to write a paragraph about the writing skill they would most like to improve, and a potential plan for improving it. Credit: " Reflection " by Anderson Mancini is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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[For Part 1 of “Beyond Standardized English: A Personal Journey,” click here.]
I began trying to put what I had been learning in the 70s and 80s into practice, and in 1993, I added a chapter on “Language Variety” to the first textbook I ever wrote, The St. Martin’s Handbook. This chapter attempted to embody the principles of Students’ Right to Their Own Language and to recognize and value the legitimacy of ALL languages and dialects.
As far as I know, this was the first composition handbook to take such a position, however timid and naive, and it is one I have tried to build on and refine and expand as I have written other textbooks. And I kept trying to learn. One way was through developing a course I taught for years at Stanford and at the Bread Loaf School of English called “The Language Wars.” This course began with the struggle over vernacular literacies in many countries; then moved to the obsessive insistence of early U.S. “settlers” that the native population learn English, no matter what; through the withholding of literacy from indigenous people and African Americans; through the intricacies of “the Ebonics debate;” and to the powerful work of writers of color who were moving beyond—way, way beyond—“standardized” English. Teaching that course was about the most fun I could imagine, especially because, unlike me, my students almost always “got it” immediately and went on to produce brilliant writing that pushed beyond all manner of “standardized” boundaries.
This steep learning curve was, for me, often a painful and humbling journey, one that led me to fully recognize the roles that literacy in general and writing in particular have played in regulating and oppressing many—and to analyze or try to analyze my own motives and complicities. It led me to study and appreciate as many Englishes as I possibly could along with what Peter Elbow calls “vernacular eloquence” and what Carmen Kynard called “vernacular insurrections,” and to approach the teaching of writing and writing development—always—as a learner.
It has also led me back to a renewed appreciation of basic rhetorical principles and particularly to the notion that rhetoric cannot operate when choice is not present. That means that as teachers we must always begin with writers’ choices, with what they want their writing to do, to whom they wish to speak, and why they are writing in the first place. This sense of writing as an act, as a doing, as a making—rather than the mere noting down of thought—is powerful for teachers and students alike. I watched this sense of writing as doing and making grow in the students I followed in the five-year Stanford Study of Writing, as they moved from viewing writing as a perfunctory way to get a grade to viewing writing and especially good writing as “making something good happen in the world.” This same sense of writing as doing is emerging in The Wayfinding Project of Jonathan Alexander, Karen Lunsford, and Carl Whithaus, who reported this finding during the 2021 CCCC meeting.
What I find encouraging about such findings in general, but especially about how teachers of writing can capitalize on them, is that NOW—thanks to persistent and courageous scholars and teachers of color—the tools and strategies students have at their disposal in pursuing writing as doing and making are so much more diverse, more varied, and more powerful in this time of “vernacular eloquence” and “vernacular insurrections.” As Elaine Richardson, Adam Banks, Keith Gilyard, Gwendolyn D. Pough, Vershawn Ashanti Young, Aja Y. Martinez, Damián Baca, Jaime Armin Mejía, John R. Rickford, Christina Devereaux Ramírez, Khirsten L. Scott, Lou Maraj, and scores of other teachers and scholars of color are demonstrating every single day, these strategies—from the deployment of spoken soul to autoethnography, hashtagging, signifying, rhetorical reclamations, narrative framing, and dozens of others—are being used brilliantly by student writers today.
It’s more than high time, then, for white teachers like me not simply to recognize varieties of English as valid and valuable, not just to honor students’ rights to their own languages, not just to teach about these strategies—I’ve been trying to do that for decades—but to invite students to put these concepts into practice, to use strategies characteristic of their own languages and dialects in their own writing-as-doing, all within a rhetorical framework that encompasses their particular purposes for writing, their particular aims and goals for reaching their particular audiences. And it means a lot more learning—in fact, continuous and ongoing learning—as I investigate rhetorical strategies across a wide range of vernacular literacies, and as I engage students in similar investigations.
Most of all, it means continuing to ask all students to join me in investigating the history of “standardized” languages, recognizing the way such regulation has served the forces of systematic racism and much more, and exploring ways to resist such regulation while using all the available means vernacular literacies provide for speaking truths, for connecting with audiences, for moving forward toward more just and more inclusive ways of communicating with one another.
As I’ve said, for me, this has been a steep and often daunting uphill journey, one that is still challenging me to examine my own assumptions and biases, my own blind spots, and my own limited and limiting abilities. But it is also one I continue to embrace with humility—and with hope.
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With an eye toward designing more equitable fall courses, I am co-leading a discussion with justice-minded colleagues on Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), a collection edited by linguistic anthropologist Susan D. Blum.
The pandemic woke up many instructors to the equity problems embedded in many educational conventions, with grading as exhibit A. Even pre-pandemic, if you asked any instructor what they dislike about our work, “grading” would be the top response. So why do we keep hitting ourselves in the head with this same conventional hammer, when research shows it undermines student learning?
Andrea Lunsford illuminates the problem of defaulting to “conventions” when we teach students about “loosely agreed upon ways of doing things with words across the disciplines.”
In place of the norming language of “conventions,” which reinforces ideologies we would do well to interrogate, Lunsford draws on Anne Ruggles Gere’s work to invite instructors instead to teach “critical language awareness.” This approach empowers students to consider the effects of their linguistic decisions.
In that same spirit, let’s reconsider the convention of grading. Given the vast body of evidence put forth in Ungrading that indicates grading actively harms student learning by enforcing uniformity, not offering meaningful information about student progress, and not motivating students to take the risks required to learn (Ungrading 55), why should we persist? If the pandemic brought to the fore aspects of grading you have found unsettling (such as assessing student participation, progress, and meaningful engagement), this summer might be a good time for a pedagogical reset.
The contributors to Ungrading recognize the challenge of incorporating ungrading methods into the baked-in sorting mechanisms of most of our institutions. I’ll write in my next post about the methods I am already using and how I plan to expand them. For now, I want to linger a bit longer on the foundational work of Alfie Kohn , who wrote the Forward to Ungrading, and whose insights helped launch the discussion of the active harm of grades. After all, it is one thing to consider grading a pain, and quite another to take in the enormity of the way the carrots and sticks of grading perpetuate inequalities, call our curriculum into question, and require us to reconsider every aspect of the conventions of assessment and power in the classroom (Ungrading xviii).
I am happy that we include Kohn’s ground-shaking work in the 5th edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing , since student voices should be essential to discussions about what and how we learn, as well as how that learning is valued. While Kohn’s work in Ungrading is directed to instructors, his provocative short piece that we include in our book, “Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s?,” is written for the broader public. Students find in Kohn’s voice a spark to light a crackling conversation about the unfairness and arbitrariness (not to mention the demoralizing stress) in their long histories of being graded. Kohn’s questions threaten to burn away the foundations of our educational systems: What are the ripple effects of considering excellence to be a scarce commodity? What collaborative and creative possibilities are lost when we pit students against one another? How might other models cultivate democracy?
How far down the road of “ungrading” have you gone? I will share more of my journey, and welcome your traveling tales, in my next post.
Image Credit: Photograph of Ungrading taken by the author
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Sonia Maasik, my wife and co-author through 10 editions of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. and three editions of California Dreams and Realities, passed away at 12:50 p.m. on May 10, 2021. I was by her side at the end, as well as during an extraordinary two or three hours the night before when she summoned the very last of her strength to break through the increasing drip of pain killers and the coming darkness she knew only too well was approaching, to utter words that those of us who were there now realize she must have been preparing for some time, gathering and hoarding her dwindling strength and waiting for just the right moment to say them. Those words, in all truth, were simply and entirely words of love, prefaced by explicit declarations that these were her last words. She so wanted us to understand this. She was so triumphant when she saw that we did understand. She was so brave. More than this on such a public medium as the World Wide Web would be out of place. But I want to note, once again, that the creation of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. was entirely Sonia's idea. I thought that it was a very good idea from the start, but it bears pointing out that it was Sonia's. The books that have descended from Sonia's brainstorm over twenty-five years ago will be a part of her legacy; the other will be the love that she felt for, and inspired in, those who knew and worked with her: at UCLA, at Bedford/St. Martin's, and in our home.
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I grew up in the hills of eastern Tennessee, speaking an Appalachian dialect—like everyone else I knew. I expect I spoke mostly so-called “correct” English, but with vocabulary, syntax, and pronunciation characteristic of my home place. No problem—I was like everyone else in my community. Plus I had the significant privilege of being white.
So far, so good. But years later, when I left my home region and got to graduate school, I was taken up short when a person I’d been in two classes with came to me to say he “needed to apologize”: “I haven’t been paying attention to what you have to say in class—I didn’t think you were very smart. It’s your accent, you know: country.”
That would have been in 1972, and it coincided with my growing interest in rhetoric and composition and my commitment to a field I thought might have a chance of bringing pressure to bear on the exclusionary practices of colleges and universities that had long denied or restricted access to many, sometimes because of the way they talked or wrote, but all too often because of their race and/or class.
I was in the CCCC business meeting in 1974 to argue in favor of the Students’ Right to Their Own Language, a statement that taught me as much as (or more than) anything I had learned in grad school to date. It also helped me conceive and develop Ohio State’s Basic Writing Workshop—which focused on the strengths students brought with them rather than on their “deficits”—and the dissertation study that grew out of research I did on that program.
In 1977, in my first post-PhD job, I read Geneva Smitherman’s Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America and Mina P. Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing—two books that (amazingly enough) appeared within months of one another and that were absolutely transformational for me as for so many others. I wrote articles advocating for student writers and for access to higher education for all, even as I struggled in my own classes to balance a recognition and respect for all students’ languages and dialects with access to what I thought of as “the language of power”—standardized English. At the time, I was more than anything an advocate for writing and for the empowerment I somewhat naively thought writing could bring to my students, for how writing could help them get their voices and messages out there. That meant, however, that I was also an apologist for writing: in that regard, I still had so much to learn.
The research I carried out in the 1980s with Lisa Ede and with Bob Connors—on collaboration and on error in student writing—helped me begin to see how constructed our notion of “correctness” is and how very arbitrary. I found that what counted as an “error” in one English-speaking country was not considered so in another, and that what constituted “correctness” shifted and changed over time. Duh. I began to study the history of writing and to develop a course on that subject that I taught for years, one that began with the struggle over and rise of vernacular literacies in many countries (for example, England [Chaucer] and Italy [Dante]).
And I began writing textbooks, hoping to put what I was learning about writing into a form that could be useful to students. My first text, The St. Martin’s Handbook, presented “error” and “correctness” as shifting concepts—but as ones that could be very useful to students. Along with Bob Connors, I identified the twenty most common “errors” in first year student writing and showed that these patterns that bothered teachers so much could be eliminated fairly easily—in order to concentrate on more important aspects of writing. I saw these patterns as shifting and mutable and rejected any kind of rule-governed approach to grammar. But I still taught standardized English as an entry point, as a tool to be used to “advance.” In many ways, I was still the Appalachian student who wanted to “fit in,” but I also felt inclined to resist: an uneasy balancing act I was certainly not very good at.
At the same time, I was beginning to have the privilege of working with grad students or color who were doing exemplary ethnographic work with undergrad students of color—students who were using brilliant rhetorical strategies that their white teachers didn’t even recognize, much less value. I was hearing talks by Arnetha Ball and John Baugh (at the 1988 CCCC meeting, for example) about rhetorical strategies and patterns characteristic of African American English. I was reading everything Geneva Smitherman wrote and learning from so many other scholars of color. I was reading Helen Fox and learning about the elegance and power of “ESL writing.” And I was reading Elspeth Stuckey’s furious and groundbreaking The Violence of Literacy.
Thanks to the work of these and other scholars, I was finally beginning to put two and two together, to take a long, hard look at my assumptions and to understand, fully understand, that while writing and writing pedagogies could at times be empowering and liberating, they also could and did constrain, suppress, and silence many of the students I was most interested in and most wanted to teach—that my attempt to find a middle ground, a “both-and” approach to language and language variety was at least partly self-delusional. Twenty years of thinking and listening and researching is a long time to “get it,” which is just one more testament to how deeply entrenched the idea of standardized English was as a means of access and empowerment. I was a slow learner, for sure. But I was learning.
To be continued…
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I have long used the word “conventions” in my classrooms to describe the loosely agreed upon ways of doing things with words across the disciplines, pointing out to students that such conventions are not hard and fast rules or regulations. To my way of thinking, using the term “conventions” avoided the skill and drill, rule-governed attitudes toward teaching writing that I had encountered, and resisted, in my early teaching career and allowed me and my students to see these conventions as malleable and as things we could accept, reject, or reshape.
Au contraire! As I have learned from studying antiracist pedagogies and listening to many colleagues and scholars of color (huge and ongoing thanks to all!), I see how my assumptions about the malleability and usefulness of “conventions” have been silently embedded in the discourse of standardized English. Even though my focus has always been on student choice, that focus did not necessarily reveal how those choices are themselves constrained by standardization. Always.
Engaging this realization left me looking for how to offer students sound advice about how to make choices, how to understand the range of choices available to them, and how to question that range while also choosing from it—or changing it. I was very grateful to pick up the February 2021 issue of CCC and read “Communal Justicing: Writing Assessment, Disciplinary Infrastructure, and the Case for Critical Language Awareness ” by Anne Ruggles Gere and her colleagues at the University of Michigan. More specifically, I was delighted to find this group tackling the subject of “conventions” head on in an analysis and proposed revision of the conventions section in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing:
With its implications of “usual” and “commonly accepted,” the discourse of “conventions” justifies and reinforces standard language ideologies, recirculating the idea that Standardized English is unchanging, invariant, neutral, and correct. . . . (392)
Building on the work of scholars who have taken up questions of social justice, racial justice, and inequity in writing studies and in writing program policies, Gere and her colleagues call for increased attention to language-level study in general and to critical language awareness in particular as a means of drawing attention “to the structural nature of injustice” in writing studies and writing assessment and “identifying structural opportunities for responding to them.” As one step toward this goal, Gere and her colleagues use insights from critical language awareness to examine—and to revise—the Framework’s conventions section. For instance, here is the title and first sentence of the original version of the section:
Developing Knowledge of Conventions. Conventions are the formal rules and informal guidelines that define what is considered to be correct (or appropriate) in a piece of writing.
And here is the proposed revision:
Developing Critical Language Awareness. Critical language awareness is the ability to reflect on the language expectations in a given context or of a given audience and make thoughtful, informed language choices. (395)
What I like so much about this revision is its shift from guidelines that set boundaries on students to choices that students make—an important and empowering shift in agency.
As the authors point out, “critical language awareness prepares students to carefully negotiate demanding respect for their own language, and ‘to make sound linguistic choices related to their own empowerment and not the maintenance of someone else’s power.’” They continue, “Critical language awareness prepares students, along with teachers, to participate in communal justicing,” which can begin by communally recognizing the structural injustices embedded in writing studies and then go on to address and revise those injustices.
I have written before about the need—yes!—to value and to teach the Students’ Right to Their Own Language, all the while realizing that simply respecting students’ languages is only a small first step toward addressing linguistic injustice, as the authors of this essay make clear. Their revision of the Framework takes a step toward important and practical policy change, and they are quick to point to others who are moving well beyond SRTOL—noting the work of Stacey Perryman-Clark, among others, who has written compellingly about her Afrocentric first-year writing class and its focus on critical language awareness and on how to get things done in the academy and elsewhere.
I am not doing justice to this thoroughly researched and clearly presented argument, which I hope you will read. It has given me so much to think about and so many ideas about ways that I can learn more about communal justicing—and join in practicing it.
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The subtitle of Heather McGhee’s book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, sums up the argument she makes in this clear-eyed and (somewhat) hopeful book that kept me turning the pages with growing interest. McGhee , former p resident of the liberal “ think -and-do” tank Demos and current c hair of the board of Color of Change , a nonprofit organization focused on racial justice, is an expert in economic policy. In this book, she describes the path that led her to question whether changing policy could ever succeed in changing the racist “zero-sum” culture of America, one that insists that if one person or group gains, another must lose.
This realization took her away from Demos and on a lengthy journey across the United States, meeting with local leaders and ordinary people, as she sought answers to a question she had been asking about her own and other African American families since childhood: “ W hy can’t we have nice things?” Along the way, she discovers myriad examples of why “nice things” were and are denied, such as the decision made in Montgomery, Alabama in 1959 to pave over the local public swimming pool rather than allow African Americans to use it.
What becomes clear to McGee during her travels and investigations, however, is that the denial of “nice things” doesn’t just harm African Americans and other people of color . Rather, it harms white people as well, particularly white people who have bought into the zero-sum paradigm that progress for some means the opposite for others. In a series of stunning case study chapters, McGhee examines the hollowing out of the middle class, the decline of unions, the stagnation of earnings, and other moves that were grounded in racism that ha ve taken a huge and documented toll on people of color— and also on lots of deluded white people as well, who cling to the “privilege” they’ve been led to believe in while the small group of very, very rich white people call all the shots and make all the money. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face!
McGhee’s somewhat hopeful conclusion is that what she refers to as the “solidarity dividend , ” which can be gained by working together across racial divides , can benefit “the sum of us.” She came to this conclusion during the Trump years and especially when she realized that “the majority of white voters still supported an impeached president who lied to Americans . . . and mismanaged and downplayed a pandemic that cost more than 200,000 American lives in less than a year.” She was left, during the 2020 election, asking “how much suffering and dysfunction the country’s white majority is willing to tolerate, and for how elusive a gain.” Throughout, McGhee is no Pollyanna: she recognizes the horrors visited daily on Black people by deeply systemic racism. But she also recognizes the ironic fact of the effects racism continues to have on (almost) all of us.
McGhee’s book asks all of us to think hard about “the sum of us.” I think it’s worth telling our students about this book and asking them to read at least the introduction and one of its chapters, along with what she says at the end:
Everything depends on the answer to this question. Who is an American, and what are we to one another? Politics offers two visions of why all the peoples of the worlds have met here: one in which we are nothing more than competitors and another in which perhaps the proximity of so much difference forces us to admit our common humanity.
The choice between these two visions has never been starker. To a nation riven with anxiety about who belongs, many in power have made it their overarching goal to sow distrust about the goodness of the Other. They are holding on, white-knuckled, to a tiny idea of We the People, denying the beauty of what we are becoming. They’re warning that demographic changes are the unmaking of America. What I’ve seen on my journey is that they’re the fulfillment of America. What they say is a threat is in fact our country’s salvation—for when a nation founded on a belief in racial hierarchy truly rejects that belief, then and only then will we have discovered a New World. (288-89)
McGhee thinks (or hopes?) that working for such a “new world” is our “destiny,” and she challenges us to finally allow our diversity to be our “superpower,” so that the U.S. can become more than the sum of its very different parts.
Reading this provocative book has reminded me of why I have devoted a large part of my career to studying and advocating collaboration (and collaborative writing) not just as a methodology but as a way of life. A commitment to the practice of ongoing, ethical collaboration can go a long way toward building the solidarity McGhee calls for and claims as a “dividend” for all Americans. Her analysis has given me further reason to develop and foster collaboration as the foundation of all my teaching. At the beginning of term, I always ask students to work each other and with me to establish what we refer to as our “classroom ethos,” for how we will engage with and treat each other and for what our responsibilities to each other will be. McGhee’s book has given me many new ideas about how to introduce these concepts to my students as well as a much deeper understanding at just how much is at stake in practicing collaboration, achieving solidarity, and—just perhaps—reaping its dividend.
Image Credit: "Crowd at President Obama's Inauguration" by Pablo 2008-09, used under a CC BY-ND 2.0 license
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As I write this, my final blog of the season, I find myself thinking of that awful day in September 2001 when it appeared, briefly, that writing about popular culture at all was beside the point. Sonia and I were working on the fourth edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. at the time, and with pundits everywhere predicting that things were never going to be the same in America, we both wondered whether we should go through with it at a time when the World Trade Center was burning and the nation would soon be at war. However, it didn't take long to see that popular culture in America was not going to disappear into the ashes, but rather it was going to become more important than ever. After 9/11, Americans rallied around events such as the Concert for New York City, the World Series, and the Super Bowl. And so, we continued with our work.
When the full force of the COVID-19 pandemic struck America in the late winter and early spring of 2020, we were already well into the copy editing stage of the 10th edition of Signs of Life, so there was never any question of going through with it. But now, over a year since the calamity broke, the question of just what American popular culture is going to look like going forward has emerged again. This time it appears that, unlike twenty years ago, some things really are going to change. For it is becoming ever clearer that, just as the shock of the Civil War accelerated historical developments that were probably inevitable anyway, the pandemic has jumpstarted trends that are transforming the way pop culture is both delivered and consumed in America, and it is likely that these changes will be permanent.
To begin with the delivery side of the matter, the most dramatic change can be found in what is happening to the movie theater industry. Traditional movie theaters were already under siege by the emergence of new content providers like Netflix, but the forced closure of theaters all over the country has left the industry in tatters. Americans still watch movies, of course, but more and more it is becoming a private, digitally streamed experience. A sign of the effect that this is having on American audiences is the drastic decline in interest in such venerable institutions as the annual Oscar award ceremony. Feeling little connection with films that they have not seen—or if they have seen them, not in the publicly shared space of a movie theater—Americans appear to be losing a sense of connection not only with movies but with each other as well.
And here is where the cultural significance lies. When America turned to popular culture for solace in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it did so (largely) in a spirit of national unity, which is simply unthinkable today after twenty years of digital development that has splintered what was once regarded as a "common culture" into a myriad of niche markets. But more significantly, twenty years of political polarization has had an even more profound impact as Americans, ensconced in their highly partisan news-and-entertainment silos, are not only not consuming the same media products, they are not living in the same reality either.
And so, when we eventually do emerge from the pandemic (just as the Civil War finally did come to a military end), not only will America have changed, but its popular culture will have as well—perhaps beyond recognition.
"Alone in a Movie Theater" by Studio Sarah Lou is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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We needed some snap-crackle-and-pop at our house, so we rewatched Burn After Reading, the hilariously absurd Coen Brothers romp, which reminded me why Frances McDormand remains one of my favorite screen actors. I bring up this film because of the final scene, which takes place in a standard-issue government office after a crime investigation has been botched several different comedic ways. Behind the desk, flanked by flag and carved eagle, the CIA superior, played by a stone-faced J.K. Simmons, asks an underling, “What’d we learn, Palmer?” While the answer is comic gold (I won’t spoil it for you here), it did remind me of the value of inviting students to reflect on what they have learned, especially now that many of our semesters are drawing to a close. We can learn so much by asking what they will carry forward into other classes and other parts of their lives. And this year, as we face unique learning experiences brought on by the pandemic, I have found their reflections have a particular poignancy. For example, in one class, students launched the “What have we learned” discussion by thanking other students for their compassion all semester. Students confirmed that nodding heads, encouraging smiles, props in the Zoom chat (^^YES^^ , ^THIS!^) all helped them feel heard and supported. Other students spoke about the way a single word, such as “intersectionality” or “privilege,” can open up a world of analysis that changes the way they see everything from the Oscars to daily conversations. Several students weighed in on the words and phrases we vowed to retire because of their anti-analytical bent, such as “crazy” or “senseless,” as I described in my last post. A few students described teaching family, friends, and co-workers the skills of Rogerian argumentation, learned in our class, which guide us to prioritize empathy, to validate others’ feelings (even if we disagree with a perspective), and to seek common ground where we can, as I wrote about here. The satisfying discovery that these skills can improve conversations far beyond the classroom earned nods and “applause” reactions from the rest of the class. I hope other instructors will share what they hear from students, as we all sum up our learning experiences at this unique moment in history. I was touched by Susan Bernstein’s latest post about “breaking silence” with students, inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s invitation to do so with “all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision.” Bernstein concludes, “The students’ writing is still in process.” For me, that sentiment applies more broadly, as we remind ourselves that we are all still “in process,” learning together how to improve a world in urgent need of compassion, empathy, analysis, and informed proposals for change. When we say we teach writing, that hardly captures the depth and purpose of our work, nor the impact we can have as we practice, together, the habits of being that have the potential to heal our world. Image Credit: Photo of From Inquiry to Academic Writing taken by the author
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What do we hope our students leave an argument class knowing? How do we hope they make use of that knowledge as they hear about current events? Which concepts and exercises do we hope they implement as they read tomorrow’s headlines and eventually go on to make them?
In Elements of Argument and Structure of Argument we have tried to make students both critical readers and thoughtful writers of argument. Throughout the texts, we have pointed out the problems that can occur when we accept a view of our country and our world that comes largely from social media and biased reporting. Our students should never again be as naïve as many Americans were five or six years ago when, as we now know, foreign hackers helped determine the outcome of our presidential election. Beyond the classroom, students may never think about the way that Aristotle or Stephen Toulmin shaped their thinking about controversial issues, but they might think twice about accepting a claim simply because of the temperament of the person making it. They might pause to examine the evidence that supports the claim and the context surrounding it.
Students should be able to recognize an argument as an argument, whether it is an ad for an automobile or a plea for a political donation. They may not ever think again about the term warrant, but they should be prepared to respond to a controversial statement with “What makes you think that?” or “Where’s your proof?” They should not accept a writer’s or speaker’s authority until they are convinced that the person has a right to claim that authority. When they write, they should identify their sources and establish their own claim to authority. They now know, we hope, how to consider the validity of information that they find on the internet.
They may not be able to identify every logical fallacy or to label it correctly, but they should be able to tell when something is not right with a writer’s or speaker’s logic. In their own words, they should be able to explain why an analogy doesn’t work or when someone is trying to lead us astray by changing the subject or misrepresenting an opponent’s position. They should notice how, through word choice, a writer can subtly—or not so subtly—shade our thinking on a subject.
The following passage, attributed to Linda Gamble Spadaro, sums up just what hard work it is to adequately research a subject:
Did you at least take each article, one by one and look into the source (that would be author, publisher, and funder), then critique the writing for logical fallacies, cognitive distortions and plain inaccuracies.
Did you ask yourself why this source might publish these particular results? Did you follow the trail of references and apply the same source of scrutiny to them?
No? Then you didn’t . . . research anything. You read or watched a video, most likely with little to no objectivity. You came across something in your algorithm manipulated feed, something that jived [sic] with your implicit biases and served your confirmation bias, and subconsciously applied your emotional filters and called it proof.
We hope that after a course in argumentation our students will be more responsible citizens and take into the voting booth a more sophisticated view of the political world. As employees and bosses, and as spouses and parents, they should be better able to defend the stands that they take that influence their families, communities, colleagues, and neighbors.
Image Credit: “Brady Reads Newspaper During Breakfast” by Eva Ho is used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.
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I first became interested in the topic of visual ethics when I read noted photographer Kenneth Brower’s three-part essay “Photography in the Age of Falsification” in The Atlantic in May 1998. Brower provided example after example of such falsification, from the fairly benign movement of a shadow to improve the visual impact to the much more sinister removal of people for political reasons. And he showed that such falsification occurred much more frequently than generally imagined at the time, and in reputable publications as well as otherwise untrustworthy ones.
Almost twenty-five years later, Brower’s examples seem almost quaint: the falsifications now occurring are so complete, and so undetectable, that we can no longer cling to old bromides like “seeing is believing” or “what you see is what you get.” Not by a long shot.
Our students need to know this history, and they need to join us in thinking hard about visual ethics, about what is acceptable in presenting visual information. One person who has given this subject a great deal of thought is Paul Martin Lester, a professor at the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication and himself a photographer. Lester says that he often opens his photography classes with a personal story: as a young reporter, he was sent on assignment to photograph the reunion of two brothers who had been separated for forty years. A throwaway assignment, he thought. But as he waited for the two brothers to emerge, he was surprised to see Faye Dunaway (a big star at the time) get off the plane. When she saw Lester and all his camera equipment, she screamed and turned her face to the wall. He was momentarily frozen in space: he clearly had not been sent to photograph her, though that is what she assumed. But when, still shaken, she pulled herself together enough to walk toward him, he automatically took a flash photo, catching her at her worst. Lester says that this was the most unethical photo he’s ever taken—a selfish, intrusive act.
That moment and his concern for his own behavior led him to write a column called “Ethics Matters” for the News Photographer magazine and eventually to author Visual Ethics: A Guide for Photographers, Journalists, and Filmmakers (2018). I haven’t read anything of Lester’s since that book in 2018 (see my post on Visual Ethics here), but I expect he is as concerned as many of us are about the dangerous development of deepfakes and cheapfakes and the weaponization of social media.
Although students seem well aware of such fake photos and videos, they all too often feel that they won’t be fooled or taken in by them. As a result, it’s important to spend some time on this issue in class—perhaps tracing the history of the falsification of images in print photography through its many digital counterparts. I usually devote parts of several classes to consider these issues, asking students to begin by bringing in photos that they find ethically disturbing, whether or not the image was falsified. Students have brought in photos of people setting themselves on fire, for example, or photos of children who have drowned while trying to reach asylum and safety. Recently, several have focused on some of the very graphic images of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer—all images that might be unethical. We consider such images carefully, looking at as many sides of the question as we possibly can before trying to come to a consensus.
We then go on to look photos or videos that have been partially doctored or completely falsified—and practice testing our visual acuity, often finding that we cannot sort out the false from the true. In these cases, the ethical choice is almost always much more clear than in the case of the controversial but “accurate” photos.
Finally, we take some time to draw up a list of principles that will guide our choice and use of images in writing for our course (and beyond). I find these discussions sometimes difficult—coming to consensus can be tough—but well worth the time and effort, as we all come away much more aware of the ethical aspects and implications of our visual choices.
Image Credit: "22/366 - Portrait of a camera" by Andreas Øverland, used under a CC BY-ND 2.0 license
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While not all aspects of the shift to online and hybrid instruction have been smooth—and many will be jettisoned or revamped significantly in future semesters—I have found one unexpected boon in the process: new possibilities for asynchronous discussions. I had taught composition online prior to the onset of the pandemic, but in 2020 I shifted my corequisite courses online as well—and in the fall, I was asked to teach both composition and corequisite as hybrids, so that I had half my class on Tuesdays and the other half on Thursdays. Thus, students could interact with some class members only in the online space, since they were never together in the classroom. In the first online iteration of my corequisite/composition course (summer 2020), I converted one of my favorite in-class group activities involving quote and paraphrase to the discussion board in our LMS. The results were mediocre, at best. It was obvious students needed some coaching, not only on the logistics of posting, but also on strategies for reading and managing a conversation that is threaded—with multiple strands of thought unfolding in tandem. The subsequent hybrid format in the fall allowed me to do some of that coaching, both via video and in class. In the hybrid format, I also extended the length of discussions to at least two weeks, if not longer, inviting students to return to discussions multiple times, leading ultimately to a set of “reflect and review” questions after discussions closed: which posts challenged you to think differently? Why? Which posts generated the most responses? Why? These questions helped students situate discussions within rhetorical contexts, particularly when they connected our course discussions to more familiar types of online communication. But as part of the writing about writing focus in my first-year and corequisite pairing, I’ve found another discussion style that seems to engage students more than traditional prompts: the multimodal gallery. I’ve used two of these in my composition classes, both with success. The first gallery occurs as students are working on a researched profile of a discourse community, which is the second major project in the class. As students begin the process, they read definitions of a discourse community, either from John Swales or Dan Melzer . Using that theoretical information as background, they research a discourse community and profile its shared goals, means of communication, language choices, common genres, and ways of recognizing members. For the gallery discussion in the online classroom space, students then create a multimodal piece to introduce their chosen discourse community and one aspect of its communicative practices to the rest of the class. The multimodal pieces are shared via the online discussion, and students respond to each other in two ways: first, they talk about the rhetorical choices made in the multimodal piece itself, indicating aspects that drew their attention and or seemed problematic for some reason. Then, they ask questions about the discourse community in relation to the class readings. In a later multimodal gallery, pairs of students are assigned a key term for rhetorical and lexical analysis—terms which students will be expected to use in the final paper for the course: claim, counterargument, concessions, ethos, logos, pathos, as well as some of the terms used by Ken Hyland to describe a writer’s stance or engagement strategies, including booster, hedge, aside, self-mention, and directive. Students find definitions from class readings, and they design a multimodal composition to define and illustrate the target term. Once again, students can respond initially to the composition itself, but they also build on the content: students practice illustrating these terms, composing their own paragraphs to show the terms at work, and identifying the strategies they used. (Later, I’d like to add a component in which students talk about how these concepts translate to multimodal compositions, but we haven’t done that yet). This discussion familiarizes students with the terms they will be using as the basis for their final assignment—in which they profile the rhetorical context of an argument about writing and analyze the structure and effectiveness of that argument. These discussions occur over two or three week spans, allowing students time to think, respond, read, and respond again. Critically, by the time the discussion has ended, students will have composed not only a multimodal piece, but an additional 500 to 800 words focused on the meaning-making possibilities of different texts. In short, I think these discussions would qualify as what Myhill and Newman call “high-quality classroom talk” about writing that supports students’ metalinguistic and writing development. How have you used asynchronous discussions to encourage writing development and talk about writing in your first-year composition classes?
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I wonder how many of you are as grateful as I am that this year’s virtual CCCC presentations have been archived and are available for us to view for some weeks yet. I’ve been going through the program and choosing presentations that I missed “live” but now have the time to listen to in a more leisurely way, going back to take in a point for the second time before moving on. It’s a real luxury and kudos to the folks who made all this available.
Yesterday I finally got to “attend” Roxane Gay’s keynote, and I could quickly see why I had heard such rave reviews about it. Gay is a very engaging speaker—clear, succinct, funny, and easy to listen to and follow. I’d love to use sections of her talk as examples of outstanding delivery for my students to learn from. She pulled me into her conversational space right away—and the fact that she made it feel like a conversation rather than a lecture is one mark of her skill. Understated but always there.
Gay is a wonder—a polymath who writes beautifully across a wide range of genres, from short stories to cultural criticism to comics and so much more. My first encounter with her work was Bad Feminist, a group of essays on “how to be human” that I found intriguing and provocative and that I wanted my students to read with me. Since then, I’ve followed her meteoric career with delight: when I read that she and Yona Harvey were going to write World of Wakanda for Marvel, I was thrilled. For years I taught a course on comics at Stanford (“Word and Image”) and I always rejoiced when I found a new woman comics writer, and even more so a comics writer of color. So I nodded in agreement when Gay pointed out that comics “make you attend to the economy of language.” I second that!
So I had been looking forward to hearing Gay’s CCCC keynote, and with good reason. I deeply appreciated her shout out to contingent faculty and to the enormous contributions they make to the education of college writers—with so little remuneration or even recognition. The struggle for equitable pay, benefits, and teaching loads has never been more timely or more important.
As Gay continued, I was caught up in her discussion of how prose can and should “sing,” how writing is “something to be done joyfully.” Arguing that we have learned to “conform beautifully” in writing when what we need to do is learn to “communicate beautifully,” she offered examples of writers who do just that, including Saidiya Hartman, whose Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval most definitely sings. Hartman introduces us to young Black women in early 20th century New York and Philadelphia, women who broke every mold and stereotype, from a very young Ida B. Wells refusing to give up her seat on a train to the very tall and very wealthy daughter of Madame C. J. Walker. I ordered the book immediately and am savoring every sentence on every page.
In short, Roxane Gay’s keynote gave me ideas for readings and for classroom activities, for new ways of engaging and listening to all students, and for new attention to the way I write and to the sentences I craft as she challenged me and all of us to stop conforming beautifully and instead to write with joy.
Image Credit: "Lamy Joy calligraphy pen" by vidalia_11, used under a CC BY 2.0 license
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