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…
Image Credit: "Appalachia" by spablab, used under a CC BY-ND 2.0 license
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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.
Image Credit: "Type" by vpickering, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license
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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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Riverside Church in New York City: April 2010 ( Photo by Susan Bernstein)
For the past few years, students in my first-year writing classes have shared with me that most of their previous school-based writing was objective. By objective, students meant that their supporting evidence was based on information from several sources. Additionally, to emphasize objectivity, students did not include their own opinions and did not use the first person singular pronoun “I.” Our second writing project is an opinion/analysis essay that involves an evidence-based close reading of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 speech, “ Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence .”
For the students, this assignment resulted in cognitive dissonance. Writing their own opinions contradicted students’ internalized rules for “good” writing. The students were familiar with analysis from studying literature. They asked me how they could use analysis to form their own opinions. Before responding to this question, I took a breath. There were various potential responses to this question. Literary analysis is not objective. As writers, we make choices about analysis based on opinions and biases, conscious or not. Analysis allows writers to discover what they believe and why they believe it. As creators and consumers of social media, students already work with opinion-based analysis, especially in the current contexts of the pandemic, the Movement for Black Lives and #StopAAPIHate . In the students’ lifetimes, these contexts might well be studied as history.
The events in the last year of Dr. King’s life, including his decision to break the silence with “Beyond Vietnam,” were the backdrop of my childhood. For me, the historical context of the speech is ever-present even as, for most of my students, those events are long past and often unfamiliar. Familiarity with that context can be a useful tool for analysis. With this in mind, I tweaked the assignment by adding historical context for “Beyond Vietnam.” We watched three videos.
The first video , “The Promised Land 1967-1968,” from the Eyes on the Prize series, covered the last year of Dr. King’s life and included clips of Dr. King’s speech on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City.
The second video was intended for primary school children and offered a brief biography of Dr. King’s life. It focused on Dr. King’s childhood and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Absent were the difficult details from “The Promised Land,” which included Dr. King’s evolving perspective on the need to speak publicly against the Vietnam War, and his vilification by the media.
These two videos were meant to stand in contradiction to each other, and show how “facts” of Dr. King’s life and work could be revealed or withheld based on the intended audience and the opinions of the contented creators.
The third video showcased clips from a mural based on “Beyond Vietnam.” In the spring of 2008, I assigned first-year students an in-class multimedia project, and the students created the mural from crayons, blank computer paper, and tape. Using multimedia, students were invited to question the relevance of Dr. King’s work in the twenty-first century. In spring 2008, I suggested to my spring 2021 classes, students were concerned about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the 2008 presidential primaries. This video was meant to show an affective response to “Beyond Vietnam” that appealed to pathos, and also to ethos and logos. The text and context of “Beyond Vietnam” mattered in 1967 and still mattered to students in 2008. Dr. King’s struggle to break the silence on the global intersections racial injustice, poverty, and war was still relevant forty-one years later.
In 2021, students connected to “Beyond Vietnam” through similar intersections. On Zoom, we analyzed a passage in which Dr. King urges his audience to join him in struggle, using the personal plural pronoun “we” for emphasis:
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. ...Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement, and pray that our inner being may be sensitive to its guidance. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence .
Dr. King’s struggle feels transcendent and still relevant to everyday lives. How do we break the silence in a world that often responds with hostility? How do we resist old rules and learn new practices? And how do we do this “with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision”? The students’ writing is still in process.
Keywords: current events, online education, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., multimedia, teaching in a pandemic, rhetorical knowledge, grammar and style, online learning, writing process
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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
As our field shifts and changes, we ask students to write for multiple purposes, audiences, and contexts. Multimodal composition has clearly moved out of exclusively academic settings into a variety of writing and reading opportunities. As we prepare students to write in our world today, we can help them realize the ways that content creation is part of the work of the writing classroom. Lisa Dush reminds us in her 2015 article “When Writing Becomes Content” that the field of writing studies is changing and encourages us to bring this relevancy to our classes through the content metaphor and reconsider the ways we discuss and teach writing. She says,
“The real danger is in ignoring content: if content has indeed changed the rhetorical game, composers who ignore it risk failing in their rhetorical attempts, and a field that ignores it risks marginalization and missed opportunities for growth.” (193)
As writing teachers, we have embraced this challenge and students now compose blogs, videos, tweets, and other kinds of content that is shared and repurposed across the web and into many interactive formats. I include a range of content variations in my classes and always focus on acts of composition within a rhetorical framework. In my previous posts, I have shared examples of longform assignments that are similar to academic texts, except that students now learn to write non-linear, interactive texts that include links, exploratory paths, and multimodal components. Recently, I have been thinking about the value of including low-stakes, micro content assignments.
The term micro content was first credited to Jakob Nielson (2017) who defined it as “a small group of words which can be skimmed by the reader to understand the wider message of the article.” It can take the form of small fragments, phrases, or descriptions that can be added to longer pieces, provide information, or create audience engagement. He points out that micro content generally stands on its own without context and provides a way to skim texts for quick meaning. We have expanded this definition to include a variety of “bite-sized” or “digestible” chunks of information that now include multimedia, mini-content such as photographs, mini-videos, memes, tweets, graphics, gifs, lists, Instagram posts, TikToks, and other small form content. Although this micro content stands on its own, it also engages readers to further explore ideas as they click through and go deeper into long-form or other related content. In other words, these content artifacts work cooperatively to create content packages in which micro content fits together to contribute to larger pictures, ideas, or articles. Micro content is particularly important since our attention span is decreasing and we now get much of our information and entertainment through our phones and consume it in “small bites.”
The St. Martin’s Handbook – Ch. 24, Communicating in Other Media
The Everyday Writer (also available with Exercises) – Ch. 20, Communicating in Other Media
EasyWriter (also available with Exercises) – Ch. 9, Writing in a Variety of Disciplines and Genres
Steps to the Assignment
As writing teachers, we already scaffold our assignments and integrate low-stakes writing into our courses at all phases of the writing processes. I combine these two ideas and design low-stakes micro content assignments either as quick, turnaround assignments; as parts of scaffolded, larger assignments; or as stand-alone micro content activities.
Background: I find it beneficial to help students define the concepts and terms (content, micro content, long-form content). I present concepts, definitions, and examples of micro content. I often have them read Dush’s article “When Writing Becomes Content” and other definitional articles that explore the nature of content and the shifting roles of writers.
Have students search the web to identify and analyze different types of micro content and create a collaborative class list to show the range of artifacts and their variations. You can also have them post links with short descriptions to a discussion post. Share with the rest of the class in a full class discussion.
Next, have students choose a particular type of micro content and write a reflective analysis in which they compare and cite examples and discuss the genre conventions of their choice (length, style, links, images, etc.).
Challenge students to compose micro content and scaffold these low-stakes assignments into your existing course assignments. Here is a quick list of some of these assignments I have tried in my own courses. Many of these are described in some of my earlier posts:
Quick image assignments that combine text and image such as a digital, visual series or short slideshows
Longform content rewritten as micro content
Researching trending topics and creating micro content based on topics
Gifs and emojis
Curation on a particular theme or subject area—quotes, articles, sharing of other content
Polls or questions—research and survey data
An optional extension of this work is to have students incorporate their micro content into another long-form artifact created in the class. For example, they might include an infographic to help visualize data in a research article or essay, or embed a short video in a blog post.
Reflections on the Activity
Longform content and detailed academic texts will always have a place in our writing classes and in other world contexts. Students will still engage in a range of rhetorical and research practices as they shape their ideas. However, including low-stakes micro content assignments encourages them to reframe the ways they understand their roles as writers who write for many rhetorical contexts. The teaching of micro content communicates to students the ways we can pull together multiple content artifacts to create engaging multimodal writing.
Lisa, Dush. “When Writing Becomes Content.” NCTE, 2015, library.ncte.org/journals/CCC/issues/v67-2/27641.
Loranger, Hoa, and Jakob Nielson. “Microcontent: How to Write Headlines, Page Titles, and Subject Lines.” Nielsen Norman Group, 2017, www.nngroup.com/articles/microcontent-how-to-write-headlines-page-titles-and-subject-lines/.
Image Credit: “Digital Literacy Clipart 1560126” from WebStockReview, used under a CC BY 3.0 license; “Water Drops” from PxHere, used under a CC0 license
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I must admit that when I was a new teacher, one of my nagging concerns about assigning a research paper was that my students would plagiarize. I started teaching back in a time when students didn’t have access to online sources. I would ask them to turn in photocopies of representative pages from their print sources with their papers so that I could check how they were incorporating their sources into their writing. Occasionally I would get that sinking feeling as I read words in papers that students clearly did not come up with on their own but that they chose not to document. I found myself asking: were these cases of dishonesty or misunderstanding of the conventions of a research paper?
Sometimes there was a clear pattern, such as only direct quotations were documented and nothing else. Sometimes, though, substantial portions of the essays were pulled verbatim from outside sources that were not identified. Usually the unidentified sources were not hard to find because the students who didn’t take the time to do their own work also did not tend to take the time to look very far for sources to copy. Over time, teachers learned to combat this issue by having students turn in works in progress. My students, for example, submitted a proposal, a working bibliography, sample note cards, and their opening paragraph before turning in the final product.
As I aged and gained more experience, I became less concerned that a student might try to deceive me and more concerned with teaching the important reasons for using sources and for documenting them. I tried to explain that a name and/or a page number in parenthesis might satisfy the letter of the law of documentation, but it might not necessarily establish the authority of the source. Part of a strong argument is using sources that bring to a subject a level of authority a student writer does not possess.
With the increasing ease of access to information through the internet came an even greater need to teach students to carefully evaluate sources. There were just too many sources available, and a common temptation was to use the first ones that popped up on the screen. It was possible to go through the motions of writing a researched essay without building anything close to a convincing argument. The resulting essays were reminiscent of reports students wrote when they were younger and not very discriminating. The failure to choose appropriate sources leads to weak arguments. In my classes, we talked about the differences among links that ended in .org, .com, and .edu, about sites with no clear author identified, and about how the date of publication affected the relevance of the information. I also suggested that if the name of the author of a source was not familiar, it might take a little more research to establish that author’s claim to authority.
In the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, unprecedented numbers of Americans were turning to social media to form their opinions about the candidates. The same sort of indiscriminate acceptance of information that led students to write weak argument papers led Americans in large numbers to indiscriminately accept whatever they saw on their screens. If it was information that conformed to their way of viewing the world, they were quick to pass it along without thinking too much about its accuracy. Russians attempting to influence the election were able to do so largely because of this unquestioning acceptance of whatever appeared in “print” on screen and the willingness to share it with others. The need to question the validity of information that appeared online became critical to us as a society, not just to students as an academic exercise.
Our ability to evaluate information presented as fact suffered in a time of “alternative facts.” People questioned whether they could believe the number of deaths from COVID-19 because hospitals were accused of misrepresenting how deaths were labelled. And now we have a former president denying that he lost the election in 2020—even in the face of facts to the contrary—and millions of people are believing him.
In teaching students the mechanics of documenting sources in their writing, we are teaching more than academic formalities. We are teaching critical thinking skills. We are teaching students how to discern fact from fiction and how to present a well-informed case to others. These skills were never needed more than they are today.
Image Credit: “Essay Weekend” by Mike Mantin is used under a CC BY 2.0 license
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With Major League Baseball moving the All-Star game away from Georgia and relocating it in Colorado, I find myself thinking about one of the major leitmotifs of the tenth edition of Signs of Life in the USA, which is described in the Introduction to the book. For there, in an analysis of the ways in which the movies Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame reflect the electoral situation in America today, I note how "Americans don't simply elect a president anymore, they seek regime change, from the Republican overthrow of Clintonism in 2000 to the Obama landslide in 2008 (which many at the time viewed as a permanent shift leftward in American politics) to the Revolutionary War-inspired Tea Party insurrection that enabled the Republican Party to capture both houses of Congress, and, in 2016, the White House itself." I also went on to note, in words that were written before the 2020 election took place, how the Democrats recaptured the House in 2018 and hoped to win back the Senate and the White House in 2020—which, of course, they did. But my point was that, like the wars of the Avengers, the defeat of one side is never to be taken as final, that the dead rise again, and that one electoral revolution simply leads to a counter-revolution in an unending cycle. And that counter-revolution is what is now taking place in states like Georgia, which are trying to make certain that the polling, um, “practices” of 2020 won't be repeated in 2022 (and beyond).
The inevitable spillover of such infinity wars into popular culture can be seen in MLB's eventual decision to take the All-Star game away from Atlanta, in Coca-Cola's (at first reluctant) denunciation of the election laws just passed in its home state, and the generally queasy response of corporate America to the situation, which puts into high relief the dilemma of a consumer capitalist society that is almost evenly divided down the middle. Facing angry consumer boycotts no matter which way they decide to go on the matter, companies like Delta and Coke are caught in the middle at a time when there is no middle in America anymore.
So we can expect to see a lot more of this sort of thing in the years to come, as well as a lot more consumer pressure from both sides in the conflict—not to mention a lot of clever routines on Saturday Night Live and impassioned statements at entertainment awards ceremonies. The one thing we can't expect, however, is any kind of reconciliation, or any location of a common ground in America. With polls showing a distinct partisan split over such things as whether or not to get vaccinated against COVID-19, it is clear that America's great divide has widened too far for any bridge to span. The unthinkable is already happening in the Peach state, where at least one Georgia legislator is actually saying "Pepsi, please" to signify his new cola allegiance.
Image Credit: "Baseball Brawl" by iotae is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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