I wonder how many of you are as grateful as I am that this year’s virtual CCCC presentations have been archived and are available for us to view for some weeks yet.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.
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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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Like many of you, I attended the virtual CCCC 2021 conference last week, and while I had some initial problems negotiating the platform, I came away so very grateful for all the work that had gone into developing and delivering the conference. In fact, I am still enjoying it, since the presentations will be archived for another month. The sessions I have attended thus far have been outstanding—well researched and delivered in engaging ways: in fact, I think these virtual sessions were better than many real life ones I have attended in the past. BRAVO, BRAVA to everyone, beginning with the galvanizing message of our 2021 Exemplar, Beverly Moss, at the opening general session (which to me set a very high bar and the perfect tone for this conference) and going through Roxane Gay’s brilliant keynote to wonderful late Saturday sessions: a movable feast for sure, from start to finish—except because the conference was virtual, it isn’t finished yet, at least not for me!
Early on, I attended a session called “’Racism Isn’t the Shark in the Ocean; It’s the Water’: Stumbling through Antiracist Language Pedagogies and Practices,” where Rachael Shapiro, Missy Watson, and Shawna Shapiro—three white women—talked about their struggles to embody antiracist pedagogies in their classrooms. Recognizing their own positionalities and limitations, they offered concrete strategies for teachers, from Rachael Shapiro’s determination to “do better” as a constant mantra—to “keep working, keep failing, keep learning, keep going forward”; to Missy Watson’s practice of fore-fronting “dialogic examinations and negotiated contributions of ideologies and political histories of language” as well as her (excellent) responses to teachers who come up with “perpetual buts”—reasons why they cannot take on antiracist translingual praxis; to Shawna Shapiro’s focus on learning to ask better questions and to “call in” rather than “call out,” encouraging “speaking up without tearing down.”
Another particularly memorable session for me this year was the “Octalog IV: The Politics of Rhetorical Studies in 2021,” chaired by Elise Verzosa Hurley, current editor of Rhetoric Review, who introduced the session and gave some history on the Octalog tradition, begun with Octalog I in 1988 and continued in 1997 and 2010. These Octalogs have always focused on the history of rhetoric and historiography, but this year broadened the scope to look at the ways in which politics impinge on the institutional work of rhetoric. Candace Epps-Robertson kicked off the session of eight brief presentations asking what it means to do archival work and providing brilliant examples of how current researchers look well beyond traditional “archives” to backyard sheds, personal memories, front porches, family reunions, hashtags—all part of transcultural efforts to fully reimagine archives and archival methods. Allison Hitt advocated for “accessibility as rhetorical practice,” reminding us that rhetoric is always embodied and culturally situated and that it therefore must be accessible. Ensuing presentations focused on intimacy as an analytic and self-story as a way of creating and building knowledge; on spatial justice; on the use of counterstories in antiracist pedagogy; on the importance of traditional indigenous knowledge that is “hidden in plain sight” and on non-Western forms of seeing and knowing; on the need to pay attention not only to “good people speaking well” but on “bad people speaking effectively,” arguing that rhetoric has a lot to tell us about such people and the “dark side” they represent; and on queer methodological moves and rhetorical practices.
These presentations, as I said, were brief—probably only 6 minutes or so. I first fell in love with this kind of format at a meeting of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, when a group of speakers were asked to speak no longer than 8 minutes apiece: I was on the edge of my chair throughout this session, as I admired how my colleagues managed to encompass their messages in such a short span of time. Those presentations were so brilliantly put together and delivered that I remembered each one vividly. That was the same experience I had at this year’s Octalog, which ended with a rousing challenge from Tom Miller, who said that this year’s program seemed “frozen in time,” occurring somehow outside the current moment of violent coup attempts and insurrections, a worldwide pandemic, escalating police violence, and mass shootings. “What does it take to get our attention?” he asked, going on to say that our discipline is “running out of time” to build undergraduate and graduate programs in rhetoric and writing that can fully engage current political forces through building generative community-based projects. Miller is nothing if not prescient, and his warning was a bracing way not only to conclude this session but to send us all out ready to meet his challenge.
I will be settling in this week to attend more sessions: I am especially looking forward to hearing Vershawn Ashanti Young’s Chair’s Address, which I missed, as well as a number of other sessions. Already I have new and exciting ideas about ways to engage students in the work of antiracism—through their own writing and research. So thank you, CCCC 2021!
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As we teach about the impact of language choices in our writing classrooms, I hope we consistently demonstrate the power of those rhetorical decisions beyond the classroom, too. A handful of words can be as consequential as a finger on the trigger.
After yet another mass shooting, this time in Boulder, Colorado, I brought into class a New York Times headline for students to analyze: “After a Senseless Act, Remembering Full Lives and Futures Lost.” In just a moment, multiple students had caught what the experienced headline writers had missed: To call a mass shooting “senseless” suggests rational people could neither have foreseen the event nor could they analyze it after the fact. However, this tragedy, like the other mass shootings that preceded it, is full of “sense.” There is a terrible logic to the shooters’ motivations, and a clear pattern we can and should learn from. The use of the word “senseless” in this context is a cliché that keeps us from considering the precipitating factors of mass shootings, such as the brutality of masculine scripts, the impact of shame and bullying, and the inevitable results of easy access to assault rifles, among other issues.
A reexamination of the rhetoric commonly used to discuss mass shootings in our country could lead to a reexamination of the norms and policies that enable these tragedies to occur. Frank Bruni centered the problem of the phrase “gun control” in a recent column that makes a useful in-class close-reading assignment. Besides focusing on the object, as well as the exclusion of the actor or the social structure, the phrase “gun control” stands in front of a complex social landscape, obscuring it and thus making it harder to think about. To his credit, Bruni doesn’t try to solve this linguistic problem on his own. Instead, he invites a communal discussion. A flood of letters ran on March 31 with suggestions for new language that included “gun safety,” “weapons management,” and “responsible gun ownership.” Your students might have excellent ideas to add to this conversation, along with further analysis about the problems of the phrase “gun control.” In a country often described as “gun crazy,” we require thinkers who will push all of us to see the meanings and impacts of living in a country with more guns than people .
The problem of anti-analytical, obfuscating language has been a topic in my class all semester. In January, I invited students to keep track of a common verbal tic we heard in our Zoom room: Labeling situations “crazy” (i.e. “The wealth gap is just crazy!”). Like the word “senseless,” the word “crazy” suggests that a situation, or person, is not rational or comprehensible. The casual use of “crazy” also contributes to mental health shaming. We decided that every time we heard ourselves or others saying “That’s so crazy,” we’d gently suggest an alternative: “That’s worth analyzing.” The latter phrase calls us to action and reminds us of our critical powers.
These conversations are related, of course, to the precise language we use in teaching writing. The common impulse to describe good writing as “flowing,” for example, obfuscates the specific moves writers make in introductions, connections, signposting, transitions, and other rhetorical decisions that produce the readerly effect of “flowing” prose. My co-author Stuart Greene and I offer specific strategies and language for teaching readerly writing and writerly reading in the new 5th edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing , a text that builds on the ideas in this post.
What are your favorite methods of teaching students to see the power of rhetorical decisions to obscure or reveal truths? My “ripped from the headlines” approach is just one.
Image Credit: Photo of the New York Times taken by the author
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Those of us who were schooled in the ideas developed by the Accelerated Learning Program pioneered by Peter Adams, and the California Acceleration Project, co-founded by Katie Hern and Myra Snell, learned very early on that fostering non-cognitive skills and academic habits is crucial to our students’ success. In Santa Barbara City College’s Express to Success (ESP) program, we emphasized the importance of slowing down and rethinking our classes from the ground up and, most importantly, seeing them through our students’ eyes. Essentially, that means taking nothing for granted. We should not, for instance, assume that students in an accelerated composition course automatically read the syllabus every week, or, indeed, ever read it again after we introduce it on the first day of class. It’s our responsibility to draw their attention back to it throughout the semester, emphasizing assignments that are especially important and alerting students to when they will be held accountable for completing those assignments. Obviously, every instructor enters the real or virtual accelerated classroom with a slightly different set of goals, but here are five non-cognitive skills and academic habits that I’d like my students to depart with by the end of the semester: Feel comfortable asking for help. There is perhaps no more important habit for student success than knowing you need help and going out and getting it. Part of this process is learning whom to ask, of course, but until students realize that it’s okay to feel at sea, they cannot course-correct. Low stakes assignments that require students to seek help—interviewing a counselor or a financial aid officer, for example—are especially valuable early in the semester, so that asking for help feels like part of going to college. Identify at least one person besides the instructor who is a reliable source of information. Naturally, I’d like to be the first person a student contacts with a question about the class, but sometimes students feel a question isn’t important enough to bother the professor, or they simply would rather connect with someone else. A tutor is certainly valuable in these circumstances, but a classmate—someone who knows what’s going on and won’t judge a peer—is even better. It’s here that our emphasis on building community pays off. And there are other options, too. An especially shy student in an asynchronous online class admitted to me during a conference that she was sharing our course materials with an older sibling, who had already graduated from college. When she couldn’t quite figure something out, she turned to her big brother for advice. Plan ahead. The pandemic has made many instructors more flexible with deadlines, and this attitude may well hang around for a while. However, as we transition back to more traditional classroom settings, deadlines may firm up once again. Whatever an instructor’s policies may be, it’s disconcerting how often students seem to be floating through the semester, unaware of what’s about to be due, or what can no longer be turned in. I want my students never to feel surprised by an assignment. Phone fanatics may rely on their digital calendars, although I’ve had many students tell me there’s no reminder quite as insistent as a circled date on a physical calendar hanging above a desk. Insist on your right to be educated. Sometimes the people who love a student the most will unwittingly throw up the most challenges. A working parent needs babysitting, for instance, and wonders how important it could be to miss just one class, or one test, or one essay? Other folks may not have students’ best interests in mind—the employer who needs a shift covered, or the friend who has deemed college a waste of time. That first step of enrolling in college is a huge one, but students need to remember that there are many more steps to come, and they are justified in taking each and every one of them. Take nothing for granted. Just as I move through the semester feeling that I cannot remind my students too many times about what to do, how to do it, and when it is due—let’s call it what it is: intrusive!—I want them to feel that there’s always something they should be checking on. Know what’s expected of you and what you can expect from others, I tell them. Be alert, be alive, be strong—and nothing can stop you.
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I am writing this post on April 5 and, I expect like many of you, I am preparing to attend at least some of the virtual 2021 CCCC meeting. I’m so looking forward to seeing friends and colleagues and former students, even if still only virtually.
In the meantime, it has been spring break time and I’ve been doing some interesting reading. First, with my teenage grandniece, I’m reading Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Scythe trilogy—very much in the mold of The Hunger Games, at least so far, but fairly well written and featuring two very appealing teen protagonists who, in the first volume, are serving as apprentice “Scythes,” specially trained and decorously robed professionals chosen to “glean” people at random in order to reduce the population in a “perfect” world no longer plagued by illness or poverty. My grandniece, who devoured the Harry Potter series when she was in elementary school and likewise The Hunger Games and other dystopian YA fiction, says she will “read anything” by Shusterman. Since I’ve been reading with her for most of her life, including all the Potter books, I’m interested to see if I will agree with her assessment. As we read, we exchange text messages about the books, and we will eventually write together about this trilogy. For my part, I’ll “read anything” that she writes—and love watching her develop as a discerning reader and writer.
More in my lane, however, are two books I just heard about and am reading together, since I couldn’t decide which one to treat myself to first: Rhetorics Elsewhere and Otherwise: Contested Modernities, Decolonial Visions, edited by Romeo García and Damián Baca, and The Routledge Reader of African American Rhetoric: The Longue Durée of Black Voices, edited by Vershawn Ashanti Young and Michelle Bachelor Robinson, with the help of thirteen other distinguished section editors.
Actually, it’s turning out to be an enriching experience to read these texts together—a chapter or two in one and then some in the other—because they speak to each other so strongly. The African American Rhetoric is an anthology of recovery and celebration that beautifully bridges theory and practice in tracing the development of such a rhetoric and exploring its characteristic and transformational features. As a placard on the cover proclaims, “Black words matter.” Indeed, every page of this extensive volume instantiates that claim. The volume also supports the “pluriversality of knowledges” advocated by García and Baca in Rhetorics Elsewhere, one that moves beyond notions of postcoloniality to decoloniality, including the telling of stories “elsewhere and otherwise” that have been excluded. This shift away from “storytellers of the past,” such as the traveler, the colonialist, and the academic, to the “local individuals within local epistemic frameworks” and from Western epistemology to Border epistemology shows the potential of these stories to change the way we view history and rhetoric itself. Noting the relationship between the Eurocentric notion of rhetoric and “a logic of imperial expansion that manages identification, knowledge making, subjectivity, and deliberation,” this slim but powerful volume directly challenges this relationship by moving far beyond it to recognize, understand, and advance knowledge and scholarship “elsewhere and otherwise.”
To give just one example of why I’m enjoying reading these works together, I can point to Kevin Adonis Browne’s “Moving the Body: Preamble to a Theory of Vernacular Rhetoric, or How a Caribbean Rhetoric[ian] Is Composed” (chapter 7 in Rhetorics Elsewhere), which I read alongside selections included in Chapter 9, “Caribbean Thought and Its Critique of Subjugation” in African American Rhetorics, selections which go toward the kind of “pluraversality’ Baca and García call for while expanding understandings of African American rhetoric to link the rhetorics of Black Americans in the U.S. to those in the Caribbean.
I can already tell that it is going to take me quite a while to read and understand, to really listen to, these books—but that is going to be part of the fun, of dipping in and out, of moving from one to another and back again, and learning so much in the process. About one thing in particular Aristotle was surely right: learning is life’s greatest pleasure.
Happy Spring Break and Happy Reading.
Image Credit: "Thick encyclopedias with colorful hardcovers" by Horia Varlan, used under a CC BY 2.0 license
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An essay excerpted in the thirteenth edition of Elements of Argument, Ishmeal Bradley’s “Conscientious Objection in Medicine: A Moral Dilemma,” addresses the dilemma faced by some health care providers when they are asked to perform procedures that violate their moral code. The prime example is abortion. The pressure extends from doctors to others, like nurses, who must assist in procedures to which they are morally opposed. Even a doctor or nurse who might normally be excused from participating may be forced to join the procedure in an emergency. Bradley succinctly sums up the dilemma: “Where are the boundaries between professional obligations and personal morality? Can personal morality override professional duty when it comes to patient care? . . . On the one hand, there is the argument that physicians have a duty to uphold the wishes of their patients, as long as those wishes are reasonable. On the other is the thought that physicians themselves are moral beings and that their morality should not be infringed upon by dictates from the legislatures, medical community, or patient interests.”
In Arkansas, the legislature recently passed and the governor signed into law a bill stating that the moral code of physicians shall not be infringed upon. As a result, many believe that Arkansan politicians have put the lives of certain Arkansan citizens at risk. Some people are concerned that SB 289, The Medical Ethics and Diversity Act, which allows doctors to refuse to treat a patient because of religious or moral objections, will give medical providers the right to refuse care to members of the LGBTQ community. By the end of January 2021, thirteen other states had proposed legislation that would limit the rights of transgender youth in particular, from denying them the right to participate in school sports to denying them the right to gender-confirming medication. Some pieces of legislation have passed; others never will. Even the threat of such laws is making some in the LGBTQ community rethink whether they want to live in these red states.
In support of the law, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said in a statement: “I support this right of conscience so long as emergency care is exempted and conscientious objection cannot be used to deny general health service to any class of people . . . Most importantly, the federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, sex, gender, and national origin continue to apply to the delivery of health care services.” Rather, Hutchinson argues, the conscience bill applies only to a particular health care service.
The extent to which the law protects the health professional’s right to refuse to give a patient medical care depends on how one’s “right of conscience” is defined and how far it extends. Hutchinson says that conscientious objection cannot be used to deny general health care to a whole class of people. Those who opposed the bill are quick to argue that doctors are now going to allow trans people to die. This argument may be an overgeneralization: the fear should not be that doctors will refuse to see LGBTQ individuals to give them vaccinations or to treat them for a sinus infection or to perform an appendectomy. A doctor who refuses to perform an abortion is not refusing treatment to the class of pregnant women in general, but is refusing to be a party to what, in the individual’s thinking, is the murder of a child. The moral objection to treating a trans individual comes when the medical professional is asked to aid or maintain the sexual transformation itself. The doctor would not be refusing to treat any trans person as a member of the class of trans people, but might object to participating in the process of helping a person transition. Doctors who perform gender reassignment surgery or otherwise help patients with the transition are a class unto themselves and work in that area, surely, because they have no conscientious objection to it. If a doctor refuses to see a patient for a treatment that the doctor routinely provides because the person is trans, that would be a clear case of discrimination.
As always, in attacking the positions of those we do not agree with, we have to be careful not to attack for the wrong reasons. When we overstate our opponent’s position, we weaken our own. Yes, there may be medical professionals in Arkansas and elsewhere who would prefer not to accept LGBTQ people as patients, but there are federal laws that ban that type of discrimination. People seeking gender reassignment surgery will seek out doctors best trained for those procedures. The hope would be that there are medical professionals in every state with such training. The most difficult obstacle to overcome might be finding a doctor to prescribe gender-affirming medications, and that is where this battle must be focused.
Fear is already mounting that the incidence of suicide among trans youth will rise when states try to deny them the medications they need to maintain gender-affirming physical changes. If doctors choose not to meet those needs, they will be able to use the new law to justify their refusal on religious or moral grounds. That is the reason Arkansas’s new law and others like it are viewed as a dire threat.
Image Credit: "Take Action for Trans Rights" by Marc Nozell , used under a CC BY 2.0 license
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Let me begin by saying that I have no intention of entering into the murky morass that engulfs the many conflicting claims behind HBO's recently aired documentary, "Allen v. Farrow." What interests me, for the purposes of a cultural semiotic analysis, lies not in the series itself, nor its subject matter, but rather in the reaction to it, particularly the passionate defense of Woody Allen that has sprung up in its wake. Lorraine Ali of the Los Angeles Times describes this reaction in her article "What Woody Allen’s defenders are really upset about," as follows:
Angry readers wrote to The Times in response to my favorable review of the series, insisting I was part of a lynch mob: "Shame on you!" Others railed against it on Twitter as an HBO hit piece. Heated arguments ensued across Facebook. Some of the upset was understandable: Robert Weide, who directed "American Masters — Woody Allen: A Documentary," spoke out in favor of his friend, complaining in a blog post that most of the press was guilty of "swallowing the HBO series whole, seemingly thrilled that someone was finally taking Allen down." But the immediacy and intensity of the response by those who presumably don’t know Allen personally are puzzling. His apex as a filmmaker was more than 30 years ago. The accusations detailed in "Allen v. Farrow" are nearly as old. Why are these fans so invested in defending him?
Good question, and Ali's situating it within the context of a world that "has changed since the scandal around Allen and Farrow’s breakup in 1992, and even more since the 1970s and ’80s, when Allen’s films often seemed to be driven by an obsession with young — and occasionally underage — women," is a good place to start. For indeed, as Ali continues, "the #MeToo movement has shifted the power dynamics of Hollywood, and changed the perceptions of the American public regarding the role of women on and off screen. But more than that, it’s flipped the script on who is believed in 'he said, she said' cases, making Allen and Farrow’s case the perfect candidate for reconsideration under a more modern cultural lens."
But as is so often the case in the highly overdetermined world of popular cultural semiotics, I think there is another angle to the story that is worth exploring. So here goes.
In my last blog I celebrated the life of the late Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who, I noted, was a major contributor to America's mid-twentieth century's deconstruction of the traditional boundary between elite and mass culture, incorporating elements of popular entertainment into his own esthetically-driven poetry while encouraging and publishing the work of other poets (like Allen Ginsberg) who were also straddling the line between art and pop. So I find it striking that when I look at the career of Woody Allen I see something of the same phenomenon, but moving from the opposite direction—that is, from pop to art, with the television joke writer and stand-up comedian of the 1950s and '60s becoming the cosmopolitan auteur of the 1970s and onward. And herein lies one of the reasons for the angry defense of Allen today that Ali describes.
At a time when movie genres that were once regarded as being properly for children—science fiction and fantasy, with their vampires, wizards, zombies, star ships, and superheroes—have taken center stage in America and shoved the art film tradition into the wings, Woody Allen can be (and, I believe, is being) seen as one of the last exemplars of the high art, urbane and sophisticated, cinematic tradition. An attack on the man thus feels like an attack on what he represents to his defenders, and they are responding accordingly.
So I don't think that the shifts in gender power relations that Ali identifies are the sole motivation for Allen's defenders—that they are trying to hold onto a bygone era of all-powerful Hollywood men. The bygone era behind the ruckus is cultural as well as political, and it will be interesting to see what happens next in this ongoing family melodrama.
"5261-Woody Allen en Oviedo" by jl.cernadas is used under a CC BY 2.0 license
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This time last year, we had an April Fool’s surprise for sure in the form of a burgeoning pandemic. This year, we are not so easily fooled, and approximately one third of us have been vaccinated. While we’d surely be fools to get ahead of the process, we at least know a great deal more about this virus than we did then, and we have hope of meeting students in our classrooms again. So, a tentative happy April first.
The date is not my main reason for writing, however. I’ve been thinking lately about the relationship between reading and listening (see past posts here and here), and those ruminations took me back to a class I used to teach at Bread Loaf on the history of writing. I was fascinated by this history, about how writing systems developed and about what writing has meant in various cultures at various times. As we studied this history, students in my class would also study the history of their own writing, looking at the role literacy had played in their families’ histories and their own lives. We always ended our session at Rosie’s, a local restaurant, reading our histories aloud to one another (and eating some great roadhouse food).
One year, a student in this class also happened to be a brilliant pianist, one of whose specialties was New Orleans-style jazz he had learned from the masters in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, with whom he had been invited to play. As we talked about the slow shift from a primarily oral to a primarily literate society and about what was gained—and lost—in that shift, he offered an analogy and a demonstration. He brought in the sheet music for Tony Jackson’s ragtime masterpiece “Pretty Baby,” a written version of a song that had existed in the aural memories of the ragtime players from whom this member of my class had learned to play it. He played for us what he thought of as the “oral version” of the piece—the “oral” one he had listened to and learned from the Black jazz players in New Orleans—and had us on our feet in seconds. Then he took a deep breath, pulled out the sheet music, and played the buttoned-down written version, for which two white producers paid Jackson $250 and then went on to rewrite the lyrics, “regularize” it “for mass consumption,” and make a fortune on it in various shows and a recording for Victor Records sung by the Irish American Billy Murray.
Stories of exploitation of Black musicians and singers are of course legion: see Alice Walker’s “Nineteen Fifty-five” for a powerful story based on the “relationship” between Big Mama Thornton and Elvis Presley. I had long known and taught about this issue in another course I taught on the history of intellectual property and, until recently, that’s the context in which I thought about this music in its oral and written versions.
I have come back to it now, however, via a different route—through thinking about the relationship between listening and reading sparked by encountering Nicole Brittingham Furlonge’s Race Sounds: The Art of Listening in African American Literature. Furlonge’s aim is to “unmute print,” to help us “read in print” and to hear in new (or perhaps old) and newly rich ways. She posits listening as an “aural form of agency, a practice of citizenship, an aural empathy, an ethics of community building, a mode of social and political action, a set of strategies for cultural revision, and a practice of historical thinking.” That’s a very tall order, but Furlonge delivers on it in analyses of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident, Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight Los Angeles, 1992, and other works, all in search of ethical listening practices that will change the way we read forever.
Toward the end of her book, Furlonge turns to pedagogies of listening and describes her own undergraduate class on listening. For teachers of writing (and reading and speaking and listening), this chapter especially will resonate. This is a book we should all read and savor—and listen to.
Learning from this book has led me back to my class on the history of writing and to the return of orality in our time: technological advances that allow us to hear print read aloud (I’m just listening to President Obama read his memoir); the rise of spoken word and other embodied, performative arts; and the growth of aural imagery everywhere we look and listen. And now, as Furlonge suggests, we can teach ourselves and our students—through the artistry of African American literature—to unmute print texts, to “read” them as full of sound and music and voices.
I have a new way of thinking about reading now, and about ethical reading and listening practices. And I like it a lot.
Image Credit: "Piano" by QYR, used under a CC BY 2.0 license
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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.
Producing a podcast is just one way to explain a topic, make an argument, explore an idea, or convey any number of other ideas and subjects. This blog post explores an option for taking a podcast and turning it into another medium of the student’s choice: an essay, a photograph, a song, a video, etc. The remixing options are endless!
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 collections of 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 in a Remix Assignment
Pre-Class Work: Ask your students to choose a podcast, or assign specific podcasts to your students. (Don’t forget, if you’re using an English Achieve 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!)
You may wish to use a longer podcast for this activity. Some longer podcasts include:
The Proto-Indo-European Language
Gender-Neutral Pronouns: Singular They
What Does It Mean to "Have the Receipts"?
American and Other Demonyms
When Is It OK to Be Redundant?
In Class: As a class, discuss the podcasts you’ve assigned or that students have chosen. Consider the following:
What is the audience?
Does the podcast make an argument or convey information?
Does it use any examples or stories to convey information?
Are any sources cited?
Then, each student should take 5-10 minutes to brainstorm how the podcast could be remixed into another format to express the same goal. How could this podcast be turned into: A lecture slide deck? A photograph? A poem? A text-based essay? A song or poem? A sculpture?
Ask students to consider if a different audience would impact the medium chosen to convey the information from the podcast.
Put students into small groups to discuss their brainstorms and develop any new ideas for 10 minutes. Then, ask students to choose an audience and a medium they would like to remix the chosen or assigned podcast into.
If you would like students to remix into the same medium, try a lecture slide deck or a poem.
Assignment: Ask students to implement their remix plan. Taking their audience and brainstorming, students should then remix the podcast content into a new form.
Ask students to directly submit their files (via email, a file upload feature, or any other method that works for you) or ask them to upload to Google Drive, create a shareable link, & share that link with you.
Reflection: Ask students to write 3-4 paragraphs discussing 1) why they made the remix choices they did, including their intended audience, and if their original plans changed over time, 2) what challenges they ran into, 3) what they would have liked to try but couldn’t due to time, technology, cost, or other restraints, 4) what they are most happy about in their final project.
Credit: "baking ingredients" by Andrea Goh is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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As my friends know, I’m a big basketball fan, having been the worst—but also tallest—player in my junior high and then really taught to understand the game by Beverly Moss, my mentor in many things but basketball in particular. So of course I am following the March Madness action, odd and unnerving as it is in this COVID year. And as a long-time Stanford faculty member, I have followed the women’s team very closely this year, through ups and downs and into the tournament. Last weekend, I watched them take on Utah Valley in a very lopsided first-round victory, and they’ve now also won in the second round against Oklahoma State!
Over the years at Stanford, I got to spend a bit of time with head coach Tara VanDerveer and have heard her speak in passionate support of women’s sports in general and basketball in particular. When Stanford hosted the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference, VanDerveer and the athletic director at the time both spoke about their mothers, who never had a chance to play sports, bringing the discriminatory practices up close and personal for both of them.
So this week when one of the Stanford coaches posted comparison photos of the men’s and women’s weight rooms, I wasn’t surprised. But like that coach (and like VanDerveer, who blasted the NCAA over the discrepancy), I was plenty mad. As the WNBA’s Brianna Turner noted, "In regards to the NCAA wbb tournament weight room that looks like it belongs in a senior care facility... it's inexcusable.” Indeed. Overnight, the NCAA made some changes and issued an apology. But as women athletes have been pointing out for decades, the system discriminates against them in almost every way.
So what does a teacher of writing do in a situation like this? A little research, to start with, to make sure of the facts. But this particular contretemps seems to me to offer an opportunity to engage students in some interesting research as well. They could begin with this controversy, looking for what they can find out about who made the decisions regarding facilities and comparing other elements of the men’s and women’s tournaments: when are they scheduled and why? Where are the teams staying and how do those facilities compare? What meals are offered to the players in both tournaments and how do they compare? What kind of equipment is provided for the players in the two tournaments? Who pays for these facilities and meals and equipment, and where does that money come from? Perhaps most important, where does the revenue from each tournament go—and why?
And think of the opportunity for field research about this issue: students could conduct interviews with players and coaches as well as with fans; they could conduct surveys of attitudes toward the two tournaments and gather data about the size of viewership, about advertising dollars spent, and about network coverage. And so on, and so on.
Students engaged in this kind of research are practicing research methods and techniques as well as synthesizing information and drawing solid inferences, all leading, perhaps, to a rhetorical analysis of a particular aspect of NCAA culture, to a narrative argument about equality between men and women’s sports, or to a report based on hard-nosed financial facts.
And those would all be very fine responses to the NCAA. So go team!
Image Credit: "Basketball" by popo.uw23, used under a CC PDM 1.0 mark
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Today's video concludes the "What We've Learned" video series, which brought to you Macmillan Composition, Literature, and Business and Technical Writing authors' reflections on teaching in the pandemic, teaching online, and how they've adapted their pedagogies. We hope you have found these videos useful, and if you missed any of them, just search for the tag "what we've learned."
In today's video, Heather Sellers (@heather_sellers), author of Practice of Creative Writing, discusses creating nonjudgmental workshops for students, as a way to transition from an evaluative mindset to a growth mindset. This takes a different kind of close reading, a lot of student thinking, and an understanding that a piece of writing can be missing specific elements without being "wrong."
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