Teacher to Teacher

Andrea LunsfordANDREA A. LUNSFORD is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.

How many spaces after a period?

posted: 9.18.14 by Andrea Lunsford

I bet many of you saw Jennifer Gonzalez’s blog posting, titled “Nothing Says Over 40 Like Two Spaces after a Period!” accompanied by this image:

Gonzalez, who is over 40 herself, went on to explain where the “two spaces after a period” rule came from, which has to do with the monospacing of typewriters and the little bit of extra space often needed to make letters fit.  Enter the proportional spacing practice of computers and word processors and that extra space isn’t needed: in the example below, the proportional spacing can accommodate 12 letters to monospacing’s 10:

I was really glad to read Gonzalez’s post and to realize there are a lot of other people out there trying to unlearn what was drilled into us: two spaces after end punctuation.

But unlearning turns out to be hard.  If you look closely, you’ll see that I put two spaces after end punctuation in this post until I got to this point. And remembered. ONE space will suffice.

In the meantime, Jennifer Gonzalez’s message has been tweeted and re-tweeted, stirring up quite a conversation online, with many people seeming to think Gonzalez is being deprecating to those over 40. (“Is being over 40 shameful in your world?”)

I have noticed that when I’m doing email on my phone, if I put two spaces after a period and it comes at the end of a line, the next line will be indented one space, which I do not want; so that’s a little feature of my smart phone that is giving me a bit of a reminder. And Gonzalez seems right about the age thing: when I ask students about this issue, they look at me in mystification. ONE space after a period, they say.

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Newbs R Us!: A New Year and New Multimodal Opportunities

posted: 9.15.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Guest bloggers Jeanne Law Bohannon  and Kim Haimes-Korn are Professors in the Digital Writing and Media Arts (DWMA) Department at Southern Polytechnic State University. 

Excavating the Piles

“I remember a day not so long ago as I was going through old files in my office.  It was a trip down a memory lane as I reflected on former students, article drafts and student writing – lots of student writing.  As I looked back I realized that I have been teaching writing through a mulitmodal lens for many years.  I laughed to myself as I remembered including “photo development” and film as part of my syllabi.  I remember having students create radical revisions and visual representations long before multimodal composition became household words for teachers of writing.  Our students now compose in complex digital spaces and we now have the affordances of technology to create limitless opportunities for what we call acts of composition.” – Kim

As trained compositionists, all of our assignments were deeply grounded in composition pedagogy and critical theories of composition. It is when we pulled these theories together with digital and multimodal composition that we get a framework for teaching.  We have come to realize that, as teachers, it is our role to engage students through “Critical Digital Pedagogy” in which critical theories of education and learning connect in active, thoughtful ways to new digital sites of thinking, learning and communicating.  We need to look for meaningful integration of these tools that connect to student learning and teach effective rhetorical strategies in this participatory world in which communication happens with and through many mediums and genres.

It is in this spirit that we have reshaped our composition program and our department – Digital Writing and Media Arts – to reflect these goals.   We now place Critical Digital Pedagogies front and center in our comp program and continually explore the ways we might integrate this overarching concept into our curriculum.  

Doing Multimodal

When we surveyed our peers, both veteran and new faculty, what we heard is that so many folks are “doing multimodal,” but they just don’t know it.  Here are some sample answers and ways in which our peers are already doing multimodal:

“My students blog during the semester, but that’s it. I don’t really do digital stuff.” (Blogging is TOTALLY D-Ped)

“I host read/write days for my students, were we meet in online discussion forums instead of meeting face-to-face.  Does that count?” (Yes and YES!)

We realized, as did our peers, that many of us already employ critical-digital pedagogies in our composition courses.  But what about our colleagues who are just beginning to think about digital as doable in their courses?  What about this survey answer?:

“I want to integrate digital pedagogy into my class assignments, but I’m not sure how.”

We asked ourselves: how do we bridge that gap?  After performing our own version of the Vulcan Mind-Meld, we concluded that the solution lay in our relationships with our peers.  What might seem at first look to be another task for already-busy new faculty needed to become an opportunity for collaborative peer mentoring and meeting our colleagues in their D-Ped comfort zones.   We found that teachers can extend their traditional, tried and true assignments through adding a digital component.   It can be as simple as adding images to documents for visual, rhetorical emphasis or coupling genre analysis projects with students’ own compositions in these multimodal genres.  We encouraged our colleagues to start small, meet their students in similar spaces, and work a bit of digital literacies magic.   


We also suggested some multimodal ways for teachers to jumpstart their classes.  A foundational and mindful rhetorical task that we often ask our students to perform is to identify and present their identities, or voices, in their writing.  What if we turned that act of composition and performed it ourselves, adding a sprinkle of digital literacies to the process?  We introduced the idea of a Badge Assignment.  Badges have been used across fields of inquiry and in diverse places of learning to define achievements met by individuals for specific activities.  For this assignment, however, we consider badges to be visual and textual representations of a person’s multiple identities in specific discourse communities.  Simply put, badges can represent important aspects of you.  Badges also serve to build community between you and your students, because they are a meta-language that allows for collaborative analysis and different perspectives across varying levels of rhetorical expertise.  We can use badges as both process and product, as rhetorical acts and as ice-breakers to create a sense of class community.

Community-building is a vital component of any digital tool, because building shared meanings helps us collaboratively produce knowledge.  Community in learning environments also creates a sense of togetherness, a space where we collaborate, both students and teachers, as equal participants in the drive to both consume and produce rhetorics.

For the assignment we describe here, we, as instructors, discover how to integrate a foundational and accessible digital tool into our practice and then use that tool as a jumping-off point for connecting with our students during the first week of class. This assignment also gives us a chance to reflect on our individual comfort zones in regards to critical-digital pedagogy and offers us an opportunity to try some D-Ped on our own terms.

Assignment Goals:

  • Identify effective visuals that represent your identity in a specific discourse community
  • Learn to navigate one photo editing website
  • Produce a rhetorically-effective representation, or “badge”
  • Use your badge as an ice-breaker to build classroom community

Background Reading for Students and Instructors:

Acts of textual and visual design using multimodal elements are on-going learning opportunities for instructors.  Below, we have listed a few foundational texts and suggested reading.  You will no doubt have your own to enrich this list.

  • Everything’s an Argument: Ch. 2, Arguments Based on Character: Ethos, Ch. 14, Visual and Multimedia Arguments
  • The St. Martin’s Handbook: Ch. 23, Design for Writing; Section 9c, Making Ethical Appeals; Ch. 24, Writing to the World; Ch. 7, Reading Critically
  • The Everyday Writer and Writer’s Help E-Book:  Ch. 9, Making Design Decisions; Sections 14c-14e Establishing Ethos; Ch.20, Writing to the World; Ch. 12, Critical Reading
  • Writing in Action:  Ch. 8, Making Design Decisions; Sections 11c-e, Establishing Ethos; Ch. 17, Writing to the World; Ch. 9, Reading Critically
  • EasyWriter: Section 2f, Designing; Section 3d, Establishing Ethos; Ch. 29, Writing to the World; Section 3a, Reading Critically
  • “Collage and Photo Editor”: www.picmonkey.com
  • “What is Multimodal for Students”: www.rhetoricmatters.org

Before Class: Instructor Preparation (Creating Your Own Badge)

First, choose a photo-editing program.  We chose PicMonkey, because it’s free, intuitive, and you don’t have to sign up or sign in to edit an uploaded photo.  (If you have a favorite photo-editing program, please let us know in the comments below this post.  We would love to explore new options for our students!)

Next, take a photo or use a self-authored photo that represents the part (or parts) of your identity that you choose to showcase in your course.  Then, upload it to your chosen photo editor.  After editing the photo for visual appeals, add text to complement your visual identifier (your photo).  We have included an example here.   The text should say something about you and have meaning for your specific pedagogical approach to your course.

After you are happy with your visual and textual representation (i.e. after you have finished playing with all the neat tools), publish it in a course space.  Now, it’s time to invite your students to participate in the fun.


In Class:

Introduce yourself to your students using your badge as a departure point.  If you like, talk about D-Ped and what it means to “do multimodal.”  Jeanne has a visual on her blog, What is Multimodal?, that can help both you and your students articulate what multimodal means to you.   The idea here is to talk from your comfort zone, because doing so increases your personal ethos and builds community between you and your students.   You can access student badge examples here: Examples of Student Badges.  If you want to explore this activity with your students, visit the Student Badge link for a step-by-step badge assignment sheet. Please feel free to edit it and distribute to students. If you use it, give attribution, please ;)

Next Steps: Reflections on the Activity:

If you are lucky enough to teach in a computer lab, or even if you have access to one, you can use such a learning space to create badges in class and to have students explain their personal rhetorical choices in creating their individual badges.  If, like many of us, you have to beg, give blood, and amputate an arm to get computer lab access, you can still assign the badge as an out-of-class activity and incorporate a class discussion and presentation of badges as an icebreaker.

In our experience we have found that authentic student engagement grows out of democratic writing and discussion opportunities.  Students are far more likely to engage in a writing course if they feel that their voices are heard and validated.  For us as instructors, our fundamental role is our ability to let go of our authority and break that substantive binary that separates teachers and students in learning spaces.  When we re-center ourselves around our class community we facilitate rhetorical growth for us and our students, helping them develop informed voices as they participate in multiple discourses.

We welcome and value all feedback.  Please visit us at: http://rhetoricmatters.org/, http://educate.spsu.edu/jbohanno/index.htm, http://educate.spsu.edu/khaimesk/

Jeanne believes in creating democratic learning spaces, where students become accountable for their own growth though authentic engagement in class communities.  Her research interests include evaluating digital literacies, critical pedagogies, and New Media theory; performing feminist rhetorical recoveries; and growing student scholars.  Reach Jeanne at: jbohanno@spsu.edu or www.rhetoricmatters.org

Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning, 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. Reach Kim at: khaimesk@spsu.edu or www.actsofcomposition.khaimesk.org

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Can Writing Be Taught?

posted: 9.11.14 by Andrea Lunsford

I’d be hard put to count up the number of times I’ve been asked this question, by parents who don’t want their children to have to take a “required” writing course, by administrators who don’t want to pay for writing programs, by colleagues in literature who often assume that writing arrives courtesy of the muse, and by students who think that they have learned all they could possibly need to know about writing in high school.

To these—and to Rivka Galchen and Zoë Heller, writing in the August 19, 2014 New York Times Sunday Book Review—I have a one-word answer. YES. Yes, not only can writing be taught but it has been taught for millennia and is now being taught across this country and, indeed, around the world.


Cicero practicing and practicing

In ancient Rome, Cicero taught that the ability to speak and write well required three things: a modicum of natural ability, a fair amount of excellent instruction, and practice, practice, and more practice. I find Cicero’s insight as compelling today as it was over 2000 years ago. I have been teaching students (and myself) to write since the mid-sixties, and while I have encountered recalcitrant students (like the young man who assured me he was “above the paragraph”) and deeply challenged students (like a young woman who had suffered brain damage that impaired her ability to write and read) and uninterested students (like the football player who was sure he would NEVER need writing)—I have never encountered a student I could not help develop as a writer (the young woman with the brain injury worked with me for two years and eventually became a reporter for the school newspaper).

Galchen and Heller are of somewhat different opinions in their “Can Writing Be Taught” bookend essays, with Galchen musing that

The question of whether writing can be taught for me metamorphoses into the question of why it is, when thinking about writing, we are disproportionately detained by the question of teachability. Is it just that it’s somehow flattering to feel one’s endeavor is more gift than labor, and are writers more in need of such flattery than others? Possibly.

And Heller worrying that no one is teaching her school-aged daughter not to use lots of adverbs, concluding that “writing can be taught, but it deserves to be taught better than [it is].”

I’d love to hear how other experienced teachers of writing answer this question. In beginning an answer of my own, I often begin by quoting Stephen North who reminds us that “writing is hard, and it takes a long time.”  But it can be taught!

[Image: woodcut from Cicero, Epistulae ad Familiares, public domain]

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Multimodal Mondays: “Getting to Know You” with Student Introduction Videos

posted: 9.8.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Stephanie Vie is an associate professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. She researches digital identities in social media spaces and is particularly interested in how social media technologies impact literate practices both within and beyond the classroom. Stephanie works closely with the academic journal Kairos and the Computers and Composition Digital Press. In this post, Stephanie describes building an online learning community with an early multimodal assignment for an online or hybrid course: student-created videos. Follow Stephanie on Twitter at @digirhet


At the University of Central Florida (UCF) where I teach, online education is a growing component of our pedagogy. Our Center for Distributed Learning notes that in Fall 2012, nearly 29,000 UCF students enrolled in a fully online or video-based course and over 6,200 took only online classes. And while UCF might be one of the largest institutions in the country, we’re not alone in showcasing an emergent interest in online education: Nationally, an estimated 6.7 million students are enrolled in online courses.

Given this increase in online educational opportunities, chances are you may find yourself teaching an online or hybrid course in the future—if you aren’t already. One of the largest concerns for teachers of writing in online courses is creating a sense of community among the students in the class; just as we work to sustain a community of writers in our face-to-face courses, students in online courses learn best within online learning communities, “groups of people, connected via technology-mediated communication, who actively engage one another in collaborative, learner-centered activities to intentionally foster the creation of knowledge, while sharing a number of values and practices” (Shea 35). These kinds of communities help students feel like learners engaged in the construction of shared knowledge rather than simply individuals working to check off assignments in a correspondence course.

The assignment described below is an easy way to begin your online or hybrid course with an eye toward building community from the very start. Although this assignment works particularly well for online courses, it can also be adapted for use in a traditional face-to-face course, especially if the instructor would like students to begin thinking about multimodal composing from the beginning of the course.


To have students introduce themselves to each other and begin building an online learning community, and therefore to carefully consider their composing choices and reflect upon them the week after they have submitted their video.

Background Reading

  • Everything’s an Argument, Ch 14, Visual and Multimedia Arguments
  • The St. Martin’s Handbook, Ch 22e, Using Webcasts
  • The Everyday Writer, Ch 3a-3b, Multimodal Assignments
  • Writing in Action, Ch 5a, Multimodal Assignments
  • EasyWriter, Ch 4a, Multimodal and Digital Writing

The Assignment

Explain to students that you would like for them to compose a brief video introducing themselves to their classmates and the instructor. Let students know about your expectations for creating an online learning community throughout the course; I explain to them that we’ll be working closely together as a community of writers throughout the semester, so the video introduction is one of their first opportunities to tell the class (including me) more about themselves. Students will also be expected to view each other’s videos and respond to them. This is one of their first chances to learn more about their classmates and get to know them better while at the same time viewing the range of multimodal composing options that their classmates’ videos display.

I give students specific guidelines—rhetorical constraints—to direct them as they construct their introduction videos. For example, I specify a 3-5 minute length for their video: between s long, which I explain makes it possible for every student to view everyone else’s videos without making that burdensome. Similarly, I remind students that this is a multimodal assignment and thus their video should have both sound and image. They can incorporate music in a soundtrack if they like or splice still images into their video clips; these options depend on the student’s comfort level with multimodal composing.

I leave it up to students to decide how they will compose the video itself. However, I am careful to offer a variety of options in case students are unsure how to begin:

  • Use the built-in camera on a laptop or computer.
  • Use a handheld camera or smart phone.
  • Utilize the resources available on campus. For example, at UCF, our Technology Commons has equipment and hands-on assistance for students as they create this—and other—multimedia projects. They can also check out video cameras and iPads at the John C. Hitt Library. Your institution may have similar lending programs, workshops for students, and other resources related to multimodal composing.
  • Use a free online service to mix together video clips, music, still images, and other assets to create a video. I’ve recommended WeVideo, a free cloud-based video editing system, successfully to my students in the past.

If you prefer the videos to look and sound similar, you may wish to set additional constraints. For my purposes, and because my classes often enroll a variety of learners (including non-traditional students and distance education students), I leave the requirements fairly open. This means that I receive a diverse set of introduction videos from students, but I also find that reflects the natural diversity of our online learning community anyway—plus, it’s fun for me to see what students come up with when given some, but not too much, guidance in composing multimodally.

I’ve included clips from two student examples to illustrate some possibilities for students’ videos (below).

Next Steps

After students have composed and uploaded their video introduction to the course management system, they are required to watch each other’s videos and respond. I encourage them to respond to students with whom they might have a connection or may wish to work with (as peer reviewers, for example) over the course of the semester. Students embed their introduction video into a discussion forum thread and respond to each other. Last semester in a class of nineteen students, the online learning community began to emerge almost immediately. Two women who were recently engaged began sharing wedding tips and websites with each other, for example, and multiple students who enjoyed playing board and role-playing games shared local resources.

Given the number of fully online degree programs we offer at UCF, there is a substantial cohort of students who have taken online classes with each other but have never seen or heard each other before. In last semester’s class, one student responded to another, “Nice to see a face—we had [instructor’s name] together for Rhetorical Theory last semester.  …  I just wanted to tell you that I was always impressed by your posts last semester.” She replied, “This is actually one of the first classes that has required a video, and even though I hate recording myself, I must admit it’s nice to put some faces and voices to the names.”

Reflection on the Activity

The final step is for students to reflect on the rhetorical choices they made as composers. You may wish to incorporate this into the discussion post where students respond to each other’s videos or as a separate discussion post or blog. You could even require it as cover memo or similar document required when turning in the video. I push students to think about three levels of production in their multimodal texts, which I detail below:

Level One: [personal understanding and experience]

  • Why did you choose to create your multimodal project the way you did? Why do you think it’s interesting, unusual, exciting, fun, etc.?

Level Two: [contextual, factual information]

  • What kind of text did you create? How might it fit into a previously understood genre? What technologies did you use to create this text? What other texts does your text borrow from, play off of, reflect, echo, etc.?

Level Three: [rhetorically aware production]

  • Authorship: What parts of this text are mine alone and what parts are borrowed or adapted from others? Have others who contributed to the creation of my text been adequately and ethically compensated?
  • Appeals: What do I hope people will learn, understand, or notice about my text and its message? How is the structure, shape, format, and pacing of my text dependent on its message? What appeals have I incorporated—ethical, logical, and/or emotional? What stands out most about my text and its message?
  • Audience: How do I understand my idealized audience? How might my text be interpreted differently or incorrectly by different audiences? Have I considered issues of difference—age, race, ethnicity, language differences, religion, etc.—that might cause my audience to view my text differently than I anticipate?
  • Message: What do I hope viewers will take away from my text? Is there anything I have left out or should leave out?
  • Purpose/Exigence: What is my intent? What do I hope viewers will do after viewing my text? Why have I presented my text via the medium I have chosen?

This list of questions is not exhaustive and can be modified to fit multiple multimodal assignments for your class. The purpose, however, is to move students away from simply producing an introduction video to thinking specifically about why they produced it the way they did—and what they might do differently in their next multimodal composing opportunity.


As one student illustrated in her final reflection about the course, these initial moments meant to set up an online learning community can have lasting and significant results:

“The greatest impact this course had on me was the idea of being introduced into a community of writing.  Although, initially I did desire direct and specific instructions … I realized that the most important thing I could learn in this classroom is how to adapt to new environments of writing.  Every single new job or writing situation is an opportunity to adapt to a new ‘community of writing’ and although the technique is important to learn, a classroom cannot teach you what is appropriate in every single situation.”

Even a simple, low-stakes assignment such as an introduction video at the beginning of your online, hybrid, or face-to-face class can introduce students to meaningful concepts such as the creation of a community of writers and the rhetorical choices at play in multimodal composition. I hope that this assignment and these examples have given you some ideas for how you can modify the introduction video for your class—and if you choose to adapt this assignment, I’d love to hear about it! Write me in the comments below, or find me on Twitter.

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Splendid failures?

posted: 9.4.14 by Andrea Lunsford

William Faulkner considered The Sound and the Fury (1929) a failure, albeit a “splendid” failure. As he said in a 1957 interview:

I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section One. I tried with another brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes, I thought. And that failed and I tried myself—the fourth section—to tell what happened, and I still failed. (From Faulkner in the University, eds. Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph Blotner. Excerpt posted here.)

I thought of this statement when I read “Next Time, Fail Better” by Paula Krebs in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary. In it, Krebs—then a professor of English at Wheaton college—recounts her experience of sitting in on a colleague’s computer science classes and being amazed, and then impressed, with the degree to which students in those classes expected to fail at many or even most of their attempts:

A computer program that doesn’t run is a failure. A program that produces no usable data about the text it was set up to analyze is a failure. Why don’t those failures devastate the developers? Because each time their efforts fail, the developers learn something they can use to get closer to success the next time.

Krebs goes on to think about her own students in the humanities: they fear and shun failure, she writes. They “aren’t used to failure” and want to get everything right the first time. So Krebs thinks we should take a page from the sciences and teach students to learn from failure:

That’s what we should be teaching humanities students—to look at what went wrong and figure out how to learn from it. OK, that didn’t work. But my next try isn’t then going to be a complete ground-zero beginning. I’ll be starting with the knowledge that my last try didn’t work. Maybe it worked up to a particular point, and I can start over from there. Maybe it didn’t work because I took on too much, so now I will start smaller. Maybe it can’t work at all, and I need a new text from which to begin—a text in a different genre or a text in combination with something else.

What Krebs is describing, of course, is the way most writing teachers approach the production of texts—as a laborious process that encounters many roadblocks and wrong turns and re-starts. Yet I think we can still learn from Krebs and her computer science colleagues, for far too many students come into our classes with the expectation that if they can’t do well right away they will never do well.  It’s up to us to get that attitude out on the table for discussion on day one, and to keep returning to it throughout the term: success can and often does lie at the end of a string of failures.

When I started teaching at the University of British Columbia in 1977, I found that over half of the students in my classes were what they called “ESL” students,  even though for most of them English was not a “second” language but perhaps a third or fourth. These were terrific students—bright, eager to learn, extremely hard working. And they made great progress. But if they knew one thing, it was that their successful path toward fluent academic English would be strewn with failure. In a conference with one of my students (first-generation Canadian who spoke Mandarin at home and just about everywhere but in college), he said “it’s just that the alphabet doesn’t go down low enough for me.”  “What?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “it only goes down to F: I wish it went at least to M: then when I got to F I could see that I’d made a lot of progress, not that I was a FAILURE.”

Those words have always stayed with me, and when we’re teaching student writers, we need to remember them: the “failures” this student experienced were in fact important steps on his way to fluency. Not to be experienced with shame or fear and loathing but with the confidence that they would lead to success. If only the alphabet had gone down just a little bit farther.

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Whither the Apostrophe?

posted: 9.1.14 by Andrea Lunsford

People have been predicting the demise of the apostrophe for some time now, but when I began seeing cartoons about this little piece of punctuation, I began to think the end may indeed be nigh.  Just this week I ran across a cartoon depicting several people clustered around a large sign pinned to a wall.  The sign held one word—ITS—and in front of the sign stood a blindfolded person holding aloft an apostrophe with a pin through it. The caption:  “The games get pretty crazy at English teachers’ parties,” suggesting, of course, that the only people interested in apostrophes are . . . English teachers.

The same day I ran across that cartoon, I read a piece by Joe Pinsker in the July/August print issue of The Atlantic (p. 21) titled “Punctuated Equilibrium.”  Pinsker describes a “battle” being waged over the poor old apostrophe by two online groups, the Apostrophe Protection Society (a UK group) and Kill the Apostrophe.  Into this mix, Pinsker introduces the question of autocorrect and wonders whether or not it will “save” the apostrophe.

I’m aware of the autocorrect function every time my smart phone inserts an apostrophe for me, sometimes when I don’t even want it or it isn’t appropriate.  Of course, when I want to insert an apostrophe on my own, I have to switch from the message I’m writing to another page to insert the apostrophe and then back to the message page, which slows me down and is cumbersome, to say the least.

Meanwhile, students seem to be ready to give up on the apostrophe: I seldom see the punctuation mark in their social media writing, and even in their college work it often seems as if they sprinkle in apostrophes as sort of an afterthought.  Pinsker reports that a 2005 study strongly suggests that “our brains seem to become less vigilant when we know a grammatical safety net will catch us” and that students in the study with high verbal scores “missed twice as many errors” proofreading a document in Word with the software highlighting a possible error as they did when the program was turned off.

Pinsker concludes that “our devices seem likely to nudge us even further in the direction of language preservation” and uses as an example Nuance, a company that is working on autocorrect software “capable of grammatical changes like verb conjugation.”  That means, Pinsker says sardonically, “that we could soon be texting like the grammarians our software wants us to be.”

Such an outcome might make lots of people happy—but what about you?  Would you like to see autocorrect programs that could take over most of the proofreading functions?  Why or why not?

[Photo: apostrophe by Tom Magliery, on Flickr]

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Blogging as Pedagogy

posted: 8.21.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Colleague Adam Banks and students in our Bread Loaf summer course on Writing, Technologies, and Digital Cultures gave me a link to Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano’s blog, Langwitches, and specifically to a posting in which she argues for the pedagogical value of blogging.

As I travel around the country visiting teachers and students, I find that a lot of them are blogging—both for classroom work and out of school.  And in a recent informal poll of students at my own university, I found that almost all of them followed at least one blog—and that a majority of them kept a blog of their own.  Of course, as the students pointed out, some blogs are “too stupid for words,” and “not worth a minute of time.”  But that’s true of all forms of communication and it doesn’t seem to stop students from pursuing those blogs that do make a lot of sense to them.

So Tolisano’s posting on the pedagogical importance of blogs struck me as being right on target, but not overstated in that rah-rah way that some use for advocating technologies of various kinds.  In it, Tolisano says that no matter what the grade level, blogging can enhance learning in classrooms in four key areas:  reading, writing, reflecting, and sharing.  She goes on to explain what she means in each instance.  Writing on a blog, for example, is about more than words, allowing students to use sound and images to create their messages.  In addition, bloggers write for particular audiences, which builds a sense of community, and bloggers can create conversations and inspire other interactions.  Finally, writing on a blog allows for hyperlinking and other activities that give writers practice in participating in the digital world.

 Blogging as Pedagogy by Silvia Tolisano on Langwitches

Tolisano offers equally compelling ways in which blogging enhances reading, reflecting, and sharing.  And while she doesn’t mention anything that I hadn’t already thought about in terms of the efficacy of blogs, she puts all of it in such clear and succinct form that I found myself nodding in agreement at the end of the post.  So check out what she has to say and perhaps you may decide to comment on her statement—or to follow her blog.

I’ve been keeping this teacher-to-teacher blog for three years now, and I’ve recently had a great time looking back over entries that I still like a lot.  So I plan to keep blogging away . . . and wonder if you are blogging too??

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Do You Do ALP?

posted: 8.14.14 by Andrea Lunsford

This past summer, I had a chance to attend the 2014 National Conference on Acceleration in Developmental Education, held in Baltimore and organized by the ALP group at the Community College of Baltimore County.  This is a program that Peter Adams founded some years ago and is now being coordinated by Jamey Gallagher and Susan Gabriel; it has also spread to an impressive 178 colleges, and five states are moving toward implementing statewide adoption of ALP.

As Dawn Coleman describes it in “Replicating the Accelerated Learning Program: Preliminary but Promising Findings” (January 2014, Center for Applied Research funded by a grant from The Kresge Foundation), ALP takes

ten students who placed into the upper level of developmental writing [and mainstreams them] into the college-level writing course [for credit] along with ten students who placed into college-level writing. The college-level course is not modified to accommodate the developmental writing students; the high standards of the college-level course are maintained. However, the ten developmental students are co-enrolled in a developmental writing course [noncredit] which meets immediately following the college-level course. The same instructor teaches both classes.

This is a no frills, common sense approach to developmental writing, and it’s one that has seen a lot of success:  you can read a study reporting findings about how well the ALP program can be replicated at other institutions here.

At any rate, I saw plenty of evidence of the program’s success in Baltimore, where colleagues shared case studies on individual students and reported findings from local studies of student achievement.  While I’ve known about ALP for quite a while, I didn’t know it in this up-close-and-personal way:  I came away deeply impressed by what a committed group of faculty can do with limited funding but unlimited imagination and good will.  Best of all, the ALP program respects student learners and rests on the assumption not of “deficits” but of strengths that students bring with them to the writing classroom.

At a time when colleges and universities everywhere are being pressed to do away with anything called “remediation” at the same time that students are arriving with a need for academic support, the ALP program and its offspring offer a model that is well worth examining.  I learned a lot from listening to colleagues at this conference and came away inspired by their passion and commitment.

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Flashback to 1978

posted: 8.7.14 by Andrea Lunsford

I’ve been cleaning out all my files in my university office – about time, too, since I retired 18 months ago! – and it’s been one blast from the past after another.  I’ve come on all kinds of drafts of early articles and also some priceless student work.  But the thing that really took me back was a newspaper article from 1978.  First, a bit of background:

I finished my Ph.D. in 1977, with a dissertation on basic writing and on what became Ohio State’s exemplary basic writing program, called the Writing Workshop, and headed off to the University of British Columbia for my first post-Ph.D. job.  I had finally managed to publish an article or two, one of them in College Composition and CommunicationI was thrilled to have this publication, of course, but I didn’t have much time to enjoy it, because on June 19, 1978 the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a “back page” story called “Vowing Academic Poverty: Is this what all of our education can be expected to produce?” by Harold Fromm, then an associate professor of English at Indiana University Northwest.  Fromm was especially outraged by this paragraph in my article:

For me, the pressures and frustrations paled dramatically one day early Winter quarter when a former pilot project [Writing Workshop] student hurtled out of a crowd and ran toward me waving, bursting with good news:  ‘Today in English, we got back our first papers, and I got a C+.’  For that student, and for his teachers, those pressures and frustrations and disappointments were worthwhile.

Well, this little paragraph really set Fromm off:  he called me, among other things, satisfied to be a “humble servant of the Lord.” Well, here’s a little of what he had to say:

Although not totally worthless, since they do help a small percentage of able but poorly educated students, remedial writing courses are apt to be founded upon an unlimited faith in the power of pedagogy to transform sows’ ears into purses of silk, . . . Slogging away at getting marginal students to overcome their astonishment at learning that “we is” is not the traditional locution of the middle class professionals and technicians whom they aspire to become, professors soon come to believe that salvation for everyone lies in pummeling these students into mouthing a syntax that is too sophisticated for them to intuit and hence impossible to master.

     In a recent issue of College Composition and Communication, for example, one reads a veritable horror story by a professor from Vancouver, Andrea A. Lunsford, about her efforts in remedial pedagogy.  In “What We Know—and Don’t Know—About Remedial Writing,” Professor Lunsford describes the demoralizing regimen of trying to find new ways of reaching students with catastrophic language deficiencies. . . .

After quoting the paragraph about the student who is happy with a C+, Fromm goes on with his diatribe:

As for society, it will not so easily be tricked into thinking that C+ is good enough to satisfy its professional and technical needs. For when Professor Lunsford has to visit a physician, she will not choose to put her money and her life in the hands of some proud C+ product of a medical school. . . .  I don’t really believe that Professor Lunsford’s gratification at producing a C+ will be quite so great when she finds herself the helpless victim of a similar product of someone else’s gratification.

            Note that this blast was written in 1978, FOUR years after the Students’ Right to Their Own Language was ratified.  Re-reading this piece was a shock all over again, and believe it or not the piece goes on, and on, and is so full of egregious misrepresentation and fallacious thinking as to be breathtaking.  I remember reading it at the time and doing a double-take when I realized he was talking about ME and MY STUDENTS.

In the next week’s Chronicle, many scholars talked back to Fromm, noting the not-so-latent racism and elitism, not to mention the nearly hysterical tone and the deep disrespect of students evident in Fromm’s essay, and patiently explaining that he had, spectacularly, missed the point of my essay.  My dissertation director, Edward P. J. Corbett, immediately sat down and did a full rhetorical analysis of the essay and sent it to me, saying “He’s the one who needs some ‘remedial’ education.”

I will write in future weeks about the lessons I drew from this encounter with Professor Fromm, but for now I’ll just say that after 36 years, many still hold to Fromm’s attitude and to his view of student learners.  This attitude makes me as furious now as it did all those years ago, and I’ve spent much of my career trying to counter it and to demonstrate that students with so-called “deficiencies” have a great many strengths of their own and that our job is to teach them and to teach them in ways that will allow them—and us—to learn. And needless to say, I’m not giving up on this goal now!

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What happens when teachers of writing from around the world get together?

posted: 7.31.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Good things happen.  Big things.  Small things.  Things that will help students happen—and keep on happening.

At least that’s been my experience working over the last 15 years with Bread Loaf International Conferences.  The first one occurred in Karachi in 2000, and the one next month in Haiti’s Port-au-Prince will be followed by one in Mumbai in August 2015.  These conferences are modeled on, and inspired by, the Andover/Bread Loaf Program (ABL), begun 27 years ago by Bread Loaf graduate and Phillips Academy teacher Lou Bernieri.

Every summer, ABL—a partnership between Phillips Academy, the Bread Loaf School of English, and the public schools of Lawrence, MA—offers a two to three week series of writing workshops for teachers and another series for students.  The students prepare to become junior writing leaders, then writing leaders in their schools, which is something you almost have to see to believe as they take on greater agency, autonomy, and leadership roles.  ABL has been saving students, and lives, for a long time—and now it’s being replicated in other parts of the world.

In early July, I had the good fortune to attend an International Bread Loaf Forum on Bread Loaf’s home campus in the Green Mountains of Vermont.  We  heard from Jennifer Brown, who works with Paul Farmer with Partners in Health, about their plans to collaborate with Navajo leaders and students to help teach students about food security and justice—and eventually to build a teaching hospital at Navajo.  We also heard from Mohsin Tejani, who runs The School of Writing in Karachi, Pakistan, resolutely bringing education to young people, in spite of the Taliban and other hostile forces  And from Chantal Kenors from Haiti, Patricia Echessa-Kariuke from Nairobi, and  Lee Krishnan from Mumbai.  All have student-driven projects related to writing, food, and health, and all are using their Bread Loaf connections to expand this important work.

Rex Lee Jim (center) and Mohsin Tejani (right)

One of the most exciting reports of the day came from Rex Lee Jim, Vice President of the Navajo Nation, who told us about the “Navajo Kentuckian” food literacy program.  As Rex told us, the Navajo Nation covers 27,000 square miles and has 300,000 members, not all of them living on Navajo.  So it’s a vast country, much of it desert, and health issues (such as diabetes and obesity) are huge concerns.  Rex’s long-time goal is to train 1,000 Navajo doctors, and to keep at least 25% of them in the Nation.  In the short run, Rex and students from Navajo public schools have teamed up with Brent Peters of Fern Creek High School in Lexington, KY.  Fern Creek has been a pretty tough school, with lots of dropouts and failures.  But Brent, a Bread Loafer, convinced the administration to let him teach a course on food justice, and in just a few years that class has expanded to four and the students have turned themselves around—gardening, shopping, cooking, and investigating pressing issues related to food in their community.

Now the Navajo students have their own program going in partnership with the Fern Creek students; in fact, they have visited Kentucky—and the Kentucky students have visited Navajo.  Together they study local foods, the techniques for growing (and over-fertilizing) and harvesting food, and food distribution systems, all with an eye for inequities and injustices—and possibilities for positive change.  In the last year, the Navajo Kentuckians have taken their show on the road, speaking with policy makers and leaders in local communities and presenting the results of their work at the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian and at the National Council of Teachers of English annual meeting.  Perhaps more important, they are taking their show home, teaching their parents and relatives about healthy foods and healthy eating habits (no more three-soda-meals in the Navajo Nation, for instance).  I came away wishing that every elementary and secondary school in the country had a food literacy program that partnered with an undergraduate or graduate program at a college or university (as the Navajo Kentuckians do with the Bread Loaf School of English).  And if you know of similar programs around the country (or world), I’d love to hear about them.

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