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.

Whole Lotta Multimodalin’ Goin’ On

posted: 4.18.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Think 1957.  Think the inimitable Jerry Lee Lewis.  Or Elvis Presley.  Both sang about a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.

I said come on over baby,

a-whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on

Yeah I said come on over baby,

a-whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on

Well we ain’t fakin’,

a-whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on


I was a high school kid in 1957, and little did I imagine that fifty-plus years later this song would keep popping into my head in relation to digital literacy and the ways it has  helped us reimagine writing as, always, multimodal.  And we ain’t fakin’!

Since I teach courses on digital literacies and the digital essay, I decided that this year at 4Cs, I would try to go to every session on multimodal writing.  Until I saw the program, that is:  there were so many panels devoted to a range of perspectives on multimodality that I would have had to clone myself several times over in order to attend them all.  That fact reaffirmed what I’ve been seeing as I visit schools across the country:  writing programs are increasingly inviting their students to produce multimodal projects, with some pretty stunning results.  Last month in Arkansas, for example, I heard a teacher describe an assignment that asked students to create and “pitch” proposals for new apps, and another teacher describe the animated smartphone mini-lessons she and her students were producing to help each other learn and retain material.  On my own campus, intructors are guiding students in doing everything from digital research projects to beautifully illustrated and published storybooks.  Most important, students I encounter continue to tell me that they are highly engaged and motivated by such projects.

So I was delighted to hear that Bedford/St. Martin’s was sponsoring a Multimodal Celebration during the 4Cs meeting, where participants could showcase their students’ projects. When I arrived at the celebration, the large room was already jammed with people eager to see what students across the country had come up with.  Lining three sides of the room were posters describing instructor assignments—along with examples of student work in response to those assignments.  Liz Losh was there talking about her students’ mini-Comic Con; Erik Ellis’s students’ fabulous storybooks were on display; posters such as the ones seen below proved yet again that today’s writers are thinking about how to use visuals and infographics to get and hold an audience’s attention. These projects testified to the imaginative, creative, and serious work being produced by students across the United States.  I was particularly thrilled, since I believe we are coming close to the point of not having to label such projects as “multimodal.”  In sum, it seems to me that the word “writing” will soon carry with it the assumption (entirely justified) of multimodality.

As we move toward that day, I see two areas that need our careful attention.  The first has to do with colleagues who are still puzzled by or resistant (or indifferent) to multimodal writing, who don’t understand how all writing could be said to be multimodal.  I sympathize with these colleagues:  after all, writing has a way of changing on us—constantly, and we  have had a steep learning curve ever since I entered the profession, as new and emerging technologies have shaped and affected what we think of as “writing.”  So we need to find ways to link what may seem new and foreboding to the tried and true principles of rhetoric and to provide support and encouragement to those who are uncomfortable with multimodality.  Second, we need more research on how to assess such projects, and in this regard we can turn to our students, creating rubrics together and testing them for accuracy.  Luckily, both these areas of concern are already being attended to by leading scholars like this year’s 4Cs Co-Exemplars, Cindy Selfe and Gail Hawisher.

From where I stand, I think it’s safe to say that multimodal writing is alive and well and prospering in writing programs across the country.  No wonder that during the Bedford/St. Martin’s celebration, participants and attendees called for a follow-up celebration of student multimodal writing next year in Tampa – to loud applause.

Oh yeah, there’s a whole lot of multimodalin’ goin’ on!

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Using Hashtags to Teach the Sociality of Writing

posted: 4.14.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Today’s Multimodal Monday post comes from Laura ClineA former A.P. English high school teacher, Laura now teaches composition and intro to literature courses at Pellissippi Community College in Knoxville, TN. In her assignment, Laura expands on the usefulness of social media for teaching audience by emphasizing the social importance of genre – both in an out of the classroom. 

As composition instructors know all too well, students often come into our classrooms with the assumption that academic writing has little or nothing to do with writing in the “real world.” This assumption leads students to view college writing as a stale classroom exercise with generic forms and formulas applicable to any and all writing scenarios. While some students want a rulebook that they can use to produce the all-purpose “college paper,” we as instructors most want them to gain a concept of audience and context, to understand that good writing serves a social purpose and, therefore, must remain connected to that purpose.

So how do we help our students understand the sociality of writing and close the gap between their assumptions and our goals? Perhaps social media provides a good starting place. Because we have seen the negative effects of texting and social media on student writing, we can too quickly “write off” such mediums as classroom enemies. However, if we use social media (and other popular modes of communication) to jumpstart a classroom conversation about why we write, then students will begin to see classroom genres as texts with unique purposes and features, not generic forms mindlessly replicated.

Goal: Use social media, and specifically hashtagging, to help students understand writing as a social activity

Background reading before class

  • Everything’s an Argument, pp. 3-5, Everything’s an Argument; pp. 22-25, Audiences for Arguments and Contexts for Arguments; pp. 368-372, Understanding What Academic Argument Is
  • The St. Martin’s Handbook, Ch 1a, Moving between social and academic writing
  • The Everyday Writer, Ch 2a, Move between social and academic writing
  • Writing in Action, Ch 2a, Move between social and academic writing
  • EasyWriter, Ch 1a, Moving between social and academic writing

Homework Assignment:

  • Pick a social media platform that uses hashtags, such as Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
  • Survey a range of posts using a few specific hashtags
  • Take notes on how different people use those hashtags. You might consider any of the following questions in your notes:
  1. What types of comments accompany those hashtags?
  2. What context seems to surround the hashtag?
  3. What purpose do they serve?
  • Response: Write a well-developed paragraph that makes an argument about the overall purpose of hashtags and considers why it is an effective rhetorical feature for social media.

In-class Assignment:

During the next class meeting, place students into small groups to share their paragraphs with each other. Ask students to compare and contrast their various response paragraphs and then collaborate to write a group statement on the purpose of hashtags as a rhetorical technique in social media communication. Ideally, the students’ individual work will feed into this group product as they synthesize their ideas. Students can then share their group’s conclusions, leading into a whole class discussion of how genre and purpose are interconnected.

At this point, the instructor can lead in talking about how various genres of academic writing also have features that serve a social purpose. The analogy might be slightly forced, but I’ll go for it anyway: in the same way that hashtags link comments to other conversations, citations in academic writing connect ideas to the larger conversations to which they contribute. As students begin to see the similarities between popular and more professional modes of discourse, they will attain one of the key objectives of college writing courses – to understand writing as inextricably connected to social context. #teacherwin

Follow-up Assignments and Discussions:

As students learn to write in new genres throughout the semester, similar assignments can ask them to survey a few representative examples of that genre, record its key features, and consider its rhetorical purpose.

Want to collaborate with Andrea on a Multimodal Monday assignment? Send ideas to leah.rang@macmillan.com for possible inclusion in a future post. 

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Why I Go to CCCC

posted: 4.10.14 by Andrea Lunsford

A few weeks ago I was in Indianapolis for the CCCC (4Cs) meeting, whose program was created by Adam Banks.  It was a whopper of a meeting, kicked off by a series of enticing workshops along with the 25th anniversary celebration of the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition; this group has met every Wednesday evening during 4Cs since its founding in 1989.  I was there at the meeting where we dreamed up the Coalition and its dual missions of promoting scholarship by and about women and mentoring those new to the profession.  On this Wednesday evening, we heard Kathleen Welch, Shirley Logan, and Barbara L’eplattenier reflect on the association’s history and progress, after which we shared fat slices of celebratory cake.

Like so much else at 4Cs, this felt like home.  Two days later, I heard Erika Lindemann reflecting on how the conference has been an important part of her long career:  this meeting, she told us, marked her 40th consecutive 4Cs—so she has been at every single meeting since 1974. Her talk made me stop and think back to my own first 4Cs.  It was the spring of 1972, and I was teaching at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa.  A colleague had suggested that we propose a panel on an interdisciplinary learning team we were part of (writing, reading, math, and science teachers taught the same students, using an integrated learning approach).  Our proposal was accepted, and one sunny day we set out with one of our students to drive from Tampa to Boston, the car trunk bulging with our bags and a big picnic basket full of sandwiches and fried chicken that our student’s mom had packed for us perched on the back seat.  It was a long drive, straight through: who had money for a motel (not to mention air fare) in those days?!

In Boston I remember feeling shy and intimidated by the people whose papers I heard—but we managed to pull our panel off without any major gaffes, and best of all I got to glimpse Edward P. J. Corbett, whose book Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student I had read.  I didn’t have the courage to approach Ed, and I certainly didn’t know that I would eventually be admitted to Ohio State (where Ed was teaching) to begin Ph.D. studies in the fall of that same year (I was on a long wait list and assumed I wouldn’t be accepted), and that in just six months I would leave my wonderful colleagues at Hillsborough CC, move to Columbus, and plunge into coursework.  Looking back, that 1972 4Cs meeting seems like a harbinger of good things to come, of so much learning and teaching—and learning again.

Over the decades, I have missed only two 4Cs meetings, so I can’t beat Erika’s record of consecutive attendance.  But now, over a year into retirement, I still want to be at these meetings.  This year I heard brilliant papers on Chicano/a and African American rhetorics, on disability studies, on digital storytelling and gaming—and I heard Angela Davis, a personal hero of mine, speak truth to power as she has been doing since the 1960s.  In three-and-a-half days, I  had re-connected with former students,  learned from a host of wonderful colleagues, shared moments of joy with friends from around the globe, and talked nonstop about writing and the teaching of writing.

These are just some of the reasons why I go to 4Cs.  I’m already looking forward to next year’s meeting in Tampa!

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How do you define proofreading?

posted: 4.3.14 by Andrea Lunsford

At the Writing and Rhetoric across Borders conference in Paris in February, I heard many provocative talks, but perhaps none more so than one by a professor from the University of Essex on ethical considerations of what he was calling “proofreading.”  In his talk, he described a range of people who call themselves proofreaders, from the professional who charges a high fee to the volunteer who does it out of the goodness of his or her heart.  His research revealed five types of proofreaders:

  • helpers, who see their task as helping the student writer;
  • cleaners, who aim to leave a text error-free;
  • levelers, who work especially hard to reduce mistakes in second-language writers’ prose in order to level the playing field;
  • teachers, who try to engage the student in learning; and
  • mediators, who act as go-between for the student and professor or institution involved.

Lamenting the fact that there are no rules in the UK for what a proofreader may or may not do, he provided examples drawn from extensive interviews with a number of proofreaders to demonstrate the vast disparity in their methods.  “How far do you go in proofreading?” he asked.

As you have no doubt surmised by now, what this researcher was calling proofreading is what we in the U.S. would more likely call editing, though we generally assume that the students do the editing of their essays, not the teachers (or tutors in a writing center, where editing and proofreading almost always lie beyond the accepted duties).  Still, his question—somewhat revised to “How far do you go in editing?”—made me think.  The researcher referred to himself as “a minority of one” at his University, the one person who insists on “proofreading” student dissertations for which he is assigned as examiner. (He is not the student’s advisor, and he made clear that the advisors are not willing to take on the task of proofreading.)  In short, because he sees these students’ works as going out to represent the University, he feels that they must be carefully and closely edited, even if it means that he must take on this work himself. And so he does, and the kind of editing he does goes beyond correction of typos and mistakes to actually changing the wording of the dissertations—without, if I understood correctly, consulting the student writers.

Now I’ve read a lot of dissertations, as well as countless undergraduate essays and theses, and I have read scrupulously, pointing out every mistake I could find and suggesting changes where I thought they could be helpful.  But I have not taken on the job of editing myself.  Of course, students in the U.S. might hire a professional editor to read and improve their work, but I know of very few who have done so.

I left this session puzzled and somewhat frustrated since the speaker left before it was over, and I didn’t have a chance to ask him any questions.  I would have liked to hear what he had to say about “proofreading” versus “editing,” and especially about just how far he goes in changing the student writing that he edits.  I also came away with a desire to interrogate my own responses to student writing:  in commenting on student writing, from frosh seminar to Ph.D. dissertation, do I go too far in making suggestions that may seem like commands to the students?  Can I be maximally helpful without appropriating the writing of the students?   These are important questions, and ones that I never expected to be raised by a session on “proofreading.”

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Using TV Interviews to Craft Authentic Questions

posted: 3.31.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Today’s guest blogger is Andrew Bishop. Andrew has an M.A. in English from the University of Tennessee. In addition to tutoring at Highbridge Voices in the Bronx he also teaches writing and American literature courses at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, NJ. 

Interviewers (like teachers) are often guilty of asking questions to which they assume they already know the answer. Besides having a potentially negative psychological impact on the interviewee, condescending or biased questions rarely make for productive conversation. One way to push students to develop more authentic questions in their ethnographic research assignments is to have them to do a little role-playing, imagining themselves as the host of a popular television program.


To have students practice developing effective interview questions.

Background reading before class

  • Everything’s an Argument, p. 404, Conduct Interviews
  • The St. Martin’s Handbook, Ch 11e, Conducting Field Research
  • The Everyday Writer, Ch 16e, Conduct Field Research
  • Writing in Action, Ch 13e, Conduct Field Research
  • EasyWriter, Ch 37e, Field Research

In Class

First, familiarize your students with the idea of authentic questions. Have students work in pairs, with each group creating a list of authentic and inauthentic questions, good interview questions and bad ones. It’s not going to be obvious to many students; some of them will never have thought about how much the type of question matters to the quality of the interview. Encourage students to purposely create bad interview questions, getting students to recognize when questions are condescending/biased/leading and why this might be a problem. Perhaps you could show the class a terrible interview with a celebrity or political figure.

Follow –Up Assignment

Then, provide students with a few brief primary and secondary sources related to a celebrity who has recently published a memoir and appeared as a guest on a television show – or, have them collect their own sources. For instance, I have used Neil Young as a hypothetical interview subject, and I provided my students with a few of Young’s song lyrics, a brief bio, and a reproduction of the front cover of Waging Heavy Peace, his memoir. Ask students to imagine themselves as a television show host about to interview the celebrity you have chosen. In preparation for a five-minute live interview, have students use the sources to develop a set of five authentic questions.

After students have written their five questions, have them watch an actual interview with their chosen celebrity. Then, have students consider the following questions:

  1. In the actual interview, which questions created the most – and the most interesting – conversation? Which questions fell flat?
  2. Which of your own questions would have worked? Why or why not?
  3. How would a different rhetorical situation (a different talk show, a younger audience, etc.) affect the types of questions you asked? For example, Justin Timberlake on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon will be different than, say, former Tonight Show host Jay Leno being interviewed on 60 Minutes.

Next Steps

This activity works well as preparation for a larger ethnographic research paper assignment, one which requires students to conduct two to three interviews. Students should now be ready to go out in the field and conduct interviews of their own.

Want to collaborate with Andrea on a Multimodal Monday assignment? Send ideas to leah.rang@macmillan.com for possible inclusion in a future post. 

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Digital Publishing Opportunities for Teachers of Writing

posted: 3.27.14 by Andrea Lunsford

For fun and inspiration, check out the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative, an imprint of the University of Michigan Press that is sponsored by Michigan’s Sweetland Center for Writing.  There you’ll find such things as Blog Carnivals, Conference Reviews, a Forum, and information about the DRC’s book prize in digital rhetoric, the first of which was won by Daniel Anderson for his long-form webtext, Screen Rhetorics and the Material World. This new digital press has five “books” now in the works, with more exciting work to come.  You may find yourself wanting to contribute to the Blog or the Forum—or getting good ideas for teaching and/or writing.

While you are browsing, also take a look at Computers and Composition Digital Press, an imprint of Utah State University Press.  This new press is the brainchild of Cindy Selfe (Ohio State) and Gail Hawisher (University of Illinois), who are the founding editors and describe the goal of the press in these terms:

The goal of the Press is to honor the traditional academic values of rigorous peer review and intellectual excellence, but also to combine such work with a commitment to innovative digital scholarship and expression. For the Editors, the Press represents an important kind of scholarly activism–an effort to circulate the best work of digital media scholars in a timely fashion and on the global scale made possible by digital distribution.

Exploring the press website will tell you a lot about cutting edge work in the field of digital rhetoric and media, work that the press makes available for free download.  They publish what Selfe and Hawisher call “books that move,” that is books that include audio and video files as well as links throughout.  Such digital presses are changing the publishing landscape, opening up new spaces for publication by students as well as teachers.  One early piece, Stories that Speak to Us, is part archive, part curated exhibit, part narrative, reporting on and examining data in the medium in which it was gathered, i.e., oral.  Engaging this text provides an example of the excitement that awaits writers in this new landscape—and that should be especially engaging to our students.

These ambitious new presses are leading the way in transforming what it means to produce and publish scholarly work in rhetoric and writing studies.  I say BRAVO and BRAVA to all involved!

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What assignment do your students have most trouble with?

posted: 3.21.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Like most hard-working writing programs, Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric is engaged in ongoing work on its curriculum.  During the eleven years I spent directing the program, we worked hard to develop an assignment sequence for both our first- and second-year courses.  In the first-year course, we wanted rhetorical analysis to be the first assignment, and we wanted that assignment to lead to a third major, culminating assignment:  the research-based argument.  For several years, we experimented with a middle assignment to bridge the rhetorical analysis and the researched argument.  We knew we wanted it to be an assignment that asked students to deal seriously with their sources, and we came up with several iterations of such an assignment, each of which gave students fits.  Eventually—and with a lot of help from students—we came up with an assignment that we called Texts in Conversation (and that students immediately started calling “the TiC”).

The goal of the assignment is to have students identify several key sources for their argument, sources that represent a range of perspectives on the topic, and to bring those sources together in conversation.  We wanted students to practice reading sources very carefully and to understand how they were related to one another in what we called a larger conversation. This assignment also gave students fits—and us teachers as well.  Students could read and analyze individual sources. They could summarize those sources.  But they had great difficulty setting them in context with one another.

Since we didn’t want to give up on this assignment and were convinced by its apparent difficulty that we were on to something important for students to learn, we started working up various ways to prepare students to tackle the assignment.  I’ve been retired from the Program for two years now, but I still enjoy talking with colleagues and keeping up with what’s going on.  And recently Sarah Pittock shared a Texts in Conversation preparatory assignment that she and the Teaching Practices Committee had been working on.  Sarah’s students have done very well with this activity, so I was particularly excited to hear about it.  Here’s how Sarah introduced her discussion of this activity:

When I first taught the Texts in Conversation assignment, I prepared students by leading a discussion of three assigned texts in class.  In my class Growing Up Global, these happened to be three perspectives on the importance of children’s play.  My students could see their connections and idiosyncrasies quite clearly.  But the ability to observe these in class did not result in subtle written representations of their independent research.  First drafts of the TiC tended to use train-car organization: one analytic summary after the next.  I wanted my students to do more in the first drafts of their TiC, and I realized I needed an activity that showed them how to put texts into conversation.

So Sarah started looking around for other possibilities, and one she discovered had been developed by Sigrid Streit, a former PWR lecturer who now teaches at Penn State.  Here’s how Sarah described the basic class activity, which she called “Mapping the Conversation”:

Students should come to class having read three assigned texts that are “in conversation.”  In small groups, students work with three colors of sticky notes, one for each text.  For each point of the text they deem worthy of mention, they write a note on a separate sticky.  They do this for each text.  Then, and this is the important part, they mix and match.  Where do the authors agree?  How and why do they disagree?  Stickies are clustered according to subtopics that students can clearly see mix the voices (colors) of the conversation.  Each group develops its own “map” of the conversation on the whiteboard, which they can then present to the class.

Sarah began experimenting with this activity, finding that it worked best in her classes if introduced just as the students have completed their Rhetorical Analyses and embarked on the Texts in Conversation.  While she prefers to do the work mostly in class, she says that it can also work as a process/homework assignment for the TiC.

In her experience, Sarah says this “Mapping the Conversation” activity takes roughly two hours of class time by the time she sets it up, lets the students work and present, and then discusses its implications for the assignment. She goes on to note that “This multimodal, collaborative activity prepares students to write the TiC: it gives them a note-taking and outlining process that contributes to essays that go beyond the obvious points of comparison and contrast.  It also shows students there are many ways to represent any one scholarly conversation and thus highlights the argumentative nature of the TiC.”

Having taught the Texts in Conversation assignment many times, with more or less success, I was really taken by this preparatory activity and asked Sarah if I could share it with you—and she graciously agreed.  So here is the formal assignment sheet Sarah uses:

Mapping the Conversation—Finding Connections

Sarah Pittock

Step 1: Clustering

Briefly with your group, talk about what was important or striking in each of our readings. Then capture specifics (evidence such as anecdotes or statistics as well as the authors’ reasons)—write all the information and ideas you collect on sticky notes.  Use one color of sticky note for each text.  Bullet points are fine.

Use your physical space, your desk—cluster the sticky notes according to the individual texts.

Step 2: Mapping

See if you can find themes, problems, or topics across the different texts.

Mix and match your sticky notes.  Some sticky notes may become outliers.

Here are some relationships you might find:

  • Historical—think about the “before and after” of your topic; how was it a product of its particular historical circumstances?
  • Disciplinary—multiple academic disciplines often study the same phenomenon.
  • Cultural or social—consider national, regional, ethnic, racial, gender, or other kinds of social identities.
  • Part to whole—what are the components of play?  How do the parts fit together as a system?  What system does it serve?
  • Rhetorical Argument—consider audience, method, and conclusions of the arguments.

Step 3: Drawing Connections

Connect ideas;


Ask why and think about the context of the authors’ arguments.

Move away from your sticky notes; use the whiteboard, markers, pens, colors, paper, and images. Write and draw. Play with fonts, arrows, shapes, and sizes. Do whatever helps you visualize the connections you are now drawing.

Step 4: Discussion

What topics have you identified? What connections have you discovered? Have you found conflicts? Who agrees with whom and who disagrees? How do the different ideas build on each other? What is missing in the conversation? Think about the authors and their audiences—how does that help you compare and contrast these positions? Where could you take research from here? What other texts do you need to find and read to understand play better?

~ ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Thank you, Sarah.  And if any readers have an activity that works well to get students engaged with multiple sources, please send them my way and I will share those as well.

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Multimodal Mondays: Visualizing Genres of Writing with GEMS

posted: 3.17.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Today’s multimodal assignment comes to us from Michael Michaud, an associate professor at Rhode Island College in Providence, RI.

“As Carolyn Miller puts it, ‘a rhetorically sound definition of genre must be centered not on the substance or the form of the discourse but on the action it is used to accomplish’ [151]. Function drives form, in other words” (Steven Lynn, Rhetoric and Composition: An Introduction, p. 107)

The concept of genre as social-action is a new and exciting one for many students in writing classes. Having been introduced to this idea recently in an upper-level Intro to Composition Studies course, one student had this to say:

Most people claim they know what genre is and what different genres consist of but what Miller is pointing out is that genre is not what the typical person thinks. Genre is decided and defined based on what the writing is to accomplish. I think this is unique.


In composition courses, but especially in professional or workplace writing classes, I think we want students to learn about the ways in which genres emerge from and structure writing environments. We also, I think, want to help students see the ways in which genres interact with other genres to help individuals accomplish work. In the assignment I describe below, I work to help students accomplish both of these goals:

  1. to see genres not as static entities but, rather, as dynamic and changing structures, responsive to the exigencies of their environments
  2. to see the ways in which genres cooperate with other genres to get things done in composing environments.


Genre ecology maps (GEMS) are a pedagogical practice that came to me from my colleague Sarah Read (DePaul University), who came to them via the work of Clay Spinuzzi and others in the field of professional/technical communication. The maps I’ll discuss in this post are a part of a larger research project that both Sarah and I assign in our multi-major workplace writing courses. Essentially, students conduct field research in local workplaces to learn about the professional journeys of their research participants, the ways in which their participants’ discourse communities function and interact with other such communities, and the ways in which genres of writing mediate work in their participants’ professional lives. We ask students to share their new genre learning both in writing and visually, via their GEMS, which serve as heuristics, helping students to think about the role of genres in organizations and the relationships between genres themselves.

Here is a list of some of the resources we ask students to read as they prepare for and carry out their research in our Writing-about-Writing (WAW) inspired course:

  • selections from Writing in the Real World (Beaufort, 1999)
  • selections from Becoming a Writing Researcher (Blakeslee & Fleischer, 2007)
  • “Observing Genres in Action” (Anthony Paré & Graham Smart, 1994).
  • “Modeling Genre Ecologies” (Spinuzzi, 2002)
  • “Writing for a Living: Literacy and the Knowledge Economy” (Brandt, 2005)

During interviews, students identify genres that are significant to their participants’ workplaces. They then begin the process of cataloguing these genres and thinking about how specific genre sets interact to help those who write them accomplish some task or activity. Before they get to work on their GEMs, I ask students to create a table in which they present some basic information about their genres. Here’s an example from a student whose research focused on the role of writing at a family services agency:

And here is the GEM that this student created to visualize both the process of composing these genres and the relationships between them:

Students use programs like Google Drawing (within Google Drive) or Microsoft PowerPoint to compose their GEMS. This work is both some of the most challenging and the most fun in that students are trying to find innovative ways to visualize original data that is unique to their research sites. There are, in short, no “right answers” in creating GEMS. Students must create GEMs that are both true to their research findings and visually effective. They draft, share, workshop and conference on their GEMs, trying to articulate to themselves, me, and their classmates why the GEMs “work” (or fail to). At the end of the term they “repurpose” their GEMs, transferring them into PowerPoint presentations that they then share and discuss during their research presentations.


At the end of the term, I ask students to compose reflection letters to share what they have learned from the research process and to project out into the future–to imagine how what they’ve learned might be useful to them in some future writing context. The things they say in these letters focus on many aspects of the course and sometimes touch on the process of composing the GEMS. Students frequently comment on how surprised they were to learn that, among other things, research can be done with people, on writing, and can be shared both in writing and in forms that combine writing with other media. GEMs are, in sum, a terrific multimodal tool to help students think about the ways in which written genres facilitate action in contemporary organizations.

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Latest News On “Textisms”

posted: 3.14.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Latest News On “Textisms”

This word just in from Australia and Canada:  “textisms” are not appearing in students’ formal writing, at least not in any appreciable number.

I am always on the lookout for studies of how new technologies are affecting student writers and their writing, and especially those that look for all the supposed ill effects such technologies are having.  Thus I was delighted to read a recent article by Abbie Grace, Nenagh Kemp, Frances H. Martin, and Rauno Parrila in New Media and Society, published December 22, 2013.  Here’s the abstract of the article (which, incidentally, appeared online before in print):

Students’ increasing use of text messaging language has prompted concern that textisms

(e.g., 2 for to, dont for don’t, ☺) will intrude into their formal written work. Eighty-six Australian and 150 Canadian undergraduates were asked to rate the appropriateness of textism use in various situations. Students distinguished between the appropriateness of using textisms in different writing modalities and to different recipients, rating textism use as inappropriate in formal exams and assignments, but appropriate in text messages, online chat and emails with friends and siblings. In a second study, we checked the examination papers of a separate sample of 153 Australian undergraduates for the presence of textisms. Only a negligible number were found. We conclude that, overall, university students recognise the different requirements of different recipients and modalities when considering textism use and that students are able to avoid textism use in exams despite media reports to the contrary.

You can also read a brief article about the study in Pacific Standard.

These findings are encouraging, though not surprising, to me, since they corroborate what my own research on student writing in the U.S. has been telling me for the last five years:  college students today have a strong sense of audience as well as of what is timely and appropriate for that audience.  These sensibilities are enhanced, rather than diminished, by their social media writing and reading online.

What seems most interesting to me now—rather than continuing to debate whether technology is ruining literacy (which it clearly is not)—is to try to describe in much greater detail what student writing today actually looks like and does.  Since archives of student writing are now available at a number of schools, I’d like to see a really close study of a random sample of student writing from, say, 2000 or 2001 compared to a random sample from 2014.  How do the essays compare—in length, in syntax, in vocabulary, in stance and tone, in organizational patterns or structures, in forms of transitions, and in rhetorical “moves”?  My guess is that we’d see some fascinating consistencies along with some intriguing differences, and that such studies would help us take a critical look at first-year writing curricula and pedagogies.

If you know of such studies or are doing one yourself, please let me know:  it’s time for a new generation of basic research on student writing!


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Who should teach speaking/presenting?

posted: 3.6.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Before I left Ohio State in 1999, the associate provost for undergraduate education asked me if the first-year writing course could take on the teaching of public speaking and presenting.  The communications department (which had been the speech department) no longer wanted to teach such courses and the administration was looking for ways to support undergraduate student education without forcing a department to teach against its will.  I remember being amenable to the idea then and indeed talking about the relationship between speech and writing and between presentations and the rhetorical tradition.  The connection seemed a natural one to me then, and it still does.

Just this week a colleague at another large public university told me that her administration was in the process of reviewing general education and that one of their recommendations had to do with combining the teaching of speaking with the teaching of writing.  This colleague was rightly skeptical of this request, which came with no hint of how to add an entire new strand of the curriculum without even thinking about how to support and maintain the writing curriculum now in place, not to mention how to train instructors for these expanding and demanding jobs.

I know many similar stories, and my guess is that you know more:  writing programs across the country have moved quickly in response to changing needs of students and to the growing realization that delivering knowledge and research today calls increasingly for moving beyond writing to other systems of delivery, including oral and electronic ones.  I’ve written recently of the change of name of our writing center – to the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking, and I see similar moves going on across the country.  So it seems to me time for a national discussion of these changing needs as well as the relationship between writing, speaking, and rhetoric. Above all, it seems time to discuss how to develop a model for teaching writing and speaking/presenting to large numbers of undergraduates within a program that is intellectually rigorous, deeply theorized, and professionally staffed with well trained and well supported instructors.  It goes without saying, I hope, that such a program cannot be managed in a one-term, first-year course:  rather, this effort at enhancing undergraduates’ communicative powers needs to move across the years and, indeed, across the curriculum.

This is a tall order, one I’d like to see the Conference on College Composition and Communication take the lead in filling.  In the meantime, if you have developed (or are developing) such a program at your college or university, or if you know of a program that aims to meet such goals, please tell me about it.  I will gather all the shared information and put it together into a new post as soon as possible!

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