Beyond the Basics

Susan Naomi BernsteinSusan Naomi Bernstein’s most recent book is Teaching Developmental Writing, Fourth Edition. Her articles on basic writing, social justice, and learning differences have been published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Journal of Basic Writing, Modern Language Studies, and elsewhere. She is a past co-chair of the Council on Basic Writing and a past co-editor of BWe: Basic Writing e-Journal. Susan taught her first Basic Writing course in 1987 and has worked with students for more than two decades in urban and rural settings in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

First Lesson for a Basic Writing Practicum: Cultivating Metaphors

posted: 7.14.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

This summer, I am planning a practicum course for experienced first-year composition teachers that are teaching Basic Writing for the first time. In considering our initial lesson, I realize that my thoughts center more on conceptual possibilities for approaching our classrooms. Tips and hints are helpful, of course, but without considering conceptual possibilities, we may well limit the scope of our contexts for teaching.

At the same time, I try to remember my own concerns about teaching my first Basic Writing class more than a generation ago, in my Masters program. My program did not offer a Basic Writing practicum, although we had a comprehensive full-credit course taken in tandem with our first semester of teaching our university’s equivalent to English 101. The rhetorical and composition program was relatively new at that time and, in retrospect, still carried that feeling of excitement that comes with beginnings, a sense of experimentation and openness. That experimentation and openness would be the first lesson I would want to share.

As a teacher of teachers, I want to present the activity of thinking of our classrooms metaphorically. Metaphor can allow us to become more mindful of the material realities at hand, and can help us to find the means to describe and analyze our work in the classroom. In other words, metaphor allows us to practice what Shannon Carter describes as rhetorical dexterity: finding the similarities between two seemingly very different activities. We engage in this practice to allow our selves to apply the knowledge from an activity that we know well, to an activity that we are just beginning to learn. For Carter, that learning activity is Basic Writing. For my future practicum students, that activity is teaching Basic Writing for the very first time.

To engage in this practice and to develop mindfulness, I might ask practicum students to engage in the following activity—first with me in class, then with the students enrolled in our Basic Writing classes. I also have included a sample illustration.


  1. Consider an activity that you enjoy doing. Describe that activity to an unfamiliar audience.
  2. Highlight the key words and phrases of your description.
  3. Write down your thoughts about Basic Writing, using the most significant key words and phrases to illustrate your thoughts.
  4. Invite students to read or summarize their writing aloud.
  5. As students are reading aloud, write down an idea from the writing that stands out.
  6. Write the ideas in a list on the smart board or dry erase board so that everyone can observe how thoughts develop, repeat themselves, and build on each other.
  7. Read the list aloud, and the class’s observations, as in the above step.


The teacher as gardener has long remained my favorite metaphor for the work we do in Basic Writing, planting seeds, watering the earth, keeping track for sunlight and shadow, pulling weeds as necessary, sowing and harvesting as the season unfolds. However, just recently I have discovered an additional layer to this metaphor.

When my spouse and I moved to the desert from New York City a year ago, we understood that the new climate would require us to make some difficult adjustments. One of the greatest adjustments would be leaving our proximity to oceans and rivers and the deep green deciduous trees—the nature that nurtured our spirits. The desert holds amazing natural beauty, emphasized by the arrival of the monsoon. At the same time, we knew that we were facing long summers that featured endless months of temperatures well over 100 degrees, with little relief after sundown. We would need to adjust to the heat and become used to living in perpetual air-conditioning.

This summer, our first full summer in the desert, our adjustment begins in earnest. As I began my crazy quilt, my spouse announced: “I want to have a vegetable garden in the backyard.” Our backyard consists of a concrete patio, frames by two stretches of dirt, rocks, and cactuses. I was skeptical. “That soil is all rocks,” I said, “how do you know it will grow anything?” My spouse grew up on a small farm in the Midwest, and every summer he worked with his parents in their large vegetable garden. He said that the dirt in the backyard felt fine and that he wanted to try. “But the sun will scorch the seeds, or the monsoon will wash them away.” My spouse was instant. He planted beans and summer squash, and waited, ever hopeful, for new growth among the rocks.

When the first sprouts appeared, my spouse invited me to celebrate with him. I offered to photograph the new growth. Every night after sundown, when the temperature dropped from 108 to 98, my spouse would step outside to water and weed. The sprouts have turned to leaves, and we hope to have vegetables as the summer moves forward. The leaves growing out from the rocks fill me with unexpected joy—and with a revised metaphor that I hope to share with new teachers of Basic Writing.

Any of us, when we teach Basic Writing for the first time, might have pre-conceived ideas about what await may us. We have heard rumors, read articles, and listened to opposing points of view. Perhaps we have already formed our opinions. Yet we ought not allow our opinions to calcify.  We need to adjust our thinking beyond our perceptions and to pay attention to new growth unfolding before our eyes. Sometimes the growth will appear imperceptible, but in the next moment (or day or week or month), if we remain mindful, we might find great happiness. We need to practice mindfulness for our selves in order to offer our students additional options to judging their work, beyond the paradigms of easy success or hopeless failure. We need to cultivate our gardens alongside our students, so that all of us, working together as a community, may reap the harvest of the brief time we spend together.

For in the end, teaching Basic Writing presents no more—and no fewer— challenges than any other human endeavor. We share more with our students than we realize, for we are all gardeners, working to create a fine and sustainable harvest, hoping to feed our communities beyond a single semester – or a single generation.

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The Crazy Quilt Theory of Process

posted: 6.30.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Many years ago, I gave a conference presentation entitled “Piecing Together an Academic Life.” At the time, I was making a quilted pillow of my clothes from graduate school, and of pieces donated by family and friends from different parts of their lives. My presentation focused on how we take the different pieces of our experiences to quilt together a new configuration, an object that values each piece separately—but also a piece in which the whole eventually becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

This summer, I am quilting again, and I note over time that both the process and the eventual product have changed. I envision a flat crazy quilt as the final product, rather than a pillow. As before, I am not using a pattern, but this time I did consult craft sites on the Internet to learn how others made crazy quilts and t-shirt quilts. The most important change, however, comes with the work of actually piecing the patches together in real time. In previous quilted pillows, I hardly ever pieced everything together beforehand. This time, I began by placing the fleece blanket backing on the floor, and then arranging and rearranging the different t-shirts prints, patches, and pieces of old clothing. I pinned down the prints and patches, because those pieces made up the majority of the quilt.

As I pieced and pinned, drafted and redrafted, I also began to see the quilt as a revised meditation on academic life. Crazy quilts are not designed at random or by accident: like a course, they offer beginnings and endings. To create a course, we need to cover a certain amount of time and space—whether virtual or physical. The crazy quilt also provides these constraints. While space remains largely tactile and material, I find that taking photos of the process helps me to see my progress, as well as to plan the next steps toward completion of the project, within the limited timeframe of a summer’s hiatus from teaching. Additionally, while taking and viewing these virtual photos, I recalled the significance of spontaneity in our work, and found inspiration for this blog post.

The design element of spontaneity plays an important role, for example, as we create our Basic Writing classes. We piece together assignment and class activities across different courses, different schools, and different periods of our lives. Increasingly, our work offers opportunities for collaboration, vision, and revision. Even if we begin with assignments mandated by administrators or committees, our students and their writing create the shape of the essay and make meaning from required assignments. Our courses, through student-centered participation and involvement, may come to resemble crazy quilts.

Consider, for example, the literacy narrative assignment, for which writers are invited to address an aspect of their education that stands out to them.  Many writers may not yet have gained experience with critical analysis of education, of pointing to specific moments in their schooling that would offer enough material to create a detailed narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.  Teachers and peer reviewers might encounter drafts written as a list (in paragraph form) of the most basic activities of one or more years of school. In other words, the writer might have created a bare outline of structure, but not yet developed connecting threads of details.

How might the crazy quilt theory of process prove particularly helpful for revision? In other words, how might writers repurpose the fabric of a literacy narrative draft to create revision?   How might writers foster spontaneity of process to work toward a more realized final project? In class, I present variations on the following practices for revision:

  • First, individually or with teacher or peers, writers can identify the blank spaces in the draft, spaces where details seem very general.
  • Next, pull out a specific generic sentence. Writers can begin revising by using this particular sentence as a topic sentence.
  • Then, invite writers to free write more concrete details from the same years as their schooling. For this activity, the details would relate more directly to writers’ lives outside of the classroom. Such details would encompass sights, sounds, and smells that writers might remember from time spent outside of school, including eating meals; playing outside in natural settings or in home communities; listening to particular genres of music, artists, or songs; wearing clothing that may or may not have followed current styles; taking part in sports, artistic pursuits, or gaming; etc..
  • Moving forward, ask the writer to share or describe this free writing in conference or peer review. The writer or the reviewer can read aloud or offer the electronic device or paper where the writing was composed. For online classes, the writer can post the free writing to social media or the class’s course management system.
  • At this point, the job of the reader/reviewer would be to find details that best fit with the topic sentence, and to explain why those details offer an appropriate fit. The job of the writer would be to consider this critique, and then to revise the paragraph.
  • Finally, the writer would focus on writing independently by moving through the cycle himself, pulling out paragraphs and inventing more specific detail. Ideally, at any moment that the writer finds herself uncertain, she could return to a reviewer for more feedback.

Our academic lives include moments when we feel frustrated by circumstances that we did not anticipate. For students in Basic Writing, as in our own academic lives, the steps of our systematically arranged scaffold can collapse under the weight of unplanned events. Yet, if we cannot stop what we could not have predicted in advance, our designs can at least foster the time and space for spontaneity.  Through spontaneity, we may experience more fully the Crazy Quilt Theory of process—and appreciate the end product all the more.

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Sisyphus Redux: Toward Pedagogies of Resilience

posted: 5.19.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

If we teach students of traditional college age, we work with young people that, in primary school, experienced 9/11/01 and the beginning of two wars.

Children who attended public school in those years grew to maturity through No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. They and their families endured the brunt of the 2008 economic downturn, and continue to experience long-term unemployment and underemployment, as well as housing displacement, overburdened healthcare, mental healthcare, and criminal justice systems, food insecurity, and the storms and floods of climate change.  The wars and the recession have brought to our classrooms combat veterans and dreamers with no immigration papers, or children who were born in the US but whose parents, because they were born elsewhere and have no papers, face deportation.

In other words, we are living through the consequences of history. We also experience these events—either from our own direct involvement, or through our teaching.  It is far from easy. As Pam Whitfield so cogently describes in “Why Teaching Developmental English Breaks My Heart,” we all, on some level, have dealt, as communities and as individuals, with difficult personal, local, national, and global circumstances. We are all in search of an antidote for burnout, or at least a pain reliever.

Although I have neither antidote or pain reliever, I am working toward pedagogy of resilience. This pedagogy germinates from my own experiences of surviving school as an ADHD learner—and from years of teaching and learning in times and places that seemed to cultivate anything but survival.

But I was lucky. In my late teens, I discovered “The Myth of Sisyphus,” by Albert Camus.

The plot of Sisyphus seems easy enough to comprehend. Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to push a rock up to the top of a mountain. Each time Sisyphus reaches the mountaintop, the rock falls back down to the bottom of the mountain, and his apparently pointless labor begins— again and again, for eternity. As teacher/scholars, and as students, we perhaps can identify with this eternal plight. We give our all to our work, only to watch it come crashing down, ending one phase of exertion and beginning another.

Yet—there is a catch. Camus concludes: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”  Why happy? Because in the midst of his toil, Sisyphus discovers that, in Camus’s words: “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.” As our hero descends the mountain, he realizes that he has survived yet another round of the cycle—and that the cycle itself is absurd. Camus identifies this realization as a moment of consciousness, a moment of acute awareness that, if one is paying attention, can render great happiness.

I have taught “The Myth of Sisyphus” for two academic years in a row, in two very different cities, and in two very different institutional settings.  Last year, we read and wrote about Sisyphus in a small converted office building in a strip mall in the Bronx, and this year on one of the largest university campuses in the southwestern United States. I have asked students to synthesize moments of happiness that they have found in their larger struggles, and I have engaged in this writing with them through a series of blog posts, which I have listed below.

This year, as part of their final writing project, students have engaged in creating t-shirts, websites, and daily planners to document their survival of their first year in college. Through this documentation, they hope to inspire next year’s first-year students to carry on in spite of the odds pitted against them. That is, in the wake of reading Sisyphus, students address both the difficulty of their struggles and their strategies for surviving the difficulty.

As I write the last blog post of this academic year, I have just finished evaluating the students’ final projects and recording their grades.  Even as my first academic year in the southwest has ended, I am still processing the results of the students’ responses and innovations to this experiment in the pedagogy of resilience.  For the next step, I will compile the students’ digital work on a website for the entering class of 2018.

But for the moment, the desert heat is beginning to settle over the valley where I now make my home.  I think of the cool white t-shirt that one student made to fulfill final writing project requirements, with drawings of flowers and a quote from Sisyphus. The quote reads: “He is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”

And so the summer begins.

To see another practical application of these ideas, see “Who Gets to Graduate?” by Paul Tough.


Blog Posts Based on “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus

Persistence  (1/23/12)

Engage—and Boldly Go Outside the Comfort Zone (4/24/12)

The First Day of Class: A Lesson in the Absurd (9/24/12)

The Sisyphus Year (5/21/13)

In Caring There is Hope: A Response to “I Don’t Like Teaching” (6/17/13)

Reading, Writing, Multimedia—and Sisyphus (4/22/14)

Synthesis: A Moment of Happiness (5/5/14)

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Synthesis: A Moment of Happiness

posted: 5.5.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

One morning, late in the spring semester, my phone alarm sounded at 8:50 a.m. as it usually does on the days that I teach, and reminded me that class begins in ten minutes. The phone alarm is set to Patti Smith’s song “People Have the Power,” which helps me to become mindful of a day’s work about to begin. Usually I turn off the alarm right away, but on this particular morning I decided to listen more carefully to the words. I heard: “Listen, I believe everything we dream/Can come to pass through our union/We can turn the world around/We can turn the earth’s revolution.” This song, I thought, has been my theme song this year, the song that kept me resilient in difficult moments, and grounded in more joyful times.

In class that day we were supposed to discuss The Myth of Sisyphus, and I remembered that Camus writes: “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” How do we arrive at the moment of happiness? What gives us the strength to roll that rock up hill yet again, knowing only that we will need to repeat our work for what seems like eternity? Camus suggests that Sisyphus finds his moment of happiness when he realizes the absurdity of his task, during that long trudge down the mountain to retrieve his rock. So the process of schooling—and the writing process itself—is not merely about rolling the same rock up and down for eternity. It also involves that moment of happiness.

“We can turn the world around,” I thought, “that is the lyric that moves me.” At the same time I wondered about my students, who had encountered Sisyphus for the first time this semester. So I invited students synthesize their thoughts about Sisyphus with a song that could serve as their theme song, a song that described their own moments of happiness. We listened to several theme songs from a variety of sources and time periods, everything from Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” to Myley Cyrus’s “The Climb,” to The Script’s  “Hall of Fame.” Then I asked students why the songs related to Sisyphus, and to find a takeaway point from listening to several songs at once. The students suggested that the songs, as different as they seemed, discussed universal themes, especially perseverance—pushing through and not giving up. Perseverance, for the students, was linked to that moment of happiness. Sisyphus achieves because he keeps trying. Even as the cycle remains endless, each time he moves through the process, he learns something new. This learning also brings happiness.

I have written about synthesis before, in relation to finding similarities in two seemingly different print texts. Traci Gardner and Jonathan Alexander, in previous Bits posts, have drawn attention to the importance of synthesis for understanding and creating visual rhetoric. Yet synthesis can serve additional functions, outside—as well as inside—of writing studies classes.

Students enrolled in college daily confront contradictions in their lives: post-secondary education, they are told by employers, families, government, peers, and high school teachers, is necessary for a good job. Yet good jobs are few and far between, and student loans to cover tuition costs carry notoriously high interest rates. Even if one manages to find a good job after graduation, much of the salary will go toward student loan payments. What is the purpose and what is the point? Class can be boring and writing is hard work.  Why stick with this? Why stay?

As teachers, we need to find the means to intervene in negative self-talk. Perhaps we cannot change the material realities of students’ lives. Yet, as we grapple with writing and with making meaning, we can offer a new vocabulary for addressing the absurdity of difficult circumstances. We can begin the journey again, aiming for the summit. Synthesis remains the moment of happiness as we move down the hill—and the rock that pushes us forward.

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Reading, Writing, Multimedia—and Sisyphus

posted: 4.22.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

During a recent trip out of town, I assigned students an independent study project that combined writing, reading, and multimedia. The assignment reached the students’ inboxes via blackboard during a time when I was away from email and could not respond to questions. My absence from email was purposeful. We are nearing the end of a yearlong program at the end of which students will have earned six full credits toward graduation and/or transfer, including full credit for English 101. The students could handle this task without my supervision.

Little did I dream that the completion of this task would turn into an exercise that would demonstrate the benefits of combining the processes of writing, reading, and multimedia-making.  Yet, because the end of the academic year is fast approaching, I had once more assigned Albert Camus’s essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Reading, writing, and thinking about Sisyphus had been one of last year’s culminating activities in the Bronx.  This year, I added a multimedia component, and came home to find still more inspiration waiting in my email inbox.

The assignment was to create a prototype for a t-shirt that would describe our yearlong program, using a quote from the Myth of Sisyphus. Here are the specifics.

  • Use a quote from Sisyphus that exemplifies your experience with the program and that would appeal to next year’s first-year students.
  • Choose original graphics (take photographs, create a drawing) that illustrate the quote.
  • Create an electronic file of the prototype and send it to me in an email. You can create the entire prototype online, or you can work by hand and take a photo of the results.
  • Write a brief rationale (3-5 paragraphs) that explains what you chose, why you chose it.

The two designs pictured here present a study in contrasts. Although the designers used virtually the same quote, the illustrations themselves point to very different readings—not only of Sisyphus, but also of the purposes of our yearlong study of writing.  Interestingly, a student working alone crafted the design of the “helping hands.” Five students, working together, constructed the design of a single individual, toiling all alone to raise the rock to the top of the mountain.

In class discussion, we focused on the rhetorical situation of this assignment. By combining reading, writing, and multimedia, these writers needed to address the incoming class of 2018; that is, new students who would be part of Fall 2014’s new cohort for this year-long writing program. We discussed the very different messages that each graphic would send to that audience, the first of group support and accomplishment, the second of individual toil and hard work.  We wondered about the impact of shortening the quote. Did Sisyphus have help in his achievement, as the “helping hands” graphic implied, or did he indeed toil all alone?

The writers focused on “achievement” as a key word. Some writers read the “helping hands” as the hands that would greet them at graduation for the achievement of earning their degree. Other writers were concerned about the graphic of the second design. Would the image of Sisyphus struggling alone with his burden provoke too much anxiety for new students? Or would that image offer new students an immediate message of the work that would be required to succeed in the writing program? Or would both of these graphics, presented together, offer new students a more balanced picture of their forthcoming endeavors?

We had no definitive answers that day. Yet, as a Basic Writing teacher/scholar, I garnered new insights from observing these writers interact with The Myth of Sisyphus. I have always believed that reading and writing are inseparable and inextricably linked, each generative of the other. I had initially attempted to introduce multimedia as an add-on to reading and writing, with limited results. That day, I learned that multimedia also must become woven into the processes of reading and writing. Our twenty-first-century lives demand it, and our students deserve nothing less.

At the same time, I came to these insights after re-reading a text that was first published in the 1940s and that I had first encountered in the 1970s. Sisyphus had once more helped me to grasp the twenty-first-century world through an older and more deeply familiar context.

For my students had written: “It is an endless cycle to improve one’s self until death and others after will stand on your shoulders and further the improvement. This cycle is eternal.” And I felt, at last, that I had reached again that moment in the cycle of which Camus writes: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

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Angela Y. Davis at 4C14: Hope for Basic Writing

posted: 4.7.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

On Thursday of 4C14 in Indianapolis, convention participants listened to a featured session talk by Professor Angela Y. Davis, Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California at Santa Cruz and Black feminist activist for prison abolition. From my early adolescent reading, I remembered Professor Davis’s struggles in prison, when she was accused and later acquitted of a crime that she did not commit. Since that time, she has continued her work on the intersections of feminism, prison abolition, and struggles of people of color. Professor Davis participated in Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland, and I had been privileged to hear her speak at the New York City Public Library with Toni Morrison, who edited Professor Davis’s Autobiography.

Several weeks later, Professor Davis’s talk at 4C14 remains much on my mind because three key points offer immediate implications for basic writing:

  •  The unequal access of students of color to major public universities because such students are defined by lack: lack of finances; lack of health insurance (if they or their parents do not have documentation as U.S. citizens); lack of adequate scores on standardized tests.
  • The need to imagine what public universities would look like if they truly engaged with larger communities
  • The hope to work for the future toward a truly open democracy. Professor Davis offered a history of post-us civil war reconstruction – about the years of Radical Reconstruction that ensued in the former confederacy under the enforcement of federal troops—when Black Americans that had been enslaved had held public office and when free schools were opened to serve the needs of all children who had not had access to schooling before the war—poor white children as well as poor Black children. Under the Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1877, the federal troops were removed from the south, and Jim Crow laws ensued into the second half of the next century. But that promise of true democracy, democracy that would include everyone, Davis suggested, was what we need to continue to work toward.

The week after I returned from #4C14 in Indianapolis, I caught up with my students’ writing projects. My students caught up with me on the issues that presented blocks to writing. These blocks, generally speaking, result from time constraints. Not time management concerns, but concerns growing out of the longstanding impacts of economic inequality and structural racism.  These concerns include not only the everyday micro-aggressions of embodying “difference” on a large university campus, but also lack of access to basic resources that many of us take for granted: health care, preparatory education, housing, gainful employment, U.S. citizenship, and financial capital.

Attempting to find hope can seem an impossible challenge in the difficult roads students often take to our classrooms. For some students, the extrinsic motivation of the putative degree— and the almost illusory specter of post-graduate employment opportunities—will not offer enough external rewards to stay in school.  In the continuing aftermath of the great recession, when financial capital remains more unequally distributed than ever, such challenges pose never-ending complications and interruptions to students’ daily attendance. Yet if we cannot foster hope and intrinsic motivation in such difficult conditions, then when exactly should we begin? If we expect someone else to work toward the future, then can we claim surprise and dismay when the future does not suit our deepest dreams? . In her talk that Thursday morning in Indianapolis, Professor Angela Y. Davis’s suggested why this work remains relevant. Finding hope can inspire intrinsic motivation, and the resilience to move forward. Offering these sources of hope—to our students and to our selves—can become the most significant topic that we undertake in any basic writing course.

Many of the students’ writing projects take up these issues, and I look forward to reading the results. I had asked students to take on projects that would allow them to work on what they needed to write about right now—writing projects would help students find intrinsic motivation to stay in school. No one chose to write about popular music or video games. Most students chose to write about conditions that potentially impede their success at school. In trying to take on these difficulties, students take up the challenge of writing about material conditions for audiences that will benefit learning what many writers face on a day-to-day basis in their first year in college. We also try to build hope for the future, which remains equally significant.  Indeed, at the end of her talk in Indianapolis, Professor Davis quoted James Baldwin: “The impossible is the least that one can demand.”

In the singularly most troubling moments of US history, at the end of Reconstruction, during Professor Davis’s imprisonment and trial, and in recent times since the dawn of the twenty-first century, we have had to demand the impossible to move forward. In learning to voice those demands, we learn again why writing matters. We learn again to breathe in every word as the most significant moment of working toward a future that offers hope to us all.

[Photo Credit: Susan Bernstein at CCCC 2014]

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Grammar Issues—and Writing

posted: 3.26.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Last week’s Conference on College Composition and Communication in Indianapolis included the Council of Basic Writing (CBW) workshop session, “CBW Talks Back.” As part of this workshop, organized by incoming CBW co-chair Michael Hill, we presented short talks to address issues with technology software marketed for our students. 

Then, we convened tables to offer more intensive conversations about how and why these issues play out on our home campuses. Our table worked on the CBW policy for grammar issues in writing. A small group of face-to-face participants and live online contributors commented on our Google Doc to craft the following statement:

The Council on Basic Writing, a Standing Group of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, supports course instruction and student/teacher interaction for all introductory and multilingual writing courses in college English.

Writing Studies research finds that students in Introductory and Multilingual College Writing courses learn to write most effectively when conventions of writing are:

  • Presented as part of complex and multimodal rhetorical structures, interconnected with audience, purpose, genre
  • Embedded in the processes and products of writing
  • Perspectives of faculty and students in Introductory and Multilingual College Writing courses should be included in decisions regarding course delivery and curriculum content

The policy is unofficial, an experiment in claiming an ethos for ourselves as teachers of courses called Basic Writing or, as we call it in the draft, Introductory Writing.  As we revised the draft, we worked on:

  1. discovering what attitudes and beliefs we hold in common concerning grammar instruction
  2. discerning why we need to make those attitudes and beliefs clear to our selves in particular, and to teachers, students, and administrators of Basic Writing.

In order to enhance our credibility, we looked at evidence from a brief annotated bibliography that can be found in the Google Doc. From the research, this statement from the National Council of Teachers of English stands out: “students should have guidance and frequent opportunities to … collaborate in writing many whole texts, not answers to exercises.” To better understand this process, we worked, as we often do as faculty, together as a whole, considering and rearticulating ideas in the clear, concrete language of writing studies. If the stakes for creating a non-binding policy seem low, the stakes for our students remain exceedingly high. As we build a professional ethos by “speaking back,” we also gain strength in facilitating occasions for our students to speak back as well.

Students also might benefit from reading and revising this draft, as well as the research collected on the Google Doc. The process of reading and revision could serve as an example of best practices in writing studies as a field inclusive of Basic Writing. In offering a close reading and input on any draft of instructional policy, writing assignments, or assessment rubrics, students become central to the creation of materials for their own course of study. As part of this creation process, students can present ideas that challenge our assumptions, offering opportunities for all of us, teachers and students alike, to grow as writers and thinkers.

Indeed, this lesson was presented again and again at CCCC, especially as part of Cynthia Selfe’s talk to CBW, Howard Tinberg’s keynote plenary address, and Angela Davis’s speech in a featured session. Consider all of our stories. Yet consider especially the loss to all of us when those stories are put aside, or even silenced. Time spent on fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice grammar exercises (whether online or in hard copy) takes time away from the hard work of thinking through ideas and creating sentence and paragraph structures appropriate enough to sustain those ideas in writing. Surface features can improve over time. But such features cannot improve if we do not offer students continual practice with writing.

To make grammatical error the center of an introductory writing course curtails students’ goals and desires as writers. Filling in the blanks of grammar exercises remains a task devoid of meaning. Yet as writers grapple with words and available multimedia to create new approaches to writing, they gain the confidence to attempt longer and more complicated sentences and paragraphs, and to interweave image and sound with more traditional approaches to language. Nearly midway through the second decade of the twenty-first century, writing offers a great deal to all of us. Our moment to attend to that work begins now.

[Photo Credit: CCCC Workshop "CBW Talks Back" by  CBW executive board member Lynn Reid; Pictured (left to right): Michael Hill, Wendy Olson, Michelle Stevier-Johanson, and Susan Naomi Bernstein]

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History and Rhetoric: The Case of Arizona

posted: 3.10.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Once upon a time, back in graduate school, we often discussed the place of political discussion in composition classrooms. Back then our textbooks included exemplar essays from 20th century political activists such as Clarence Darrow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Richard Wright.  Now, more than two decades later, I remain puzzled by the idea that we were required to teach essays by men who risked their careers (and their lives) for political activism, but that we ourselves, as new teaching associates at our institution, ought to consider staying silent on similar questions of our own era. What would our silence say to our students about their own abilities to form opinions, to interpret the new experiences they were encountering with language and with thought?

Now, of course, we do composition differently. Twentieth-century activist writing does not appear as frequently in our textbooks. In the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century, many textbook readings are culled from hot-button issues of the last five years; yet these reading offer little-to-no historical context. Economic inequality and structural racism often appear to be the problems of individuals or individual institutions, rather than the long-standing systemic problems that contribute to current societal dilemmas.

However, here in Arizona, we have attempted to remedy this situation. My classes began our semester with reading Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final speech. This reading led to a discussion of the history of Arizona’s state government’s refusal to recognize the national Martin Luther King Day holiday in January. In 1990, this refusal led to the NFL’s decision to move the Super Bowl out of Arizona to Pasadena, California. Class discussions ensued about whether or not or how much life in Arizona had changed in the last twenty-one years. Some students discussed their participation in walkouts at their schools to protest the governor’s signing of the 2010 anti-immigration legislation AZ SB 1070. We also grappled with a racist event held on our campus at the beginning of the semester.

Then, along came AZ SB 1062, a bill that purported to support “exercise of religion,” but that many in the state saw as an opening for viral discrimination, especially of LGBT individuals and communities. Arizona was once again the butt of national jokes and the focus of national outrage. Once again, the NFL considered moving the 2015 Super Bowl out of Arizona. George Takei promised to lead a boycott of the state. Once again, with Aristotle, we needed to consider how— and why— to write in order to move people to action.

Indeed, the work of persuasion offers compelling challenges for students enrolled in a Basic Writing course. By persuasion, I do not mean rehearsing two sides of an argument, for and against. With legislation such as AZ SB 1062, many writers would find the “for” position too painful to render. Instead, persuasion invites writers to consider approaches for critical presentation of their own interpretations of the issues at hand. What examples would prove appropriate? How could these examples be organized to have the greatest impact? What tone would offer most compelling support for the evidence?

In crafting our writing, such questions never grow old. Rather, we encounter these questions over and over again not only as we gain experiences, but also as we attempt to process and make sense of our experiences, and the connection of our experiences to a larger history. With the turn to popular culture, a focus of many current first-year writing textbooks, that sense of history seems to have become replaced by the transitory and the ephemeral. Yet a generation ago, anthologized essays by Darrow, King, and Wright offered not only exemplary models of persuasive writing, but also a view of early-mid-twentieth-century popular culture. Without that view, we may be stuck with reinventing the wheel. But with that view, we have the opportunity to learn what happens when activists speak back to injustice.

In Arizona, the governor could not ignore that activism; her veto prevented AZ SB 1062 from becoming state law. Yet even as the bill was struck down in Arizona, lawmakers in other states were considering legislation similar to SB 1062. Rather than assuming that Arizona is the exception to the national narrative of continuous progress, perhaps we ought to remember that Arizona could be anywhere. Our students, wherever they reside, can learn to ask questions that will impact the quality of their daily lives, now and in the future. Our job, as their teachers, is to challenge our students’— as well as our selves—to rise to the rhetorical— and the historical —occasion.

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Writing Economic Inequality: Composing A Presentation for CCCC

posted: 2.24.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Note well: As usual, these suggestions are focused on the WHY more than the how. In other words, this post ISN’T about how to write a convention talk. Instead, I want to focus on what I need to remember as I compose a convention talk for the Conference on College Composition and Communication next month in Indianapolis. The subject about which I will speak feels immensely challenging: What can we learn from the trauma of teaching and learning after Hurricane Sandy to help create stronger classroom communities for students enrolled in Basic Writing?

I want to talk about everything: the new assignments that came after the hurricane, students’ responses, the connections between writing after a national disaster and during an ongoing recession, the link between recession and the many people who have lost access to supports that help ameliorate economic equality (such as food stamps and extended unemployment benefits). But I know I need to keep on point and keep it real. So here are three general suggestions that I hope will help me (and by extension, other writers struggling with difficult topics) to concentrate on where and why to focus:

  1. Attention to Privilege: First, remember the incredible (and unearned) privilege of attending and speaking at CCCC. Remember this privilege even if the session is scheduled against a popular special session or early in the morning or the last session on the last day or if the audience is otherwise small.  Remember this privilege of being present at CCCC even as the expense of attending can feel overwhelming and frustrating.
  2. Attention to Ameliorating Lack of Access: As a means of ameliorating lack of access, offer virtual venues for interested audiences of non-convention attendees. Also consider creating blogs for the talk that can be posted at,,, or elsewhere. Links for the blog can be posted on the Council of Basic Writing (CBW) Facebook page. Also consider having someone tweet the talk on Twitter, using the hash tags #cccc14 #traumaBW.
  3. Attention to Difference: Demonstrate this privilege by creating a talk that engages the audience with attention to difference.  Not everyone can hear the talk or read the power point slides.  Include a handout that makes the talk accessible to all participants. Handouts can be posted here before the convention begins. Also check the Composing Access site (see the Disability Studies Special Interest Group site Disability Rhetoric, disabling writing in a good way) for suggestions and support.

Economic inequality forms the backdrop of the larger contexts of CCCC in Indianapolis this year. Its victims may be invisible because CCCC attendance will be limited to those who can afford to pay, those whose departments or other benefactors can pay for them to attend, and those who are willing and able to incur debt for attending.  Indeed, because some of us in the academic world have limited or no experience with economic inequality since the beginning of the Great Recession of 2008, we may not recognize the far-reaching impact that economic austerity and disparity has brought to our colleagues and our neighbors.

Yet if we remain mindful of that absent presence—if we direct our talks not only to those who are in the room, but also to those who cannot afford to attend—then we can begin joining with others who are speaking out about economic inequality in our community. This is another focus to remember for writing a CCCC convention paper. The necessity of a wider web of inclusion can help to create more honest scholars of us all.

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Pete Seeger: An Ethics of Direct Action

posted: 2.10.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

In the late 1970s, Pete Seeger visited my small Midwestern college and we crowded together to see him in the college gym. My sharpest memory of that day remains how he managed to convince most of us to sing with him. Together we sang, “If I had a Hammer (The Hammer Song), a song I’d learned back in grade school:

 If I had a hammer

I’d hammer in the morning

I’d hammer in the evening

All over this land

I’d hammer out danger

I’d hammer out a warning

I’d hammer out a warning

I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters

All over this land

I adore this memory, but not without regrets. For white college students like me in the late-1970s, who had come of age in what has been called the “Post-Civil rights Era,” the consensus seemed to be that the danger and the warning (our childhoods punctuated by the assassinations of King and the Kennedy brothers) had passed. Pete Seeger was a kind old man who sang beautiful songs. We did not recognize that, as he led us in “If I Had a Hammer,” we were singing ourselves into history.

But thirty years later, I would have the good fortune to learn otherwise. During Labor Day weekend of 2008, I was present when Pete Seeger sang inside a tent at a pepper festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. He was nearly 90 by then and “If I Had a Hammer” gained its place in my heart as a song of political protest and ethical direct action. The country in 2008 was involved in two wars—and voters had a chance to elect the first African-American president in the history of the United States. According to Seeger, we needed to pay attention—and we had better not mess up.

In the winter of 2009, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” another staple of my grade school songbook, and of 1960s peace rallies, at President Obama’s inauguration festivities. The next year, I would be unemployed, and the next year, 2011, still unemployed, I would sing “This Land is Your Land” in Times Square with other demonstrators at an Occupy Wall Street rally.

So when Pete Seeger died in late January at the age of 94, his loss felt personal. In remembering the concert I attended in college, I understand, in retrospect, how Pete Seeger’s music helped me to awaken me from an intergeneration lethargy, and to begin to search for my connections to history. I have found those connections everywhere, yet chiefly in basic writing classrooms across the country. No matter our age or our politics, our classrooms offer us opportunities every day to practice the ethics of direct action or, more simply, to practice the need to pay attention and to remain awakened to a sense of possibility. I believe that this practice is possible no matter our situation.

Teaching basic writing is not missionary work and learning to write does not only prepare our students to write for transfer courses or for the workplace. If we are paying attention, writing may become an act of bearing witness: “the hammer of justice,” as Pete Seeger sang, “the bell of freedom.”  Writing, in its most positive sense, can teach us the ethics of direct action, of showing up, of taking part, of recreating daily life as more than just the banality of waiting for another pay check, or — if we are privileged enough—of planning for our comfortable retirement.

Yet Pete Seeger never really retired. He remained active until the end of his life, singing his songs all over this land. He reminds me of what it meant for me to become a college student, and later, a teacher of basic writing—of why passionate engagement with learning offers an opportunity to awaken, to reach out, to progress— far beyond the basics.

[Photo Credit: Pete Seeger 1986 by Josf SCHWARZ; Wikimedia Commons]

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