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Maybe you remember the first Big Read from 2012: Moby Dick, 135 chapters in 135 days, a radio extravaganza dreamed up by Philip Hoare and Angela Cockayne; read by the likes of Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry, Mary Oliver, and many others; and illustrated during the streaming by contemporary artists who created images for each chapter. (It’s still available online here.) Years ago, I read Moby once every year, so the chance to hear it read, brilliantly, over a span of months was an unforgettable experience.


Well, it’s now 2020 and Hoare and Cockayne are at it again, this time delivering Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which Hoare, in an article for The Guardian, calls “a founding fable for our time.” In Coleridge’s nightmare, he says,

The slain albatross hangs around the fated sailor’s neck like a broken cross, an emblem of his sin against nature. It is all too relevant today, as a statement of isolation and despair: “Alone, alone, all, all alone, / Alone on a wide, wide sea!”

The poem presents a story within a story, as a wedding guest approaches the church where a wedding will take place but is held back from entering by an ancient man whose skinny hand seizes him and demands that he hear his story. The wedding guest succumbs, takes a seat on a stone, and the long, sad, harrowing story begins.


Hoare says that this project, hosted by the University of Plymouth’s Art Institute as a free-access digital event, has been in the works for over three years and that he and his collaborators could not have imagined that they would complete this project in the midst of a world-wide pandemic. But they have, and listening to this poem from 1798 seems not just right at this particular moment but perfectly right.


I’ve listened to the first three (of forty) parts, mesmerized by the reading of Jeremy Irons, Jeannette Winterson, and Hilary Mantel. Still to come are Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithfull, Willem Dafoe, and a great, great, great, great, great nephew of the poet himself.


As I’ve been listening and revisiting this true horror story/poem, I’ve also done a bit of writing: what is a story that I badly need to sit still and listen to, even if it comes from someone I don’t know or don’t like? What crimes against nature have I committed—ones I wish I could undo? What is the albatross that I can’t seem to rid myself of? And why? What loneliness do I find deep inside and where does it come from? Am I surrounded by metaphorical water and yet “not a drop to drink”? And who is the Mariner today who is telling us his story, over and over again?


These are questions that seem particularly relevant today as we struggle against the coronavirus and as we seek to be together while staying apart. I would guess that not many of our students have read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or know its story. Perhaps this is another online resource we can provide to students during these strange times and they might listen to the poem as it comes to life in these free online readings. They can analyze the techniques each narrator uses when reading the poem, or perhaps they might write about the questions the poem raises for them. Perhaps some might write their own poems, tell their own stories, and share them with you.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 384385 by Hans, used under the Pixabay License

Photo with computer and garden by April Lidinsky


While many of us have hobbled through the spring semester, there is no rest for the weary, it seems. I hope you are all taking socially distanced and masked walks to recharge. We will need our energy for a summer of pedagogical preparation.


Of course, some of us are already teaching summer sessions online. Some of us know that we will be teaching in the fall semester. I also want to acknowledge how many valued colleagues will not be returning to campus positions—a painful reminder of the very personal economic impact of the pandemic. I hold these losses in mind as I dig deep for gratitude that while there is more instructional design work to do to prepare for the coming semester/s, I’m lucky to be in a position to do it.


Most of our campuses seem to be planning multiple teaching scenarios for fall, acknowledging that we are all subject to the virus’s waves. So, I’ve created a summer pedagogy syllabus for myself, taking advantage of some campus-sponsored training for teaching more effectively online. I’ve given myself target dates for reimagining my fall courses, revisiting my goals and gleaning from student feedback what they found most engaging in my spring courses. Happily, based on my course evaluations, my students and I appreciate the same course values: enthusiastic engagement in the material and a compassionate learning environment. Those are familiar goals that I can carry forward into less familiar learning environments.


I’ll offer two short articles about enriching learning relationships that I have found encouraging as I face the work ahead, and hope you’ll share your favorites, too.


An interdisciplinary group of professors, operating as the TPHE Collective, has this well-timed reminder as we revisit our syllabi:


This is the perfect time to dissolve the customary boundaries between teacher and student and figure out how to learn together. All participants in our classes are affected by the coronavirus. We all have much to learn from this situation and each other.


They offer guidance on what to let go of, as well as what to “latch on to”:

  • Caring for students as whole people;
  • fostering community and connections that facilitate learning;
  • working to understand each student’s context;
  • collaborating with students on their learning;
  • learning from students;
  • responding with flexibility;
  • engaging conversations about the difficulty of now;
  • challenging students to learn, not just ride out the semester;
  • avoiding isolation and collaborating with other faculty members; and
  • using colleagues as resources and sounding boards.


I found similarly encouraging this short piece by Cathy Davidson on foregrounding the humanity and vulnerability of the learning environments we create, particularly during the pandemic:


We need to think about what we all can offer one another—curiosity, imagination, knowledge, power—as antidotes to the present disruption and trauma, as tools towards building a future. As educators, we offer ways that help students not just learn content but also how to have a path-way towards accomplishment. We can encourage them not just to learn from us, as experts, but support them in the process of learning how to become experts. That's an excellent tool to have in the face of uncertainty.


While the world will seem unfamiliar for some time to come, I’m holding onto these reminders from kindly colleagues that we can hang onto the familiar humanity of teaching, with all its stumbles and vulnerabilities and revelations. As we know when we read our student evaluations, our students learn far more from us than the course material. They call us to be our best selves, and for that, I remain grateful.


I’m wishing you all a safe and restorative summer.

Barclay Barrios

The Trauma to Come

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert May 27, 2020

As I write this, states are beginning to reopen. And yet there remains an almost universal sense that this pandemic is far from over. And behind even that, in the shadowy crevices of so many psyches, I sense we also know that even when this is over it’s far from over. There’s still the trauma to come.


That trauma first came to me in a parking lot outside my grocery store, where I sat crying because no one in the store seemed to care about social distancing and I spent the whole time dodging people as best I could. It was a disturbing and destructive mix of fear and anger and panic. Not long after I joked to friends (well, half-joked) that we can expect a second pandemic of PTSD-induced agoraphobia. Just today I was texting with a friend as we wondered when either of us would feel safe in public around people again.


And I’m privileged; I’m layered in privilege. I can’t imagine the trauma of those without work or income (especially those here in Florida with a hostile unemployment system, one that some believe was designed to fail). I can’t imagine the trauma of frontline healthcare workers facing the pandemic and then facing down protesters. I can’t imagine the trauma of someone who’s lost a loved one to COVID-19. My race, class, gender, age, able-bodiedness, and more limit the kinds of trauma I’m facing. So if I’m feeling traumatized, what must others be going through?


There are two good readings in Emerging to get students thinking about the long term impacts of trauma: Sharon Moalem’s “Changing Our Genes: How Trauma, Bullying, and Royal Jelly Alter Our Genetic Destiny” (which looks at the epigenetics of trauma) and Sarah Stillman’s “Hiroshima and the Inheritance of Trauma” (which looks at the lingering cross-generational trauma of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima).


What makes Moalem interesting for this discussion is his focus on epigenetics, the ways in which the same genes are expressed in different ways based on external factors. One such factor is trauma, and the experience of something like bullying or the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Moalem shows, can alter genetic expression in ways that influence inheritance.


Stillman’s essay develops this idea, starting out with the timely claim that one of our least understood pandemics isn’t COVID-19 or some other coronavirus but wartime trauma. Trauma is now recognized as something can be trans-generational, transmitted from grandparents and parents to children. Stillman’s essay provides personal narratives that help ground and contextualize Moalem’s more abstract discussion.


Together, they suggest that the impacts of COVID-19 will be felt not just in all of us but in generations to come. I think to the quirks of my grandparents, who survived the Great Depression—the stores of canned food, the jar of pennies, small hoards to stave off the memory of utter lack. I think too of my experience of 9/11. I knew the world changed that day but it took quite some time for me to realize just how. I feel the same now. COVID-19 has changed everything. My rational mind thinks it and knows but I can’t plumb the depths of what that means or tally yet all I’ve lost.


So much more for our students, the generation to next lead. Having them think about the long-term impact of trauma, having them talk about their own trauma from the pandemic, may not change the genetic destinies encoding themselves epigentically even now but it may give them, and us, more tools with which to navigate the world to come.



Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1309682 by Ann San, used under the Pixabay License


For my last blog of the 2019-2020 Bits blogging year, I wish to return to the cataclysmic event in which we are all, unhappily and reluctantly, participating. This is history, and while, unfortunately, what we regard as historic is all too often some sort of catastrophe (like a war or a plague), it behooves us to learn what we can from it. And one of the major lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic—an obvious one to anyone who is paying serious attention to it—is political. But since the politics of the pandemic may not be quite so apparent to our students, it would be worth taking the matter up with your classes when you return to teaching in the fall, especially if you are adopting a cultural-semiotic methodology in your pedagogy.


To cut right to the chase, it is now clear that ideology—both in the United States and globally—has played a major role in the personal and political response to this biological scourge. Dividing explicitly along the progressive/conservative fracture lines that have been widening all over the world for a number of years now, this response reflects the polarized politics of our time in entirely predictable and almost stereotypical ways, with conservatives resisting (and protesting) governmental restrictions designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, and liberals/progressives generally accepting and defending them. In the critical first weeks of the pandemic, it was conservatives who played the threat down—explicitly complaining that it was a "hoax" designed to prevent Donald Trump's reelection, for example—while liberals, after a slow start, worried about worst-case scenarios. Governor Newsom in California, for instance, publicly declared in March that some twenty-five million Californians would be infected within two months. Indeed, it would make for an interesting class exercise (most likely to be conducted through some virtual means, I'm afraid) to have your students catalog, in a binary fashion, the respective conservative/liberal attitudes towards the plague.


One of the particularly polarized differences to emerge in the wake of the pandemic offers a striking example of the way that America's politics reflect the cultural mythologies that shape our consciousness in often highly contradictory and even paradoxical ways. I'm thinking here of the way that conservative positions on the social response to the plague explicitly prioritize the economy over individual health. This is not an empty accusation: one need only look at which states (invariably red states) resisted locking down, and then, after being compelled by spiraling caseloads to lock down after all, were the first to lift their restrictions—always in the name of the economy. By contrast, blue states like California and New York, even while facing catastrophic economic damage due to their lockdowns, are moving with the most caution towards lifting them.


The contradiction here may not be immediately apparent, so I will spell it out. The conservative predilection for "pro-life" social policies is not only well-known and explicit, it is one of the foundations of modern conservatism. And yet, in choosing to prioritize economics over individual lives, the conservative position on the plague is anything but pro-life—especially when those lives are those of senior citizens. If you are using the ninth edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. and/or plan to adopt the 10th edition, you will find plenty of guidance on teaching your students how to discover and analyze such contradictions in the chapter entitled "American Paradox: Culture, Conflict, and Contradiction in the U.S.A."


More generally, the ninth and tenth edition of Signs of Life both feature, as thematic leitmotifs, the ways in which the ideological divisions in America have widened to the point that we can regard them as harbingers of a veritable cultural civil war, a war that can be found being played out throughout our popular and political culture. Unfortunately, this conflict has badly damaged our national response to the pandemic, and it may well be too late to undo that damage now. But in the hopes that we will all still be here in the fall and beyond, it is a lesson worth teaching and learning in the ever-dimming hope that we will not repeat such mistakes in the future.


Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 5103043 by nastya_gepp, used under Pixabay License


Inspired by the work of Laura Aull, I’ve been introducing students to corpora as a way to find information about writing in various disciplines—they can, for example, easily check whether professional writers in the sciences use the first person pronoun—and sometimes just for the kinds of curious poking around that is so much fun to do in large databases. Aull found, in an early study based on data drawn from corpora, that professional writers use more “hedges” (that is, qualifiers like “most” or “some”) in their writing than do first-year students, while first-year students use more “boosters” (words like “very”). I asked students to compare their own use of hedges and boosters in a sample of their writing and then use the Corpus of Contemporary American English to see what professional writers in other fields did. My students responded well to using the corpus and really liked analyzing their own writing for specific usages. They said doing so helped them feel they had “more control” over their writing.


Last week, I learned of a brand new corpus—Coronavirus Corpus—and took a look to see how students might use it for research. Here’s how the website describes the corpus:

The corpus (which was first released in May 2020) is currently about 279 million words in size, and it continues to grow by 3-4 million words each day. At this rate, it may be 500-600 million words in size by August 2020.


The Coronavirus Corpus allows you to see the frequency of words and phrases in 10-day increments since Jan 2020, such as social distancing, flatten the curve, WORK * home, Zoom, Wuhan, hoard*, toilet paper, curbside, pandemic, reopen, defy. . . .


The corpus also allows you to see the patterns in which a word occurs, as with stay-at-home, social, economic, or hoard*.


You can also compare between different time periods, to see how our view of things have changed over time. (And you can even compare between the 20 countries in the corpus). Interesting comparisons over time might include phrases like social * or economic * that were more common in Jan/Feb than in Apr/May, or words near BAN or OBEY that were more common in Apr-May than in Jan-Feb.


I was able to dig around in this corpus to find out how many times the word “liberate” appears in the corpus and in what context, to look for how often the word “suicide” appears and whether or not its use increases across time, and so on. I think your students might also enjoy working with the corpus. They could, for instance, search the database for collocates (words near to each other) to see, first, how often “Clorox” or “disinfectant” appears and then see how often it appears near the words “virus” or “COVID-19.” Or they might search for “masks” and then see how often that word appears near “resistance.” Using corpora in these ways can help students identify what Kenneth Burke called “terministic screens,” that is, the way words work together to form a network (or screen) that creates or reinforces certain impressions or ideas—see Burke’s discussion of terministic screens in Language as Symbolic Action; I often start my classes with a discussion of this concept!


Students taking their writing courses from home could find this new corpus—and others, like Brigham Young University’s Corpus of Global Web-Based English or the Corpus of Contemporary American English—useful for projects they may be working on, or for inspiring them to pursue other research questions. Learning to use available corpora can play a role in any rhetorical analysis they may be doing now or in the future.


If you use corpora in your teaching, I’d love to hear from you! In the meantime, I’ll go back to washing my hands. . .


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 943739 by TBIT, used under the Pixabay License

Today’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodrigue, an associate professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.


Several years ago, I began incorporating sound projects into my undergraduate and graduate classes. These classes ranged from general education classes to English courses to graduate courses. As of late, I’ve been teaching sound-focused courses—Audio Storytelling and Composing with Sound—in the general education and graduate English program, respectively.


All of these courses have a unique rhetorical context. They have divergent goals and criteria, some of which I create and some of which are requirements of the class, and they are all situated within larger goals or missions of particular programs or departments. The students who take these courses are also very different with varying levels of interest, experience, and motivation.


These vastly different rhetorical contexts have prompted me to think a lot about my pedagogy and pedagogical decisions related to sound and soundwriting*: what should I teach in each class? How should I teach it? In what ways is my pedagogical approach similar and/or different across courses and curriculums, and what might that reveal about the place of soundwriting in college courses?


The trickiest class for me to teach is a general education undergraduate audio storytelling class that fulfills both an oral communication and writing requirement, specifically the second  writing course in a three-course vertical writing model. The primary goal of the class is to reinforce and build on knowledge students learned in the first writing course related to rhetoric, writing, and writing processes. The course also prepares students for the next writing course, which is situated in their major and focuses on disciplinary-specific writing. Yet the class, as evident in its title, Audio Storytelling, also seeks to provide students with an understanding of how to compose and produce documentary-style audio stories.


After testing out various methods and approaches, I’ve created what seems to be a successful pedagogical framework for usin###@g soundwriting to teach rhetorical principles and concepts, as well as communication processes, habits, and practices across modalities. This framework could be used in part or in full in teaching writing classes in a general education program and/or in a vertical writing model.


This framework is  comprised of three connected concepts that are presented and continuously referenced and reinforced over the course of the semester:


1. Soundwriters/writing is situated

2. Soundwriting/writers make choices

3. Soundwriters/writers who activate genre awareness and rhetorical awareness will be more effective composers


I intentionally draw a relationship between sound-specific writing, or in other words soundwriting, and writing for two reasons. First, the term writing, in the minds of most students, references alphabetic writing, the kind of writing they’re familiar with and have been doing since Kindergarten. Second, the term writing, which I explain to students during the course, can also be used as an umbrella term to reference composing and composing practices in and across modalities. I explicitly draw attention to this relationship in efforts to teach students that knowledge gained about soundwriting and soundwriters is applicable and transferable across all writing, as well as to expand their understanding of what writing is and does.


I present each concept one by one, looking first at how the concept is related to alphabetic writing, then how the concept is related to soundwriting. The first two concepts are taught back to back in the same class. We discuss the rhetorical situation, what it is, how it plays a role in any given writing situation, and how writers make choices in efforts to achieve their purpose with regard to their audience. We discuss Aristotle’s rhetorical appeals and specific rhetorical strategies that work to make these appeals in common school-based writing such as a research paper or a familiar kind of public writing. For example, I provide them with a fake rhetorical situation—a goofy dog-napping story that introduces them to the situation—and then ask them to identify some rhetorical strategies and how they function in a faux ransom letter produced from this situation. Once the concept of “soundwriters/writers make choices” is understood, I move them to looking specifically at sonic rhetorical strategies and how they function in soundwriting. Later, when they are asked to compose and deliver slide presentations, we discuss multimodal rhetorical strategies and how they function in multimodal writing.


Part of the last concept “soundwriters/writers who can activate genre and rhetorical awareness will be effective composers” is introduced along with the first concept: it’s impossible to talk about the rhetorical situation and not reference rhetorical awareness. Yet I spend the most time teaching this concept before students’ first major soundwriting assignment. I introduce genre awareness as a concept and again draw on familiar alphabetic writing to help them grasp the concept. Later, we move to soundwriting. The first major assignment asks them to produce a feature radio story, which is a common and fairly established genre in documentary-style podcasts and NPR shows. We conduct a genre analysis together, identifying the common and unique features of the genre. This collaborative work yields a guide to help students determine how to approach composing in this genre. This assignment also affords the opportunity to learn specific techniques and knowledge related to audio storytelling as content. The last assignment asks students to compose an episode of an existing podcast, which requires them to activate and employ their knowledge of these concepts on their own.


For each assignment, I assign alphabetic reflections or aural reflections in the form of audio process notes wherein students explain and reflect on their soundwriting in relation to these concepts. Further, I ask them to repeat the three concepts that inform the course at the beginning of every class, and I continuously make comparisons between soundwriting and writing they do in college or might do in the workplace to reinforce their understanding of these rhetorical concepts. The framework, and the ways in which these rhetorical principles continuously emerge in the curriculum, effectively equips students with knowledge they can draw on and employ in any given writing situation.


*(I define soundwriting as compositions created with sound such as voice, sound effects, and music, often crafted using audio editing software and meant to be heard via a sound-playing device such as the radio or a computer.)


Amid the daily reports of admissions to hospitals, of numbers intubated or in ICUs, and of the unthinkable roll call of deaths, I’ve felt almost numb with grief. And with anger, too, as I see how many are ignoring the recommendations of scientists, physicians, and healthcare workers across the nation and, indeed, the world.


As I read reports and look for the best information, I do what all of us teachers of writing and rhetoric do: I examine the statements with a rhetorical eye, looking for what makes them effective—or not. For what makes them memorable—or not. And for what they reveal about networks of power and prestige. I’ve taken a look, for instance, at recent CDC reports and guidelines, and—at the urging of TV commentator Rachel Maddow—compared the language used in them to the language of earlier reports. What even this cursory analysis reveals is that the current language has been watered down considerably: “directives” become “recommendations” become “suggestions,” for instance. “Must” becomes “should” becomes “may.” Imperatives disappear. I’ve seen enough now to realize that the CDC experts (or at least those who write their reports) have been put on a leash, their messages “massaged” to allow state and local officials more control.


But not all health officers are falling into line: daily we see one or another come forward to tell the blunt truth to the people of their town or county, even if they cry while doing so. Some are more persuasive than others, and perhaps none more so than Dr. Amy Acton, the Director of Ohio’s Department of Health. For months, she has been on the front lines, implementing early and aggressive action against the coronavirus and incurring praise along with a lot of blame. In spite of the attacks against her, Acton has been largely persuasive, and in an op-ed video piece in the New York Times last week, Sanya Dosani and Adam Westbrook carried out a brief rhetorical analysis to show why. In the 7-minute video, Dosani and Westbrook introduce Acton and then show how she uses repetition, metaphors, and personal pronouns to get her message across—and make it stick. In all, they watched seven weeks of press briefings, and identified three overall strategies that Acton relies on. The first is empowerment, which she deploys when she speaks directly to Ohioans, moving from “I” to “you” to “we,” in telling them what they are capable of doing and saying she is confident they can do it. “I’m not afraid,” she says, “I’m determined.” Her words over the weeks help listeners become determined too. In addition, Acton is brutally honest with her audience: she does not pander or try to sugar coat what is happening across the world. This honesty, and her willingness to say what she does NOT know, builds her credibility and helps connect to the viewers as well. But Acton combines that brutal honesty with vulnerability, empathizing with her audience and acknowledging, over and over, how difficult these times are and how difficult they are to face, while also acknowledging that we are all in this together.


This kind of rhetorical analysis seems like a good thing to do with students: ask them to look carefully at the press briefings of the top health official in their state and analyze how effective this person is at relaying information and inspiring confidence. Do the themes of empowerment, honesty, and vulnerability show up in these statements? How do the officials use pronouns to bring people together? How do they use metaphors to bring the message to life?


I’ve been watching the daily press briefings of our governor here in California and am beginning to recognize his go-to tropes and metaphors, his use of what I would call “corporate-speak,” and his notable use of gratitude, of thanks, of praise to every group as well as to the people of California. More on my analysis of Governor Newsom’s language to come. For now, stay safe, and practice rhetorical analysis!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 899477 by Skratos, used under the Pixabay License


When I was putting together the 4th edition of Emerging, Sherry Turkle’s “Empathy Diaries,” the introduction to her 2015 book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, seemed like a perfect reading to help students think about the impact of digital technologies and social media on conversation and the ability to connect. She argues that we’ve replaced conversation with connection and have suffered as a result, suggesting that screens have usurped the time and space needed for open-ended, deep, empathetic conversation. Her argument made so much intuitive sense. At the time.


Then the pandemic came.


I start my morning with a walk. It’s the only time I’ll see other human beings, from a socially distanced six feet away. I get to work at home and have a WebEx brainstorming meeting as we put together ideas for teaching our writing class online in a compressed six week semester. A colleague calls me and asks me about working on a grant from the NEH to support humanities workers in the time of COVID. Later, we have a college leadership WebEx meeting. There’s as much info being shared in the chat window as in the meeting itself. When I finally shut down my computer, putting my work laptop away to mark the transition to home, I check on my friends through Facebook, noting that many are still having their unemployment claims denied by the state of Florida. I laugh at a music teacher’s song about teaching in the pandemic. I cry again at a virtual choir’s rendition of “You Will Be Found.” Somehow that starts me down a rabbit hole on YouTube and I end up learning how to play cups. Later, I see a group of friends in a Zoom social. Later still, I do some virtual dating with a long FaceTime chat before bed.


Turkle’s argument seems to make sense when there are options beyond the screen. But what I’ve found is that the conversations and the connections I’ve had virtually have kept me sane these past six weeks, and counting.


It strikes me then that students’ experience during the pandemic might offer useful traction to respond to Turkle. How have they experienced the screen in isolation? How have they invited their families, trapped together, into their screen lives? If time and space are preconditions for conversation, can events like quarantine force us to have the time and the space to engage in conversation through the same screens that often serve as our escape?


We are in completely new times, where nothing is certain and things seem to change almost every day. We must release the illusion that when the pandemic is over we will return to the lives we knew. They’ve been inalterably changed, for good and for bad. Is it possible that part of that change is new appreciation for deep, sustaining connections—on the screen as much as in person?


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 4440833 by mohamed_hassan, used under the Pixabay License


While trying to think of something other than the pandemic to write about for this blog (all pandemic, all the time is not a good formula for either writing or mental health), I found myself rereading Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped (a fine escapist activity if there ever was one) and watching YouTube clips of some of the many movie versions of this adventure classic, as well. But not really to my surprise (semiotic significance is everywhere), I found a subject for this blog while doing so, which might be filed under the category of "Cultural Semiotic Significance Where You Aren't Even Looking for It." So, here goes.


To cut to the chase, what I found was not only that the more modern adaptations of Kidnapped all substantially altered Stevenson's story (which is almost always the case with cinematic versions of popular novels) but that they did so in a significantly similar manner. Three adaptations in this regard that particularly caught my eye were the 1971, 1995, and the 2005 remakes, all of which, while differing from each other in a number of other respects, have one thing in common. And thereby hangs a tale.


In order to explain what I discovered, I have to backtrack not only to Stevenson but to his most relevant predecessor—that is, to Sir Walter Scott, whose novel Waverly pioneered not only the historical romance but the romanticizing for British audiences of the ill-fated Jacobite uprising of 1745-46 ("the Forty-Five"), as well. Writing in 1814, Scott (a Scottish Lowlander with a sentimental affection for the Highlands) had a challenge on his hands when he set out to tell the story of the Forty-Five without putting off his English readers by dwelling too much on the shocking brutality of the English army (which, it is important to note, included Scottish Lowlanders and Highlanders) during the Battle of Culloden Moor and its aftermath. He managed this rather delicate operation in a number of ways, including the casting of a naive English aristocrat as the novel's protagonist, paying plenty of attention to the foibles of the Highland clans, inventing high-minded English benefactors who save the misguided protagonist from the gallows, and by carefully keeping the Battle of Culloden off stage. Scott's careful policy worked: the novel was such a popular success in England that Scott gave up poetry and never looked back.


Covering the same historical ground in 1886, Stevenson (another Lowland Scot writing to an English audience) was canny enough to follow directly in Scott's footsteps, similarly keeping Culloden off stage (the action of the novel takes place five years after the battle), as well as by focusing on the conflict between the Stewarts and Campbells, Highland clans alike who opposed each other before, during, and after the uprising. As for the English, we hardly see them at all, usually in the form of anonymous redcoats who chase the heroes ineffectually but do not ever come into any sort of focus. With his focus on Scots characters rather than English (the same is true in Catriona, the sequel to Kidnapped, whose two main villains are both Highland clansmen), Stevenson could appeal to his English readers' romantic sympathy for the Highlanders without their having to come face-to-face with the really barbarous English treatment of the defeated clans.


Which takes us to the critical difference that can be found in the 1971, 1995, and 2005 films, all of which abandon the careful policy of Scott and Stevenson by making the English the chief villains of the story. The 1971 version, for example, opens with a gruesome display of English redcoats bayoneting wounded Highlanders on the field of Culloden and adds a subsequent episode in which redcoat marauders murder an entire Highland family. The 1995 version, for its part, invents a coldly ruthless English official who stage manages the assassination of Colin Campbell in order to frame Alan Breck, while the 2005 version invents a coldly ruthless English colonel who frames an innocent Highlander in order to trap Alan Breck, whom he tortures when he gets his hands on him.


Get the picture? In these newer versions, the English are personified as the epitome of evil (not at all unlike their portrayal in Braveheart), and we can explain this difference from the policy of Scott and Stevenson by looking at the different audience to which the writers of these adaptations are appealing. In short, they had no need to placate sensitive English viewers because their main market is American—that is, descendants of the Highlanders who emigrated to the colonies after being driven out of Scotland in the aftermath of the Forty-Five, as well as an even larger number of Irish Americans who have no problem with seeing an unvarnished depiction of English brutality towards a Gaelic speaking people—not to mention an entire nation whose foundation story includes evil redcoats in the employ of King George.


Keeping in mind, then, that the purpose of mass cultural creation is to make money, we can see once again how market conditions shape the content of popular art. With nineteenth-century Scots writers wanting to sell books to nineteenth-century English readers, you get one way of handling history in popular fiction; with twentieth and twenty-first century film makers aiming largely at the American market, you get a very different one—one that, not so by the way, ignores the enormously complicated politics of the Forty-Five, which was fought not for Scottish independence but to replace the House of Hanover in London with a Stewart king who would rule over all of Great Britain. But that's another story.


Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 92720 by 12019, used under Pixabay License


Before the pandemic, I had never heard of Zoom. What a difference a couple of months can make! Now, like most of you, I find myself “zooming” on a daily basis: Boards I serve on meet via Zoom; community volunteer groups gather via Zoom; classes convene via Zoom. Last week I even “zoomed” with the four young men who rescued me and two friends from the Christ Church Cathedral when it was destroyed in a 2011 earthquake in New Zealand; with a former student and his two young children; and with a group of women who were sharing, virtually, wine and cheese. I feel a bit zoomed out!


During these sessions, I’ve also had an opportunity to see myself in the little Hollywood Squares boxes—or sometimes on full screen—and it’s been sobering. Of course I look my age—it is what it is!—but to me I look WORSE, sometimes much worse, than in real life. Have you or your students had the same experience?


Thinking about this screen presence reminded me of a “media prep” session I was part of eons ago when I was on the MLA Executive Council. A media consultant came in to coach us on how to present ourselves on TV. I remember the consultant telling us that on television, the camera exaggerates everything: “if you barely lick your lips,” she said, “it will look like your tongue is all the way out of your mouth.” And she showed us what she meant! She also coached us to lean slightly forward when looking into the TV camera, telling us that even a slight backward lean would come across as “slouching.”  I don’t remember anything else, but these tips came back to me as I was looking at a Zoom session (or Skype or FaceTime or . . .). What can I do, I wondered, and what can I recommend that instructors and students do to make the most of Zoom and similar sessions? Some ideas came quickly to mind:

  • Make sure you’re in a quiet and uncluttered space so that nothing distracts from what you’re saying.
  • Pay attention to where the light is coming from so that it’s not shining directly down on you, creating weird shadows, or washing everything out. (Some people recommend using a selfie ring light, but I don’t have one of those so I look for places where the natural light is soft and clear.)
  • If you're using a laptop, prop it up on books so that you can look slightly up and into the camera rather than down at it. And remember to actually look into the camera—something I constantly forget to do!
  • Dress simply in clothes that don’t glitter or glisten. (I learned this tip before a TV appearance where the host insisted I change clothes entirely because the suit I was wearing had a sheen to it which caused a lot of glare on camera. Who knew?!)


I’m sure professional media folks can offer a lot more tips, and you probably know more too. (Please send them to me!) In this new world of living online—which we may be doing for the rest of this year—I for one need all the help I can get. So here’s looking at you, kid—on Zoom!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 5059828 by Tumisu, used under the Pixabay License


We have reached the arc in the pandemic when we are testing the waters of returning to “normal.” At the same time, we are holding conversations about why “normal” is the wrong destination. This recent article from The Guardian synthesizes perspectives about the crisis as an opportunity to re-envision the world. Similarly, Susan E. Rice argues in her piece for The New York Times that we should not miss this opportunity to ask how we might focus on justice and equity post-pandemic. The problem of final grades during this unprecedented semester may yet be one more crisis that leads to something much better than a return to “normal.”


Certainly, we have seen some hand-wringing about a potential loss of standards as students flee toward Pass/Fail options like Titanic passengers for lifeboats. But I’m heartened by the much louder chorus of instructors who approach final grades with the compassion and empathy that we ourselves would want, I suspect, if we were in our students’ shoes.


In a recent article for Inside Higher Ed, the general spirit among the interviewed instructors is to support students during this extraordinary time and to focus on helping students reach the course learning outcomes. The coronavirus crisis gives us an opportunity to remind ourselves that student learning—not student-evaluation—should be our focus. That insight might be one to take into our post-pandemic teaching lives, too.


In that same article, Jessica Calarco, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, mentions a new interest in “ungrading,” an approach promoted by linguistic anthropologist Susan D. Bloom, whose provocative student-centered essays are featured in the forthcoming fifth edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing.


I have written before about including student self-evaluation as a crucial element in our writing classes. Certainly, this semester I am giving students an opportunity to assess their growth as writers over the semester. I have also offered some simple guidance so they could award their own grades for class participation, urging them to credit their ingenuity and persistence as we shifted unexpectedly to online learning. Their reflections—filled with humility, tips about home haircuts and dye jobs, and confessions about stumbling and having a hard time getting back up—have touched me deeply. Those reflections and records of self-knowledge are far more important than a letter grade.


While we may want to forget plenty about our time in quarantine, which pandemic teaching practices do you hope to remember and retain for less traumatic times?


Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 1147816 by ElasticComputeFarm, used under Pixabay License

Wesley Dunning teaches writing at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. His work appears in Blueline, Gravel Magazine, and others. What follows is a recent conversation I had with him:


I’ve always been interested in the cross-pollination between composition and creative writing, so I’d love to hear you talk a bit about your recently completed dissertation, Poetic Rhetoric: Reflections of Six Poet-Compositionists. (Full disclosure: I was one of the six poet-compositionists you interviewed.)


I came into the Indiana University of Pennsylvania doctoral program with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Memphis. I approached my PhD work thinking that now I needed to place all that creative writing work on hold. Taking composition and applied linguistics classes helped me realize that pursuing both disciplines at the same time was meaningful work. A reflection from the late compositionist and poet Wendy Bishop was especially significant to my study: “I do my mixing, not to elevate genres but to intermingle them, not to venerate the poetic or belletristic but to point out that each brings us to our senses though in different modes and tones.” So my dissertation came out of being able to research and practice what was important to me.


What would you say is the unique contribution that your dissertation makes to the field of composition studies?


It’s the focus on the six participants who have all contributed work in composition and rhetoric and published at least one volume of poetry. I interviewed each of them twice and asked them to provide me the handful of texts that they believed most influenced their careers in both composition/rhetoric and poetry. From my discussions with each of them and the works they deemed influential to their career, my dissertation explored their notions of the rhetorical functions of poetry writing, the place of poetry writing in first year writing courses, and what they believed about students experimenting and mixing forms in general education college writing courses. In each participant’s chapter I weaved in relevant sections from their influential works as a kind of organic literature review as well as blended my own poems throughout the prose text to enact my argument.


Obviously, Poetic Rhetoric was written long before Covid-19, but does your dissertation shed any light on how we should be approaching the teaching of college writing during the pandemic?


I believe it asks our students to consider their mindsets and how the work they’re being asked to do in writing courses influences how they think about themselves, how they might communicate different elements of themselves and imagine another’s perspectives in different forms, and what they believe their readers, their audience might value. As many of the wonderful poet-compositionists in my study told me, we’re all being bombarded with so much text on a daily and even minute-to-minute basis that this may be a time when can we begin to process what this overload of text means to each of us right here and right now, as well as in the future.


So “poetic rhetoric” is not necessarily about having a requirement that our students write poems in first year composition?


It’s about inhabiting an embodied frame of mind. It’s an orientation to the work of composing that provides access to elements of the self that other forms of composing do not, a composing process that emphasizes pattern of sound, image, and form. It’s about considering when, where, and why I might or might not compose in different forms.


I’ve heard you talk about the fact that so many great poets have described poetry not in terms of genre conventions, like rhyme or metaphor, but as a way of being in the world. What does it mean for our students to be in the world right now?


Each day is filled with both order and disorder, as poet Gregory Orr writes. There’s the cyclical nature of the world around us—the changing of seasons, day turning to night and back to day, birth and death—as well as the cyclical nature of our own daily habits—waking and sleeping, the back and forth flow of conversation, the hundreds of similar movements we perform over and over again in our places of working and living each day without much notice.


Sounds like the monotony of sheltering in place!


And yet life surprises us every day: unexpected joys and tragedies occur. The whole world experiences a global pandemic. Loved ones are losing their jobs, their lives. Our worlds are thrown into disarray in both large and small ways. How are our students experiencing all of this? How might they choose to represent that experience? What alternatives do they have to provide some kind of textual shape to what they’re thinking and feeling? Exploring the patterns and disruptions of patterns in our lives and in our mindsets through composing in different forms is one value of poetic rhetoric for teaching writing during this global health crisis.

For the past few months, I have been analyzing the feedback I gave first-year composition students during the spring 2019 semester—looking for patterns in my lexical choices, references, and syntax. Student progress that semester was uneven at best, and I want to know how students experience my feedback and whether or not what I am doing, especially in written feedback (I also give oral feedback in individual and group conferences), is accessible and useful to students? Do I need to make adjustments, or perhaps make the format and style of the feedback a matter of explicit instruction early in the term? In short, do I need to teach students how to read my feedback? I presented some of the findings of my research at the NOSS 2020 Convention in February, before our stay-at-home orders were issued, and there’s an article in process.


But one feature of my feedback is on my mind today. In a recent video chat with a student, I heard myself say, “So, how are we doing?” Most of the time I address students in a face-to-face conference using a second-person pronoun: you. So the appearance of that we made me wonder: do I use we a lot in my written feedback? If so, in what contexts? What does that communicate to students?


In one data set of 11,644 words—my post-conference written responses to 28 literacy narratives—the word you predominates in terms of personal pronouns: 535 uses, or 45.94 times per 1000 words. Given that I am speaking directly to students in these comments, there are also many instances of I/me: 210 tokens, or 18.03 times per 1000 words. But there are also many uses of we/us: 145 tokens, or 12.45 times per 1000 words. 


Obviously, the first person plural pronoun includes the speaker/writer (in this case, me), and upon first glance, it seems that my feedback frequently emphasizes collaboration, showing that the student and I are working through the process together.  But a closer look at the various uses of we/us in this particular feedback set suggests a much more complicated picture:


  We=student and teacher

            We need to work on verb tense here… we are working in the past.


We=generic (writers, speakers, people)

            We can’t introduce the quote that way… we need to set it up differently.

            We are articulate about something, which means we can speak well about it.


We=readers of this paper

            We need additional detail here; right now this is difficult for the reader to follow.

            Don’t leave the reader to wonder if we are going backwards or forwards in time.


We= the class

            We will talk about this format in class. 



I don’t worry that my students will misread these various instances of we; after all, we use the word in similar ways in speaking and in our online interactions. Of course, there are possibilities for awkward social miscues (“Oh—you meant you and John, not the three of us! Sorry!”), but I don’t think these would arise in the reading of the feedback.


Rather, the different uses of we in my feedback show (along with other language choices I make) that I am negotiating different stances with my students. At times, I am the expert, making recommendations I expect students to follow. At other times, I am a collaborator, brainstorming with the student ways to expand meaning or solve writing problems. Still at other times, I am a reader, giving feedback that represents what I think readers in general might experience when encountering the student text. I offer such descriptive feedback so that students can determine what they as authors want the text to accomplish.


Those of us with extensive experience in writing workshops, collaborative work, publication with an editor—we’re familiar with these various stances and can respond effectively, maintaining our own sense of ownership as we write with experts, collaborators, colleagues, and general readers. But do our students know how to read and put feedback to use when it comes from what seems like disparate and changing voices in the comment stream? The supplemental instructors and writing fellows who have worked with me in my first-year courses have told me that students are sometimes baffled by my feedback, and they aren’t sure what to do with it. Most of them, particularly in my IRW corequisite courses, haven’t gotten that kind of feedback before. They seem to be much more familiar with directive comments: “Aren’t you going to tell me what to do? That would be easier!”


Carless and Boud (2018) have developed a working model of feedback literacy, a model I want to apply in my FYC and IRW courses in future semesters. In the IRW course in particular, learning to read feedback and manage the stances negotiated within it forms a critical part of the academic reading we need to teach. The question, of course, is how best to model this reading and support students as they work with our feedback. 


Do you teach your students how to read, manage, and respond to your feedback? What strategies have worked for you?


This blog series is written by Julia Domenicucci, an editor at Macmillan Learning, in conjunction with Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl.


Image showing virtual education through technology and devices


Grammar Girl podcasts can be smoothly integrated with online classes in endless ways. The last “Teaching with Grammar Girl” blog post, “Using Grammar Girl Podcasts in an Online Classroom,” offered suggestions for podcast-based assignments that pair well with teaching online, and today’s post will expand upon those options!


Podcasts have been around for a while, but their popularity seems to increase every day—and for good reason! They are engaging and creative, and they cover every topic imaginable. They are also great for the classroom: you can use them to maintain student engagement, accommodate different learning styles, and introduce multimodality. 


LaunchPad and Achieve products include assignable, ad-free Grammar Girl podcasts, which you can use to support your lessons. You can assign one (or all!) of these suggested podcasts for students to listen to before class. Each podcast also comes with a complete transcript, which is perfect for students who aren’t audio learners or otherwise prefer to read the content. To learn more about digital products and purchasing options, please visit Macmillan's English catalog or speak with your sales representative. 


If you are using LaunchPad, refer to the unit “Grammar Girl Podcasts” for instructions on assigning podcasts. You can also find the same information on the support page "Assign Grammar Girl Podcasts."


If you are using Achieve, you will find a "Quick Start Guide: Grammar Girl and Question Bank" in your Welcome Unit. You can also find information on assigning Grammar Girl in Achieve on the support page "Add Grammar Girl and shared English content to your course."


Assignment: Using Grammar Girl Podcasts to Support Low-Stakes Writing

Find a podcast, article, or other work that ties into current events. For example, you could assign the NPR article “Tips From Someone With Nearly 50 Years Of Social Distancing Experience” by Rae Ellen Bichell (suggested by @tonnawonder in response to Grammar Girl on Twitter). Then, ask students to write a paragraph or two responding to the reading, without worrying about grammar, punctuation, or style. These responses can be submitted privately or discussed in a live meeting. 


Then, identify the top two or three errors made by students in these pieces, and assign relevant Grammar Girl podcasts for students to listen to before their next writing assignment.


Be sure to review “Using Grammar Girl Podcasts in an Online Classroom” for ideas on which podcasts to use!


Other Ideas for Teaching Online

Recently, Grammar Girl posted across social media to ask teachers a timely but important question: what is working in the sudden move to teaching online?


You can read the full responses on Twitter and Facebook. Ideas that have worked for other instructors include:

  • For live meetings, work in systems that students are most familiar with, such as Discord. If you are using Zoom, don’t forget about the breakout rooms option!
  • Find a positive or uplifting podcast, article, or other work for students to respond to.
  • Share a link to a relevant Youtube video or, in a live meeting, share the video on your screen for everyone to watch together.
  • If you record a lesson, upload it to YouTube or your LMS to easily share with students.


For even more ideas about teaching online, be sure to explore Macmillan Learning’s webinars about virtual learning.


We’d love to hear from you--what has been successful for you when teaching online? Post below or add your reply to Grammar Girl on Twitter or Facebook!


Bonus: Grammar Girl has a new request on Twitter this week! What do you do or where are you when you listen to Grammar Girl podcasts? If you don’t regularly listen to Grammar Girl podcasts but do listen to other productions, we’d still love to hear from you! Post your answer in the comments below or head to Twitter with the hashtag #WhereIListen.


Credit: Pixabay Image 3412498by kreatikar, used under a Pixaby License


Listening, as I do almost every week, to StoryCorps on NPR, I have been struck by how quickly that organization has adapted to the new pandemic conditions, shifting from two people face to face in a booth recording their story to an online system that allows the project to continue—at a distance—through StoryCorps Connect. As I listened to some of the stories posted there, I thought of what a valuable trove of oral histories are being recorded and preserved through this project and what a valuable teaching tool the archive is.


I started browsing around the Internet, looking for other oral history projects and found many that beckoned to me. The University of Illinois has a very large collection called Voices of Illinois, and I spent a couple of very rich hours reading the words of women in the 1930s talking about their lives, their education (or lack of it), and their experiences during the Great Depression. And by coincidence, I have been in touch with a Navajo student—a fabulous writer now in college-at-home—who is part of a project to collect oral histories from Navajo elders.


This combination of coincidences makes me think that this time of coronavirus might well be a very good time indeed for oral histories. Students working from home will usually have access to parents, grandparents, or other adult relatives as well as to siblings. And most will have access to a phone for recording too. While sheltering in place and keeping social distance, they have a great opportunity—and the time—to gather family stories and to capture the voices of family members talking about their experiences living through these very difficult times as well as about their important memories of the past and hopes for the future. Fifty years from now—even ten years from now—these stories will have great resonance; they might even start a family tradition of gathering oral histories over the years.


I am certain there are teachers out there who are doing oral history projects with their students. I would so love to hear about them and to read or listen to some of them if they are available. In the meantime, I’m going to see if I can encourage the young students I know to get busy on their own oral history projects!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 541192 by Satermedia, used under the Pixabay License