Memes as Global Communication

by Cynthia Davidson

While many of our students and faculty are well-traveled to the point of being cosmopolitan, prodigies of negotiating cultures physically, intellectually, and emotionally, traveling physically is not a condition of being a global communicator in the digital age. Global communication is coded into the multimodal system of signs that pervades the internet and traverses barriers of language, nation, region, and culture.

An example of a genre of global text is the much maligned, much loved, and lowly internet meme. When spread virally, memes revise to address the local conditions of their authors while opening themselves to readings flung far from those conditions. Memes, like the cyborg of Donna Haraway’s feminist parable, have no true origin myth; instead they have a multitude of origin points (it is often difficult or nigh impossible to pin down where a popular meme began) and are constantly being reborn through the art of remix.

While memes often seem innocuous, ridiculous, or simplistic compared to other kinds of texts, they frequently wield considerable communicative power. As Josh Fredman states, “The rise of Internet memes has created a new social currency that people can use to relate to one another — giving rise to whole new social structures that help to shape the future of society” ( “The Internet and its Impact on Global Communication”). Military analyst and entrepreneur John Robb believes that memes, which “generate tens of millions of impressions an hour…[s]everal orders of magnitude (100x) more than any other form of political communication,” are incomparable tools of political warfare at the present time in history, “providing a quick emotional hit in comparison to a long winded article with an uncertain payoff”  (“All Hail the Meme”).

Social scientist Rosaria Conté (2000) argues that memes are spread by actors, not some biological imperative or mechanical transmission (a theory which dominated the discussion of memetics in the late twentieth century, ie Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, published in 1976). Her argument has implications for rhetorical studies of memes as a genre of text with complex relationships  of authorship/audience/purpose/intent and complications especially to ethos.  (Dawkins had argued that memes were cultural transmitters analogical to genes, a theory that was widely criticized due to the incongruity of thought models in biology and cultural analysis.) She defines the effect of memes by breaking it down into components of content, form, and stance.

  • Content –The idea/s and the ideology/ies conveyed by a specific text.
  • Form –The physical formulation of the message, perceived through our senses
  • Stance— Information about the communicative positioning of the addresser in relation to the text/message, the context, and other potential speakers.

In an online interview with Henry Jenkins, Limor Shifman, author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013), states, “While internet memes are all about individuals creating content, they are also all about individuals creating content with awareness of each other. Memes not only involve pervasive mimicry, they are also based on intense collaborative work and complex multi-participant choreographies” and they function to mark members of online communities as knowledgeable of the mores of that group: “In these contexts the duality of being both an individual and a part of a community is flagged on a daily basis: community members are expected to be original, but not too original, when creating memes.”

“pepper spraying cop” by anita hart. Source: https://flic.kr/p/aM3tYz (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“pepper spraying cop” by anita hart. Source: https://flic.kr/p/aM3tYz
(CC BY-SA 2.0)

The highly visual composition of most memes opens them to contrasting readings, as Shifman states: “Whereas in verbal jokes the target of mockery and the scorn expressed towards it are often clear, the openness of visual images and the lack of a clear narrative may invoke contrasting interpretations.” This openness to variant readings allows memes to cross borders easily. These borders may be political or cultural, as in the case of the example of this pepper-spraying cop meme that arose from an incident at the University of California-Davis in 2011. Shifman noticed that there were several divergent pathways for meme-creation in this case: one, as in the image above, was strictly playful (perhaps subtly pointing up the silliness or stupidity of targeting something as nonviolent as a sweater-wearing penguin), while others were more pointedly critical of the police officer by showing him targeting the Constitution or other iconographic images of American freedom. Yet others seemed to be celebrating the psychological “purging” effect of the attack by showing the officer targeting celebrities that they did not approve of, such as Rebecca Black, the maligned creator of the “Fridays” video  (Shifman 2013).

“Makmende Cover.jpg.” Source: http://tinyurl.com/gph2f8k (fair use)

“Makmende Cover.jpg.”
Source: http://tinyurl.com/gph2f8k
(fair use)

What Shifman calls the “international flow” of a meme, however, may call for a more specific type of divergence in creation and interpretation, since images may “need to be replaced or localized to make sense in new territories” (Jenkins 2014). She gives the example of “Successful Black Man,” an American meme showing a clean-cut Black man defying cultural stereotypes of laziness, which was replaced in Israel by “Akiva, the Humanist Ultra–Orthodox,“ an Orthodox Jewish man who defies stereotyping as a traditional male by acting in surprising, feminist ways, such as demanding his wife return to the kitchen only to have cooked her a delicious meal. But the flow of international memes does not always move from the Americas to Eurasia, as made evident by “Gangnam Style”’s massive success. Pop culture website Mental Floss recently published a review of several memes that originated outside of the U.S., including the Kenya-based meme makmende. Loosely based on Clint Eastwood’s DIrty Harry’s line “Make my day,” the word came to mean “toughest hero” or “badass” in the 1980s and went viral as a visual meme after Just a Band, a Kenyan house/funk/disco band, released a music video for their song “Ha-He.” The hero of the video became the visual face of makmende and the foundation of a string of viral variations. For more information, see Ekdale and Tully’s 2014 article, “Makmende Amerudi: Kenya’s Collective Reimagining as a Meme of Aspiration.”

Much has been made of the flattening effects of globalization (Friedman 2006); while his theorizing that community content, increased access to information, and developing technology flatten our societal structures is still debated, it can be theorized that the ease of the flow of memes across cultural, political, and even linguistic borders can potentially flatten the meanings woven across them. In classrooms, however, those flattening effects can be countered with reflection, research, and analysis. Designing assignments that ask students to treat the memes that wash across their screens as serious multimodal texts with global impact is a way to facilitate this. For example, when teaching textual analysis, instructors can ask students to:

  • analyze memes as multimodal texts, using the New London Group’s (1996) model for linguistic, visual, spatial, gestural, and aural (in the case of videos or songs/jingles) modalities (see Arola, Ball, and Sheppard 2014)
  • examine the rhetorical situation, audience, purpose, context, genre of a memetic text in the context in which they find it (see Arola, Ball, and Sheppard 2014)
  • examine design elements (emphasis, contrast, alignment, proximity, and organization) (see Arola, Ball, and Sheppard 2014)
  • research the history or lore of the meme, being aware it may have multiple “origins”
  • check the rhetorical situation, audience, purpose, context, and genre of any texts that were poached or remixed in the making of a memetic text as a part of the process of determining how it was meant to be taken/read
  • examine adjacent content and design to determine context of the meme’s delivery
  • discover implicit arguments through the analysis of the modalities and design elements used in constructing the meme
  • examine how context can provide ways to uncover racist, sexist, or xenophobic meanings coded into the construction of memes or their responses
  • research the cultural meanings of memes depending on the context in which it is found, and infer how readings might change as memes traverse social, political, and cultural boundaries
  • research and analyze reactions to memes on social media sites and others delivery contexts

After analysis, or as a part of process of analysis itself, a student could create their own meme as a response to the argument discovered through analysis using remix and write a reflection on their own choices as they relate to rhetorical features such as rhetorical situation, audience, purpose, genre, design elements, and argument. This is a fun and creative yet intellectually rigorous assignment that engages students on many levels.

Post-election 2016 addendum: I wrote this post before the Presidential election. I just wanted to add that in light of the role of political memes in the election cycle, this post may seem somewhat disengaged from current events, but I feel even more strongly that there is so much work to be done in responding to memetic cycling in a reflective, thoughtful, critical, and non-reactive manner by scholars, teachers, writers, and students across the globe.

For example, I have been reviewing the probable connection between the results of the election and anti-feminist memetic turns that were spread primarily through social media; these were out in the open, unhidden, for the most part, yet few were aware of their impact. These memes are also local and global. No one factor causes an election to occur, and this is only one meme cycle among countless others. The bottom line, as far as I can see, is that we all need to review and reflect upon points of view that may trigger us or turn us off, and understand for whom, and why, they are effective communicators.

What is your experience with memes either inside or outside the classroom? How do you feel that this medium for cultural expression can and should be used to positive rather than negative effect? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Works Cited

Arola, Kristin, Cheryl E. Ball, and Jennifer Sheppard. Writer/Designer. 1st ed., Bedford-St. Martins, 2014.

Conté, Rosaria. “Memes Through (Social) Minds.” Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, edited by R. Aunger, Oxford UP, 2000. pp. 83-120.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford UP, 2006.*

Ekdale, Brian, and Melissa Tully. “Makmende Amerudi: Kenya’s Collective Reimagining as a Meme of Aspiration.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 31, no. 4, 2014, pp. 283-298, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15295036.2013.858823. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

Fredman, Josh. “The Internet & Its Impact on Global Communication.Tech in Our Everyday Life, 2016, techin.oureverydaylife.com/internet-its-impact-global-communication-2961.html. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

Friedman, Thomas L. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, 1991, pp.149-181.

Jenkins, Henry. “A Meme is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview With Limor Shifman (Part 1).Confessions of an ACA-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, February 17, 2014, henryjenkins.org/2014/02/a-meme-is-a-terrible-thing-to-waste-an-interview-with-limor-shifman-part-one.html. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

Just A Band–Ha-He.” YouTube, uploaded by justabandwidth, 14 March 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mG1vIeETHc.

Miss Cellania. “International Internet Memes.” Mental Floss, April 9, 2013, mentalfloss.com/article/49977/international-internet-memes. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

New London Group. “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures.”  Harvard Educational Review, vol. 66, no. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 60-92, newarcproject.pbworks.com/f/Pedagogy%2Bof%2BMultiliteracies_New%2BLondon%2BGroup.pdf. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

Robb, John. “All Hail the Meme, the New King of Political Communications.” Global Guerrillas, 16 August 2016, globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2016/08/the-mediaglyph.html. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

Shifman, Limor. “Memes in a Digital World: Reconciling With a Conceptual Troublemaker.Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol. 18, 2013, pp. 362–377. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016,  doi:10.1111/jcc4.12013.

*original edition 1976

Image credits:

“Makmende Cover.jpg.”  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Album_Makmende_Cover.jpg  (fair use)

“pepper spraying cop” by anita hart. Source: https://flic.kr/p/aM3tYz  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Posted in Teaching Writing, Technology and Teaching, Writing & Rhetoric | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Engaging the Global: Some Teaching Strategies for the Writing Classroom

Written by Shyam Sharma, Rita Nezami, Cynthia Davidson, Soni Adhikari, Kevin Clouther

Introduction

     An increasing number of instructors in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric use global and transnational/cross-cultural issues and perspectives as curricular/pedagogical strategies to educate students as global citizens. As a recent group discussion and brown bag session indicated, we seem to “engage the global” in one way or another: by using literature from different cultures/countries and contexts/times, personal narratives and i-search process, news items and scholarly articles, translingual and transnational communication activities, cross-cultural research and experiential learning activities. In this essay, we summarize some of the teaching strategies and experiences that we shared among the group. We invite other colleagues to join the conversation and share their teaching ideas and strategies through the comments section below.

An "Artist's" rendition of The Globe of Perspectives, mostly to scale.

An “Artist’s” rendering of The Globe of Perspectives, mostly to scale.

Educating Global Citizens  – Rita Nezami

     Global literacy is an understanding of how the world is organized and interconnected. We live in a globalized world with which our students need to remain connected. Globally literate students analyze and think critically about the world and their roles in it. They understand and appreciate various global issues, systems, and relationships that influence people’s lives worldwide. Global knowledge can empower students to effect positive changes in an increasingly interconnected world. They are empowered by knowledge about terrorism, humanitarian crises, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and more. As a result, students may begin to see themselves as global citizens.

     Encouraged by PWR instructors, many of our students consider global events and news as subjects for argumentative research papers. Yet, some students continue to be satisfied with a horizon that they define by the limited content that they choose and filter via their mobile devices and social-media accounts. Even though we live in a world where global news is available 24/7 through a panoply of venues, some students remain uninformed about the planet beyond their immediate experience.

     As teachers, it is our task to convey the importance of open-mindedness and curiosity about the rest of the world. Part of the ethical aspect of our work is to give students a reason to pause and ask whether some global issues are especially urgent and warrant their attention. Exposure to a global perspective implicitly invites students to consider what moral obligations they may have to know what millions of people are experiencing.

     Global literature provides a powerful entrance to this larger sphere of human experience. Through it, students can directly engage with some of the most morally significant matters of our time: the anxieties of statelessness, the uncertainties of climate change, the fears of terrorism and racism, and the inevitable prospective conflicts over resource shortages. Writers whose aesthetic visions deal with these and other urgencies appeal to students’ emotions, intellects, and aesthetic sensibilities because their own lives’ futures and prospects are directly implicated. In these works, students enter into both immediately intriguing issues and the forces that will shape their own lives.

Memes as Global Communication – Cynthia Davidson

     We live in interesting times. While many of our students and faculty are well-traveled to the point of being cosmopolitan, prodigies of negotiating cultures physically, intellectually, and emotionally, traveling physically is not a condition of being a global communicator in the digital age. Global communication is coded into the multimodal system of signs that pervades the internet and traverses barriers of language, national, region, and culture. An example of a genre of global text is the much maligned, much loved, and lowly internet meme. When spread virally, memes revise to address the local conditions of their authors while opening themselves to readings flung far from those conditions.

     Designing assignments that ask students to treat the memes that wash across their screens as serious multimodal texts with global impact is a way to facilitate this. For example, when teaching textual analysis, instructors can ask students to:

  • analyze memes as multimodal texts, using the New London Group’s (1996) model for linguistic, visual, spatial, gestural, and aural (in the case of videos or songs/jingles) modalities (see Arola, Ball, and Sheppard 2014)
  • examine the rhetorical situation, audience, purpose, context, genre of a memetic text in the context in which they find it (see Arola, Ball, and Sheppard 2014)
  • examine design elements (emphasis, contrast, alignment, proximity, and organization) (see Arola, Ball, and Sheppard 2014)
  • research the history or lore of the meme, being aware it may have multiple “origins”
  • check the rhetorical situation, audience, purpose, context, and genre of any texts that were poached or remixed in the making of a memetic text as a part of the process of determining how it was meant to be taken/read
  • examine adjacent content and design to determine context of the meme’s delivery
  • discover implicit arguments through the analysis of the modalities and design elements used in constructing the meme
  • examine how context can provide ways to uncover racist, sexist, or xenophobic meanings coded into the construction of memes or their responses
  • research the cultural meanings of memes depending on the context in which it is found, and infer how readings might change as memes traverse social, political, and cultural boundaries
  • research and analyze reactions to memes on social media sites and others delivery contexts

     After analysis, or as a part of process of analysis itself, a student could create their own meme as a response to the argument discovered through analysis using remix and write a reflection on their own choices as they relate to rhetorical features such as rhetorical situation, audience, purpose, genre, design elements, and argument. This is a fun and creative yet intellectually rigorous assignment that engages students on many levels.

Cross-cultural meme

Cross-Cultural Perspectives as Teaching/Learning Tools – Soni Adhikari

     Using global or cross-cultural texts and research can help us educate students about the larger world and foster respect and empathy toward people in other places. But as a teacher, I find this approach useful for improving student writing about local issues as well.

     Recently, a student started his research assignment by arguing that media censorship severs a critical bond between the government and people, creating distrust and dissatisfaction in any democracy. While this was a good thesis, I also found it utterly obvious, requiring no “persuasion” as a result. When talking to him, I realized that the student had assumed the American context and discourse to be universally relevant. So, I gave him the example of how Internet news sites and social media caused panic and chaos in Nepal during a major earthquake recently. This encouraged him to research what countries already have regulations for situations like that and learned about different political ideologies and cultural values regarding “freedom of speech” and also about weaknesses in prevailing assumptions in the United States.

     The revised introduction of the student’s paper read something like this: Our media has become increasingly partisan, driven by profit motive, irresponsible about informing/educating people. … As such, in extreme situations, reasonable regulations could prevent potential crises and alleviate social harm. …. a reliable government agency could be useful in holding any corrupt and irresponsible media accountable when they spread blatantly false or harmful “news” and opinion. It could help the society to prevent panic and fear, harm to children or vulnerable groups, and disruption of general social harmony.

     While the student continued to focus on the US context, he greatly improved his argument by questioning (rather than embracing) mainstream assumption and problematizing it to take a unique position of his own, giving evidence from other contexts and discourses. He also found it easier to write the paper, which was more interesting and persuasive to read.

Literature Across Time and Space – Kevin Clouther

     Very little literary fiction and poetry in the United States is published in translation, perhaps less than one percent. As such, it is not uncommon to encounter undergraduates who have read little that was not originally published in their native language. As I teach a fairly traditional syllabus with most of my texts consisting of written works, I deliberately select literature from different languages and periods, so as to expose students to writing from across the world over the last three centuries. Invariably, students discover that while the experiences–loss, longing, love, etc.–are familiar, the circumstances are different. Magicians like Chekhov who are able to inhabit different ages, genders, and classes are particularly effective teachers.

     I find that the translator one selects is enormously important, so I make an effort to sample different translators for the same author and read interviews with translators, wherein they discuss their process. One exercise I enjoy is having each student write a sentence in a language other than English and then walk the class through the translation with careful attention to each decision. The following is a sampling of authors and translators I have had success teaching in the PWR. I would be happy to discuss any of these authors and translators with anyone who is interested. I would also be happy to hear what other authors and translators, like our own Rita Nezami, our instructors teach.

Italo Calvino, trans. William Weaver (Italian)

Anton Chekhov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Russian)

Gustave Flaubert, trans. Lydia Davis (French)

Franz Kafka, trans. Susan Bernofsky (German)

Clarice Lispector, trans. Katrina Dodson (Portuguese)

Alexander Pushkin, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Russian)

Ivan Turgenev, trans. Constance Garnett (Russian)

Alejandro Zambra, trans. Megan McDowell (Spanish)

Activities and Assignments – Shyam Sharma

     Transnational and global issues have become extremely popular in Writing Studies, but the field is yet to develop a good repertoire of pedagogical strategies and practices. Here are assignments, activities, and resources that I use in my class (some are recycled from a two-part essay I wrote for Transnational Writing, a special interest group at CCCC).

Image-Searching “Universal” Ideas— Students google words like “beauty” and toggle to “image,” then discuss issues like internet’s representation of ideas, how context and ideology shape meaning, values/problems of semantic algorithm, etc. In one course, students follow up with short essays.

Words, Idioms, world Englishes— To foster critical language awareness, I use untranslatable words, hilarious failures of machine translation, and communicative misfires in movies to help students discuss usage, appropriateness, political correctness, etc, in different cultures and contexts.

Assignment: Academic Transition Narratives— International and domestic students write about transitioning US and to college respectively, then share the stories to discuss issues about and approaches to education.

Research Paper on Global Issues— For the research argument essay in WRT102, I require students to research/write about global issues (on topics like these) or use transnational/cultural perspectives. I’ve written more about the issue here.

Multimodal Group Assignment— Students interested in related issues form groups to research, write, and present their findings using collaboratively created multimodal material.

Discussion Essay— Students write about contested issues “without” taking a position but instead using different national, cultural, contextual perspectives. This is based on the ancient South Asian rhetorical tradition of Nyaya Sutra (rhetoric of justice).

Peer Feedback— I ask students to focus on translingual, transcultural, and transnational issues and perspectives—and NOT on lower-order concerns—when reading each other’s work. I provide rubric to foreground cultural perspectives, complexity, nuance.

Conclusion

     The field of writing studies is probably a little behind in responding to the globalization of the classroom and the need to update the mission of traditional liberal arts to the demands of our time. But the last few years have shown rapid response in our national conferences, research and scholarship, and local/departmental conversations. Coming together to share our experiences and ideas, we have realized that PWR has started to very productively respond to diversification of the student body, increase of international students, exposure of all students to other cultures and global issues due to emerging media, increasing number of issues that demand global response, and the response of higher education in the United States to changing geopolitical dynamics.

     As the teaching strategies and experiences we’ve shared above indicate, there are many benefits of helping students go beyond local contexts, issues, and perspectives. Some of those benefits include (1) educational in that students learn about ongoing issues in the world and learn to care about the world at large, becoming more respectful of others and different value systems, (2) epistemological in that they are able to generate more sophisticated ideas, arguments, and perspectives by not taking the local contexts and values for granted, considering them as universally relevant, (3) political in that they may start taking action, intellectually and physically, toward helping tackle problems that cross political and national borders, (4) sociocultural in that they develop the ability to communicate and work with people of different backgrounds and persuasions, and (5) professional in that they develop practical skills to join an increasingly diversified and globalized workforce, in both physical and virtual modes, and whether they cross national borders or not. In fact, research in multilingualism and cross-cultural communication also shows that people are mentally healthier when they are able to cross linguistic, social, cultural, and political borders.

     Given that engaging the global is necessary and beneficial in education, how can we enhance this component in our curriculum/pedagogy and mission? How can we make our work in this area more visible on campus? What are some of the specific teaching strategies that you use in your classes?

Please share in the comments below. If you want to add teaching materials to this conversation, please email them to us and we can add to the shared Google Folder, whose link we’ve shared on our listserv.

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“The Island of Jiji” by Shyam Sharma

Join Shyam Sharma as he takes us on a riveting journey through the Ocean of Cross-Cultural Perspectives to the Island of Jiji!

The first semester of my teaching in the United States, about a decade ago in Kentucky, one student wrote an essay arguing, essentially, that the United Nations is an inefficient organization run by corrupt foreigners. After supporting this claim by citing various dubious sources, including articles from conspiracy theory websites, he proposed that the US take over and unilaterally run that place instead. I found the paper so shocking that I wondered if the writer had a psychological problem, so I went to the director of the program for advice! It turned out that among people embracing a certain political ideology in this country, the student’s argument could be just a logical solution to a genuine problem. I learned a good lesson.

        Since the following semester, I’ve been requiring students in most writing courses to research and write about global issues in at least one assignment. Doing this has generally helped my students think outside the box, generate more original ideas and arguments, and get excited about both writing and learning about the issues.

An "artist's" crude rendering of the Island of Jiji, located in the Ocean of Cross-Cultural Perspectives

An “artist’s” crude rendering of the Island of Jiji, located in the Ocean of Cross-Cultural Perspectives

Logical Isn’t Enough

However, I have also learned the hard way that requiring students to write about global or non-local issues does not necessarily help them develop intellectually and ethically sound arguments. Every year, even after lectures and samples and analysis and workshops, I have a few first drafts that make arguments like the following: 1) We can only eliminate human trafficking by eliminating poverty considering that people in “backward countries” resort to selling their children due to extreme poverty, 2) “We” can help people in developing nations replace their outdated technologies so that they can leapfrog into the twenty-first century, 3) Child labor remains a global problem so it is time that we make it illegal everywhere, 4) Europeans have successfully passed laws for GMO labeling because emotion trumped science in their debates; we should ensure that science prevails in America, 5) Gender bias based on traditional cultures has prevented education from empowering women in Africa. . . ., 6) The best way to address the shortage of human organs for transplant is to legalize and ease the organ market.

        While some arguments are outright offensive (like #1 above, for its many assumptions and condescension), others fail basic tests of critical thinking and research. For example, when I asked the student writing about “technological leapfrogging in rural India” to find out whether, how, why, and when farmers there would use cell phones for marketing produce and wifi-based systems of irrigation as he was proposing, he found out that technology has actually created staggering disadvantages for farmers there: financialization of agriculture and technological disadvantages in relation to industrial farming and tech-savvy middlemen have, among other things, aggravated the problem of farmers committing suicide in rural India. The student writing about child labor found out that the very definition of “child” and “labor” depends on specific countries, societies, and cultures, so solutions must consider political and economic variables in different places. Likewise, the student writing about GMO labeling, when challenged to study opposing and different perspectives, found out that those who demand that their food be labeled were not just ignorant: “the science” itself was entangled in politics and power, as well as different local dynamics. And, the student writing about women in Africa found that traditional cultures have been the basis of more effective methods for empowering women than modern education.

What Jijians Might Say

One of the strategies that I use for highlighting the importance of considering different perspectives and grounding arguments in different or original contexts is to use the image of the Island of Jiji. In the context of child labor argument, I tell my students that on this peculiar island nation, people have to be 26 years to be legally and culturally considered adult. As such, the people of Jiji are shocked to find out that child labor continues in the US, with children between 18 and 25 years work, often under harsh conditions. In other contexts, I bring up the Jijians to say that they don’t always measure social progress in economic and financial terms. In yet others, I tell students that Jijians use different kinds of technologies to tackle their social challenges than we do. Whenever we make arguments involving Jijians, say, about their notion of gender and power relationship, we must study the subject in the Jijian context, taking their perspective seriously. Unlike Martians, I emphasize, Jijians are quite like us—just that their material, political, and social/cultural conditions, and therefore their thinking, may be different at this time.

        “Always think about the Island of Jiji,” I remind my students, “if you think you’re about to generalize, stereotype, or idealize others, or if you’re assuming that your argument is universally valid.” The society in this imaginary nation is not only very different from ours, it is also extremely diverse (with the many cultures and contexts among its islands) within it. And, we should learn about Jiji not only because we want to be informed and empathetic about places like this beyond our borders; learning about that society can also help us better understand our own complex local issues with better perspectives and nuance. Think of the Island of Jiji as an intellectual and ethical mirror. 

        When students make ethically weak arguments, I assume that those arguments come out of sympathy, moral outrage, naivete, or the “curse of knowledge” (it’s hard to think outside of what we know). But I also challenge and show them how to go beyond feel-good, liberal-minded, and humane-seeming claims that only work in their local context into arguments that remain logical and ethical when viewed from the perspectives of people in other countries and cultures. For example, one student argued that “population control” is a despicable policy used by racist or dictatorial governments to avoid their responsibility toward poor people; while this may be true in some countries, people in others view access to family planning resources as critical to economic empowerment of poor families and especially women. So, researching how the same issue is understood and applied and how it has historically evolved in different countries or cultures helped the student make his argument more multidimensional and nuanced.

Pitfalls of the Global

The terms “global” and “transnational” have become extremely popular in the field of writing and rhetoric, as well as across US academe in general. But if we do not teach students critical and ethical thinking skills that can cross national and cultural borders, we will inadvertently reinforce “globalist” thinking in the name of broadening the horizons of knowledge. We all know people who seem to become all the more parochial in their worldview after traveling and learning about the world; the more they learn about others, they more they seem to be convinced that their society, culture, and beliefs are (or should be) the ideal, the basis of universal norms. That is not the kind of global citizens we want our students to be.

        More importantly, it is not only when writing about “others” that our students need to study the context, understand different aspects of the problem, and use different perspectives. In a world where nations and people are increasingly interconnected and interdependent, even the most pragmatic and logical arguments within their own local/national context can dramatically collapse if students ignore transnational/global influences. Let’s take the case of the student who argued that the critical shortage of human organs for transplant in the United States can be overcome if the organs market is legalized. While the student considered ethical and moral dilemmas quite well, he ignored the already alarming international black market, large criminal networks in countries like India, and so on, in the same articles and news items that he cited in his draft. He told me that he wanted to rebut the ethical arguments by saying that a legal market would save more lives than it harms, but when it came to the cross-border aspect of the issue, he avoided highlighting the severity of the problem because doing so could undermine his central argument, which was that there is a global solution to a national problem. He implied that even if the legal market straddles international borders, that would create a win-win situation: while poor people out there would be able to earn money and live a better life if their countries can tackle crimes, American patients who have the money but need organs could survive. He didn’t realize that the “solution” was very jingoistic.

What We Need Is Ethical Rhetoric

The above argument sounds logical in some ways, but on closer inspection, it only shows that the student failed to think about “others” like he thinks about himself and his fellow citizens. Consequently, foreigners, poor people, etc, didn’t deserve the same human dignity of not having to sell their body parts to whoever has the money in order to make a living. Until students learn to switch places with “others” beyond national borders, they cannot really think ethically as citizens of the world. We can only achieve our objective of fostering global citizenship toward a more just world by teaching about/with global issues and transnational/cross-cultural perspectives when our students can envision themselves being citizens of anyplace–such as the imaginary islands of Jiji–whose power and privilege, language and culture, nation and identity, education and values are only one kind among many and must exist and thrive alongside others in the world.

        “If you want to make your argument logically and ethically sound,” I tell my students, “imagine that you are on the island of Jiji and your ideas must be logical and ethical to people beyond your horizons.”

Shyam Sharma is an assistant professor in Stony Brook University’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric. Click here for more information about his writing, research, and further teaching experiences!

Posted in Rhetoric, Student Writing, Teaching Anecdotes, Teaching Tips, Teaching Writing, Writing & Rhetoric | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pacing Grading Pacing – Tricks and Tips on How to Organize and Manage Grading Papers

Ahhh…the fall… Colorful leaves, crisp breezes, pumpkin-spice everything. These seasonal wonders might not be fully upon us yet, but never mind that “autumn” doesn’t officially begin until September 22. For most intents and purposes, the summer, sadly, is over.

As if the inevitable temperature decrease isn’t souring enough, the looming workload of grading papers is nigh as well. But there’s hope, well, maybe more “madness management” than anything else. But perhaps together we can share some ways that we find ourselves most efficient, effective, and sane at handling the stacks of essays lest they start to feel like heaps of fallen leaves waiting to be carried off in a sack.

fall_leaves
They’re certainly different in color…

white-papers-in-disaray
…though they weigh about the same in a bag

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Different papers require different modes of attention based on their genre, page length, goals, etc. Assessing a personal essay, for example, requires a different mindset and attention to different details than say an argumentative research assignment.

 

I’m still not entirely sure how to best organize my own schedule of grading papers based on the different assignment type, though one technique I’ve found that helps to break up the monotony regardless is to intersperse “good reading” or perhaps more appropriately, “polished work”.

What I mean by this is that often if I’m grading, say, a slew of personal essays, I’ll take a break in-between papers to read a page of two from a finely crafted fiction novel. The power of consistent, already elevated writing seems to help recalibrate me before moving on to the next first draft paper. Not only that, but I’m able to continue reading for leisure throughout the semester – a valuable hobby when one’s time, and perhaps sanity, is on the line.

This is just one technique to managing paper grading. I wonder what some others are? Some questions to answer (please share your own tips and tricks in the comments below!):

  • What do you read while you grade? How? Why? When? If you don’t, then why not?
  • Do you read different types of texts based on what assignments you’re grading?
  • Any specific texts you recommend to your fellow graders?
  • Other ideas, questions, or suggestions?
  • Links to other relevant materials regarding this topic?
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Advanced(A) Placement(P) City

by Joe Labriola

This article was originally posted in  JOE LABRIOLA’S OFFICIAL BLOG.

*A narrative account and reflection upon my trip to Kansas City, MO as a 2016 Advanced Placement Exam Reader. Interested educators and creative non-fiction fans alike enjoy!*

I’m not bothering with coffee because I’m not sure that coffee will bother with me. The rising bloom of blinding gold and simmering red over the woodsy hills outside the windows of Kansas City International Airport is more than enough rousing illumination to keep me chugging along. That is, after all, what myself and thousands of others have been doing for the past seven days at the 2016 AP Exam Reading – and via much caffeine.

When I first heard about this opportunity, my interest was roused, along with my caution. A week long, nearly all expensive paid trip to Kansas City? The plausibility of reading over a thousand AP English Language and Composition exams day after day after day etcetera?

I’m not a particularly prolific reader, despite all the reading I have to do as a college instructor. I like to take my time, to absorb, to appreciate, and to reflect upon what someone – for better or worse – spent time and energy to get in front of me. I knew going in that this would not be the case – that these readings would be long, grueling, and fast-paced. This certainly sounded like a unique experience though – and hopefully, adventure too.

With all these factors in mind (and the contractual promise of a sizable stipend for my week’s work) I applied, and was accepted, to join the yearly mass migration of educators to assess the college-level skills of America’s high schoolers.

The plane was a narrow, cramped affair: one aisle, a pair of seats on each side. The wide man in-front of me might have shaken on the tubular craft’s fasten seatbelts symbol if he had sneezed with too much commitment. Trying to calm my queasy nerves as the craft bobbed higher and higher I wondered, glancing around, who else might be headed to the AP reading? Like Lost the teacher’s spin-off edition, I imagined that some of the passengers were secretly teachers or professors – myself among them, waiting to reveal my true identity when we landed in a city of academics, drawn there by the common yet mysterious cause of advanced placement judgement.

It turned out that a spattering of passengers were in fact flying to KC for the great grading. But they were soon lost – mixed among the mire of others from all over the country who gathered around a handful of AP reading greeters near the baggage claim. Luggage in hand, I finally squeezed my way up to a lady with a folder who asked for my name, which I gave. In turn, another greeter gave me a green sticker, which was, as he told me, “Color-coded for your hotel,” adding, “You’ll be staying at the Westin.”

I followed the confused throng of now bag-stickered newcomers outside into the flat middle-country heat, pretty much sweating the second my skin met the dry light of the unobscured sun above. There seemed to be little order despite the well-intentioned efforts of the clipboard-waving and literally blue-collared young man trying to organize lines and coordinate the great shuttle buses that would turn out to be our mode of transport for the next week to and from our hotels and the Convention Center.

Part of the problem was that these buses just happened to have red, blue, and yellow logos painted on their otherwise black bodies, prompting many of the readers to assume that their colored luggage sticker dictated which logo-colored bus they should board. As the panting blue-collared fellow finally declared, however, all of the buses were going to all of the hotels, and so with that small yet relevant revelation, I jumped on-board the nearest one, plopped my backpack in my lap, and began to read in order to pass the ride from the airport to the city.

We were only on the road for about a minute when some small, subconscious awareness within me piped up, asking, What in the hell am I doing? Travel reading was for New York City subways and long landscapes that changed little after the first hour or so of hopeful observation. But this would merely be a twenty or so minute ride into downtown Kansas City – and a ride that I very likely might not ever make again. As such, I packed my book away and turned to gaze at the passing of America’s proverbial heartland.

I’m glad I did. The Missouri countryside and suburbs seemed familiar yet foreign and beautiful at the same time. Strip-malls, billboards, rolling hills and woodsy ranges were about what I had expected to find. Strangely, it was the sky that captured my attention. This somehow seemed broader, grander than what I was used to back home. The clouds rose white and crispy gold from their shadowy bottoms, almost as if baked into bloom by the swollen sun above. We quickly came parallel to the Missouri River, which flowed bright and dark brown all at the same time – like Oregon Trail, the game, brought to life. The city now dominated the skyline ahead, across a white bridge spanning the wide waters.

We rolled right into the city. There was little traffic and even fewer people, which seemed odd given the surprising abundance of tall, near-skyscrapers. Many of the older, stouter buildings were stacked from rusty red bricks of the late 19th century – a gold rush looking metropolis now a century or so beyond its original glory. We continued south from the Crossroads District, over a railway bridge, and down to Crown Center to an idle stop in front of the Westin.

The check-in line snaked through the otherwise comfortably large hotel lobby, bending around a hallway corner and continuing down the crimson-carpeted corridor almost to the emergency exit at the end. Apparently this was not typical protocol, as a pair of graders waiting on line mentioned that last year hadn’t been anything like this.

After about forty minutes of stop and go, I reached the glorious help desk and gave my information.

“It looks like you’re already checked in,” the concierge said, much to my surprise.

“That’s funny,” I said, confused as to what in the hell the man behind the counter meant, or what explanation he expected me to give him. “I don’t remember checking in until just now.”

“Oh, I think it’s actually your roommate, Robert.”

“Ah, I see. That makes more sense.”

I had no idea that I even had a roommate until this moment, though I had assumed that the algorithms behind the scenes were likely to pair me with someone. Apparently this someone was Robert.

With my room cards in hand, I headed up to meet my chamber companion for the next week. Robert wasn’t there, but evidence of him was: a navy blue baseball hat on the desk, some worn white sneakers under the chair, and so on. I unpacked and then took a moment to slide back the blackout curtains shielding the windowed wall of our room from the nearly 100 degree heat outside. I saw this:

viewcity
As I stood there gazing upon the picturesque skyline, I realized that I had no idea what came next. The itinerary on the website had merely said for us to meet our greeter at the airport and check into our hotel rooms. Orientation didn’t begin until the next morning, but I figured it might not be a bad idea to check out the Kansas City Convention Center where I would be spending much of the following week grading.

The shuttle buses were prompt, one leaving every 15 minutes or so. I explored the Convention Center for a while, gaining both my ‘credentials badge’ and some useful tourist brochures and maps in the process. I did some further exploring within the sprawling complex back at the hotel (which was attached to a three story mall), but before long it was time to shower and go to bed – though not without finally meeting my so far elusive roommate, Robert.

I had spoken with a handful of AP readers while waiting in various lines, the bus, and in the lobby bar so far. They had all seemed congenial enough, but nothing like Bob (as he told me to call him), who sat next to his bed sipping from a freshly poured glass ofTalisker 10 Years Old. “Have a glass,” he kindly offered  as we exchanged pleasantries, to which I gladly responded, “Thanks, Bob. Don’t mind if I do!”

Turned out Bob was a seasoned AP reading vet. “My first reading was in ’79,” he told me. “It’s grown a great deal since then.”

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself paired with such a genuinely kind and experienced roommate. I had worried that I might be lotteried in with a party animal, or weirdo, or a weirdo party animal – as some had been, at least according to their accounts. More shocking was the realization that was the young gun who was innately determined to go to bed and wake up as late as practically possible.

Fortunately for me, I awoke the next morning to the scent – and sight – of freshly brewed coffee on my night stand. “Coffee’s ready,” Bob said, rolling up his sleeves, already dressed and ready to go. “You probably want to catch the bus by 7:15 if you want time for breakfast.”

Bob, as if through some natural paternal instinct, had not only gotten up in time to make sure I wouldn’t be late, but provided me with the caffeinated fuel to get going every dawn. I did have my alarm set, but why bother when I could opt for such consistent and comfortable personal wake up service? When he asked toward the end of our trip how in the world I got up in time back home, I answered that this was one of my girlfriend’s many jobs – and so thank goodness he was here.

The first morning of the AP reading is very much a confused herd shifting about en vague route to their designated grading areas. There had been a subdued sort of freak out among the English Language readers (the exam I was grading) the day before due to our question (and table) numbers having yet to be assigned on the white poster boards near the check-in tables like the others exams (statistics, biology, and so on). Initially, I didn’t understand the concern. The board had our question assignments now (number two for me), though as I came to learn through my own experience, the ‘freak out’ was perhaps more of a psychological than practical reaction, as we would become married to our questions for the next seven days.

The orientation herd gathered in one of the Convention Center’s football stadium sized arenas with its concrete floor and metal-beamed arched ceiling. After a brief greeting by the AP Big-Whig we were shepherded toward our designated question sites. The arena was subdivided by tall steel poles with blue blanket-curtains draped between them, creating a sort of semi-permeable barrier between each section. Question two’s camp was pitched in the far back right where I found my assigned table as well as grading coworkers for the next week.

Most of my fellow table readers were veterans of varying years of service, but even then I was among a pair of other newbys out of the eight of us total. The first half of day one is mainly about ‘calibration’ – essentially you’re given the grading rubric (scaled from 0-9, zero being an unrelated response to the question prompt and nine being “especially sophisticated” even if not perfect) and practice responses to assess and discuss where and why they fall wherever they do within said rubric.

There was certainly some interesting discussions about this grading process – some of us being from university and seemingly many more from high school. I overheard more than once (in fact, I believe they declared it themselves during orientation) that the AP reading was the best professional development experience in the industry. As such, I was eager to learn about others’ pedagogues, lesson plans, and further tricks and tips of the trade.

While I definitely exchanged some useful assessment guidelines with my tablemates, our job was to conform to the rubric given, which we did and were thankful to have come about essay 200 out of at least a thousand.

Overall they did a great job breaking up the monotony of grading for 8 hours a day, given the rigid nature of the whole process. My daily schedule more or less went as such:

  • Bob wake up coffee 6:30am
  • Breakfast 7am-8am;
  • Grading 8am-10:15am
    • Mini-break 10:15am-10:30am
  • Grading 10:30am-12:15pm
  • Lunch 12:15pm-1:15pm
    • Mini-break 3:15pm-3:30pm
  • Dinner 5:00pm-6:00pm
    • Complementary Bob Scotch 6:15pm
  • Professional development lectures, events, readings, etc./party-time/exploring 6:30pm-11:30pm

There were also briefer ‘stretch’ breaks scattered throughout the week, at least until the last day when we, according to the Big-Whig who came to our blue-curtained corner to declare to us, “fell behind schedule,” which seemed strange, given the fact that I had doubled my daily grading output from the first day to the final one, as had many others whom I’d spoken with. Then again, we were merely among many hundreds grading many thousands of exams.

The table leaders and question leader for their parts did all they could to keep us encouraged and going. Our question leader was particularly lauding, at least until it was time to, as she would declare when returned from breaks, go “back on your heads.”

It wasn’t until the third day or so that she finally revealed what this strange phrase really meant. Each question leader had a bell or whistle or squeaky duck to alert their readers’ attention, to call for us to put on our black headsets to listen to their orders, instructions, guidance, etc. – which we were glad to do amidst the prospect of diving back into yet another hour or two of uninterrupted, factoryesque grading. “I realize I haven’t explained what this really means,” she said, referring to her return-to-work phrase – and oh, how her explanation became an apt summary of the AP reading experience. The joke went (more or less) like this:

There’s this man, a very bad man. He lives his whole life by cheating and swindling and stealing from others, causing them to suffer and fail and end up dwelling in abject misery while he prospers. One day he gets hit by a bus while crossing the street on his way to work and dies. He wakes up in hell where he meets the devil.

The devil tells him that he has three choices, or doors rather, to spend all of eternity behind. He must choose one – a fair offer given all of this bad man’s various misdeeds throughout life. He sighs, resigned to his fate. He knows how rotten he’s been and that he now must pay his dues and so he asks to see what’s behind the first door. The devil opens it to reveal an endless room full of people doing headstands on wooden planks. “That doesn’t look took too comfortable,” the man says after observing their discomfort for a brief moment. “Let’s see door two.”

The devil shows him the next room, another endless chamber full of people doing headstands again, but this time on concrete slabs instead. They indeed seem unhappy, groaning and sweating just like the last sorry bunch. “Ouch, poor fools. That doesn’t seem much better! Let’s try number three.”

The final door reveals a sea of people standing upright, which pleases the bad man, except for the fact that they’re all nearly waist deep in excrement. Yet despite this fact they seem to be having a great time, chatting and laughing and frolicking as much as their circumstances will allow. The bad man comes to a relatively quick decision. “Well, it’s not ideal, but I think I’m gonna have to go with the third door here.”

The devil, without hesitation, nods and declares, “Alright then, in you go.”

The bad man enters to join his forever brethren as the door closes behind him. He’s hardly introduced himself to his neighbors when he hears a knock on the door, which opens once more to reveal the devil. “Alright, break’s over,” the devil says, grinning. “Back on your heads.”

I spent the first couple of nights trying to acclimate to my surroundings, mostly enjoying the hotel gym and pool as captured in stunning detail here:

pool

There was also a ‘mixer’ the first evening back at the Convention Center. The first face that greeted me upon entering was none other than Bob. “Have a free drink card,” he said, smiling. “Here, take another; I have plenty.”

I also met some very interesting folk at the hotel bar – other readers from all over the country: California, Texas, Iowa, Michigan, and Montana to name a few. It wasn’t until the third night or so that I set out by myself, having previously been wary of the lack of pedestrians on any given night. In New York there’s a natural inclination to avoid strolling down empty city streets, especially when they feel as if they should be packed with people out to party.

But as I soon learned Kansas City was a different sort of place, in many ways a lonely place. Not the residents (the few I ran into and talked with at least), but the buildings – many of which were foreclosed or for rent or in mid-construction. Granted, we spent most our time in the south side of the city, but even then there were afternoons when I wondered if a zombie apocalypse had struck the nation, unbeknownst to us amidst our timeless marathon grading sessions.

But it was safe, once I realized that there were few people to cause life here to beunsafe. The question then became what to do with the little time left for entertainment and frolicking? There were plenty of AP organized events, but the workday left us exhausted both mentally and physically, hardly wanting to remain at the Convention Center when there was a whole city to explore.

There’s a great deal of small talk at the reading, especially in the buffet dining hall. It’s a great way to meet some fascinating and like-minded intellectuals, but also a crapshoot that might place you at a table surrounded by bleak-staring statistics readers, who always seem to be smirking even when they’re not asking their scripted conversation starters. One must wonder if we’d all have to suffer through so many mundane and awkward exchanges had the food been better, and thus mouths fuller. But such is buffet style on a mass scale.

Luckily at one dinner another fellow English Language reader, and writer, who by crapshoot’s chance had sat down at my own randomly selected table, saved the day by asking if anyone wanted to go see Shakespeare’s First Folio. Not so shockingly, the statistics folk remained unphased, but I gladly volunteered to join.

This might have been the best decision of the trip, as I found not only a fellow literature nerd, but a talented poet and friend. By the next night we were conducting our own little poetry writing club in the hotel lobby, exchanging ideas, works, and even press information. This accounted me as one of the lucky ones.

By the last day I still noticed many readers sitting silent (and perhaps a little sullen) during mealtimes. In retrospect this is one of the few places of oversight where it felt as if the AP reading program had failed. With such little time to find friends and organize adventures, a bit more effort could go a long way in bringing together those who share common interests. A bit more advertising and organization of the opening night mixer, for example, could have helped these groups find each other more easily and quickly. Or maybe simply an online forum to start our own interests outreach efforts?

I don’t mean to sound critical, but this is an especially valid critique of the reading week when one recalls the fact of how little time there was to ‘go out on the town’. Granted we were there for a job, but an hour of leisure extra a day or even a ‘break day’ in the middle could go a long way to retaining readers – if that’s something that the program is truly interested in doing. Most whom I spoke with plan to return next year – newbys and veterans alike. But the fatigue was palpable, and given the vast number of new readers I myself spoke with, I could easily see why so many end up not returning for one reason or several.

I might not have gotten to see and do everything I wanted to in KC, but I did get most of my traveler’s goals in. For that, I count the whole experience as a success (despite the fact that by day five I was starting to see Reagan’s name (see question #2) within the swirling marble patterns of the restroom floor). As a self-proclaimed ‘fraudetarian’ I took this work-cation as an opportunity to indulge in what I had heard was a distinct brand of Kansas City barbecue. I saw one of a kind art and heard live jazz. And I learned a thing or two about the world, realizations that I might otherwise not have gained had I hunkered down back home within my regular routine for another week instead. Some of these facts:

  • The phrase “shittin’ in high cotton” is a Texas-based colloquialism used to describe someone who is “doing well” in one or more aspects of their life.
  • If you see something on a menu along the lines of “burnt-ends”, try it.
  • What constitutes as “traffic” is far from a universally consistent concept.
  • Pizza can be done well in other parts of the country, but it still just doesn’t taste like home.
  • People in public snapchat stupid shit everywhere.
  • Don’t order the marlin if you’re a thousand miles from the nearest ocean.
  • Californians and New Yorkers (myself being raised within the latter fold) sound pretty much about the same; everyone else either sounds ‘Mid-western’ or at least speaks with some variation of what I’ll generalize as a ‘Mid-land’ accent.
  • Everyone compared to me walks painfully slow. This again may be another NY phenomenon. But regardless I could swear there were people who left the grading arena before me and didn’t sit down with their meals in the dining hall until I was wiping away my last bite.

As far as the actual grading process, it was truly a mental slog – though the relief when we dropped our pencils on that last day also brought an exhilarating sense of pride and accomplishment. And it seemed based on our output that we would be asked by the powers-that-be to return for next year’s grading.

But would we choose to come back even if we were offered to? As utterly exhausted as I am, even now about to board my flight back home, even as I was all week up until the end of the reading, the answer seemed obvious.

“Well, at least I know the city well enough now to see everything I want to next time,” I mentioned to one of my fellow readers, who to my surprise chuckled.

“You’ll have to come back here on your own then,” he said, yawning. “Next year’s in Tampa.”

Thanks for reading my account of this incredible event. Please feel free to ask any questions regarding further specifics about in the comments below! And again, you can also view the rest of my photos here!

Posted in Student Writing, Teaching Anecdotes, Teaching Writing, Writing & Rhetoric | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Online teaching: the good, the bad, the promise and the peril

Online classes are increasingly popular with students because of the untethering they offer from both classroom and campus and increasingly popular with administrations because $$$. What about the professors teaching these classes? What do they think and feel about this growing medium? I spoke with four Stony Brook professors who’ve all taught online to learn what they’ve noted about their experiences and their students’, and what their hopes and qualms are going forward.

Deborah Heckert has taught in Stony Brook’s music and writing departments as well as several other universities and has taught a music appreciation course online the past few years. For nearly 18 years Cynthia Davidson has taught the gamut: traditional, computer-immersive, and online classes. Becky Goldberg is a veteran of both the theatre department and the writing department and has both taught and taken online classes. In addition to her years teaching traditional writing classes, Carolyn Sofia has taught online the past two summers and will be again this summer.

 

What were some of the first steps you took when designing your online course?

CS: “The first thing I did was Continue reading

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Visual Rhetoric, Visual Argument: Reading Images Responsibly by Rita S. Nezami

 

child looking out window

“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.”
John Berger, Ways of Seeing

 

The power of visual rhetoric is monumental. An image can often have a greater impact on an audience than a written text. Visual images, like written texts, are rhetorical. That is, they possess both a way of representing and carrying representational content. As we are increasingly surrounded by images, it is important for us to critically analyze both their rhetoric and content. My concern in these notes is to suggest a way of teaching visual rhetoric with first-year composition students. Let me begin with a gloss of the problem that our students confront.

I want to argue that they live in an essentially deceptive and manipulative culture: advertisers and politicians and every message sender with an agenda assume that our students process images less carefully and more reflexively than written texts, that they scrutinize them less critically because they can’t penetrate their surfaces. Ironically, this army of communicators counts on inundation and numbness to do the work of rendering their signs and symbols powerful. They’re there on the screen, and then they’re gone. No freshman at an American university can think about one image and its contents before it is replaced by a dozen more. Propagandists of all stripes know this and craft their images to appeal to the comfort of young humans’ short attention spans.

Consider the world into which our students awaken: There’s the TV, the Web, smart phones, messaging, Tweeting, Facebooking, WhatsApping, e-mailing, and all the rest of it. Most of the images in this media cloud make an explicit or implicit argument. They want us to believe in, do, or respond to something; they want us to vote for someone, watch a show, drive a specific car, dress in a designer’s clothes, drink an amazing craft beer, eat some joint’s outrageous burgers, and, generally speaking, just buy something as soon as possible.

overload

One of my goals in working with students on visual rhetoric is to help them see that they are forced into an intellectually defensive position just by living in this culture, unless they regard blatant manipulation as an acceptable way to be in the world, and I reject that proposition. So, what is to be done in the composition classroom where both teachers and students are puzzling over how to proceed? Just this: we as compositionists have an obligation to ourselves, our students, and the integrity of our role in the culture to analyze, evaluate, and critique the images that inundate us. The question becomes how. Continue reading

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Motion + Creation + College Writing = Real-World Relevance: Jessica Hautsch & Writing Students Writing Grammar Skits

In what I hope is the first part of an eventually recurring series, we’re looking at an exercise created by a professor for the classroom. Today we’re talking to Jessica Hautsch, a writing professor at Stony Brook University, to discuss having students write and perform grammar skits.

fordham

Hautsch earned her Master’s in Literature from Fordham four years ago. She started teaching at Stony Brook as an EOP supplemental instructor before working in EOP’s Summer Academy and teaching AIM 102 (Expository Writing) and AIM 104 (Literary Analysis and Critical Thinking). Like many teachers, she initially found herself teaching her students as if they were the type of student she had been.

“I imagined I had a class full of me’s,” Hautsch says. She was “assigning six-page essays like it [was] nothing. Students [found] this terrifying,” as this was often “the longest paper [they’d] ever written.” This realization led her to give shorter assignments while thinking of how to yoke shorter-form work with more targeted content. The grammar skits are one outgrowth of this, the seeds of which go back to her graduate studies, where in Ken Lindblom’s class she read Nancy Steineke’s 10 Real-Time Ways for Kids to Show What They Know– and Meet the Standards.

“Kinesthetic appeal was part of initial inspiration,” Hautsch says. Having students physically active while learning appealed to her because of research showing kinesthetic and performance activities “help boost retention and engagement.” This explains the pedagogical appeal of the performative aspect of the assignment: with student-created work, particularly work published and shared within the public space of a classroom, the stakes are inherently raised and emotions are automatically involved. Rather than telling the students why the work matters, or hoping they care or come to care, the personal (and shared) nature of the work means investment is intrinsic.
Promoting self-interest to college-aged humans can be like shooting fish in barrel. But what about the tricky matter of teaching them the relevance of their writing beyond the worlds of themselves? How to guard against the insularity of the ivory tower?

nooutsideworld Continue reading

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Writing class ==> writing minor ==> something BEaUtifull.

Body image issues plagued Shreeya Tuladhar much of her life, starting when she worked as a child model and intensifying after verbal abuse from classmates when her family moved from Nepal to New York. She’d skipped a grade and was physically behind the other kids, something some wielded as a weapon against her. Even while leading anti-bullying campaigns, like the C.I.T.Y. Project facilitated by Calogero Argento in the Central Queens Y, she continued to struggle with the bullying she’d endured, the pressure of being told she was too fat, too skinny, too wrong, by society, family, friends, boys, boyfriends, and eventually herself.

Last year, I was lucky enough to work with Tuladhar in one of my classes. I liked her from the start. She wasn’t afraid to express herself but she wasn’t afraid of new ideas. A biology major and aspiring surgeon, she also minors in both anthropology and writing.  When she studied the personal essay with Cynthia Davidson, the final project called for students to center on something that defined them without making it an autobiography.
“Oh, snap,” Tuladhar thought. “Like my body image issue.” She knew what had haunted her as a child was still affecting her. She was always a writer. The writer was born of the pain.

“Writing started for me because of this,” she says. “I couldn’t express myself any other way.” When she was younger she’d starve herself, or work out due to fear rather than any desire to be healthy. She’d write poems about her struggles on hi5, the social networking site, a way of saying all the things she’d otherwise leave unsaid, of unburdening. Her class project was no less cathartic. Continue reading

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“There Is No Yellow Brick Road,” by Sacha Kopp

yellow brick road rainbow

My dad went to college, and he regaled me with memories of what he did and how the experiences he had shaped his future.  You’ve no doubt heard family members talk about this, and often we tell students how they need to build their resume so they can land the opportunity they’ve always wanted post-college.

In a way this is true, but sometimes we run the risk of making this process sound like it’s very linear.  It’s not the case that every career has a linear path to it, and one slight deviation means that one has lost the opportunity to move one — sounds more like the Yellow Brick Road on the way to the Wizard of Oz. Continue reading

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