online ed boston magazine

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

digital literacy

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.


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

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.


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

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

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

“Conversations on a Homecoming” by Pat Hanrahan

“Those who go feel not the pain of parting,
it’s those who stay behind that suffer.”

When I heard this Longfellow quotation on a recent episode of “Inspector Lewis,” and not from Sergeant Hathaway, either, I sat up and took notice as something stirred.


I had lived and worked in London in the sixties, although I’m nearly over it now. America beckoned and I transferred happily. Notice I said “transferred.”
I never actually emigrated and had it in the back of my mind that someday…….more than 40 years later, I’m still here, temporarily. Everyone else emigrated, but not me. As I said, I transferred.  Continue reading “Conversations on a Homecoming” by Pat Hanrahan

15 Minutes With A Plagiarist, 13 Student Thoughts

Earlier this month, an email circulated regarding someone posting flyers in the writing department offering “writing services” for hire.
The most conspicuous feature on the flyer is the giant “A+” that takes up the bottom third of the page, demonstrating audience awareness: it’s a bottom-line world and for students the bottom line is grades. The next biggest font is the phone number listed. A number without a name attached to it these days isn’t your mother’s number-without-a-name-attached-to-it. It’s how business – public, private, illicit – gets done.
What caught my eye and ire, though, were the multiple, unabashed solicitations for paper-writing customers. “We also offer paper writing services!” the page shrieks a third of the way down. “Paper Writing – All Subjects,” coos the right mid-page. The last line’s oxymoronic “Call for tutoring or to have your paper written for you today!” manages to insult both for its doublethink and for such indoctrination being self-imposed. Tutoring is teaching someone hungry how to fish. Writing their paper for them is giving them counterfeit bills to buy a single, stale, fast-food fish filet.


Someone from the college called the number listed. The person who answered said all she does it tutor and edit, not write papers. She said she understood the concern the ads caused and would remove all the flyers as well as the “ghost writing” ad from her service’s Facebook page (later I discovered the Facebook page is still up, and there’s a Twitter page and various advertisements online, too).

I teach at a second college. When I left the campus Monday, I noticed the same flyers from Stony Brook were on the bulletin boards at this college, as well. Continue reading 15 Minutes With A Plagiarist, 13 Student Thoughts

Google Documents (as of early 2015) for Teaching Writing, Part 2

by Shyam Sharma

In part one of this piece, Shyam Sharma talked about the set-up and function of Google Docs, and how it impacts teaching writing, professor feedback, and student agency. Here in part two, he looks at its workshop application, reader response, opportunities for collaboration, and reasons for caution. 



Google Docs helps to make writing a more social activity. Students can more easily access, comment on, and discuss one another’s writing. On the single, virtual copy of their work that they can now have, both they and their peers (as well as the instructor) can insert comments or directly suggest changes to the text. By the way, I don’t allow students (or anyone outside class) to use “edit” mode on peers’ writing; I too turn on the suggest/tracking feature when reading at all times.

Workshop: The most striking instance of collaboration and engagement using GD when I engage students in writing workshops. Continue reading Google Documents (as of early 2015) for Teaching Writing, Part 2

Google Documents (as of early 2015) for Teaching Writing – Part 1

by Shyam Sharmagdocs

I was more impressed when Steve Jobs said that he didn’t let his kids use the iPad than when he called it “magical” while launching it. So, as I share these teaching tips about effectively using Google Docs in this post, I hope that I don’t sound like I have my own type of “technomagicology.” In fact, this post is a follow up to a series of posts that Chris Petty and I wrote on this blog last year, cautioning writing teachers against the pitfalls of requiring students to share (increasingly publicly) the product and process of writing. I’ve split the post into two parts and used sections and subsections for easier reading/skimming. Continue reading Google Documents (as of early 2015) for Teaching Writing – Part 1

Understanding Grammar as Fractal: Rhetorical effects and cultural implications, by MaryAnn Duffy


In science, the fractal is a relatively new discovery. The term comes from its Latin root, fractus, which means “to break” and alludes to the jagged, irregular-shaped edge. It is the term Benoit Mandelbrot, a linguist and mathematician, used in his 1982 book The Fractal Geometry of Nature to define the seemingly random shapes in nature that Euclidean-based geometry could not explain.

Euclidian geometry deals with more smoothly-shaped lines that produce circles, squares, triangles and rectangles. However, the edges produced by nature are not quite so tidy. Edges in nature —coastlines, shapes of leaves, a cauliflower—have extremely complex shapes and are difficult to measure. Measuring and mapping them for any patterns or consistency seemed to be a futile attempt at measuring nature’s randomness. Until Mandelbrot revealed the opposite. Many shapes in nature are actually recursive patterns. They start on the micro level and grow so as to render a self-same macro shape.


The edge of a coastline, as seen from an aerial view, is the same shape as any smaller part of that coastline’s whole. The cauliflower’s bloom is iterative self-same shapes. The silhouette of a tree, it turns out, mirrors its forest’s canopy. Given these fractal systems found all around us, it seems nature is not so random after all.



Continue reading Understanding Grammar as Fractal: Rhetorical effects and cultural implications, by MaryAnn Duffy


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