“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resort to selling their children due to extreme poverty, 2) “We” can help people in developing nations replace their outdated technologies so that they can leapfrog into the twenty-first century, 3) Child labor remains a global problem so it is time that we make it illegal everywhere,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 internationally.

        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 or update irrigation to wifi-based systems (as he was proposing), he found out that technology has actually created staggering disadvantages for farmers there: financialization of agriculture means industrial famers have huge technological advantages over local farmers and so do the middlemen. Instead of helping farmers compete, technology has aggravated the problems, perhaps aggravating suicide among Indian farmers. The student writing about child labor found out that the very definition of “child” and “labor” varies across countries, societies, and cultures, so solutions must consider political and economic differences 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 unique/local dynamics of politics and power. 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 distant 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 adults. 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 working, 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 logically superficial and/or ethically flawed “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, the more they seem to be convinced that their society, culture, and beliefs are (or should be) universals benchmarks or 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 internationally. While the student considered ethical and moral dilemmas quite well, he ignored the already alarming international black market especially due to spillover of criminal markets from large developing countries and regions, 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 an legal market would save more lives than it harms, but when it came to the transnational 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 any crimes involved, American patients who have the money but need organs could survive. He didn’t realize that this solution (we have the money, you have organs to sell!)  was pragmatic but extremely inhuman and 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, ss, Student Writing, Teaching Anecdotes, Teaching Tips, Teaching Writing, Writing & Rhetoric | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

They’re certainly different in color…

…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?
Posted in Teaching Tips, Teaching Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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:

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:


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!

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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.


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.


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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“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

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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

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