Author Archives: CS Journal

Composition, the Speedup, and the Stretch-out

Olivia Wood | City University of New York

In early March, the FEN Blog editors asked if I might like to submit a post about something to do with labor organizing and composition. I’ve been a graduate worker organizer for the last five years, serving as a department steward and delegate to my union’s delegate assembly for much of that time, and from 2022-2023, I was a part of the bargaining committee for the contingent faculty union at my other job. I also cover higher ed labor struggles regularly for Left Voice. For this piece, I tentatively thought I might write about the strategic position of composition instructors in the academic workforce. We collectively teach most of the students that graduate from our schools, our courses are required for graduation, and they are often prerequisites for upper level classes. This puts us in a particularly powerful position for labor actions. Composition teachers are also more likely than instructors in other disciplines to face precarious working conditions, since composition classes are far more likely to be taught by contingent faculty and graduate student workers, compared to other subject areas. I had planned to write the post this morning (today is March 30). 

Then, last night, I got an email from my department chair: the Dean wants to change our composition classes from 4 workload hours to 3 workload hours, effective this summer. As a full time lecturer with no research expectations, my workload requirement is 12 credits per semester, so this would mean I go from teaching a 3-3 load to a 4-4. Our composition classes are capped at 26 (for Comp 1) and 28 (for Comp 2) — for me, this change means an additional 52 students per year, the equivalent of raising course caps by eight students per class. Professional recommendations developed by the Conference of College Composition and Communication suggest 15 students per writing course, with 20 as an absolute maximum, and that no writing instructor should teach more than 60 students at a time — for the students’ own pedagogical benefit. We are already far above these recommendations (an average of 27 students per class, 81 per semester for full time faculty). The proposed changes would make things even worse. 

These changes would be part of the mandatory “savings plans” imposed by the Chancellor across the entire City University of New York (CUNY). Each college was instructed to find over 5% in budget savings, but how to do it was up to the local administrations. Cutting the workload hours (and therefore cutting adjunct pay) would reduce the cost of offering composition courses, and other departments like math and architecture would face other forms of cuts. Originally, the Dean told us that this was a “done deal” handed down to her by the Provost and no amount of negotiating or protesting would change it. This, of course, turned out to be untrue — shortly after we began organizing against the proposal, the administrators became open to negotiation. This claim was a scare tactic designed to discourage us from trying. But my colleagues and I are committed to trying.

Instead of writing my intended post today, my morning was occupied by labor organizing: emailing my union chapter chair, vice-chair, grievance counselor, and delegate assembly; emailing my department chair with thoughts about how she might convince the Dean to change her mind; emailing the other lecturers in my department, and reaching out to the cross-campus lecturer organizing group; emailing with adjuncts in my department. For the adjunct faculty, who are paid by the credit hour, the change means they’ll make about $1,400 less per course — in a city where the median rent for a studio apartment is over $2,900 per month, even in more affordable boroughs like Brooklyn. It also means there will be fewer sections available for adjuncts to teach since the full-timers will be teaching more. 

As I’m writing this first draft, we’re trying to plan a grade-in in front of the Dean’s office. So, instead of writing my intended post, I’m going to tell you about two labor concepts instead: the speed-up and the stretch-out. Any workload increase or pay cut is frustrating, but these concepts help explain why this is happening, and they’ve been on the forefront of my mind since I got the first email about the administration’s plans. While “speed-up” and “stretch-out” are typically used in reference to factory labor and aren’t used very often in relation to white-collar jobs, they are useful in understanding how the same political-economic forces that squeeze workers in other sectors play out in higher education. While our work is different from working in a factory, we are all exploited by our bosses in the same basic ways. It’s easy to forget this, even as a contingent faculty member, because our work is still high-prestige with a high level of personal flexibility, and we want to be aware of our privileges in how our circumstances differ from others. But as the slogan goes, no matter the sector, we’re all in the “same struggle, same fight.” And I’m feeling the squeeze.

Companies want to make profits. Public institutions (with some exceptions, like the military and the police) are perpetually pushed to cut costs in the neoliberal era. In either case, the task is to generate the greatest possible amount of goods/services for the least possible amount of money. When profits are declining (or your mayor, governor, and state legislature want to let your university’s budget lag behind inflation), employers have several different options. On the personnel side, one option is to extend the working day (stretch-out). Another option is to increase the amount of work done by each worker within a given unit of time (speedup). 

The term speedup comes from factory work, in which bosses would literally speed up the pace of the assembly line, and/or increase quotas expected by the end of a shift. Within academia, the speedup can take many forms: staff covering for the duties of coworkers who left but were never replaced, increased class sizes, new assessment requirements, expectations for learning and using new technologies, and more. Adapting to Covid-19 was in many ways a speedup, even while many people tried their best to slow down. Teaching in a new modality and learning new technologies means an enormous amount of extra work all within the context of the same unit of time (one class, one semester).

As college instructors, we get a great deal of flexibility in arranging our work schedules compared to other jobs — we need to be in the classroom during certain hours, but when we hold office hours, when we do our prep and grading, and so on, is often up to us. This flexibility is often one of the things people like about academic work, but it also creates a great deal of room for exploitation. It also means that very often, a speedup is also a stretch-out. If this intended change to composition at my school does become a reality, I have three options: I can find ways to become more efficient in my work (speedup), I can work many more hours per week to provide the same services to 133% as many students as before (stretch-out), or I can redesign my classes to reduce student (and therefore my) workload. In practice, the outcome will likely be a combination of all three. In every case, students are harmed: if I’m more efficient, I’m probably giving them each less individual attention; if I’m working more hours, I’m more exhausted, with fewer emotional resources and less flexibility to give to the students; if I’m redesigning the class, it probably means leaving out things that would benefit them. 

I want to present this struggle using the framework of these terms from political economy and the labor movement to stress that we are first and foremost workers who face the same kinds of struggles as every other worker. Our employers want more from us, for less. Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerline argue in Mother Jones that these terms have been replaced with the concept of “productivity” a euphemism more palatable to workers, who want to view themselves as “productive members of society.” But increases in productivity only benefit us if they are accompanied by an increase in wages — otherwise, it’s only our employers that benefit. 

It’s very easy for high-prestige workers, like college faculty, to view ourselves as separate from “the working class” — after all, pollsters define “the working class” as anyone without a college degree. But the Marxist conception of the working class means anyone whose primary relationship to capital involves selling our labor in exchange for wages. That’s us. And while our workplaces look very different from the factory floor, we’re still subject to the same economic forces, the same system of exploitation. For those of us in the public sector, our work pertains to social reproduction — while we don’t directly generate profits for anyone, we provide services to society (in this case, education) that help to ensure the continuous production and maintenance of workers. My particular college specializes in science, engineering, and architecture — these are the types of workers that I am by and large helping to produce. This is where I fit into the economy.

My university used to be free. It used to be entirely funded by a collaboration between New York State and New York City, and ever since tuition was first imposed in the 1970s (not coincidentally, at about the same time that open admissions meant the student body was increasingly working class people of color), it has been increasingly defunded. Currently, our Mayor is proposing huge cuts to just about every city agency, and our Governor’s budget proposal leaves our funding far behind the rate of inflation and would raise tuition on students to boot. Now that Covid-19 relief funds from the federal government have run out, upper administrators have demanded that the colleges develop “savings plans” of around 5% of their annual budgets, rather than the state or the city picking up the difference. This change to my workload, and the pay cut for adjuncts, is part of my college’s plan. It’s a speedup and a stretch-out intended to keep the university running while investing as little as possible in public higher education, especially in a university system historically dedicated to serving the proletariat. 

While I was writing this article, my office neighbor poked her head in to say hello. I told her the bad news. She laughed and said, “We’re not a university, we’re a corporation.” She told me not to be mad because anger isn’t helpful, that this is just how it is, and she gave me a hug. But I am mad. And I’m a worker, a union organizer. So I’m going to send this off to the FEN Blog editors, and then I’m going to do the rounds of the English department, looking for adjuncts to invite to our grade-in. Because speedups and stretch-outs are forms of class struggle, and the very least we can do as workers is to struggle back. 


There weren’t any adjuncts around the department that I could find, but after I sent in the draft, I created a flier for the grade-in, made 100 copies, and taped them up around our building. The grade-in took place on April 4, and we circulated an Action Network letter that sent hundreds of emails to the Provost and university president. By the end of the day, we had a tentative deal with the administration: we could keep the hour of workload, and adjunct pay would remain the same, but we’d need to get approval from faculty senate to extend the length of composition class periods and increase class sizes, so that savings could be found in reduced sections offered rather than reduced pay. I first wrote this postscript on April 15. At that point, the deal was that all composition classes at my school would be capped at 32 going forward — more than double the recommended size of a writing course. This deal protected adjunct pay and the workload increase for me and other full-timers was half of what it would have been under the original proposal — a partial win, but still very much a speed-up. Between then and when I got my second set of feedback from the editors, we learned that the Dean was trying to undermine the deal and promise to defer to the will of faculty council by imposing the original plan of cutting the workload hour for summer adjuncts. Right before I began working on these revisions today, April 22, I got another email saying that the Dean has once again changed her mind and is proposing a different savings plan entirely, unrelated to composition workload. The limited details in the email I received seem positive so far, but I’m wary. The struggle continues.

1 See also “A Brief History of Neoliberalism” by David Harvey, “On New Terrain” by Kim Moody, and “Austerity Blues” by Steve Brier and Mike Fabricant.

Trigger Warnings and a Pedagogy of Trust 

Morgan Read-Davidson | Chapman University

As the director of both the creative writing and rhetoric and composition programs at Chapman University, a mid-sized private university serving 150+ majors as well as 1000+ general education students, it has now become a common and expected occurrence to have both students and contingent faculty come to my office expressing anxiety over course content. While the larger conversation about difficult content and trigger warnings is not new, the sudden need for urgently scheduled meetings with me did not begin until the COVID-19 Pandemic and our move to remote instruction. This seems to coincide with the increase of online and social media interaction during the Pandemic, where the use of Trigger Warnings (TWs) and Content Warnings (CWs) on social media, particularly on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, have made the conversation far more visible. After returning to normal in-class instruction, the concerns about TWs and CWs—and the in-person meetings with me as program administrator—continued, ranging from faculty fears of censorship to student complaints of offensive or triggering material.

On the one hand, I understand the faculty fear that censorship becomes a slippery slope, wherein attempting to “shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort,” rather than encouraging them to confront those factors to understand why they cause discomfort, may undermine the shared goal of developing solutions to the larger societal problems the triggering content represents (Lukianoff and Haidt). Certainly there are plenty of anecdotes of students who don’t want to read or watch material that challenges, subverts, or offends their current world view and values. The book banning events in Florida and other conservative states are striking examples, but so are left-leaning censorship of racial and patriarchal texts, even when taught in critical contexts. On the other hand, it is important to acknowledge the real effect of content commonly associated with triggers of psychological trauma—sexual assault, homophobia, transphobia, war, bullying, suicide, and self-harm—where reading, viewing and even discussing representations of such events can trigger memories, emotions, or flashbacks that result in panic attacks or other forms of PTSD (Klieber 3). 

For many faculty, the request for trigger or content warnings appears as an imposition of academic freedom. Rather than establish a context for why certain discomforting content is necessary to study, they dig in their heels and repeat the “coddling” argument of Lukianoff and Haidt: in other words, that this generation of students have been shielded from tough subjects, leading to a hyperfragility inhibiting the pursuit of knowledge (Klieber 4). Reading about the history of sundowner towns and white supremacy should make white students uncomfortable, and most reasonable people would agree that protecting them from that discomfort undermines efforts of cultural progress. But BIPOC students, who make up 40% of my institution, may also feel distress as memories of their own repression surface through the representation of racist acts. Similarly, texts and content shedding light on systemic ableist biases in society may still cause emotional pain and distress to students in the disability community. So while we don’t want to shy away from distressing content necessary to confront societal problems, considering the effect on students in the communities represented by that content should not be seen as a censoring imposition but part of a student-centered pedagogy of active learning. This is what has driven my approach as a teacher and that personal experience in turn informs my approach in advising faculty as a program administrator.

As the University of Michigan guide effectively puts it, TW and CW notices provide individuals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders “the forewarning necessary for them to make use of [coping] strategies that will decrease the harmfulness of encountering triggering material.” That’s not censorship, that’s empathy. When I first started as a WPA, the topic of trigger warnings came up in a pre-semester program meeting, and I distributed this guide for its helpful definitions and suggestions. Recently, however, I’ve focused on a particularly important section:

While it is impossible to account for all potential triggers, which could include smells or sounds that recall a past trauma, some of the most common triggers include representations of sexual violence, oppressive language, gunshots, and representations of self-harm. If you establish sufficient trust with your students and make clear to them that you will do your best to supply any requested trigger warnings, you can provide personalized notices about any material that may be triggering for them. However, trust can be challenging to build and takes time, so the inclusion of warnings for common triggers can be helpful to students who may not feel comfortable telling an instructor they barely know very personal information about their mental health and past trauma.

The key portion I highlighted, and what has changed my approach as a teacher, is the phrase “establish sufficient trust with your students.” The UM guide doesn’t describe how we might do this, other than making the effort to provide warnings. To establish trust with my students, I give a confidential online survey on the first day of class. This first started during our abrupt move to remote learning in March of 2020 as a means of understanding what my students’ needs were in that situation but was so helpful that I have used it in every class since. In this survey, I ask questions about name pronunciation, preferred pronouns, learning styles, accommodations, and possible triggers. Rather than being forced to take that difficult step of reaching out to an instructor, not knowing how they view learning accommodations or trigger warnings, students are invited to tell me about themselves in an accessible form. In turn, I can get a feel for the personality and needs of my class and design trigger and content warnings, as well as pre- and after-care activities that will help create the best learning environment for them. 

For example, in one of my classes we play an interactive text-adventure that explores the author’s grieving process after his brother was killed in the 2017 terrorist bombing in Manchester, UK. Prior to using my survey, I had provided a TW and never had anyone approach me with concerns or questions, though I did have one instance where a student left the class abruptly during the discussion, telling me later that it triggered feelings about the recent passing of a family member. However, in the first in-class semester where I implemented the survey, I discovered that several students had experienced recent deaths of family members. I didn’t remove the text-adventure from my curriculum, but I did reach out confidentially to the specific students to discuss the upcoming content, and I also decided to incorporate pre- and after-care activities derived from trauma therapy, not only to help those students in question (all of which decided to engage with the content and subsequent discussion), but any others who may not have reported a trigger, been aware of a trigger, or simply felt uncomfortable with the content.

My inspiration for turning to trauma therapy came from a former student who had entered a masters in therapy program. This student pointed me to readings and resources that included pre-care and after-care activities such as journaling, reflection, small and large group discussion, and mindfulness. I decided to have my students do a bit of in-class journaling about their anticipated response to a grief-process text adventure prior to playing it, with starter questions like: 

  • Do you tend to internalize emotional material and get flooded with emotions? 
  • Are you more likely to get numb and dissociate? 
  • Do you need to take breaks while engaging with the text-adventure?
  • Will you find discussion about this content difficult?
  • During discussion, do you need to prepare to leave the classroom for a moment? 

After journaling, I offered the opportunity for anyone to share, and many did, including one of the students I’d previously reached out to. This led to an intimate and collaborative discussion that seemed to not only normalize the idea of course content being distressing and containing possible triggers, but also the act of talking about how and why this happens, how we deal with it, and why such content is still important for learning.

Typically after playing the text-adventure, I ask students to post a response in our online discussion forum discussing it in the context of the theoretical reading it was paired with. This time, however, I encouraged students to also talk about their emotional experience playing the game, following up on the pre-care activity of journaling and discussion. At least half the class chose to do so, and the reflection on emotional responses, rather than sidetracking critical analysis, actually deepened it by making connections between the rhetorical meaning behind the procedural narrative choices and the emotional responses students experienced. Students were able to articulate the necessity for representing trauma in this content in order to make a larger point about the social process of grief.

In The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk calls these pre- and after-care activities “emotional-regulation techniques” (244). Rather than suppressing or avoiding emotions, emotional regulation attunes us to our mental and physical responses to disturbing and discomforting material and situations. Journaling and discussion activities promote active reflection and articulation of what makes us uncomfortable, what we anticipate we might feel, what we feel in the moment, and how we feel after the experience. We can also use mindfulness techniques of centered breathing and sensory observation to help students take a moment to calm their mind and emotions. I’ve recently begun to implement centered breathing before difficult subject-matter discussions in my class, and it seems to have actually increased participation in the discussion among my quieter students. 

More importantly, it communicates to my students that I take both their well-being and the learning situation (including the distressing content) seriously. Van der Kolk tells us that triggered responses “are irrational and largely outside people’s control,” making them “feel crazy…As a result, shame becomes the dominant emotion” (74). By sharing coping mechanisms and articulating possible intense feelings, we can validate our students’ experiences with the material and hopefully create a community of support in the classroom. This in turn enables us to discuss triggering material in productive ways that meets our expectations of academic rigor and discourse. 

So now when faculty come to my office with anxieties about content, about trigger warnings, and about fears of censorship or student pushback,  I share with them my experiences and the information I’ve presented in this post, and we discuss how their pedagogy is preparing students for difficult or distressing content. What tools, like journaling, small group and full class discussion, and online discussion forums, are they already using? How might they build trust with students by communicating that they take student concerns and needs seriously? How can they incorporate concepts of emotional regulation into the activities they already implement in class? While composition instructors are not trained therapists, nor should we be taking on those roles, we certainly deal with course material and student writing that accesses potentially traumatic memories and experiences, or at the very least can cause distressing emotions. It cannot hurt us to learn more about the way the body responds to triggering and discomforting material.

By preparing our students ahead of time for difficult material, we treat “them as adults who can and should attend to their own wellbeing with all available information” (UM guide). We’re not labeling anything as off-limits to teaching, nor are we “coddling” or “infantilizing” students by shielding them “from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort” (Lukianoff and Haidt). In fact, by employing a pre- and after-care pedagogy, including active discussions of trigger and content warnings, we are directly communicating with our students that we are not fortune-tellers, that we cannot anticipate how every student will respond to every possible distressing text, video, or discussion—but that we do care for their learning and their wellbeing. Both students with psychological triggers and students who are uncomfortable with distressing content can be helped by these strategies, which means both are less likely to become resistant or defensive, shutting down their desire and ability to learn. In the end, shouldn’t that be our goal?

Works Cited

“An Introduction to Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings.” University of Michigan.

Kleiber, Anna. “On the Epistemology of Trigger Warnings, or Why The Coddling Argument Against Trigger Warnings is Misguided.”  Feminist Philosophy Quarterly. vol. 7, no. 4, 2021. 

Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The Atlantic. September 2015.

Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books, 2015.

Beyond “True” and “False”: Teaching Students to Read the News Critically

Jennifer Noji | University of California, Los Angeles

I grew up at the turn of the century in a time when most people still believed that reading the news meant learning about the world. Since I was young, my parents constantly urged me, “Watch the news, and open your eyes!” They insisted that reading the local Sunday paper and Time magazine as well as watching BBC and NBC news reports, among others, would help me keep up with current events and gain a better understanding of the people and societies around me. To this day, whenever an election takes place, a war breaks out, a child goes missing, or a storm forms off the coast, I can expect a text from one of my parents: “Did you see the news?”

Yet, in our current age of misinformation and “fake news,” we can’t simply assume that watching and reading the news means learning facts about the world (and perhaps we never should have).1 Now, when my parents send me articles from their “SmartNews” app about a breaking story or new discovery, I ask them: Who wrote the piece, and who do they work for? Does the article cite sources? If so, what kind of sources?  These questions reflect a sense of skepticism and distrust that began to take root throughout my years of growing up with the rise of social media and that, for better or worse, significantly increased when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 (as Meredith O’Brien, Chris Cillizza, and others note, Trump’s presidency shepherded an era of “fake news”). However, while I have learned to ask these critical questions when engaging with news and public media, I quickly discovered that most of my students have not. When I began to teach undergraduate literature and writing courses in 2019, I was struck by my students’ quickness to believe everything they read and to accept news reports and historical records as “fact.” Even though most of them had spent the majority of their lives in what Timothy Snyder calls the “post-truth” era, many of them had not yet learned how to adeptly navigate the overwhelming magnitude of “fake news” and “alternative facts” crowding our physical and digital spaces. Indeed, a large portion of the US population (including myself) still struggles to do so. 

In our present age of misinformation, where should we instruct our students to go to learn about the world around them? 

My answer: the news. For better or worse, I still think our fastest and most accessible source of information about the world and its happenings is the news. (Of course, “the news” can refer to various different things nowadays, considering many people in our present age read “the news” on Facebook and Twitter feeds or watch “the news” on Youtube and Tiktok. I should therefore clarify that when I advise my students to engage with “the news,” I mean news articles and reports produced by established newspaper and journalism outlets.) Thus, rather than giving up on news segments altogether, I suggest we must teach our students to critically analyze, interrogate, and evaluate them. This means teaching them to identify a news segment’s target audience and political motivations, to recognize its underlying biases, and to check its citations and references (Paul T. Corrigan and Timothy Snyder among others propose additional practices for critically reading the news). Yet, in addition to approaching individual news segments with a critical lens, students must also learn how to seek out multiple reports, representations, and interpretations of the same event or topic from different perspectives. Rather than refusing to acknowledge the “other side” and their opinions, they might deeply benefit from engaging with them. I therefore strive to teach my students that reading news on the same topic from different (and even opposing) viewpoints and sources—in other words, cross-checking the news we consume—is a crucial practice for gaining a more critical and comprehensive understanding of the world we live in. 

Figure 1. Photo by fauxels (on Pexels) .

These critical analysis skills, including close reading and cross-checking practices, are ones I try to teach students in all my composition and writing-intensive courses. While I primarily teach seminars on literature and political violence, in which we frequently engage with past and present news reports about violent events, I think such critical analysis skills are essential for all students living in our complex and complicated “post-truth” world. Along with scholars like Paul Corrigan, who developed an undergraduate composition course on “Fake News” (see his syllabus here), I believe we need to alter our pedagogical strategies to better equip students to confidently navigate and understand the events unfolding around them. I therefore share Corrigan’s ambitions to “teach students to recognize, when they encounter claims that may be false or falsely accused of being false, what truth distorting strategies might be at work and to practice truth sorting strategies in response.” 

Yet, while Corrigan maintains the notions of “truth” and “falsehood” at the center of his curriculum, I propose we must go beyond “true” and “false” altogether, since such binary thinking overlooks that “truth” can be defined in infinite ways by different people. As the critical work of Sylvia Wynter demonstrates and Michael Laitman explicitly states, truth is a matter of perspective. When we recognize that “Truth” (with a capital T) and “History” (with a capital H) have always been determined by those with power and weaponized to oppress those without it, such supposedly-objective concepts lose meaning. While I do not mean to suggest that no truth(s) exist, I simply strive to demonstrate and show my students that identifying what is “true” and “false” is not always essential for understanding the world around them. In fact, I think it can be important to recognize that there are always multiple coexisting “truths” (or lived realities and beliefs) in societies with diverse populations like ours.  

Therefore, in my classes, I assign what I call a “Critical News Analysis Assignment,” which is designed to help students move beyond True-False binary thinking and learn to more critically analyze, evaluate, and understand the events and issues occurring around them. While I have assigned slightly different versions of this assignment over the past few years, I usually use an adaptation of this assignment prompt

As the prompt demonstrates, this assignment asks students to write a two-page paper in which they examine two news articles about one current event or issue. In their papers, students must critically analyze, evaluate, and compare their two selected articles and reflect on what we can gain by engaging with multiple perspectives and representations of the same event or issue. The prompt also outlines several learning outcomes. In particular, this assignment is intended to help students: 

  1. Critically analyze, interrogate, and evaluate individual news articles by identifying their goals, target audiences, writing techniques and rhetorical strategies, and potential biases. 
  2. Cross-check and compare multiple news articles and their particular representations of the given topic. 
  3. Recognize how different writers and media outlets can strategically write in ways to craft different narratives about the same event or issue. 
  4. Understand how and why “facts” and “truths” are established rather than only focusing on what is “true” and “false.” 

When introducing this assignment, I encourage my students to choose articles from two news sources with different political ideologies or missions. For example, I suggest choosing articles from one conservative outlet and one liberal outlet (offering the graph below as a reference), or, alternatively, selecting one article from a local news source and another from an international news platform. By analyzing two articles with diverse perspectives, students can, on the one hand, more easily recognize their respective biases and motives and, on the other hand, simultaneously gain a more comprehensive understanding of the given topic.  

Additionally, as my students work to complete this project, I repeatedly remind them that another intention of the assignment is to help them recognize and rethink the ways they themselves approach and engage with the news. For example, I ask my students: 

What kinds of news sources and platforms do you access? 

Do you look at articles, social media posts, infographics, or videos? 

Do you accept what you read as fact? Or do you read skeptically and with disbelief? After finishing an article, do you do further research or look at additional sources?

The list of questions goes on. Yet, in addition to asking students how they read the news, I also prompt them to consider why they read it. 

Do you want to learn something new? 

Confirm a pre-existing belief? 

Stay up to date on a particular event or issue? 

In other words, What exactly are you trying to get out of the news? And why do you want to know these things? 

By raising these questions, I try to encourage my students to engage in critical self-reflection and subsequently gain more self-awareness. Thus, while the Critical News Analysis Assignment explicitly asks students to evaluate the writing, thoughts, and goals of other writers, it also implicitly invites them to critically examine themselves and their own beliefs and motivations. Through this assignment, I try to make clear that part of learning about the world includes learning about ourselves. In order to critically evaluate the events and issues unfolding around us, we must begin to recognize the particular lenses and frameworks that we ourselves use to see them. 

Figure 2. Photo by Yan Krukov (on Pexels) .

So what did students actually get out of this assignment?  Overall, my students began to recognize: 1) how political ideologies both shape and are shaped by the news, 2) the various ways news articles employ literary and rhetorical techniques to craft specific messages, and 3) the benefits of reading multiple articles on the same topic. Turning to my student’s papers, I offer some of their key observations and reflections in their own words. 

Many of my students described how they gained a greater understanding of the deep political polarization characterizing US public media and how such media ultimately perpetuates this cleavage. For example, one student wrote, “The polarization of politics in the U.S. has resulted in divisive media. Media coverage has become a catalyst of disparities in information intake and greatly influences public outlook.”2 Another student similarly asserted: “The consistent consumption of biased news only further polarizes the public.”

My students also discussed how different news outlets and articles seemed to prioritize their political goals above the facts they were reporting, which included tailoring their reports for particular target audiences. For instance, one student compared articles by Fox News and CNN and stated: “Both CNN and Fox want to tell Americans of the horrors and violence in the rest of the world but they both focus on different points to incite specific political change that leans towards their biases.” Another similarly wrote: “With different audiences planted firmly at either end of the political spectrum, information is melded to uphold liberal or conservative ideals.” Another student, who examined articles on the Syrian refugee crisis, offered a succinct critique of the way news outlets seem to use current events as an opportunity to push political agendas: “By consuming one-sided and biased news, with no effort to hear all of the sides of such a multifaceted issue, it becomes easy to forget that the Syrian refugee crisis is a humanitarian issue, not a political talking point.”

Additionally, my students also adeptly analyzed how news articles employed specific writing techniques and conventions in order to craft particular narratives and achieve their political aims.3 As one student stated: “These articles differ not only in what rhetorical and literary techniques they make use of… but also in the purpose of using those techniques.” For example, several students discussed their articles’ use of diction and language. One asserted: “The exaggerated titles and extreme diction used in the articles help the authors to establish the bias that would best please their viewers.” In a similar vein, another wrote: “The Washington Times used words to fit their conservative narrative… In Al Jazeera, the phrasing was used to convey the liberal narrative.”4 Some students also commented on their articles’ strategic use of tone and mood. One wrote: “their emotions [are] ever-so present in both these articles.”

Students also described their news articles’ rhetorical techniques, for example, offering broader general descriptions of an event as opposed to providing more specific first-hand anecdotes of the people affected. One student discussed how one of their articles represented the personal experiences of Ukrainian refugees while the other presented more statistical and broad stoke coverage of the war: “The appeal to pathos present in the New Yorker article cultivates a personal relationship between the reader and the victims, but is unable to provide a general overview of the crisis (given its focus on individual victims). The appeal to logos present in the Pew Research article provides a general overview of the crisis, but fails to create the personal connection the New Yorker article did.” Another student, describing a similar pairing of articles, claimed: “By reading both of these articles together, it is easy to understand how these statistics are not merely arbitrary numbers but instead records of suffering that impact real people.”

After examining how each article employed particular writing and rhetorical techniques to accomplish their goals, many students ultimately concluded with more general and broad reflections about critically reading and cross-checking the news. Students variously articulated how reading multiple articles can help people gain “a more complete understanding,” “a more well-informed perspective,” “a more unbiased medium,” or “a more holistic understanding of the elaborate realities [of political violence].” Several students also described how the assignment forced them to recognize multiple sides of an issue. For example, one stated: “Whenever I consider the pros to one perspective, the other perspective brings up cons that I cannot ignore.” The students continued to articulate their takeaways and responses to the assignment—including reflections on their own biases and news consumption habits—in our classroom discussions. 

Figure 3. Photo by Leeloo Thefirst (on Pexels) .

As my students’ comments demonstrate, this Critical News Analysis Assignment invites students to reevaluate how and why information about the world around them is produced and consumed. It also shows students the importance of practicing critical thinking, reading, and writing skills within their everyday lives and not just the classroom. It is, however, worth noting some potential limitations of the assignment.

The first limitation relates to the assignment’s scope and scale. In particular, I used the Critical News Analysis Assignment as a midterm project—a medium-stakes, standalone assignment that did not directly relate to the other writing assignments in the class. Since I teach at a university based on the quarter system, one academic term is only ten weeks long. Consequently, this assignment was due Week 5, which gave me a limited amount of time to teach my students the critical reading, writing, and thinking skills necessary to complete the project (see note 3). Thus, while we took the time in class to thoroughly discuss the assignment prompt, review key close reading and writing skills, and analyze sample news articles together, I did not have time to teach information literacy theories and practices in great depth, for example, as Corrigan does in his semester-long class on “Fake News.”

However, while Corrigan’s course and others like it allow students to learn about (fake) news in more depth and detail, many instructors do not have the time or means to dedicate an entire class to this topic (especially in a quarter system). Thus, the Critical News Analysis Assignment (or a modified version of it5) offers a quick and simple way for instructors to still teach their students basic information literacy and critical analysis skills needed to navigate our age of misinformation.

Another potential limitation of the assignment relates to its request that students select and analyze two articles. Although the assignment is intended to help students think beyond binaries like “true” and “false,” asking students to analyze two articles may inadvertently encourage binary thinking. Some of my students’ comments, for example, demonstrate a tendency to speak in binaries. In their papers, a couple of my students commented on the importance of learning “two sides” of the story. Another student described how she gained “a more unbiased medium amid the two extremist perspectives.” Furthermore, given the highly partisan political climate currently characterizing the US, several students fell prone to liberal-conservative binary thinking in particular (see note 4). Thus, having students engage with more than two articles could perhaps better emphasize how there are always multiple (not just two) sides of a story.

Nevertheless, engaging with two articles still allowed my students to recognize how writers can represent the same event or issue in very different ways. In our class discussions, students confessed they usually only read (or skimmed) one news article without cross- and fact-checking its contents. Indeed, I wager most people only read one news report (from a source of their choosing) and move on. Thus, in asking my students to analyze two articles from different kinds of news outlets, the assignment challenged them to break their media consumption habits. Moreover, it invited them to engage with ideas and beliefs with which they themselves may disagree. As a result, the assignment offered them the opportunity to take seriously and reflect on the perspectives of people with different beliefs and motivations than themselves—perspectives they might otherwise overlook. Students thereby gained more comprehensive understandings of current events and issues, precisely by recognizing the various ways and reasons that different “facts” and “truths” are created about them. To quote one of my students, the assignment reminds us “there is invariably more to the story.”


  1. While many think of “fake news” as a contemporary phenomenon, Michael Griffin traces the “erosion of the concept and standards of quality news” back to the 1960s-80s, when media companies were bought by major corporations and subsequently expected to make money. Griffin posits this “erosition” of reliable news was further accelerated by the rise of the internet in the 1990s and social media in the 2000s and 2010s. Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael Rich similarly demonstrate how “truth decay” (a rise in misleading media and a growing distrust in the news) has existed since the 1890s. Yet, Kavanagh and Rich note that our present-day era of “truth decay” is more extreme, insofar as it includes “an increase in disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data” (xiii). 
  2. These quotes derive from my students’ papers written in a writing-intensive seminar I taught recently. I chose to anonymize the individual quotes taken from their papers in order to protect their personal and political opinions.
  3. While we discussed several literary and rhetorical devices (such as diction, tone, metaphor, and hyperbole) in my seminar, many students used terms (such as logos, pathos, and ethos) that they had learned in previous classes and educational settings.
  4. A potential limitation of asking students to pick articles from different kinds of sources (sources with different political values, geographical scopes, etc.) relates to their tendency to fixate solely on political polarization as driving the articles’ key differences. As a result, some students too readily categorized news outlets as “conservative” or “liberal” and used such labels to explain the composition and rhetorical designs of their articles. The students’ tendency to employ liberal-conservative binary thinking demonstrates the difficulty of teaching critical reading in a partisan media landscape.
  5. For example, rather than completing one higher-stakes longer paper focused on a single current event or issue, students could complete multiple lower-stakes shorter responses throughout the entire term, thereby allowing them to analyze several different topics and progressively develop their analytical and writing skills. 

Works Cited

Cillizza, Chris. “Here’s Donald Trump’s most lasting, damaging legacy.” CNN, August 30, 2021,

Corrigan, Paul T. “Fake News: An Undergraduate Composition Course.”

Gajanan, Mahita. “Kellyanne Conway Defends White House’s Falsehoods as ‘Alternative Facts’.” Time, January 22, 2017,

Griffin, Michael. “How News Has Changed.” Macalester News, Macalester College, April 8 2020,

Kavanagh, Jennifer, and Michael D. Rich. Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life. RAND, 2018. 

Laitman, Michael. “Social Engineering — Truth Is a Matter of Perspective.” Medium, February 13, 2022,

O’Brien, Meredith . “Teaching Journalism in the Age of Trump.” Inside Higher Ed, May 10, 2019,

Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Crown, 2017.

Snyder, Timothy. “@TimothyDSnyder, author of On Tyranny, exposes the danger of ‘post-truth’ and fascism.” The Daily Show, Twitter, 2017,

Wynter, Sylvia. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation–An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 3 no. 3, 2003, p. 257-337.

Trite as It Sounds, Writing for the Public Means Practicing What We Preach

Ryan Skinnell | San Jose State University

For the past five years or so, I’ve been faithfully compiling a document of the sort that physiologist Melanie Stefan classified in 2010 as a “CV of failures.” A CV of failures is exactly what it sounds like—a log of “every unsuccessful application, refused grant proposal and rejected paper” (467). Mine also includes job rejections, teaching failures, administrative missteps, and more. It’s long, sometimes demoralizing, and against Stefan’s recommendation, I won’t be sharing the entire thing publicly.

Notwithstanding my reticence, Stefan’s goal in advocating for keeping a CV of failures is not demoralization but encouragement. She believes they’re useful for identifying all the work that goes into scientific research, even when it’s not “successful.”

As she points out, only 1 in 7 major grant proposals in her area of research is funded. In other words, a scientist in her field should expect to fail 86% of the time.

Scientists are, obviously, not alone. Academics of all stripes experience a lot of failure, whether our careers are research-, teaching-, or administration-intensive, or a combination thereof.[1] As just one example, rejection rates for major journals and book series in rhetoric and composition are generally comparable or even higher than the numbers Stefan cites. Rather than treating each failure as a personal fault, however, Stefan suggests reframing them as necessary—even desirable—steps toward success.

Full disclosure: my essay is not about failure (this one by Annie Halseth is). It is, rather, about how rhetoric and composition specialists can learn to write for public and/or non-specialist audiences.[2] But I start with failure because it is a helpful entry point to begin thinking about writing for public audiences, where failure is inevitable (and probably even more common than in academia).

Image of a portion of the author's CV of failures.
The longest section of my CV of failures by far is “Public Scholarship/Op-Eds.” It includes 38 rejections from no fewer than 33 outlets, major and minor, along with a reminder to myself: “I stopped counting in 2020-2021 because the numbers got too high to keep track of.”

Failing sucks, of course, but as Stefan emphasizes, each failure is laden with potential for the kinds of learning and practice that can lead to future successes. But then, writing teachers already know this—or at least, we know it for our students. I’m not convinced we know it for ourselves, for reasons I discuss below, but we really should.

I contend that academics who want to write for public audiences can, and should, reconceive of ourselves as student writers and approach new writing challenges in the ways we ask our students to do—for those of us who are writing teachers, to practice what we preach.

The argument I’m making here may seem so obvious as to be trivial: anyone who wants to write for public audiences needs to learn to write for public audiences in much the same way that anyone who wants to write in college must learn to write in college.

Less obvious, at least in my experience, is how frustrating it is to actually take this argument seriously. In fact, I spent the first part of this essay ruminating on failure because it can—and should—direct our attention to one of rhetoric and composition’s most basic, enduring lessons: learning to write is hard; it takes time, motivation, practice, persistence, investment, and support; and learning to write well in one domain doesn’t necessarily transfer to other writing situations. This is as true for “successful” writers as it is for the developing writers who take our classes.

Indeed, it may be truer for “successful” writers than for novices. As Chris Anson points out in “Habituated Practice Can Lead to Entrenchment,” “When writers’ contexts are constrained and they are subjected to repeated practice of the same genres … their conceptual framework for writing may become entrenched, ‘solidified,’ or ‘sedimented’” (77). When conceptual frameworks become entrenched, writers often unwittingly approach new writing tasks with “successful”—but ultimately inappropriate—processes.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I’m going to suggest that anyone who has navigated the gauntlet of academia well enough to be reading this essay is at least at risk of entrenchment. For those of us who have built a modicum of success publishing mostly or only academic scholarship, I’d wager that the likelihood of entrenchment is even higher. That’s certainly been the case for me.

Learning to write for public audiences, then, is no simple matter for writers who have to unlearn their successes in order to relearn new conceptual frameworks.

However, I think rhetoric and composition specialists in general, and writing teachers in particular, are uniquely positioned to undertake this task if we can lean on our disciplinary knowledge to help us detrench from successful-but-inappropriate writing frameworks.

To put it bluntly, what rhetoric and composition teachers know about learning to write—about genre, rhetoric, evidence, timeliness, and so on—is as useful for us as it is for our students. But what we know as teachers is not always what we actually do as writers. If we can reimagine ourselves as students learning to write for new audiences, however, we can profitably return to establish concepts to help ourselves learn new processes.

In the limited space left to me, and bearing in mind that this may seem elementary to our teacherly selves, I nevertheless want to briefly unpack some of that knowledge as it applies specifically to writing for public audiences.

First, three cheers for basic genre analysis. As it happens, writing for public audiences is often generically straightforward. Take op-eds, for example. The basic elements of an op-ed should be familiar to anyone who knows anything about 5-paragraph essays. In general, they include:

●  The main idea or lede (attention-grabber)

●  The argument (thesis statement)

●  Evidence (usually 3 pieces)

●  A “to be sure” (counterargument)

●  A conclusion (including a call to action)

The paragraphing is different but the 5-paragraph elements are all there, pretty much in the same order. Other public-facing genres are similarly straightforward and just begging for us to identify their common conventions.[3]

Of course, we know that writing isn’t a plug-and-play activity, and conventions only give us a starting point. What matters at least as much as genre conventions is what the author is trying to argue, for whom, about what, using which evidence, for what purposes. Conventional or not, public writing is a complex rhetorical task that demands feedback, revision, and sometimes extensive rethinking, and that process can be frustrating.

In 2019, for instance, I pitched an op-ed about presidential campaign rhetoric to a major national outlet. The editor responded with a rare piece of formative feedback.

“I really like the premise of this… [but] for me, the primary question mark is evidentiary. The argument makes logical sense, but right now, the reader sort of has to take your word for it. … Are there any particular quotes/exchanges you can cite to back up your assessment?”

To an eagle-eyed writing teacher, the obvious lesson here is obvious: my evidence wasn’t appropriate for my audience. I was citing academic scholarship, but the editor wasn’t moved—he wanted either empirical evidence (particularly polling data) or quotes from powerful people (particularly politicians or their top advisors).

I revised, but I had a hard time locating appropriate evidence for a public audience. The essay was rejected more than half a dozen more times by different outlets before I abandoned it altogether. I still think the argument was right, but being right only goes so far without good evidence.

The essay also languished for another reason. It’s another obvious, important, but sometimes-dispiriting point that all writing teachers know: timing matters. I missed my kairotic window. The moment when it could have made an intervention came and went while I futilely combed through polling data and speech transcripts.

Given the volatility of the news cycle, writing for public audiences is a much speedier affair than writing for academics. Even a beautifully written essay may be rejected if it doesn’t address a timely issue of obvious relevance, and what counts as “timely” moves very quickly in the public square (to say nothing of what counts as relevant).

That op-ed failed. It failed several times, in fact. But despite the accumulation of rejections, or maybe because of it, I found myself repeatedly confronted by the most mundane lessons of our field.

Genre matters, evidence matters, timing matters. And learning how to use them well is hard.

Fortunately, we have a long history and a deep stock of tools—including some elementary ones—that can help us.

For example, I’m relearning to use the writing process—the basic one: I invent arguments, draft, seek feedback, and revise. I also read examples of my target genres and try to emulate them. I practice various kinds of audience awareness. I’ve even enrolled in writing classes, including the Op-Ed Project Public Voices Fellowship.

I have also learned important lessons about myself as a writer and about the practices and pitfalls of writing for public audiences—often in humbling ways. In particular, it’s taken me a long time to distinguish what I know as a teacher of writing from what I practice as a writer. I tell my students, “Writing is hard. It takes practice and dedication,” which I believe as a teacher. It takes more effort than I would have guessed to re-believe it as a writer.

These are all things we teach our students and things we’ve all done at one time or another as we learned to write. But it turns out, the basic insights of our field—the same ones we teach our students—turn out to be handy, even for highly productive writers trying to learn to write in new genres for new audiences.

In truth, such lessons might feel less humbling and more humiliating if I didn’t have a better sense of what learning to write looks like from nearly 20 years teaching it. Sometimes I feel humiliated anyway. Sometimes I feel angry or aggrieved or misunderstood or insulted. No amount of “success” seems to banish those feelings in perpetuity. But, as a teacher, I know those feelings are part of the process. The only people who avoid them do so by refusing to write in the first place.

For teachers, there’s a hackneyed lesson here about the enormity of obstacles facing student writers. Of course, by “hackneyed” I don’t mean untrue. Quite the opposite—it’s a threadbare lesson worth constantly relearning.

For writers, my advice is no more groundbreaking. In fact, it’s pretty trite. Writing teachers who want to write for public audiences should work their processes but should also confront the reality that they may need to learn new processes to accomplish new goals. We have to read, draft, seek feedback, revise, submit, rinse, repeat. We have to keep practicing even when we feel like failures. In the end, we have to figure out how to become writing students again, albeit students with particularly useful insights from our lives as teachers.

Works Cited

Anson, Chris. “Habituated Practice Can Lead to Entrenchment.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State UP, 2015, 77-8.

Miller, Carolyn R. “Genre as Social Action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 70, no. 2, 1984, 151-67.

Skinnell, Ryan. “Coming to Terms with the Inevitability of Epic Failure; or Once More unto the Breach.” Explanation Points: Publishing in Rhetoric and Composition, edited by John R. Gallagher and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, Utah State UP, 2019, 229-32.

Stefan, Melanie. “A CV of Failures.” Nature, vol. 246, 18 Nov. 2010, 467.

Young, Anna M., and Jennifer Mercieca. “Putting the ‘Public’ in Rhetoric & Public Affairs.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 24, no. 1-2, 2021, 379–96.

1I make this case specifically about academic publishing in “Coming to Terms with the Inevitability of Epic Failure; or Once More unto the Breach.”

2 Anna Young and Jennifer Mercieca make a good case for why academics should write for non-specialist audiences and why academic institutions should learn to value such writing better.

3 Rhetorical genre theorists have been arguing this point for decades. My favorite article on this point is still Carolyn Miller’s landmark “Genre as Social Action.”

FEN Blog Call for Submissions: Fake or fact? Teaching Writing in the Misinformation Age

In his Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition, Bruce McComiskey asserts, ‘The fact is, rhetoric and composition have had the tools to combat post-truth rhetoric for years, and we, as a community of scholars and teachers, need to double-down on those tools’ (38). Living in the age of misinformation and fake news has put writing teachers in an uncomfortable space while also challenging us to adopt new ways of thinking about teaching rhetoric, research, and writing.  Since 2011, with the start of the birther movement by Donald Trump, his presidential election win in 2016, and the subsequent fallout of the spread of misinformation and fake news including the “stolen” 2020 election and the January 6 US Capitol attack were precursors to the climate we currently live in. Long interested in teaching critical literacy, composition and rhetoric scholars have begun to respond to this moment, as evinced by recent collections, such as Teaching Critical Reading and Writing and Literacy in the Era of Fake News and Pedagogy in an Age of Misinformation. In these works, composition scholars build on critical literacy traditions while grappling with the changes to our rapidly evolving information space, “the structures that sustain the creation, distribution, and reception of mis- and disinformation” (Lockhart 2).

Some writing instructors have responded by centering their composition courses around the subject of mis/disinformation. Paul T. Corrigon, in his “Fake News: An Undergraduate Composition Course,” demonstrates how we might teach writing through having students use their research skills to combat the post-truth rhetoric they, and we, encounter on a daily basis. He challenges us to focus on research, not as an end but as a means to teach writing using the skills students might already possess:  “as the best pedagogues have always exhorted us, we can teach critical literacy, research, and information literacy not merely as technical skills but as personal dispositions—as ways of being and perceiving in the world”. Corrigan’s syllabus aims to teach students to recognize claims that might be false or falsely accused of being false in their daily encounters with information. As Corrigan notes in the Writing Commons page for his course, he has adapted his course to the local scene of the Evangelical university in which he teaches. The diversity of the spaces in which we teach means that no one course or curriculum will serve as a workable model for all composition classrooms, thus our call for new perspectives on this persisting and societal issue.

The issue of fake news/misinformation is tied to our current political moment, which makes the issue relevant and risky to address in the classroom. The issue is also tied to our current technological moment as developments in technology have rapidly increased the reach and speed of information circulation. And, finally, the issue is relevant to our field’s scholarly and pedagogical history with regard to critical consciousness and critical literacy. Given the political, technological, and scholarly landscape, and living in the post-truth era, we ask: What can teaching in the time of fake news and the age of misinformation teach us about teaching rhetoric and writing? Moreover, what can FENBlog add to conversation about pedagogy in this post-truth era? We invite submissions that speak to the pedagogical developments writing instructors have made due to the fast moving news cycle, how writing instructors have adapted to teaching in the post-truth era, how they deal with comments that arise from fake news and misinformed sources or preconceived notions of prior dispositions (or, confirmation bias), and overall handled tension in the classroom. These ideas are not meant to be limiting; rather, we invite pitches and blog posts, individually or collaboratively written about anything related to teaching composition in the age of misinformation and fake news. 

Pitches and full-length blog pieces should be submitted to

*Featured image on this post created by Dilok Klaisataporn

Looking Ahead: FEN Blog’s New Editors Talk Year Two

Ben Hojem | Guilford College

Jada Patchigondla | University of California, Los Angeles

Jada Patchigondla and Ben Hojem are the incoming editors of the FEN Blog taking on the role from the previous editors, Lauren Fusilier and Megan Von Bergen. What we learned from Lauren and Megan’s time with FEN Blog is the prevalent topics in the field of writing studies published on the Blog. These issues are current and also written in a language that might be more accessible to a wide audience. In this conversation, we want to highlight our goals and purpose for the blog in the 2022-23 academic year. 

Jada: One of the reasons I decided to apply for the editor position for FEN Blog is because the blog is under the umbrella of Composition Studies, an academic journal, but the blog provides a space for multimodal work. It invites writers of all backgrounds to write for a wider audience than just an academic one. Moreover, I wanted to be involved in the field of composition more and the prospect of using the skills I’ve developed as a lecturer to be an editor for a blog was exciting. 

Ben: I was similarly attracted to the blog because it struck me as a space for conversations that don’t readily fit within the strictures and particular affordances of “academic” writing. 

Jada: Right! I have been a lecturer for twelve years. Since the beginning of my career in teaching composition, I have been passionate about students writing in different modes whether they are blogs, sites, memes, and even creating videos on reflections, TEDx talks, and more. Multimodal writing is more “real” and relevant to students because it’s a genre they engage in quite often and more than traditional academic writing. So, multimodal writing really appeals to me personally. 

Ben: Where you say “modes,” I say “genres.” This is probably because I’m one of those compositionists who crossed over from creative writing, which means I have a certain attachment to writing as writing, with all the connotations (and baggage) that that word implies. 

Jada: I love the word genre! I got interested in rhetorical genres and genre studies in graduate school and believe in the explicit teaching of genres with my FYW students. Thinking of our blog submissions as specific genres could be helpful for potential submiters. 

Ben: But then of course we can’t forget the role of technology in shaping the blog as a genre. It’s multimodal at the same time as it’s a genre. Personally, while I recognize that technology is rapidly and irrevocably evolving our modes of communicating, I am still invested in writing as a method (or perhaps a plurality of methods) of thinking and understanding the world. This is all a roundabout way of saying that I am interested in writing that tries to push the boundaries of what “academic” or “creative” means, perhaps in a move for something more “real,” as you say.  So is a blog a mode or a genre? I suppose this is one of the questions we might try to answer, or at the very least pose to our audience.

Jada: I love the idea of pushing the boundaries of traditional academic writing. Our blog is a space where we invite submissions from a wide range of scholars and teachers of writing and rhetoric whether they are mid- to late-career or new in the field, including graduate students.

Ben: I like that you are emphasizing both “scholars and teachers” in that range. I think it’s important to acknowledge that our field includes so many teachers of writing who aren’t tenure track or even full-time grad students. And while there are some non-TT faculty who are able to sustain their research and writing in spite of unfavorable teaching loads and little institutional support, for others it’s a feat to just to keep up on the latest scholarship, nevermind finding the time to do research and write and publish. But this is me speaking as a newly full-time, non-TT faculty instructor who is also still finishing his dissertation. 

Jada: I totally get it; however, I’ve never been a lecturer while finishing a dissertation! I have mostly taught at large public universities in California. I do think that non-TT faculty have perhaps not been recognized through their own writing. But there’s a very real disadvantage, as you say– time. I remember at several points in my teaching career, I taught six FYW courses a semester on multiple campuses just to make ends meet. I had no time for reading scholarship or engaging in, much less writing to get published. Sometimes it felt like the system is built against me really doing much of that. 

Ben: I’m lucky to have only adjuncted for a couple of semesters between graduate programs.  Nonetheless, the struggle feels very real. I think we’re in agreement that we’re especially open to submissions that speak to labor conditions in our field and what these conditions mean for our scholarship as well as our teaching. These aren’t new topics, of course, but it has been much easier for TT faculty to write about these issues on behalf of non-TT and contingent faculty than it has been for these faculty to get their own voices heard. 

Jada: Very true. The voices that should be heard must be heard. 

Ben: And I hope that FEN Blog will continue to be a platform for more voices. I think one of the most important affordances of the blog as a genre (or mode?) is its immediacy. And this applies on many fronts: faster to write, faster to publish, and faster to read. This greater velocity can make it more accessible for more readers and more voices and give it a responsive quality that can be difficult to achieve when you’re looking at a couple years long process to publish in an academic journal.

Jada: I like your approach of “faster to write, faster to publish, and faster to read” because I hope that this is encouraging to lecturers and non-TT writing instructors at various types of higher education institutions. But at the same time, we still aren’t as immediate as other forms of online publishing. We’re still an academic publishing space. Our editorial standards don’t allow us to publish with the same velocity as a Tweet or social media post.

Ben: I think we do have a bit more patience than the rest of the internet…

Jada: Yes, more patience and more encouragement! I really want to encourage scholars and teachers to submit pitches and full-length multimodal blog posts. We are looking for pieces that incorporate more multimodal elements that really allow us to expand the notion of the multimodal space.  So potential submitters should feel free to submit texts with various kinds of multimodal elements– images, hyperlinks, videos, and more. 

Ben: While Megan and Lauren did a terrific job creating this space from scratch, as new editors, we’re still learning how this space differs from the academic journal space. I’d like to see what our readers and writers have to contribute to answering that question. 

Jada: Megan and Lauren have worked hard to create this space that has redefined what academic readers and writers could be. We want to thank them for the blog and we look forward to carrying on their legacy in new directions.

Ben: Our first CFP is dropping as we speak (or, more accurately, as we publish this conversation). We’d like to see pitches and full-length submissions that speak to the post-truth world we’re now living in, but we’re also open to other concerns that are of this moment and about the issues that affect the teachers, researchers, and students in our field. 

Jada: Agreed, Ben! I am very excited to see what we receive and publish this year! I hope we are casting a wide net in our call and hope many are encouraged to submit. For any submission and pitches, we ask they be submitted to

Writers Learning with Their Elders

Gaby Bedetti | Eastern Kentucky University

Lindsey Danielle Horn | Eastern Kentucky University

With the support of the Kentucky Foundation for Women, I spent an academic year learning to write poetry with many older adults, aged sixty-five and over, at the Carnegie Center Author Academy in Lexington, Kentucky. Once examined in my poems, my murky and amorphous emotions felt validated and reframed. My poems try to change the conversation about women’s aging. For example, I challenge the stereotype of the accommodating woman who defers to the forces around her. I attempt to channel the fear and isolation many older women feel, myself included, into a purposeful and passionate life. Observing and trying to express older women’s reality are the first steps to changing that reality for the individual and the community. When readers connect with my poems, they validate my experiences, improve my self-image, and inspire me as an artist to bring the joy and playfulness of writing poems to others. 

While I had initially planned for students to assist me in leading group poetry workshops for older adults, pandemic conditions led me to reinvent the project as a Collecting Memories Circle.  During the 2020 pandemic, students at my university collected memories remotely at a senior living community. The intergenerational collaboration gave voice to the elders by eliciting, recording, transcribing, editing, and submitting the stories for publication. After five months of virtual meetings of students and elders, the pairs selected one of the five narratives, and I mentored students through the submission and manuscript preparation process.  

Utilizing oral history among elder populations promoted community literacy and provided benefits to elders and students through intergenerational relationships. From the interviewer/editor’s point of view, what emerged from the pandemic is a technique for developing editing skills. From the interviewee/narrator’s perspective, what emerged is a recognition of the sweetness and joy of sharing memories. Not only did the collaboration help students synthesize and put into practice what they learned about writing, but it also helped validate their elders’ wisdom. The editors had a symbiotic relationship with the narrators that humanized and transformed students and elders alike.

Students are poor at editing their own writing because they read into it what they wanted to mean when they wrote it. In addition to avoiding that pitfall, gathering oral histories benefited the students’ editing skills in other ways. After reviewing best practices and cultivating a relationship with the narrator, the students developed their skills at asking for specific examples and explanations of words that the interviewee used. They learned to find out not only what the person did, but also what she thought and felt about what she did. They became experts at asking follow-up questions. In the later stages, students learned to verify facts and edit for readability while preserving the flavor of the narrator’s speech. They consulted with the narrator throughout the editing process. Finally, they collected photographs relevant for the interpretation of the oral history by future users.

Imagine this veteran teacher’s delight in learning that one of her student’s editing skills was recognized by her classmates. At the 2021 Kentucky Book Fair, the editor of Kentucky Monthly shared with me that the high school of one of my students, Lindsey Danielle Horn, had ordered 500 copies of the issue to distribute at the school’s reunion. Imagine the pride of Danielle’s elder, Diane Sears, as her senior living community celebrated her publication. Finally, imagine Danielle’s pleasure in the validation of her editorial skills and connection she made with an elder. An English teaching major with a creative writing path, Danielle has experience working with students at our university’s Noel Studio for Academic Creativity. Her article “Boo’s Superpower: An Exploration of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Boo Radley on the Autism Spectrum” won a 2020 Library Research Award for Undergraduates. With this project, however, Danielle brought her editorial skills beyond campus in an intergenerational collaboration resulting in Diane’s personal narrative being published in a magazine with a circulation of 35,000. Danielle narrates her experience working with Diane below. I could not have wished for a more willing and able collaborator. Her light and encouraging touch with Diane, her sense of humor, her sensitivity to Diane’s changing needs and circumstances, as well as her editing skills made her the perfect collaborator.

The Teacher’s Goals

My goals as an educator include developing my students’ writing skills, academic socialization, and practices of listening, turn-taking, and respect for difference. With regard to writing skills, English teachers are aware that one of the last skills their students develop is editing, partly because writers are too close to their material to see it from the reader’s perspective. By following oral history interviewing guidelines—for example, listen quietly and carefully and actively, don’t interrupt a good story—as they listened to the senior’s narrative, the student collectors cultivated an objectivity they would not otherwise have had writing their own narrative. Furthermore, while they cultivated empathy through intergenerational relationships and developed writing and leadership skills, their elders experienced the pleasure of giving voice to their memories. Sharing my voice as a poet has increased my empathy for adults older than myself and intensified my desire to combat ageism. Like my teaching, I want to create emotional connections, raise awareness, and foster creativity beyond as well as on campus. Toward that end, the Kentucky Foundation for Women supported my artistic enrichment  to complete a poetry collection to develop my voice as a feminist poet, defuse discrimination against women based on age, and empower older women. As well, a research grant from my university funded our collaboration with the seniors. When elders share their deeper memories, they develop a positive self-image and shift the community’s discourse to eliminate discrimination against women based on age and instead value their wisdom and experience.

To begin, I prepared for our activities by contacting Ashland Terrace Senior Living Community—a non-profit that has been providing housing to those in need since 1849, when it was called Home of the Friendless and served those left destitute by cholera outbreaks. A colleague, Neil Kasiak, was kind enough to lend us recorders from the Oral History Center since pandemic conditions did not permit face-to-face encounters. Equally invaluable, his article, “Navigating Uncertainty: Coronavirus 2020 Oral History Project” initiated us into the art of interviewing others

From my perspective as an English teacher, the intergenerational collaboration successfully met the following goals:

  • elicit, record, transcribe, edit, and submit narratives for publication
  • develop the storytelling skills of seniors 
  • combat ageism in culture
  • cultivate intergenerational relationships 
  • serve as ambassadors for English education in Kentucky

Significantly, partnering with an elder and experiencing writing as a social process provided students the motivation to prepare a polished oral history for publication. With weekly check-ins, each senior composed five oral histories over five months. This article follows one student, Danielle, from June to October 2020 through brief excerpts from her weekly reports (Assistants’ Log: Collecting Memories Circle). Because situations related to aging are often difficult, the students had to accommodate for hearing and seeing issues. Hence, the monthly prompts linked below appear in 16-point font. In all, we recorded, transcribed, and edited ten oral histories. 

Danielle’s Experience 

My Goals and Trepidations for the Project

I learned about The Collecting Memories Circle through one of my employers at The Noel Studio for Academic Creativity on Eastern Kentucky University’s campus. As a fellow professor at the university, my employer had worked closely with Dr. Gaby Bedetti and spoke highly of her and her teaching methods. I loved the idea of networking and developing a mentorship with someone in the English department at a university, so I inquired more about The Collecting Memories Circle, and I unexpectedly sent Dr. Bedetti my resume the same day. The project just hooked me. Especially as a future English and creative writing teacher, I couldn’t decline an opportunity to expand my knowledge on the writing process or how to assist different types of learners. More than that though, I also had a personal connection to the project. In 2015, I watched my grandmother publish her first book. She was 64 at the time, and I saw how much joy she got from accomplishing one of her lifelong dreams. She knew that her story would remain a part of history and continue to impact people, even after she was gone. I imagined how the project could accomplish that for someone else, and I knew that I would not forgive myself if I didn’t participate.

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Fig. 1. Danielle Horn, recorder and editor
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Fig. 2. Diane Sears, oral historian and storyteller

June 1, 2020: Meet, Greet, and Brainstorm First Prompt, Character Sketch 

I (see fig. 1) was nervous, but she (see fig. 2) was talkative and made me feel welcome. She decided that she wanted to write about Mr. and Mrs. Wallace. They were like parents to her and she wanted to honor their memories. I assured her that I loved that idea. I’m not sure that we will ever use Zoom, because she uses captions on her phone to understand what I’m saying. 

June 8, 2020: Develop Character Sketch

She is proud of what she’s written so far. I don’t think she realizes how funny she is. We ended the phone call after she gave me some good advice about sharing my feelings with people. She said that when she was growing up, her family didn’t talk about things. She is glad that she can be open with her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and even strangers like me now. She likes the world better that way, and I think I do, too.

June 15, 2020: Edit Character Sketch

This was was the first phone call where we really connected. She also impressed me, because as she read the papers aloud, she caught the exact mistakes I planned to talk to her about. Since she has a caption phone, we agreed that it would be easiest to discuss our main concerns over the call, then I could send her small corrections with the transcript. She begged me to organize it better, even though I assured her it was a good start and even better than some of the first drafts I have seen from students.

June 22, 2020: Proofread Character Sketch

She agreed that I could make the revisions on my own, which I didn’t want to do because I wanted the story to stay in her voice, but I suppose it’s the best option. Maybe she was having an off day. We all have those sometimes. Here is a recording of Diane reading the first paragraph of her personal narrative, “My “Mama” and “Daddy,” Mr. and “Mrs. Ira and Mary Wallace.”

June 29, 2020: Rehearse for Videotaping
The conversation led to us adding each other on Facebook, and her excitement about that made me happy. She wanted to show off pictures of her cat, Prissy, and she said she considers us friends now. 

July 6, 2020: Brainstorm Second Prompt, a Significant Place

She already started her story about Germany. I asked her questions so she would elaborate on certain details that needed to be clearer, and she was eager to tell me more. 

July 20, 2020: Editing a Significant Place

When we first got on the phone, she expressed how much she loved the story and how few changes she wanted to make. I encouraged her to read the story aloud, though, to catch anything either of us missed. I let her know I would fix the errors and send her another copy as well as do the illustrations this week. 

July 27, 2020: Proofread a Significant Place

She made notes before I called so she could tell me what I needed to revise. She’s getting the hang of our routine, and it makes me so happy. She continued to tell me about how her life changed after the pandemic. One of her biggest disappointments is not being able to go to the YMCA anymore. She told me that one of her friends there told everyone in their group that Diane hadn’t been there because she was in jail. It cracked me up! That’s what they call quarantine, but I can just imagine all the senior women wondering what Diane’s in jail for. I love her sense of humor and the role it plays in her storytelling.

August 3, 2020: Brainstorm Third Prompt, the Pandemic

Each time I talk to her, I feel like I learn a little bit more about her heart. For example, even though they can’t celebrate residents’ birthdays with big parties right now, she colors pictures for the other residents and slips them under their doors during birthday week. 

August 10, 2020: Develop the Pandemic Story

Diane was a little tired this morning. She was up late, messaging me about the story, and she didn’t sleep that well. She read her answers to my questions about the story, which helped me elaborate on a lot of the paragraphs we already had.

August 17, 2020: Edit the Pandemic Story

She was very chipper. She let me know she got her birthday presents and was very thankful. We read through the story in its entirety (I think) for the first time. 

August 26, 2020: Proofread the Pandemic Story

We discussed the letter that she needs to start for next week. She plans to write to her daughter, Jean, who lives in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. She said that Jean was her wild child, so she will be easy to write about.

September 2, 2020: Brainstorm Fourth Prompt, Letter to a Young Person 

I let her know that there was a lot she could elaborate on and she encouraged me to text her questions to get her thinking about what else to write before next time. 

September 7, 2020: Develop Letter to a Young Person

Diane plans to write about her granddaughter, Brittney. I know a little about Brittney since she’s in Diane’s story about Germany, but I’m still excited to learn more. Diane admitted that she worked on the letter last-minute, but I told her that was okay. We all get busy sometimes, She shared her start with me. It was good. I let her know there was a lot she could elaborate on and she encouraged me to text her questions to get her thinking about what else to write before next time. It was a good call.

The call made me realize that we have become really comfortable with each other. Knowing that the collaboration is going to end makes me feel sad! So Diane and I made plans to see each other after the pandemic. She wants me to meet her cat, Prissy, and some of the other residents that she’s close to. What sparked our personal conversation today was when she got a notification about the U.S. sending troops to Iran. She wants to learn as much as she can about other cultures. She told me about her brothers and sisters of color at church and a mother and son who graduated from college with theology degrees and wanted to lead a Hispanic group for the ESL congregation members. I was thrilled! My uncle is from Mexico, and he’d love to hear about the things she told me. She taught me a few Spanish words and German ones when we wrote her story about Germany. I’m learning from her!

September 14, 2020: Edit Letter to a Young Person

Today, Diane read the entire letter aloud. She had two or three revisions. We then went through pictures she sent me, and she explained who everyone was and where they had taken the photos. Other than that, we talked about the pandemic. I was glad to hear that Ashland Terrace held Bingo the other night. They also allowed residents time for visitors to see them outside, as long as they social-distanced and wore masks. 

September 23, 2020: Proofread Letter to a Young Person

I texted her after the phone call and prompted her with questions so she would be prepared when we discussed the new story.

October 5, 2020: Brainstorm Prompt, Aging

She added to the story and gave me a lot to encourage her to expand on. For example, she talked about how all the ladies at Ashland Terrace were sisters, so I prompted her to tell me about some of her favorite residents. I was excited to meet them on my next visit.

October 12, 2020: Develop Piece on Aging

Diane added a final paragraph and encouraged me to add a paragraph in the middle about different residents at Ashland and how many of her “sisters” in the community lift people’s spirits by staying positive. Diane “refuses to be a crabby old person”; she is like lots of the ladies at Ashland who “have glad hearts.”

October 19, 2020: Revise Piece on Aging

She had a fall this morning, so we chose to take the day off and take it easy.

October 26, 2020: Proofread Piece on Aging

My final phone call with Diane was bittersweet. She read the story aloud one last time and made one or two revisions. She also told me how she read it to her friend, Vena, who she mentioned in the story. Of course, Vena loved it. Brittany also received her letter and was in awe. Diane complimented me as an editor and told me that Brittany liked how we wrote and polished the works together. We talked about how happy we both were that we did the project and decided on her story about Mr. and Mrs. Wallace for the submission to the Kentucky journal. It seemed like Diane finally realized that she would have something to show for her hard work because she was so excited about the future publications. 

February 14, 2020: Submit an Oral History for Publication

Over the last several weeks, I studied Kentucky Monthly in preparation to submit Diane’s personal narrative, “My ‘Mama’ and ‘Daddy,’ Mr. and Mrs. Ira and Mary Wallace.” 

What I Learned and How the Project Impacted Me

I had big ambitions going into The Collecting Memories Circle, and the reality of the project still managed to surpass them. While I learned skills that benefited me educationally (such as how to accommodate learners with hearing difficulties), the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic changed what I intended to accomplish during the project. In a way, the project became less about cycling through the stages of writing and more about giving the other person a connection to the outside world. Almost every phone call, Diane and I took minutes away from our work time to make small talk. I made a goal to ease the isolation that she felt in quarantine, and while I never asked if it worked, our conversations helped loneliness of my own that I didn’t even realize I had. I listened to Diane talk about her family until I knew all their names, and I heard the excitement in her voice when she saw them on FaceTime or they sent her gifts in the mail. Eventually, I sent her some gifts as well. Working so closely with a stranger was definitely the most intimidating part of the project, but Diane made it easy. She taught me about the importance of building relationships with collaborators, going at my own pace, and having a sense of humor. At the end of our last phone call, she even invited me to visit. After the COVID-19 mandates are gone, she wants to get me a pass for the dining hall to introduce me to everyone she has been telling me about over the last few months. I am thankful the project has left a lasting impact on me in the form of a new friend.

The Publishing Learning Outcomes

The log of weekly exchanges between the writer and editor document not only the growing friendship but also Danielle’s internship as an editor who continued to experience writing as a social process from the article’s submission in June 2021 to its publication in October 2021. As part of that process, Danielle:

On publication, Danielle, Diane, and I celebrated the article’s publication (see fig. 3). The success was also celebrated on several Facebook pages. The author received more than thirty likes, comments, and shares on the small retirement community’s Facebook, as did Danielle, who shared her elation on her own as well as the English Department’s Facebook page. The intergenerational collaboration not only allowed for development of writing skills but also served to challenge pervasive ageism in a country where in a couple of decades, the elderly will outnumber children.

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Fig 3. Screenshot of the published article in Kentucky Monthly, Oct. 2021, pp. 70 – 71

Authentic learning opportunities motivate students. My students have replied to minor league baseball player blogs, written essays in response to 9/11, composed letters to their next English instructor, anthologized essays concerning their career choices (What Do You Want to Be), published a literary and arts journal, and wrote and performed comedy sketches (EKU Shiloh). To cultivate empathy in our divisive times, one prompt asks students to choose someone they know well who holds an opinion with which they differ and explain how the person’s experiences, circumstances, and future hopes and fears helped shape that opinion. Emerging from the pandemic, people are hungry to connect again. Partnering with seniors gives students an opportunity to empathize with their elders and share the elders’ stories—all while they develop their own writing skills.

More importantly, by taking students outside the classroom and discipline, they will have learned that learning is a collaborative, inquiry-based practice. All educators can embed course skills and content in real world experiences, thereby inviting students to become creative problem-solvers. Granted, designing learning experiences in real world contexts requires greater preparation and involves additional participants. However, the field of immediate experience will deepen and widen the learning by connecting the instructor’s SLOs with students’ lived observations. Increasingly I enjoy designing learning experiences that engage the whole student in a classroom without walls. College teachers are not simply preparing tomorrow’s workforce, they are educating tomorrow’s decision makers and problem solvers. The significance of the collaborative experience of collecting oral histories and editing them to share is based, after all, on concern for college students’ moral development—not on developing editing skills alone. Whether the class invites the public to a culminating end-of-semester performance or works with the community throughout the semester, I trust—and my co-author’s account confirms—that students will internalize not only the lessons learned but also the pleasure of learning.                                                                        


This work was supported by a Kentucky Foundation for Women 2018 Artist Enrichment grant and an Eastern Kentucky University University-Funded 2019-2020 Scholarship grant 20-103. The subjects followed all protocols and granted the copyright permissions required on the William  H. Berge Oral History Center’s Release Agreement. 

An earlier version of this essay appears in Community Works Journal, 13 Jan 2022.

Works Cited

Assistants’ Log: Collecting Memories Circle. Google Drive.

Sears, Diane and Danielle Horn, “Lockport Humanitarians Ira and Mary Wallace,” Kentucky Monthly, Oct. 2021, pp. 70-71.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? Career Dreams. Google Drive.

Reflection on a Year of Editing FEN Blog

Lauren Fusilier | University of Louisville

Megan Von Bergen | University of Tennessee, Knoxville

As of June 2022, both Megan Von Bergen and Lauren Fusilier are stepping down from the editorship of FEN Blog and turning the reins over to a new editorial team. It’s been a privilege to work on getting FEN Blog off the ground over the last year, and we look forward to seeing where the blog goes in the future. We knew we wanted to write a reflection on our work with the blog. Rather than using an essay style, we chose a dialogic style, a conversation about our takeaways over the last year. We reflect on what we learned as scholars during our work on the blog, how we approached the labor of the blog, and how we hope the blog contributes to the field of composition studies. 

Megan: One of the things I think we both really appreciated about working with FEN Blog was the chance to see what goes on “behind the scenes” in journal editing. Shall we start there? 

Lauren: Sure, I can speak to that. As editors, we loved the back-and-forth with writers, particularly graduate student writers. I liked seeing the kernel of someone’s idea as it progresses and develops, especially as the collaborative work happens with feedback, where you see a writer saying, “oh, I haven’t thought of it that way, but now that you point this out, my ideas are developing, and it’s growing in this direction.” That collaboration brings out unforeseen and valuable elements in a piece. So, we got to help writers figure out how to hit the marks, bring their piece in line with their vision for it, so it could succeed. 

Megan: We’re also graduate students, so it’s useful to get the experience for when we’re approaching a new writing project: what should we think about as we’re preparing to send in a journal article? For me, getting the first-hand experience, especially as we worked with Kara, of what editors might ask for and when was invaluable. I’ve been fortunate enough to publish a few times already, but always as part of a special issue or edited collection, and as I look to submit some of my work unsolicited, I feel much more confident in the typical processes of editorial work. It’s like a black box has been opened. 

Lauren: I like the black box metaphor. Publishing in higher ed can feel obscure and confusing, especially since its editorial rhythms are different from other kinds of publishing, such as journalism. So having the opportunity to open that box and see the gears in motion earlier in our careers was really key. 

Megan: One thing that I’m really proud of is that we’ve established a new, less formal place for composition scholars to work through ideas. Writing for blogs (in my case, the Digital Rhetorical Collaborative) was key in getting some early work published, and so I was excited to help start FEN Blog. We’ve published tenured folks –– starting with Sheila Carter-Tod’s excellent piece on multiple rhetorics, we’re so thankful that she agreed to be the first piece on the new blog –– but also graduate students and non-tenured folks. Writing a blog post is a great way for scholars to get their ideas in front of an audience without committing to an arduous and sometimes years-long process, so especially in a time of greater contingency and swifter circulation of ideas, having a new blog in the field is great. 

Lauren: The point about precarity is something that it’s important to me, personally. While adjuncting, the thought of publishing was so daunting, so the accessibility of what we do with FEN Blog felt really meaningful. It feels almost retroactive for me, in that I wish I’d had this space as an adjunct, because I was working through a lot of ideas, but I wasn’t confident enough to send that work to a formal journal. Now, in the first two years of my PhD program, I also felt really intimidated. But working through the blog has built up my confidence. Also, it feels really important that we share the work of especially scholars who are facing precarity, because they have so much to say. They’re the on the ground workers, teaching the bulk of the first year composition classes, and they’re the ones who have their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening in those classrooms. I think that sometimes we’re at risk of missing those perspectives in the more traditional publishing routes. 

Megan: I agree! Sometimes I hear a colleague or friend talking about how much they’ve appreciated one of FEN Blog’s posts. I really like that these pieces have already been taken up and circulated within first year composition and among folks who teach and research first year composition. I know that I personally have recommended Sharon Mitchler’s piece, particularly for its discussion of best-by dates, in helping friends and colleagues rethink their grading and attendance policies. These kinds of really practical, hands-on pieces are invaluable and timely –– and also, good scholarship. 

Lauren: Yeah, I used Megan McIntyre’s piece in my antiracist professional development course. People loved it. The ease of which her work can be applied in the classroom is great. When your course load is really heavy theory, that kind of lighter, more practical reading helps balance the material really well; it offers a hands-on angle that pairs so well with classics like Geneva Smitherman’s work. 

Another area where I think we both experienced some professional growth was in figuring out the logistics of what it meant to get the ball rolling on the blog and keep it going. At first we were really committed to keeping a close schedule, going above and beyond in our work to meet the deadlines we had outlined, but as time went on, we had to adapt to the ebbs and flows of submissions and the academic calendar. 

Megan: Part of managing the labor of the blog turned out to be sharing the labor of editorial work between ourselves. I handled much of the feedback and responses to writers. And you did a great job with the technical side, choosing good photos, uploading the post, wrangling WordPress.  

Lauren: Taking on the technical aspect was a good challenge for me! It felt really important to me to use this opportunity to deepen my knowledge about design and digital communication, which are part of my scholarly interests but weren’t something I’d pursued on my own previously. So the editorial work for FEN Blog gave me a chance to hone those skills in a new way. 

Megan: I felt as though I was already fairly strong with feedback, but for me, the recursive, critical process of editorial work was a good learning experience. I get enthusiastic about pieces, and so being patient with their development and offering the critique, really, that they need to improve was hard for me. Kara was a great coach, and as time went on, I think I got better at balancing constructive criticism with my eagerness to share writers’ vision with our readership. 

Lauren: Coming from my journalism editorial background outside of academia, doing a second pass of feedback was really helpful for me because I had the opportunity to learn by seeing your feedback and Kara’s. It gave me a chance to develop –– not a softer voice, but more a open-ended suggestion style that is less directive and more welcoming of writers’ growth.   

Megan: And then, we passed on these strategies to the incoming team. They’ll develop their own rhythms, of course, but the chance to establish editorial structures and flows that work for us –– especially as grads and/or non-tenure-track faculty working on this project –– and for the writers was really a privilege. 

Lauren: I think overall it was helpful, especially in the context of the pandemic, to think through what was in our control –– and what was not. And sometimes the labor of the blog called us to more flexible processes and structures. I’m really glad that we could approach the work in that way, and I hope the blog continues to be a space that considers labor and positionality. 

Megan: I’d add here that this attention to labor really fit in with the larger vision we had for the blog. One of the things we wanted the blog to do was to make space for people to talk about exigencies in our field and address what’s happening now –– questions, problems, concerns –– not two years down the road to be published in a journal article. That long process for journal publications is really important, but having timely scholarship is also important. Dr. Carter-Tod’s piece does this really well, engaging with the really urgent need our field has to get at rhetorics that are outside of the white, western, Greco-Roman epistemology. And other pieces do this as well –– we were really pleased with Natalie’s piece, for instance, about writing centers supporting a diverse range of voices, using creative writing strategies to recreate that space. 

Lauren: It was a goal for us from the jump and one I think we met pretty well. The timing of the blog, beginning in the midst of the pandemic and the cultural movements happening with police brutality, really plays into this, as well, I think. The pandemic put into sharp relief what is important. Things have really shifted for me in the past few years and my ideas of what’s most important have sharpened into focus.  

Megan: It’s a little bittersweet handing the reins over to new editors. We’re confident that Ben and Jada will do great, of course! And Kara will provide good direction, as she did for us. Both Lauren and I are stepping away to focus on our dissertations, so it makes sense. 

Lauren: Yeah, we got FEN Blog off the ground, and Kara gave us a lot of freedom. 

Megan: So it’s been really rewarding to see it take shape and have an impact on our field. 

Lauren: It feels very much like our brainchild! We had a lot of space, and we’re proud of where it’s gone. 

Megan: And excited to see where it goes next. 

Note: We borrow the dialogic (versus essayistic) format of this piece from T.J. Geiger and Melody Pugh’s book review, “Christian Rhetorics: Towards a Hopeful Future.” The review appears in Composition Studies 43.2 (2015), pg. 216-224 and may be found here

A small stack of the following books: Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Well-Read Black Girl by Gloria Edem, and Black on a spine with the rest of the title cut off from the picture.

Antiracist Ways of Reading

Paul T. Corrigan | University of Tampa

During the first year of the pandemic, in the small town of Homewood, Alabama, the Berthiaume family took a set of “discarded red chest drawers” and built a “little free library” outside their home, as CNN’s Alaa Elassar reports. The family of five “added a roof and painted it, finalizing it with the words ‘Antiracist Little Library’ on the side,” and stocked the shelves with such titles as Ashley Jones’s Reparations Now! and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. Kristen Berthiaume, the mother of the family, explained that with Covid closing their local public library, they wanted to ensure such books would still be “accessible” to readers, to provide “knowledge” about race and racism or “just a good story where all the characters aren’t White.” So far they have given away over 300 books.

The Berthiaumes are not alone in their efforts. Along the way, they partnered with the nonprofit organization Little Free Library, which, as part of its Read In Color initiative, has distributed “more than 30,000 diverse books” (Elassar). Moreover, still other folks buying antiracist books, often to give as gifts, recently propelled such titles into all of the top spots of the New York Times Bestseller list (Evelyn). These efforts to circulate books illustrate a widespread theory of antiracist reading that stresses access to books—a theory that I, as a teacher of reading and writing, want to endorse but also complicate.

One complication comes from those striving to limit access to antiracist books. In the county where I live in central Florida, two books by Toni Morrison, Beloved and The Bluest Eye, along with more than a dozen other diverse titles, have just been removed from the middle school and high school libraries after complaints and threats of legal action by a group called County Citizens Defending Freedom (CCDF). One of the group’s leaders, Hannah Petersen, claimed the books made her “physical (sic) nauseous.” When local reporter Kimberly C. Moore asked what was objectionable in the books, another leader, Jimmy Nelson, declared, “It’s pretty evident. The books speak for themselves.” Although the stated concerns reference sex and gender, the ban inescapably affects—and apparently targets—books that expose racism or advocate for racial justice. If the Berthiaumes are not alone in promoting access to such books, then neither are the CCDF in opposing it. “So far, at least 36 states have adopted or introduced laws or policies that restrict teaching about race and racism,” Chalkbeat’s Cathryn Stout recently reported, and “new legislation is in the pipeline.” 

If opposition to access offers one complication, another comes in the form of a surprising consensus about what access means, one that can be seen by examining a tool proponents and opponents both use: lists of antiracist books. While proponents forward lists of books to read—such as’s list of books that “help examine anti-Black racism and the fight for antiracism in The United States”—opponents create lists of books to ban—such as Texas state representative Matt Krause’s list of 850 books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex” (Chappell). Though these competing lists have opposite aims, they share a couple features. First, both contain many of the same authors. For example, the and Krause lists both include Ibram X. Kendi, Isabel Wilkerson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander, Patrisse Cullors and Asha Bandele, Claudia Rankine, Layla Saad, Mikki Kendall, Ijeoma Oluo, and Tiffany Jewell and Aurelia Durand.

Both sets of lists also tend to give little indication of what readers ought to do with the books. As Lauren Michele Jackson observes, an antiracist reading list “seldom instructs or guides. It is no pedagogue.” The same goes for a banning list. In both cases, the exhortation, sometimes stated, other times implied, is just read or just don’t. In this regard, proponents and opponents of access appear to share a key assumption: that the messages and effects of the books are self-evident and self-enacting; that simply reading antiracist books is in and of itself sufficient to make something happen in readers, something the one group wants and the other group does not; that simply reading makes readers either more antiracist or psychologically “distressed” and physically “nauseous.” In this way, the access theory of antiracist reading is an instance of what education scholar Patrick Shannon calls “the direct-effects theory of reading” (44). Whatever it is books can do, exposure makes directly possible. In other words: It’s pretty evident. The books speak for themselves

But though such an assumption about the inherent power of books may be shared, it is also questionable. Reading carries antiracist potential but is also plagued by recurring insufficiency. Yes, in our own experiences and in history, we may find many examples of readers being profoundly affected by antiracist reading. For instance, in my own life, reading Ernest Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men in college transformed my understanding of racism. I think also of reading testimonies by Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, bell hooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jesmyn Ward, and the writers included in Well-Read Black Girl (Edim) and Black Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing (Oliver)

But we can find plenty of counterexamples, too, times readers were not particularly moved.For instance, reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in high school just left me confused. Another counterexample, a particularly pointed one, comes from the crisis unfolding in my county: the people who wrote the report to ban the antiracist books first read the books, carefully enough to cite specific passages they objected to, along with page numbers, and then they went on to act in ways that are more racist, not less, by pushing for the ban. Clearly, reading antiracist books does not automatically make people antiracist. 

So, to talk about the antiracist power of reading, we need caveats. Reading can be powerfully antiracist. But it is not inevitably so. There are variables: what one reads and how one reads matter. There are, as the title of David Bartholomae and Tony Petrosky’s famous anthology puts it, many different Ways of Reading. Unfortunately, considerations of what is read often overshadow attention to how it is read. The fact that internet searches for the phrase “antiracist reading” turn up the sorts of book lists discussed above, and not, say, methods for how to read, suggests that many people understand antiracist reading as tantamount to reading books with antiracist content. However important the lists are, this emphasis on content strikes me, and Patricia Roberts-Miller who pointed out the parallel to me, as an error in the tradition of the transmission model of education, or the “banking” model, to use Paulo Friere’s term. Just as learning requires more than “covering” information about a topic, antiracist reading requires more than just “reading” antiracist books. What we do with the information and with the books—how we process, respond, and use them—matter. So, in my view, antiracist reading has to mean reading in ways that are antiracist. 

To help us become more conscious of the options available, more intentional in using and promoting a range of reading practices for a range of antiracist purposes, I’ve sketched the following preliminary taxonomy of modes of antiracist reading through reflecting on the approaches I have come across in my studies. Some of the models are implicit—such as Ta-Nehisi Coates immersing himself in reading about the history of US slavery and Toni Morrison critiquing white representations of Blackness in US literature—while others have been spelled out overtly—especially Asao Inoue’s step-by-step method for attending to our racialized reactions to texts. I have also been helped by Gary Lemon’s “autocritography,” Eliza Ramirez and Sarah J. Donovan’s “ABAR (anti-bias, antiracist) lens,” AnaLouise Keating’s “(de)racialized reading,” Lisa K. Taylor’s “anti-colonial feminist reading strategies,” and Timothy Oleksiak’s race-conscious “worldbuilding.” 

I say “sketched” and “preliminary” advisedly. The taxonomy is not a treatise but an outline. At this juncture, I name and briefly define ten modes of antiracist reading. I also cite an example source and suggest an example lesson for each mode, gesturing toward yet-to-be-traced genealogies of these practices and anchoring them in teaching. But all of the modes need more unpacking, including consideration of their respective affordances and limitations and of, as co-editor of FEN Blog Megan Von Bergen asked me, how they might be practiced differently by readers who have lived different experiences of race and racism. Also, although I’ve tried to identify discrete modes of reading, they inevitably overlap in practice and could very well be sorted into different categories. The order I’ve arranged the modes in makes intuitive sense to me but does not necessarily represent a progression or hierarchy. Additionally, the taxonomy is not an unqualified endorsement; all the modes remain open to caveats, critiques. Indeed, I invite readers—even in comments on this post—to challenge these modes, propose new ones, and offer additional examples and counterexamples.

Informative Informative antiracist reading is reading to learn about race, racism, and antiracism. The “immersive” reading Ta-Nehisi Coates undertook to understand the history of US slavery is an example of this mode (66). A possible lesson in this mode would be to assign students to read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time to get a contemporaneous view of the 1960s civil rights movement.
Attentive Attentive antiracist reading is reading to listen carefully to the words of racially othered writers. When Jacqueline Jones Royster asserts that “voicing at its best is not just well-spoken but also well-heard,” she invokes the attentive mode of antiracist reading (40). An example of applying this mode in the classroom would be to direct students to spend time carefully working through the fractured sentences in poems by Jay Wright.
Empathetic  Empathetic antiracist reading is reading to feel with the experiences of racially othered writers or characters. Samantha Blackmon’s argument that popular culture’s “Magical Negro” trope limits segregated white readers’ “ability to empathize” with Black people underscores the empathetic mode of antiracist reading. Asking students to read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and write a letter “back” to Celie, expressing compassion for what she’s suffered, pride for what she’s accomplished, would be a lesson to teach this mode.
Affirmative Affirmative antiracist reading is reading to verify one’s racialized experiences as real and shared. Jesmyn Ward’s reading of James Baldwin illustrates the affirmative mode, showing her that “someone else saw the myriad injustices of living while black in this country” (7). A way to teach in this mode could be to ask students to read Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s womanist anthology This Bridge Called My Back and comment on texts that resonate with their own experiences.
Introspective  Introspective antiracist reading is reading to surface racist impulses within oneself. AnaLouse Keating’s observation that “self-reflection . . . can expose the hidden ‘white’ framework” of “conventional” reading is a call for the introspective mode (85). An example lesson in this mode might have students read Jamaica Kincaid’s comments against tourists in A Small Place and take careful note of what (possibly defensive) emotions arise as a result.
Critical Critical antiracist reading is reading to critique racist ideas and representations in texts. For example, in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison employs the critical mode of antiracist reading to expose racism in US literature. Watching pre-Black Panther MARVEL films and critiquing the greater prominence of red, green, and purple characters, compared to Brown and Black characters, would be a lesson in this mode.
Rhetorical Rhetorical antiracist reading is reading to analyze the role of race in texts’ rhetorical situations. Henry Louis Gates demonstrates rhetorical antiracist reading when he examines the racially cautious language of some of Phillis Wheatley’s poems in light of the racist confines of her enslavement. An example lesson would be to ask students to consider which audiences find comedian Ali Wong’s racial jokes funny, which audiences don’t, and why.
Imaginative Imaginative antiracist reading is reading to imagine what a racially just world could look like. When bell hooks recalls that reading as a child “made the impossible possible” for her, she’s describing the imaginative mode of antiracist reading (133). A possible lesson in this mode could entail reading Nnedi Okorafor’s LaGuardia and discussing how the alternative, inclusive communities she depicts might look in real life. 
Activist Activist antiracist reading is reading to motivate and guide antiracist action. Elizabeth Ammons teaches this mode when she has students in an environmental justice literature course undertake a “final social activism project” connected to course texts (171). Watching Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th and writing letters to representatives opposing the use of private prisons would be another possible lesson in the activist mode.
Sacred Sacred antiracist reading is reading that moves readers in ways that are antiracist on an existential, even spiritual, level and difficult to categorize. Overcome by grief over the death of his mother and anti-Black violence, Andre Henry turned to this mode: “Writings on hope from freedom fighters, past and present, became my holy texts” (169). A lesson about this mode might discuss Frederick Douglass’s testimony of how reading an argument against slavery “roused my soul to eternal wakefulness” (41).

After the Berthiaumes set up the Antiracist Little Library, vandals cleaned out all of the books twice. But supporters quickly donated enough books to replenish the supply many times over. As soon as the sixteen books were pulled from my county’s school libraries, our librarians and our local chapter of the NAACP spoke out in response. (As did I in a letter to the editor of our local newspaper.) The struggle to protect and expand access to antiracist books is unending. But it is also just the start. As we attend to access, let us also attend to the many options available for how those books are to be read.

Selected Bibliography
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. One World, 2017.

Edim, Glory, editor. Well-Read Black Girl:  Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves. Ballantine Books, 2018.

Inoue, Asao. “Teaching Antiracist Reading.” Journal of College Reading and Learning, vol. 50, no. 3, 2020, pp. 134-156. 

Keating, AnaLouise. Teaching Transformation: Transcultural Classroom Dialogues. Palgrave, 2007.

Lemons, Gary. Black Male Outsider: Teaching as a Pro-Feminist Man—A Memoir. SUNY Press, 2008.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Harvard University Press, 1992.

Oleksiak, Timothy. “Culturally Relevant Student Response: Responding to the DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice.” Paper presented at the College Composition and Communication Annual Convention, Mar. 9-12, 2022.

Oliver, Stephanie Stokes, editor. Black Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing. Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Ramirez, Eliza and Sarah J. Donovan. “Harm and Healing: Reading with an ABAR (Anti-Bias, Antiracist) Lens.” Voices from the Middle, vol. 28, no. 4, 2021, pp. 54-59.Taylor, Lisa K. “Reading Desire: From Empathy to Estrangement, from Enlightenment to Implication.” Intercultural Education, vol. 18, no. 4, 2007, pp. 297-316.

The Cycle of Progressive Failure

Annie Halseth | Colorado State University

We’ve long lived with the idea that failure is not an option. But that is far from accurate. As teachers, we fail all the time, or at least more often than we’d like. And, furthermore, we don’t like to talk about our own failures. So, as I approached the opportunity of writing this blog post about failure, I experienced a certain kind of excitement tinged with trepidation. I knew I wanted to talk about the importance of failure as a teacher and what that might look like when we implement new technologies in the composition classroom. However, as a graduate student with a Spring 2022 graduation, I recognize the potential risk of writing about failure and entering the job market with hopes of finding a position teaching composition. I am plagued by the fear that my discussion and candid experience of failing as a teacher might disqualify me from certain positions. I love teaching composition, and I want to keep teaching composition. But I believe that in the process of improving my teaching practice I need to embrace the process of failing as I try new methods of instruction; particularly in regards to new and evolving forms of writing and technology. Yet, as I turn towards this discussion on failure I am faced with the obstacle that failing as a social stigma carries. I realize that as academics who are notoriously high achieving individuals, we often do not want to share our experiences with failure. But, in the field of writing studies and composition, we also know that writing is an evolving technology. As instructors, we want to teach our students how to successfully write and communicate with others. As we navigate this evolving field, we need to adapt our instructional practices. And adaptation will most likely include moments of failure.

This post is meant to start a conversation about our failures so that we can learn from each other and work to destigmatize what it means to fail as instructors. I want to share my own experience of failing in the classroom as an instructor who works to integrate new technologies into the composition classroom. I also want to invite all of us to participate in this conversation about failing and teaching. Hopefully, as composition instructors and scholars in writing studies and composition, we can embrace our own failures in the classroom and learn from each other. 

Failure as narrative and counternarrative
The word “failure” carries a negative connotation. The dominant cultural narrative equates failure with laziness and ineptitude, giving failure a distinct flavor of shame. Modern educational practices are focused on constant evaluation, and with evaluation comes success or failure; and there is rarely room between these two polarized judgments. Consequently, the maxim failure is not an option is ingrained into most classrooms for both students and instructors. Certainly, this is a narrative that is echoed in pop culture as well as education. I am excited by the counternarrative that “failure is fundamental a part of success” which has begun to emerge in societal discourse. Yet, in education, we still tend to treat failure like a permanent outcome instead of as part of the process.

In holding the line for failure for our students, educators become complicit in equating failure with ill-preparedness, inadequacy, and laziness for both our students and ourselves. There is a burgeoning conversation in writing studies to reevaluate failure in the writing classroom for students. For example, Allison Carr is an outspoken advocate for promoting a pedagogy of failure in the writing classroom and Shively et al. describe “failure as essential to the writing process.” Failing as a primarily negative experience needs to be transformed into an opportunity for learning. As composition instructors, we are uniquely situated to do this work since a majority of our college students are required to enroll in at least one composition course. In addition to the ongoing push for writing students to see failure as a key part of the creative process, the emerging use of digital tools for writing can help instructors reflect on the generative role of failure in that process. In answering the call to include new technologies in our classrooms—a process accelerated by the pandemic climate—we need to reconsider our own failures as instructors. 

We need to fail progressively with new writing technologies 
As writing instructors, we shoulder the mantle of preparing our students to write successfully outside of our classroom. Twenty years ago, that goal looked very different than it does today. When we teach our students about the rhetorical situation a la Bitzer (1968) or about the conversation model (Palmquist), we need to account for the increasingly digitized modalities many of our students are familiar with and use on a regular basis. Selber, in his book Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, cogently argues that it is “when teachers ignore technology and its contexts that the real pedagogical and social damage is likely to be done” (13). As technology transforms the way we communicate, educators need to consider how a failure to adjust accordingly can perpetuate social inequalities. Under these circumstances, there is a clear and desperate need for educators to re-envision the writing classroom using multimodal genres and an awareness of how our students navigate and write in the technosphere.

A smart phone screen is one with a group of social media icons open. Pinterest, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Clubhouse, and Facebook icons are all present.

Indeed, there are educators who are integrating new technologies successfully into their classrooms. For example, Lilian Mina published a critical study that examined writing instructors’ pedagogical use of social media platforms in first-year composition courses. Her findings reveal that these innovative methods of instruction resulted in community building, student engagement, and support in understanding rhetorical choices (Mina). These new methods of instruction are incredibly inspiring and their successful implementation is well documented. However, the process of achieving these incredible successes is often excluded from the story. Often, when we first try something new in the classroom we cannot be so confident in its immediate success and there is certainly a tacit understanding that a degree of trial and error is necessary when introducing new instructional methods. The moments of failure are completely omitted from most published success stories. So when we attempt similar methods and experience failure ourselves, it can create self-doubt in our own teaching practices. And, at its most damaging, can dissuade us from embracing the opportunity to explore new forms of writing and writing instruction.

If we accept the need to develop new instructional strategies to evolve with the new ways our students are writing, we need to become comfortable trying new and creative designs for our courses—and that means we might fail. Anne Lamott writes that “almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere” (25). I believe the same is true with teaching. Teaching is an art and a science that is developed and refined over time. However, to be bold and creative in the classroom requires a willingness—perhaps even a goal—to fail spectacularly. Allison Carr brilliantly states that “to fail willingly in writing is to be empowered by the possibilities that emerge. It is to trust oneself and one’s ideas” (76). Putting aside for a moment the heavy weight that the term failure carries in our social and institutional context, it is worth considering the potential ramifications that we fear accompany failing in our instructional practice. Personally, I fear failing my students. I don’t want to deprive them of a rigorous course that would provide them with a strong composition foundation. To that end, I think it is reasonable to say that we care deeply about our students’ growth in the classroom and our desire to see them succeed. Consequently, we strive to be efficient and effective instructors and often rely on pedagogical and rhetorical theory to help us achieve those goals. However, as mentioned previously, what is often missing from those research-supported pedagogical strategies is the process of failing that occurs in order for those educators to find the most effective moves. While I was inspired by these innovative researchers, I found when I first attempted to bring blogging into my creative writing course, I was frustrated by my perceived failure and their overwhelming success. 

My experience with failure
When I first attempted to use Blogger, the Google-powered blogging tool, in a creative writing class, I found that some students were blocked by the institutional wireless network for inexplicable reasons in our first class. My hours of preparation did not account for this first obstacle. So, in a quick bid for flexibility, I switched to WIX, a platform that also allowed for more personalization. This unexpected shift provided opportunities for discussions on design and purpose – which felt exciting. The initial failure with Blogger had turned into an opening for a deeper discussion about rhetorical design. Despite my initial flustered frustration with the failed attempt using Blogger, WIX provided new and exciting instructional opportunities. This switch to WIX was initially fast—it happened in the same class period that our initial Blogger failure occurred—but it was the time spent reflecting on the Blogger => WIX transition that allowed me to find excitement and space for these deeper instructional moments. 

Tiles from a board game spell out the words adapt or fail.

The second big failure in this attempt at introducing new technology in this course came very shortly after the WIX switch. I found that so much of my time in class and during office hours was spent troubleshooting errors with students that everyone in the course was frustrated. In a move to salvage the blogging project, I created heterogenous student groupings where students who had found success in navigating WIX could support their struggling peers. After one class period of this new arrangement, I found that everyone in the class had successfully written, designed, and published at least one blog post. The byproduct of this new class design was the collaborative work and intuitive peer review that was organically taking place within these small groups. By no means was this the final failure in this first attempt to introduce WIX to this class, but I do find I often return to the blogs this class created when I am again feeling frustrated and alone in the process of failing. Because as unavoidable as failure is, it can feel really lonely and just bad. However, transforming the idea of failure as a permanent state into a part of the creative process can reveal the generative potential of failing as a composition instructor.

The cyclical process of reflective failure
Since that course, I have continued to work towards integrating different forms of technology and writing into my classes—with varying degrees of failure and success. I suppose there is a driving force behind my determination in continuing to fail and grow as an instructor—and it is that fear of failing my students. It is becoming imperative that writing instruction adapts to incorporate new forms of language and writing as our students are writing and participating in new forms of discourse that have evolved. However, the teaching process—and the failing process—would not be complete without the necessity of intentional reflection. kathleen blake yancey, in her post to the FEN blog writes, “Reflection doesn’t so much provide answers as point to and open other ways of seeing and being.” As instructors who embrace a willingness to fail, we also need to intentionally reflect on our failures to see the opportunities and possibilities they expose. To that end, the failing process—like the writing process—becomes cyclical. 

The diagram below is my attempt to visualize and share my progressive cycle of failure. By no means is this post meant to advocate for last-minute attempts at innovative teaching; but rather to view failure as an integral part of improving our instructional practices. This cycle’s foundation of research and planning incorporates failure as a means of progressing towards new and effective methods of writing instruction. This cycle begins with inspiration. One of the most exciting moments as a teaching scholar is reading about a pedagogical theory or instructional strategy that I want to try. The field of writing studies is full of innovative research and dedicated instructors who publish such inspirational work. As I consider an approach I want to try, it is important to thoroughly read scholars’ accounts of their work as I formulate my own ideas. Of course, context matters. Someone else’s classroom is most likely going to be a different environment than my classroom. I need to consider the needs of my students and my own instructional strengths and weaknesses. This next step of developing and planning may include more research and—my favorite—collaboration with a colleague. Talking through our ideas with our colleagues is, in my opinion, one of the highlights of working as a composition instructor. And the input and perspective of others is always a benefit! Next, I have to put the plan I developed into action. There will most likely be moments of success and failure. However, it is the moment following both success and failure that reflection is necessary. Considering why something worked and why something else did not provides openings for growth and new opportunity. It is with intentional and consistent reflection that I have come to embrace my own failures as a part of my growth as an instructor and a person.

A chart outlining the Progressive Cycle of Failure. Step 1 is Start with inspiration; Step 2 is research; Step 3 is Formulate your own ideas; Step 4 is Develop and plan your practices; Step 5 is Put your plan into action; Step 6 is Failure or, alternatively, Success; and Step 7 is Reflect on your practice, look for new opportunities.

Opening our instructional practices in the composition classroom to allow for new ways of writing—and failing—is certainly not limited to the necessity for multimodal writing and technology instruction. Clearly, the ways we communicate are constantly transforming and evolving. As writing instructors, we must be willing to fail spectacularly as we push the boundaries of traditional composition expectations. Because, at the end of the day, we are writing instructors. We teach writing as a way of knowing and being in this world and, as such, must provide our students with the tools they need so they can interact meaningfully and successfully with the world around them. And this is a constantly evolving world that requires our imagination, creativity, and a willingness to fail, reflect, and talk about our failures so we can best serve our students.

A red background with white text saying keep calm and fail on topped by a crown.

Works Cited
Brooke, Collin, and Allison Carr. “Failure Can Be an Important Part of Writing Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 62–64. 

Carr, Allison D. “Failure Is Not an Option.” Bad Ideas about Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe, West Virginia University Libraries, 2017, pp. 76–81. 

Carr, Allison. “In Support of Failure.” Composition Forum, 2013, 

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. Anchor Books, 1997. 

Mina, Lilian W. “Social Media in the FYC Class: The New Digital Divide.” Social Writing/Social Media: Publics, Presentations, and Pedagogies, 2017, pp. 263–282., doi:10.37514/per-b.2017.0063.2.14. 

Palmquist, Mike. Joining the Conversation: Writing in College and Beyond. Bedford/St. Martins, 2010. 

Selber, Stuart A. Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. 

Shively, Lauren, et al. “Failure as Essential to the Writing Process.” Arkansas English Resource, Department of English at the University of Arkansas, 12 Dec. 2020, 

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “The Meaning-Making of Reflection.” Composition Studies, 12 July 2021, 

Zanatta, Eduardo. “Failure is a Part of Success.” YouTube, uploaded by TEDx Talks, 30 April 2013,