Tag Archives: composition

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, https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/30/politics/trump-legacy-fake-news.

Corrigan, Paul T. “Fake News: An Undergraduate Composition Course.” https://writingcommons.org/courses/courses-overview/composition/syllabus-fake-news/.

Gajanan, Mahita. “Kellyanne Conway Defends White House’s Falsehoods as ‘Alternative Facts’.” Time, January 22, 2017, https://time.com/4642689/kellyanne-conway-sean-spicer-donald-trump-alternative-facts/

Griffin, Michael. “How News Has Changed.” Macalester News, Macalester College, April 8 2020, https://www.macalester.edu/news/2017/04/how-news-has-changed/.

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, https://michaellaitman.medium.com/social-engineering-truth-is-a-matter-of-perspective-bae9d0cfc579

O’Brien, Meredith . “Teaching Journalism in the Age of Trump.” Inside Higher Ed, May 10, 2019, https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2019/05/10/journalism-professor-describes-challenges-teaching-students-trump-era-opinion.

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, https://twitter.com/thedailyshow/status/865990531079225346.

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.

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 Bookshop.org’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 Bookshop.org 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, https://compositionforum.com/issue/27/failure.php. 

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, http://aer.uark.edu/doku.php?id=failure_as_essential_to_the_writing_process. 

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “The Meaning-Making of Reflection.” Composition Studies, 12 July 2021, compstudiesjournal.com/2021/07/12/the-meaning-making-of-reflection/. 

Zanatta, Eduardo. “Failure is a Part of Success.” YouTube, uploaded by TEDx Talks, 30 April 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bujIb_sQZvQ.

Notes on Writing and Desire

Jonathan Alexander | University of California, Irvine

Earlier in my career (I’m now well into my third decade of the profession), I wrote a book, Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies, in which I attempted to mobilize the insights of queer theory for the teaching of writing.  I began that work out of a sense of myself as not just an outsider to the field of composition studies, but also as an outsider to normative orders of being in the late capitalist cultures of a heteronormative and patriarchal American hegemony, a hegemony that extended outward globally and inward (a la Foucault) to the construction of normative selves in the workroom of power we call the “self” and that Foucault and others rightly call the “subject,” as in what one is subject to.  Queer theory is born out of these insights and deeply felt senses of the normative insides and outsides of the social.  As such, it offered me a way to think about how composition studies and its focus on language, communication, writing, and rhetoric might be re-oriented toward an understanding and critique of the construction of normative discourses of the social.  It also allowed me to think about ways to approach an interrogation of a privileged heteronorm and a consequent derogation of lives, loves, interests, investments, and dispositions that lay, for whatever reason, outside those norms.  I wanted to know, and explore with others, how the insights of the “others” might complicate the discursive and material construction of such norms and what kind, to borrow from Foucault again, of “available freedom” was possible, discursively and materially, through the act of writing.

I think now I was missing the point.  In that book, I told a story about reading C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a boy—actually about how that book was read to me and other fifth graders in a class, and how the experience of that book and its telling of two stories at the same time (the fantasy story of Aslan the lion and the Pevensie children as allegory for the death and resurrection of Christ) opened my eyes to the possibilities of writing as the fantastical capacity to tell two stories at the same time, however related.  Such seemed a magical power of storytelling, of creation, of writing.  But I also quickly moved to how the narrative, a pedagogical story of Christian indoctrination for young minds, discursively and then just as surely materially trapped me in the closet, my nascent queer feelings and being already identified on the schoolyard as faggotry, as sinful, as undesirable.  I called Lewis’ wardrobe my first closet.

I wasn’t wrong, but I gave short shrift to what Lewis offered – or, perhaps more correctly, what I took from Lewis.  For I have never stopped believing in the power of writing to speak doubly, to tell a tale and tell a very different kind of tale at the same time.  And if my perversion of Lewis’ allegory lies in my commitment to writing as not just gesturing to the “real” story but to multiple, divergent, even contradictory stories, then so be it.  For this is what it did.  Yes, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe allegorized the story of Christ.  But it also allegorized the creative power of the word to mean multiply – and perhaps to mean very differently than what was first intended or first apprehended or later imposed on the text.  Writing couldn’t be as controlled as Lewis had perhaps imagined, or wanted.  Its correspondences were not as tightly braided as he hoped.  It was fluid.  It opened up and out.  It is (to return to Lewis and Prince Caspian, the sequel to Lion, the first book I read cover to cover as a prepubescent boy) my imagining crawling into bed with one of the Pevensie boys, perhaps the bed of Prince Caspian himself, surrounded by his strong arms, cuddled and cradled, imagining connection, dreaming of a being with that, yes, I quickly learned to keep to myself, but that I sought out in book after book.  And then I slowly started finding others with similar desires—even those with desires I didn’t know were possible—that sparked and ignited and inspired and that kept me looking, reading, dreaming, discovering.  That, in a word, kept me desiring.

Perhaps what I learned most importantly about writing and desire is that I pursued writing that opened up the world and its queerness to me precisely to resist the discursive and material injunctions against my queerness that surrounded me.  I kept reading, voraciously, because I needed not so much to find myself in writing but to discover how to survive, to re-educate my sense of self away from the damaged conception I was given of a damned and sinful self and toward a vibrant and lively self I wanted and wanted to be.  I then started writing my own fantasies, with accompanying maps, modeling myself on Lewis and others, because I needed to explore other worlds, other ways of being, other fantastical and creative capacities for living that were otherwise foreclosed in my day-to-day existence.  I have learned that such reading and writing were less about finding an identity than about the experience of language itself as a capacious, multiple, and generative process – less of being than of building, less of identifying and more of discovering.  My writing was expressing a desire, multiple desires surely; but it was also, more importantly, desire itself.  It was not just the representation of desire; it was desire.

To be sure, writing can represent a range of desires.  It can absolutely channel desires for foreclosure, for harm, for limitation.  But it can also be the gesture, the enactment, the being toward the other, toward otherness, the being that is becoming.  I have learned from my own story, my own desires, and the stories I have come to tell about those desires, about the need to cultivate, actively, my own desires – before they are cultivated in me, and even after they have been cultivated by others in me.  I am not talking here about authenticity, about the true self and its desires.  I have never been sure such exists.  But I am talking about awareness, about activity, about agency.  We learn desires, even how to desire, through the sponsorship of different institutions; my fifth-grade teacher reading us a book for children by C. S. Lewis was attempting to shape our emerging beings, direct us on particular paths.  But there is also writing that can direct us beyond the sponsorship of particular institutions, writing that resists certain forms of sponsorship and the values and ideologies channeled through it, and writing that opens us onto the unknown territories of being and possibility.  At moments, I want to argue (I desire to argue?) that the generative capaciousness of languaging, the inherent power of writing’s fundamental metaphoricity, lies precisely in its inability to fix reality and instead in its capacity to open it up for other ways of thinking, feeling, and being.  Lewis’ allegory deconstructing itself in my fifth-grade mind, pointing me less toward the sacrificial Christ and more to the power to tell a very different kind of story, was my first encounter with such a capacity.

In this way, writing as desire can become a constant education and re-education of desire itself.  As one initial example, I can point to how Eric Darnell Pritchard relies on Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” to forward a theory of restorative literacy and love.  He is thinking in particular about American Black folks and how they use language and writing to repair the damages done to them by racism. For Pritchard, writing is the desire for something different, something better than what is offered.  He writes that 

Lorde describes the erotic as a power source engendering the vision one has for one’s life on one’s own terms. . . . The erotic challenges and invites us to see how this kernel of energy animates the entire enterprise of our interventions, and of our lives as a whole. Lorde cites the erotic as an affective power within individual and collective struggles against oppression. (57) 

Indeed. But Lorde’s turn to the erotic and its uses is not just in service of living life on one’s own terms. It is also a turning outward and an opening to the experience of joy across multiple spheres, domains, and ecologies. As Lorde herself puts it

[An] important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy. In the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea. 

Bodies, music, dancing, bookcases, writing, and ideas.  This is the erotic as desire not just for satisfaction of identity, but as a stretching, a hearkening, an opening.  And Lorde, as master poet, knew well of the capacity of writing to enact such eroticism, to be such desire.

I want to write now, finally, not just about those desires, but about writing as desire, about writing as the particular kind of desire that is that reaching out.  Not a fixing, but a becoming.  Not an allegory, but a constant metaphorizing out that delights in difference, that learns to love the power of language itself to open us onto the brilliant and diffuse and shattering and extraordinary differences that surround it. I want to know what happens when I focus my attention now, finally, at last, on how writing is desire.

NOTE: These thoughts are part of a larger project.

Roll Call: Labor Logs as an Additional Method of Accounting for Classroom Attendance

Jake Hennessy | Florida State University

As an instructor, even before COVID-19, I tried to remember my positionality as an undergraduate student from a school with a large commuter population. I wanted to embrace flexibility in my teaching and syllabus policies that extends empathy towards students who have difficulty juggling the many responsibilities they have in their lives. And, as someone who struggles with two different diagnosed forms of depression, I wanted to extend my flexibility beyond the logistical hurdles students face to also include the marginalized students who might have trouble with attendance due to depression or other mental health issues. I found that generally students weren’t unwilling to come to class and engage but rather faced various difficulties that made it hard for them to attend. While some faced hour-long commutes, a lot of students with attendance issues mentioned family tragedies or other mental health related struggles as the main obstacle to their attendance. In response, I created a labor-based attendance form where students filled out the work they did outside of class to remove up to two recorded absences. This way, I can remain empathetic to these issues that cause students to miss class sessions. 

Adding flexibility within attendance policies matters because of  the increased mental health struggles college students endure. In 2014, Doris Iarovici reported on student survey data from 80,121 students at 106 institutions in Mental Health Issues and the University Student. When asked about the top 10 impediments to academic success or performance, students ranked these as the top five in this order (6):

    1. Stress
    2. Sleep Difficulties
    3. Internet use/computer games
    4. Depression/anxiety disorder
    5. Alcohol 

Even more concerning is that nearly half of students felt “so depressed it was difficult to function” and almost 1 in 10 students “seriously contemplated suicide” (Iarovici 6).  Recently, Changwon Son et al. conducted interview surveys with 195 students at a large public university in the United States to explore the effects of the pandemic on their mental health. Out of the 195 students, 71% noted increased stress and anxiety, 89% noted difficulty concentrating, and 82% noted increased concerns about academic performance. Changwon Son et al. concluded that these findings highlighted an urgency to develop interventions and preventative strategies for students’ mental health. 

Findings like these warrant a change in how writing program administrators and composition instructors alike account for and/or think about attendance. Disability studies is a great place to start when thinking about how pedagogical changes could account for student mental health. As Adam Hubrig rightly notes in their post “Access from/as the Start: On Writing Studies and ‘Accessibility,’” “Composition instructors might be tempted to think of our courses as “accessible” because we’ve put an institutionally mandated Accessibility statement in our syllabus—often waaaaay at the back.” It takes more than just that, and I hope I’m doing my part in increasing access to my composition classrooms with the labor log example you’ll find later down this blog.

I also lean towards Mad at School from Margaret Price as a key conversation starter when talking about mental health issues. Price’s idea of kairotic spaces is helpful to understand the rigid social expectations of a typical classroom discussion. Price stated that these spaces are “the less formal, often unnoticed, areas of academe where knowledge is produced and power is exchanged” (60). Examples of these spaces for students include group work and classroom discussion where they may feel uncomfortable participating. For writing program administrators and composition instructors who have power to change or adapt attendance policies, acknowledging these kairotic spaces and bringing them into pedagogical focus by mindfully reconsidering these strategies as “normal” allows for an effective critique of the ableism involved in such practices. As Price noted, “Ableism contributes to the construction of a rigid, elitist, hierarchical, and inhumane academic system” (8). Composition instructors ought to stay reflexive in their syllabus policy statements, as well as collectively engaging in changing potential strict departmental policy. This collective effort is essential to affect policy making decisions for the benefit of those with mental health struggles.

To further explore expanding flexibility for composition classroom policy, I thought about the questions Price asked when she pondered “what does ‘participation’ in a class mean for a student who is undergoing a deep depression and cannot get out of bed? Or a student who experiences such severe anxiety, or obsession, that he can barely leave his dorm room or home?” (5-6). I felt that I had enough agency to adapt my policy to be mindful of this idea of presence that Price attended to through her critique of conflating classroom presence with the act of “experiencing” a class. Price rightfully noted that not all who physically attend class are attentive and experiencing the class in that moment, whether it be due to anxiety or prior sleep problems due to issues with depression (66). The idea of out of classroom productivity is crucial for me to remember; Price noted that instructors should not be so quick to correlate attendance with presence or participation, as it is possible for students to be engaged in the process of the classroom and learning outside the physical classroom (68). We, as instructors, must remember that there are times when students may miss class to spend more time composing their major project and that instance may provide more learning or experience for a socially anxious student than forcing them to endure additional small group work (68). 

My labor log helps students remove two of their absences by telling me what they accomplished outside of class that week for our class. This idea stems from an adaptation of Asao B. Inoue’s idea of a labor-based writing course in First Year Composition: From Theory to Practice. Inoue also mentions this flexibility as “compassionate recognition” in his blog on attendance.  

The attendance log includes a prompt for the student's name, date of absence, an explanation of the type of work performed outside of class, reflection on what went well, and reflection on how the student felt while working.
Figure 1. Example of Labor-Based Attendance Form

I believe that my labor-based log challenges students to reflect on their experiences as writers while respecting their process with mental health as well. This form is my attempt to respect the labor of the student, which Inoue defined as being often signaled as “the quantity of time and effort put into a project or an activity” (73). As I moved to teaching on Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to somehow account for the tremendous, new mental burden placed upon students. I thought it was fair to reconsider my conceptions of attendance and presence in this new Zoom environment. Most of the content I sought from students filling this sheet out relates to reflective work that accounts for the amount of labor they are putting in for the class. Reflection is a major part of my composition course and this sheet provides an opportunity for students to reflect on their labor practices outside the classroom.With this form, I wanted to be mindful of placing too enormous a burden upon the student to provide proof; this unfortunately would resemble the current university accommodation model of providing documentation. Rather, I attempted to keep the spirit of the labor-based course in mind and asked the student to write about their process and experience related to the work of the project. As Inoue notes about his composition course:

I also wanted to avoid making students provide proof in the form of screenshots of the outside of the classroom labor. A lot of students who struggle with mental health need someone to understand. Sometimes, that understanding comes in the form of not asking for definitive proof of a reasonable, documented excuse for their absence. The last thing I want to do is resemble the same cold and unforgiving legality the university imposes on them when dealing with seeking accommodations. This also served a pedagogical benefit, as these questions are an attempt for the students to exercise a degree of self-reflexivity in their writing process. 

First, students account for the actual labor they performed outside of class. They get to see and confront an estimation of the work they write down, which I think helps put into perspective their relationship with labor and the writing process. Along with writing down their labor, I believe that asking them to reflect on what went well and what they would change challenges them to attend to their writing and research practices outside of the classroom. This helps students figure out if they should change or improve their labor practices. Finally, I wanted to include a question that allowed students to express the emotional dimension of this process if they wanted. I created this labor-log to primarily help students who face mental health issues, and I feel it would be a disservice to them if I did not allow them to express how it felt to perform the labor I ask of them. This question helps create a link between myself and my students, which also goes a long way in building trust and classroom community that I value.  

This labor-based-attendance form is one suggestion in a long conversation of expanding flexibility and accommodation related to classroom policies. This is by no means an attempt to totally replace the attendance model. One benefit I found with this labor log is that students seemed to miss fewer classes once I implemented this policy. I believe that it relates back to building trust by giving my students a fallback mechanism to use if other classes are getting difficult or they experience some issues in their lives during the semester. This labor-log also aids in issues of classism, as mental health issues are not the only reasons students have to miss a few classes. There are issues of taking care of family, and/or having multiple jobs, as well as many other reasons that this sheet hopefully might expand awareness for. 

As far as assessing the success of this sheet, I have received reassuring feedback from students that they appreciated the flexibility offered by me. More importantly, multiple students admitted to the  difficulties that came with being a new college student. They stressed that this accepting class space was a very needed factor as a student, and that I was considerate of the environment we were all in.  I believe that this labor-log was one of many strategies that built trust and community in my classroom. 

As I mentioned above, when I teach, I always try to be mindful of the many different burdens students face in order to attend college. This means that many students work one or even two jobs just for the same affordance to attend college as others, and these burdens add to the stress and mental health issues many students face. Instructors considering the student labor that goes into the course becomes as important as considering attendance itself. Just as a blanket attendance policy cannot accommodate or fit all students, neither can an expectation that students will put similar amounts of labor into each assignment. This disproportionate amount of labor that initially is invisible may influence the also invisible mental health struggles students face. As COVID-19 provided an overt exigence that commanded institutions, writing program administrators, and instructors to re-think policy and practices on the fly, we must recognize and acknowledge that exigences to prompt such reconsideration existed long before the pandemic. At the same time, we should not immediately sweep new practices that emerged from teaching in different synchronous and asynchronous formats under the rug as we eventually reconvene from the pandemic. 

Works Cited
Changwon, Son et al. “Effects of COVID-19 on College Students’ Mental Health in the United States: Interview Survey Study.” JMIR Publications, vol. 22, no. 9, 2020, https://www.jmir.org/2020/9/e21279. Accessed 15 July 2021. 

Hubrig, Adam. “Access from/as the Start: On Writing Studies and “Accessibility.” Composition Studies Journal. https://compstudiesjournal.com/2021/04/19/access-from-as-the-start-on-writing-studies-and-accessibility/. Accessed 23 November 2021. 

Iarovici, Doris. Mental Health Issues & the University Student. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. 

Inoue, Asao B. “Attendance in Labor-Based Grading.” Asao B. Inoue’s Infrequent Words. https://asaobinoue.blogspot.com/2020/04/attendance-in-labor-based-grading-part.html. Accessed 23 November 2021. 

—. “A Grade-Less Writing Course That Focuses on Labor and Assessing.” First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice. Parlor Press, 2014. 

— [AsaoBInoue]. “One way to understand this focus on labor and effort is to consider what this course really is about. This is a writing course, not a paper course. Writing is a verb, a practice. It is labor.” Twitter, 15 June 2021, https://twitter.com/AsaoBInoue/status/1404830967815049217?s=20

Price, Margaret. Mad at School. The University of Michigan Press, 2011.

If Not Us, Who?

Megan McIntyre | Sonoma State University

We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language — the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.
~ Students’ Right to Their Own Language

It’s been nearly five decades since “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” (SRTOL) came to be. In fact, it was 50 years ago this year (in the fall of 1971) that the officers of the Conference on College Composition and Communication appointed members of their executive board and other language experts from among the association’s ranks to a committee charged with drafting a statement on varieties of English and students’ rights to learn and compose in the languages that are meaningful to them. In her history of the development of SRTOL, Geneva Smitherman, one of the original authors of the statement, has noted that, at nearly every step of the process, the creation and adoption of the statement was an “intense struggle” (22). So much of the struggle that Smitherman describes in the histories of SRTOL and NCTE’s subsequent decision not to adopt the text –– but to instead adopt a weaker version that, while affirming students’ right to their own language also argues that they need to learn “conventions of what has been called written edited American English”  –– feels familiar. Fifty years later, despite SRTOL remaining the official policy position of our largest professional organization, so many writing programs remain stubbornly devoted to a single, mythical “academic writing,” as evidenced by continued references to “academic writing” and a lack of references to varieties of English in programmatic outcomes, including the one from the Council of Writing Program Administrators

In committee meeting rooms and faculty workshops, writing program administrators and writing faculty like me have defended the continued teaching of this mythical monolith by telling ourselves and others that the kind of standardized English that most resembles white, middle- and upper-class English is what’s expected of students in other classrooms and in professional settings. And we’re not necessarily wrong: problematic, racist assumptions about language facility and variety pervade any number of spaces within and beyond academia, such as in business environments where assumptions about “proper” writing and speaking often mean a default to white, middle- and upper-class English varieties and linguistic bias continues to harm jobseekers of color. But that reality does not absolve us of the responsibility to push back on those assumptions or to fight for our students’ rights to learn and compose in the language varieties that are meaningful to them.

There are numerous ways that devoting first year composition (and other college writing classrooms) to so-called “academic writing” reifies racist and colonialist language practices. We know that we harm our students when we devalue the language varieties that animate their complex rhetorical lives. 

We know that there are benefits to helping students connect to topics, questions, and rhetorical practices that are meaningful to them. We also know there is no such thing as “academic writing” as a single genre, that what we mean by “academic writing” shifts from course to course, institution to institution, and discipline to discipline. We also know that grammars evolve, that stylistic choices are fluid and contextual, and that audience expectations and rhetorical situations shift.

Knowing all this, how do we make good on the promise of SRTOL? I want to suggest three places we might begin. First, I’d point us to the work of the Institute of Race, Rhetoric, and Literacy (once known as the CWPA Outcomes Statement Revision Task Force), whose members note that, “there is still a tendency among FYC practitioners to rely on predetermined, singular, habits of White language (HOWL). Too often in writing courses, HOWL purposefully excludes a diverse array of rhetorics and other habits of language that are, at base, equal to and, when used effectively, add to and even surpass the communicative and rhetorical effectiveness of HOWL.” I’d also point us to April Baker-Bell’s Linguistic Justice, which shows us, in no uncertain terms, that English language arts pedagogies are doing lasting harm to Black students. And I’d point to the 2020 CCCC Special Committee on Composing a CCCC Statement on Anti-Black Racism and Black Linguistic Justice’s “This Ain’t Another Statement! This is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice!,” which tells us that, “the language of Black students has been monitored, dismissed, demonized.” Each of these texts calls our attention to the harm we’ve done by ignoring the clear position of SRTOL: 

students have the right to write and learn in “to their own patterns and varieties of language — the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style.” 

Taken together, these resources also offer us a way forward. They tell us that we can support and serve linguistically diverse students if we 

  1. Affirm our students’ existing rhetorical sophistication by assigning readings and inviting writing that encourage them to explore their existing literacies and use their well-honed rhetorical skills and knowledge in our classrooms.
  2. Make our classrooms and programs spaces for exploring and building on students’ previous literacy practices by using multimodal pedagogies, assigning writing projects that invite experimentation and play, and inviting students to speak and act as experts in their own literacy. 
  3. Help students build sustainable habits and routines for their writing, reading, and making in college and beyond through sustained, mindful reflection.
  4. Resist efforts to use a single standard to judge our students’ writing by eschewing rubrics that assume there is a single correct version of English and eliminating outcomes that emphasize mythical academic English. Faculty in programs that use a standard, program-wide rubric should push for its elimination or expansion of such assessment tools, or experiment with ungrading and other approaches that center students’ goals, needs, and approaches. Writing Program Administrators for such programs should revise rubrics, heuristics, and criteria to reflect the value of multiple Englishes. Or, we might decide to avoid rubrics altogether.

In the writing program at Sonoma State University, this means I’m working on

  1. Gathering data (quantitative AND qualitative) on equity gaps. This necessarily includes actual discussions with students of color who’ve gone through our programs and courses. Writing programs share any number of traits, but they are also idiosyncratic things, and local conditions, values, and experiences can have a significant impact both on the ways that programs make decisions and how students experience those decisions. To really understand what linguistic justice means for students in our specific programs, we need to understand their specific experiences. This data can be useful in programmatic assessment and decision-making (about student success, course caps, partnerships with academic and advising support, etc.) and for faculty professional development (At my previous institution, one of the most impactful faculty workshops allowed us to read anonymized student reflections about first year writing courses on our campus and consider how our practices impacted students’ experiences.)
  2. Revising our programmatic outcomes to eliminate ones that gesture toward or invoke a mythical, monolithic “academic writing” (Again, the work of the Institute of Race, Rhetoric, and Literacy is invaluable here.).
  3. Focusing our professional development on supporting faculty in doing the classroom work above, including through (as often as possible) paid support for faculty reflection, which can lead to communities of practice and course redesign.

All of these are concrete steps I can take in my own classroom and program. But, as the first post in this series reminded us, all writing and teaching work is local. I can’t chart for you how precisely each of these things might work in your classroom or program, but I can encourage you to find ways to (1) better understand the experiences of linguistically diverse students by reading the work researchers like April Baker-Bell and Django Paris or the College Reading and Learning Association and by talking to the linguistically diverse students in your own classes and programs and (2) interrupt, in ways big and small, the assessment and grading systems that do harm to all of our students, particularly our linguistically diverse students.

We can also insert ourselves, as often as possible, into conversations about writing and literacy on our campuses; we can be a voice for our students’ rights to their own language. But we have to start. And we have to start now. 

Writing faculty, writing programs, and English departments, as well as the humanities more broadly have the history, experience, and knowledge to lead conversations on our campuses about the harm of mythical “academic writing”. We can create the permission structure for our colleagues outside of writing studies to let go of the myth of “academic writing.” We can expose the lie. 

‘Cause if we don’t, who will? If not us, who?

Baker-Bell, April. Linguistic justice: Black language, literacy, identity, and pedagogy. Routledge, 2020.

Baker-Bell, April. “Dismantling Anti-Black Linguistic Racism in English Language Arts Classrooms: Toward an Anti-Racist Black Language Pedagogy.” Theory Into Practice, vol. 59, no. 1, 2020, pp. 8-21.

Beavers, Melvin, Beth L. Brunk-Chavez, Neisha-Anne Green, Asao B. Inoue, Iris Ruiz, Tanita Saenkhum, and Vershawn Ashanti Young. “Abbreviated Statement Toward First-Year Composition Goals.” Institute of Race, Rhetoric, and Literacy, 2021. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1A0YO3K4IVIJLJTNSBGl5HJKOdddAK73spe2GbOmJn1w/edit. 

Cedillo, Christina. “Diversity, Technology, and Composition: Honoring Students’ Multimodal Home Places.” Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, vol. 6, no. 2, 2017.

Conference on College Composition and Communication. “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” 1974. https://cdn.ncte.org/nctefiles/groups/cccc/newsrtol.pdf. 

Conference on College Composition and Communication. “This Ain’t Another Statement. This Is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice,” 2020. https://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/demand-for-black-linguistic-justice. 

de Klien, Christa and Rachele Lawton. Meeting the needs of linguistically diverse students at the college level. College Reading & Learning Association, 2015. 

Finegan, Edward. “What is “Correct” Language?” Linguistic Society of America. https://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/what-correct-language. 

Kohn, Alfie. “The Case Against Grades.” Educational Leadership, vol. 69, no. 3, 2011, pp. 28-33.

Lyscott, Jamila. “Jamila Lyscott: Why English Class is Silencing Students of Color.” TED, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4dc1axRwE4. 

Mitchler, Sharon. “Pedagogy: Considering Local Conditions.” FEN Blog, 2021. https://compstudiesjournal.com/2021/06/07/pedagogy-considering-local-conditions/. 

Paris, Django. “‘They’re in My Culture, They Speak the Same Way’: African American Language in Multiethnic High Schools.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 79, no. 3, 2009, pp. 428-448.

Smitherman, Geneva. “’Students’ Right to Their Own Language’: A Retrospective.” The English Journal, vol. 84, no. 1, 1995, pp. 21-27.

Stommel, Jesse. “How to Ungrade.” JesseStommel.com, 2018. https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/. 

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “The Meaning-Making of Reflection.” FEN Blog, 2021. https://compstudiesjournal.com/2021/07/12/the-meaning-making-of-reflection/ 

Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “Should Writers Use They Own English?” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 2010, pp. 110-117.

The Meaning-Making of Reflection

Kathleen Blake Yancey | Florida State University

[R]eflection is rhetorical […] only through
bringing the human and the world together to theorize
can a reflective knowledge and meaning be made.
(Yancey, A Rhetoric of Reflection)
The book cover of A Rhetoric of Reflection, edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey, featuring a black and white picture of a person examining their reflection in a puddle on the ground.
Figure 1. A Rhetoric of Reflection, edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey

The word reflection points in a myriad of directions; it means so differently—see, for example, the ways several writing teacher/scholars approach it in A Rhetoric of Reflection—that it can be difficult to define fully. But I’ll try to provide a point of reflective departure 😉, at least in terms of my own sense of reflection.

In advance, though, I think I should observe that this blog post wanders a bit. I hope it does so reflectively. I hope it prompts you to think about how you define reflection, how you include reflection in your life, how you include it in your teaching and learning.

So, a definition: reflection, which is both a theory and a practice, is a means of making meaning. Drawing from experience and more—others’ views, information, intuition, materials, objects in the surround—we engage in a practice requiring attention, multiple perspectives, and time so as to understand anew. Sometimes, that understanding is deeper as a consequence of reflection; other times, that understanding changes, sometimes radically. Our reflections benefit from being situated in community, from response, from support. Reflection doesn’t so much provide answers as point to and open other ways of seeing and being; it puts into dialogue the familiar with the unfamiliar, the small in the large, the large in the tiny. 

In writing studies, we’ve long thought about reflection as a means of helping students develop as writers. Some of us ask students to describe their writing processes—in what’s conventionally referred to as a process memo. Some of us invite students to account for their development as writers—though the drafts and through the quarter or semester and through the years. Some of us require students to assess their texts according to outcomes—some of which may derive from a writing program, others of which students may create. All of these forms of reflection, which serve very different purposes, can be quite valuable. 

Still, I wonder: are these the best questions to prompt reflection about writing? Put in terms of the definition above, are these questions that will prompt authentic meaning-making?


We reflect in our personal lives, too. Consider the idea and the practice of family. How would you define family? How does one create a good family? Is a good family a happy family? An extended family? A family by choice? Does one ever leave one’s family, and if so, when? 

Or consider retirement. What is the purpose of retirement? Is it to sit back and rest after a lifetime of work? Travel around the world? Is it to care for our families in new ways? Is it to take up a new career or hobby? Is it to serve the public, perhaps by delivering meals on wheels or volunteering for a political candidate? What is the purpose of a good retirement?  

What’s interesting about these sets of reflective questions is a point that is obvious: no one can reflect for another; each of us, often in community, reflects.


As teachers, we know about reflection and about the role reflection plays in helping us improve—but again, largely through practice, largely through response to an undeniable exigence. When students don’t respond as we’d liked or hoped, we have an opportunity to reflect, to consider their concerns in the context of our aims, and to understand what’s going on differently, especially from the perspectives of others who also inhabit our curricular and pedagogical space. Such an exigence provides an opportunity for growth. Organizers, too, it seems, as AOC commented during 2020: “I come from the lens of an organizer, and if someone doesn’t do what you want, you don’t blame them — you ask why. And you don’t demand that answer of that person — you reflect. And that reflection is where you can grow.”

The course on a page is a hand drawn calendar for the fall semester with tasks such as "share" and due dates laid out for the whole course.

Figure 2. An example of Yancey’s “course on a page.” Photo credit: Kathleen Blake Yancey

All the (many) good teachers I’ve known have grown over time. For my part, one way I’ve grown—in response to student concerns—is in sharing with them ways I’ve organized a class. Because I design the courses I teach, it’s always been obvious to me how each unfolds, how the readings are arranged to motivate writing, how the class discussions and workshops will link to both. But students, they didn’t always see it this way: to them, my courses sometimes felt disorganized, they said. Was I disappointed? Yes. But I wasn’t angry. As AOC observes, there’s no blame here. I saw the logic of their response, and I also liked my intent, to include the potential for invention that a bit of ambiguity, per Kenneth Burke, seemed to provide. Through reflection, I effected a compromise: syllabi that were more detailed but that didn’t foreclose the chance of serendipity. In addition, I created a corresponding “course on a page” helping visually orient students to the way elements were linked and the times when assignments were due. Happily, I found that the course on a page also helped me; in drafting it, I could see where my rhythm of assignments needed an adjustment and assure that deadlines were relativized and reasonable. Reflection, in other words, includes more than taking stock or looking backward, although it includes both: as a meaning-making activity, reflection is also oriented to new understandings and future change.


About two years ago, faculty developers Tracy Penny-Light, Laura Colket, and Adam Carswell invited a group of international teachers, including me, to contribute to their edited collection Becoming: Transformative Storytelling for Education’s Future. The key word in the title, Becoming, signaled the editors’ interest in teachers becoming teachers in response to critical incidents, or episodes of difficulty, surprise, or struggle. More specifically, the editors were interested in how these teachers had experienced critical incidents, in how those incidents had contributed to their teaching practices, and in what the incidents might also suggest about how teaching practices, or the educational system itself, should be changed. 

To learn about this, the editors gave us the same reflective assignment:
1. Please write an educational autobiography in which you reflect on critical incidents in your experience as a student in relation to literature and theory about teaching and learning. In doing so, please consider the following questions:

How did those defining moments shape you as a learner? Are you able to identify an arc or any themes in your experience? What roles have your various social identities played in shaping your educational experience? What role did the contexts in which you were learning shape your experience? How did your broader social/cultural/political sphere shape your educational experiences? What main struggles did you face as a student? Did you have any resources, supports, people or strategies to help you overcome those struggles? What are you most proud of when you look back on your time as a student? What are you most surprised or concerned about? If you were to go back to talk to your teachers now, what would you tell them about how to better support you as a learner?

2. Please write your teaching or leadership philosophy. In doing so, please reflect on the following questions:

What are your key beliefs about teaching/leadership? What literature and/or theory supports your beliefs? What specific strategies do you draw on that align with your key beliefs? What critical incidents have shaped your beliefs and practices?

3. Please write a critical reflection about your experience thinking through these aspects of your teaching and learning experiences. What connections, themes, contradictions or new understandings emerged for you through this writing process? What implications might this have for your practice?

The cover of Becoming: Transformative Storytelling for Education's Future by Laura Colket, Tracy Penny Light, and M. Adam Carswell has a vibrant yellow-orange background with a spiral paisley swirl.

Figure 3. Becoming: Transformative Storytelling for Education’s Future by Laura Colket, Tracy Penny Light, and M. Adam Carswell.

I identified three such critical incidents, two in college: (1) when I saw integral connections between two seemingly disparate junior-level classes, Victorian literature and geology; and (2) when I enrolled in a rhetoric class in communication studies whose orientation toward texts differed considerably from that in the English department where I was a doctoral student. As important, I also identified an earlier critical incident occurring outside school, when as a child living in 1958 West Germany, I understood the situatedness of certain holidays—Thanksgiving was the first—as uniquely American and also—if somewhat vaguely (I was, after all, just 8 at the time)—as a more general phenomenon wherein cultural practices are often historically motivated. For me, I said in the chapter, living in Germany “was Copernican: the US, with its unique Thanksgiving, was no longer the centerpiece body among planets and stars, but rather one planet among many.” 

In the past, I’d often told this story about my surprise at learning about how un-German Thanksgiving was, sort of as a joke on myself: I was very surprised that my German friends were not celebrating the holiday, and my child-like naivete is pretty funny. But as I reflected on this experience in writing this chapter, I understood it another way, more as one source for my appreciation of history, my appreciation of difference, and my commitment to weaving both into my teaching, especially in terms of the way I begin classes: 

history is important to me as a person and as a teacher. I began college as a history major and was certified to teach history to students grades 6- 12; along with rhetorical situation, the historical context—perhaps in part because of my living, as an impressionable child, in such an intense historical context in post-war Germany—functions as something of a standard intellectual framework for me. It’s probably not surprising, then, that I begin every course I teach with history, more specifically with students’ histories. I often open the first class period with an icebreaker focused on course content that taps student’s prior experiences; my first homework assignment performs the same task more discursively. This term, I am teaching a special topics course, Writing across the Curriculum and the Question of Writing Transfer, and the first assignment is what I’ve called The Snapshot Project:

In 1-2 pages (single spaced), identify three moments when your writing changed. For each moment, 

a. describe it
b. analyze how your writing changed and why
c. consider whether this change was helpful or not
d. theorize about what this tells you about how writers
may develop

Tracing our own histories, as my students did this week and I have done here, allows us to distance ourselves from them, see them from other angles, and begin to make meaning of them.


I think one of the questions reflective teachers often have centers on the how of classroom reflection: what reflective questions should we ask students, and when should we ask them so that they are meaningful to students? That italicized part? That’s the kicker: it’s very difficult to decide in advance what will be meaningful to others. But in a writing class, or a rhetoric class, we are situated in an intellectual community where some questions, when reflected upon, have that potential. The list of potential questions, below, is hardly exhaustive, but it might provide a place to begin, for our students and for us, and it might also be that we return to these questions more than once.  

What is the purpose of rhetoric? What is the purpose of your rhetoric? 

What does it mean to write in the world?

What’s the most important text you’ve written? Why was it important? What did it teach you about writing? 

What does it mean to write? Is it only words, or mostly words, or words plus—words and visuals and document design and sound? Are writing and composing synonyms? Are you a writer, a composer, or both? Why?

Why do we write? Why do you write? 

What will you write and why?

At the end of the day, what difference will your writing—a given text, your writing generally, your efforts—make?  Continue reading

Universal sign for access of person in wheelchair created in blue neon in a window.

Access from/as the Start: On Writing Studies and “Accessibility”

Ada/Adam Hubrig | Sam Houston State University

One simple truth: when you build disabled accessibility in to your events as a non-negotiable, from the start, bottom line, you get it done.”
The Radical Access Mapping Project
“in order for us to ethically engage the question of “accessibility” we must be conscious of the bodies whose movements have, throughout the history of rhetoric and composition, been rendered immobile under the weight of discourse and inaccessible spaces.”
—Cody Jackson, “How Does it Mean to Move

Can I share a secret with you? I loathe having to ask about access needs—I doubly loathe having to inquire when it’s my own access needs. I hate it so much, and I feel like a terrible disabled advocate because of it. I get anxious making those calls or sending those emails to the point of being sick to my stomach. 

Yet, for the third time in as many months, I call the same event coordinator. They seem irritated that I’m calling—again—to ask about access. And then comes their accusation: “All you want to do is complain about access.”

Hard nope. I’d rather be doing almost anything else. As Annika Konrad has recently argued, “People with disabilities are often encouraged to advocate for their own access without con-sideration for the mental and emotional labor required to do so.”

Because—too often—how we think about access is reductive. It’s exhausting to have to keep insisting that disabled and otherwise marginalized people should be included. But still, at many American colleges and universities, composition instructors might be tempted to think of our courses as “accessible” because we’ve put an institutionally mandated Accessibility statement in our syllabus—often waaaaay at the back—to prevent the institution that signs our checks from getting sued for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (2). 

Disabled people notice these things. And disabled students at your institution definitely talk with each other about what professors roll their eyes at us when we inquire about access needs or ask us if we “really need” whatever accommodations we’re requesting—I have been one of them.

I want to talk about access as disability justice advocate and scholar Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes it, not just as “the same article that many sick, disabled, Deaf, and mad/neurodivergent folks before me have written to the abled—asking the abled to get it the fuck together and stop ‘forgetting’ about access and disbaled demands” which Piepzna-Samarsina also identifies as necessary work. Rather, I want to take part in conversations and projects that recognize that access is only the first step (Piepzna-Samarasinha 129) in an ongoing process of challenging institutional oppression.

And, mirroring work in disability studies (see Erevelles, Minich, Hamraie), discussions of access in writing studies are moving away from what some of my nondisabled colleagues seem to interpret—usually some version of accessibility as an abled prof doing some disabled student a huge favor by meeting the low-bar legal requirements (See Wood et al. and Brewer et al.). Instead, the evolving conversation on accessibility have us resituating that moment, considering how disabled students are doing us a favor in pointing out how our pedagogy, our curriculum, our institutions are ableist and how we can do better—for disabled students and all students—by dismantling the capitalistic, colonial, white-supremacist, and patriarchal ideologies that prop these systems up.

Importantly, as Sins Invalid reminds us through disability justice frameworks, disability never exists apart from other identities—such as race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, and many other positionalities. Following the work of disabled activists, disability studies (see Bell, Dunham et al., Erevelles, Schalk) and composition (Cedillo; Del Hiero et al.; Ho et al.; Hubrig and Osorio; Jackson and Cedillo; Manivannan) are also expanding how they understand disability and accessibility to center intersecting identities, as well as multiple forms of disability including mobility impairments, blindness/visual impairments, Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing folks (3), chronic illnesses, madness, mental disability, pain conditions, neurodiversity, sensitivities to fragrance, and many other disabilities. 

And as a multiply disabled scholar, I have at times been approached by well-meaning nondisabled colleagues with requests for an accessibility checklist or other labor relating to disability access. While I will point to some more immediately pragmatic accessibility advice in this post, I echo Wood et al. in insisting that checklists are often reductive, “locat[ing] disability over there” (147), rather than engaging disability with nuance and complexity, asking how disability might inform writing studies, writing pedagogy, and our composition processes. 

Writing alongside disability scholars in writing studies, rather than providing a checklist—which would inevitably be reductive and leave people outside—it’s my intention for this post to point to ongoing conversations and invite those conversations to guide accessibility efforts in your classroom and pedagogy and in your/our institutions and scholarship. To make this post more navigable, I have arranged them by rough categories—expanding access, access for students and access for colleagues, but the conversations about access in each space certainly overlap. 

Access for Writing Students
Many of my nondisabled colleagues first become interested in accessibility when trying to make their classrooms more accessible for disabled students. If that’s what brought you here, welcome and thank you for taking this first step. A number of resources and scholarship exist to help address accessibility in our classroom spaces. Anne-Marie Womack pushes teachers to challenge how we think of accommodation, and has created Accessible Syllabus, with important information on crafting more accessible syllabi and advice on making images, text, rhetoric, and policies in our syllabi more inclusive. 

And, as Womack’s Accessible Syllabus details, how we frame our policies—as listed on our syllabus and in practice—is an important site of accessibility. Other composition scholars have taken up these issues as well: Melissa Nicholas describes how our policies reflect our orientation to disability, and how class considerations like attendance can make our classroom inaccessible.  Considering other temporal policies like due dates, Tara Wood describes how nondisabled conceptions of time create barriers in the composition process, offering suggestions on how instructors can crip their conception of time in the composition classroom.

Conversations around access are becoming more inclusive of neurodiversity as well: Remi Yergeau’s Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness takes up Rhetoric and Composition’s dismissal of autistic ways of being. Cody Jackson presents several strategies for making our classroom spaces more accessible to neurodivergent learners and argues the most important step in that process “is [to] ask, listen, and reciprocate the intimacy of disclosure.” Similarly, Amy Gaeta argues for access by challenging ableist ideologies connected to composing and how we can better respect neurodivergent composing methods.  Ellen Cecil-Lemkin explores how neurodiversity shapes collaborative writing experiences, challenging assumptions about collaboration in composition.

Taken together, these scholars establish that accessibility is more than minor tweaks to a powerpoint slide, but that accessibility must challenge our pedagogical assumptions and institutional orientations. In “What Does it Mean to Move?: Race, Disability, and Critical Embodiment Pedagogy,” Christina Cedillo writes:

If we continue to base our composition practices on normate assumptions rather than the embodied experiences of people most in need of access to voice and space, our praxes can and do become part of a racist, ableist apparatus that promotes other -isms, tools of ‘social hygiene.’

Cedillo’s work is accessibility writ large, arguing for pedagogies based in critical embodiment rather than retrofitting to accommodate disability—or adding a single BIPOC author to the reading list as “diversity,” for that matter. Cedillo instead suggests thinking through how a multiplicity of embodied experiences challenge and improve our pedagogy and writing, while making our classrooms and our field more inclusive. 

Access for Writing Teachers and Scholars
Like conversations on access for students in writing studies, conversations about accessibility for teachers and scholars in the field—not limited to Tenure Track Faculty™, but NTT, contingent, and graduate student teachers as well—are not only about naming and identifying ableism (though that work is necessary, too). These scholars move the conversation to how disability challenges the systemic inequalities of academic work. For example, in “Faculty Members, Accommodation, and Access in Higher Education,” Kerschbaum et al. describe their own experiences as faculty with disabilities, exploring issues of access, accommodation, and the material realities of their embodied experiences. 

Interwoven with issues of faculty accessibility and accommodation, there is important work by writing studies scholars happening around disclosure— so much that disclosure deserves its own keyword blog post, particularly at the intersections of disability and other marginalized identities—but here I point quickly to Stephanie Kerschbaum’s article “On Rhetorical Agency and Disclosing Disability in Academic Writing,” which thoughtfully explores faculty disclosure. The way conversations about disclosure are moving to include not only students but faculty is an important development: Price et al. also explore disclosure, specifically disclosure of mental disability by faculty, finding few faculty with mental disabilities were familiar with possible accommodations, suggesting institutions haven’t made accommodations clear. They suggest discussions between faculty and administration about accommodations must become “clearer and less risky” as well as the need to destigmatize mental disabilities. 

Reflecting the move from accessibility as gift to accessibility improving the field as a whole, Ho et al. establish how, for disabled teachers and scholars, “neutrality is a form of oppression” (129) that ignores how academic institutions are designed for nondisabled people, and how tending to disability can foster deeper discussions on equity in the field. Other scholars have taken up issues of inaccessibility. Rottier, for example, points to how the existence and persistence of autistic academics in the face of ableist policies is an act of resistance, and challenges nondisabled people to push for more accessible institutional policies and spaces. 

But academic institutions frequently push disabled people out: consider accessibility in conference spaces. Importantly, Price—who also has examined the language and policies of conference documents—chairs Composing Access: An Invitation to Creating Accessible Events, which has many contributors. Composing Access includes helpful information on accessibility for conference organizers as well as for preparing conference presentations. A recent College Composition and Communication Symposium explored issues of access in our conference spaces, including: addressing institutional critique and responsibility (Simpkins); the misuse of quiet rooms (Anglesey and Cecil-Lemkin); exploring access needs—specifically for Deaf scholars—as transformative rather than transactional (Fink et al.); how alcohol makes our conferences spaces inaccessible and dangerous (anonymous); as well as accountability in disability research and accessibility efforts (Jackson and Cedillo). If you are hosting an event, I also point you to Sins Invalid’s event accessibility suggestions.

But considering accessibility is also about methodology: tending to disability can and should transform our scholarship and ways of knowing and center the work of those most impacted (Cedillo, Jackson). This is the work that Price and Kerschbaum take up in “Stories of Methodology: Interviewing Sideways, Crooked, and Crip,” exploring how disability should inform methods and research.

And this iteration of accessibility—accessibility that not only pushes for disabled inclusion but aims to restructure the institutional biases that make them inaccessible in the first place—is taken up in areas that connect to and overlap with writing studies, like Writing Program Administration (Nicholas, Vidali 2015), writing centers (Hitt, Rowan), open access scholarship (Dolmage 2018, Rice Evans), graduate education (Obermark), Rhetoric (Cedillo, Dolmage 2014, Maier et al., and Yergeau) Technical Communication (Browning and Cagle, Colton and Walton, Jones, Meloncon, Palmeri, Zdenek), gender and sexuality (Smilges, Yergeau), community literacy studies (Hubrig), basic writing (Vidali 2008), and I am excited to announce I’m guest editing a special issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College centered on disability and accessibility in the Two-Year College, coming 2022. 

Moving Toward a Conclusion, though Access is a Process with No End
At the College Conference on Composition and Communication in 2019, a large sign proudly proclaimed CCCCs is Accessible!

The original CCCC sign, a red sign with white letters, that reads: “The CCCC Convention is accessible! The CCCC Convention has accessibility guides for the Convention; Quiet, lactation, and family rooms at convention sites; Childcare grants; Gender-neutral bathrooms; Interpreters" has dozens of sticky notes with messages written on them.
Figure 1. The original CCCC sign proclaiming accessibility is covered with sticky notes from conference participants pointing out ways the conference failed to provide access. Photo Credit: Ruth Osorio

In response, many conference attendees posted—literally, with sticky notes—their/our own responses to the sign, highlighting multiple ways in which the conference was quite inaccessible—to disabled people, to parents and others with caregiving responsibilities, to many LGBTQA+ Folks, and people excluded or marginalized because of whiteness.

What I hope writing studies understands from the sticky note moment is that access isn’t a project that can be completed: it’s not a checklist or a bulleted list, but ongoing conversations and actions that address the systematic inequalities and institutional barriers that exclude disabled and other marginalized bodies. I ask you to take part in these conversations by engaging with this scholarship and connecting with other disabled scholars. To join these conversations, I recommend the resources I’ve outlined here, as well as the Anti-Ableist Composition Collective (created by Cody Jackson), the College Composition and Communication Disability Studies Standing Group, as well as learning from the work of disability activism like Sins Invalid and the Disability Visibility Project.


  1. I (Adam) would like to thank Ellen Cecil-Lemkin, Ruth Osorio, and Katie Bramlet, as well as FEN Blog Co-Editors Megan Von Bergen and Lauren Fusilier for their thoughtful reading and feedback on earlier drafts of this post.
  2.  ADA laws are typically only enforced through lawsuits, meaning many disabled people without financial resources to take legal action often have little to no recourse. I echo Wood et al. in suggesting it is important for educators to be familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act, including the 2008 amendments as well as Section 504 of the rehabilitation act. But meeting the legal requirements is a first step, not an end goal of accessibility.
  3. Many Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Humans do not consider themselves as disabled, but rather recognize the importance of Deaf culture. By including Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing folks in this discussion of accessibility, I do not mean to undermine how they identify in relation to the disability community (for more information, see Monts-Treviska in Skin, Tooth, and Bone)
  4. A list of works consulted is linked in a Google doc here. I welcome suggested additions to better represent the range of accessibility work being done in composition and rhetoric and related fields.

 *Featured Image on this post created by Henry Faber.