Tag Archives: reflection

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.

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