Making Pronouns Inclusive By Making Them Plural

Faculty members’ ideas vary on this, and our Writer’s Web page about pronoun usage provides the canny advice to ask a professor.

The author of this post is far from “politically correct” in many areas, but it has always made good rhetorical sense to avoid gendering language when an audience includes men and women.

In a pinch, I can rewrite any sentence to keep it both grammatically correct and inclusive. Every summer, we edit our handbook for Writing Consultants, and I am surprised that three female editors still kept in sentences like this one:

“Have the writer identify his main point by asking…” when it is easily broadened to “Have writers identify main points by asking.” This revision has the virtue of brevity.  Using “his or her” seems awkward.

I invite readers to come up with a sentence that cannot be revised by making it plural, save when an obvious gender-specific reference must be made.

The Brick Moves To The Library

My poor English 103 students! Every time I taught the course, I had a mark of shame that one of us had to bear at some point: The Brick.

One one side, I painted “Unsupported Claim” and on the other, the slogan shown above. I last used The Brick in Fall, 2009 but in the Spring of 2013, it returns for my First-Year Seminar “Cyberspace: History, Future, and Culture.”

No errors can eclipse these two flaws. Even a missing thesis, what I prefer to call a “governing claim,” can take second place in a reader’s mind to an argument so flawed that one cannot read on. While I try to be moderately tough on grammar and usage, if the paper makes a logical flaw meriting The Brick, little else matters to me. This is also why our Writing Consultants begin their work with these top-down concerns.

You can read more about how I used of The Brick, but it worked. When a writer, including the teacher, violated one of my cardinal rules about academic writing, s/he got to keep The Brick in each class until the fatal flaw had been corrected, often in a follow-up post to the class blog. I was given The Brick once by my class, I’m proud to say, but only once that last semester. We can all make fatal errors in argument, but I made a generalization in a post online, and a student was quick to spot it. He e-mailed me, then announced my crime in the next class.

In an age of pixelated writing and 140-character “thoughts” at Twitter, the materiality of The Brick reminds us that some words are not easily retracted. That’s a comforting thought in an election year, when billions of words are spewed, and many of them deserve a brickbat or two.

Now that the Writing Center’s daily consultations are moving to our campus Library, I will move The Brick along, too. Enjoy it and never hurl it!

Out, Damned (Gravy) Spot!

gravy spot

Image courtesy of “Make your Own Bar-B-Q Sign

Imagine an orator making a speech after a formal dinner, and imagine the speaker doing so very well. In the end, however, a large segment of the audience never recalls the content because of the large gravy spot on the speaker’s tie or blouse.

The speaker lost the audience. So what are the sorts of small errors that make otherwise sympathetic readers stop reading? A general list may be nigh impossible, but I will take a stab at what most perturbs academic readers of student prose. In doing so, I won’t focus on the fatal flaws of novice writing: sweeping generalizations, sentence fragments, lack of support for claims.

  • Confused words. One does not hear the difference, in speech, between the homonyms “here” and “hear,” but in writing, such gaffs make the writer look unprofessional, if not ignorant. See our Center’s list of “Commonly Confused Words.”
  • Overstatement. One study or source does not conclusive proof make, even if it is a valid source or study. Academics expect an abundance of supporting evidence, including admissions as to where more study may be needed or the limitations of a source. One might write “the 2011 study only considered effects on male college students at private universities” as a way to present such data.
  • Names. Student writers often use both first and last names for sources. It may be appropriate to cite a full name on first reference or for clarity when, say, two Smiths have been cited. But in most cases, in-text sources need only a last-name reference. A graver (gravier?) spot is to misspell the name of a source. I once had a reader of an article stop on page one when I did this, back in grad school. He said “after that I did not trust your prose any longer.” Ouch.
  • Format errors. APA, MLA, Chicago, and similar are not systems of fiendish torture. Writers use them to get work into a format needed for a particular journal or conference proceeding. I frequently see errors with a misplaced parenthesis, italics and double quotations both used for titles of sources, and the like. A first cousin of this problem can be adding blank lines between paragraphs, odd indents, and other mechanical gaffs. When in doubt…ask the prof!

These “spots” come to mind right away. Got more? Let me know in the comments section.

New International Blog About Writing Centers

I’m really pleased to announce “Connecting Writing Centers Across Borders,” a new publication by Writing Lab Newsletter. It gives me great pleasure personally and professionally to collaborate with editors Muriel Harris and Alan Benson in working on the first postings for the blog. Some veteran colleagues such as Carl Glover have already posted their ideas.

Our focus, at the blog and a new column in WLN, will be international collaboration. The need is there, as writing-center initiatives are cropping up globally, often taking shape in culturally appropriate ways for their home nations. My own first post focuses on how technology from a center builds ethos and influence on campus.

One shoe cannot fit every foot, and as I learned in 2013 at the Conference for The European Association for the Teaching of Academic Writing, best practices vary widely and the US model of peer-tutor work is far from universal.

Using the new blog and column, we directors, tutors, writing consultants, peer mentors, and those doing similar work plan to share resources, stories from our centers, and advice to help our writers and each other.

Google Sites: Page-Level Permissions

Google What?

I do not often read Google’s blog about their documents features, but recently I was looking for an answer to a few questions about Google Sites, the tool that I now use for all of my course syllabi. Unlike traditional web-site builders, Google Sites is collaborative; this is common for wikis, web-site software long popular in K-12 education but rarer in higher education.

In doing my reading at Google’s blog, I found a game-changer for writing teachers. Sites has quickly become my favorite tool for a few reasons:

  • It’s free
  • It offers a navigational sidebar that I like from PBworks‘ wiki
  • It lacks obtrusive advertisements
  • It has the ease of use that Wikispaces offers, but appears even more familiar to MS-Office users.

To my knowledge, however, none of Google’s smaller competitors, and certainly nothing from the desktop-centric Microsoft empire, offer a creator the ability to grant permissions, by page, to those sharing a site. Google explains the reasons for this feature here.

Course-Management Software vs. Sites

For years, I’ve refused to use BlackBoard because it has made guest access so hard. In my field, writing & composition, faculty routinely share lesson plans and syllabi, so Blackboard never met my needs. Our Eng. 383 syllabus has become a model for many other schools’ training programs precisely because colleagues outside the class can find it with a Web search and view the content.

That said, I’m pleased that Blackboard, seeing what the competition offers for free, has given faculty a “public” option for Bb sites. But I’ve argued elsewhere that Blackboard is an overpriced “transition” technology in the age of social media and Web 2.0 shared applications.  Blackboard only recently added such technology to its product.

For now, Sites lacks the sort of testing features that Blackboard has, but I don’t use quizzes that way. It would be possible, however, to link to an online gradebook created with Google Docs. You can see the results (but not students’ grades!) in the latest iteration of my Eng. 383 syllabus, used for training Writing Consultants at the University of Richmond.

How the Collaboration Works

The process of granting permissions for a Google Site is a little tedious at first. I had to invite users to the site with “view” permissions…and they must have a Gmail account. But to my knowledge it cannot be one the University grants, either, as my site resides on the public servers at Google. Had I known this, I might have set up the site under UR’s rubric, but that change of service-providers had not occurred when I first set up my Google Site.

The nature of collaboration and the presence of multimedia in modern writing classrooms make something like Google Sites, with page permissions enabled, essential to how I teach. That said, Google still needs to add a few features:

  • The ability to archive the site locally
  • A somewhat more streamlined process for adding users.

Overall, however, this free tool is phenomenal, and I plan to recommend it to colleagues.

Image source: pre-Sites days in Eng. 103 classroom, late 1990s.

Back to…Paper in the Classroom?

Pile of Papers

I have a penchant for mixing things up in class, if only to keep writers on their toes. For many semesters, I got away from any writing on paper in favor of blogs, digital stories, and wikis.  Now, in a literature course I last taught as paperless, some old friends (and nemeses) have returned: staples, margins, page numbers.

Why have I returned to the 20th Century?

When conducting a “paper chase” with 16 Writing Consultants and 18 literature students, I found that paper enables my Consultants to write the sort of commentary they will most likely write for our professors or in our Writing Center. In time, our faculty will embrace multimedia for many projects, but even then, Writing Consultants will need to understand the rhetoric of linear as well as associative, collaborative projects.

One could do what I’m doing with file exchanges, of course, and some faculty do just that. I’m no stranger to MS Word’s track changes and embedded comments, but even as I write this post, a student has contacted me with a question: the introduction I returned to her, with my comments linked to text, does not seem to be “working.”

I’m not fond of MS Word’s dependence upon co-writers having similar versions. I’ll probably have to switch to Google Docs to finish helping her. It’s simply a simpler, and more ubiquitous, technology. Yet even that lacks the ubiquity of paper.

Paper cannot show multimedia (yet). Paper cannot have live feedback forms or allow online tagging and collaboration (yet). Despite these limitations, I’m most curious to see how a paper-based class goes for me this term. Stay tuned.

Some tasks are, however, inefficient on paper. I’d include sign-up sheets for Writing Consultants, whether done collaboratively or with a single editor, as in this example from my current lit. class. Everyone with the link can view the document from wherever they may be. I now consider Google Docs to be “paper plus,” since they preserve what is best about linear discourse but add collaborative features that are clumsy in Microsoft Office, a technology designed for print.

And The Students Stop Blogging?

At the very time that I feel most comfortable teaching with blogs, I read that blogging is on the decline among the very demographic I teach.

I like Twitter and other sites for short notices, but few ideas can be expressed in 140 characters. Perhaps “the unexamined life is not worth living” by Socrates would fit in a Tweet. The Apology would not.

As usual, I’ll blame what I call a life of constant interruption. My Neo-Luddite side, and it is a prominent side, finds some cold comfort in the warnings of writers and thinkers such as Nicholas Carr, Mark Edmundson, and Sven Birkerts. Even tech-savvy Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together, warns of the shallowness of our “social” networking habits.

I look out for such writing, so I quickly ran across Gregory Palmerino’s article, “Teaching Bartleby to Write,” in the January 2011 issue of College English. Palmerino writes of his “students who would prefer not to remember to hand in writing because of their complex and distractable lives.”  Such students rarely linger in my classes after the add/drop period; the writing is plain on the syllabus about the consequences of Bartleby’s passive-aggressive preference of preferring not to do.

While I do find a kindred spirit in Palmerino, I part ways with his resistance to new technologies in the writing classroom. Blogging provides one excellent example of a type of writing that demands focus. Distraction here, in a post, can be as fatal as it would be in a short story or analytical essay.  So far, however, none of my students Tweet or use Facebook status-updates for any sort of serious discourse.  I doubt they ever will.

In print and online, we who cherish nuance and complexity in language need do something. Rejecting the new is not the answer.  So for now, my students, at least, will keep posting to blogs and replying to each other.

The Curse of the B Minus: Writers, Teachers, Failure

Creative-Commons image courtesy of targuman’s Flickr photostream

When faculty believe that they have failed as writing instructors, why do they fear that outcome? We might dread poor evaluations, angry or quiet classrooms, or–the worst fear of all–that we have let down students on their journeys to attain something like wisdom.

I say “something like” because no university education or series of excellent assignments can impart wisdom. At best, I might lead writers to see how poorly they are served by unsupported generalizations. In fact, I often try to do no more than that, plus get writers to pay attention to their own words, in the course of a semester.

Assignments might fail, even the pilot-year of  new class. But faculty members, like their students in a writing-intensive course, can learn from failure. Perhaps not enough time in graduate school goes into examining the psychology of designing assignments and conducting class, but the hard lessons of failure should be added to the curriculum. I never once did the sort of role-playing exercises that Ryan and Zimmerelli propose in their training manual for peer tutors (106-110).  Had I done so, in the presence of a faculty mentor, I might have avoided what occurred my first semester teaching writing.

It might be a counterpart to a book that is making the rounds, The Blessing of the B Minus.

At Indiana I was so terrified teaching my first class that I broke into “flop sweats” in the classroom that night in Ballantine Hall.  That got better fast, but one event sticks with me to this day. I had a student named Ellen who was a talented writer, a product of one of the best high schools in the state. But Ellen never pushed herself as hard as she might. She got an easy A on my first essay, a short diagnostic piece that counted little toward her final grade. The exercise intended to point out to me which writers had trouble with remedial issues; Ellen had none.

We Associate Instructors had been schooled in Elbow’s ideas and had read Nancy Sommers’ “Responding to Student Writing,” a 1982 masterpiece that changed my philosophy of writing commentary.  We had not, however, discussed what to do with a writer who had never before received a B- on anything. Anything.

Ellen appealed that grade, her second of the term, to me, and I patiently sat down to show her why the project did not match expectations for academic writing. She was crushed, despite my assurance that the second paper would count no more than 10 or 15 percent (I forget) of the final grade. Never before, she noted, had she gotten anything lower than an A.

She thanked me, gathered her books and papers, then left the ready-to-be-condemned building that housed the AIs. I was a terrible undergraduate until my last year, so I watched her with real puzzlement as she strode off into the Hoosier twilight.  The next class, she was absent. And the next. Indiana was not Richmond, and I had no way of letting an advisor know. There were no e-lists or other means of communications, beyond a land-line phone.

I thought the student was gone from campus, perhaps ill, until I crossed paths, literally, with her a month later. She crossed the street to avoid me, and did so again once or twice. Bloomington is a small town, so when I never saw her again, I wondered if Ellen had left the university. And was it my fault?

She got an F in Eng. 131 since she never withdrew.

Steve Sherwood’s article for writing tutors, “Apprenticed to Failure: Learning From the Students We Can’t Help” provides signal advice for teachers as well as for peer tutors. Sherwood advocates Peter Elbow’s advice that we should create “Evaluation-free zones” on our campuses (qtd. in Sherwood 53). We faculty might enable writers to practice for very low stakes, at first, in order to learn the idiosyncrasies of our academic fields or our personal preferences.

I should have done that. I should have done many things. Now I do them.

It is easy to say, and be smug while saying it, that a B- is not a life-changing experience, but I do wonder what became of Ellen.

Works Cited:

Ryan, Leigh and Lisa Zimmerelli. The Bedford Guide For Writing Tutors. New York: Bedford, 2010.

Sherwood, Steve. “Apprenticed to Failure: Learning From the Students We Can’t Help.” The Writing Center Journal 17.1 (Fall 1996): 49-57.