On Rubrics and Assessment


Recently, a few members of the College Writing Committee met to discuss the rubrics we currently use for assessment in ENG 131, 132, and 135. Turns out, we’re all doing something different. Some of us use a single-point rubric, some of us have coded feedback (F3=margins aren’t set to 1″ all the way around, refers student to the section on MLA formatting in handbook), some of us believe that rubrics are “a tool of Satan,” and some of us are somewhere in between. After a passionate discussion, we settled on the need for some kind of rubric for in-class essays that communicates standards by which we will evaluate writing, given that the in-class essay is high-stakes: if a student does not pass one of two in-class essays, they are ineligible to earn a passing grade in the course. For what it’s worth, I dislike this requirement, but I understand that it stems from a history of students not writing their own papers and/or not being able to write at a college-level, and as probationary faculty, I’ll play by the rules (for now).

So! A rubric! But what should this rubric contain? What are we measuring? Is it possible to create a rubric that can be used universally, across any type of assignment? What if I’m having my students write an in-class narrative, but my colleague is having her students write a rhetorical analysis of an advertisement? Certainly, these types of writing have different criteria: a narrative will be descriptive, will likely contain very personal details, and may not follow conventional paragraph-by-paragraph development. A rhetorical analysis will also be descriptive, but for a different purpose – it is descriptive in order to evaluate the strategies used to communicate a specific message and will focus on claims and visual evidence. We liked the single-point rubric in that it is adaptable and therefore can be modified to fit unique assignments, but deciding on base criteria has proven to be a complicated task.

Rubrics have been criticized for limiting the creative expression of student writers, turning the focus away from learning and toward standardized, externally validated notions of what “good writing” looks like. Bonus when that external validation comes from a rubric you can purchase from some big publisher who profits from this myth. In Maja Wilson’s book, Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction, Alfie Kohn explains in his Forward that “research shows three reliable effects when students are graded: They tend to think less deeply, avoid taking risks, and lose interest in the learning itself” (xi). What I found even more striking was Wilson’s comparison of “best practices” (often part of the conversation on assessment and evaluation) to the medical model that looks only those methods that can be proven through clinical trial. She states the following: “Unfortunately, children are not bacteria to be obliterated by the correct dose of penicillin, and classes are not control groups whose every variable can be isolated” (xxii). Good teachers are attentive, and attentive teachers recognize that writing “errors” have to be looked at in context. Wilson gives the example of a student who had bounced from school to school because her parents were migrant workers and she split her time across states. Wilson goes on to explain that “The products and processes of progress we assume to be the inevitable incarnations of human genius are often shaped by powerful and not always benign social and economic forces” (11). In other words, rubrics may do more harm than good, because they don’t account for the multitude of forces acting upon our students and each individual writing task.

But, we decided as a committee that we need a rubric. And maybe that rubric can be used to help instructors identify the outcomes they are aiming for in a particular assignment.  Great. Handing this rubric to students, though, becomes a game of point-seeking and grade-grubbing, as students no longer write to make meaning, but to receive a grade (and those grades have some serious power personally, professionally, and financially, at a higher education institution). I don’t think we’re off-base to want criteria, nor do I think it is unreasonable to position the teacher as an expert reader who will evaluate a piece of writing and provide feedback. But I wonder if it is possible to create a rubric that can communicate in the same “revise and resubmit” style of academic writing, and therefore would encourage learning, risk-taking, and meaning-making, rather than one that lays out a very narrow path to follow in order to earn a passing grade.

The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing is one resource we called upon for a less prescriptive approach to writing assessment. They argue that “Standardized writing curricula or assessment instruments that emphasize formulaic writing for nonauthentic audiences will not reinforce the habits of mind and the experiences necessary for success as students encounter the writing demands of postsecondary education.” The term “assessment” only appears in the full document twice: once in that statement, and once again under composing with electronic technologies where the authors note that students should have opportunities “to explore and develop criteria for assessing the texts.” The word “evaluate” appears three times: once under the habit of creativity, to say that students should be able to evaluate the effects or consequences of their creative choices, and twice in terms of source work. The word “grade” appears 0 times.

The habits of mind referred to in that statement above are curiosity, openness, engagement, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and metacognition. What if, in order to pass a composition course, students needed to demonstrate these habits of mind? Would good writing follow? Not necessarily; I can think of one student this semester who consistently demonstrates these habits but whose writing would not yet be considered academically successful. With these habits, though, she has less ground to cover in order to get there. The Framework also identifies “experiences” that writing instructors can create for students in order to foster these habits. These include rhetorical knowledge, critical thinking, writing processes, knowledge of conventions, and the ability to compose in multiple environments. One single assignment cannot address all of these experiences, but I think we can draw from them to develop criteria for a rubric.

First and foremost, we need to follow Wilson’s advice that good writing is “more than the sum of its rubricized parts” (xv). The rubric that we create should reflect the same freedom and flexibility in pedagogy that we aim for in our invitations for students to write for us, for their peers, and for the public. The “revise and resubmit” approach that I use mirrors that of academic writing; it is the same model used by academic journals who either accept submissions outright, return with a revise and resubmit notice, or reject based on their subjective criteria. Subjective assessment doesn’t use terms like “organization” or “voice” or “thesis statement.” Instead, it looks past the “outward markers” of good writing and relies on “the complex nature of writing, reading, and response” (75). In order to teach writing, I need to read and respond to it as a reader, not simply assign, correct, and return it. Therefore, the criteria we come up with needs to make space for transparent, subjective wording that reminds students of the importance of flexibility as they write for diverse audiences and varied purposes. Responding and evaluating student writing as if we were neutral, objective, robotic, clinical, unaffected beings ignores the very reason we write: to connect with another person (or persons), whether that writing is utilitarian in purpose or expressive.

What criteria, then, should we use? I’m having a hard time answering this question because there are many ways of making meaning in response to a particular assignment. However, I also recognize that sometimes a writing task is straightforward, and when a piece of writing doesn’t respond to the prompt or follow the conventions for a specific rhetorical situation, it’s okay to call it out. For the ad analysis I just assigned, I’m looking to see that my students can describe an advertisement, discuss what it is doing (and point to visual evidence in the ad or historical context found through research), and explain why that matters. I’m looking to see that their essay is focused on a central idea and that I can pick out the main points in their paragraphs. I want their ideas to build in strength and power as they add layers to their argument. If a student turned in an ad analysis that was only a single paragraph or two in length that did not provide sufficient analysis, it would be returned with a request for revision and no credit would be given until they were able to complete the assignment successfully. For in-class essays, though, there isn’t the opportunity to revise.

I have two proposals:

  1. We design a rubric using a brief list of characteristics of college-level writing (central focus, adequate and engaging development of ideas, genre or assignment conventions), and rather than assigning points to the in-class essays, we simply pass or fail them. We could recommend that these criteria are roughly weighted 40%, 40%, and 20%. This approach would allow individual instructors to clarify what each criteria would look like specific to that assignment (i.e.: the conventions for a narrative essay are different from a book review or business memo), would emphasize content over correctness, and is simple enough that an in-class essay (read: nobody’s best work) would have minimal consequences unless a student had plagiarized or was writing far below a college-level.
  2. We don’t use a rubric at all, and use a pass/fail approach (because that’s ultimately what it is for these in-class essays even when points are attached) and instead allow individual instructors to decide what counts as “passing.” The catch here is that some instructors might decide that ESWE is the only criteria that matters, and…

Never mind. I have one proposal, with the three criteria I listed above. I think we might be making a mistake by calling this assignment and the rubric discussion that has ensued assessment in the first place, per Wilson: “As long as grades or other forms of ranking are the ultimate goal of writing assessment, we will not truly be able to claim assessment for teaching and learning” (87). Further, as one colleague explained, assessment is about feedback. Evaluation is about performance. The in-class essay is a test of performance. It is evaluated, not assessed. I realize that assessment has significant value in terms of accreditation and the HLC (and maybe they could use some clarification on assessment vs evaluation, too), but perhaps then we should focus our time and attention on actual assessment and the ways in which our feedback for students is considered and applied and reconsidered in appropriate contexts rather than debating what criteria to use for a gatekeeping assignment.

I’m not opposed to setting an achievement bar. I think expectations are necessary, just as the editors of LAJM did when I submitted my article, and as the readers for 4C’s proposals do every year when putting together a conference program. Their expectations are subjective, but also peer-reviewed – there are agreed upon standards applicable to that particular context. I think that the achievement bar should be set high. I also think that we need to help our students get there, and we need to be transparent about those expectations. I worry, however, that we’re spending too much time on a task that prevents them from succeeding before they’ve even had a chance to try.



ALP: Sites of Learning (2.0!)

Note: this is a write-up for my ENG 094 students who are working on Sites of Learning projects/presentations. I’m using my experience at 4C’s as an example, because it illustrates how a specific event that occurs once a year can be a valid site of learning outside of the classroom. Another option I had considered was the xxfitness Facebook community I belong to, where I’ve learned a significant amount about how to properly squat when lifting weights, and where I’ve seen women encourage one another at all stages of their fitness journey (I dislike using the word “journey” to describe that experience and am open to suggestions). I decided to write about 4C’s because it’s important to me that my students see what professional development looks like. I’m a firm believer in transparency, and want my interests and questions and encounters with other people doing this work to be accessible given that many of the interactions I have about teaching and writing involve students, who aren’t always present to speak for themselves. I also know that some institutions don’t provide travel funding for their teachers, especially if those teachers are adjuncts, and I would like to argue that it is essential for good teaching that teachers have the resources they need to be active in their fields. I also want to point out that presenting is not the only legitimate way to participate at a conference, and insist that funding be available for teachers to attend and participate through listening to presentations and taking part in informal conversation with colleagues across the country.


Last week, I was at 4C’s in Portland, OR. 4C’s stands for the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and it’s an annual event where teachers and scholars of writing and rhetoric get together to share their research. The theme for this year’s conference was “Cultivating Capacity, Creating Change.” You can view the program here, but be warned, it’s long! 4C’s 2018 will be in Kansas City, Missouri, and the theme for next year’s conference is “Languaging, Laboring, and Transforming.”

At 4C’s, I presented on a panel with two other people, and our session title was called “Re-Placing Literacy: Cultivating Spaces for Alternative Literacies in the Writing Classroom.” Amanda’s presentation was about an assignment she gives that asks students to write a literacy narrative about “new literacies” (this is a term that refers to literacies made possible by new technologies, i.e.: what does it mean to be a 21st century literate person? It’s also used sometimes to refer to alternative, non-traditional, or non-academic forms of literacy that are receiving more attention as valid sites of learning). Brittney’s presentation was on writing about place/space to engage students at a college with a large rural student population. Both presentations talked about the need for individually relevant and responsive materials (assigned readings and essays). My presentation responded to these by acknowledging student resistance, building on some experiences I’ve had with students who refused to buy-in to even my best attempts at engaging them on their terms. I initially wrote my proposal after a particularly bad teaching day, and then had forgotten about it until the acceptance email came through. While my co-presenters took a more formal approach, reading their presentations and explaining their research methods, I opted for a conversation, sharing my experiences and guesses as to what might be causing the resistance I was experiencing, and then asking for feedback, which I got through a breakout session with a small group of people who came to our presentation.

In addition to presenting at 4C’s, I attended a number of sessions on Thursday and Friday, as well as a Basic Writing workshop on Wednesday, so that I could learn from and alongside other people in my field. Most of the sessions I went to were specifically labeled “queer,” because I want to better understand queer methodology, queer pedagogy, and LGBTQIA scholarship as a self-identified queer person. To give you an idea of how big this conference is, at any given time there are 30+ sessions happening at once, so choosing which session to attend can be overwhelming. I was able to view the program ahead of time, and I put the conference app on my phone where I narrowed down the sessions I was interested in. Then, I made my final choices at the conference itself from the 3-4 I had added to each time slot. Sometimes, I decided to skip sessions and to sit and think, or to visit the exhibition hall where publishers had booths set up for sales. One booth that caught my attention in a sea of corporate, profit-driven publishers like Pearson and Bedford, was PM Press, a small, independent press that specializes in radical material. I ended up buying some books from them and plan to order more!

How Learning Works Here

If you’ve ever given a speech or a formal presentation, the sessions at 4C’s are kind of like that: there are presenters (anywhere from 3-10, maybe?) who have a table at the front of the room, a podium, a projector, and a screen. Presenters take turns sharing their work, and sometimes there is a chair for the session (someone who introduces each speaker or topic, and keeps time for breakout sessions or Q&A) or a respondent (someone who responds to the presentations by summarizing what was said and speaking to a few key points). Some people use PowerPoint presentations, some show videos, some read their papers directly. Some people use a very dry, academic voice, and others speak more conversationally. Sometimes presentations are interactive and the audience might be asked to write, to talk to someone near them, or to play a game. Other times, presentations are expected to sit quietly and take notes. I prefer more interactive presentations, and have been critical of paper-readers, but I also understand that sometimes content or even personal comfort determines the format the presentation takes, and so am trying to practice empathy instead of annoyance.

During these presentations, many people will use Twitter to share snippets or photographs. These are tagged with the official #4c17 hashtag, and then sometimes users might tag the speaker if they are on Twitter, or the caucus or special interest group the presenter is associated with (for example, @4CQueers), or simply the session number (i.e.: #b37) or relevant topic (#basicwriting). This helps people who were in a different session, or who couldn’t make it to the conference at all, follow along on social media. Tweeting during sessions is hard; 4C’s is the one time I use Twitter with any sort of regular activity, and trying to listen while typing and then revising to fit the 140-character limit is exhausting! If you’re curious, you can look up the #4c17 hashtag  (which I think was trending for a short while!) to see what people are tweeting about.

In addition to presentations, quite a bit of learning takes place informally, through conversations over coffee or lunch or drinks. One conversation I had with a few friends in the bar of a hotel was about the “nevertheless, she persisted” phrase that became a meme after Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced by Senator McConnell during the nomination hearing for attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions. I voiced some discomfort with this phrase, because I felt like it normalized the gross imbalance of work (intellectual, emotional, and physical labor) that women experience just to get through a day. I felt like it implied that persistence was expected, when really it’s the system itself, and the expectations themselves, that need to be challenged. This led to a conversation about motherhood and raising children as academics in a demanding field (two out of the four of us at the table are single mothers who had to figure out childcare and who were away from our kids for a long period of time in order to be at the conference). I also had a conversation with another community college teacher from Michigan at the airport about the ALP program and the various models his institution uses. These conversations, though not documented formally on a conference program, were immensely valuable to me and immediately applicable, which leads me to my last point.

Why this Site of Learning Matters

I happen to have an amazing union that ensures conference funding for me so that I can travel and present at or simply attend conferences in my field. However, this isn’t the case at every institution. When I was an adjunct at EMU, I did not have any funding to travel. Everything would have been paid for out of my own pocket, which was not possible on the income I was earning (adjunct pay is the exploitative Walmart part-time employee situation of higher education). The irony is that in order to sell yourself as a worthwhile job candidate in higher education, you need to have conference presentations on your CV, but listing the presentation title and then “did not attend” afterward doesn’t exactly help your argument. I opted not to attend the conferences I was scheduled to present at because I couldn’t afford to go, and I believe they are included on my CV, which is a risk I took that fortunately didn’t cause me great harm when I was applying for jobs. I feel it is my duty now, as a full-time instructor with benefits, to advocate for conference attendance (whether or not one is presenting) as a necessary part of professional development, and as an endeavor that should be funded regardless of one’s teaching load.

In the article “Four Good Reasons to Attend Conferences” on the HASTAC blog, De Hertogh explains, “one my favorite things about being a student and scholar is traveling to new places, meeting new people, and learning neat stuff about how to make my teaching and learning experiences even more productive.” As a graduate student, De Hertogh is probably fortunate enough to have access to funding (I did as a graduate student as well). For adjuncts, and even for full-time faculty whose funding is limited, lack of support for conference attendance sends a strong message: learning how to be a better teacher from colleagues across the country doesn’t matter. I think this undermines the integrity of academic work. If not us, then who will mentor up and coming scholars, and new teachers? If not us, then who will push for innovation in our field? Who will advocate for students in basic writing courses? Who will decide how literacy should be defined and who will work to ensure that public policy reflects the lived experiences of the actual bodies in actual classrooms? I’m not sure anyone is listening to these four bullet points that De Hertogh mentions in her article, but I’m in agreement:

1.) Conferences provide excellent opportunities to learn more about your field of study in a diverse, professional environment.

2.) You get the chance to meet new people and sometimes to even rub shoulders with the scholars and professionals who inspire you.

3.) Conferences give you the chance to shine as a student/scholar, especially if you’re presenting. You can also list conferences you’ve participated in on your curriculum vitae.

4.) Conferences are great way to refuel yourself. Just when you’re feeling worn out from taking classes, writing papers, or teaching a heavy course load, conferences can give you the boost you need to get reenergized and motivated.

I came home refreshed. I was also (am also!) exhausted, for sure, but I was reminded of how nice it feels to be part of a larger community that lives and breathes and evolves outside of the department or division at my home institution. I’m also immensely thankful for the institutional support I have, and especially for my union. I look forward to participating again next year.

Works Cited

De Hertogh, Lori Beth. “Four Good Reasons to Attend Conferences.” HASTAC, 4 Nov 2012. http://www.hastac.org/blogs/dehertoghlb/2012/11/04/four-good-reasons-attend-conferences. Accessed on 20 Mar 2017.

*NOTE: For my presentation, I’d like to show you some of the Tweets from 4C’s, some photographs, and a few artifacts including the conference program and my name badge. I’d also like to share my panel’s presentations with you, and to borrow from an activity we did in the Basic Writing workshop, I’ll ask you to work in pairs and then in groups to collaboratively determine qualities of a good presentation.

Ad Analysis: Media Resources

In ENG 131, we’re beginning a unit on advertising. Students are analyzing advertisements and how they rely on/reproduce social norms and stereotypes. Working with outside sources is a requirement for this project; this post includes links to the resources listed on the assignment sheet.


Song Analysis: Playlist

Our third major assignment in ENG 131 is a Song Analysis that asks you to assemble a playlist for a specific purpose and then analyze how each part (in this case, each song) contributes to the whole. Analysis is tough, but it’s a skill you’ll need in school and beyond, and it’s a skill you likely already possess. Here, we’re finessing that skill in an academic context, but as you can see from the chapter in your textbook, analysis is something you do every day.

We’ll continue working on analysis for the rest of the semester. This assignment asks you to create something to analyze. The next assignment, an ad analysis, invites you to analyze an advertisement and how it contributes to the gender binary (and why that might be problematic). You’ll actually be writing a persuasive essay there, but the analysis skills you practice here will be a necessary part of that assignment as well. The last assignment we do before the Final Portfolio is an Annotated Bibliography, which brings us back to this assignment in terms of the parts-to-whole relationship: you’ll be mapping and documenting sources across different types of media that speak to a topic of interest to you.

Analysis generally involves five common elements:

  • A question that prompts you to take a closer look
  • Some description of the subject you are analyzing
  • Evidence drawn from close examination of the subject
  • Insight gained from your analysis
  • Clear, precise language (206).

What do these elements look like when applied to a playlist?

A question…

Recently, a friend of mine made me a mix CD. I grew up with mixtapes (I remember getting my first boombox and it had a dual tape deck so I could burn cassettes and CD’s-to-cassettes all day long! I could even record myself singing along!) and as a teenager and in my twenties, mix CD’s were pretty common. Fast forward to 2017, however, and I was gifted a CD with no way to play it. My computer doesn’t have a disc drive, my car doesn’t have a CD or a cassette player, and I no longer have that boombox. Eventually, I figured out that my PS3 could play CD’s, and I was able to listen to the music that way. Listening to the music was an emotional event; I knew that my friend, who lives far away, had spent a lot of time choosing songs that he thought would speak to my interests and my experiences: in the previous year, I had lost my dad, left an unhealthy relationship, started a new job, spent my summer outdoors, and was (am) wrestling with the election and now the Trump administration’s agenda and how it may impact my future. The playlist my friend made for me was deeply personal, and I felt that from the design of the case to the songs he chose and the order in which I listened to them. Knowing that he made that playlist for me, with me in mind, prompted me to take a closer look, to understand the connections he saw between each song and my life, and even how the songs themselves spoke to each other. The CD is called “the thing with feathers: a mix for 2017.” I asked my friend why he picked that name (a Google search tells me it is a line from an Emily Dickinson poem, and also the title of a book by Noah Stryker, and also the name of a novel by Max Porter!), he says it was “essentially an abstract connection to” the Emily Dickinson poem.



Photograph of a handmade CD jacket. The left side has the playlist title, "the thing with feathers: a mix for 2017." The right side lists the names of the songs.
A photo of the CD jacket my friend made for me.



You might decide to make a playlist that is also reflective of your own personal struggles or growth. Or, you might have a particular cause in mind: songs for undergoing chemotherapy, songs to combat Islamophobia, songs for the gym, songs for surviving a two-hour commute home from work, songs that explain what it’s like to be a person of color, songs that explain white America, songs for fishing with your dad. This could be a playlist for you, or a playlist for someone you love, or even a playlist for someone you’ll never meet. 8tracks.com is a site where users can create and share playlists; you might find inspiration there: a few of these include Hipster Yoga, Lumberjanes 1: Fox Fight Jams (this is the official playlist for the first issue of the comic), and Scholarly Rhymes.

The question prompting you to take a closer look isn’t a yes/no question, but rather a question without a correct response: what can I make a playlist for? What would it include? Notice the questions outlined in your book: What? Which? How?

Some description…

Not all playlists on 8tracks have descriptions, but when they do, I find it especially helpful to see a note from the creator explaining why they put it together. You’ll need to give some description in your essay: if you’re making a playlist to go with a book you love, you might give a brief summary of the book and share your rationale for the playlist you’ve created. If you’re making a playlist for a friend, think about what you might want to tell them: what inspired you to choose these songs? Why are you making them the playlist in the first place? If you’re making a playlist for a cause, give some background information about that issue.

Evidence drawn…

Because you are creating the subject (the playlist), you’ll probably already be thinking about the key elements (songs and/or parts of songs), patterns (common features, characteristics, or themes in these songs), and relationships (how these songs connect to form a whole). Each element of your playlist contributes to the whole; each song carries some part of the overall message you are trying to convey. In other words, this isn’t just a random assortment of songs you like, but a purposefully and thoughtfully designed playlist with a particular outcome in mind. In order to discuss these parts, you’ll need to be specific. You might discuss the lyrics, genre(s) of music and its history, artist information, the beat, tempo, style, and mood of the songs, the instruments or technology used to produce it.

Usually, when we analyze texts, we’re analyzing work that someone else produced (themes in a novel, language in a speech, subliminal messaging in an ad). In this case, you’re analyzing something you’ve created using someone else’s material, so while some of the evidence lies within the songs themselves, you might also discuss your own choices to work with the material in the way that you did: why did you arrange the songs in the order that you did? Why 5 songs instead of 10? Why these artists? Why this genre? Why this beat/tempo/style/mood/instrument/technology?

Your book outlines a few common types of analysis: rhetorical, process, causal, and data; we’re hanging out in the rhetorical section: how does this thing communicate?

Insight gained…

This has to do with the “why bother?” part of analysis. Why analyze a playlist? To what end is this useful? Why should anybody care about the songs on a playlist? There are two points I want to touch on here:

  1. Music can teach us about people and society. Song lyrics are texts, and we can study their emotional impact and social commentary. Music is also more widely “used” or consumed than articles and novels: many of you don’t read novels on a regular basis, but I know you listen to music.
  2. Learning to recognize and to write about the parts of something that contribute to a whole in order to communicate a particular message is a transferrable skill that you’ll use in a variety of disciplines, from identifying the multiple factors contributing to a health condition in order to provide a diagnosis or develop a treatment plan, to recognizing grammatical patterns in learning another language so that you can apply them to new structures, or even understanding the complex layers of our political systems so that you can contribute to a democratic society by voting and by speaking up when justice is not served.

When you think about the insight gained from analyzing a playlist that you created, it might seem silly: how can you gain insight from analyzing something you made? What you might look at here is the bigger picture: why might a playlist be valuable? What might it contribute to the listener’s understanding of an issue? How might it benefit them to know how all of the parts fit together? Likewise, you can also evaluate the success of your playlist: what is missing? What is left out? How could it be made better? These questions will come up in your self-assessment, so you may choose to answer them in class rather than in the essay itself.

Clear, precise language…

I’m going to quote from your book here because their words are spot on: “Since the point of an analysis is to help an audience understand something, you need to pay extra attention to the words you use and the way you explain your findings.” Use language that your audience will understand (you don’t need to sound scholarly, but remember that you are writing to a college-educated audience), and use words that point to specifics. Words like “things” and “stuff” and “good” and “really” don’t present a clear picture of what you mean. You also want to be sure that the language you use is culturally sensitive: avoid stereotypes about gender, religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability; some of these we have internalized and it can be difficult to unlearn ways of expressing ideas that might be considered offensive. Review the “How to Write Good Sentences” chapter in your textbook (p. 668) for some advice on sentence composing, and we’ll look at “What’s Your Style” in class (p. 641) together.

EXTRA CREDIT: Very rarely do I offer extra credit opportunities, but this invitation can act as a bridge from textual/rhetorical analysis to visual analysis, which we’ll do with advertisements later on. Most playlists, whether digital or burned onto a physical CD, come with some sort of case, booklet, or cover art. If you are feeling especially creative, and want to play with visuals in order to further support the message or purpose you are aiming for with your playlist, make some cover art to accompany your album. Up to 5 extra credit points are available; this needs to be submitted with your final draft either digitally or as a hard copy, with a brief note explaining your rhetorical choices.

What is Stamina? Transmediation Example

Muriel Rukeyser, at the young age of 22, wrote the documentary poem “The Book of the Dead” which chronicles the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster. This event, which took place in the 1930’s, has been called America’s worst industrial disaster, but it is not well-known to most American citizens. Rukeyser’s poem features transcripts from court hearings and meetings of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor, as well as testimony from men who worked in the tunnels and their families. While it is unclear to me at this time whether or not she actually spoke with these individuals in their homes or worked from documents that were provided to her, Rukeyser’s take on the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster sheds a necessary light on the desperate persistence of the tunnel workers despite fatal conditions. Sia, an Australian music artist, released the song “The Greatest” in 2016. The song, according to the website Genius which provides annotated song lyrics, was written as an anthem for LGBT individuals after the shooting at the Orlando Pulse nightclub. Both Rukeyser’s poem and Sia’s song speak to the experiences of marginalized people.

In Rukeyser’s poem, she tells of the workers who contracted silicosis after digging out a tunnel rich in silica to divert water for hydroelectric power for the Union Carbide Company. This tunnel was located in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, and the dam and tunnel entrance can be seen from the hiking trails along the New River Gorge. Silicosis is a lung disease; the dust fills the lungs of the individual affected, and that person eventually suffocates as they can no longer breathe. “I can’t breathe” is a well-known cry of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the deaths of unarmed black men in the hands of police, specifically Eric Garner who uttered these words prior to his death. Some have argued that these deaths should be considered murder. I believe some would argue the same about the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster. Most of the men working in the tunnel at that time were men of color, migrant workers from southern states. Sia’s song opens with similar words, “Uh-oh, runnin’ out of breath, but I/Oh, I, I got stamina/Uh-oh, running now, I close my eyes/Well, oh, I got stamina/And uh-oh, I see another mountain to climb/But I, I, I got stamina” (“Sia – The Greatest Lyrics”). While Sia’s lyrics speak specifically to the challenges that LGBT individuals face in this country, and her treatment of not being able to breathe is figurative (the mountain is a metaphor), it parallels the literal experiences of both the Hawk’s Nest victims as well as the black men who have lost their lives more recently.

Rukeyser includes the bill passed by the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor in “The Book of the Dead,” under a section called The Bill. Toward the end of that section, there is a direct quote presented before the signed names of the representatives. It reads, “If by their suffering and death they will have made a future life safer for work beneath the earth, if they will have been able to establish a new and greater regard for human life in industry, their suffering may not have been in vain.” While this is an admirable statement to make, the struggle for human rights for non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual people in this country is ongoing, and we cannot make martyrs out of those whose lives were taken. History cannot be erased, nor can these lives be brought back. Perhaps statements like this bring some comfort to the families of those whose loved ones have died, but it’s an embarrassment that as a country, America has not yet figured out how to ensure basic protections to all of its people. Sia’s song declares “I’m free to be the greatest, I’m alive/I’m free to be the greatest here tonight,” and one annotation claims that “Redemption, self-preservation, perseverance, and finding inner-strength are all common themes in Sia’s music” (“Sia – The Greatest Lyrics”). I would argue that these qualities are common themes in American culture, but that these values unfairly place the burden on marginalized individuals to fight for what they should already have, rather than calling out the systemic issues that allow this cycle to continue.

For a version of this essay in MLA format with citations, please click here.


Who Owns Ideas? Intellectual Property and Academic (Dis)Honesty: Part 2

One of the big ideas raised in both the film we watched and your textbook is that of ownership of ideas. To quote from the chapter in Everyone’s an Author,

Who owns words and ideas? Answers to this question differ from culture to culture. In some societies, they are shared resources, not the property of individuals. In others, using another person’s words or ideas may be seen as a tribute or compliment that doesn’t require specific  acknowledgement. In the United States, however (as well as in much of the Western world), elaborate systems of copyright and patent law have grown up to protect the intellectual property (including words, images, voices, and ideas) of individuals and corporations. This system forms the foundation of the documentation conventions currently followed in U.S. schools (527).

As I’ve mentioned, we are an individualistic society. We encourage people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps (assuming they have boots to begin with). We expect our members to pursue happiness and prosperity by their own definition, and we encourage them to defend what is “theirs” with laws that protect them from “violation” (see copyright law). In other words, the individual is the central focus of American society, rather than the whole, or the greater good. This kind of thinking operates closely to the scarcity model that teaches us resources are limited, survival is everything, everyone is competition, and thus we should fight to protect what little we have lest it be taken away. We hoard whatever we can get our hands on, then, in an effort to preserve some sort of perceived safety: is our very existence truly threatened by sharing what we have with others?

Academia exists in a weird place, somewhere between the copyright and copyleft. While we pander to individualism in that we want you to do your own work and earn your credentials (also, we want you to think for yourself!), we also greatly value collaboration and remix! When I write for an academic audience, I name drop. I associate my work, and my ideas, with the people who came before me, who have been doing this work. It would be unprofessional and inappropriate to show up and suggest change without first learning about how we got to where we are now. I build on what they have already done. I also connect sources, putting them into conversation. Perhaps Source A made a point that Source B can add to. As a writer, I can connect these articles and make new meaning. This is what sampling looks like in academia. However, academia makes an explicit demand that the public sphere does not, which is that you must cite your sources, giving credit where credit is due.

Here is Henry Ford College’s policy on academic (dis)honesty (I put the dis- in parenthesis because I wonder how this conversation would change if instead of framing it as a list of do-not’s, we looked at academic honesty and defined that instead):

Academic Integrity

Henry Ford College (HFC) considers academic dishonesty to be a serious offense. It is the policy of the College that determination of and appropriate action in respect to academic dishonesty by a student shall be a matter of individual judgment by the instructor. The instructor may administer a penalty up to and including failure in the particular course. It is the professional obligation of the faculty to enforce academic integrity in their courses. Instructors (or their designees) reserve the right to require picture identification for test taking, graded papers or projects, or other appropriate purposes. A student cannot drop a class if failing for reasons of academic dishonesty.

Academic dishonesty is any activity intended to improve a student’s grade fraudulently.* It includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  1. Unauthorized acquisition of tests or alteration of grades (such as the stealing of tests, test keys, or grade books from faculty offices or elsewhere, or the purchasing of tests or grade-books);
  2. Unauthorized use of notes, books, or other prohibited materials during an examination;
  3. Open cheating on an examination (such as copying from another student’s paper);
  4. Permitting another person to take a test in the student’s place or receiving unauthorized assistance with any work for which academic credit is received;
  5. Providing unauthorized assistance with any work for which academic credit is received;
  6. Revision of graded work in an attempt to receive additional credit fraudulently;
  7. Plagiarism (using another person’s work without acknowledgment);
  8. Use of cell and video phones to cheat; and
  9. Any other conduct intended to obtain academic credit fraudulently or dishonestly.

If an instructor fails a student in a course for academic dishonesty, the instructor must immediately notify in writing the student and the registrar of the infraction, retaining copies of both notifications.

The registrar maintains a record of all such violations. If a student fails two classes as a result of academic dishonesty, he or she is dismissed from HFC for two academic years. In addition, a notation of the reason for academic dismissal is placed on the student’s transcript(s). The notation may be expunged at the discretion of the appropriate vice president if the student petitions for its removal after at least two years have elapsed since the disciplinary action.

If a student believes that the accusation is false, he or she may appeal through the Student Complaint Procedure. If the appeal reaches the Student Complaint Board (SCB), the SCB may consider only whether the charge is justified. The SCB may not set aside or change the penalty given by the instructor unless the charge of academic dishonesty is set aside.

*Any action that violates the Student Conduct Policy and Due Process Procedure is also subject to review under that policy.

As you can see, our academic integrity policy covers far more than just plagiarism and citing sources. For comparison, here are links to EMU’s policy and Wayne State’s as well.

Your assignment for this particular unit asks you to connect themes from RIP: A Remix Manifesto to college policies on academic integrity. Start with fair use. Read your textbook. Review the college policy quoted above. Think about whether or not ideas can really be owned, and whether we need more copyright, or more sharing/open source materials. Consider your responsibilities as a college student, where the concept of remix might fit into the work that you do, and how you should handle that ethically. I’m looking for you to show me that you paid attention to the film, that you’ve taken some time to think about these concepts, and that you are aware of and understand what is expected of you as a college student.

Here are links to two resources we talked about in class:

An interview with Girl Talk

Fair Use Criteria

Ownership of Ideas: Intellectual Property and Academic (Dis)honesty: Part 1

Do you know about Crash Course? Happy Saturday morning to me! I’m sitting on the couch with my cat watching YouTube and it turns out, Crash Course has covered Intellectual Property in a mini-series!

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Crash Course is a project by John and Hank Green, aka the Vlogbrothers, who do pretty awesome work all around. In fact, they founded DFTBA Records, which stands for Don’t Forget to be Awesome! DFTBA works pretty closely with another organization I love, the Harry Potter Alliance, which is a great example of fan activism: a thing that happens when fans across the globe connect via the Internet and decide that they want to turn their attention outward, toward the public, toward social justice, toward human rights, instead of just appreciating whatever the focus of their fandom is. So for example, instead of writing Harry and Draco fanfic and posting it on Tumblr where it remains in a closed loop of fans who read, respond, and share, fan activists inspired by the Harry Potter series might get involved with trans* rights, voter registration, or organizing against child labor.

In ENG 131, we’ve been talking about intellectual property, and we watched the documentary film RIP: A Remix Manifesto, about remix/mashup culture and the future of copyright in the digital age. Gaylor, the film’s producer, presents these four truths as the “Remixer’s Manifesto”:

Screenshot of "A Remixer's Manifesto" from RIP: A Remix Manifesto

Let’s start with the first truth: culture always builds on the past. This one connects to our framing question: what is original? Is there one true source, is there anything uninfluenced by what came before (or around)? We’re getting into philosophy here: can we find the truth unsullied by external influence?

The second truth argues that the past always tries to control the future. As technology advances and tools for communication evolve, we will, for a time, view what is possible through a lens of what is familiar. Imagine looking outside through a window and not knowing how to make sense of what you see. This creates conflict: our past and our present (and our future) are not in alignment. When something holds power, and that power is challenged, there is resistance. The past will attempt to control the future by imposing its own value systems, or criteria for evaluation, and when the future fails to meet those criteria, it will be criticized. A great example of this is the literacy “crisis” ____ by mainstream media. Composition/rhetoric/writing scholars have found these criticisms to be unfounded: it’s not that students “can’t write,” but that they are engaging with media differently, much like what we read about in Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

The third truth, that our future is becoming less free, speaks to attitudes of the past being used to restrict or limit activities from the present and those that may exist in the future. We’re trying to…well, I know there’s an idiom for this, but I can’t seem to find it. We’re using old standards to measure new things. We’ve talked about the importance of context for understanding and defining literacy in ALP: at one point, being able to read and write on paper was a sufficient definition for literacy, but 21st century literacy looks different. It wouldn’t make sense to use the same definition for literacy over the next hundred years. If we did, we would be greatly limited. Imagine if schools only taught to that basic definition, ignoring the actual realities of everyday life?

The fourth truth states that to build free societies, you have to limit the control of the past. I think this is essentially asking for a revolution. Look at American history: have efforts to limit the control of the past generally been well-received? Likely not. Why do you think that change is feared?

This has a lot to do with power dynamics, and dominant groups exercising their control in an attempt to maintain their power. We are a capitalist, patriarchal society. Here’s what that means, in a nutshell:

  • Capitalism is a socio-economic system that values profit over people. In other words, everything can be monetized, and thus everything is considered property, even ideas and attention. Capitalism operates on a scarcity model: there can’t possibly be enough goods or resources for everyone, and thus there is a need to fight for and defend what you own. Money is power.
  • Patriarchy is a term for a society that is driven by masculine power and behaviors. Generally, this means that men retain power, and that masculine characteristics are considered superior: competition, aggression, violence. This doesn’t mean men are bad, but it does have significant consequences for people who are not men, as their power is limited. Many would argue that this system is in fact harmful to men as well.

Imagine what happens, then, when it is suggested that people share resources, that information isn’t property, that ideas aren’t original and cannot be claimed as such. What happens when people who make music, or art, ask their audience directly for support instead of going through record labels as middle-men who seek to make a substantial profit (how much CAN we make? how much COULD this be worth?)? What happens when people give permission for their work to be used by other people, when they encourage its use (see Creative Commons) and merely ask for credit? Think about how we defined new media: 

  • On demand
  • On any device
  • Interactive user feedback
  • Creative participation
  • Community formation around content
  • Democratization of the creation, publishing, distribution, and consumption of content
  • Bits
  • “Networkable” and “compressible”

New media is made for sharing. It’s made for collaboration. But this begs the question of ethics: how do we do it ethically, so as to honor all participants: the creators, the contributors, the users, the viewers? Are there “best practices” for working with others’ stuff outside of a pay-to-play, profit-motivated system? How does all of this translate to an academic setting?

Part 2 will pick up with connections between intellectual property, ownership of ideas, and academic policies regarding plagiarism.