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Concept Maps as Heuristic

posted: 6.19.13 by Nedra Reynolds

The best resources for writing teachers are students themselves, and learning from my students is my favorite part of teaching. I got the idea to assign concept maps to my undergraduate students after one of my graduate students developed one for his dissertation; we both realized what a huge impact the map had on his thinking process as well on as my reading experience and the reading experiences of his other committee members. 

Concept maps are time-consuming to develop but fascinating to unpack, and it’s become one of my favorite assignments for classes that read and discuss theory or big ideas.  The process of creating them—even if they aren’t graded—is worth the class time because students need to make so many decisions (content as well as presentation) and most importantly, dive into the relationships between or among ideas—relationships of different degrees or depth.  Representing those relationships to readers or viewers becomes a terrific exercise in visual rhetoric.

Here’s the concept map that Matthew Ortoleva created and introduced to readers in his 2010 dissertation–and what I shared with my WRT 490 students to get them started on their own concept maps:



What I appreciate about Matt’s document is that it conveys a lot in one page (and just over 100 words).  It means something more or different, of course, for those who are also reading the (multiple!) accompanying pages, but even as stand-alone, the main ideas of the project come through.

Students dissected this map together:  what do the rectangles mean, the broken lines, the lines without arrows?  Why are there different fonts, both in size and style?  Most importantly, what does this visual accomplish when it is part of a lengthy document characterized mostly by words?  What work does this visual representation do and how?

When we started the concept map project in my 400-level rhetoric class, we had read and discussed eight scholarly articles on audience, and their job was to create (in groups of 4 or 5) a concept map that their fellow students could use to study for the final exam. I expected these maps to be their study guides and a record of what they had learned or figured out about audience, but my delightful discovery was the concept maps became a powerful heuristic.  Rather than a reference, the concept maps allowed students to make discoveries and connections they wouldn’t have made without this task.

I distributed poster-sized sheets of paper for them to use once they were ready, but I was surprised by how much they invested in making them and how interesting some of their discussions were, like if they should include a legend or how they might use a dominant metaphor.  (And as a footnote, I was also struck by how much they relied upon pencils and pens and papers to make these maps, not a single group choosing to create it with electronic tools.)

Here’s just one of the concept maps that resulted:

In the two classes where I’ve tried concept maps, the variety has been amazing, confirming for me that there are many paths through the same material, and all of them are interesting.

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Criminal Commentary

posted: 5.16.13 by Nedra Reynolds

If there were such a thing as pedagogical malpractice, I would be filing charges against an instructor (not one I supervise) who sent me a sample of the student writing produced in her courses.  Her motive was to share with some leaders on our campus what she considers to be “the horrible state of students’ writing today” and to share what she’s up against as someone who gives and evaluates writing assignments.

I couldn’t possibly be shocked by the students’ writing–not because I have “seen it all before” (as she assumes in her cover note), but because her markings have completely obliterated the original prose.

I do realize that not everyone who is hired to teach (writing) has the advantages of training, support, or professional development.  I am privileged to have been surrounded by colleagues who take teaching so seriously and who are dedicated to best practices informed by research that only a few people have the resources to conduct.  I’m well aware, too, of the conditions under which some instructors work:  pitiful wages and long hours and isolation from a community of scholars.  Most instructors do a superb job under tough circumstances.

But seeing what this instructor is doing to her students–in the name of teaching writing–makes me sick.  Her markings say, of course, more about HER than they do about students today.  Still, I worry.  To me, this is scary stuff in a time when we are trying to increase retention and support students who come to college from different communities, with diverse languages.

I get like this–distressed about how little progress we seem to have made despite leaps and bounds of change in the political status of rhetoric and composition studies.  (See, for example, this column from 2011:

When I think that Nancy Sommers “Responding to Student Writing” is now 31 years old, I wonder how far we have come in getting the message out about, for example, contradictory feedback, where students can’t tell if they are supposed to “do more research” or fix the verb tenses.  Sure, composition studies has endowed professorships and more journals, but how well have we communicated to all instructors of writing that over-commentary is not only a waste of time but also can be a form of intellectual assault?

Should I dismiss this as the work of a psycho?  Are these samples extraordinary in your experience, Bits readers?  What can we do on our campuses to reach out to instructors who lack training and to students who are “victims” of this kind of treatment?

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Here’s to a future of many Little Green Blogs

posted: 4.18.13 by Nedra Reynolds

A few months ago, a student I had never met, a writing minor, asked me if I would be the faculty sponsor for her Senior Project in the Honors Program this spring.  As usual, I hesitated about adding one more thing to the list, but I did read Alyssa’s proposal.  That gave me pause because she was planning to produce a blog about sustainability and green issues.  Like you, I’ve seen my share of bad blogs and don’t think the world needs more of them.  So we talked about it.  Did she understand what she was getting into?  Did she realize that a successful blog demands frequent updates?  Was she prepared for multi-modal composing?  She admitted to having a lot to learn, but she was also enrolling in a course, “Writing in Electronic Environments” and hoped that it would give her the tools and guidance she needed.

Then I shared my other big doubt:  aren’t college students and campus communities growing weary of green campaigns?  Are they really going to be receptive to yet another initiative to reduce, reuse and recycle?  Alyssa was undeterred.  Inspired by Colin Beavan’s visit to campus (his book No Impact Man was the common reading in Fall 2011), she was earnestly determined to try to make a difference.  She had also teamed up with another Honors’ program student who shared her interest in “all things green” and would be conducting a small experiment –she’s a Psychology major—around recycling habits as well as co-authoring the blog.  And there was more:  Alyssa and her partner received funding to sponsor a “Free Coffee with Travel Mug” Monday at a local “Bagelz.”  Anyone showing up on a Monday with their own mug would receive free coffee.  Part of their project has been publicizing that program and learning, along the way, about “incentivizing” participants.

Now their Senior Honors’ presentation is coming up, and I’m so impressed and pleased with the quality and variety of their work that I wanted to share it with Bits’ readers:

As I look forward to hearing Alyssa and Maggie’s final presentation about their project, I’m thinking about ways to try to engage all learners (not just Honors’ students) in this kind of self-sponsored, self-motivated learning.  It seems too rare that students become truly motivated by something they read, and too unusual that they have such convictions!  It’s also good for me to realize that although my initial reaction to the proposal was lukewarm, to say the least, Alyssa’s determination and the 30+ blog entries—each of them quality work—has turned me right around.  It’s a cliché but a useful one:  we learn from our students as much or more as we teach them.




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235 Downloads and 2,820 Clicks Per Semester

posted: 3.20.13 by Nedra Reynolds

For the 47th time in the past two weeks, I have typed this sentence into the comment box on Sakai >
Assignments:  “Please see my comments on the copy I’ve attached below.”

I’m tired of typing that sentence.

By the end of the semester, I will have typed it approximately 188 times along with onscreen-clicking at least 12 times per submission.  Is this the best use of my time?  Come to think of it, is the entire rigmarole that I go through to accept electronic texts the most efficient way of responding to student writing? (Okay, maybe there’s no efficient way . . . ) Collecting paper documents and writing in the margins with a pen is looking better to me lately—at least until I remember that my backpack was more stuffed; and that all those pages transmitted germs, absorbed cigarette smoke, and got wet, walked on by the dog, or stained by a teacup.

But lately, when commenting on student writing, I’m a little struck by the clunkiness of my routine and keep wondering if there isn’t a better way.  First, I open an assignment on Sakai, including the directions and expectations and due dates.  Students upload a copy of their draft, usually created in MS Word or the open source version of Word.  When it’s time for me to read it and make comments, I have to download the file, open it in Word, and use Track Changes. (Except, of course, when a student uploads a PDF file, in which case I open Adobe Pro and use sticky notes.)

At this point, Track Changes is familiar to me and I find it effective for giving marginal comments as well as for making some intertextual edits.  My comments in the right margin are in color, dated, and numbered.  If I can’t help myself and want to add a comma or leave a brief note right next to a problematic internal citation, for example, those edits show up in a different color, and a vertical mark in the left margin signals to the reader that something has been changed.

For me to get going on a new piece of writing, I need to click “Review” and also click the toggle button on Track Changes to ON.  When I’m finished, I then have to save the new version, and since students rarely remember to use their names for the file that they upload, I end up changing “final draft” to “Sara W_490_analysis” or something that helps me identify it among the 40+ others in my Downloads folder.  Then I need to go to Sakai > Assignments, choose the correct Assignment among several, click on Sara W, and complete a series of at least seven steps to return her writing to her, including typing out “Please see my comments on the copy I’ve attached below”!

Is this just me?  Am I being completely thick about shortcuts, or does this seem like a lot to go through 188+ times in a semester?  Is it Sakai, about which many of my colleagues complain relentlessly?   Or am I right that there are TOO MANY STEPS involved in this exchange of drafts?  I’d love to hear from Bits readers who either share my frustration or who have conquered this problem.

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Writing for

posted: 2.20.13 by Nedra Reynolds

When I was starting to plan my 400-level seminar on “writing and rhetoric” for this spring, I received a fortuitous invitation from Joe Moxley at USF, who wrote,

I’d like to offer you and your graduate students an opportunity to participate in the conversation at Writing Commons, . . . since going public in February, thousands and thousands of readers worldwide have visited our open education site. Currently, we’re trending 1900 users a day.  We feel our goal—being a free resource for writers worldwide—is within reach.  So what’s our problem?  We’re having difficulty with our efforts to inspire writing teachers to submit new webtexts for publication.”

After getting assurance that advanced undergraduates were welcome to submit articles for review, I incorporated into my course plans a “contribution to a submission.” While I had not been actively seeking an experiential learning opportunity for this class, I couldn’t ignore the timing and opportunity of this call for submissions, especially when I was already interested in trying learning contracts and in finding a model of collaboration that was not simply “get into groups and each group creates one product.”

To facilitate this journey into new territory, I asked students to complete Learning Contracts that indicated the level of their interest in our collaborative submission and requested that the project count for 10, 15, 20, or 25% of their final grade—their choice. With the use of contracts, students have a choice about how much to invest in this project, and their evaluation will be based on reports they submit to me documenting their contributions. In addition, I’m anxious to see if we can work together to create two, five, or who-knows-how-many submissions, with everyone in the class taking on a variety of roles at different times.  Students will be accountable to the entire class, not just to their small group.

Based on their level of interest, I’ve assigned two leaders, and 13 more students are conducting a thorough inventory of the site in order to determine what’s there (and what isn’t).  Some are reviewing Professor Moxley’s invitation as well as the flyer he included for cues about this particular rhetorical situation, and we’ve tentatively decided to contribute to the materials on technical or professional writing.  Contributors are examining closely the TOC and investigating existing writing textbooks to see where the gaps or emphases are.  Another student is busy writing a press release about our project, timed to go out when we are firm about the topics and genres.

With Film Media majors in the class as well as others who are aspiring videographers and editors, our class has plenty of talent to submit a multimodal text that will stand up to the review process.  As Sara G. wrote on our discussion forums, “I can’t wait to see what we come up with!”


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Do Writers Need Teachers? Really?

posted: 12.5.12 by Nedra Reynolds

It was thirty-nine years ago that Peter Elbow wrote a revolutionary book called Writing Without Teachers, and the idea that writers might not need teachers or formal classroom time has persisted in composition studies in various forms. When I stumbled upon the work of Dr. Suguta Mitra and the “Hole in the Wall” experiments, it made me wonder what revolutionary changes might be possible in writing instruction.

Dr. Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, has been studying for several years teacherless learning—designing experiments to “let learning happen,” or to encourage kids to teach themselves and each other. Kiosk computers installed in the slums of India, for example, constituted his first trial; with each consecutive study, the approach has been roughly the same: give kids the tools and a nudge—and walk away.

Mitra has published the results of several experiments in international education research journals. Some of the conclusions will not surprise composition specialists: Small groups are hugely productive if students are motivated and curious. Mitra recommends that four to five students share a computer, and this detail is quite important. Giving every student a computer is not the point. When students consult with each other, that’s when the learning clicks and solidifies.

When adults are not around to interfere, “children will learn to do what they want to learn to do.” Even students who did not speak English figured out how to use online resources. One of the take-away points from Mitra’s research is that “Education is a self-organizing system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon.”

Although the parallels are not perfect, it’s worth thinking about how Mitra’s findings might help us to reimagine college writing instruction, particularly when Big Boss comp programs are being challenged by both ideological critiques and budgetary constraints. While many of us moved to student-centered classrooms a long time ago and have also tried to design more authentic writing projects,  Mitra’s exciting work suggests that Elbow’s model is worth revisiting even within institutional settings. How do you think it would work, Bits readers, to give students a problem, a nudge, some tools, and then walk away?

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Reflection in Perspective: A Dialog

posted: 11.8.12 by Nedra Reynolds

Dedicated to Tom Romano*

The scene is a shared cubicle in a college writing program office during the final exam period. One teacher is sitting at a table when an agitated colleague bursts in:

“Geez, I wish my students could reflect on their writing! They seem to be just going through the motions—telling me what they think I want to hear.”

“Yep, that’s the sense I have, too: they struggle with reflection more than with any other part of their portfolio assignment.”

“They can’t think. They rush.”

“Well, what is reflection, anyway? What do we mean when we ask students to reflect?”

“It’s metacognition, of course! It’s the ability to think about one’s own thinking. Students need to be able to step back and look at their learning and their decisions while taking a longer view.”

“Sure, but what do we mean by reflective writing? Is it narration, description, exposition—all three? Is it more like a story or more like persuasion or an, um, obituary?  There’s been so much attention to genres in the past few years. What kind of genre is reflection?” 

[Long pause]

“Well, we’re asking them to think critically! It’s not rocket science.”

“But it might be more complicated than we realize. How many reflective pieces have you written lately?”

[Another long pause]

“It would be nice if I could complete all of the writing assignments along with my students, but I’m swamped! I can’t keep that up.”

“My point is that reflective writing might have some distinctions that we could identify for students—or with students—that might help them do a better job.”

“Do you mean ‘vivid detail’ or ‘convincing evidence’? Like what features it has?”

“Yes, in part, but also what rhetorical situation does this genre put writers in?”

“In a situation where they’d better be able to say what they learned!”

“But can they just make a list? Would that satisfy you? Does it have to be an essay? Could it be brief reflective elements interspersed throughout the portfolio? I’m wondering why we think reflection has to be in the form of an essay.” 

“Seriously? How about because that’s what we teach?”

“But essayist literacy is only one kind; our students should be prepared to produce all types of writing, shouldn’t they? Why couldn’t a reflective piece be in the form of a video or a podcast?”

“Because those aren’t actually writing! How would we know they can write?”

“If what we really want to see is their ability to reflect, does it matter so much what form that reflection takes?”


BITS READERS: This is a genuine question! Please contribute your thoughts, or vote on whether you’d like this dialogue to continue next month!

*See Chapter 6 in Tom Romano’s Clearing the Way (Heinemann, 1987), one of the best books written on teaching writing.

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Trinary Collaborations: An Alternative Model for Writing Instruction

posted: 10.10.12 by Nedra Reynolds

Recently I had the energizing experience of serving on a dissertation committee (via Skype and e-mail, alas) for a doctoral student at the University of Hawai‘i who has completed a study that will interest many Bits readers. Titled “Trinary Collaborations in First-Year Composition: A Mixed Methods Study of the University of Hawai‘i Writing Mentors Program,” the dissertation examines data collected over four years and across 100 sections of first-year composition (FYC). All sections in the study consisted of an instructor, first-year students, and an M.A. student in English serving as a writing mentor-researcher. More than a tutor, these writing mentors performed an extraordinary number of tasks and played a number of roles.

The major takeaway from this ambitious study is that as colleges and universities try to find ways to make writing programs more “efficient” (and in particular as they seek to deliver writing instruction via online courses), they might see better retention rates and deeper engagement with writing if they put more resources into writing classes—by, specifically, adding  a writing mentor to every class.

For those most impressed by results achieved through quantitative data, they will be interested in the finding that students in mentored sections outperformed their nonmentored counterparts in all of the five categories of analysis, even though the two populations under comparison had almost identical SAT-writing averages and similar demographics. For those interested in an account informed by qualitative data, readers will be fascinated with the context for this study, which takes place on the most diverse campus in the United States, where 59 percent of students are of Hawai‘ian, Asian, or Pacific Islander ancestry. Into a mix of both indigenous Hawai‘ian as well as Hawai‘ian residents (settlers), thousands of students arrive from “the continent,” often unfamiliar with native legends, languages, values, or traditions.

Newly minted Ph.D. Holly H. Bruland has made an incredible contribution to the profession with this study. The IRB approval alone must have been a daunting undertaking, as was the mound of data analyzed: 6,602 conference logs, 653 weekly memos, 89 anonymous end-of-semester evaluations by students, 133 end-of-semester evaluations by instructors. She offers strong evidence that writing mentors’ programs have the potential to increase student retention, particularly on campuses with large populations of minority students or underprepared writers. As we know from Deborah Brandt’s research, literacy sponsors offer an opportunity for a reader or writer at a timely moment. Similarly, this research has established the importance of mentors—neither student nor teacher—to the development of rhetorical tools and writing fluency.

For more information, you can friend them on Facebook!

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Making the Most of NCTE’s National Gallery of Writing

posted: 9.13.12 by Nedra Reynolds

As I begin planning my fall courses, I’m thinking once again about how to incorporate the NCTE National Gallery of Writing, one of the best resources for writing teachers that has emerged in recent years.  The Gallery has stopped accepting new submissions, but it remains a searchable archive of 33,000 pieces of writing submitted by writers across the U. S.:

Opened on October 20, 2009, the National Gallery of Writing solves the problem of not having samples of writing to share “on demand”; this resource makes it easy to find models to share or texts to stimulate discussion or inspire writers.  Asking students to use it also gives them an opportunity to learn how to search an archive.

Under “Browse,” for example, a user can select options that will allow her to find a poem written by a 12-14 year old in Tennessee, a school assignment addressed to a decision-maker, a piece that celebrates something, or a dissertation about secondary teachers and electronic portfolios.  Users can search by Gallery or by other parameters, and with 33,000 documents, the variety and range are tremendous.

The National Gallery is actually a compilation of many galleries:  anyone could propose a gallery (as I did for each of my classes), and after it was accepted by NCTE, writers could submit to it—with each gallery juried by the curator (the instructor or a leader).  As I browse through the site, it looks like hundreds of middle schools, community colleges, writers’ collectives, and other groups opened their own galleries:  Indiana Partnership for Young Writers, U-High Pioneers Write!, Momwriters, Writers in Peace and War, B327 Writers’ Project, Greater San Diego Area Writers, Miss Hutsell’s Writing Rockstars, English 201, Illinois Institute of Art, or Literary Pieces Created by Bilingual Students.

One option for a classroom setting is to simply set students loose to find a piece they like.  I’ve had students bring in a selection, share with a small group why they chose it, and then read it aloud to their group.  I don’t think my uses of the National Gallery on Writing have been particularly innovative, but asking them to contribute seems to have given students some much-needed awareness of writing for readers beyond our classroom.  In the fall semester, acknowledging the National Day on Writing (for three years’ running, it has been October 20, by Senate proclamation) offers an opportunity for instructors to introduce students to the National Gallery and invite them to browse.  For the inaugural Day–October 20, 2009–my students submitted a piece to a Gallery I opened up specifically for our class; getting it posted in time for the NDOW became a “real” deadline, and they enjoyed reading each others’ work as juried submissions appeared in our gallery.  Knowing it would appear online, viewable by anyone who might find it, students were motivated to edit and polish their work beyond what they might do when turning a piece meant only for the teacher.

I’m not sure why the Gallery has been closed to new submissions, but it remains a terrific resource for readers, writers, and teachers.  I’d love to hear from Bits readers about interesting ways they have used or might use this incredible site.

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A Conversation with Nedra Reynolds

posted: 8.15.12 by Nedra Reynolds

Hi, Bits readers! We were at the Conference on College Composition and Communication again this April and we sat down with more of the talented authors who blog here on Bits to talk about writing, blogging, and online community. We hope you enjoy this chance to get up close and personal with Nedra Reynolds!

Be sure to check out these conversations with some of our other Bits bloggers if you haven’t already:

Jay Dolmage

Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Andrea Lunsford

Steve Bernhardt

Susan Naomi Bernstein

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