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Ten Ethical Scenarios for Professional Writing

posted: 6.23.15 by Traci Gardner

Last week, I proposed a compass-based activity for Discussing Ethics Scenarios in Professional Writing classes. This week I’m sharing ten scenarios to use with last week’s ethical compass. Most of the scenarios have alternative solutions or choices that you can discuss beyond the simple choice of where the situation falls on the ethical compass.

Ten Ethical Scenarios

  1. You need an illustration for a pamphlet you are designing. You have saved the perfect image of the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, but you cannot remember the source and do not know whether the image is free to use under Creative Commons or in the public domain. You decide to use it anyway and hope for the best. Is the choice right?
  2. Your colleague has written a progress report that indicates the project is on schedule and on budget. The report does not mention that the colleague has been substituting cheaper, generic supplies, rather than ordering the brand of supplies that the client requested to avoid going over budget. The supplies meet safety requirements, and it’s likely that the client will not notice the change. Is the colleague doing the right thing?
  3. The marketing department has asked your supervisor for screenshots to illustrate the forthcoming features that will be added to the app you are developing. When you tell your supervisor that the features are not programmed yet, he tells you to fake something in PhotoShop. Is your supervisor choosing the right solution?
  4. The disposable knives, spoons, and forks that your company manufactures are not recyclable. Though they are made with 10% recycled materials, they go to the landfill, not the recycling bin. A customer has asked on your company Facebook page whether the spoons are eco-friendly, and the social media manager has replied that they are. Has he made the right choice?
  5. Your department has just learned of a significant security flaw in the shopping cart software the company markets. The director of software development is not releasing details on the flaw to the public, leaving millions of users’ personal information at risk. She wants to avoid giving hackers information that could lead to security breaches. Your team is working overtime to fix the flaw, and the director plans to send out a press release on the flaw when the fix is ready. Has she made the right decision?
  6. You are writing specifications for a project your engineering firm is designing. You confess to your supervisor that you are behind schedule, and he suggests that you copy several sections from a similar specification that a colleague in the office wrote for another project. Is the supervisor suggesting the right solution?
  7. You are preparing a resume for an entry-level job. Your friend tells you to change the details on your active membership in the military reserves to suggest that you are no longer serving. He explains that some employers may be concerned about your military service causing you to miss work. You know it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of military service, and you are proud of your service. You include the information against your friend’s advice. Did you make the right choice?
  8. An intern who worked in your department has asked you to fill out a recommendation form for a scholarship application. You agree, but when you review the form, you notice questions about the intern’s religious affiliation and her commitment to her faith. You do not feel it’s appropriate to answer these questions, so you write, “I do not have enough information to answer this question” in that section of the form. Did you make the right decision?
  9. Your company has been taking shortcuts with quality control, resulting in the manufacture of food products that barely meet health and safety requirements. You create anonymous accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and you post evidence of the quality control issues on the accounts, tagging the corporate accounts. Was your action right?
  10. You wrote an extensive manual for using petroleum drilling equipment that your company manufactures. To save money, an editor pared down the manual, removing 2 pages of information overall. You review the changes and restore half of the information, which consisted primarily of important safety warnings. Your supervisor is unhappy about the cost, but you stand firm that the information must remain in the manual. Have you made the right decision?

Because I am teaching online, I plan on using the scenarios throughout the term, posting two or three each week on our online discussion forum for students to respond to. I’ll try beginning with an anonymous poll on each scenario to gauge where the class stands before discussing the nuances of the situation and possible alternative responses. In the face-to-face classroom, I think I’d have students work in groups to propose ways to deal with the situation and then as a class work to a solution we all feel ethically deals with the scenario.

This activity grew from conversations during the Pathways Summer Institute, sponsored by the Virginia Tech Office of General Education. Where do you find your ethical discussion starters? Do you have resources to share? Let me hear from you. Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.

[Photo: Casa Grande Ruins National Monument by Kevin Dooley, on Flickr]

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Discussing Ethics Scenarios in Professional Writing

posted: 6.16.15 by Traci Gardner

Last week, I posted an activity where students compared codes of ethics from different disciplines. Today, I’m sharing an activity that asks students to apply those codes to some simple scenarios. It’s a bridge activity between examining the codes and discussing more detailed and complex case studies. Like last week’s post, this activity grew out of the Pathways Summer Institute, sponsored by the Virginia Tech Office of General Education.

My inspiration is the ‘90s Parker Brothers game A Question of Scruples. When the game was popular, some colleagues used the cards from the game in the classroom to talk about ethics. When playing the game, people read short scenarios that end with a question that generally asks, “Would you do it?” For instance, one card in the game asks, “You make long distance calls as part of your work for a middle-sized firm. Do you make private calls if you know they cannot be traced?”

The classroom activity uses the questions as discussion starters. The teacher or a student reads a scenario. Students answer with the yes, no, or depends cards from the game and then talk about their answers. Teachers and students can write their own scenarios, based on readings or issues the class is exploring. The customized game provides a simple way to introduce and discuss ethical situations.

Instead of using Scruples, I am planning to use a digital compass activity, as explained in the Learning & Leading with Technology article “Developing Ethical Direction” by Mike S. Ribble and Gerald D. Bailey. In this activity, students choose a response from a compass image, which offers these 8 options:

  • Right
  • I am not sure it’s wrong
  • Depends on the situation
  • As long as I don’t get caught
  • Wrong
  • What’s the big deal?
  • It’s an individual choice
  • I don’t know

As with the game Scruples, the teacher or a student reads a scenario, and students respond by choosing a direction on the compass. I will probably gather responses anonymously using a Google Form, which can also calculate the totals for each scenario in a friendly bar graph.

After making their choices, students will consider how the codes of ethics for professional writing and for their fields support (or don’t) the choices of the majority for each scenario. As the activity relates to the Virginia Tech Pathways curriculum, students will “articulate and defend positions on ethical issues” (Indicator of Learning 3 for the Ethical Reasoning Integrative Learning Outcome) by discussing the responses and the ethical principles behind them.

That’s my plan for the activity. Next week, I’ll share a list of ten ethical scenarios students will respond to, and I’ll discuss how the ethical principles relate to other goals for the course. Meanwhile, if you have ideas for talking about ethical reasoning in the writing classroom, please leave me a comment, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+. I’m looking for ways to explore ethical reasoning throughout the entire course, so I would love some advice.

[Photo: Compass Study by Calsidyrose, on Flickr]

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Professional Writing and Codes of Ethics

posted: 6.9.15 by Traci Gardner

This week, I want to talk about an activity for a professional writing course that explores the ethical principles that apply to professional writers. Students will return to these principles throughout the term. This idea grew from work I did last week at the Pathways Summer Institute, sponsored by the Virginia Tech Office of General Education.

One of the learning outcomes in this new curriculum is the inclusion of ethical reasoning in core courses. To meet this goal in a professional writing course, students will begin by reading the chapter on ethics in the course textbook. After reading the chapter, students will compare the general information in the text to specific codes of ethics from associations for professional communication, such as the following:

In class discussion, students will identify the ways the codes overlap, noting the language and ideas that they have in common. As they compare the codes, they will also draw connections to the textbook. If necessary to help students understand, we will explore some simple scenarios to illustrate the codes, but applying the codes to specific cases will take place in another activity (more on that in next week’s post).

At this point, students will have experience looking at ethical codes and thinking about how they apply to the work of professional writers. The problem is that most of the students I encounter in the technical writing course do not think of themselves as professional writers. Many understand that there are some expectations for writing in their fields, but they think of themselves as engineers, biologists, and software developers.

To help students understand how the ethical principles for professional writing apply to their own disciplines, I will ask students to locate codes of ethics for their own professions. For instance, an electrical engineer would focus on the IEEE Code of Ethics, and a biologist might focus on the Code of Ethics for the Society for Conservation Biology. Once they identify the principles for their fields, students will look for overlap between codes for professional communication and the codes for their own fields, addressing questions such as the following:

  • Where do you find principles related to writing or communication in the code of ethics for your field?
  • Where are there explicit connections to the same principles included in the codes for writers? Where are connections less obvious?
  • What ideas from the codes for professional writing are not mentioned at all? Why do you think they are excluded?
  • Is there anything else in your field’s code that stands out by comparison to the codes for professional writing?

By the end of the comparison activity, students should be able to identify and explain how ethical codes apply to the writing they will do in their fields. To demonstrate their understanding, students will create posters that explain ethical communication principles of their discipline to others in their fields.

As a class, we will explore posters from the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (like the “Expose & Disclose” poster shown above), noting how they focus on one aspect of the federal code of ethics. To simplify production, students can use an online tool like Canva. The posters will be shared with the class, and if possible and appropriate, printed and posted in a public space where others in the same field can see them (like bulletin boards in their departments).

As it relates to the Virginia Tech Pathways curriculum, the goal of this project is for students to “explain and contrast relevant ethical theories” (Indicator of Learning 1 for the Ethical Reasoning Integrative Learning Outcome). As a professional writing instructor, I am also hoping that it will help students gain a better understanding of how writing and communication play a role in their disciplines. Do you have projects that explore ethical reasoning in the writing classroom? I’m looking for assignments and classroom activities, so please leave me a comment, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.

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Categories: Activity Idea, Business Writing, Traci Gardner, WAC/WID
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Who's Doing the Work?

posted: 6.2.15 by Traci Gardner

At my presentation at the Computers and Writing Conference last week, I shared ten narrative remix assignments and related student work (example shown in the picture on the right). When it came time for the Q&A session, someone asked, “How do you know that students are doing the work?”

When I heard that question, there was a moment when I stopped and panicked. What if they were cheating? What if it wasn’t their work? Who was doing the work? How did I know for sure?

What caught me off guard, I think, was the fact that it never occurred to me that students might be cheating. I just knew, in that way you know in your gut. So when I was asked the question, I found myself constructing an answer for why I knew.

First, I explained that I know because I see them work. I walk around the classroom and pay attention to what they are doing. I use microconferencing to talk with students frequently about where they are on the projects and to provide feedback on whatever they show me. So I see their work and I see them working.

I also ask them to write about their work in dialectical blog posts at the end of class. Their entries are organized around two headings: What I Did, and Why I Did It. When I review their posts, I see a running list of the things they are doing. When relevant, they include links to drafts or related artifacts of their process. So I see them talking about their work.

That’s where I left the topic in the presentation. I’ve realized as I thought about the question since Friday, however, that there’s something more. I know because of the assignment students are working on. It asks students to choose something a topic that is a passion project and to take a risk. I encourage them to choose something that they want to learn or know and to make that part of the work they will do.

With those parameters, they are all deeply engaged in the projects. They eagerly call me over to look at what they are doing before class even starts. I have found them in the hallway outside of the classroom sharing their prototypes with anyone who will watch. There are times when I have to force them to stop working and leave the classroom so that the next class can come in. That’s not the behavior of students who are doing dishonest work. So, yes, I know students are doing their own work.

How about you? How do you know that students are turning in multimodal projects that are their own work? What do you do to ensure academic honesty? Let me know by leaving a comment below or dropping by my page on Facebook or Google+.

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Categories: Plagiarism, Traci Gardner
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Mentoring Resources

posted: 5.26.15 by Traci Gardner

This week, I want to share the resources I developed, with help from some colleagues, for mentoring new attendees at the 2015 Computers and Writing Conference in Menomonie, Wisconsin this weekend. Even if you are not going to the conference, I think you’ll find resources that could be helpful to you or someone you know.

We built a website, Computers & Writing Conference Mentoring, which features a collection of resources for first-timers and mentors. The site includes tips and advice, first-timer stories, and suggestions for documenting participation at the conference. The information covers a variety of areas, such as basic writing, professional communication, writing centers, writing across the curriculum, and writing about writing pedagogy.

The pages for online resources and social media links have pointers to professional organization websites, journals, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and related materials. The definitions & acronyms page explains all those terms, current and historical, that may be unfamiliar to someone new to the field. When you visit the site, if you have suggestions for resources we can add or link to, please use the Contact Us form to send your suggestion.

We are also matching first-time attendees with experienced conference-goers. If you will be at the conference, please fill out the C&W 2015 Mentoring Sign-Up if you are a first-timer or would like to be a mentor.

Mentoring is such an important part of what we do as teachers. Even if all we do is point a new colleague in the right direction, we can make an important difference. How do you mentor colleagues and students at your school or online? If you have ideas for improving the resources we have collected or just want to share a success story, please leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+. And if you will be at Computers and Writing this weekend, be sure we find each other.

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Categories: Professional Conferences, Professional Development & Service, Teaching with Technology, Traci Gardner
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Talking about Audience and Social Media

posted: 5.19.15 by Traci Gardner

While the students I teach are typically adept at personal uses of social media, they often need to learn how to use digital tools for professional purposes as they prepare for their future careers.

This week, I had a personal experience that will make a great discussion starter to talk with students about audience and social media. It all started with my decision to replace my three-year-old phone while keeping my unlimited data plan. I went into the Verizon store and said I needed two things: I wanted to buy a new phone at full price, and I did not want to change my contract in anyway.

When I got home and checked my account online, I found that they had dropped both my unlimited data plan and my mobile hotspot. I sent out a couple of complaints to the customer support accounts on Twitter:

No one was minding the corporate Twitter feed, so I decided to deal with the problem in the morning. I woke up to these two responses on Twitter:

Someone at Verizon probably thought that was a cute, stress-reducing response. To me, it felt patronizing. Some Verizon support employee was patting me on the head and treating me as if I had a booboo that needed kissed to make it all better. Um, no.

Sprint, on the other hand, took advantage of the situation to encourage me to change carriers. Their reply was opportunistic, but at least they weren’t belittling me. They wanted to engage in a professional conversation with a potential customer.

These two replies make perfect discussion starters for talking about audience and social media. I’ll ask students to compare the two responses and discuss about how they would respond as the customer and on behalf of the company. After some discussion, I’ll set up an in-class exchange among three or four groups of students:

  • Group 1: The wronged customer
  • Group 2: The customer’s service provider (e.g., Verizon)
  • Group 3: An alternate provider (e.g., Sprint)
  • Group 4: Another alternate provider (e.g., AT&T)

I would pitch a similar scenario to the group representing the wronged customer while the other groups did some fast research on the company they represent. The first group would share their complaint, and the other groups would respond. Groups can post their proposed Tweets on a Padlet, so that we can avoid creating one-time use Twitter accounts. I would encourage them to think about the role of time as they come up with their responses as well. I’m eager to see what they can come up with, in 140 characters or less.

Do you have favorite social media examples? Have suggestions for teaching students about audience and tone in social networking? I’d love to hear from you. Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.

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Categories: Digital Writing, Traci Gardner
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The Evils of Social Media

posted: 5.12.15 by Traci Gardner

Last Thursday, Here and Now’s story on “Social Media Buzz” included a discussion of livestreaming and stormchasers. The story started on a positive note, discussing how posts on social media sometimes reach people with word of an impending storm more quickly than news updates and the National Weather Service. Yay! Social media helps people!

Then the perspective changed. Host Robin Young talked about how stormchasers sometimes continue to film a storm when they should be taking cover. She commented, “Social media drives people to do things they might not otherwise do.” Boo! Social media is the devil!

Sigh. No. Social media is not driving people to do anything. People do not say, “Oh, I have social media so I have to do this.” You can blame the love of attention, a desire for approval, and perhaps an adrenaline rush. The motivations in this case are similar to those that a daredevil or actor might have. Yet, as an example, I don’t recall anyone ever saying Evel Knievel was driven (pun intended) to jump a canyon because cars encouraged him to do things he might not otherwise do.

Social media may help stormchasers reach an audience in ways that bring them attention, approval, and an adrenaline rush, but social media itself isn’t doing anything. Unfortunately, stories that blame Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram are quite common, despite their basis on causal fallacies. I wasn’t even looking, and I happened upon “Woman: My Facebook obsession caused divorce” from my local television station.

My colleague Kathy Fitch found a more developed example in an ESPN article that seems to blame Instagram for the suicide of a student at that University of Pennsylvania. Alongside an image of the student, the article explains, “The Instagram account of Madison Holleran seemed to show a successful and happy college freshman. But behind the scenes, the University of Pennsylvania track athlete was struggling with her mental health.”

As Fitch responded, “Suicide and depression thrived in the days before social media. Did it have a role in her distorted view of life? Yes, of course. Causal? No.” My response to the story was a bit more literary: A person wandering through the world. Everyone thinks everything is fine. Some even envy the person. Um, “Richard Cory,” anyone?

So what’s my point, beyond having a rant? If I can borrow Nick Carbone’s hashtag, media stories like these seem #worthassigning. They raise questions about cause and effect, the role of social media, and the ways we communicate. How would you use these readings in the classroom? Do you have an example reading that blames social media for what’s wrong with the world? I’d love to hear from you. Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.


[Photo: Cute Lil Devil by Crystal Agozzino, on Flickr]

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Categories: Digital Writing, Teaching with Technology, Traci Gardner
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Scary Times in the Classroom

posted: 5.5.15 by Traci Gardner

Wednesday morning, the Virginia Tech community woke up to find a Crime Alert emailed by the campus police department, giving us these details:

Last evening at approximately 11:15 p.m., a statement appeared on Yik Yak which read “Another 4.16 moment is going to happen tomorrow. Just a warning”.

For us, this was more than a generic threat, even if the police had indicated that there was no evidence this was “a credible threat.”

We marked the eighth anniversary of the April 16 shootings on our campus not quite two weeks earlier. While few of the current undergraduates were on campus that day in 2007, they are all quite aware of what happened and they join in as we mark the anniversary each year.

After receiving the Crime Alert, my students were understandably anxious. They chatted nervously, conjecturing that the absences that day were because people were staying away from campus “because of that message.” They weren’t talking about it explicitly. I can only guess they thought that not mentioning the threat might make it go away.

Every time the door opened, heads whipped around to check who was coming in. Normally, we leave the door propped open so latecomers can slip in quietly. That day, they wanted the classroom door locked. One student even went outside the back door to double-check that it was locked too.

The class seemed to relax a little after the doors were locked. We were busy with project presentations, and students appeared to be paying attention. I admit, though, that I watched the hallway through the window in the door just in case, and I mentally rehearsed what I would say and where I would tell students to hide if something did happen.

After class was over, I told students to stay safe, and most of them left. A handful remained since their next class is in the same classroom. Their conversations about the threat started up again. When I left the classroom, they wanted me to leave the doors locked. They said they would let people in as they saw them.

Later that afternoon, we received a new Crime Alert that told us the police arrested a student who turned himself in. By Friday, class was back to normal. At the beginning of class, I asked if they wanted the door locked. They answered no, and we went on with class.

I have many goals as a teacher. I want to help students become stronger writers and more effective communicators. I hope to help them become more confident about their abilities. Rarely do I think about keeping them safe and calm in times of danger.

Last week’s events reminded me that, too, is part of my job. Looking back, I’ve realized that I was trying to give them control. I let them decide about the doors. I asked two students to let people into the classroom who arrived late. Students secured the back door. They decided to keep the door locked after class was over.

I wish I could say I made conscious decisions, but I was just going with what felt right in the moment. I’ve always believed that student choice is crucial to good writing assignments. Apparently giving students some choice and control matters when there are scary times in the classroom, too.


[Photo: Nikki G’s words at the April 16 Memorial. by Josette, on Flickr]

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Self-Assessment as Final Exam

posted: 4.28.15 by Traci Gardner

This line graph from a student’s final exam shows the progression of forum posts that the student submitted during the term. His goal was to demonstrate his steady progress toward the required number of posts through the entire course.

Just a glance at the graph tells me that the student fulfilled that part of the participation assignment for the course. Naturally, I still spot check the forums, and I keep an eye on students’ forum posts during the term. I ask students, however, to do the work of examining their forum participation and assessing how well they have done by writing a completion report for their final exam. Here’s how I frame the assignment:

You will review your work in the course and write a completion report that outlines what you have learned and done during the term. In particular, you will review your posts on the Forums and point out some of your best work. In addition to grading your report, I’ll use the information you present to help determine your participation grade for the course. In the workplace, you could think of this report as a self-evaluation for a performance review.

The activity is similar to the idea of writing a cover letter to highlight the contents of a portfolio or asking students to highlight their best journal entries for assessment. Since I am teaching professional writing students, though, I frame the activity as similar to workplace documents they will ultimately write.

I love these finals because students share their best work, often demonstrating their achievement with post excerpts and screenshots, in addition to graphs like the one above. Further, students frequently comment on ways that their writing has changed during the term, mentioning that if they had not gone back to examine their posts, they would never have noticed.

I feel certain that writers know their work far better than I do, and at the end of the term, they are easily able to pick out their best work. Even better for me, the assignment puts the onus on the student. I don’t have to search their posts for the golden gems. They unearth them for me and then tell me why those gems are valuable. I save time, and students gain a better understanding of their learning—this is one assignment that is a definite winner for me!

Do you have any tips for encouraging students to reflect on their work at the end of the term? I’d love to hear from you. Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.

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Student Success in Savannah

posted: 4.21.15 by Traci Gardner

I spent the weekend in wonderful Savannah, Georgia, at the Student Success in Writing Conference. The wonderful event led me to conversations with teachers from high schools, two-year colleges, and four-year colleges.

I got to meet Bits guest bloggers Kim Haimes-Korn and Jeanne Bohannon, who presented on “Transcending Tech-Tools: Engaging Students through Critical Digital Pedagogies.” Jeanne shared a video animation project that focused on “A Day in the Life” stories that developed students’ critical thinking skills by requiring them to consider another point of view, and Kim talked about an assignment that asks students to use digital timeline tools to publish literacy narratives. I’m hopeful that they will share more details in a future post.

Sarah Domet and Margaret Sullivan discussed “Practical Approaches to Multimodal Composition.” Their themed blog assignment transforms their first-year writing course into a semester-long writing and research project that students publish on blogs or websites. I loved their historicization web essay, which asked students to trace the development of their topic from past to current events. Their student examples showed students deeply engaged with their research. Students read and engage with one another’s blogs, culminating in bloggy awards at the end of the semester for categories like best overall blog and best home page. I’m not quite sure how to fit the activities into my own classes right now, but I’m certainly working on it.

I regret that I missed Natalie James’s presentation on “Teaching Tumblr: Blogging towards Critical Discourse,” but I had a nice conversation with her between sessions. Her presentation focused on the ways that “Tumblr can give students tools for practicing critical discourse in a relevant and engaging online environment.” I cannot wait to find her materials in the conference’s Digital Commons archive.

My own presentation focused on “Ten Ways to Use Digital Tools in the Writing Classroom.” I shared a collection of assignments and activities that I have used in the writing classroom to engage students. Some of the ideas I have already talked about in Bits posts, like my Pinterest Assignments and my Digital Identity Mapping Activity, but you will find some new ideas and student examples in the presentation resources as well.

Overall, I had a grand time in Savannah. The conference is a perfect size, allowing you to connect with colleagues and meet new collaborators, and because of the focus on practical writing strategies, I left every session with a list of ideas for my own classes. I recommend that you check out the Call for Proposals for the 2016 Conference, and submit your proposal beginning June 15. You’ll be glad you did, and you’ll have a grand time too.

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