About Adam J. Copeland

Adam teaches Christian public leadership, listens to NPR, drinks scotch, devours sharp cheddar, and ask lots and lots of questions.

WACing Researched Writing

Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson’s chapter, “Researched Writing,” explores the various benefits and challenges of assigning research papers in first-year writing courses. Like most forms of teaching and learning, the authors begin by suggesting the standard research paper can be approached poorly. Study after study have shown many of us do just that, supporting students’ patchwriting (whether intended or not) and assigning a research paper because, well, that’s what instructors do. After all, it’s tradition. Thankfully, Howard and Jamieson argue, “The alternative is not to cease teaching research but to teach it differently” (235, note also, 235 is not the first page of the chapter!).

Last fall, I was lucky enough to teach what Concordia calls an “Inquiry Seminar,” a course for first-year students that, along with Introduction to Written Communication and Introduction to Oral Communication rounds out our required first-year student curriculum. My course was titled Vocation and the Quest for Life’s Purpose (a research interest of mine) and was paired with a written communication course, meaning that my cohort of 18 students all had the same writing class together. Two things strike me from the experience of teaching Inquiry.

First, part of the requirement for all inquiry seminars at Concordia is that students complete an 8-12 page research paper. Faced with this teaching task, I had no idea what I was doing. None.

Looking back, the “Recommendations from the Faculty Implementation Group,” a 2007 document on Concordia’s website that, I think, was developed when the inquiry seminars were first imagined and made part of our curriculum aligns with Howard and Jamieson’s approach. From the document:

Inquiry Seminar

  1. Writing-Intensive Inquiry Seminar is one in which students
  2. Write a research paper
  3. Develop information literacy and research competencies
  4. Produce at least 15 pages of polished writing spread across multiple writing assignments
  5. Practice generative writing as a way of learning
  6. Practice a writing process, either 1) using a draft-revision cycle; or 2) breaking a large assignment into graded stages

I particularly appreciate how points 2 and 5 connect with the Howard and Jamieson’s best practices. As described above, I think the Inquiry Seminar research paper could certainly satisfy most of the authors’ hopes for researched writing. But, did I mention…I had no idea what I was doing!

And, dare I say, I was not alone. Inquiry Seminars at Concordia, generally, are taught by faculty members outside of the English department. My guess is that Concordia is not alone is such a practice. Not surprisingly, despite the development of WAC and WID, very few humanities PhD programs teach faculty how to teach researched writing to first-year students. I trust my gifted colleagues to use their sound teaching instincts to employ some of the practices Howard and Jamieson suggest, but I’m afraid at the moment there’s no real institutional requirement that we become aware of the researched writing field. But, fear not my Comp Theory comrades, despite my lack of academic preparation my class was not a complete disaster, which leads me to point two.

As mentioned above, Concordia Inquiry Seminars can be paired with Introduction to Written Communication (IWC) courses. In my case, thank goodness, I’m close friends with an IWC instructor and we requested our courses be paired together. Then, using mainly my colleagues expertise (she has a PhD in rhetoric and writing) we developed a scaffolded research paper assignment shared by both our courses. For the curious, the Assignment Sheet is here.

Thanks to my colleague’s wisdom and experience, the research paper assignment included multiple library sessions, individual conferences, a proposal stage, working and annotated bibliography documents, a detailed proposal, a rough draft, peer conferences, and a genre shift presentation before students turned in their final 10-page research paper on the last day of class. In short, I believe Howard and Jamieson would be proud. And, did I mention, this was all thanks to my wise colleague because I had no idea what I was doing?

So, I’m led back to the WAC/WID discussion, wondering how cash-strapped institutions can combine the lessons of WAC/WID and researched writing. If we expect first-year—and students in other years, as well—to write significant research papers, we can certainly do more to spread the lessons of Howard and Jamieson to faculty beyond our English departments. But how?

  1.  Beyond workshops (which we’ve discussed before), are there ways to educate instructors beyond English about the lessons of researched writing? 
  2. Have you had experience teaching courses for which you may not have been ideally prepared or qualified? How did you navigate this (delightful) challenge?

The Politics of Interface: Apple Edition

In “The Politics of the Interface: Power and Its Exercise in Electronic Contact Zones” Cynthia and Richard Selfe pen an early critique of the relationship between dominant power structures and computers. They write, “Our goal is to help teachers identify some of the effects of domination and colonialism associated with computer use so that they can establish a new discursive territory within which to understand the relationship between technology and education” (741). The piece appeared first in 1994. If only it were out of date.

Picking examples of colonialist technology is like shooting fish in a barrel, but I’ll reference three examples related to Apple. Remember, Apple is the world’s richest company, and if it were a country, would be the 55th richest country in the world (except that’s an incredibly misleading statistic).

Example 1. Emojis are handy little images commonly used in text messaging. They come standard in Apple iPhone texting keyboards (beginning in 2011). While most of the faces are colored yellow after the iconic smiley face and intended to indicate a nonhuman image rather than depict an actual person, some of the emoji characters do align with human skin tones. However, before April 2015 the vast majority of characters with skin-tone appear white. For example, the families, brides, princesses, angel, dancer, and runner all only had light skin tones. Many called this lack of diversity racist. And, as for all online controversies, a petition garnered significant support—“Diversity My Emoji.”

To its credit, Apple (after many months) released a new set of emoji and the April 2015 version has 285 diverse people, diverse family structures, and 198 flags (see Apple 2015 Emoji Changelog).

New diverse emoji, Apple.

Example 2. When the Apple voice recognition software Siri was released in 2011, many users reported the technology had trouble with particular accents including Indian, Southern, and Scottish accents. While the technology employed models for different accent groups, it did not include an exhaustive approach, once again exemplifying what Selfe and Selfe might suggest were “small but continuous gestures of domination and colonialism” (745).

Example 3. The Apple Watch went on sale last week and even before its release folks like Kevin Roose mark the pricing structure as designed to feed on “class anxiety.” According to Roose, for years Apple has subtly but systematically made Android users feel of a lower socioeconomic status by, for example, not allowing their text messages to appear in blue as do messages from other iPhones. With the Apple watch, however, we are entering a new era of class and technology since the new watch comes in three very different price ranges. The Sport runs approximately $350, the Watch runs $550-$1100, and the Watch Edition runs $10,000 up to a max of $15,000.

Roose suggests, with the advent of the Apple Watch, the company has moved from an expensive but ubiquitous approach, selling products to the middle class, to offering “devices you can’t afford, with features you’ll never be able to get.” $15,000 for a watch? The message around class and privilege is pretty clear.

So what? Selfe and Selfe suggest we might respond to these earlier realities by supporting critical awareness, a humanist contribution to technological design, and approach to revision. That’s well and good, but it’s not enough. I think it’s come time for a more social activist approach.

Flowing from Paulo Freire’s call for praxis, social activism in this sense might support students’ leadership in protests, petitions, boycotts, or social movements on campus to ban certain uses of technologies, or to protest using university money to purchase from certain companies. Ann George’s “Critical Pedagogies: Dreaming of Democracy” chapter in A Guide to Composition Pedagogies highlights the difficulties of enacting these political approaches, but the time is now.

The Selfe article is over 20 years old but it still articulates a potent critique of technology today. I long for the day when it’s out of date, but to help bring that about, it’s high time we move from critique to action. I don’t believe we’re doomed to live in a world in which the article is still relevant in 2050. Without social action, however, I believe we’ll be doing just that. Questions:

  • What would committed social activism to counter the effects of domination and colonialism in technology look like in the classroom?
  • What political leaders are addressing the effects of domination and colonialism the Selfes bring up? How can we encourage our students to add their voice?
  • Are we doomed to live in a world where this article is still relevant in 2050?

Publishing while Serving: Cushman on the Public Intellectual

In “The Public Intellectual, Service Learning and Activist Research,” Ellen Cushman joins a conversation regarding the nature of the “public intellectual” with several service learning-related emphases. Among them, she argues that previous notions of the “public” part of “public intellectual” have neglected the lower class and have not called upon academics to interact with the public beyond the walls of the ivory tower. Cushman calls for a wider community involvement that emphasizes both service learning and activist research.

Though it’s difficult to pin down one exemplary passage, the overall feel of the article struck me as problematic. Cushman anticipates the nature of my objection when she writes, “One limitation of service learning courses can be students’ perception of themselves as imparting to the poor and undereducated their greater knowledge and skills” (513). Exactly. Cushman seeks to avoid this danger by engaging in activist ethnographic research in which “the researcher and participants engage in openly negotiated, reciprocal, mutually beneficial relations” (514). But even a self-aware, ethically-informed, activist approach to research can’t avoid where her article starts: seeking to become a public intellectual.

Service learning can’t avoid the reality that students are, in effect, using their community engagement as a means to an end whereby they gain course credits and, eventually, a degree. Even if mutual knowledge making occurs to the benefit of the student, researcher, and community members, Cushman’s premise still lifts-up the predicating aim of producing public intellectuals. Such an aim is perfectly acceptable, but I wish it were more clearly communicated.

An alternative way of approaching the challenge would be to stay away from activist research aims altogether, or at least, to resist these impulses for many semesters of community engagement. Rather than jumping to ethnographic approaches that generate materials from which to publish, would-be public intellectuals could approach service learning as a site, first and foremost, for their learning. Using this approach, only after years of working with a community organization, or working to learn about a particular problem facing a community, would a researcher transition to a public intellectual approach.

My hesitancy comes from several personal influences. First, I’m aware of the unfortunate tendency for (particularly Christian) faith-related organizations to jump to “helping” before they fully appreciate the situation. For example, our world has hundreds of wells dug with the best of intentions that now lie dormant because they were put in the wrong place, or in a community that lacks organization and resources to manage the well longterm.

Second, within the academy (and within myself) I’m aware of the instinct to approach all experiences and knowledge-making as potentially publishable activity. Such an approach must color how we build community partnerships; even if partners are mutually invested, they are still potential “subjects” for publication (feminist theory may allay this concern, but not eliminate it).

In sum, I find myself in a strange place. I’m all for public intellectuals—indeed, we need more, particularly those with awareness of the pubic beyond the ivory tower. I’m also all for service learning (or “community engaged learning” as the composition pedagogies collection names it). But, even so, Cushman’s piece strikes a dissonant chord.

  1. For you, does Cushman successfully alleviate concerns of students perceiving themselves as “liberal saviors” (513)?
  2. Do plans to publish on data gathered during service learning classes poison the possibility of true relationships of mutuality?
  3. How, then, should public intellectuals approach service learning…if at all?



Contact Zones: How much is too much?

It’s my week to lead class, so I’m a bit more engaged in the week’s reading than usual. Relatedly, I read a chapter by Mark R. Hall and Mary Rosner in a recent book on composition and postcolonial studies that engages Mary Louise Pratt’s notion of contact zone directly.

In one section, the authors point out that Pratt’s notion of contact zone has shifted. They describe it using a call-out section that suggests Pratt has revised Pratt:

Changes in the relations among those in the contact zones: from “relations of power” to “relations of domination and subordination” to relations of “difference, hierarchy, and unshared or conflicting assumptions.” (98)

Hall and Rosner note several other revisions, but this one particular strikes me for its flexible, contextual nature. When a group encounters a contact zone, it seems to me that decisions made by group members help determine whether the relations are of “power” or “domination” or “difference” or simply “unshared assumptions.”

Particularly, I’m thinking of a theological consultation I attended a few years ago that brought together about 40 pastors and theologians, many of whom were involved in ministry on the edges of the traditional church. The group was diverse in many ways: theologically, racially, geographically, and levels of experience.

After a fine presentation by a young black youth pastor, an older white male leader asked a question about metrics of ministry that the youth pastor understood as tinged with racial bias (it was, by the way). The dynamics of the rest of the consultation then centered upon the question: how will the group engage the contact zone?

  • If the older white male leader apologized, we’d have gone one way.
  • If the black youth pastor aired his grievances quietly to the consultation leadership, we’d have gone another way.
  • If the black youth pastor aired his grievances publicly, we’d have gone another way entirely (this was the approach, by the way).
  • If the black youth pastor chose to leave the consultation, we’d have gone still another way.
  • Other options certainly exist…

My point is this: the contact zone existed the moment the gathering occurred. The way the group engaged the contact zone—and whether it concerned relations of power, or difference, or subordination, etc.—was determined by choices in-the-moment by the actors in the group.

To bring this experience into conversation with the Min-Zhan Lu article, if we accept her notion of using contact zones and a multicultural approach to English studies, it seems like the faculty person becomes an enormous determinate in how that contact zone is engaged.

Therefore, I wonder:

To what extent are contact zones fixed? How much does the pedagogical approach to them shift how students engage?

Are there particularly good (or particularly problematic) ways to engage contact zones? In other words, how much is too much contact?


Hall, R. Mark, and Mary Rosner. “Pratt and Pratfalls: Revisioning Contact Zones.” Crossing Borderlands : Composition And Postcolonial Studies. Ed. Andrea Lunsford and Lahoucine Ouzgane. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. 95–109. Print. Pittsburg Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture.

Bruffee, Newsroom, & the Internet

In the final episode of the HBO show The Newsroom, produced and primarily written by Aaron Sorkin, the manager of the show’s Internet presence, “ACN Digital,” returns from months away where he could not operate the site. Neal, the digital manager (Dev Patel), finds two immature, unimpressive web guys in his stead. In his first minutes back at his job, Neal overhears them arguing over the details concerning a post about to go live on the site. It’s titled, “The Nine Most Overrated Movies of All Time.” The scene continues:

Web guy: Are you Neal?
Neal: Yeah.
Web guy: Welcome back, man.
Neal: “The Nine Most Overrated Movies of All Time?”
Web guy: We thought it would be fun.
Neal: For who?
Web guy: For movie fans.
Neal: I saw you went all the way back to The Matrix.
Web guy: Yeah.
Neal: 1999.
Web guy: Yeah.
Neal: “All time” and 14 years are two different units of measurement. But my question is why is overrated more fun than, say, underrated? You embarrass me.
Web guy: I what?
Neal: It took me a long time to build ACN Digital. I was laughed at by the people in this newsroom. People I respect didn’t respect what I did around here, but I built this into a tool that gathered, expanded on, and disseminated information that’s useful. I kept telling my colleagues and my bosses that the Internet is user sensitive just like most things.
And I’ve watched from 1,000 miles away while you proved that. You embarrass me. Build a page that says the site’s down for repair.
Web guy: For an hour?
Neal: For a week. We’re gonna rebuild the whole thing.

While Neal was away, the ACN Digital site became the lowest common denominator for Internet “conversation.” It may have received hits, but did so by sacrificing quality. The scene from Newsroom, in a vintage Sorkin sort of way, illustrates the promise and power of wise, informed, liberal values.

I sense hints of similar notions in Kenneth A. Bruffee’s “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’” At one point, Bruffee suggests:

“To think well as individuals we must learn to think well collectively—that is, we must learn to converse well. The first steps learning to think better, therefore, are learning to converse better and learning to establish and maintain the sorts of social context, the sorts of community life, that foster the sorts of conversation members of the community value” (401).

Bruffee’s hope and belief in the value of conversation recalls a certain Internet-utopian ideal, one referenced by the scene in Newsroom but certainly present many places. Such a notion is more than “build it and they will come.” While it certainly claims the necessity of building, of making a space for conversation, it also pushes conversationalists to increase the level of the conversation.

I wonder, then, if the Internet might be understood as a sort of meta-space for collaborative learning. If so, does the Internet accomplish the aims imagined by Bruffee?

How can we use digital tools, in our teaching, for positive collaborative learning (whether Bruffeean or Trimburian)?

A Genre Praxis Project Gone Viral

Sometimes one begins to experiment in a formal field of study without prior awareness of the field existing. While I suppose I knew “genre pedagogy” existed prior to reading Amy J. Devitt’s chapter, I had not read anything related (though I had certainly intuited some approaches as a student in our program). Interestingly, then, an assignment I used last year in my Religion and Popular Culture course connects with several ways Devitt describes the field. At other points, however, my instincts took me in directions not suggested by Devitt’s take on genre pedagogy.

Called the “Praxis Project: Let’s Go Viral” assignment, the assignment in short, read as such:

Your task: attempt to make something, related to religion and popular culture, actually go viral. The digital platform(s) is up to you. The method is yours to determine. The hits are yours to measure. The challenge is yours to accept.

Students formed groups and worked in teams to accomplish the task. To some extent (but not enough), I scaffolded the assignment with some work throughout the semester. I also directed class discussion, research, and experimentation related to virality. For instance, the assignment sheet read, in part:

Stipulations for this project:

1.  That we study together what, in the area of religion and popular cultures, goes viral this semester.

2.  That we analyze together the notion of virality.

3.  That students conduct individual and group research into virality.

4.  That, reflecting this research, we agree on terms of group project that attempt to make something go viral.

5.  That these viral projects launch approximately April…

In some ways, I seem to have stumbled upon critical genre awareness pedagogy. In their textbook, Reiff, Bawarshi, and Dewitt guide students to engage in genre by (152, authors in bold, Adam in italics):

Collect samples of the genre / I did this by facilitating student discussions of samples of virality in small groups.

Identify the larger context and rhetorical situation in which the genre is used / My students did not complete a formal rhetorical analysis, though discussion of cultural factors were common.

Identify and describe patterns in the genre’s features / We worked on this approach in small groups that reported to the class.

Analyze what these patterns reveal about the situation and larger context / In a sense, this step is where the Praxis Project began. Further, its final step included a section on “analysis and connections.”

Later in the teaching genre critique section, Devitt writes, “Calling students’ attention to hybrid, blurred, or emerging genres can help students gain a critical stance towards genres more fully normalized” (155). While I did not have the language to put it this way on the assignment sheet, this notion indeed informed the assignment design. As, by definition, instances of viral writing on the Internet are always newly emerging in some sense, I believe studying examples of religion and popular culture going viral help students critique other forms as well.

At least two shortcomings of the viral praxis project become clear when using the genre pedagogy chapter as a reflection tool. First, I did not support enough reflection, analysis, and critique concerning the question of genre. As a class, we looked at what goes viral on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. But the genre often differed. We considered videos, blog posts, polls, pictures, selfies, and others. We tended to describe the genre of “that which goes viral” rather than doing careful work on the specificity or sub-genres of the viral postings.

Second, Devitt suggests, “Teaching the etiquette of a particular genre involved teaching the context, time and place, audience’s expectations, and strategies for working within the genre” (148). While the course covered some of these considerations, much of the emphasis was on the experimentation, risk, and invention required of making something go viral. In other words, I perhaps moved too quickly from genre analysis to application. In all, however, I continue to be drawn to genre pedagogy as a helpful took for both analysis and invention.

Questions for consideration

  • What is the right balance between acquiring knowledge of genres, analyzing genre, and applying or experimenting with new forms?
  • When it comes to new media, what are some distinctions between genre and sub-genres? Are all listicles made equal?
  • Group work may be particularly well-suited for genre study. What are the benefits and drawbacks of group-based pedagogy for genre study?

Elbow’s invitation falls short

I appreciate the care and creativity with which Peter Elbow approaches “Inviting the Mother Tongue: Beyond ‘Mistakes,’ ‘Bad English,’ and “Wrong Language.’” In many ways, I want Elbow’s strategy to work. His approach seeks to thread the needle, inviting both an openness to the full, lived experience of the learner, and an acceptance of the need for students to access the “power and prestige” of SWE (641). And yet, I cannot quite see Elbow’s approach going mainstream as it falls short in several areas.

First, though Elbow nods at one point that the change from nonmainstream dialect writing to SWE may “need more than just copy-editing,” he does not seem to teach, well, “more than just copy-editing” (649). Elbow grades the quality of the final copy-editing as a yes/no, accomplished or not accomplished assignment. And yet, he seems actually to teach very few copy-editing details. Instead, students practice reading aloud and, somehow, hear their mistakes floating through the air. They work in groups. They discuss ways to find friends (sometimes even paid) to read their papers and correct errors. While these strategies may lead to final drafts largely free of error, I’m not convinced Elbow actually teaches students much about how to write SWE themselves. Instead, students engaged in this method will have leaned on multiple learning communities—not all bad, of course—but when met with solo writing tasks these students may be up a creek without a paddle (or…assigned a writing task without copy-editing partners).

Second, Elbow’s approach does not investigate the resource that oral genres might bring to the nonstandard vs. SWE question.

…the changes in rhetoric and thinking needed for writing college essays are difficult not because the home dialect is a different dialect but rather because the home dialect is an oral dialect (655).

I’m struck, then, that Elbow’s approach does little with this important claim. He does not experiment with speeches, dialogue, music lyrics, or poetry. He does not suggest oral composition techniques with tape recorders (essay printed in 1999, late Walkman era?). Instead, his writing courses seem to privilege several formal essay assignments and the techniques he teaches move immediately from the more oral dialects to written language. Relatedly, it strikes as a bit odd that some major essays would allow two final drafts, “one in correct SWE and one [in] the best form of the student’s home dialect” if the dialect is primarily oral (663).

Third, by addressing the question whether Elbow is simply a “‘well intentioned white liberal’ with a sentimental attachment to other dialects” he admits that a friend described his proposal as “lily white” (664). Elbow nods, however briefly, to the fact that he is a white professor, but then quickly moves back to focusing on what he thinks is the substance of his argument. Race in the American classroom, however, cannot be ignored.

White male faculty members, to a person, teach with a power, privilege, and hidden biases that they must admit and address. A teaching strategy that approaches nonstandard dialects without dealing with how white professors engage race in their classroom—not dialects but race—skirts over the main issue. I fear neglecting racial dynamics would doom even the best laid-out writing strategy.

In conclusion, Elbow’s piece presents as a noble approach to a perennial problem of nonstandard English in a world that privileges SWE. Though well-intentioned, the essay falls short.

Question: Have you identified other areas for which the piece falls short? Or, alternatively, do you envision Elbow’s approach as ready for implementation?

Question: What nonstandard versus standard English questions do writing teachers encounter at NDSU?