Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Essay to read for Wednesday, December 21

For our final meeting of the semester on Wednesday, December 21, please read "Too poor for pop culture" by D. Watkins from Salon. The essay is about 1800 words (roughly three single-spaced pages in Word), so it shouldn't take very long to read.

A photo of the author, D. Watkins, in East Baltimore (credit: Dave Manigault)

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Multimedia project workshop day

First the writer (the creator of the project) will talk about and share their project ideas, progress, and elements for roughly 5-7 minutes. The other members of the group will take minimal notes while the writer speaks, then write more notes for 3 or 4 minutes after the writer is done. Then the group can discuss ideas for about 5 minutes.

  • Describe your ideas for the project, what you see as its major goals (for example, aspects of the essay you want to highlight), and what you’ve gotten accomplished on it so far. If you are able, show your group members the project-in-progress, or whatever elements of it you can
  • Share briefly what is working with your project so far, what you’re excited about, what aspects or elements you think will turn out well
  • Share briefly what problems you’re encountering and/or ways that your project is not turning out as you imagined.

Other group members:

As you listen to the writer, take notes on the following:
  1. What’s striking, compelling, effective, and/or cool about this project? What are the best parts? What seems to you to be working well?
  1. What ideas do you have for how the project could be better or ways it could achieve the writer’s stated goals better?
  1. What ideas do you have for solving the problems the writer is sharing with you? Explore ideas for creative solutions and workarounds, but also consider whether there are things they could do to achieve their goals in a simpler or easier way.
  1. In general, do you feel the added medium (or media), A. adds something meaningful and/or enriching to the ideas the writer wants to highlight about their essay, or B. just seems to add “bells and whistles”? If yes to A, describe briefly how the project illuminates or amplifies the essay’s ideas. If yes to B, consider ways the writer could use or incorporate the added medium more meaningfully.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

My Feelings Relating to the Word "Relatable"

I wrote the post below the second time I taught Nonfiction writing, so it's several years old at this point. But I referred in passing to my dislike of (and resignation regarding) the word "relatable" today, so I am reproducing the post here in the unlikely event that you want to hear my whole explanation for why I dislike the word. (Note that I wrote this back when I was not resigned to its use, so I was more inclined to rant about it. Now that I'm resigned, there's really no point. I'm sure you can relate :)


Nonfiction Writing is one of my favorite classes to teach. I love spending a semester helping students learn how to write eloquent, concise, engaging personal essays and seeing them develop a compelling writing voice of their own.

The last time I taught Nonfiction Writing was the first time I came across the word "relatable" in my students' writing. A student or two described the voice or tone or topic of an essay we'd read as "relatable." My reaction to this word was negative, but it didn't seem like a big deal, since it didn't come up more than a couple times. I may have mentioned the word to my students, and if I did, I may have told them that it's not a real word. I may not have. I don't remember. I certainly remember thinking "That is not actually a word, and if it were... feh."

That was a couple years ago, and now I'm teaching the class again. And in the first assignment I collected, where students responded to several essays of their own choosing, I came across the word "relatable" at least a dozen times. One student, normally a clear, precise, and confident writer, used the word a total of four times in a two-page paper.

I've been an English teacher long enough to know that before I make some pronouncement to my class, along the lines of "That's not a real word" or "The correct pronunciation is...," I need to check my sources. The English language is vast, complex, and ever-changing. We are fortunate to have a gigantic vocabulary at our disposal, and our words come from every corner of the globe, with new ones being added and old ones morphing into new ones all the time.

So I looked up "relatable" and found that it is indeed in the dictionary. Of course it's in the dictionary, because it is in fact a word. It means "able to be related." Like a story. But that's not how my students are using it. They mean "able to be related to." And according to my beloved ginormo desk dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th edition), that's not the definition. "Relatable" is just there at the end of the entry for "relate," meaning that the AHDEL defines it my way, not my students' way.

Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, however, backs up the young'uns:

re·lat·a·ble/riˈlātəbəl/ Adjective: 1. Able to be related to something else.
2. Enabling a person to feel that they can relate to someone or something: "Kate's problems make her more relatable."

Why do I hate this word? It's not the very fact of turning a verb into a noun. "Debatable" is fine, as is "dependable" and "deniable." Partly it's the preposition thing. To relate something is very different than to relate to something, and part of me thinks that therein lies my issue.

But no. I'm not normally picky in that way. It is a little ugly to cram "to relate to" into an "able" ajective. But it's more than that.

I think my problem is an assumption that underlies the word: that if this character, this person, this being has something very obvious in common with me, I can "relate to" him, her, it, and thus I can validate him, her, or it. And if we have nothing in common that I can see from a cursory glance, then I might just feel that this voice isn't speaking to me. And I find that a bit solipsistic and shallow.

In fact, there's a better word that we English teachers have been promoting for years that fits the "relatable" bill but is less dependent on the reader's (or viewer's or listener's) experience and worldview being replicated by the artistic or writerly perspective in question. It's "sympathetic." The question of whether we can sympathize with a character, with a writer, with a voice is a much larger one, and (I would argue) enables a more sophisticated and a more outward-looking conversation.

Perhaps need to promote sympathy as a better lens through which to evaluate writing than "relatability." And perhaps we need to have a conversation about other, more specific, less flabby words that fit into the big baggy mess that is "relatable." But I begin by rejecting the word.

I do not relate.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Tuesday pre-discussion questions

Look through Atul Gawande's essay and locate key passages or ideas. Then on the scrap paper, write answers to the following questions:

  1. Find a passage of Gawande's essay that seems especially timely in a general sense (for this decade, say, or this span of 5-6 years).
  2. Find a passage that seems timely in a more specific sense (for this week, month, or year).
  3. What is the single idea or insight in this essay that seems most useful to you personally?
  4. What single idea would you want to share with another person or group of people? (And whom? And why?)
  5. Did you find this essay persuasive, in general? How so and/or how not?

Monday, November 28, 2016

Essay for Tuesday, November 29, and a quick survey

For tomorrow, we will read "The Mistrust of Science" by Atul Gawande. Please answer the following questions in your notebook:
  • Think of and reflect briefly on at least one way that this essay seems particularly timely at the current moment in history.
  • Comment on Gawande's prose and/or the structure of his argument. What do you notice about either or both?

And please take a couple of minutes to complete this reading survey by the end of the day on Wednesday (11/30). Refer to the following links to get a sense of the four essays the survey mentions (I'm asking you to identify the two you'd most like to read):

Too Poor for Pop Culture” by D. Watkins (Salon, February 2014)
 Once More to the Lake” by E. B. White (Harpers, August 1941)
• “The Permission Slip” Lad Tobin (The Sun, November 2015)
• “On Falling Apart: Being diagnosed with mental illness” by Sady (Rookie, September 2012)

Monday, November 21, 2016

General plan for the final multimedia project

  1. Which of your three NFW essays do you plan to use for your final project, and why? Describe the essay in a sentence or two, and articulate briefly why you’re choosing this essay as the starting point for your final project.

  1. What aspect(s) of this essay do you want to highlight in your multimedia project?

  1. What different media do you plan to incorporate into your multi-media version of the essay?
·      Describe your early ideas for how to convey the aspects of the essay you mention above using this medium or media.

·      Begin to envision how you’ll incorporate the 20% (more or less) of the essay’s text into the project.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Words & Light Project

I hope you're all having fun playing with circuits and LEDs today. Next week you'll put together some sort of creative project that involves words and light. You'll choose some words you feel are worthy of illuminating and come up with a cool way to illustrate and illuminate them. You don't need to come up with an idea today, but think on it a bit over the weekend and see if any ideas come to you. (If not, you'll have time to dream something up in class.) Here are some examples of projects students came up with in the fall of 2014. I'll show you more in class on Monday.

Although the above examples all include lovely artwork as well as light work and words, you're not required to include artful images. You could also just illuminate words themselves in a distinctive or striking way.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Peer editing questions for the Information Plus Reflection essay (#3)

Here is the PDF of your peer editing handout. Be sure to begin your answer to each question with both the number and key word (in bold) for each question. If there's not enough room at the end of the draft to answer the questions, I have some scrap paper.

Also, if you have your draft in googledoc format rather than hard copy, it's fine for your peer editor to comment on googledocs. Just be sure to share the googledoc file of the draft with me as well.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Email writing advice

I said I'd post a link to the advice I gave in class on email writing. And now, finally, I have.

But I should have mentioned this important advice as well:

  • If you're emailing a bunch of people and it's clear to all recipients that it's a group email, address the email to yourself in the "to" line and use "bcc" so avoid cluttering up the email with a string of addresses.
  • Never use "bcc" to include a person or several people in the loop when addressing a person who has reason to believe the email is only to them. (If this isn't clear to you, I'll explain in class.)
  • Never ever forward an email sent to you alone (or to a small group) without getting the consent of the sender. 
  • Before you hit "reply all," ask yourself " does everyone need to hear my reply, or can I just reply to the sender?" (or the sender and one or two other recipients)

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Group work for the Louise Erdrich and Katherine Whittemore essays

First, you'll do some collective searching, writing, and commenting in a group of two or three:

With the first two of the following three tasks, you can change the sentences radically, but try as much as possible not to change the meaning of the sentences or phrases within them. Work with the words from the original as much as you are able. Also label your two sentences with the names of your group members:

1.     Take one of the longest sentences from either of these essays and break it into two sentences, then post it in the “favorite sentences” googledoc. Label the new sentences “Broken up.”

2.     Then take two relatively short sentences that are next to or near each other and turn them into one sentence. Label the new sentence “Combined.”

3.     Now, as a group, judge whether the broken up or combined sentences you created are better, worse, or about the same as the originals, and briefly comment on this in the doc. Label it “Comment.”

Then, some individual work: when your group has finished its sentence work, answer the following questions in your notebook:

1.     Do you feel like you learned anything from the sentence breaking-up/combining exercise above? If so, what?

2.     What do these short essays seem to you to have in common with one another?