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Informal innovation in firstyear composition–part 1

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I’m one of those teachers who revises my syllabi at least a little—and sometimes a lot—every time I teach. Here is one new approach (at least new to me!) I’m experimenting with this semester in two sections of first year composition.

A lot of writing teachers begin every class with informal writing. My colleague Dr. Agnes Cardoni calls this “Writing yourself into the room” (a phrase I love). When it’s necessary to end the time for journaling, Agnes reminds students that they can always return to their writing (which I also love).

I teach on a MWF schedule, and each class is a meager 50 minutes long, so I struggle with fitting in everything I’d like to do in each class. I have therefore never prioritized informal writing.

Until now.

I decided that, if nothing else, I’d like students to leave my class appreciating and enjoying writing as a gift they can give themselves. Why? Well, partly I’ve been inspired by dipping into the blogs of Irv Peckham, and partly because someone (I can’t remember who!) told me that she started journaling in a writing class and never stopped. What an amazing practice to take with you when you go, right?

Here is my own adaptation of journaling at the start of class. Feel free to borrow and adapt….

1. Make it sexy

Alliteration is a beautiful thing that has given rise to Man Crush Monday, Woman Crush Wednesday, Throwback Thursday, and Flashback Friday. And I’m sure there are many more hip alliterative phrases that I’m not familiar with because when I try too hard to be cool I end up exposing how un-cool I actually am.

At any rate: I’ve seen the way these phrases have sparked posts across social media, so I piggybacked on the trend.

Enter: Music Monday
I am constantly reminded of the power of music to shape moods. I fondly recall how my three-year old son and I used to jam out to Def Leppard and Twisted Sister on the way to daycare as we finally found a way to make our morning commute pleasant for both of us.

Add: Wisdom Wednesday
Agnes Cardoni uses quotes that connect to the course in some way when she has students journal. Wisdom!

And Fun Form Friday
I observed the teaching of Professor Kevin McDonough and was impressed by the way he used a bit of extra time in the class to have students write thesis statements and supporting claims (connected with their class discussion) without ever telling them that’s what they were doing. I’ve extended the idea here. I give students forms of writing (maybe a sentence pattern such as parallelism, or a genre such as a recipe or a vanity license plate) and ask them to play with it. What works, what doesn’t work, and how ridiculous can we get when we use patterns and genres in unexpected ways?

Students can respond to the prompts associated with Music Monday, Wisdom Wednesday, and Fun Form Friday. Or they can simply write about what’s on their minds. I’m providing a path for students who want one, but I’m also leaving space for students who would rather carve out their own paths.

Here’s the assignment sheet if you’d like to check it out.

2. Give it value

I followed the advice in my Zentangle book—I asked students to treat themselves to a journal they loved and to writing utensils that they would enjoy using. When we use quality materials that make us feel good, we enjoy ourselves more and recognize that what we’re doing matters.

It’s cool to see what students choose when they choose for themselves. Writers have different preferences, and it’s good to appreciate that!

Students also earn credit for their journal writing. How do I judge it? They are in class and writing in their journals. That’s it. 5% of the final grade for the course. Value.

Oh: I also write in a journal I love right along with my students, and I’ve made that explicit. I deserve the gift of low-stakes writing, too! :)

3. Allow privacy, invite sharing

I’m not ever collecting and reading the journals. I’m giving the opportunity for students to write without judgment. I’m not interested in babysitting the process anymore than I’m interested in granting permission for students to leave the classroom when nature calls. Minimal oversight.

do, however, offer opportunities for students to share their writing. Some students might want to share with the entire class. And some sharing can involve all students without making anyone feel vulnerable. For example, I asked students to share one word from today’s writing that seemed key to what they were saying, and we noticed patterns. Privacy is maintained, but writing is shared and valued.

4. Open it up

Students are invited to take charge of the prompts by bringing music, wisdom (that is, quotes), or a fun form idea to class. This leadership role is a way students can actively participate in class, and it also creates more buy-in from the students.

The best part? I get to learn from them.


I don’t have many results yet because it’s the start of the semester, so I hope to report back much later. But I can say that it felt good to be playing music on Monday as students were arriving in class. Really good.

The first unit of my FYC course is on using language to construct identity for various audiences (ugh—what a mouthful!). So I played “Introducing Me” by Nick Jonas (from Camp Rock 2) and “Dear Future Husband” by Meghan Trainor. Students reacted nostalgically to the former. The latter is making me think of writing a parody: “Dear Future Student.” Inspiration abounds!

For Wisdom Wednesday I used this quote:

“When did we see each other face-to-face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that, we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.” —John Green, Paper Towns

And I’m not sure what I’ll do for Fun Form Friday, but my wheels are spinning.

If you’re also experimenting with informal writing in your class, I’d love to hear your ideas and what you’ve learned. Comment away!

Part of my FYC class (doing intro interviews; I was too busy writing to take photos during journaling!)
Part of my FYC class (doing intro interviews; I was too busy writing to take photos during journaling!)

Family “vacation”

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We were in the Berkshires about six years ago, and we did some awesome things. But one of my memories reminds me that the awesomeness was peppered with…less-than-awesome moments.

Scot was driving that morning, and Callie & Jace were in the back seat. We stopped at a little convenient store on our way to that day’s outing, and I ran inside. I don’t remember what I needed to buy, but I do remember that as the cashier rang up the purchase, I said,

Do you think maybe I could do your job for the day and you could spend the day with my family having ‘vacation fun’?

 The woman could not have answered more quickly.

No, thank you.


That memory reassures me somehow. I don’t know what the fighting was about or how my family managed to annoy me to the point that I wanted to spend my day working in a convenient store. What I remember was the fun we had goofing around in a museum and swimming in a dinky pool and playing soccer on a weedy basketball court. I remember the scavenger hunt in Edith Wharton’s house and learning about Norman Rockwell’s paintings and the kids eating giant sno-cones at an amusement park.

I know there were conflicts and I know there was fun, but the former is a distant blur and the latter is a series of moments captured in images, gifs, and vines that replay in my mind at will.


“I pulled my kayak to the side to wait—”

Callie interrupts me. “Yeah. She just stood there and watched. I rescued myself.”

“You make that sound really bad! I would’ve come back and helped you if you couldn’t get your kayak off the rock!”

“I know, Mom.” She says it in her 15-year-old voice—that is, the exasperated version of her 15-year-old voice.

I continue to tell Scot the story, though I leave out some specifics because Jace doesn’t need me to recap the bad moments he experienced in the middle of the Shenandoah River. But Jace ends up filling in some of the blanks.

“When I saw the wall of rocks that marked the halfway point, I was done. I was completely done. I just didn’t want to go any further. And then I got my kayak completely stuck on the rocks, and nobody else was around except for Mom, and she was screaming to me and I couldn’t hear a thing she was saying. So then I was even more done.”

Our stories went on. Jace and I both had to swim in the river, fully clothed, to get his boat free. I felt bad that I was with Jace and not Callie, so I eventually tried to catch up to her, but she was already at the pick-up point. I rescued a couple other kayakers who got stuck. Many parts of the river were quiet and serene. I worried a bit that it would bore the kids. I freaked out at Jace in the midst of his freak out. I calmed down with Jace. I used each of the strategies in my parenting arsenal in hopes that he’d eventually be himself. He was eventually himself and he eventually apologized, and it’s likely that neither event was related to the various parenting strategies I tried but instead just came with time, food, and water.

While the kids and I were on our kayaking adventure for 4+ hours, Scot had worked out at the gym and run down and up the part of the mountain where we were staying.

I told Scot that kayaking may have been my favorite part of vacation. He said that made no sense—the stories were terrible—all about being stuck, and separated, and upset, and falling apart, and on and on.

I asked him if he enjoyed his run, even though the hill (mountain!) was challenging. He did.

“Then you get it.”

Of course, it’s not just the challenge. It’s the parts of vacation that don’t show up in the photos I post on Facebook—the anger, impatience, whininess, eye-rolling, rudeness, fear, shouting, selfishness, lack of appreciation….

I could go on. These are the parts of vacationing that I didn’t understand when I was 20-something and travelled with a family I babysat for. In my 20s, I didn’t experience many conflicts because I was no longer living with family, and I don’t usually fight with my friends. But when I travelled with a family of five, conflict was a constant—bickering over what we did, how we did it, when we did it, etc. I love the family, but that part of travel was exhausting.

On one occasion, I took the three kids to the San Diego Zoo. Quickly impatient with their sibling fights, I yelled,

We’re at a zoo! We’re supposed to be having fun!

We all laughed about that moment for the rest of the trip.

And I find myself reliving the dissonance during my own family outings.

How can any of us be unhappy? We’re on vacation! This is supposed to be fun!

Still, I’m wondering if I am beginning to accept it rather than resist it. It’s not that I don’t want us all to be more grateful and have fewer conflicts. It’s just the sense that some conflict may be unavoidable.

My family vacations are always more than what the smiling photos show. They are also humans clashing as they live in close proximity with competing priorities, expectations, and desires.

But the clashing humans are my humans, my family members, and I usually don’t remember exactly why the heck I’m ready to leave them on a regular basis in the middle of every (almost every?) vacation.

But I do remember the other parts of vacation. I remember that I loved kayaking—the ups and downs and unpredictability that carried me through a beautiful summer morning on the Shenandoah, sore arms and bad moods and all.


Imagining life without my front teeth

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When I was in 4th grade, I was in a bicycle accident with my friend Erica. My jaw broke in several places, and a few of my front teeth came out, roots and all. The oral surgeon tried to save the teeth, but one did not make it.

I’m continuing to deal with the ramifications of that accident over three decades later, which is slightly sucky, but today at the dentist’s office, I kept thinking how lucky I am.

so much novocaine that even my eyes felt numb
so much novocaine that even my eyes felt numb

Okay, the truth is, I was kinda miserable at the start of today’s appointment. I was having my front bridge replaced for the second time, and it is not a pretty sight or a pretty process. Being injected with novocaine hurts, and I needed a lot of it today. But worse for me was the way I felt when my bridge was out.

I felt ugly.

I look like a jack-o'-lantern here, still all full of novocaine
I look like a jack-o’-lantern here, still all full of novocaine

Now all of us can feel ugly at some points, so it’s not like I haven’t felt ugly before. But missing-your-front-teeth ugly is a very particular kind of ugly. It’s the kind of ugly that would affect my everyday interactions if it were a permanent condition. Without my front teeth, I would likely face negative judgments, disrespect, avoidance, devaluation. Seriously: I can picture the scenes, almost as if I were George Bailey, except instead of seeing an alternate universe without me in it, I see an alternate universe without my front teeth in it.

I’m in line at the grocery store and a toddler is looking at me from the cart in front of me, so I begin playing peek-a-boo. The parent looks at me and smiles, so I smile back, showing that I’m not a weirdo but just someone who enjoys begin silly with kids. The parent’s smile fades slightly. Thirty seconds later, the child in the cart is pushed ahead of the parent, and I wonder if it’s because of how I look. How many times will this happen before I stop goofing around with little kids?


I’m at an academic conference. I’m in line at a Starbucks / on an elevator / looking for a seat at a crowded panel. I always make small talk. Sometimes I initiate it and sometimes other people do. But what do I do now? Do I initiate? Or do I work on keeping my mouth closed as much as I possibly can to maintain my professional appearance?


I’m meeting with my children’s teachers. I have always gotten along well with teachers. But this time, I feel like they don’t take me seriously. They say my children are doing well and don’t answer my concerns. I try to press: Is the math challenging enough? Are there ways the writing prompts could be answered outside the 5-paragraph theme? My questions are deflected. I’m hurried out of the room.


I’m at a bar ordering drinks. People see me, see my lack of teeth, and turn away. I love bars. I love the light, stupid banter that makes me laugh and feel connected with people. I don’t know how to connect with people through light, stupid banter now that my teeth are gone. I have jokes to make, but they aren’t funny when no one is listening.

I could go on. It would suck.

So, sure, I felt lucky that I could have my bridge replaced and not go through life without my front teeth. But, more importantly, I felt lucky that I was reminded of what we all already know.

I am still the same person whether I have front teeth or not, and that person is worthy of respect. That person should be valued and listened to. Yet the me-without-front-teeth may have a lot of negative encounters and thus may not be as open or as positive or as ready to banter as some of us.

My temporary bridge in...still puffy from novocaine...
My temporary bridge in…still puffy from novocaine…& a smudge of blood on my cheek

You see what I’m getting at? I’m not lucky just because I have a bridge to cover up my gaps. And not just because people usually treat me in warm and respectful ways. And not just because thinking it through helps me feel grateful.

I’m also lucky because I was reminded to examine my own biases. To think about the times I turn away. To consider how I may show disrespect—almost instinctively—based on signs that are culturally interpreted as “less than,” “not worthy,” “not good enough.”

And to realize that people who have been disrespected for a good percentage of the time are probably going to behave in different ways than people who have been shown respect, so I gotta be careful with my tendency to judge behavior as well.

It may not always be missing front teeth. It may be an outfit, a hairstyle, an odor. It may be lots of things.

And I guess these thoughts are some of the more positive ramifications of that bike accident from way back when I was 10…and not at all what I was expecting when I was heading to the dentist’s office this morning.

At home writing, with novocaine almost warn off, temporary bridge in.
At home writing, with novocaine almost warn off, temporary bridge in.

P.S. If you want to see the ugliest pic of me from today, scroll way down. It includes some bloody gauze, so my daughter didn’t want to see it, but I feel like part of my point is to expose how I look when I’m not at my best, so I want to include it for the brave….









2 teeth were extracted, others were drilled down for the new bridge, & I had bone grafting done. A little blood happened, and I did not look pretty! :)
2 teeth were extracted, others were drilled down for the new bridge, & I had bone grafting done. A little blood happened, and I did not look pretty! :)

7 lessons tae kwon do has reinforced about teaching writing

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I started tae kwon do classes a couple months ago, and I am not a natural. As I struggle and learn, I think again and again of how helpful it is for me to engage in an activity that is difficult for me. After all, many of the students in my first year writing classes have difficulty with writing, and it’s helpful for me to teach with some understanding of their perspective.

Each week, I’ve been thinking of those students—the ones who struggle—and here are some of the important reminders I’ve received. The tae kwon do instructor, Brent, is a great teacher, so he has helped me think about my own teaching.

1. Repetition is crucial.

I’ve always been a good student, but I often cannot remember how to do a move, even if I’ve just seen Brent demonstrate it clearly. Somehow, when I try, the move doesn’t translate the way I’d like it to.

I also often don’t remember what we learned from one week to the next. It’s not that I didn’t pay attention. It’s just that a lot is new to me, so it’s tough to retain it.

Being told something or shown something once is not enough. Repetition is key. Eventually, I pick it up. But it’s rarely a one-and-done teaching & learning approach.

I shouldn’t expect my students to know something simply because I’ve said it or they’ve read it.

2. Ongoing feedback is vital.

Each time Brent shows us something, we immediately put it into practice. He then visits each pair or group and offers praise as well as corrections and reminders.

Some of these reminders and adjustments are specific to me:  “Turn your shoulders more when doing the roundhouse, Laurie. It will help add force.”

Some feedback is directed to the whole class. Brent will interrupt practice if he notices that he has to give similar advice to several people: “I notice many of you are stepping, but that’s going to throw your balance off. Keep your feet planted. This move should rely on your upper body exclusively.”

The most useful feedback is given as students write and practice—not when their writing is being graded.

3. Praise helps.

It’s embarrassing to learn. The class I participate in is a mixed-level class, so there are people at advanced levels, and I feel incompetent as I get things wrong or use poor form. Of course, I know that failing is part of learning, but it is still difficult to struggle in front of other people.

Brent praises what each of us does right. He also praises us for sticking with it and making the effort to learn: “You are actually picking this up quickly. This isn’t easy. People take a lot of time when the material is new to them.”

I need to explicitly recognize the gifts students bring to their writing—whether creativity, strong organization, or habits of mind that will lead to success. 

4. It helps to both practice what we should do and understand why we do it.

While much of the class involves being shown a technique and then practicing it, Brent also explains why we step in a certain way, or he has us explore the difference between moving our legs in one way versus another way. Learning happens more quickly when the directives are clearly meaningful rather than willy-nilly.

Also, the rationales behind the techniques help me to remember and apply the lessons. It helps me feel like I’m part of tae kwon do as I understand the principles behind the movements.

I should connect any discussions of writing and rhetoric with actual writing the students do. And, often, I can ask students to think through why certain conventions are expected for particular genres so they become part of a discourse community of writers.

5. The learning process sometimes looks messed-up.

Often, Brent will give me advice that I will try to apply. In the process, I am very self-conscious, and I am very focused on a  precise change—perhaps moving my feet to face in a specific direction. In the meantime, other parts of my form go haywire and become unnatural. I often lose my balance while I’m trying to improve a technique, and as I correct one part of my form, other parts of my form go out of sync for a time.

That is all normal when learning something new. It is not a sign of laziness or lack of care. I need to be patient with myself when learning.

I need to be patient with students when teaching, and I need to help students learn patience with themselves. What appears to be regression is often simply a sign that new growth is occurring.

6. It’s smart to break things down into small steps and recognize patterns.

When something is tricky or has many parts, it makes a huge difference to practice one step at a time, with each new part incorporating the earlier part.

It’s also useful for me as a learner to notice patterns, like my tendency to struggle with a particular movement. Brent also regularly points out patterns: “For this sequence, always step with the same hand you use to block.”

It is helpful to have students break their writing down into steps—not necessarily discreet steps of the writing process, but perhaps using a series of assignments that lead to a full research project.

It also helps to notice patterns of writing within particular genres or rhetorical situations; to notice patterns across genres; and I also try to focus on patterns of error at the sentence level when helping students proofread and edit.

7. Using consistent & vivid terms helps.

We practice wrist locks, and Brent calls one movement that is used in several sequences “slingshotting the hand up.” That term helps me remember the move because it’s metaphorical, and I can easily transfer it to new sequences when appropriate. This technique fits with point 1—it contributes to a helpful repetition.

love writing analogies, and I love when students create their own analogies for writing. I can be even more conscious of reusing certain phrases that will hopefully help students remember and apply writing techniques that will make their writing more effective.


I’m sure there are more things I’ve learned, but these have been the reminders that have most clearly crystallized so far.

I also need to point out that I’m learning tae kwon do classes because I choose to do so. The same is often not true for my writing students. There’s thus a whole other level of work I do when teaching writing that is meant to help motivate students and help them recognize that writing is a gift that we can appreciate and enjoy.

I may also share this post with students so that they know that I’m willing to be vulnerable and take risks so that I can learn something new. I hope they will have enough confidence and willpower to do the same.

And if they don’t quite believe me, maybe I’ll show them a couple of my moves….

flag protests & counter-protests

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A recent  Inside Higher Ed article described a) two small campus protests “denouncing the mistreatment of black Americans” that involved walking on the American flag and b) huge counter-protests on behalf of the flag. The article resonated with me because just last semester, a similar controversy took place on my own campus.

Although my discussion could go in a gzillion or so directions, I’m going to focus. I’m interested in the way the #blacklivesmatter protests on all three campuses (the 2 from the article and my own) have received less support than the counter-protests defending the flag. I’m curious about the oppositional rhetoric and the divisiveness, and I can’t help but wonder:

Is there a way beyond the seeming opposition of these two groups?

I’m interested in this question for several reasons. One is because I’ve never defaced the flag or even been involved in a huge protest, but I support the #blacklivesmatters protests. I also support veterans on my campus, and my husband is an air force veteran. I sometimes feel like I straddle two worlds, but the worlds don’t feel (like they should be) oppositional.

Second, I saw students on both sides of the issue speak to one another with good will in an on-campus forum arranged by the amazing professionals who work in Student Life at my university. I liked that students were speaking and listening to one another, but I wondered if the original protest about #blacklivesmatter was pushed to the side more than it should have been.

I’m also interested because a friend from high school posted something about kicking asses of flag defacers when I Facebook-shared the Inside Higher Ed article. I removed his comment and my friend asked why, pointing out that he wasn’t being racist. The exchange made me think.

Finally, more on flag controversy seems to be happening, with people joining both the “Eric Sheppard challenge”  to stomp on flags to make a statement and counter movements to overwhelm flag protests with pro-U.S.A. social media posts.

My initial response to the basic controversy

If I’m faced with the choice—do I feel more concern for lives or for a flag?—I’m going to choose lives every time. The flag is a piece of cloth. It’s great for bringing people together, but flags are also ways of pulling people apart and creating conflict. On a very basic level, flags don’t mean very much to me. And they never mean more to me than actual people.

So, my bigger challenge is to figure out why people stand up on behalf of flags so quickly and vehemently. Here are my best conjectures.

Flag-loving deconstructed

While I see the flag as a symbol with little meaning in and of itself, many many people view the flag as the ultimate symbol of the U.S. Thus, anyone who defaces the flag or otherwise disrespects the flag is explicitly defacing and disrespecting the actual country, as well as U.S. values of justice, freedom, and liberty.

Furthermore, the flag is often viewed as “belonging” to those serving in the military more so than to civilians. Veterans are viewed as having a greater stake in the flag and the country it represents because they put their lives on the line to protect it. Because of the popular association between the flag and the military, any defacement and disrespect of the former is viewed as defacement and disrespect of veterans themselves.

As the flag is conflated with

  • the country as a whole;
  • abstract values of justice, freedom, & liberty; and
  • military personnel and veterans in particular,

it is not surprising that many become enraged when protesters deface the flag. It is viewed as a hostile action to the country, as if the flag protester is committing treason as an outsider rather than protesting as a citizen within the system.

Furthermore, many people are staunchly defensive of the military. I think this is partly a response to the poor treatment of American military veterans who served in Vietnam, as chronicled in movies as vastly different as First Blood and Forrest Gump. Of course, sometimes the military and the people who serve there do things wrong. There have been plenty of controversies in recent years, with torture in Abu Ghraib coming most readily to mind, not to mention the sexual assault chronicled in the award-winning movie The Invisible War.

However, despite evidence that the military is (or people in the military are) not always heroic or brave or good, in the popular imagination, military personnel and veterans are afforded the benefit of the doubt. They are regularly heralded as heroic and brave and good. No matter what. It’s just the default. Evidence of complexity and wrongdoing is tucked to the side because it feels good to love our country and the people who have risked their lives to defend it. In the process of praising the people who are actually heroic, we end up praising people who have not risked their lives at all, and we end up praising people who have done terrible things, and we end up feeling called to defend the military (and thus the flag) from any threat.

Even when the threat may not be a threat at all but instead a challenge for the country and the flag that represents it to be worthy of the best the military has to offer.

Why use the flag in protests?

If defacing the flag is likely to be interpreted as an attack on the country and, more specifically, those who have served in the military, it doesn’t make sense for protesters to deface it.

After all, #blacklivesmatters is about changing the way we value black lives as a country, both systemically (e.g., the problems of mass incarceration) and individually (e.g., the habit of assuming that a black person is more likely to be a criminal). Displaying disrespect towards veterans isn’t really a good means to that ends.

But what if the intention behind defacing the flag is not disrespect at all but instead a challenge to Americans to live the values the flag represents?

I believe there is a fundamental miscommunication in perceptions of the flag. While people offended by defacement of the flag perceive protesters as outsiders, the protesters see themselves as insiders who care enough about this country and the injustices experienced here to stand up, to make themselves (even more) vulnerable (than they already are), to find ways to get the attention of people who may not experience everyday microaggressions (never mind structural/institutional racism).

Defacement of the flag is a way of saying, “America, you are not delivering on your promises of justice, freedom, and liberty. America, we demand more. America, it is time for you to be worthy of the best the military has to offer.”

Part of the reason why flag protesters are not heard correctly is because they are perceived as outsiders. And part of the reason why they are perceived as outsiders is because the protesters in the #blacklivesmatter movement are assumed guilty. That is, the protesters are perceived in the exact opposite way that the military is perceived, even though both groups (or people in both groups) clearly have displayed a mix of heroism (standing on the side of justice & freedom), neutral action (not necessarily bad or good), and criminal action.

Even though I’m describing a huge (and unfair) divide in perceptions, my description doesn’t answer the question,

“Why use flags in #blacklivesmatter protests?”

After all, the divide I’m describing not only renders the flag protests ineffectual but also increases a divide that already exists. To the degree that protesters are perceived as against the (overly-idealized) military and against values of justice and freedom associated with the flag, the protesters are viewed as more guilty and criminal—and less worthy of appropriate treatment—than they had been before.

Let me pause for a moment to be clear:

  • African American protesters (rather than white protesters) are likely to be viewed as already-guilty outsiders who reify their guilt and demonstrate their inability to appreciate American liberty as they deface the flag.
  • White flag protesters are likely to be viewed as clueless liberal enablers who don’t value the military and who do not take pride in their country.
  • Neither would be considered a “real” American, but the black person would be the one more likely to be viewed as “criminal.”

Changing the question

Have you noticed that I still haven’t answered the question? There’s a good reason for that.

I don’t think there’s a good answer. Without an extreme measure—defacement of the flag or destruction of property or violence—the #blacklivesmatter protest on my own campus, on other campuses, and in big cities like Baltimore hasn’t been given attention.

If I have to choose between a) speaking and not being heard or b) speaking in ways that will express my anger and frustration—even if that anger and frustration is misunderstood—what is the right choice?

The answer is that there is no right choice.

The answer is that it’s not up to the protesters to find a “correct” way to be heard. When the default perception is that the protesters are guilty and wrong, there’s no good way to be heard.

The answer is that those who have a problem with the flag being defaced better do a better job of listening and speaking up and intervening so that extreme action isn’t needed.

The answer is that the media can do a better job giving voice to the people who don’t usually have a voice. If you think it can’t be done or that it isn’t profitable or that people don’t pay attention, then you should spend some time looking at the work of Humans of New York.

The answer is that the question isn’t, “Why deface the flag in a protest?” but rather,

“Why do we find one reason after another to deflect the concerns of so many Americans?”


“How can we do better?”


at least 2 truths

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Today is Wednesday, January 7, 2015, and I’m in my car in Dallas, Pennsylvania while my three sisters, two brothers, and parents are at the hospital in Beverly, Massachusetts.

I wrote that a week ago, on the night my Aunt Margie died. I felt upset that Aunt Margie was dying, and I felt upset that I wasn’t there, with her and with the rest of my family.

I wrote more, both that night in the car while waiting for my daughter’s field hockey practice to end, and afterwards, while coming to grips with the fact that Margie is gone. But I wasn’t ready to post anything I wrote about my Aunt Margie because a) I thought it kept becoming about me instead of about Margie and b) I felt like I was side-stepping the fact that I have not been there for Margie for most of my adult life—that I was presenting her life in my terms, with my memories, and was thus omitting the last 25 years of her life.

And those may be the only two truths I have to offer, and they’re not pretty: That I’m ultimately wrapped in my own perspective and that I wasn’t there for Margie.

But I hope there’s more.

the Cunningham family house where Margie lived
the Cunningham family house where Margie lived

As a kid, I didn’t know that the acidic smell when we entered the house was actually the smell of cats. I didn’t know the stereotype of crazy ladies living with cats. I didn’t know what an “apparatus” might be a euphemism for. I didn’t even know the word “euphemism.”

What I did know was what life was like when we visited Aunt Margie’s house. It was full of sweets and games and loud laughter. We didn’t have a lot of rules and we didn’t need a lot of rules. Janet and Diane and I would stay for a weekend or a week, and maybe we fought and squabbled the way we always did, but I don’t have any memories of that. Instead, I remember that Janet loved to dust at Aunt Margie’s house, and I loved to sweep. I don’t know what chore Diane enjoyed, but I’m sure she did something to earn money to shop.

And shop we did. We’d walk to Bearskin Neck, often stopping at the swings for a few minutes on the way. We’d pass a sign held up by a post that looked like a linked chain; it caught my attention every single time.

The cool sign post that looks like iron links.
The cool sign post that looks like iron links.

And we’d always stop and watch the taffy being stretched or wrapped or boxed in what seemed like magical procedures in the window of Tuck’s. I’m horrible with directions and remembering where things are, but the pattern of landmarks on the way to Bearskin Neck somehow entertained me, nearly as much as the shops themselves.

The taffy machine at Tuck's looks a lot like this. (Tuck's candy is amazing, by the way!)
The taffy machine at Tuck’s looks a lot like this. (Tuck’s candy is amazing, by the way!)

As a kid, I didn’t know my mom’s hometown was a tourist town. I didn’t know that it’s amazing to live where you can walk to a tourist center of shops where hardly any cars drive. I didn’t know that it’s a big deal to live a five-minute walk from the beach. I didn’t know I was lucky to have an Aunt Margie who lived near Motif No. 1, the most painted building in the U.S. I take that back; I did know I was lucky to have Aunt Margie.

Motif #1 in Rockport, the most-painted building in the U.S.
Motif #1 in Rockport, the most-painted building in the U.S.

We stopped in shops with names that are on the tip of my tongue…one that had jewelry (was it Krames?), where I’m sure I bought at least one ring with my birthstone. Either that shop or another offered fluorescent coral and sea shells, the kind that were polished and beautiful and that didn’t seem even remotely connected to the purplish sandy clam shells or smelly snails I would collect from the beach.

I looked at miniature doll house figures and furniture in a store whose name I can’t recall (though “Mrs. Something” is dancing in my head; Mrs. Twigg’s? is that possible?), and I probably bought something small and cheap there at one time or another. We always visited The Happy Whale. I regularly spent my chore money on invisible ink books, which are awesome.

invisible ink books are awesome
invisible ink books are awesome

Our Bearskin Neck excursions always included a quick look at the lobsters at the Roy Moore Lobster Company. They both fascinated and disgusted me; I could never imagine eating one back then.

the Roy Moore Lobster Company

But don’t worry; we did not starve. We always stopped at the Country Store where we would each pick out penny candy to take home in a little brown bag. Did it actually cost a penny? I have no idea anymore. But even if it was 3 cents apiece, it was worth it. I chose root beer barrels, circus peanuts (one of the oddest foods ever but somehow delicious), those colored dots on paper (why? I can’t answer that), tiny wax bottles with sweet liquid inside (so cool! you could bite the top right off in order to access the liquid), fireballs (because I was daring! lol), and mint jellies shaped like leaves and coated with sugar.

The Country Store had a player piano. That has nothing to do with the candy. It’s just that my memory is firing as I write, pulling me back to the moments that were not moments at all but instead were patterns, played out again and again during visit after visit.

the Country Store in Bearskin Neck
the Country Store in Bearskin Neck

I never asked why Margie didn’t work. I never wondered if she enjoyed visiting the same shops time after time, with each stop centered on the interests of her young nieces. She had friends who visited her house, and she smoked cigarettes, and she laughed with us. She seemed happy.

When we were in the house, we played Yahtzee and Mille Bornes and other games. Margie prepared tea for herself every afternoon, and the four of us would have tea parties. Janet and I drank hot tea with sugar and milk, and Diane would drink milk and pretend it was tea. All of us had alter egos at the tea parties. Janet was Lulu Luscious. I was Katerina Kaulpepper. And Diane was Deanna DanderFleet. We called Margie “Mrs. Glick” sometimes because we thought she had a crush on her psychiatrist, Dr. Glick. Or sometimes we would call her “Meg,” a nickname for Margaret that seemed so much softer than “Margie” (though we all had Boston accents, so you must imagine it correctly, as “Mahh-jee,” which is sorta soft in its own way).

Janet and I would sometimes pretend to smoke cigarettes to be like Margie. I still remember the faint taste on my lips even though I’ve never actually smoked a regular cigarette. They were Newports. The packages were teal. I wasn’t bothered by the smell of the cigarettes anymore than I was bothered by the smell of cat urine.

Sometimes in the summer, gold sticky strips were hung from the kitchen light to catch flies. They were disgusting. But they didn’t bother me either.

Yes, these are gold sticky strips to catch flies. Disgusting!
Yes, these are gold sticky strips to catch flies. Disgusting!

One time during a tea party, for some reason, Janet ran up the stairs carrying her cup of tea, and she farted on every. single. step. as she ran. Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft! She made it all the way to the top, laughing the whole time, without spilling a single drop. During every tea party, we recalled that bizarre incident. We left out the reason why she ran up the stairs with her cup of tea and we left out what happened after, but we held onto the important parts. Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft! all the way to the top, without spilling a single drop.

Do you want to know the dark part? The part that explains “the apparatus”? That explains why Margie didn’t work? That tells you about her medicine and her overdoses and her days spent in her bathrobe and her very long toenails that I found impressive as a kid but that were probably a sign that she wasn’t paying enough attention to her personal grooming?

I don’t know very much, actually. I know that Margie had a permanent catheter. I actually didn’t even remember that word, “catheter,” or apply it to Margie until this morning. She would disappear to the bathroom for a time saying she needed to take care of her “apparatus,” and I didn’t think twice about it.

Every visit included not just a visit to Bearskin Neck but also a day spent at O’Garden Beach. Janet, Diane, and I would wear clothes over our bathing suits and carry a beach towel. We’d walk part of the way on a dirt road Margie dubbed “The Bunny Trail,” making it seem like an adventure. Sometimes my cousins David and Pipes would come, too; they were often our playmates when we were in Rockport.

No matter the weather, Margie wore slacks with an elastic band at the waist, not shorts. She would take off her shoes at the beach, and she’d sit on a beach towel or on a rock and smoke cigarettes while watching us play and laughing with us. We swam and ran back and forth with the breakers; we made sand castles (that looked more like mountains of dirt, though sometimes pails or Dixie cups helped the piles fit our imaginations a bit better), we dug holes to China, we climbed on a landscape of boulders that stretched over a huge part of the beach.

I know that Margie struggled with depression. When I was in high school and learned some basic facts about psychological struggles, Margie asked for copies of the diagrams I shared with her. That was what rang true for her.

She was smart, and she seemed as able to me as the other adults in my life. When I was in college and heard about her tricking the pharmacist into giving her extra pills, I was angry and wrote her a letter I never sent. I knew how much she had to give. I thought she should volunteer at a daycare, work with children, help out at an animal shelter because she loved cats. I was mad that she didn’t see the value in her life because it was so clear to me.

Sometimes on our visits, Margie would take out big scrapbooks and we’d look through them together. She’d show us the cards and pictures our older siblings had made when she was in the hospital. It was funny for us to think of Carole and Stephen and Michael being the ages of me and Janet and Diane, making cards on folded construction paper. Each picture seemed like a souvenir from a time long past. I didn’t think too much about why Margie had been in the hospital.

Margie had a washer but no dryer. We would help her hang clothes on the line outside or on the indoor folding rack of wooden dowels. She made meatloaf for us with bacon on top. She would take us to the grocery store with Uncle George (her brother), where we could pick out junk food to eat while visiting her.

I never wondered why she didn’t drive. Why didn’t she drive? I still don’t know. Is it bizarre that I accepted so much? Was it a good thing? or not so much? It’s weird to be so much older, with a new perspective, and still to be so damn clueless.

As we grew older, becoming teens and then adults, I saw her less often. But on holidays she was still herself. “Oh, my god, you’re so beautiful—I can’t stand it! You should be a model!” She said it all the time, to each of us. And she always meant it.

She also meant every loud laugh that came out of her mouth.

Sometimes she was difficult to talk to, especially when she was in a nursing home and I would visit. She’d tell me her life was terrible and ask me how I would feel if I were her, trapped, with nothing to live for. I couldn’t respond in any way that made the situation better; I know, because I tried. She would express anger and bitterness no matter what I said.

My husband would come in the room, and she’d laugh and joke with him.

I say that as if I visited Margie regularly, but I didn’t. She spent countless days and hours with me throughout my childhood, days spent doing things that would be enjoyable for me, days spent creating a pattern of memories that are so important to who I am that I have told my kids about them, have relived them with my kids, dragging them from shop to shop in Bearskin Neck, encouraging them to climb on rocks at O’Garden Beach. I’m pretty sure Janet and Diane have done the same with their kids.

Yet I didn’t visit Margie very much in the last 25 years. She added so many good memories to my childhood that I can’t capture them all. And I did nothing in return beyond an annual Christmas card and an occasional 45-minute visit.

Sorry, Margie. You deserved better—from me, and from life.

That’s where I stopped writing several days ago. Even though I didn’t want to write about me, I’m afraid that’s where I keep ending up: My good memories. My appreciation of the time and energy Margie gave to make my childhood better. My guilt that I wasn’t there for her—not just on the night she died, but for the last 25 years.

I think about how I’d respond to a friend feeling what I’m feeling (which is a trick I regularly use: How would I talk to myself if I were a friend? and which an actual friend studying to be a counselor told me is a good strategy, even if it does make me sound crazy).

I’d say:

I bet your Aunt Margie loved spending time with you and your brothers and sisters. I bet you all brought her a lot of joy without even trying to. Isn’t that how you tend to feel when you spend time with kids who delight in small pleasures like invisible ink books and penny candy?


I bet there were people who were there for Margie in the years when you weren’t, just like you’ve been there for people over the years who are not necessarily in your own family. Maybe that’s how human relations are supposed to work; maybe we all need to be kind to the people who are right in front of us because it’s impossible to always be there for every person we care about.


I bet your Aunt Margie understood that you were wrapped up in your own family, not because you’re selfish but because it takes time and energy to build a family and to build a career.


Didn’t your siblings and your parents tell you that you should be in Pennsylvania the night that Margie died because you couldn’t do anything? You have a role to play, but it is often not the starring role. Often, your role is to send a holiday card that will make people smile, to be there for your daughter while she is at field hockey practice, to pick up the phone when your sister calls to say Margie is gone. These are not starring roles, but sometimes, those are the roles you’re meant to play.

And, just like that, I’m thinking about Margie and what it means for a life to matter.

Margie mattered. She mattered to so many of us. She may not have felt like she had a starring role in many people’s lives because she didn’t lead a conventional life: She never married and never had children and never had a career; she spent many years of her life being cared for by others. The truth is, Margie and I were only minimally in one another’s life for a really long time, and it’s not appropriate to suggest otherwise. The truth is, I feel bad that I did not make more of an effort to see her when I travelled to New England over these last years.

But, let’s be clear: Margie starred in a lot of our stories—in a lot of my stories. She struggled and was not well in many ways, for most of her life. But that did not stop her from bringing joy to others in ways that have left permanent imprints on many lives, including mine. She did not have to star in every stage of my life in order to make the years count when she did.

So there are more truths I have come to, truths I of course already knew. Truths Margie has taught me.

So I end, not simply by telling Margie sorry but also, more importantly, by remembering times that were not simply good or bad but instead were full of everyday joys in the midst of all kinds of everyday difficulties.

I end by saying to Margie, thank you.

Facebooking with students

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Back in November 2014, the “Shit Academics Say” FB page posted

To be or not to be that academic who accepts student friend requests on Facebook.

lot of academics wrote “not to be,” often in much stronger language. A lot wrote yes with contingencies: former students, alums, select students are okay; current students, not so much. I fall in the camp of accepting friend requests from students, but not initiating them.


I began spending time on Facebook in the early days, spring of 2006, and I did so with student encouragement. It all began during a class break in a Business & Technical Writing course, which met in a computer lab. The students told me about their own experiences with Facebook, and they introduced me to the Facebook wall and private messaging and “poking” (which was not considered a dirty or flirty thing in our class!). Over the next year or two, students formed groups that I joined which have since disappeared. I believe one of them might’ve been “English majors are funnier, smarter, and better-looking than other majors.” In those early days, if I hadn’t accepted student friend requests, I wouldn’t have had any FB friends at all; hardly anyone besides students used the site.

Obviously, things changed. But even though Facebook is now a place to connect with family / friends / colleagues / and more, I still accept friend requests from students. While I think it’s typical for different professors to have different boundaries with their students and I am not interested in a one-size-fits-all policy, here are some reasons why I’ve been happy with my policy to accept Facebook friend requests from students. In case you’re wondering!

1. It helps me remember that anything posted on social media is potentially visible to anyone in the world, no matter what my privacy settings are.

Occasionally in my 8(!) years on FB, I’ve posted slightly inappropriate things. Especially in the year that my New Year’s resolution was to aim for mediocrity and prioritize happy hour. But mostly I try to present myself on FB with an awareness of all the potential audiences, and that means that I try to avoid being a jerk, at the very least.

2. Students see that I’m more than my role as a professor, and I see students more fully.

Professors are people, too! (photo by Megan McDonnell, a student & photographer)
Professors are people, too! (photo by Megan McDonnell, a student & photographer)

3. Students send me fun and interesting things that connect to our class content.

Sometimes it’s a blog post about a feminist issue. Sometimes it’s a book review or a film review. Sometimes it’s a cultural analysis. Sometimes it’s a grammar post.

Thank you, Students! That makes my day!

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4. Students see the kinds of things that I post that connect to our class content.

Sometimes when I teach American Short Fiction, I post a quote from the work that I just love.

Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!

Or I may be teaching a writing class and I’m excited about the way revision is explained in a text we’re reading or the way procrastination is presented as a normal part of the writing process. So I quote!

And the students in my classes see that I’m not reading just to read; I’m reading in order to take stuff out and make it a part of who I am and what I do. The students may be more likely to read for themselves if they see me reading that way.

Yeah, this is what class time looks like on occasion....
Yeah, this is what class time looks like on occasion….

5. Students see that I love my work.

The truth is, I do not always love my work. But I vent privately, not publicly. Clearly, those professors who vent about students online should not be FB friends with students.

When I do share about my work, I share about my love for my colleagues or students. I’m lucky enough to have lots of awesome moments in the classroom and beyond. We also do a lot of goofy jokester kinds of things in my workplace, and it’s good to share that kind of thing online.

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An early photo of the English Department Mascot
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Posing after we performed the Charlie Brown “Book Report” song during a campus Faculty Follies event.

I also write about my own joys and difficulties with research and writing. I share this sort of thing in classes as well, but it makes a difference for students to see that I’m sharing it with a wider public on FB.

research joy
research joy

6. Sometimes students message me quick questions about an assignment.

I know that some professors might not like this, but in my experience, these have never been inappropriate or lazy questions. It’s more the kind of thing that a student might ask when passing by me on campus that clarifies in a way that helps the student out and takes little time or effort on my part.

7. I’ve been able to stay in better touch with alumni.

I see alumni getting new jobs, accomplishing things, blogging, etc. Yay, alumni! I can even invite these alums back to campus for Career Day with current students. Or I can ask them about internship possibilities for current students. I know LinkedIn serves this purpose as well. But I do not really enjoy that site for some reason; I don’t browse there the way I browse my FB newsfeed.

Recently, I hooked up a student who who is thinking about teaching English in Japan with 2 students who are doing that exact thing right now. I messaged all 3 so they could communicate with each other. I actually need to ask the 2 students in Japan if I can take their answers to create a blog post for the English Department blog. That’s how great their info was.

8. I get to see lots of baby pictures and wedding pics. I always “like” these because I enjoy a newsfeed that’s full of babies and celebrations. Alums are just more likely to be at this stage of life than the other folks I’m connected with on FB.

9. I blog and have a YouTube channel, so students check out the way I’m using social media. I get to be a role model without forcing students to read/view my work.

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And I have some students doing cool stuff with new media who end up being role models for me!

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10. I can invite students to events once they’re my FB friends, whether it’s a local poetry reading, an on-campus event, an English Club social.

Everyone likes to be reminded of the campus Flapjack Fest!


I’m sure there are more good things! But I’ll just stop and sum it all up. Facebook is one way of creating communities and connections. I’m glad to have students who are interested to be part of my community, seeing that I have siblings, reading about my crazy days, knowing that I love the ocean, and recognizing that who I am in the classroom is part of a bigger picture. And I’m also glad to be part of their communities, seeing students’ unbelievable struggles and celebrating their impressive accomplishments.

I know there are probably a lot of pitfalls that could happen when my students are also my Facebook friends. But on a regular basis, I experience the positive effects instead of the pitfalls.

Look! Laurie was once a child!
Look! Laurie was once a child!