Language, Words, Writing: TED Talks for Your Writing Courses

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Happy 2015! May this new year sparkles a renewed spirit in all your personal and professional endeavors. Since classes here at the U don’t start until the 20th of January, I am having the time of my life just reading and writing this winter break (spending most of my time at a Starbucks that’s located a few blocks from my apartment). Of course, as a teacher, I’m never really on full vacation — so I am still thinking about teaching from time to time.

As I am preparing for the first-year composition class I will be teaching in a few weeks, I turn to TED for inspirations and materials to use in introducing students to the idea of writing and communication, and more importantly, the power of language. To cut to the chase, here are five talks that I think are appropriate for writing classes:

1. Anne Curzan: What Makes a Word “Real”?

I think this is a great discussion starter, especially for teachers who want to start out with something that’s closer to home (for students, at least!) — taking a look at the invention of words, including slangs like “defriend,” “hangry,” and “adorkable.” By evaluating the process of dictionary editing, language historian Anne Curzan charmingly finds crucial meaning gaps in the English language in a world of constant evolvement.

2. Mark Pagel: How Language Transformed Humanity

Biologist Mark Pagel shares his theory of the social engineering functions of language. He suggests that language is a social technology/learning that allow humans to cooperate. This may sound a little removed from the humanities, but I always like spicing up the class with some social sciences, what more a biological take on language!

3. Alan Siegel: Let’s Simplify Legal Jargon!

In our complex world, simplicity is bliss. Alan Siegel calls for a simple, sensible design — and Plain English — to make legal documents intelligible to laypeople. This may be a gem for technical and professional writing/communication classes.

4.  Andrew Fitzgerald: Adventures in Twitter Fiction

Here’s one for digital storytellers and media scholars! Andrew Fitzgerald, who works for Twitter, goes back in time to look at the (short) history of creative experimentation of fiction and storytelling through new-age broadcast tools like the radio, television, and now, social media.

5. Andrew Stanton: The Clues to a Great Story

This one is my all-time favorite. I show this to my students every semester. (Warning: it contains explicit language.) Filmmaker Andrew Stanton shares what he’s learnt about storytelling (through visual communication), giving his audience an engaging presentation that starts at the end working back to the beginning.


There you have it — five TED Talks you may use to jumpstart a class this coming semester. Have other videos that you might suggest to add to the list? Comment below to let me know!

The Rhetoric and Design of Course Syllabus

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It’s that time of the year when professors and instructors squeeze their brains and put together their hopefully-comprehensible course syllabi for respective classes. As I enter my fourth semester of teaching a freshman-writing course, I realize there’s a constant urge to put more and more into my syllabus: maybe I should tell my students not to use their cellphones in class, maybe I should tell them I hate chewing gums, maybe I should tell them to bring their textbooks, maybe…

However, as Barbara Fister complained (quoted by Jason B. Jones), the syllabus is becoming less of a resource for the students, but something they skip “without reading-Terms of Service agreements”:

When you add all those rules to the traditional stuff – course description, the list of assigned texts, the class-by-class schedule, and information about major assignments – these documents get incredibly long and complex. … We traditionally go over syllabi on the first day of class, and then we’re annoyed when students miss an assignment or fail to adhere to a rule because “it was in the syllabus.”

So, this semester, I challenged myself by changing my approach to creating the syllabus for my freshman-writing class. By referring my students to all detailed information put on the course website, I reduced the dreary document into a 2-page course overview and added some colors to the layout. I have come to realized that a course syllabus should articulate only the gist of the course, which attracts students to find out more by redirecting them to other more-suitable avenues that contain detailed information about the course.

See the PDF of my syllabus here.

In this Information/Digital Age, I believe teachers, especially instructors of rhetoric and communication, should recognize how information is acquired and digested, and thus consider the more appreciate outlets to communicate with new-age students. Here are more examples of non-traditional syllabus:

Do you have a creative syllabus? Link it in the comments!

Updated: Came across this humorous post by College Humor today and so I decided to add it to this entry.

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Points made. Period.

To Write or Not to Write: Should We Get Rid of College Essays?

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This morning, I woke up to a heated discussion on the WPA (Writing Program Administration) listserv around Rebecca Schuman’s latest article, “The End of the College Essay,” on Slate. Essentially, Schuman thinks instructors hate grading college papers just as much as how their students hate writing those papers:

So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers. It’s time to declare unconditional defeat.

She suggests the end of papers in “required courses,” one of those (as mentioned in her tweets) in which Engineering students need to take to fulfill a core requirement in their major. She also recommends bringing back St. John’s-style tribulations (oral-based evaluations) to avoid subjective grading.

Since I cannot repost the content from the emails, I have curated some responses from the Twittersphere, starting with Schuman’s announcement of her new article.

Then she dropped the F-bomb.

So, fellow teachers of English and composition, what are your opinions on Schuman’s proposal to eliminate essay from the humanities?

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#Hashtags in the Writing Classroom

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Hashtags are used to group messages and label topics. Today, hashtags are widely used in the social networks as a markup for groups of interests that belong together and a language for expression that is used outside the traditional sentence structure. Steve Boyd in a blogpost describes hashtags as “twitter groupings” that can be “wonderful for serendipity.” Hashtags are to Twitter as Likes are to Facebook, until Facebook stole the light recently by launching its own hashtagging function.

Read about the origin of Twitter hashtags here.

How do #Hashtags work?

By simply writing the pound symbol (#) in front of a keyword or a phrase (written as one word), e.g. #love, #writing, #instructionaltechnology, etc. you turn the words/phrases into searchable terms and clickable links on your posts or tweets. Depending on your social platform, you will be redirected to a feed of posts/tweets that contains the hashtagged term when you click on them.

For example: Failure is inevitable. Misery is optional. #365empowerment (A hashtag project that I started on Facebook before hashtags were possible on the platform!)

Due to its searchable nature, hashtags allow trending topics/terms to be featured in your social networks. Twitter shows an updated feed about the most popular hashtags in its streams.

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Using #Hashtags in writing instruction

Writing instructors may take advantage of the functions hashtags offer to help students engage with public conversations as they learn to write. The following exercises are some of my ideas on how to utilize hashtags in making composition pedagogy more interesting for students:

  1. Use hashtags to group research/writing topics on Facebook groups for schools
  2. Post announcements to class (social media) pages using hashtags to markup categories
  3. Use social media management dashboards like TweetDeck to monitor and manage trending hashtags
  4. Conduct real-time virtual discussions using Twitter streams during lectures or peer review sessions
  5. Really, it is up to your own creativity on how you’d like to use hashtags in your classroom!

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Using dashboards like TweetDeck, students can handpick topics they would like to follow, e.g. #rhetoric, #insomnia, #fitness, etc. as part of the research process. Students may curate useful information, blog links or websites that are helpful toward their respective research projects.

A new language?

Languages evolve. As the impact of hashtags is becoming more profound in the composition process, we as writing instructors should teach our students to be more flexible and rhetorically aware of the language(s) in digital media. Keeping up with the ever-evolving new media is just as important as learning any new skills, since the corporate world relies heavily on the latest computer and mobile technology in their operations. Teaching students the language of digital media is preparing them for the competitive job market.

Do you use hashtags in your classroom/workplace? How do you use them? Share your ideas and comments below.