Activities & Assignments

In-class Activity: “Intro to Autoethnography: Situating Identity/Position When We Read”

Instructors, even well-meaning instructors, often address issues of privilege and marginalization in their writing classrooms only when these matters arise in discussing particular texts. Such a strategy tends to frame issues of identity as dependent on situational relevance.

This activity uses positioning as a centering activity in the first week of class. By analyzing power as text, students become familiar with both the concept of analysis and their own relationships with O/others and texts very early in their writing experience. Doing so means that their own identities as well as the identities of the authors who they read foreground the reading process. Such positioning becomes especially important in resisting the whitewashing of texts for the sake of ‘objectivity’, which removes them from the fluid, material contexts that shape our day-to-day lives.



Assignment: “Oral Summaries of Primary Source Texts” 

Summarization is often overlooked as peripheral or basic (therefore unnecessary) in teaching critical thinking skills to college-aged writers. However, instructors of first-year composition tend to react to student’s initial  written attempts at analyzing primary texts with “this is mostly summary, not analysis.” The below assignment suggests confronting the teaching of analytical reading and writing with an early emphasis on summary. If students learn summarization as a form of analysis, rather than a contrast to it, students might recognize when they are mostly describing significant details in a text rather than making more complex interpretive claims about them.

I propose an alternative way of teaching summary: through oral description rather than written response. Such a proposal is based on the oral tradition of storytelling in African and African American cultures. As Geneva Smitherman and Janice Hamlet highlight, the oral tradition “[reveals] the values and beliefs of African Americans”–it is “a fundamental vehicle for cultural expression and survival” (Hamlet 27, Smitherman 29). The assignment focuses on how students’ descriptions not only allow for creative space but also means by which they might become more comfortable with literacies beyond essay-text literacy. I aim to interrupt the tradition of associating only the latter with productive learning. This assignment follows Wallace Chafe’s work (as described by James Paul Gee), in contending that “the formulaic and rhythmic features of orality are by no means in opposition to the linguistic formality, explicitness, and complexity we associate with writing. Looked at in this way, the speech/writing, or orality/literacy, distinction begins to become problematic” (Gee 727-8).

Additionally, this assignment intends primarily to emphasize oral storytelling proper rather than oral delivery of prepared written material that a Prezi, power-point, or conference paper presentation endorses. Having to create multiple drafts of the assignment without the use of alphabetic texts also contributes to students’ memory of the details of the text, as they recall them multiple times in several drafts. This element of the assignment serves to further familiarize students with the text they read.

Wallace Chafe. “Integration and Involvement in Speaking, Writing, and Oral Literature” In Deborah Tannen (ed.), Spoken and Written Language: Exploring Orality and Literacy, 35-53.­ Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1982.

James Paul Gee. “Orality and Literacy: From The Savage Mind to Ways with Words,” TESOL Quarterly 20:4 (1986): 719-46.

Janice D. Hamlet. “Word! The African American Oral Tradition and its Rhetorical Impact on American Popular Culture,” Black History Bulletin 74:1 (2011): 27-9.

Geneva Smitherman. Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

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Assignment: Mixing Project

In Digital Griots, Adam Banks highlights Black rhetorical traditions of mixing in multimedia writing. Drawing from these theories, this project develops “the idea that a writer’s particular mix and the view of music, language, and tradition it espouses might be as important as a linear vocal or instrumental performance, that is the performance, that it is the point, the thesis, the argument” (Banks 35). Asking participants to enculturate themselves, their ideas, and Black rhetorical theory through mixing with/in particular cultural moments allows them to reframe knowledge-making and relationships between theory/practice, place/time, and history/lived experience.

Banks, Adam J. Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010. Print.

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Assignment: Community Writing Assignment Sequence

In the following sequence of assignments, students are asked to orient themselves to a particular neighborhood community unfamiliar to them. They do the work to understand their own positions in relation to that community space before engagement with folks within it. The sequence begins with a descriptive audio blog, follows to a reflection on how students are using language to describe the particular community and its residents, and is followed by a podcast conversation about community artifacts. An important goal in these assignments is to have students think through carefully hope spaces are cultured and how their own rhetoric might impact that culturing. It mobilizes the Black feminist epistemological tenets of lived experience as a criterion of meaning, an ethic of care, the use of dialogue in assessing knowledge claims, and personal accountability (Hill Collins 1990).

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Podcast on Community Archives Assignment Description: