Author Archives: Sara Webb-Sunderhaus

About Sara Webb-Sunderhaus

I'm an Associate Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where I teach graduate and undergraduate courses in writing, literacy, and folklore.

Creating Space for Writing as Activist Practice: Writing with WITS

Our last session is brought to us by the Houston-based Writers in the Schools (WITS) program. The WITS approach engages teachers and students in shared writing experiences while providing an embedded learning community. WITS partners professional writers with schools, prisons, juvenile detention centers, and other groups for one-hour workshops each week, which are safe spaces for writing as activist practice.

This workshop was very participatory, which is why this blog is short. Among other things, we focused on the power of image and did an activity that illustrated how even small alterations can change the meaning of an image. These types of activities are powerful pedagogy, in and outside the classroom.


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Diverse Needs and Talents: Acting on the Promise of BW

This session focuses on contact points between the mission(s) of BW programs, the institution, and teaching practice, highlighting the diverse needs and talents of students enrolled in basic writing courses. The chair is Barbara Gleason, and speakers are Andrew Lucchesi (CUNY Grad Center), Hope Parisi (Kingsborough CC), and Christie Toth (Utah).

Andrew Lucchesi, “Experiments in Disabling the Basic Writing Classroom” (access talk at Central question: How can a disability studies approach enable me to support students in the writing classroom? Focusing on two types of disabilities: learning disabilities (dyslexia and information processing impairments) and psychosocial disabilities: psychiatric impairments, such as depression or anxiety; development impairments, such as ADD; and social processing impairments, such as ASD.

Disability is an asset in the classroom, and a disability studies approach improves our pedagogy and pushes us to be more inclusive in the writing classroom. Lucchesi argues it’s the disparity of strengths that characterize learning disabilities, and he sees the BW classroom as an exciting place to build on written, aural, and spoken modes of composing. Lucchesi shows various adaptive tools and argues these tools can work for all students.

Speaker Two is Hope Parisi: “Writing Through the Academic Looking Glass: A Basic Writing and Support Services Tutorial Model for Multiple Repeaters.”At Kingsborough Community College, an exit exam must be passed for students to move into first-year writing courses, and some students repeatedly fail the exam. Her central question is whether a place still exists for “repeaters” in remedial structures, beyond a college’s or program’s default structures. How long will this place exist, and will it eventually result in remedial exits? At what cost? In other words, are we thinking about the students who don’t progress, students in whom a lot was invested?

Parisi identifies part of the problem as the “silo effect” of separable service units within a college/university, each addressing distinct needs. The tutorial model developed at KCC is an academic-driven model modeled on the work of Kathleen Manning et al. This model tailors support to students’ actual academic challenges found within the classroom. The tutorial offers a range of support services–counseling; advising, and occasional topic workshops, largely through TRIO–as well as “third space” comfort and social belonging via the studio model. This third space is important, because it is where the classroom experience can be safely re-processed and navigated.

The final speaker is Christie Toth from the University of Utah; her talk is entitled “‘Assimilation’ in Basic Writing: Learning from Tribal College Faculty and Students.” Her presentation focuses on the vexed issue of assimilation in basic writing instruction, specifically in the context of Native American student writers and tribal colleges. She performed an ethnographic case study at Dine’ College, which serves the Navajo Nation.

Tribal colleges face many challenges and are a complex site for research and teaching. Toth’s takeaways from her research: culture is important, but being focused only on the dangers of cultural assimilation removes us from the importance of teaching academic literacies as a means of challenging colonialism. Toth emphasizes Lyons’s concept of rhetorical sovereignty and that teaching academic literacy can be an example of rhetorical sovereignty; she also draws on Heath’s critical language awareness. Toth asks us to interrogate settler ideologies in the context of academic language and examine the role of writing in both perpetuating and resisting settler colonialism. She has found recent conversations in translingualism very helpful in understanding these dynamics. At the same time, we must teach students about language variation as rhetorical choices.

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Keynote: Grasping the “Phenomenal Forms”: A Dialogue on Taking Action in Basic Writing

The CBW Workshop keynote presentation is being given jointly by Deborah Mutnick of Long Island University and Shannon Carter of Texas A&M Commerce. These two scholars’ work is well-known in basic writing circles, and both have given much to CBW as an organization.

The theme of this joint keynote is the relationship between surface realities and underlying social structures and the implications for the teaching and learning of writing. Guiding questions: How do we foster critical consciousness in the classroom? How do we foster students’ sense of agency? How can teachers help students overcome obstacles to learning?

They will return to two case studies in their previously published work–“Joe” in Mutnick’s Writing in an Alien World and “Eric” in Carter’s The Way Literacy Lives. Mutnick begins with a discussion of the work of Luis Villacanas de Castro, author of Critical Pedagogy and Marx, Vgotsky, and Freire.

So how do we foster students’ sense of agency? Carter gives us her big reveal: “Eric” is her brother. Eric had diverse, significant, and complex literacy practices outside of school, but those literacies were not able to be deployed in school. Eric didn’t see these literacies as literacy, either–the “real” writing was done in school. What he did outside of school wasn’t writing, in his view. Carter argues that school-based literacies have become so entrenched that only they are seen as literacy, while a wide range of literacy practices used outside of school are dismissed and ignored as not literacy. What Carter wants for Eric and all students is rhetorical dexterity: the ability to read, compose, and negotiate across linguistic codes. Mutnick then briefly discusses”Joe Baxter” from her book. Joe inspired the title of her book when he wrote a paper that asked, “Blacks in Science Fiction: Why Are We Invisible in an Alien World?”

How can teachers help students overcome obstacles to learning? We can practice Freirean conscientizacao or “critical consciousness.” We can engage in egalitarian, democratic dialogue, not because we want to be “nice” to students or even “democratic,” but because students needs democratic dialogue in order to grow intellectually. We as teachers needs to create the culture for students to transition into active intellectuals.

We must also engage in participatory action research. Rhetorical dexterity combined with participatory action research may help students engage with the phenomenal forms that impact their lives. We must create contexts through dialogue and participatory research in which students can take their own daily lives as the object of their reflection process.


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The Action of Emerging Scholars

This session is devoted to poster presentations by graduate students, who are showcasing their research-in-progress.

The first poster presentation is by Erika Johnson of Texas Woman’s University. Her project is entitled “The ‘Problem’ of Pronouns: ‘I,’ ‘You,’ and ‘We’ All Argue.” Erika contends that instead of seeing students’ pronoun usage as evidence of error, we should see this usage as arguments and strategies by which students are attempting to write themselves into various arguments and texts.

Our second poster presentation is by Justin King Rademaekers from West Chester University, focusing on WCU’s placement system. Their writing program has tried to combine elements of self-directed placement and accelerated learning programs (ALP).

The final poster presentation is from Leonara Anyango-Kivuva of Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  Her work focuses on English Language Learners (ELLs), and she begins by stressing that while BW and ELL scholars don’t often interact, she feels very comfortable in this room, listening to conversations that touch on issues she deals with every day. There is more overlap in our scholarship that we sometimes acknowledge.

Her presentation is titled “Writing Journeys, Writing Selves,” and discusses the writing of Burundian refugees. This subject is the focus of her dissertation research, which she recently defended (congratulations!).

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CBW INNY Award Presentation

This year’s winner of CBW’s award for innovation (known as the INNY) is the writing program at Boise State University. Heidi Estrem, Dawn Shepherd, and Karen Uehling are presenting how they changed Boise State’s placement system.

Heidi begins by asking the audience to identify potential questions or issues we have about program policy or institutional process at our home institutions. She then continued by describing the limitations of Boise State’s then-current placement program, which was mandated by the state; every public institution in Idaho had to use the same system. This was a problem, for reasons that are obvious to any writing instructor–different student populations, different needs.

What Boise State did: created consensus and commitment by writing a whitepaper; found their allies by canvassing/meeting with stakeholders at each campus in Idaho; kept an open mind and developed a specific target and deliverables; created pilot projects and pushed for evidence-based placement; and kept the momentum going.

Karen Uehling is now discussing how the basic writing course structure changed at Boise State. The new model is called English 101 PLUS. (101+?)

The Idaho State Board of Education adopted “Complete College Idaho,” a corporate model. The Boise State WPAs were never able to get their stretch course to be credit-bearing, which was a huge source of frustration since this program was very successful. When the process of change the course curriculum began, it was difficult, as the stretch program worked well and instructors loved the course.

How Boise State revised its program: Reviewed “Complete College Idaho” options and selected the ALP approach. Planned new course with current stretch instructors and piloted a new course. Found allies and wrote a grant proposal for course and faculty development, not only for Boise State, but also the College of Western Idaho, Boise State’s sister community college.

New course ran in Fall 2013. They now have a for-credit English 101+ course and a three-hour English 101 course. This process gave the writing instructors a voice and input into the changes in the writing program.Karen wraps up by saying,”We are teaching the students, we care about them, we SHOULD have a voice in what we’re doing.”

Dawn Shepherd is now discussing the curricular change, which was prompted by general education reform at Boise State; new university learning outcomes; and research in the field on threshold concepts and writing transfer. Those affected by the curriculum change include students, FYW instructors, a second-year course (UF 200) that is writing intensive; and the instructors of the Communication in the Disciplines course, offered by every department on campus. Quotes Chuck Paine: “If you don’t get buy in, don’t do it.”

What Boise State did: used a quilting metaphor that honored a feminist conception of collaborative work; developed a “survey that helped make connections between local values, current pedagogies, and new research in the field; slowed the process down to allow for processing, which included coffee talks; instructors were given $5 Starbucks gift cards so they could meet in dyads and talk over the changes; and writing groups were formed. During 2016-17, the curriculum will continue to be developed through experimentation and pilot projects.

The discussion then returns to the audience’s institutional context. The audience is identifying their stakeholders and choosing one to identify values, attitudes, and assumptions. The audience is asked, when you return to your institution, what is one action you can take? The audience then does a write-pair-share activity.

For more information, the Boise State writing program has compiled resources on Google Drive at





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Live Blogging #4c16!

We’ll be live blogging at least some of the all-day CBW workshop today and some basic writing sessions throughout the conference. I (Sara) will also be tweeting up a storm. My twitter handle is @webbsusa, and I’ll be using the #4c16 and #4cCBW hashtags. See you on the interwebs!

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J.37 Fostering Reading Identity for Students in the Developmental Writing Classroom

Again, excuse typos and autocorrect, folks! iPad typing is difficult.

Cheryl Hogue Smith, Kingsborough CC: Basic Writers as Basic Readers: Addressing Obstacles to Academic Literacy

Students act as “miners for gold”–looking for the correct answer the teacher wants them to find. But they miss the “gorillas” that appear in the text. They have “inattentional blindness”.

Students can never out-write their reading abilities, acc to Hogue Smith.

Reading with purpose: Louise Rosenblatt’s efferent (what we take away from the text) and aesthetic (what we enjoy about the text, the feeling that comes with it) stances

Hogue Smith proposes a deferent stance. Students defer to those who they think have the “right answers.” these students assume, when reading a confusing text, that the problem is them, not that the text is difficult. This is deferring to the emotional baggage of reading–they bring past struggles to bear on the current reading act.

Hogue Smith then moved the audience into a reading activity that she uses with her students; the activity requires students to summarize and collaborate. Activity moves students from summary to analysis.

1. Students re-read and revise their interpretations of the text

2. Students discover the value of their interpretations as well as the value of alternative interpretations.

Article on this topic is forthcoming in the Journal of Basic Writing.

Maureen McBride, U of Nevada Reno: Fostering Reading Identity for Students in the Developmental Writing Classroom

They began with an overview of Salvatori, Rizzi, and Donahue’s College English article, “What is College English. Then they discussed the genesis of their critical reading course at U of Nevada, Reno and the course outcomes.

Their initial study aimed to understand what students identify as difficult in dull, uninspiring, required readings. They began with Salvatori”s difficulty paper:writing about what students find difficult when reading. Gives teachers better understanding of student perspective and gives students agency.

Not enough knowledge of reading pedagogy, especially among graduate TAs, acc to the speakers.

Have collected over 200 papers over three semesters. These papers asked students to summarize the reading and identify what they found difficult.

Themes that emerged: identity and expectations. They will only discuss the identity results.

Used Gee’s identity model for analysis: nature, institutional, discourse, and affinity identity.

Core categories that emerged:

Students were intrinsically or extrinsically motivated (nature–“I am not a person who reads”). The idea of outgrowing reading (I used to read, but now I don’t). “This is a waste of time” attitudes that compartmentalize reading from other classes.

Rejecting an affinity identity.

Personal desires and institutional requirements for reading.

How do we adjust our pedagogy?

Addressing reading like a writer: give direct instruction on the reading-writing connection. Teach the reading process as well as the writing process. The reading process is invisible to our students.

Described the students’ idealized college reader (responses given when asked to define the ideal college reader) : has no problems reading, finds interest in assigned readings, reads for pleasure, reads at any pace, absorbs info easily, reads once and understands, doesn’t get distracted, can move between genres and text lengths with ease.

Cites Joliffe and Harl (2008): high school students do not read extensively, critically, or sufficiently. Gallagher (2004, 2009, and 2011): secondary students need far more instruction in the processes of reading and writing. Don’t just assign reading, but teach how to read.

Testing culture has produced a narrow view of writing that creates a mismatch between what we expect them to write and what they read. They are required to write very simplistic texts, thanks to standardized testing, so why aren’t their assigned texts simplistic? (acc to students) That is why students say, “Why don’t they just say what we need to know? Why don’t they come out and say it?”

Students often approach texts with an aesthetic expectation. You should always enjoy everything you read, and if you don’t there is something wrong with you–so don’t read it. You’re not supposed to, because clearly that text is not for you.

Reading like a writer can build resilience and give them agency: “It’s OK to give up because it’s going to be hard,” acc to the students. Must fight that.

Writing centers also need training in how to read critically, how to tutor students in reading critically.

Making the struggle of reading a complex texts visible is important. Must choose textbooks that support this work. Require evidence of a reading process: annotations that are turned in, reading checklists/questionnaires/etc.

Disciplinary Reading in the Composition Classroom–Megan Sweeney, U of Nevada Reno

Disciplinary reading should be integrated in composition. Education leading the way right now. Shanahan and Shanahan are the leading scholars in this area.

Sweeney explains how she integrated disciplinary literacy in her classes. Had students read Shanahan and Shanahan’s work and had grad students come in to discuss how reading works in their disciplines. The grad students taught those classes in their own way.

These activities gave them an opportunity to negotiate an identity that was new to them. Guest speakers enjoyed the chance to reflect on their reading, too.

Q and A:

How do these reading strategies affect their writing? Students can now read and implement assignments more critically and reflect on and defend their rhetorical choices in a more informed way.

How do you address turf wars when preparing TAs to teach reading (Ed depts teach reading pedagogy, English writing pedagogy)? It’s really tough. We need to meet with our colleagues in other depts and talk out these issues. Develop courses that you can show don’t deal with the same issues. Think politically and strategically about course titles and descriptions.

What about the reading apprenticeship approach? It’s important to have metacognitive conversations with students about reading and model our own reading strategies. That can be hard for many teachers, because we take our own reading strategies for granted.

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