What AWK Means

I remember more than once when I was a student getting the dreaded AWK in the margins of my papers, and I never really knew what the term meant. Yes, I knew that the teacher was telling me my prose was awkward, but it was always a mystery to me how to fix that AWK.

Most often, I would sit down and tell myself what it was I was trying to say. I’d type, retype, rethink. (At that time in my life, I was not a fan of reading my work to other people.)

It wasn’t until I was teaching graduate courses in Style and Editing that I started to get a grasp on what AWK means. Given to New Information, Characters Doing Action, Making sure that the character doing said action was the subject of the sentence and that the action said character was doing was actually the verb… O, no, I sense an AWK coming on.


Problem Solving Emails

It always amazes me how much class discussion can be generated with a simple activity, especially when the activity is grounded in the experience of students. Take this one, from Graves and Graves’ A Strategic Guide to Technical Communication: 

In-Class Exercise 7.3

You have to miss class to attend the funeral of an extended family member, but you have an assignment due at the beginning of that class. Write an email message to your instructor using the information in the previous section and the organization pattern outlined in Figure 7.3 to help you develop and structure your communication. Remember, you need to both identify and solve the problem that your upcoming absence will create.

The organizational pattern for problem solving emails that Graves and Graves provides is as follows:

Figure 7.3

1) Identify and describe the problem.

2) Give whatever background is necessary.

3) Describe options for solving the problem.

4) Recommend a solution and offer assistance to solve the problem.

I believe the reason that this assignment generates so much discussion in the classroom is that it is a very real and relatable situation, but I also think it presents an important intellectual challenge for students because it asks them to think, in a very concrete way, from the reader’s perspective. Students have to think of the problem from the instructor’s perspective. The student has to miss class and will not be able to turn in an assignment and will also miss the work done in the class that day. The necessary background is not about the student’s life, it’s about the work missed, how it is articulated on the syllabus. It also give the students the ability, in presenting solutions to the problem, a chance to articulate their understanding of the values of the course.


Cover Letters

I’m on a really large search committee with professors from both the Arts and the Sciences, and I’ve been surprised by the number of people in the Sciences who do not read cover letters, who only look at the CV portion of job application packets.

My students in technical writing mentioned that some firms hiring interns explicitly ask students not to include cover letters with their resumes.

I argued in class that even if an employer does not want a cover letter, writing one is a good idea because doing so will help you develop stories and examples that you could use in an interview session, but now I’m really curious what this potential trend means.









Teaching Technical Writing By The Book

I am teaching technical writing “by the book” for the first time in many years. That is to say I’ve taught technical writing a few times in the last few year, but this is the first time in a while that I’ve used a book. This semester, I’m using Heather Graves and Roger Graves’s Strategic Guide to Technical Communication (2nd Edition). 

I have to admit that I’m departing from my usual textbook-less approach because I am finding the business of being a departmental chair more time consuming than I’d like, and I’m hoping that the textbook provides structures that I’m currently not able to provide.  I want to write about some of the experiments I’ve tried in technical writing, but I thought I’d do so through the lens of comparison with this semester.

(The last time I taught technical writing, for example, I centered my class on making robots, and there isn’t a textbook that let me do that, but I will have to tell you more about that later…)


Teaching Revision with Manuscripts

Deep Down in the Classroom

By Jennifer Daly

Synthesis of an Idea:

During this summer’s National Endowment for the Humanities two-week seminar “Transcendentalism and Reform in the Age of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller” we would get together for discussion forums on everything from our own writing to pedagogical practices to activism inside and outside the classroom. One evening, a professor had mentioned the Digital Thoreau Project as a way to show the students the synthesis of Walden and to track the very deliberate changes Henry David Thoreau made in each of the manuscripts.  After much thinking, I had the thought that this could be done with almost any writer—as long as there was a manuscript. I decided that I would utilize manuscripts to open a conversation about process and revision with First Year Writing students this year and see if it was accessible to them.  There was a chance that they a) wouldn’t care, or…

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Assignment: Creating (and Coding) a Professional Website

(Note: If you have stumbled on this page by accident, this is an assignment I’ve given my English 5593 class. I’m posting it here because some colleagues are interested in seeing the assignment. –rb).

By April 14th, you will have created a professional website and an “off the grid” replication of that website, which will be built from the ground up and which will replicate as many of the features of your professional website as you are able to create.

The Professional Website:

Using WordPress, Weebly, or another free site, create a digital portfolio that allows future employers to find out who you are and what you do. At minimum, this site should have an “about me” page, a CV, and a description of working projects.

Here are a few examples of Professional Websites:




Process Material for the LRO:

  • include any challenges you encountered when creating your professional site, as well as a description of how you met those challenges
  • include a description of the ethos you are trying to project and how you believe this site projects that ethos
  • include a description from someone else of your site’s ethos. Is there a difference between your perception and the perception of the outside observer? What do you make of these differences?

The Replication

Create a multiple page “website” (turned in on a jumpdrive, a CD, or hung up on the web somewhere) which has working links (internal and external) and CSS applied.

Process Materials for the Replication:

  • keep a good record of roadblocks you experienced, how you got around them, and how you helped others
  • reflect on the process overall and what each (the WordPress and the ground up) taught you about online style, editing, and persuasion



This assignment has been written to meet the experience level of the majority of the class, who has little to no experience coding. We are assuming, then, that many of us are going to fail to fully replicate our professional websites. Unlike most assignments, then, failure is part of the point. What has the attempt to replicate something already on the web taught you about coding? What has it taught you about writing for the web? By keeping an accurate record of our thoughts along the way, you will be given a clearer sense of when to allow digital platforms to do coding work for you, when you should do the work yourself, and when you can and should copy code (giving proper credit to the original coders, of course.)

If you are in the small minority of people in this class who has experience coding, remember that in order to have something meaningful to write about for your LRO, you will need to push the boundaries of your experiments. What things have you not tried in your coding experience yet? What happened when you tried to apply those experiments to the replicated professional page?

Exercises Related to Editing Project 1

  1. Using the basic terminology from Chapter 1 of Castro and Hyslop, see how many of the “Webpage Building Blocks” you can identify on the homepage of the professional website you created in WordPress, etc. To do so, you will need to look at the coding underneath your page by “viewing its source.” Annotate, in some way, the code of the site, labeling what makes up the “head” and “body” sections, what specifically is part of the “markup,” what specifically is a link to other content, and what specifically is textual content on the page. Don’t stress about getting this right (at this point, a great deal of this is going to look like goobledygook). The goal here is simply to see what you are able to identify and what you are not. Feel free to compare notes and ask others in the class.  (2/01/15)
  2. Use Chapters 2 & 3 of Castro to “reverse engineer” your WordPress site. Start with the simple text of your site, then see if you can add headings, links, headers, and footers. (2/10/15). The same rules about stress from above apply. Our goal is to engage the process and keep a log of what happens throughout.
  3. Use Chapter 4 of Castro to continue this process. Today, you might experiment with isolating a line of code from your WordPress site (or from somewhere else) and cutting and pasting it into your own site. What happened when you did that? What does the process teach you?  (2/12/15)
  4. Use Chapters 5 & 6 to continue this process. As some of the code becomes more complicated, you might utilize some of the ready made work at htmlcssvqs.com. (2/17/2015)
  5. Use the material about CSS to create a style sheet you apply to the HTML pages you have created. You might eventually experiment with CSS Zen Garden, in order to give your website different looks. (First mentioned 2/26/15)

Use the Force

In Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams teaches us to make characters active agents (actors) of sentences. Philosophically, I’m interested in the way that this imperative works and what it could mean.

Throughout the text, Williams focuses on how readers feel when they read certain sentences. We prefer sentences that tell clear stories, stories where the main characters act, or more specifically where “the main characters are subjects of verbs,” and “those verbs express specific actions” (29). His advice, though, becomes more complicated (or more rhetorical) when he notes that writers often have to choose which characters should act and that those should be the characters that are most important to the reader. (32)

For the editor, at least according to Saller, considering the readers’ needs is the primary job, but these needs often have to be balanced against the will of the author and the constraints, conventions, and requirements of language and genre.

So questions on my mind:

How does Williams’ imperative to make the main characters of a sentence active agents speak to our programming as human subjects? Whether or not it’s true that we are programmed to tell stories, and to hear them, I can at least say that I often find that what I like to read (academic writing or otherwise) does exactly what Williams says good writing should do: it speaks to our nature as storytellers.

Where does this feeling come from? If we imagine ourselves as programmed, does a tendency to find this kind of writing pleasurable relate to the one-to-one relationship between characters and actions we find in computer code? (Think about how the statement “this is a nonsmoking building” would be interpreted by a computer unfamiliar with the idiom.) Does it relate to how early on in our development we used stories to remember key aspects of our cultural memory that could not be written down?  Nominalization is an effect of print culture (Ong, etc.) But what if our human code contains the imperative to move us “beyond pleasure” and develop the kinds of thinking that is only possible when one creates nominalizations?

ReStarting Things Off

As this site is mostly dedicated to my professional persona, most of what I plan to post here are reflections about the courses I’m currently teaching. This semester that course is “Style and Editing,” a graduate level course at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.

For the record, this is the fourth time I have taught the course but the first time I have made knowledge of Html5 and CSS a major component of the course. It’s likely, then, that I’ll be focusing on that, as well as returning to some thoughts I’ve had about posthumanist approaches to grammar.

On the Uselessness of a Posthumanist Approach to Grammar

The other day, a casual acquaintance asked me what I do for a living. I’m never entirely sure how to answer this question, but I responded, “I teach English at Oklahoma State.”

“English?” my friend answered. “Why would you need to teach that in college? Haven’t most of those kids been speaking English their entire lives?”

My friend’s quip makes an important point about language: we use it without necessarily knowing the finer points about the rules of it. Language is a game that we are thrown into (some say even before we are born), and the truth of the matter is that we don’t get the rules from books. We generally figure them out as we go along.

So it is important, as Martha Kolln points out in her introduction to _Rhetorical Grammar_, to consider where the rules of grammar come from and where they exist. She asks us to consider this:

that YOU are the repository of the rules. You–not a book. It might help you to understand this sense of grammar if you think of a grammar rule not as a rule of law created by an authority but rather as a description of language structure. Stored within you, then, in your computer-like brain, is a system of rules, a system that enables you to create the sentences of your native language. The fact that you have such an internalized system means that when you study grammar you are studying what you already “know.” (1)

In this light, both Kolln and my friend share a similar belief, but where my good-natured friend uses this claim to argue that “you” don’t need to study language at all, Kolln uses this claim to make a case that the study of grammar will be neither dull nor difficult but that it will empower “you” to create “sentences appropriate for the rhetorical situations you encounter” (5).

From a practical standpoint, I understand her approach. Students often need to be persuaded to study language, and telling them that “this is something you already know” will certainly open doors for some. Furthermore, the promise that studying the structure of language can help you get something you want is very alluring.

The posthumanist in me, though, finds the “you” (and even more so the “YOU”) disconcerting. At most, I might be able to consider myself “a repository” of “some” rules of grammar, but if I am able to choose to exist at all, it is not to be a repository. For what is a repository if not a location for safe storage, for preservation? All metaphors fail, of course, but to what degree does Kolln’s opening promise keep students from utilizing the full complexity of grammatical systems and the complexity of grammatical possibilities?

Why is a Posthumanist Approach to Grammar Necessary?

One of the things I have always loved about teaching is that it not only gives me the ability to learn new ideas but it also gives me the ability to experience old ideas as if I were hearing them for the first time. When selecting material for classes, I look for a few texts that I know well, others that are entirely new to me, and still others that feel a little beyond my grasp. When introducing these texts to my classes, I tend to take a step back from the texts with which I am familiar, withholding my responses or thoughts until I am able to get a greater sense of my students’ perspectives. With texts with which I’m less familiar, I tend to be more willing to throw speculative comments out there sooner. And with texts I find challenging, I throw my questions into the ring with the rest of the class, and we work on answering all our questions together. With this approach, I sometimes fear that I work myself out of the equation altogether, but in any case the approach keeps me productively off-center, i.e. it keeps me writing and thinking, and my main hope is that it does so for my students as well.

So it was a great moment for me in one of my classes when one of the more familiar texts in the field–the pair of essays that people generally refer to as the Elbow/Bartholomae debate–crashed up against a chapter out of Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman. I don’t have the exact time, place, or words, but I do know that it was Joshua Cross who observed at some point in one of my classes that the whole “writing with/writing without teachers” debate is a perfect example of the postmodern obsession with presence/absence. What happens then, if we follow Hayles’ posthumanist example and think more about the binary pattern/randomness in our teaching?

A friend of mine–I still consider him a friend, even though I haven’t contacted him in years–is both a father and a linguist. At the time, I had no children, but knowing that fatherhood was nearing my own horizon I asked him if he ever corrected his daughter’s grammar. Sensing that I wasn’t really asking an academic question (at least not entirely), he answered me simply. “There’s a lot of research on the subject, on what’s the right thing for parents to do. Some parents worry that you can correct your children too early. Some worry that you can’t correct your children early enough. But there is one possibility that seldom occurs to parents because for us it is almost unthinkable. Correcting our children’s grammar has absolutely no positive or negative effects on their language development. Correction is just a tiny bit of noise in the overall machine.”