Literacy, Literature, Testing, Writing

Poetry, Power, and Political Precision

poetry 3
Image credit: Steve Johnson

To wrap up #NationalPoetryMonth, I’m excited to share a piece I wrote with Audrey Friedman and Joelle Pedersen at Boston College called In Praise of Poetry: Toward Access and Powerpublished in the most recent issue of the Illinois English Bulletin.

We collected poems from 20 high-schoolers labeled as “failing” on state writing exams. As you’ll see in the piece, the poems were brilliant, so we had to ask:

“What accounts for this discrepancy in which such a powerful writer can be rendered powerless…. Is the issue truly the writer, or is the problem the very way we understand, value, and assess certain ways of writing and being?” (p. 8).

We discuss how standardized tests compel students to write, not in the forms that are most productive or relevant, but in the forms most easily measured. As we argue,

“The Common Core State Standards’ narrow focus on informational and argumentative writing widens the gap between the language of schooling and the language of life. These genres do not and cannot capture the full range of students’ experiences, identities, or language skills” (p. 15).
Continue reading “Poetry, Power, and Political Precision”

Academic Advice, Writing

Why Grad Students (or Anyone) Should Blog


This blog started out as an experiment. As I said in the beginning, I wasn’t sure what it would become. A conversation starter? A forum for advice I never got? A way to carry on the blog-honored tradition of public ranting?

The truth is, it has turned into something else entirely. I started the blog the same month I started grad school. Some—including myself—wondered if blogging was the best use of a grad student’s minimal spare time. However, I can now say it has absolutely been worth it.

So here are 7 reasons why grad students (or anyone) should blog:

1. It’s the foundation of a writing habit.

Every book of writing advice I’ve read repeats the same refrain: The key to writing is to make a schedule, stick to it, and protect it like gold. Writing is less about being struck by moments of grand inspiration or “binge writing” when deadlines come near; it’s sitting down and plugging away, day after day. Whether it’s a certain number of minutes, words, or pages, productive writers set schedules. And. Just. Write.

Blogging is an experiment in finding a writing habit that works for you. Keep track of your writing in a simple notebook or Excel file. What times of the day are you at your best? What helps you stick to a schedule? What gets you off track? Do you prefer to write in short, 25 minute bursts or longer blocks of time?  If it’s the latter, is that an excuse to procrastinate until you have a mythical block of uninterrupted time (I know because it’s me). If so, can you train yourself to write in shorter blocks?

So rather than thinking “I don’t have time to start a blog,” the truth is you don’t have time not to get yourself on a writing schedule. The consistency of a blog can help with that. Once you’re on a writing schedule, you will actually get all of your academic and professional writing done much faster. Seriously, you’ll meet deadlines. You’ll even run out of projects to work on (hence the blog to keep you going). Continue reading “Why Grad Students (or Anyone) Should Blog”

Academic Advice, Writing

Writers’ Block? Just Write.

Image credit: Drew Coffman, flickr
Image credit: Drew Coffman, flickr

“I realized that if I wasn’t writing, I could no longer call myself a writer.”

This quote came from an aspiring author who had recently suffered a long stretch of writers’ block (we’re talking months here). How did she cure this chronic ailment? Well… She wrote. Nothing good for a long while, according to her, but she wrote, and eventually regained her voice, as well her identity as a writer.

Writers’ block can strike out of nowhere. But what if this dreaded affliction is less of an actual condition and more of a mistaken view of the writing process? Here’s the issue: Most of us think we need to know what to write before we write it. But what if it’s the other way around? What if the very act of writing unlocks what we want to say? According to sociologist Kristin Luker,

“Someone once asked Balzac, who supported himself by writing reviews of plays, how he liked a play he had just seen. ‘How should I know?’ he is reported to have answered. ‘I haven’t written the review yet!'” Continue reading “Writers’ Block? Just Write.”

Academic Advice, Writing

Break Into Publishing: My Three Hours of Journalism

newspaper 1People often talk about writing ability as if it’s one particular muscle you exercise until you’re categorically “good” at it – as if the craft of writing was a singular “it” in the first place.

But these days, writing “ability” should be pluralized – less like a single muscle and more like the various events of the Olympics. Today, there are so many venues writers use – books, blogs, magazines, social media – that being able to “code switch” between these genres is now more important than ever.

It’s a lot like dancing, actually.

save the last dance
“What’s she doing? Two-stepping?”

I never imagined I’d have cause to reference “Save the Last Dance,” but here it is: Children of the 90’s may remember watching Julia Stiles realize her ballet skills didn’t get her far  on Chicaco’s South Side dance scene. So – like every dance movie ever – she explores new styles, creates something altogether different, and blows dance world away.

It’s the same with writing. And academia may just be the ballet of the writing world – technically arduous, treasured by a minute few, but can stick out oddly in the “real world.”

That’s why, earlier this month, I attended a workshop at a local writing center on writing newspaper Op-Eds. Both journalism and academia have the same goal of sharing factual information, but stylistically, they couldn’t be more different: Journalism is known for being punchy and to the point, whereas academic writing is infamously wordy and opaque (I mean, one genre evolved around copyeditors trying to conserve space and ink, the other around seeing how many books one could fill on the same topic). Continue reading “Break Into Publishing: My Three Hours of Journalism”

Academic Advice, Writing

Give it All in Writing: Love and Courage

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.
The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Ironically, I found this beautiful quote from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life in my “Things to Blog About Later” folder, which I’ve considered relabeling, “Where Good Ideas Go to Die”; Honestly, I almost never open it. And on the rare occasion I do, I’ve forgotten what had moved me about the idea in the first place or where I wanted to go with the topic. Like Dillard said, I open my safe and find ashes.

It reminds me of an old Sunday School skit where the main character finds a box of “love” and she proudly parades it around stage. Other characters, down on their luck, pass by and ask if she will share, but worried about depleting her limited supply, she apologetically declines. Continue reading “Give it All in Writing: Love and Courage”


Language is Music

I literally “stumbled upon” this poster yesterday ( is a great site for finding internet randomness that gets to know you better as you use it).

The quote is from Gary Provost in Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools.” It’s a great illustration of the intentional musicality that authors and speakers put into their writing. Check it out below, and live by it.

Language is Music

Feel free to comment below, or visit the blog’s Facebook Page.

Follow on Twitter @chriskbacon

Academic Advice, Writing

Writing What “No One” Reads

Citation Needed

“Why write what no one will ever read?”

I hear this question a lot from people outside of academia (and, let’s be real, within it as well). Academics generally write for – if I may make an understatement – a rather concentrated readership: Blood, sweat, and tears go into pages of work that may never be read outside of the “Ivory Tower.” To some, so much work for such a small readership seems like (at best) a wasted effort or (at worst) a quasi-masochistic psychosis.

But let’s face it, academics write about some pretty quirky, obscure subjects that aren’t going to get one on the NYTimes Bestseller List. But what if that quirkiness is, in fact, the whole point? As Annie Dillard says in The Writing Life:

“Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it’s up to you.

There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voce to this, your own astonishment… Thoreau said it another way… “Know your own bone: gnaw at it, bury it unearth it, and gnaw at it still.”” Continue reading “Writing What “No One” Reads”

Technology, Writing

Is Texting Killing Language?

This just in: Texting is NOT killing written language as we know it. Let’s take a collective sigh of relief and stop griping about teenagers lol-ing.

I’ve gone back and forth on this issue, but the talk above by linguist John McWhorter put the whole thing to rest for me.

McWhorter points out that texting is not, for all intents and purposes, even actual writing. We write in long, thought-out phrases that are meant to be read reflectively or orated as speeches. In texting however, we’re essentially just speaking. And in a conversation, we talk in short bursts of words, giving no thought to capitalization, punctuation, or spelling – just like in a text message. If you haven’t guessed it by now, McWhorter believes that texting functions much more like speaking – it’s just speaking that happens to be written down.

The entire talk is worth a lunch break, with tidbits such as “If humanity had existed for 24 hours, then writing only came along at about 11:07pm,” and an analysis of the shifting function of “lol” (because, if you haven’t noticed, people no longer exclusively use it when something is even actually funny – but I’ll leave that for McWhorter to explain).

Wht do u thnk?

Feel free to comment below or on the blog’s Facebook page.

Follow on Twitter @chriskbacon.


Working and Writing from a Piece of Yourself


This may be the most lovely – and simultaneously terrifying – descriptions of the writing process I’ve ever come across: In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard compares writing to tracking down a honey tree. First, you catch a bee (presumably not with your bare hands), and then…

“Carry the bee to a nearby open spot—best an elevated one—release it, and watch where it goes. Keep your eyes on it as long as you can see it, and hie you to that last known place. Wait there until you see another bee; catch it, release it, and watch. Bee after bee will lead toward the honey tree, until you see the final bee enter the tree…. So a book leads its writer.”

Which is an exceptional life-metaphor on many levels – you don’t always know where you’re going when you begin, take one step at a time, etc. BUT THEN…

You may wonder how to start, how you catch the first one. What do you use for bait?

You have no choice. One bad winter in the Arctic, and not too long ago, an Continue reading “Working and Writing from a Piece of Yourself”

Academic Advice, Critical Pedagogy, Reading, Writing

Your Final Project Word Cloud

Critical Literacy Word Cloud‘Tis the season! It’s the end of the semester and students everywhere are frantically typing up projects for classes that all seem to backload 95% of the work onto the final week.

No exception here. Just finished a big ol’ “Literature Review” – essentially our program’s first year initiation right – synthesizing 30-or-so studies on a teacher-research topic of one’s choosing.

At some way-too-late hour of the night, on a whim, I copied and pasted the entire beast into a word cloud generator, the results of which you see above. Not only was it nice to see my main topics artistically arranged on a single page, but it was also useful for editing (making me realize, for example that I had used the word “practice” far more times than was humanly tolerable – to the thesaurus!).

If you’re curious as to why the words critical and literacy look like  Godzilla and Mothra stomping toward a terrified-city-of-other-words in my word cloud, it’s because I reviewed research about using critical literacy approaches with English language learners: the idea being that “literacy” means more than just reading and writing, but is also a political act. As our society often uses literacy to “disempower those who, through Continue reading “Your Final Project Word Cloud”