The Difference Publics Make

by Howard Fisher

When teaching students to anticipate how their work might circulate in the world, writing instructors understand the importance of posing questions about rhetorical ethos: who uses the writing and how the social positions of readers will shape their needs, expectations, and reliability judgements. However, in the workshop I co-led with Mckenzie Bergan earlier this semester, I argued that this approach risks being reductive. Such identity-based constructions of audience as “first-generation college students” or “people of color” sidestep the indirect and sometimes messy ways that writing moves in the world. 

The concept of publics has helped me grapple with the ways culture mediates the circulation of discourse. I find Michael Warner’s 2005 book Publics and Counterpublics particularly useful because Warner acknowledges publics’ difference from other social identities while holding onto the truth in our commonsense understanding that audience is usefully defined by patterns in material social relations. Drawing on a Marxist sociological tradition, Warner defines publics as constraining social facts that emerge from the mediated, ongoing exchange of discourse. In this view, publics can be defined as limits on the intelligibility and usability of language and the embodied habits that allow people to interact under such constraints. They comprise generic codes, specialized disciplinary idioms, and temporalities of circulation, among other limiting factors. Because they are defined by patterns in attention, uptake, and circulation, and not social belonging, publics tend toward a social open-endedness. 

And yet public membership can inflect or modify social identity and vice-versa. Discourses can mark participants in ways that become materially important, especially when rules of decorum or legal codes dictate when and where a discourse may circulate, such as is the case with discourses of race or sexuality in schools today. Although they unfold in discursive and imaginary space and time, publics can nonetheless become embodied in decisive moments when becoming the subject of a public discourse entails social stigma. Conversely, a public’s boundaries are redrawn in relation to social space when a participant speaks or writes in a way that marks the discourse, breaking the illusion of a universal, disembodied subject of public life. This is the case when language users employ vernacular or slang that grounds circulation with respect to a particular time, place, or social group. 

What does all of this mean for students learning to write? To write effectively, and in a way that anticipates the decisive role of circulation in making meaning, students need to learn not only to speak to the kinds of people they already know exist in the world, but also readers who possess the habits that allow them to participate in a public. To get there, students need the encouragement to focus on the tension between, on the one hand, who their audience is and how their social identities may shape their wants, reading habits, and expectations and, on the other hand, how participation in a discourse public might cut across social identity. In this respect, a concern for publics centers the concerns of writers: what student wants their audience to do and how this might require readers to first understand themselves differently. 

My practice of introducing publics into my teaching on circulation prioritizes the following: 

  • Focus on problem-solving. I start a circulation project by inviting students to think about audience in connection with a problem in the life of their audience’s lived community. I ask them to conduct field research about the life of the community that will be their audience. This primes students to consider the status quo and what would need to change for the problem to be resolved. 
  • Make time to consider genre and temporality of medium. In addition to crafting a carefully-worded message, students will need to align the medium of the message’s transmission with the constraints of a public that includes members of the writer’s target audience. Part of students’ early fieldwork involves interviewing people in their selected communities about where people go for information. Later in a project’s timeline, I often have students compose a plan for their textual object’s circulation that accounts for time, manner, and place of distribution. 
  • Foreground emotion work as a link between public discourse and social action. I want students to understand that their writing can apply pressure to people’s self-understandings via the way readers view themselves as members of a public, and that this shift in self-understanding can be a gateway to action. However, people don’t necessarily experience such shifts in the center of the self as logically coherent. Rather, they can experience it emotionally, as an altered or intensified feeling about people, things, and events outside themselves. I aim to give students examples of writers and creators who do emotion work that erodes the constraints on emotion within a public discourse to link participation in that discourse to political action. 
  • Hang out in the prototyping phase longer. Through conferencing around early versions of an artifact, I challenge students to refine the links they are making between the textual artifact, the artifact’s generic features, the rhetorical aim, and the constraints of public circulation. Ultimately, students do not in fact circulate their work beyond the class. This is often necessary for practical reasons, such as lack of resources to create materials for mass distribution. But it also encourages students to think big and removes lack of resources as a barrier to conceiving a closer match between the artifact and its imagined path through the world. Although this also means students will not encounter their audiences in my class, it also brackets the anxiety some students might feel when sharing their work with a broader audience. Several instructors in the workshop noted this as another common challenge to teaching circulation. 

Brown Bag Lunch Reflection

by Mckenzie Bergan 

This year, we’ve implemented an event series called the Brown Bag Lunch. Once a month, the First-Year Writing office picks a topic related to teaching and we gather with other instructors to eat lunch and discuss various methods, challenges, or experiences in our teaching. September’s lunch discussed student engagement, October’s discussed how to incorporate games and competition into the classroom, and November’s will think about how to foster student community.  

What’s been interesting about these events is that they’re wildly well attended considering how busy everyone’s schedules are and that they take place in the middle of the day. I’ve been thinking about how much this speaks to everyone’s desire to simply talk to others about teaching. Teaching is naturally collaborative in that you are often feeding off your classroom dynamics and the individual needs of each community. And yet, it is also quite isolating in that we don’t get as many opportunities to talk about our teaching with other instructors. What is special about these Brown Bag lunches in particular is that they require very little effort or planning on the part of both the organizers and the attendees. We show up with a topic and things go in whatever direction the wind takes us. There is something so freeing about being able to engage with other instructors intellectually but also to limit that to one hour, once a month.  

At October’s Brown Bag lunch, people shared their experiences with including games in their classrooms. This topic grew out of an anecdote shared by one of our instructors at the September lunch, where they discussed a game to teach students about interview skills. Two students would practice together, one would be the interviewer and one would be the interviewee. The person being interviewed is given 10 bullet points and it is the task of the interviewer to ask enough follow-up questions during the interview, so each item is mentioned. Then, scores are tallied, and students see who did the best job in the quickest time.  

Being able to gamify learning objectives accomplishes a couple of things in the classroom. First, and I think, most importantly, it makes learning and being in the classroom fun! And the truth is, positive moments in the classroom can make a huge difference for students, both in terms of how they feel in educational spaces and also in how they are able to understand and process the things we are trying to teach them. Saying that the value of something is that it’s fun may seem or feel cheesy, but it actually holds enormous potential for learning. Further, games can create a sense of community amongst students, especially if there are teams or a sense of competition involved.  

Some of my favorite examples include an activity called Six Degrees of Wikipedia, where students have to race each other to connect two wildly different Wikipedia pages through their hyperlinks (brought to us by Marie Nour Nakhle and Luisana Duarte Armendáriz). Another involved a faculty member who teaches art and divided up one of the paintings into puzzle pieces so as students put together the artwork, allowing them to see the complex details that are a part of the work’s background (brought to us by Dwight Codr).  

Come back next semester as we explore more teaching topics in the Spring!  

-Mckenzie Bergan

2023 Conference on the Teaching of Writing

University of Connecticut, First-Year Writing

Eighteenth Annual Conference on the Teaching of Writing

Storrs, Connecticut

April 14, 2023

The University of Connecticut’s Annual First-Year Writing Program’s Conference on the Teaching of Writing took place in Storrs on Friday, April 14th, 2023. This year we invited a host of exciting and innovative proposals that investigate the possibilities of difference in the writing classroom. We asked our speakers to consider “What a Difference Makes” and to imagine the generative potential of difference in First Year Writing. We define “difference” broadly to encompass differences in identities, experiences, social groups, languages, social practices, curricula, and pedagogies, as well as in thought and action. Differences can be marked as divergences and as enrichments, as diversity and as divisive; difference can provoke a pressure to conform, or serve as a catalyst for creativity. Making a difference can demonstrate the kind of dynamic and productive ways of thinking that help us to grow as educators. 

As teachers and academics, we must encourage examinations into previous pedagogical methods while adopting a curiosity that fosters new ways of thinking. Although we are not yet in a post-pandemic world, we cannot deny that the writing classroom has significantly changed, as has the world around us. This conference asks what we have learned from these changes and how we can move forward with more diverse methods of working with students and evolving notions of what it means to teach writing. Furthermore, it asks that we consider the ways in which exploring new possibilities that prioritize generative difference can engender new knowledge and possibilities. This extends also to difference in how we view writing more generally. How can an understanding of writing as not merely textual but also multimodal and collaborative help us produce and respect difference? Finally, how can we approach these ideas of difference to make a difference in the lives of our students and within our departments/institutions? 

Guiding Questions:

  • How do we understand, imagine, and mark “difference”? 
  • How can difference be generative? What can grow out of expressions of difference & diversity in the classroom? How can we nourish the products of that difference / diversity, and how might it help us to imagine new (different) possibilities? 
  • In what ways is difference erased or obscured in the classroom? What are the effects of making differences visible?  
  • How do we treat differences of minds and bodies in our course plans and classrooms?
  • How do we use difference to categorize? To exclude? How might we challenge the systems that are produced to stabilize difference and to create norms? 
  • How might divergences from the norm change us? How might they affect our pedagogies, assignments, grading and assessment?
  • In what ways has difference itself become the norm? 
  • Do/can technologies adapt a world with norms to the differences of minds and bodies? How do technologies affect and engage with difference? 
  • How might we engage with linguistic and language differences? What happens when the difference is Artificial Intelligence? How might AI writing flatten differences in language and style, and enforce linguistic norms?
  • How might we make a difference to our students?


This year, we were thrilled to host Stacey Waite, as this year’s keynote speaker. 

Waite is a critically acclaimed poet, scholar, and educator known for her work on queer identity, writing, and pedagogy. Waite’s 2017 book Teaching Queer explores “the terrain where queer theory, writing, and pedagogy overlap, intersect, and move into one another.” In addition to her scholarly pursuits, Waite has published multiple award-winning poetry collections. Her first collection, Choke, received the 2004 Frank O’Hara prize in poetry. She is currently the Susan J. Rosowski Associate Professor and Graduate Chair for the English Department at the University of Nebraska and a Senior Poetry Editor for Tupelo Quarterly. Waite is presently working on a new scholarly book called The World as We Wish It Were: Speech Acts, Public Performance, and the Question of What Matters in the Teaching of Writing, which “brings non-compulsory writing spaces into direct conversation with the compulsory space of the first-year writing classroom to show what community engagement work has to offer those of us who teach creative and critical writing.” She is also in the process of releasing her next poetry collection, A Real Man Would Have a Gun, which explores “the impact of masculinity as an identity, mode of being, site of cultural proliferation, and force in the lives of queer people and women.”

Stacey Waite’s keynote address was titled “Queer In(ter)ventions in the Teaching of Writing” for which she has provided the following summary: “Queer theory and queer studies has been in direct conversation with theories of composition pedagogy since the 90s. But what have several decades of dialogue between these fields meant for the actual pedagogical practices we engage in first-year writing classrooms every day? Why might all of us teaching first-year writing want to queer our pedagogies? This keynote will address both the why and how of queer pedagogy in the first-year writing classroom.”



8:30-9:30: Registration
9:30-10:30: Keynote-Ballroom 330
10:30-11:00: Break
11:00-12:30: Session 1

Panel 1: Motivating Difference: Rethinking Engagement and Agency–Room 304A
“Self, Agency, and Emotional Value: The Neuroplasticity of Intrinsic Motivation” with Ryan Crawford
“The Difference Between Being Absent, Being Present, and Being Engaged” with Alexis Teagarden and Josh Botvin
“Time to Rethink Time Management” with Sarah Shea
“Duckling Syndrome: The Importance of Different Educator Perspectives” with JD

Panel 2: Looking Forward: Imagining the Future of Writing Pedagogy- Room 304B
“Communicating Via Technology: Responsible Use of Artificial Intelligence in Writing” with Reva Bourassa
“Rethinking Literacy from the Queer & Neurodivergent Margins” with Allison Craig
“Toward an Anti-Dystopian Pedagogy: Utopian Theory in the Classroom” with Adam McLain

Panel 3: “Representing identities: Negotiating Boundaries of Ourselves and our Others”-Room 304C
“‘Ever Tried. Ever Failed:’ Gatekeeping Vs. Teaching in First Year Writing” with Christine Garcia
“Stop Calling Me Doctor” with Mike Spry

“Where ya coming from?” It makes a difference! Using Geo-biography in the First Year Writing Class”with Lisa Neilson

12:30-2:00: Lunch (Ballroom 330) and Poster Presentations (Room 304B)

2:00-3:30: Session 2

Panel 4: Difference in Language and Identity-Room 304A
“Addressing Linguistic Difference and Valuing Student Experience as a Form of Knowledge” with Kristin Lacey
“Decolonization and Differentiation of the Writing Classroom: Creating Space for Decolonial Theory, Tools, and Methods to Improve Student Experience” with Desiree Brown
“Thinking Outside the Box: Implementing Peer Feedback Innovation in Second Language Writing Classroom” with Heon Jeon and Leah Begg

Panel 5: Different Students, Different Classrooms: Exploring Alternative and Innovative Pedagogies- Room 304C
“One Syllabus: Three Ways ” with Kari Daly
“Interactive Storytelling and First Year Composition” with Haleigh Kirchenheiter
“When I Grow Up: An Exploration of Writing’s Role in Supporting Students’ Differing Career Trajectories” with Candace Chambers
“Research Before Reading: Applying Military Planning to Literary Pedagogy” with Christopher Liggett

3:30-4:30: Coffee Hour- Discussion and Farewell-Ballroom 330


2019 Conference

KEYNOTE ADDRESS (captioned): Dr. Shannon Walters, Temple University

As teachers of writing in the 21st century, we recognize the importance of engagement in the classroom, including how students engage with learning as well as who is included in such engagement (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2017.pdf). Several pedagogical movements — notably Universal Design for Learning (CAST, 2010) and Active Learning (Bonwell & Eison, 1991.pdf) — have begun to redefine student engagement. The University of Connecticut’s own interest in student engagement, accessibility, and active learning stems from the development of its Writing Across Technology initiative. As exciting as these pedagogies are, there is still much to learn about how they function in the writing classroom, including the ways they are and are not compatible with each other and the range of potential practices of writing instruction they make possible.

This conference asks how access can be imagined as active and, conversely, how active learning can make space for access.

Full CFP.pdf.

Conference program.pdf.

The 2019 Conference on the Teaching of Writing took place at the University of Connecticut’s Hartford campus on Friday, April 5, 2019.

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2018 Conference

KEYNOTE ADDRESS (captioned): Dr. Jason Palmeri (Miami University) and Dr. Ben McCorkle (OSU at Marion)

Some fifty years ago, in 1964, Marshall McLuhan famously declared, “The medium is the message.” Forty years later (in 2007), in her Chair’s Address to the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Kathleen Blake Yancey observed that new media and composing technologies had led to the invention of new genres as well as to the creation of a new writing public. And in the decade since Yancey’s riveting talk, these new media and composing technologies have become progressively “newer,” allowing, and inviting, us in the college writing course to now also more readily produce rather than just consume new media and new messages.

What does the teaching of writing with new media and new messages mean — and look like — for you? During this conference, we’re asking:

  • How have new media and composing technologies transformed the intellectual work of college writing?
  • How can we address or incorporate some of the genres of new media and new messages that students often use to compose outside of class?
  • How can traditional conceptions of rhetoric inform our engagement with multimodal composition? Conversely, how can digital work reinvigorate traditional conceptions of rhetoric?
  • How can we foster multimodal literacies in those cases when learning environments don’t offer students sufficient access to digital technologies?
  • What particular activities and assignments have we successfully used in composing with new media and/or new messages? How are instructors employing remix or remediation in the teaching of writing?

The 2018 Conference on the Teaching of Writing took place at the University of Connecticut’s Hartford campus on Friday, April 6.

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2017 Conference

On Friday, April 7, 2017, the UConn First-Year Writing Program held our twelfth annual Conference on the Teaching of Writing, an event co-sponsored by the Aetna Chair of Writing, the English Department, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute. The conference theme was Humility and Conviction, and participants considered the roles of—and tensions between—humility and conviction in writing and writing instruction. John Duffy of the University of Notre Dame delivered our keynote speech: “Radical Humilities: Post-Truth, Ethics, and the Teaching of Writing.” Presenters were asked to submit proposals responding to the following questions:

  • What does it mean to write or to teach writing with humility and/or conviction?
  • What is the role of humility when convictions clash—for example, between student and instructor?
  • How do rhetorical concepts come into play in writing with humility and/or conviction?
  • How can we reframe the relationship of writer and audience as working between humility and conviction?
  • How do we negotiate differing understandings of humility and conviction across cultural boundaries?
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2016 Conference

On Friday, March 25, 2016, the UConn First-Year Writing program held our eleventh annual Conference on the Teaching of Writing, an event co-sponsored by the Aetna Chair of Writing and the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute. The conference’s theme was “Public Subjects and the Digital Realm” and issues of writing with digital tools and in digital, often public spaces were at the forefront of the conference. Alexander Reid of University at Buffalo delivered our keynote speech: “Composing with Deliberate Speed: Writing Future Digital Publics.” Reid’s talk imported Object-oriented ontology to help us consider the ways that digital tools and spaces necessarily shape the way our students communicate now and will communicate in the future. Reid argued “We do not yet know how to live in a digital media ecology,” suggesting that we who work and teach in the realm of communication think of ourselves as explorers in a developing, ever-shifting new space ripe for multi-modal expression and public sharing. Presenters were asked to submit proposals responding to the following questions:

  • How do students work in, with, and against their writing environments, digital or otherwise?
  • What is the relationship between public and academic discourse? How might the teaching of writing speak to this relationship?
  • Is composition pedagogy designed to serve the democratic imperative of deliberative discourse? Should it be?
  • How do digital public spaces shape our students’ rhetorical awareness?
  • What does it mean to make student work public—and why, or to what extent, would we want to do this?
  • How might digital tools and spaces serve collaborative student projects in composition courses?
  • How do we negotiate different teaching models rooted in networked or in-person spaces?

Find the full program for the 2016 conference here: 2016 Conference on the Teaching of Writing Program.

afternoon panel 2UConn grads

rountable 2Audience question

2015 Conference

On Friday, March 27, 2015, the UConn First-Year Writing program held our tenth annual Conference on the Teaching of Writing, an event co-sponsored by the Aetna Chair of Writing and the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute. The conference’s theme was “Writing as Translation,” and addressed issues of translation in the broadest sense. Writers, teachers, and writing program administrators from institutions across the United States came together to discuss translation not only as the transitioning of a text from one language into another, but as a rendering of ourselves and others in writing—and to consider questions such as these:

  • How does the metaphor of translation, a mechanism for moving between language communities, points of view, and settings, open up new ways of thinking about our work?
  • To what degree does our writing involve “translating” other authors or creators?
  • How do we view relationships between cultural identity and writing, translingual writing and global “Englishes”?
  • How might we see cross‐disciplinary work as translation?
  • How do we take into account the multiple language lenses that inform academic conversations?
  • How do we help our students render and make use of difficult and challenging texts?
  • How do we conceive of authorship and positionality?
  • What are the ways in which writing‐as‐labor translates into value?
  • What does writing and the teaching of writing look like in 2015 and beyond, and how do we translate our work using the tools current in universities and culture?

Min-Zhan Lu and Bruce Horner, both of the University of Louisville, delivered a keynote address titled “Teaching Writing as Translation: A Translingual Approach” to our largest number of attendees ever. The conference concluded with a reception and roundtable discussion with Bruce Horner, Scott Campbell of First-Year Writing, Arash Zaghi from the UConn Engineering Department and Manuela Wagner from the UConn Languages Department.

Find the full 2015 conference program here: 2015 Conference on the Teaching of Writing Program.doc.