Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

Your revised readings in The Norton Field Guide to Writing will prepare you for the six quizzes that you will complete during the remaining weeks of the semester. I selected the six subjects for the quizzes (words often confused, punctuation, precise words, active and passive voice, main points and support, and MLA documentation) based on patterns that I have identified in your essays. Most of the readings that will prepare you for the quizzes are in the yellow-edged Handbook section of Norton.

Each weekly quiz should be completed by Sunday at midnight except the quiz on precise words for the week of April 6-10. That quiz should be completed by midnight on Thursday, April 9, so you will not have a quiz to complete during Spring Break, April 10-15.

To supplement the material in The Norton Field Guide to Writing, I am including a link to the general writing section of OWL, Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab. It’s one of the most helpful and user-friendly writing sites I’ve found. I use it at least once a week. OWL’s PowerPoint “Conquering the Comma” may be particularly helpful as you prepare for the quiz on punctuation.

To the left, on the menu bar on my blog, there’s a link to OWL’s home page.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.


Wherever you are in your reading of Educated, I encourage you to look back at the pages where Tara Westover recounts her first days on campus at Brigham Young University (155-58). Stepping into the unfamiliar–as she was then and we are now–is always difficult.

As we continue our study of Educated, consider not only what Tara Westover’s memoir reveals about the craft of writing but also how her resiliency can serve as a model for us in this time of uncertainty.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

We will get through these days.

This post serves as both a welcome back note and a blog entry on the writer’s craft, the second one I’ve written with you. (I posted the first one on January 22.)

I’m always grateful when I discover that readings and assignments in my various courses dovetail. It reminds me that although the particulars of the courses differ, communicating effectively in writing and closely examining written texts are fundamentals they all share.

Two dovetail discoveries occurred earlier this semester. The first one happened when I was reading the composition students’ weekly assignment in The Norton Field Guide to Writing. It was in the chapter devoted to description. There the textbook’s authors include excerpts from two pieces of writing about multiple sclerosis that together illustrate lucidly the differences between the general description of objective nonfiction and the concrete, significant details and voice that bring creative nonfiction to life. Read the two excerpts that follow and consider both the differences between the words and how the words in each excerpt affect you.

First, a description from a brochure published by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society:

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, unpredictable disease of the central nervous system (the brain, optic nerves, spinal cord). It is thought to be an autoimmune disorder. This means the immune system incorrectly attacks a person’s healthy tissue.

MS can cause blurred vision, loss of balance, poor coordination, slurred speech, tremors, numbness, extreme fatigue, problems with memory and concentration, paralysis, and blindness. These problems may be permanent, or they may come and go. (qtd. in Bullock et al. 444)

Second, an excerpt from “On Being a Cripple,” by Nancy Mairs, a writer with MS:

During its course, which is unpredictable and uncontrollable, one may lose vision, hearing, speech, the ability to walk, control bladder and/or bowels, strength in any or all extremities, sensitivity to touch, vibration and/or pain, potency, coordination of movements–the list of possibilities is lengthy and yes, horrifying. One may also lose one’s sense of humor. That’s the easiest to lose and the hardest to survive without.

In the past ten years, I have sustained some of these losses. Characteristic of MS are sudden attacks, called exacerbations, followed by remissions, and these I have not had. Instead my disease has been slowly progressive. My left leg is now so weak that I walk with the aid of a brace and a cane, and for distances I use an Amigo, a variation on the electric wheelchair that looks rather like an electrified kiddie car. I no longer have much use of my left hand. Now my right side is weakening as well. I still have the blurred spot in my right eye. Overall, though, I’ve been lucky so far. (qtd. in Bullock et al. 443-44)

Another dovetail discovery occurred when my composition students were studying Chapter 11 of Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated. The latter half of that chapter, “Instinct,” depicts Westover’s brother Shawn reining in the frightened gelding, Bud, preventing him from throwing Tara.

As my composition students and I examined the series of conflicts that propel the chapter forward, it occurred to me that the concluding pages of Chapter 11 would serve as an ideal segue from our study, in English 126, of creative nonfiction to our study of fiction. That scene exemplifies the structural similarities between fiction and memoirs, such Westover’s, that follow the same narrative arc.

In the span of only two and a half pages, Westover presents five conflicts: (1) Bud, the gelding, in conflict with the angry mare, (2) Tara in conflict with the frightened Bud, (3) Tara in conflict with herself (Should she let go of the saddle horn?), (4) Shawn in conflict with the mare, and (5) Shawn in conflict with–and ultimately prevailing over–Bud. Thanks to Brennan for pointing out the fourth conflict, which I had overlooked earlier.

Lastly, I’ll address our final in-class reading on March 12, Christopher Durang’s For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls. Not only did Durang’s play let us exit laughing, it also showed us how quirky, well-wrought parody can pull readers into a play regardless of their knowledge of the source. When Lawrence says: “I call this [cocktail stirrer] Q-tip because I realized it looks like a Q-tip” (19), readers will laugh even if they don’t know that he’s a spoof of Laura Wingfield.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments. We will get through these days–and exit laughing again, I hope.

Bullock, Richard et al. Chapter 42: “Describing.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Handbook. 5th ed., 2019. pp. 443-44.

Durang, Christopher. For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls. Christopher Durang: Twenty-Seven Short Plays. Smith and Krauss, 1995. pp. 12-27.

Graphic Title: Victorians Online, For Reading like the Dickens

Dear Readers,

As we begin a new chapter online, consider how less remote we are than the arctic explorer Robert Walton was when he wrote to his sister, Margaret Saville, in England.

Since our seated classes were canceled before your copies of the Victorian volume of the Norton anthology were issued, I have included in this blog post a list with links to texts that we’ll study that are available through Project Gutenberg.

Before I write more about the list, I should address the subtitle of the paper-craft graphic above (one I created recently during some much-needed time away from the screen). The phrase “like the dickens” is not a reference to the Victorian author. It’s a euphemism. More specifically, it’s a minced oath: an expression that’s created by altering the spelling or pronunciation of a word that’s considered profane. Shakespeare penned the minced oath “like the dickens,” for “like the devilkins” (little devils), in his comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, which he wrote more than two-hundred years before Charles Dickens was born.

Now to the list, and a second one that follows. The first is a chronological list of the longer Victorian works that we will study. The second includes the MLA-style works cited entries for the four texts, plus MLA-style entries for both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein on Project Gutenberg and your Barnes and Noble paperback edition. When you write about these texts, you will need to include MLA-style documentation. Bookmark this page for quick reference.

Remember to check your CVCC email and Blackboard regularly for updates and assignments.

We will get through these days.

Sincerely sequestered,

Dr. Lucas

Longer* Victorian-era Readings

*Longer readings for English 242. By Victorian standards, these book-length works aren’t long, and “The Speckled Band” is a story.

Sample MLA Works Cited Entries

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. 1865. Project Gutenberg, Accessed 22 Mar. 2020.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. 1843. Project Gutenberg, Accessed 22 Mar. 2020.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” 1892. Accessed 22 Mar. 2020.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818, 1831. Introduction and Notes by Karen Karbeiner. Barnes and Noble, 2003.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818, 1831. Project Gutenberg, Accessed 22 Mar. 2020.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 1886. Accessed 22 Mar. 2020.


A sailor kills a bird of good omen, his destructive act dooms his shipmates and curses him with retelling the tale over and over: So the story of the Ancient Mariner goes. Yet those plot details convey neither the epic nature of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem nor its influence on later writers. Only the poem itself places readers fully in the imaginative realm of the tale, but its late eighteenth-century diction creates a gulf between the poem and contemporary readers. Consequently, one of the challenges of introducing “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to millennial students is bridging that gulf. Iron Maiden’s adaptation offers one solution. By eliminating the shifts in the narrative voice and updating the story with contemporary language, their heavy-metal version draws listeners into the story with emphatic rhythms that capture the spirit of the original lines.

Archaic words, such as “stoppeth” (line 2), have a way of stopping readers in their tracks, calling attention to their temporal distance from the poem. Along with the distancing effect of the language, the shifts from one speaker to another can pose problems for twenty-first century readers. Although the Mariner tells his own story, the first words that he speaks are in the fifth stanza. The four stanzas that precede his first words are voiced alternately by an unnamed narrator and the wedding guest who becomes the Mariner’s captive audience. In prose such shifts are easily navigated with paragraphing and dialogue tags. Most poems, however, lack such signals, and their absence in Coleridge’s poem compounds its difficulty. Not only are some of the words obstacles, it’s not always clear who is speaking them.

Iron Maiden’s adaptation eliminates those issues with updated diction and a consistent narrative voice. Rather than shifting speakers, Iron Maiden’s version presents the tale sung by a single storyteller, not the sailor himself, but a narrator who tells listeners to “[h]ear the rime of the ancient mariner” (1). Those first words of the song, penned by lead singer Bruce Dickinson, form an imperative sentence: a command with the understood subject “you”—“[You] hear the rime . . . ” (1). I am master and commander of this story, Dickinson seems to say, and you will hear it now. Such is the power of the imperative. Rather than leaving the reader questioning, as Coleridge’s first stanzas may, Iron Maiden’s song speaks directly to listeners, taking hold of them with the pull of a powerful tide, drawing them out to sea to witness the Mariner as he kills the albatross and seals his fate.

The nature of that fate, that the Mariner must tell his tale over and over, is effectively emphasized by the song’s repetition. The recurrence of the words “on and on,” which first appear to underscore the length of the voyage (17, 18) are repeated in the last line: “And the tale goes on and on and on” (89). That ending may be more fitting than the original. The “sadder and wiser” (624) listener at the end of Coleridge’s poem also appears in the last verse of the song. But by returning to the retelling of the story, the song’s ending shifts the focus from the wedding guest who hears the story only once to the teller who must tell it over and over.

Making the Mariner’s story more accessible through song is valuable not only as an introduction to the poem but also as a starting point for understanding its influence on later English writers, including Mary Shelley, the second-generation Romantic who featured both images and lines from the poem in her novel Frankenstein. Coleridge’s poem was one of Shelley’s favorites, one that she first encountered as a child when the poet recited it in her father’s study (Karbeiner xiii). Iron Maiden’s version captures the spirit of what Mary Shelley, Coleridge’s fan girl, heard: the epic ballad of an eighteenth-century rock star.

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Romantic Period. 10th ed. Stephen Greenblatt, General Editor. W. W. Norton, 2017. pp. 448-64.. EMI, 1984.

Iron Maiden. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Power Slave. EMI, 1984.

Karbeiner, Karen. Introduction: “Cursed Tellers, Compelling Tales—The Endurance of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. 1818, 1831. Barnes and Noble, 2003.

One of my creative writing students’ assignments this semester is a series of blog posts, one each month, that addresses examples of techniques that they find instructive or pieces of advice that are edifying to them as writers. The focus of each of their posts may be any of the following:

  • an essay, story, poem, or play in our textbook, Imaginative Writing
  • a class handout
  • textbook author Janet Burroway’s observations on craft
  • another author’s observations on craft
  • a writing prompt from the CVCC Writing Club
  • a guest writer’s remarks on craft (some local writers will visit our class)
  • a Lenoir-Rhyne visiting writer’s comments on craft (

While I was mulling options for my own post for the assignment, Roy Peter Clark’s new book, Murder Your Darlings and Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser, arrived in the mail. That’s it, I thought. I’d found my subject.

When I turned to the table of contents, the heading “Voice and Style” caught my eye. Sentence variety has been on my brain for the past few days since I’ve been discussing it in both my creative writing and composition classes, so I chose that section of the book as the starting point for my reading—specifically Clark’s chapter on varying sentence length. There Clark draws on advice from the late Ursula K. Le Guin, best known as a writer of science fiction and fantasy. Le Guin acknowledges that a few isolated short sentences—or a series of them—can be effective, but she demonstrates the strength and beauty of variety in this passage:

Most children enjoy the sound of writing for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia; they fall in love with musical or impressive words and use them in all the wrong places. Some writers keep this primal interest in and love for the sound of language. Others outgrow their oral/aural sense of what they’re reading or writing. That’s a dead loss. An awareness of what your own writing sounds like is an essential skill for a writer. Fortunately it’s quite easy to cultivate, to learn or reawaken. (qtd. in Clark 66)

Clark follows that excerpt with the word count of each of Le Guin’s seven sentences: eleven, thirty-two, fourteen, twelve, four, sixteen, and ten. For writers who compose by ear, that exercise of counting words may be more useful than the dissection of phrases and clauses. It’s a practice I plan to adopt and model for my students.

Clark, Roy Peter. Murder Your Darlings and Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser. Little, Brown Spark, 2020.

Five, Six, Pick up Sticks

Posted: January 21, 2020 in Teaching

A flannel shoe bag, a pile of mini craft sticks, and a repurposed Q-Tip travel box: These items are in my hands most days. They’re often in the hands of my students as well. Any of them who walk into the classroom early—before the beginning of the hour—and spot the bag and the box of sticks on the front desk know that they’ll be working in groups that day, at least for part of the class period. Their job, if they choose to volunteer, is to make random groups by drawing sticks, which are labeled with the students’ names.

The size and number of groups varies from class to class. In my current English 111 class of eighteen, students draw names to create two groups of four and two of five. For the largest of my British survey classes, which has twenty-seven students, they make three groups of five and two of six.

The sound of the process depends on the volunteers. Before dropping the craft sticks into the shoe bag, some students shake the plastic box, rattling the sticks like dice in a cup. Others pour the sticks into the bag before they shake them, making slightly muted clicks, like coins in a sock.

To me, all of these noises are sounds of collaboration and community building, of students not sitting passively but instead taking an active role in preparing for class. A flannel shoe bag, a pile of mini craft sticks, and a repurposed Q-Tip travel box: In the classroom these are small, good things.