Decoding Racist Language in Technical Writing

Yesterday’s Marketplace broadcast included a story that demonstrates the power of racist coding in less than 2.5 minutes. “Can changing home appraisal language help close the wealth gap?” examines how the word choice in home appraisals, which are essentially technical descriptions, communicates who lives in a neighborhood and impacts the value assigned to homes.

After listening to this story, technical writing students can look for similar coded language in other documents:

  • How are workplace locations described in job ads?
  • How are possible building sites described in proposals?
  • What descriptive words and phrases are used in incident reports?

These conversations can move beyond the language used to describe places to many other kinds of technical writing as well:

  • What coded language do you find in job ads? How is the kind of person wanted for the position described?
  • How are potential contractors described in RFPs and applicant analysis?
  • Is coded language used in dress codes or social media guidelines?
  • Does coded language appear in employee evaluation documents?
  • How are the words professional and professionalism used to communication information about race?

Listen to the story below or on the Marketplace website:

Making Outlines Work in Tech Writing

Beginning of an outline for a technical reportI am not a fan of outlines. I never could figure out how someone was supposed to know all the bits of their document before they wrote it. Sure you can make a working sketch of what you want to cover, but all that I. A. ii. a. stuff? How about no?

Since I have bad feelings about outlines, I didn’t ask students to do more than a jotted plan for the sections of their work. For shorter documents, I didn’t even ask for that. That all is, until recently. My experiences during spring semester and the summer term have changed my thinking. When I added a formal outline assignment to the technical recommendation report project, students were more likely to include all the required elements in their drafts.

Previously, students left sections out, combined sections, and added sections that didn’t fit the project. No matter how many times I suggested that they look at the sections in the textbook and examine the structure of the sample reports, I failed. I couldn’t consistently persuade students to use the structure appropriate for the genre.

Frustrated with the challenge, I tried explaining how I would approach such a project, providing step-by-step instructions for how to create an outline that would ensure structure of the project included all the required elements.

Whenever I am working on something with a specific structure, from a conference proposal to a formal report, I copy the required structure (or type it if it’s not something I can copy), and paste the information into my draft. Frequently, I copy any instructions, notes, or tips as well. As an example, If I were writing a proposal for the Call for Proposals: 2021 CPTSC Research Grants to Promote Anti-racist Programs and Pedagogies, I would copy everything in the “Organization of the Proposal” section, paste it into my draft, and then convert it to a formal draft with notes. The resulting outline would look something like this:

  1. Cover sheet
     Include applicant name(s), institutional affiliations, contact information for the project leader, and project abstract of no more than 200 words (this page does not count as part of the length requirements). After this cover sheet, please do not include any information that references your name or institution, so that entries can be peer reviewed without mention of names or specific institutions.
  2. Problem Statement
     Explain the problem or question that the research project is attempting to solve.
  3. Background
     Describe the significance of this question or problem by situating the proposed project in the context of current and previous program-based work in the field, drawing on field literature.
  4. Methodology
     Outline the proposed method(s) and methodology  
  5. Timeline
     Include an annotated project timeline that notes the various major research activities/tasks associated with the project, including IRB approval if necessary. (For applicable research, funding will not be released until an IRB approval or exemption has been obtained and submitted to the grants coordinator.)
  6. Budget:  Include an itemized project budget. Funds may be used for research expenses only, including materials, research assistants, travel to collect or analyze data, software, etc. Funds may not be used for salary, release time, or conference travel. Institutional overhead and indirect costs are not allowed. Proposals with matching or in-kind contributions are strongly encouraged.
  7. Statement
     Include a statement that the researcher(s) understand and are willing to adhere to the requirements of the grant recipient.

The assignment I set up has students Outline Their Recommendation Reports using the same basic strategy. The assignment asks them to customize the information to their report topics, with this instruction: “Revise the basic information you have copied to make it specific to your report. Just copying over the basic outline is not enough. You need to add details that demonstrate your plans for the report.”

The results of the assignment have been fantastic. Students who completed the outline activity went on to include the required sections and in the expected order. Other activities in the unit reinforced the structure of the reports. The outline assignment does not deserve full credit, but it certainly made a good start!

Midterm Course Progress Report Assignment

Large white poster on a bulletin board with the message: Don't stress about midterms...Just study until you're too tired to feel emotion...It feels like just yesterday I was setting up my course for the summer session–and now, suddenly, midterm is upon us as we begin the third week of this six-week course. By the end of the week, students will turn in a course progress report that reflects on their accomplishments. I’m using a new ungrading approach this term (more on that in a future post), so I need to revise my progress report assignment.

I used a similar progress report assignment in previous courses, requiring students to describe their work on a research report in a memo. In those courses, students typically struggled with accomplishing the goals of the progress report assignment. I provided examples, textbook explanations, and advice from journals and blogs. Among the difficulties students faced, a majority struggled with the requirements of memo format and document design. Over several semesters, I tried providing more support, even designing a  Memo Format Self-Review activity to help them get the format right. But they still struggled. I wanted to find supporting resources that worked.

The Midterm Course Progress Report Assignment I came up with for this term asks students to “Complete a progress report memo form that reports on what you have accomplished so far in the course and proposes the tentative grade you should receive for your work in the course up to midterm.” It goes on to urge students to “Use details and examples from your work logs and writing activities to support your argument.” The instructions for the assignment begin by having students gather evidence of their work in the course:

Review your work logs and gather your data. You are conducting primary research on your accomplishments in the course so far. You should find much of what you need in your Weekly Work Log. Consider these questions:

  • What work have you completed so far in the course?
  • If you have taken additional time on any assignments during the first half of the term, have you caught up? Are there still tasks that you need to complete?
  • Which document demonstrates your highest quality work so far? Why?
  • What work demonstrates that you have invested your best effort so far?
  • How have you supported classmates in your Feedback Discussions?

The rest of the assignment is probably what you would expect. It asks students to write a memo that describes and evaluates the work they have completed, proposes a tentative grade for their work so far, and outline the goals they have set for the remainder of the course. What the assignment still didn’t do however was provide a better strategy to help students with memo format and document design, the two areas I know they struggled with in the past.

I turned to the book I’m reading, James Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2016). Lang examines small, research-based changes teachers can make to increase student learning. As I worked on the progress report, I decided to try some of Lang’s suggestions. The assignment already incorporated interleaving, the subject of Lang’s third chapter. Interleaving folds knowledge from previous course work into the current unit. As Lang explains, interleaving “involves two related activities that promote high levels of long-term retention: (a) spacing out learning sessions over time; and (b) mixing up your practice of skills you are seeking to develop” (p. 65). The progress report asked students to use the research skills from the second week to conduct primary research on their own work logs, spacing out and practicing the skills during the third week.

While it reinforced the skills from the previous week, the progress report assignment wasn’t doing any of the connecting work that Lang examines in his fourth chapter. Lang relies on an analogy to small, disconnected islands (borrowed from George Orwell) to describe the connecting challenges that students face: They have isolated bits of knowledge and must work to find and create connections among the information and skills. They need to build bridges and shipping routes among all those disconnected islands.

The expectations for my progress report assignments during previous semesters asked students to bring all their skills to bear on a single document. They had to determine the information to report, organize it in ways that work for the audience and purpose, use document design strategies to add headings and lists, and do it all while following the requirements of the memo genre. It’s no wonder students struggled to get it all right in a single project. They had all those skills to navigate and no pathways built among them.

To help students build the connections they needed, I adapted Lang’s model of providing a framework. In Lang’s use, the teacher provides a partial outline, or framework, for the material to be covered, and students build connections as they take notes, filling in that framework. My technical writing students aren’t taking notes on content however. Their job is to apply the different skills as they produce content. I created a framework, a Progress Report Form, that students fill in with the evidence they have gathered. The accompanying Form Instructions outline the information to provide in each section of the framework.

To ensure that they are more successful with memo format and document design, the Report Form includes standard memo headings. Students don’t have to worry about setting the memo correctly; they only have to provide the specific content in the provided framework. Likewise, the body of the memo in the form has ready-made headings for the information students need to provide. The primary document organization is already there. Students only need to organize the information that they include under each heading. Finally, the framework gives them a head start on document design too with headings in a larger, maroon font and the space for the information students will add in the normal, black font. Later in the term, I’ll have students write memos without the supporting template as well as to apply their own document design strategies.

I’ll find out at the end of the week if this new framework provides students with the support they need. If it works, maybe they can avoid that midterm panic that inspires posters like the one in the image above. I’ll let you know when I review their work.




Photo Credit: Midterm Advice by Eric E. Castro on Flickr, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Weekly Work Logs

Background and Goals

To support the anti-racist assessment system in my course, I am using Weekly Work Logs, where students track the work that they have done. The idea for these logs as they are used in anti-racist assessment comes from Asao Inoue’s explanations of contract grading and anti-racist assessment. Inoue (2014) calls these logs labor journals, describing them as

weekly journals that document time spent on activities, and the level of intensity of that work. Each journal entry may: (1)document how much time was spent on an assignment; (2) describe the intensity of the work; or (3) reflect upon the writing produced by that session’s time and intensity, connecting the labor to the expectations identified on the writer’s rubric. (p. 81)

My logs work similarly, asking students to track the time, intensity, and kind of work. They also include a description and reflection for each task they complete.

I have used various digital tools for these logs include spreadsheets that track the entire term and word processor documents that students create for each week of the term. This summer in my Technical Writing course, I am trying the Class Notebook feature in OneNote.

The student notebooks in OneNote’s Class Notebook appear to provide the benefits of both word processor documents and spreadsheets. Each week students complete a separate page in their student notebooks, similar to a separate word processor document. Because these pages are all collected in a single notebook, they function like a spreadsheet by allowing me to look back to previous entries to see how their work strategies are evolving in the course.

General How-To

The general instructions that I gave students ask them to go to the notebook in OneNote and then record the work that they have done for the week:

  • Track and reflect on the work you have done for the week.
    • Add specific details for all the work you have done this week. 
    • Add summary comments and reflections once the week is over and all your work is recorded.

Elsewhere in the course documents, I explain the ways that students will use the logs in the course. Specifically, students will use their entries to complete weekly self-assessments where they claim the points that they have earned for the week. At the end of the term, students will use the Weekly Work Log entries to write an overall performance review that summarizes and reflects on the work that they have done throughout the term.

Student Instructions for Log Entries

These are the instructions that I have included in OneNote for students:

Instructions, Start Here

This information explains how to fill out your log entries each week. You will log your work, noting what you do, how long you work, and how hard you worked.

Submitting your weekly labor log does two things:

  • It allows you to keep track of your progress in the class, making sure you are up-to-date on your work.
  • It allows me to learn what is working well for you and where you may need more support.

At the end of the term, you can use your logs to write a performance review (your final exam) that explains what you have accomplished overall and provides a self-evaluation of your work in the course.

Log of Your Weekly Work

You are graded on the work you do, so this log is critical to doing well because it tells me what work you do each week. I look for strong details and reflections on the various tasks you complete each week. 

For all the work that you complete, add a line to your log with specific information about the work that you did. The log pages for each week include the headings shown below:


Time Spent


Kind of Work (Reading, Writing, Feedback, Tracking, Other)

Description & Reflection






Under each of these headings, I expect to find the following information:

  • Date:  Just the numbers will work (e.g., 07/08)
  • Time Spent: Estimate the number of minutes or hours. Don’t stress about precision. A range will work here (e.g., 5–10 mins.)
  • Intensity: Use a word or two to explain how hard you worked. You can plan the words you will use so you can be consistent.
  • Kind of Work: Indicate the category that your work falls under, using the descriptions in the “Kinds of Work in the Course” section below.
  • Description & Reflection: Explain exactly what you did and why you did it. Use clear and specific details that show me the work that you put in. Here’s an example:
    • DON’T: Wrote my self-introduction.
      That is probably accurate, but it doesn’t show the work that went into what you did.
    • DO: Jotted out the details I wanted to cover. Rearranged the details into an informal outline. Wrote a rough draft in Piazza. Reread the draft, and added a few details. Double-checked spelling and grammar, and then posted my work.

Note that you can also break those tasks out info separate lines in your log. In other words, “Jotted out the details I wanted to cover. Rearranged the details into an informal outline.” could be one entry in the log, and you might add a reflection comment on why you adopted this strategy

Summary Comments & Reflections on the Week

At the end of the week, review all of the entries that you have recorded, and write a summary that synthesizes the work you have done during the week. Once you have your summary written, reflect on what you have accomplished. You can consider questions like these to get started:

  • What went well this week and why?
  • Conversely, what challenges did you encounter and why? How did you overcome them?
  • What can you apply from this week in the future?
  • What will you try differently next week and why?
  • What questions do you have about your work this week?

You don’t need to answer every question in your reflection. Just put in your best effort and answer the questions that make sense for this week.

Kinds of Work in the Course

Use these details on the different kinds of work in the class to categorize the work you do under the “Kind of Work” column in your log.


The reading work in this course is much like that in any other course you take. Examples of the things you will read in this course include the following: 

  • Information in this Course Manual
  • Chapters and specific sections in the course textbook
  • Announcements and pages in the Canvas site for our course
  • Drafts of your projects
  • Feedback Discussions posts in Piazza


The writing work in this course relates to both the projects and class activities that you work on and to the class communication and general class discussions. Examples of the writing you will do in the projects for this course include the following:

  • Gathering ideas on a possible topic by freewriting, brainstorming, or listing
  • Taking research notes
  • Completing audience analysis
  • Outlining a project
  • Drafting your ideas
  • Revising your project
  • Editing and proofreading your project

Giving, Discussing, and Responding to Feedback

The feedback work in this course consists of the feedback that you receive and the feedback that you give to others. Examples of feedback activities include the following:

  • Posting questions about a passage from your draft
  • Asking questions about a passage from someone else’s draft
  • Discussing feedback you receive by replying with questions or ideas
  • Responding to feedback you receive by rethinking a section of your draft

Tracking & Reflecting

The tracking and reflecting work in this course focuses on the process of recording the various kinds of work that you do in your Weekly Work Log and your Weekly Self-Assessments.  Examples of the tracking and reflecting you will do include the following:

  • Logging the different kinds of work that you do in the course
  • Summarizing your accomplishments for the week
  • Reflecting on which tasks went well and which were more challenging
  • Forecasting the tasks you will work on in the future and how you will do them

Read More

If you are interested in learning more about anti-racist assessment and how this kind of weekly log works, check out Asao Inoue’s Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity And Inclusion In The Compassionate Writing Classroom (2019), which you can download for free from the WAC Clearinghouse.


Inoue, Asao B. (2014). A Grade-Less Writing Course That Focuses on Labor and Assessing. In D. Coxwell-Teague & R. F. Lunsford (Eds.), First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice (pp. 71–110). Parlor Press.


Teaching Students About Headlines, Titles, and Subject Lines

If you want your work to be read, you need a strong headline, title, or subject line for the text you’re writing. Readers expect a title to give them a short description of the contents in a way that piques their interest in the topic. When a title doesn’t, it’s possible that you won’t people won’t read any further. They’ll just skip on to something that is interesting.

Screenshot of the Writing page on Alltop.comIt’s important, then, to teach students how to write strong headlines, titles, and subject lines—and I have a great technique you can use, based on an observation Guy Kawasaki shared on Google+.

Kawasaki posted a screenshot from his blog indexing site,, and observed, “You can see who the good headline creators are when you see them side by side.” Indeed, you can.

Try the technique yourself by clicking on the screenshot above. It shows headlines from four blogs on the Writing page on Alltop. Even with the limited number of titles in the screenshot, you can see that some headlines are better at catching your attention than others. I want to go read The Other N-Words, for instance.

The blogs at the top of an Alltop page tend to be stronger, so there’s not an obvious dud in the image. If you visit the Writing page on Alltop though, you’re likely to find some headlines that don’t work. On the current page, for example, I’m uninterested in Exercise 9, 10, 11, or 12 from Aldys Fiction. Aldys Fiction may be a great site, but based on those headlines alone, there’s nothing to convince me to go read anything.

To show students how to write strong headlines, titles and subject lines, just customize this activity a bit. Here’s a basic outline of what to do:

  1. Choose a page on Alltop that focuses on a topic that students are familiar with. Alltop has pages for hundreds of topics, ranging from American Idol to Zombies, and from Anthropology to Zoology. Nearly any topic students are exploring can be found on Alltop. (That makes the site great for research too, but I’ll save that for a later post.) Be sure to review the page you choose to ensure the blog titles are all appropriate for the classroom.
  2. Print the Alltop page. You can work on the live website, but when you mouse over a blog title, more information from the post will pop up. Since you want students to focus on the titles alone, the live site isn’t the best option. Further, Alltop is updated hourly, so an inappropriate blog title may appear. Printing the pages avoids both of these problems. If you want a paper-free option, print to PDFs and work from the files rather than the live site.
  3. Pass out the Alltop page, and ask students to mark 10–15 blog posts that they want to read. Encourage students to move quickly through the options. The point is to make fast decisions. Give them two or three minutes.
  4. Next ask students to identify 5 blog posts that they would not read. Again, ask them to work quickly, as if they were scrolling down the list on a computer screen.
  5. In small groups, have students share their selections and note posts chosen by more than one person. Have them create a group list of approximately 15 blogs the group would read.
  6. Ask group members to compare the 15 blog titles and identify what makes the titles compelling. Encourage students to look for similarities. You might work through an example title to demonstrate features that typically make a headline stand out.
  7. Have students use the similarities to create guidelines for strong titles. Students can consider the 5 posts they each said they would not read to see how they violate their guidelines as well.
  8. Compile all the group guidelines into a class list. Groups can share their lists with the class. As a group shares its guidelines, note new ideas on the board. Work to group related ideas as the groups present their lists. Once all groups have shared, review the class list together and make any revisions.
  9. Talk about how to apply the headline guidelines to paper titles and subject lines. Add suggestions on how to adjust the information for different rhetorical situations.
  10. For homework, ask students to strengthen the titles on their texts by using the guidelines that the class has created. If desired, students can submit a before and after version of their titles that you review during the next class session.

As you go through the activity, you may find the opportunity to review the rules for using capital letters in titles. You can point to the guidelines in your class text. For a thorough review, point students to the details on Capitalizing Titles from Grammar Girl. For a bit of fun, you can try out the SongCase – the song title capitalizer.

So there you have it. It’s fairly simple, but it should influence the headlines, titles, and subject lines that you see after the class completes it. Do you have any tricks for teaching students about headlines, titles, and subject lines? Leave me a comment!


BP’s Unintended Lesson on Visual Rhetoric

Altered BP HIVE Center Photo by BP AmericaIt’s politically correct to be disappointed with BP and their little oil well problem in the Gulf. But how can I be angry when they provide me with such wonderful gifts?

First, BP America digitally enhanced some of their oil spill clean-up photos. The images are great for pointing out the sloppiness of the Photoshop work and, more importantly, discussing the ethical issues related to tampering with the images. Be sure to look at the face-saving explanation BP has posted with the BP Altered Images Flickr set. Any class exploring visual rhetoric should spend time with these photos. So a big thank you to BP for classroom material.

But that’s not all. Next, the folks over at Wired took the faked BP images and challenged readers to create their own digitally altered photos. The results are marvelous. Everything from Godzilla to Rick Astley is out there in the Gulf causing mayhem.

The submission showing pop culture images on the different monitors is probably my favorite:

BP Multiple-Monitor Pop Culture from Wired

How could you NOT like an image that includes Max Headroom, War Games, Star Trek, Poltergeist, and The Matrix?

As part of a visual rhetoric lesson plan, the Wired challenge images open up the topic of satire and parody. Students can discuss how the different images critique the way BP has handled the oil spill—both in its actual clean-up and in the images they have shared with the public.

So politically correct or not, I’m a little thankful to BP America for providing me with the materials for a timely lesson on an important topic.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by BP America]

Résumés That Stand Out the Right Way

Catwoman being interviewed photo by Alaskan DudeThere are right ways to dress for a job interview. Sure, you want to stand out to an extent. You don’t want to blend into the sea of suits that march before the hiring committee. But, um, you don’t want to stand out for the wrong reasons. Probably shouldn’t wear a catwoman costume to an interview for at an engineering firm.

The same advice applies to résumés. When I talk about résumés with students, I do encourage them to do things that will make themselves stand out a little.

Traditional résumés can get very boring when you’re reading through a stack of 20 or 30 of them. If students can make themselves stand out, they have a better chance of being noticed–and we all know that being noticed can lead to getting that job.

It’s just as important, though, to talk about how audience comes into play in preparing résumés. You can teach this lesson quickly and clearly with the Dzine blog collection of “27 Examples of Impressive Resume(CV) Designs,” which my friend @Alliegator8u found and shared.

  • Go over résumés as you normally would, exploring more traditional examples in your text or online.
  • Share the DZine collection of résumés with students and encourage general feedback and discussion. You can click on the résumés to see larger versions.
  • Once general discussion dies down, ask students to think about the jobs that they would apply for themselves. You might group students with like career goals for this project. Have students brainstorm some details about the positions and companies they will send resumes to. Emphasize that students are effectively completing an audience analysis for these companies.
  • Return to the DZine collection of résumés. With their audience analysis in mind, ask students to identify which of the résumés might stand out and still fit with the needs and expectations of the audience companies. Encourage students to read through the comments on the page for some interesting discussion as well.

It’s likely that some of the more intriguing DZine résumés will be inappropriate. While they are clever and eye-catching, most of the résumés are suited only for edgier graphic design positions and companies.

I don’t think I’d encourage MrSunnyBlack or Sofiane42 to send those résumés to a conservative company. But Kenji2030 and Kamilmytnik might have a reasonable mix of traditional elements and “wow” design that would let their résumés stand out without ending up in the decline pile. As the résumés should make clear to students, it’s all a matter of the audience the résumés are presented to.


[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Alaskan Dude]

Tips for Making a Good First Impression

“For a friendly letter use white paper (or you may use a pastel shade if you’re a girl) in any sizes of single or double sheets for personal correspondence.”

p. 119, Modern English in Action, Seven,
(D.C. Heath, 1968)

You’ve made an impression alright, but it may not be the one you wanted.