Introductory Letter to Online Writing Students

Dear Writers Enrolled in Online Composition With Professor Torgerson,

Welcome to the class! I use a metaphor gifted to me by a former professor named Sam to think about my writing and teaching life. It goes, “Writing Floats on a Sea of Conversation.” I didn’t know what the heck Sam was talking about back when he first spoke those words to me, but the phrase has held my interest for the past fifteen years.

Sam and Anne

Sam on the left, who said, “Writing Floats on a Sea of Conversation.”

This idea of conversation works in all sorts of ways. To start off, we are all going to write each other letters in the spirit of what you are reading here. (or in a spirit you prefer) We will do a lot of letter writing in this class because I hope the form will allow you to be yourself. Somehow, many students end up writing in college in some boring voice they consider academic.

Please view the syllabus as a part of the opening to our conversation. I hope you will read  this letter and the syllabus carefully, think over what I’ve said, and say something back to all of us based on what you’ve heard and who you are. Soon, there will be twenty-six voices all in conversation with one another. We’ll do much of this through the use of Google documents. There is something in education called an Electronic Portfolio. Lots of people call these ePorts for short. These ePorts are personal websites on which you will post your writing. Everyone in this class will sign up for Google GMAIL, write in something called Google Documents, and post work on their ePortfolios. I will help you do this. There are lots of tutorials posted online. You can come see me in my office for extra help if you need it. If you have any trouble, I want to help you. Don’t be afraid to email me and ask me questions:

Conversation in the class will continue through your reading of texts written by writers about writing. I’ll ask you to write letters of response. These letters will be the raw materials for the papers you will write. Your assigned papers will be a way to take your letters of response, gather your thoughts, and share them with us in an essay about writing.

When I ask you to read something, keep in mind someone like you and me wrote the text and that writer has a message for us.  Say something back to the writer and to your fellow writers in the class. Try and remember that everything you read and everything you write is a part of a conversation we are all having together about reading, writing, and thinking. The word literacy can cover are work in the areas of reading, writing, and thinking. I hope to empower you to develop your 21st Century Literacy skills.  When we read and write online in conjunction with the screens of our devices, there is a lot at stake: votes are won and lost, money changes bank accounts, and voices are heard and suppressed. Social media and writing on the web allow more ordinary people like us to have voices that must be listened to by big business or government. Writing is a tool that can be used for social change.

Students often tell me this composition course is easy and that it’s hard. (A paradox! How can that be true?) It’s easy because if you read the instructions carefully, do the work, post it on time, and use some of the feedback you receive to plan a revision, you’ll most surely get an “A” or “B.” On the other hand, the class can be hard because you have to be responsible enough to take care of your business. Two times a week you have to read, write, and leave comments on the writing of your classmates. This isn’t the kind of class you can blow off for twelve weeks and then buckle down for a couple of exams and get by with a decent grade. You’ll either be responsible, problem solve, and keep up with the work, or you won’t pass. One of the keys to doing well is staying in touch with me. Be sure to read your emails, work a few days ahead of when assignments are due, and write to me when you have problems.

The technology aspect of this class can be challenging. Mostly we are using Google’s “Drive” and “docs” along with Digication’s ePortfolio platform to do our work and communicate with each other. I will be on the Queens campus at least on Mondays and Thursdays and it might be good to get off to a good start and come in for help setting up Google Documents and the ePortfolio. I’d love to reserve the conference room in the writing center so that we could get together and do this if you need help. There are lots of tutorials online you could also Google. Try something such as “writing in Google docs” on YouTube and be sure to watch more recent videos in case something has changed.

A little about me: I first became an English major as in incoming freshman in 1990 because I was afraid of flunking out. I went to college because I wanted to play basketball, and I wanted to become a basketball coach. Both of my parents were English teachers, and so I figured if I needed help, I could make the two-hour drive home and get some tutoring. (we didn’t have a tutoring center and writing center like St. John’s!) I was so scared of flunking out as a freshman, that I went to the library every night after dinner. Much to my surprise, I made the Dean’s List the first semester. I learned that when I studied every day that I could do well.


my dad Martin, me, and my mom Sue

I did coach basketball and teach high school English for ten years in Indiana and North Carolina. The more I worked at being a teacher reading and writing, the more I began to enjoy quiet time in the mornings more than my time in the gym after school. I decided to quit coaching, go to graduate school, and try and become a writer and a professor. Over the years, I’ve published three novels with one more coming out next year, and I’ve directed two documentary films. It seems like the students I work with are writing more than ever, especially in conjunction with the screens of devices. My wife Megan and I have two daughters ages five and eight. We rent an old farmhouse in Connecticut out in the country and even have a barn and (non-working) outhouse on the property. How an outhouse doesn’t work is a story for another time. After almost ten years of not coaching basketball, I’m back in the gym two days a week helping to coach my daughter’s 2nd grade girls team. It’s wonderful fun!


with the girls in Maine

I make time almost everyday for reading and writing. I enjoy working out, and at forty-three years of age, I still play in a basketball league at our local YMCA. I love to teach because I enjoy learning from the writers I work with, and I thrive on the energy that is created as we all work enthusiastically on projects of our choosing. I believe everyone can learn to write more effectively, and it’s important to do this because I believe writing can be a form of thinking. If this is a thinking class, then it can benefit everyone. If we don’t work to become more powerfully literate thinkers, there are lots of people (especially in digital spaces) who will try to manipulate our thoughts and bank accounts. I look forward to all of the conversations we will have this semester!


Bill Torgerson ncte composition college writing online teaching

Pulpwood Queens May Bonus Book Club Selection

Thanks to Kathy Patrick for choosing Love on the Big Screen as a Pulpwood Queen May Bonus Book Club selection. It’s been great getting to know so many of the book club members. You are all passionate readers with big hearts, and I’m still holding onto all those hopeful vibes I picked up from you when it comes to your enthusiasm for literacy. First, I made you all a special video greeting that also previews some of the great pictures taken in Jefferson, Texas by Brooklyn-based photographer Natalie Brasington. Click on the video below to watch:

I’m also at work on a documentary film about my visit to Texas last January for Girlfriend Weekend. I’m calling it For the Love of Books, something that just popped into my head near the end of my weekend after watching everyone stuff their extra suitcases with books and as I saw book group after book group using literacy to help others. Yes, you ladies–and a few good men–have fun, but your devotion to literacy and to caring about people is what really inspired me.

If you do read Love on the Big Screen, you can find some book club discussion questions here.  It might be fun to see what you think of this teacher’s idea about conversation starters. Also, if you glance over to the right of this page, you’ll see that I’m selling some extra copies of the novel that have accumulated at my house. Sometimes when I do a conference or a book festival, too many books are ordered and when those go unsold, they get returned to the publisher. Since the burden on an indie press can get pretty tough, I’ve purchased some of these copies.  If you’re interested, you can purchase the book here through Pay Pal, I’ll write you a big ole thank you note inside the book, and then ship it off to you. I hope it’s okay to trouble you with mentioning that possibility. The book is available through the usual channels  including Kindle, Nook, and iPad.

I’ve already made plans to return to Jefferson next year with my Midwestern Gothic novel entitled Horseshoe.  For those of you who read Flannery O’Connor, I hope you’ll see some of the ways her “Misfit” fiction has influenced my writing. I’m also going to join those of you who are planning to come with Kathy to NYC this June. You can read more about the trip here.   Brooke Ivey is doing a lot of the planning, and I just found out I get to lead the charge into Strand Books, a store that claims over 18 miles of titles. I don’t really know what they mean by that, but I’ve been in the store and it takes a marathoner’s stamina to make it through even one of the floors.  By the way, Brooke’s mother Anita is a Pulpwood Queen!

I’m happy to interact with individual chapters of the Pulpwood Queens in lots of ways including perhaps a Skype visit or a special video that answers questions readers might have. I’m a native Indiana Hoosier, and so like David Letterman, perhaps I could do my own sort of version of reader mail. With another shot from Natalie, here’s to Texas and the Pulpwood Queens:

William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen Kathy Patrick Pulpwood Queen Girlfriend Weekend Book Club

photograph by Natalie Brasington

You can connect on Twitter here and Facebook here.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to being in touch.

My Notes and Thoughts on Reading Cynthia Selfe’s “The Movement of Air…”

Formatted Document – ProQuest.

It’s Daniel Keller’s oral essay, “Lord of the Machines…” that really does it to me:  gets me as excited for what the writing classroom could be, as excited as I was the first day that I realized that all I really had to do to to get students interested in the class was to allow them to read and write and share their own words with their classmates.   I wonder how old Daniel Keller is, not enough to look this up, but I see a lot in his oral essay that appeals to who I am, including clips of dialogue from an old favorite movie of mine, Office Space. There’s a lot else in Keller’s essay too:  music that must come from what he knows and loves, more movie cuts, and funny and surprising research that states 33% of people admit to having assaulted their computers and 70% of people admit to swearing.  I have sworn at my computer many a time but so far no assaults that I can remember.

What’s so exciting for me is to consider all that could go into a piece in the spirit of the oral essays Selfe shares.  What does each student care enough about that they would pursue knowledge on the subject, figure out how the subject connects with who they are (for example, wherever it was that Keller tapped into his knowledge of The Office), and bring together all that thinking into a multimedia/multimodal text.

With my excitement comes the dampening thought of all the problems I already face when it comes to the writing and thinking my students and I do that doesn’t happen in a Word document.  Okay, my students use Windows Movie Maker for a project.  Where should we put this video?  On You Tube?  I can’t require students to make their work public.  It could be dangerous, an invasion of their privacy.  And how will I collect all this work as artifacts of our writing and thinking and my teaching?  The hard drive on my computer is already too full.  I’ve already transferred kilos and kilos of bits onto an external hard drive, but now I can’t access that material unless I drag it along with me.  I am vaguely aware of the notion of cloud computing, which means to me that I can have storage “out there,” accessible to me from anywhere, but at the moment I don’t know how to make that technology work for my students and me.

I could go on about these problems; surely fill pages and pages with what I know how to do but can’t bring to my students because of one obstacle or the other.  I think I can sum up a lot of my troubles in this way:  okay, I can do that (insert sound, video, oral essay, etc) but where am I going to put it?  How are my students and my students only going to access it?

Golden Lines from Selfe’s Article and Thoughts if I’ve got them:

  • “Writing as Not-Speech” (Selfe 627). At the moment, all my courses are first year writing courses.  This course is required of just about all the students.  I already do everything I can think to do to say that writing isn’t just writing; writing is thinking. I give examples such as, “Okay, there’s someone you’re romantically interested in.  You’ve spoken to them.  They are looking at you.  Your opening has got you at least that far.  Now what?”  My examples aren’t contained to what could sound like a pick up line.  I tell my students about my phone calls to the state of New York about my denied tax refund.  I had to think about structure, purpose, and audience.  I’m surprised how much time Selfe has to spend showing that there is more to a composition class than sentences written onto a piece of paper or typed into a Word document.
  • “Digital networks, for example, have provided routes for the increasing numbers of communications that now cross geopolitcal, cultural, and linguistic borders, and because of this situation, the texts exchanged within such networks often assume hybrid forms that take advantage of multiple semiotic channels” (Selfe 636-37).  I do my blog post.  I see on my map that people from several continents read my post.  How did my blog collect that information?  Is this an invasion of privacy?  I copy and paste an image from Office Space I find online into my post.  Have I committed copyright infringement?  If I write only text, don’t I lose a lot of potential readers?  Aren’t most online readers drawn to links, pictures, and video?  Isn’t it amazing, that I write a reflection on the documentary Food, INC and the next day I get a comment from a farmer who defends the way soybean seeds are protected by seed companies?  It’s so much to manage.  It’s so invigorating and overwhelming.
  • “Aural Composing Sample 4:  Daniel Keller’s ‘Lord of the Machines:  Reading the Human Computer Relationship'” (Selfe 640). I show my students a clip of a documentary on the big screen in front of the class.  I ask them to consider audience, purpose, structure, and payoff.  By “payoff,” I want them to ask, “What is the reward supposed to be for watching this film?”  What rewards are there supposed to be for reading what I write?  What rewards should their be for me when I write?  For some reason, my computer overheats and shuts down after about ten minutes.  I want to use my computer because all my browser favorites are on there.  I know about “Delicious” (probably spelled wrong), a social bookmarking tool that would enable me to access my online “favorites” from any computer and even share them with others.  Delicious is a Yahoo thing.  I have an old Yahoo account but I can’t remember the password.  Should I get another email address so that I can use the Yahoo related social bookmarking tool?  Just how much time am I willing to spend managing all my accounts and passwords?  I think Mozilla, my preferred browser, might remember my passwords for me.  Now how does that work?
  • “I do want to argue that teachers of composition need to pay attention to, and come to value, the multiple ways in which students compose and communicate meaning, the exciting hybrid, multimodal texts they create–in both nondigital and digital environments–to meet their own needs in a changing world” (Selfe 642). Students needs?  I keep forgetting to put in there that I often have to push (such an ugly word) students to consider what they want to know and what they ought to think about.  This was done for me countless times!  There was/is so much that I haven’t thought of.  My teachers (both in person and in the form of texts) showed me that there was more out there worth knowing about than I had imagined.  The main reason I blog and try to learn about multimodal texts isn’t so that I can be the best teacher.  I do this because I think of myself as a writer, and as a writer I imagine us heading deeper into a world where readers sit with laptops glancing at texts, or else fidgeting with some sort of controller, maybe a wireless keyboard, looking at their television screen and alternately watching videos and clicking on texts they want to read.  I’d like to have a voice in that world, even if it’s a voice that convinces them to take a break, go find a quiet place, and crack open a novel written on paper or lie under a tree and load up a digital novel on their Kindle.  (or whatever all those are called today)  When is my WordPress editor going to stop telling me that “multimodal” is misspelled?

Copy and Pasted from “Son of Citation”:

Selfe, Cynthia L. “”The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” CCC. 60.4 (2009): 616-663. Print.

Here are the online essays Selfe gives readers to check out.