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Think like a reader, writer, and teacher.

Fifty years ago this September, I stepped into a high school English class and attempted to teach writing. I am going to tell you a secret that I wish someone had told me 50 years ago when I was so afraid of making a mistake that I carried a pocket dictionary every time I walked into a classroom.  Here is the secret:  You already know more than you think you know.  So, take a deep breath, and concentrate on three main things:  You as a reader, you as a writer, and you as a teacher.

Be a reader. 

Start with yourself. Think about what you value in writing, any writing. Before you are a professional, you are a reader.  Write for about three minutes about what is important to you as a reader. If you are with others, discuss with a few people, and then share with a larger group.  You have just defined some writing goals for your students. You will need to have general writing goals and then particular writing goals for the class you are teaching and for the assignment you are giving. Goals for a first-year class can be more general than goals for a second or third year class, which is going to reflect readings and protocols in your discipline.  Your goals for your first assignment and your second or third papers, also, should be different because you want to increase the difficulty or complexity of your assignments.

None of these goals matter unless you communicate them.  Your students are not on the psychic hotline with you. It is unlikely they will magically sense what you consider important unless you communicate with them. When you convey this information—whether through speaking or writing—and the best approach is through speaking and writing, you are modeling good communication skills.  Writing is communication between one mind and another. Writing is the conduit, which makes the ideas of one mind transparent to another mind.  Whether what is in one of those minds is worth communicating or not is something, we will have to consider.

Be a reader is important when you are setting your goals, and it is important when you read your students’ papers as a reader. When I do not understand what a student has written. I write, “I don’t understand.” “I’ve lost the thread of the argument.” Or, “Do you have evidence to back up this point?” or “What is the point?” I always respond to papers as a reader. I also respond as a writer—“You might try so and so,” and as a teacher “Remember, we discussed xyz in class.” Nevertheless, responding as a reader comes first. Transparency and clarity in writing are two of my biggest goals.  My college acting teacher used to say, “If you are going to make a mistake, make it big enough for me to see it.”  How can I begin to help a student if I do know what the student understands?

Be a writer. 

You know you need to communicate your writing expectations, yes, but you also need to be aware of yourself as a writer—to think about your own process.  In order to teach writing, you need to think about how youwrite.  How you revise. How you move from an idea to publication. How might that process vary from project to project?  Think about your own writing process, and if you are with others, share your thoughts with them. What did you learn about yourself or the process of others?  When you think about your process, you are really thinking about how you manageyourself as a writer.  

How do you help your students have a process? You can talk to your students about your own process—how you manage yourself as a writer. How you break down your process. You can be honest, and admit that writing is messy and hard. Thank about what resources you have. Consider what resources your students have. Do you direct them to the Writing Center to the Library, to other support services?

Teaching your students to manage themselves, as writers, is one of the most important things you can do in helping them become better writers. Not always, but frequently, the paper your students hand you is a first draft—or not even that—what I call a discovery or exploratory draft. They are thinking, “What do I know about this subject?” Rather than thinking, “How do I communicate what I know to another person?” Consider how much time you give your students to write. Is it enough?   Do you budget a week for every 5-7 pages you assign? When I teach a writing course, my students write three drafts of every paper. Along the way, they receive feedback from their peers, peer writing tutors, and from me—a process that spans several weeks. This has worked beautifully, but it may not be realistic for you in your course.  So, I invented the 30-minute writing process, which I will unveil shortly. 

Be a teacher. 

Do you remember the old question, “What are the three most important things in real estate?” The answer, of course, is “Location. Location. Location.” Your location is your classroom, or your office or your desk. Whatever you do, face to face conveys importance. So, use the classroom, or your office to convey your expectations, to share writing management, to discuss the assignment. To say what it is your students need toknow to complete the assignment. Here is the 30-minute writing process: When I give out paper topics, I spend 15 minutes in class discussing the assignment.  I might have three or four possible prompts. I discuss each one, discuss how a student might approach each one, and discuss what the student needs to know to complete each one. Then I ask students to eliminate one right then, to draw a big X through that topic. I ask them to spend another 15 minutes of their own time that day or the next day looking at and thinking about the assignment, and choosing one.  Even if they never look at that assignment again until the night before the paper is due, it has been sloshing around in their brains for a bit, and they will write a better paper.

You have all heard by now of “Flipping the classroom.” It’s hot. It’s the new thing.  Teachers of writing smile “about the “flipped classroom” because we’ve always flipped the classroom.  We have always workshopped student work. We do not ask students just to comment on how they like a student paper, and we do not ask peers to fix semicolons. Instead, we workshop student work in a very directed way.  To write well, students need to read well and perceptively. This can happen in directed workshops, where students learn first to be readers and editors of each other’s work. I’m always frank with students about the benefits of the workshop—that they will, at first, learn more as a reader/editor of someone else’s work, then as a writer, but soon, they will learn to be perceptive readers of their own work. Maybe you do not have time for that. Maybe your class is too big. You can bring in examples of opening paragraphs from a previous class and discuss.  Or before your students hand in their own work, you can ask them to read their own papers silently in class—and make changes.

As a teacher, you should be asking yourself, why you are assigning a paper. What is the point? Is it to know if your students understand the content?  Is it to see if they can use concepts you have taught them on new content? Is it to apply theories to new situations? To recognize and understand the research knowledge in the field?   Is it to use key terms or theories in your disciple? If you cannot answer these questions, or if you are not conveying this—how can your students write well?  As a teacher, you have to answer these questions: 

  • What do your students have to know or understand before they write?
  • How well do your students understand your content?
  • How well have you taught them about this subject matter before they write?

Two experiences molded me as a teacher before I taught writing to college students. First, before Middlebury, I taught in suburban, rural, urban, and inner city high schools, and I attended a private high school—all, vastly different experiences.  When I taught English in a NYC high school, I taught 150-200 students a semester. When I began teaching at Middlebury, I knew my students had had vastly different educational experiences before they arrived at Middlebury. I have tried hard not to make assumptions about what they know or do not know, and I have sought to normalize what they knew or did not know. I often introduced a skill with the words, “As you may have already learned or not.”  

Second, for five years, I was “just” as a stay at home mom. Those five years taught me more about teaching than I learned from any book, or that I learned in the other 45 years of my teaching life. My two same gender children, from the same gene pool, learned completely differently. One remembered most what she saw.  The other remembered most what she heard.  One wanted to learn with me sitting next to her. The other wanted to try things on her own. Because students learn differently, I have tried to teach a variety of ways.  I create opportunities for students to listen, to read, to write, to speak, to act.  I encourage students to share things with others, and to try tasks own their own. I share important instructions in class, on paper, and online on a course website.  Always, I direct students to resources.  What you might change in the way you teach writing? Take a few minutes to write or think about this. For now, keep this information just for you.

Finally, what have I learned most in 25 or 50 years of teaching writing? 

Humility, Patience, and Faith

  • Humility: You cannot teach everything there is to teach about writing from one paper. You cannot even do it in one course.  You are one stop—one important stop— on a writer’s journey.  Many people set your student on this path, some well, some not so well, but you are not the only one.
  • Patience: not only with your students but, also, with yourself. Take the time to know what you expect, and spell that out.  Respect where your students are in their writing journeys.  Give your students good directions. Take the time to prepare your students. Give your students enough time to write well and to revise– week for every 5-7 pages, and throw a weekend in there.  Give your students support, and direct them to the Writing Center, Learning Resources, and the Library for more support.
  • Have Faith: pass your students on to the next stop in their writing journeys, and have faith that the next person on that journey will care as much about your students’ writing lives as you do. 

Mary Ellen Bertolini

Whenever I teach a class of first-year students, I ask the question, “How many of you have ever read a college level paper?”  In a class of 15, occasionally, one student raises a hand, usually, none do.

Then I tell them, here’s what often happens: “We assign a college level paper. We don’t tell you what that is or what we want. You write what you think a college paper is. Then we judge you.” Collective sigh. 

“That’s not what we are going to do in this class.” Happy sigh.

Every paper I assign in this first year course has three drafts. The first draft is read and peer reviewed in a class workshop, then read and discussed with a Peer Writing Mentor. After receiving feedback, the student writes draft two. I read and comment on draft two in an one-on-one session, and then the student writes draft three, which I grade. My comments are geared to exactly what each student needs to work on in each paper. Sometimes, I deal with understanding of content; sometimes, grammar, structure and syntax; sometimes, we cam move right on to style. Draft by draft, paper by paper, students are learning by doing, listening, thinking, and writing to create college level papers. One of the times students learn most occurs when they read and comment on other students’ papers. In the first few papers, editors learn most. By the midpoint of the semester, students are also learning from their peers. Especially in the beginning of the semester, peer review workshops need to be targeted, so editors have helpful parameters for commenting.

Here are the worksheets I use when students meet in groups of three to workshop five papers:






Here are the worksheets I use with the whole class for draft two of the first three papers:P3D2




It happened again this semester.  It’s not just that they were good students and good people, which they were. It’s not just that they were diverse and charming, and often funny, which they were. I fell in love most with their openness, their enthusiasm, their willingness to engage, to learn.

Here is what they answered when I asked the question:     What did you learn this semester? 

Two years ago, a similar class answered the same question this way.

  • Keep readers in mind.
  • Use the thesis statement as a road map for readers.
  • Learn American-style writing.
  • Learn to be a responsible college writer who can deliver a competent college essay.
  • i-Movie is not hard, but fun.
  • Ideas cannot stand without good evidence.
  • The difference between revising, editing, and proofreading is huge. Don’t forget it.
  • Don’t rant in your formal essays. You can do that just for yourself.
  • Make sure topic sentences lay out what your paragraph is about–a mini road map.
  • Use active voice. Eliminate “to be” verbs as much as possible.
  • Write a strong first draft.
  • Structure a good thesis to give a good direction to the paper
  • Give a different style to your paper depending on your reader.
  • Proofread.
  • Have a good thesis before you start writing.
  • Use the quotation sandwich.
  • Topic sentences need to flow.
  • Be an active and helpful team member.
  • Getting feedback from your professor and your peers is effective.
  • Ask “So what?” and “Who cares?” for better analysis of papers.
  • Make eye contact during oral presentations.
  • Be disciplined in your work.
  • Tie up thoughts in the conclusion, and add something more.
  • First impressions do not count (We read Pride and Prejudice!).
  • Americans own things and ideas.
  • In a sentence, paragraph, or paper, the most important thing comes last.

John Wilders, a dear friend and colleague passed away this week. He was also my teacher for Shakespere’s History Plays at the Bread Loaf School of English, Lincoln College, Oxford.  When John retired from teaching at Middlebury College, my husband wrote the following minute in his honor:

Faculty Minute for John Wilders (5/11/98):

Oscar Wilde divided people thus: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” John Wilders most definitely belongs in the first category, for he and his wife Benedikte, have by their gracious presences, by their many contributions to the community of Middlebury, improved the tone of the place immeasurably.

John Wilders, graduate of Cambridge University, has taught at many colleges and universities: at Bristol, at Oxford for many years, even at such remote corners of the empire where strange versions of the mother tongue are intoned, such as Australia and California, but none where his heart, I know, has so well resided as at Middlebury. John began his association with Middlebury by teaching at the Bread Loaf School of English; shortly thereafter he was appointed professor of humanities at Middlebury college, and has now taught in the English Department for the last several years. During those years, John has been the most helpful and collegial of colleagues. He has made available generously his un-matched knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare to innumerable students and teachers. Colleagues from other departments have sought him out to give lectures on Shakespeare and Religion, Shakespeare and Philosophy–perhaps even Shakespeare and Economics or Shakespeare and Chemistry, for all I know. As a scholar, John is mightily admired far and wide, for his work on Shakespeare: his book on the history plays, The Lost Garden; his best-selling New Prefaces to Shakespeare, a collection of his introductions to each of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, which John prepared for the BBC television productions of all Shakespeare’s plays–a monumental project for which John served as literary advisor. Most recently, he has published the prestigious Arden edition of Antony and Cleopatra, and he is currently at work on a book about the Scottish tragedy, but I think when he arrives at the pearly gates, as some of us will also–eventually–the seraphic scribe will welcome him by saying, “Are you the John Wilders who did that splendid edition of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras? Allow me to shake your wing,  sir!” And as a teacher, he is almost too much loved by his students–certainly he makes things awfully hard for the rest of us.

John has in his life played many parts: he has  been a concert announcer on BBC radio, a religion panelist and actor  on BBC television, a member of the board of governors of the Royal Shakespeare Company, a guest at Buckingham palace, a recruit of her majesty’s navy, and on and on–I cannot list them all here. I have been fortunate enough to have been lunching with John once or twice a week for the time he has been teaching at Middlebury. In fact, we now preface every anecdote with the disclaimer, “I’m sure I’ve told you this before.” Actually, in all these years, he has never repeated a one to me, and I marvel anew during each lunch, at his fund of encounters, literary and theatrical, as he reveals some remarkable experience or other–the time Tom Stoppard painted his staircase for him, or when Joyce Carey, the actress, invited him to what he thought would be a romantic luncheon, or when he saw Richard Burton’s stage debut.

If I may end on a personal note: I knew John Wilders before I knew John Wilders. At the age of 12 or so I bought a recording of Julius Caesar performed by the Marlowe Society of Cambridge University in order to learn Julius Caesar’s speeches from the play properly. Little did I know that the actor reciting Julius Caesar’s lines on that recording–whose every inflection and modulation I taught myself to mimic–would become a dear friend and colleague. One of John’s line readings I best remember is “I am constant as the northern star.” And that has been true of John Wilders, he has been constant as the northern star, constant as a personal friend, constant in his principles, constant as a teacher to his students, constant as a colleague to the faculty, constant as a friend to the community.

Dear John, what we owe you is incalculable. Thank you.

Submitted by: John Bertolini, Ellis Prof. of the Liberal Arts


`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master – – that’s all.’

Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

Words have meaning. We all know that, but sometimes like Humpty Dumpty college students think they can use words without taking into account the actual meaning of those words.  Student writers often forget that on the other side of those words, a real reader (a faculty member grading their papers) is reading and struggling to understand words that have been misused.

First-year students, especially, try to fit into the college experience both socially and academically. In their writing, they use words they think the faculty want to read, words they hope will make them seem part of the academic community. Too often, they have, at best, only a half-knowledge of the meaning of these words. When students use words they have not mastered, the end result is confusion and miscommunication, and we write the dreaded word, “Diction” in the margin.

Frequently, when I discuss their papers with my students, I hear myself asking, “Would you actually ever say this word in any conversation with anyone?” If the answer is no, I suggest they find a word they feel more comfortable using.   Often when I ask students what they think a misused word means, they shrug or laugh self-consciously. Sometimes I even get an honest, “I don’t know,” or “No idea.”

I encourage my students to convey their ideas in the words they have mastered. As they read more and absorb more, they naturally will grow into a wider vocabulary, and they will become comfortable in the language of academic discourse. Along the way, I ask them to treat their words and their readers with honesty and respect.

I asked the members of my WRPR 0100 class to indicate three things they had learned about writing this semester. This is their list:

  1. editing process is useful–print  drafts to read somewhere else helpful–fully explain quotations
  2. set paper aside to marinate–use more details–flow and coherence
  3. thesis more concise–reread papers several times–comma plus and!
  4. how to write a paper–structure of a paper–introduction–thesis-unity/coherence/development–passive voice–participles
  5. collaborate and edit with peers–write in drafts–eliminate passive
  6. paper with thesis statement–good flow of ideas–dep and indep clauses–analyze in an essay
  7. dangling modifiers-write in complete non-fragmented sentences–analyze other writings and use their techniques
  8. use scientific method on papers–details! eliminate redundancy
  9. word placement–subtle changes can hold reader’s interest–paragraph structure–participles!!
  10. comma splices! topic sentences! drafts are your friend (esp. when done before midnight)
  11. difference between hyphen (-) and dash (–) consider reader’s feelings when writing–use other media to express ideas, too
  12. MLA citations–avoid change in verb tenses–do not create your own facts about a book or movie
  13. thesis statement–topic sentence–how to make conclusion better
  14. how she writes and her strengths and weaknesses–passive voice–form a stronger argument by manipulating sentences, paragraphs, paper as a whole
  15. grammar rules–add specific details to thesis statement–coherent sentences
  16. topic sentence should start the paragraph– avoid this and that in the beginning of a sentence–difference between long and short sentences in paragraph can help ideas
  17. participles–dangling modifiers–adding new ideas to the conclusion

I’m off to the International First-Year Experience Conference to discuss Faculty Buy-In: Engaging and Retaining Faculty Instructors:

Attracting hesitant faculty, especially tenured, senior faculty, to the first year seminar classroom is not always an easy task. This roundtable will focus on ways to engage and retain faculty instructors and develop their willing and enthusiastic participation, while strengthening the important Faculty/Student Affairs/ Writing Tutorial connection. The discussion will encourage other institutions to share best practices, discuss challenges, and brainstorm new ideas for faculty engagement.

Here are my handouts for the session:

  • History and Background of Middlebury’s FYS program
  • Peer Writing Tutor Info and “Harvest Cycle” of Faculty Development
  • Here are my presentation notes:

    Key Piece of Advice:

    Tell your story often and in many venues. And listen, really listen, to what your faculty have to stay.


    * administrative support/ faculty voted in FYS over 20 years ago. Specifics and history of the program on the Middlebury handout.
    * Since 2004, FYS director also director of CTLR (supports both faculty and students in learning and teaching), so CTLR supports students with writing, math, and study skills professionals and with peer mentors, tutors. CTLR also supports faculty with faculty development opportunities, such as workshops and consultations.

    Three Components for Successful Faculty Buy-in

    1. flexibility/opportunity–What do faculty get out of this experience?
    * flexibility–choice of topic–opportunity to teach something different, of special interest, or topical
    * opportunity to making it manageable–team support (peer writing mentor, librarian/ed tech) enables faculty to experiment and risks
    * flexibility–choosing a team–whole, part, choosing its members, no team
    * opportunity to bonding with students and to understand what the next crop of students is like
    * opportunity to lure students into your area of study
    * opportunities for tenured and junior faculty to experiment with different pedagogies and tools
    * creating the students they want to see in their other courses

    2. information–How are faculty getting information about your program and help when they need it?
    * e-mails & online info, face to face group meeting in spring
    * faculty development opportunities–Pedagogy series in June, in January, and throughout the year
    * Writing Retreat in August
    * follow up meeting in fall
    * ability to consult with members of the writing program throughout the year
    * website info about advising and teaching writing

    3. follow-up–How do you know if your faculty and students are engaged? If your program is successful?
    * midterm survey peer writing tutors
    * check ins by librarians
    * end of the semester evaluation
    * five-year longitudinal study of the class of 2010 (Teagle Grant)
    * Ward Prize


    * not without challenges
    * not without changes
    * not without shifting monetary support
    * You can’t take anything for granted: not money, not support. You have to keep telling your story, listening for problems, urging your faculty members to tell their stories to each other.

    Here are links to previous First-Year Experience Conference Middlebury presentations:

My summer was marked by several events. First, I spent three weeks working with a faculty group looking at examples of student writing from the class of 2010. To do so, we worked collaboratively to create a rubric to assess college-level writing. The rubric-making process was as enlightening as the information we gleaned from the assessments.  The faculty members came from various disciplines–literature, film, math, foreign language, and political science.  Ironically, my assessments were closest to those of the math professor!  Second, we presented some of our findings at the 22nd International Conference on The First-Year Experience in Montréal (July 23, 2009).

Jane Austen's house in Chawton

Jane Austen's house in Chawton

In June I took a longed-for trip to England with my younger daughter to visit Jane Austen sites.  I hope to write more about this trip later. (In a few weeks, I will be on leave and will be immersed in all Austen all-the-time), but here are a very few of the over 3,000 pics I took on my trip.

This fall, I’ve spent most of my professional time tutoring writing, an experience I have thoroughly enjoyed. I have some thoughts about the process of turning good high school writers into good college writers that I hope to write about once the semester is over. Another thing that has filled my time is Middlebury’s  Web Redo project. With two other colleagues, I’ve been working on the four sites for our offices (Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research; Office of Learning Resources; Writing Program, and First-Year Seminar Program).  I’m not linking here because the old sites will disappear, and the new ones aren’t ready yet.  I’m saving my opinion of Drupal until the process is complete.  I’m guessing when the process is finally  complete, all the work and frustrations will have been well worth the effort.  Stay tuned.

Tech Fair

Participated in Teaching with Technology,

Tech Fair, Co-sponsored by the CTLR and LIS @ Middlebury on Thursday, June 4th.

I looked at some of the ways I’ve used technology in four classes:

Mack made posters for all of us who presented:

I had such fun speaking to Jasna-VT last Sunday about Jane Austen’s Persuasion! Janites Deb and Kelly have created an articulate and welcoming group that sponsors a variety of Jane-related talks and events throughout the year. One of my favorites has been the Birthday Tea complete with Regency Dancing by the Burlington Country Dancers.

The great joy I felt in speaking to this group came from the fact that the audience knew their Austen backwards and forwards– not only Persuasion, which was Sunday’s topic, but the whole Austen corpus as well.  I love to introduce Austen to my students, some of whom have only a fleeting film familiarity with her work before the course begins, but what a treat to share my thoughts with the Jane Austen Choir in Vermont!

Thank you, Janites in Vermont and everywhere.

I don’t ordinarilly talk about my personal life too much on this blog, but our local campus newspapers did a Valentine article about campus couples, and I can’t resist linking to it here. Mr. B. and I are the first couple.


One of the wonderful things about working at Middlebury College is that every three Januarys, I have a month off from teaching. Don’t get me wrong. I love teaching, and my students bring me great joy, but a bit of time away from the classroom means time for longer projects, time to indulge in a sustained thought.  This January, I’m working on two projects: revision for an article about how I use writing workshops in my Writing to Heal course and preparation for a JASNA-VT talk on Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Certainly, immersing myself in the Peninsular War and the Convention of Cintra have helped me weather the snow, ice, and cold that has descended on northern New England this year.

The National Resource Center 21st International Conference on

The First Year Experience

Dublin Ireland

June 23-26, 2008


FYS as a Locus for Faculty Development: Creating Mini Learning Communities



Moved to WP

MT blogs have been down for a bit at Middlebury, but one by one they are resurfacing on WordPress.

Yesterday, I was asked how to conduct a writing workshop without a particular paper due. Although nothing can quite replace the immediacy of a newly-written paper, we and our students can benefit greatly from a look at past work. In fact, sometimes a little distance from the due date of the assignment can add a much-needed perspective to the writing discussion.

One of my favorite non-specific paper exercises is Sentence Clinic. I ask students to do the following before class.

Write down two sentences from your paper or journals we will discuss today :
1. A sentence that you think worked well, one that makes you feel proud (Why do you like this sentence?)
2. A sentence that never quite worked, one that we will look at in the sentence clinic (Why do you think this sentence does not work?)

During class, we use this worksheet. What happens in this exercise is two fold. First, students articulate what they like about their good sentences. From this discussion, we can develop norms and expectations for sentence writing. Second, they bring their bad sentences to the clinic. Depending on the size of the class and the time we have to devote to this, the clinic will either be the whole class or smaller groups within the class. Students discuss what these sentences fail to do, and the other clinic members make suggestions for improvement. I like to do this exercise in the middle or towards the end of the semester when students have developed their vocabulary for discussing writing as well as some trust in each other. Always I want to emphasize the “Why” factor—Why did you like this sentence? Why did you not like that sentence? The “Why” discussions are the best part of the whole exercise.

Another quick exercise I like around the middle of the semester is Thesis Blitz. Students write a current or past thesis statement at the top of a paper, and we send it around the class, so everyone (including the faculty member) and comment quickly. I do this after I have already introduced and discussed thesis statements quite a bit, so this exercise is usually a wake-up call to students. By looking at some better thesis statements, students quickly become exposed to good models. By seeing not so good models, students understand better the importance of the thesis statement. Finally, this exercise has the value of producing a preponderance of evidence. When students see that nine people think a thesis is not specific enough, they begin to take that comment seriously.

Finally, some of my favorite workshops are the ones on style. I usually conduct these between drafts two and three of a paper, but they can work any time. For these, I use the work of students long graduated to illustrate style concepts, such as clarity, coherence, emphasis:
Finally, some of my favorite workshops are the ones on style. I usually conduct these between drafts two and three of a paper, but they can work any time. For these, I use the work of students long graduated to illustrate style concepts, such as clarity, coherence, emphasis:

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