English literature and composition

Essay on teaching the importance of pleasure reading

In my Effective Reading Strategies class, we focus on managing the heavy and varied assigned reading loads college students often face. We consider the purpose for reading (discussion, papers, exams), the type of reading, and the best ways to approach each text. By the end of the semester, we’re ready for a change of pace.

All along, I’ve been stressing the importance of recreational reading that will increase students’ background knowledge. For example, our Science Library’s “Speaking of Science” blog contains links to The New York Times and Washington Post science sections, as well as local science-related news. Beyond that, I’ve been encouraging students to consider all types of pleasure reading, anything that might improve their reading fluency and stamina: books, magazines, websites, graphic novels, movie and book connections, and audio books. The Oberlin College Library has some great resources, including a recreational reading collection, and I’ve made students aware of this.

At the end of the semester, I’m mindful of the fact that students are heading off for a break, and I like to think they will make some extra time for pleasure reading. But they write reading autobiographies for me, so I know that some of them have never really enjoyed recreational reading and others have gotten out of the habit, often because of heavy assigned reading loads.

I’m not giving up, though. On the last day of class, I ask students to share the titles of their favorite books, in the hope that they’ll all leave with a list that contains at least a few titles of potential interest. The first time I did this, the list was replete with Great Books and modern classics. Few students seemed very enthusiastic about their choices.

After that, I made it clear that I wanted students to be honest. I encouraged them to think about a book they’d reread, or a recent favorite, rather than worrying about the import of the label “favorite.” To prove my point, I brought in my well-worn copies of Miss Rumphius and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and talked about why I like them so much. The lists became more eclectic. Standards like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby now mix with Harry Potter and the Twilight series. In addition, we get a sampling of some current fiction and nonfiction titles that represent a wide range of interests.

While it seems laughably obvious, I tell students that pleasure reading should be pleasant. Not that they should never challenge themselves, but that the books they choose should be ones they’ll embrace, not avoid. To set the right tone, we discuss The Reader’s Bill of Rights.  Now we’re ready to share titles, authors and thumbnail sketches of our choices.

Sometimes students are diffident: “It’s just a young adult book,” they’ll begin, only to have their choices spontaneously affirmed with “oohs” and “aahs” or “I loved that book, too.” Invariably, when we’ve gone around the room once, someone asks if it’s O.K. to mention another title, and other students jump in. Usually we run out of time before we run out of titles. One of the students, by prior arrangement, has typed the list into her laptop. She e-mails it to me and I send it to the entire class.

I have been pleasantly surprised that nearly everyone enters into these discussions enthusiastically. Even students who admit that they seldom, or never, read for pleasure, seem excited to have a list of approachable books to consider. I remind them that individual tastes vary widely and these are only suggestions.

It always feels like a successful way to end the class, and the semester. Recently, I received an e-mail from a student who took my class nine years ago. As always, his message included these two lines: “I’ve been reading ____ " and “What are you reading?”

Melissa Ballard is a study and reading strategies instructor at Oberlin College.

Essay on reworking the role of lectures

What comes to many of our students’ mind when they hear the word "rhetoric"? Specious arguments that are all glamor and little substance? Or perhaps stodgy old professors lecturing on and on about Cicero this and Quintilian that?

As a teacher of writing, and as a proponent of active learning, I have always disdained the traditional lecture. Yet, each term, for each course that I teach — from freshman "basic writing" courses, to graduate courses in teaching (and learning) college writing — I have always included a somewhat traditional introductory lecture on rhetoric. Sure, I give it all I’ve got in order to not only provide students the information I want them to use in their analytical work (content), but also to enact a living model of delivery (form) — what the greatest of the Greek orators, Demosthenes, declared the most important part of any speech. But this term I decided to shake things up a bit. I wondered what would happen if I turned over the reins of my prized rhetoric-lecture thoroughbred over to the hands and minds of the students to ride (deliver).

Like Mike Garver, I wanted to explode the way the lecture typically works rather than, like some of our colleagues in math, attempt to do away with lectures altogether. But I also wanted the students to have a much more active role in the actual generation and delivery of the lecture — a form of instruction I do believe can have merit. Would this experiment result in witnessing my tame lecture turn into a wild stampede? Or would (as I hoped) the students buck up, plant their feet firmly in her stirrups and, like Alexander with Bucephalus, make this beast their own?

The Game Plan

I began my plans by dividing the lecture into parts, depending on how many students were in each of my three classes: for my basic writing course of 10, I had them work in pairs; for my intermediate composition course of 21, teams of three; and for my graduate course of 14, also pairs. Each group was responsible for delivering their section of the lecture in about 10-15 minutes. I told them they had the choice of how they wanted to deliver it. As they buzzed, frenetically strategizing and planning together in class, I fielded their many questions, but tried not to give too much direction. I explained that I wanted them to work on this "problem-situation" with their partners as much as possible. I encouraged them to try not to make too much out of this, that this was a low-stakes assignment designed mostly to prepare them for later work.

The day of the presentation I began by explaining to students that the ancient Roman classroom (especially training in the carefully scaffolded progymnasmata as detailed by Quintilian) was a very interactive place where peer critique was the name of the game. So I let them know that the audience was going to actually be the most important part of the presentations. As an audience we would be critiquing the presenters. We decided that since I had provided most of the content, the assessment criteria would all hinge upon elements of delivery. We agreed upon three broad and interpretive categories: creativity, clarity, and energy. Each category would be scored on a scale of 0-to-5, 5 being the highest, for a possible total of 15 points overall.  

Judgment Day

I must say, I was beyond pleasantly surprised by what followed. The first class to go was my intermediate-level class in groups of three. The first group made a valiant effort to get our momentum off to a good start. They were strong in creativity but fumbled many of their lines, and overall stuck pretty close to the lecture script I had provided. Two of the presenters also delivered in somewhat monotone voices with relatively low energy. The second group, however, came ready to deliver. Michelle DelGuidice and Adam Aluise, as well as Alyssa Barnhart (all students' names used with permission) who was not in class this day but did contribute her ideas, creatively took Kenneth Burke’s concept of the five dramatistic terms — act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose — and applied them to a real-life event.  The act: "O.J. Simpson (allegedly, as Michelle would dark-comically interject) kills two people." The scene: "O.J. and Nicole Simpson’s home."  The agent: "O.J. Simpson (allegedly)." The agency: "He stabs them both to death." The purpose: "Jealousy." Each term came complete with an actual picture from the trial. All other groups fell somewhere on a continuum of these two types of presentations. Some really filtered the assignment and lecture notes through what Burke called their interpretive "termistic screens." Others stuck pretty close to the script, perhaps adding some sort of visual element via the projector or the dry-erase board.

The basic writing students also surprised me. The first group, made up of Jahnea Farquharson and Ashley Tremblay, delivered what I often call a "you had me at hello" presentation ("Jerry Maguire"). They had a PowerPoint wherein they delivered their section with significant visual addendums, they projected their voices loud and clear, and they spoke with passion and emphases. This first group even added some additional information involving Aristotle’s three types of rhetorical arguments: deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. Of course, the rest of the class knew that this first group had set the bar extremely high. I played the role of good facilitator and assured them that they would all do just fine and to have confidence. Like the intermediate-level students, the rest of the groups fell along the same sort of oratory-continuum, from low-talkers, to folks who pretty much just read off the paper, to students fumbling with audio-visual buttons and screens.

I had high hopes for my graduate students. And, just like my undergraduates, they didn’t disappoint. The entire class and I sat enrapt and entertained as group after group delivered presentations abounding with thoughtfulness and overflowing with great energy and humor (and this is an evening class, from 7:35 to 10:05 pm). One of the key differences in the performances of the graduate students was how much they drew on the power of acting.

Several groups created characters as the conduits for their delivery. For example, the first group introduced us to the characters of Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. Logos (played by Charles Hamlin) was very matter-of-fact in his speech as he talked of some ways he deploys himself in the service of argumentation. Pathos (played by Jake Goldman) was an energetic and emotional speaker who talked of the significance of the sentimental value of a dinner plate heirloom from his grandmother that he brought in to show and tell us about. Ethos (also played by Jake Goldman) presented an authoritative figure who was actually an expert in the arts of persuasion. He had written many books on the subject and had an impressive way of linking his argumentation to his previous partners’ talks comparatively. After watching my graduate students perform so excellently, I was left to ponder the ancient rhetorical admonishment from the most renowned of Roman orators, Cicero: "The habits of actors must be studied if we wish to perfect our delivery." 

Coda

For each class, I let them know that each group, at least from me, had received a full score of five on creativity. I let them all know that they all did a good job of making the lecture their own. I told them that if they think they are not "creative" then they had better guess again. (I have had many students say that they are "not creative.") I explained that I believe all humans, and most animals, are creative. I said I have three dogs and I have watched them all solve problems and try to figure things out … creatively. I praised them all heavily, telling all students that they did a much better job overall than I had ever done. And that everyone had some strengths and weaknesses — some groups that may not have been as “energetic” were good with "clarity" for example. By the time I had experienced all three classes, I could report back the results to all my students comparatively.

Sure, maybe I could have been more critical of the students’ performances. Yes, perhaps more critical scrutiny would have been more edifying for the low-talkers, or the underprepared, or the obviously nervous. But what is most important for young, or older, active minds to hear? Since, as a class, we assessed and critiqued each group, everyone knew how they had performed in the eyes of their peers; from our interaction, they knew/learned what they might have done better, more, less. I don’t think they needed me spurring them on any more than that.

Most of my in-class lesson plans do involve collaborative interactivity. And, along with other essays I have written for Inside Higher Ed, this essay has attempted to respond to an argument I recently made regarding teachers of writing holding themselves up to the same rigorous performance expectations and standards (habits of mind) as their students. So when I foresee the chance, I will try to make all of my activities in class reach for the stars like this one.  I will consider my students as colleagues more carefully, and I will try to imagine what might happen if I let them ride a wild-horse activity out of the gates from time to time. Maybe they will do their part to put the word “rhetoric” back in the proper intellectual tradition (albeit with an energetic modern twist) that it deserves. (For a lively introduction to the study of rhetoric, created by Clemson grad students, see the YouTube video "In Defense of Rhetoric: Not Just for Liars.")


 

Steven J. Corbett is assistant professor of English and director of the composition program at Southern Connecticut State University.

Colleges differ on the role of exams in evaluating student writing

Smart Title: 

Decades ago, two colleges in Virginia decided all students would need to pass essay exam to graduate. Old Dominion just dropped the unusual requirement, while Hampden-Sydney has no intention of doing so.

Assistant professor

Date Announced: 
Mon, 04/02/2012

Essay on the value of first-year writing courses

Of all the words that might be applied to Rush Limbaugh’s recent comments about Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke — "vile," "misogynistic" and "repulsive" come to mind — one word that has no place in the discussion is "surprise." Limbaugh has made a phenomenally lucrative career of such comments, mocking women, minorities, and many others with gleeful impunity. In doing so, he has inspired a small but disproportionately loud army of imitators on talk radio, cable television, and, increasingly, in the halls of Congress, whose rhetorical tactics of misinformation, demonization, incendiary metaphors, and poisonous historical analogies have done much to debase public discourse.

To say that the current state of public discourse is abysmal seems self-evident. Toxic rhetoric has become a fact of everyday life, a form of entertainment, and a corporate product. Aside from Limbaugh, the contemporary rhetorical scene features pundits such as Glenn Beck, who once mused on-air about killing a public official with a shovel, and talk radio host Neal Boortz, who compared Muslims to "cockroaches." Politicians can be equally offensive. Allen West, the Florida congressman, has compared the Democratic Party to Nazi propagandists, while California congresswoman Maxine Waters has called Republican leaders "demons." Given the forces of money and the power that support such discourse, it would easy to conclude that there is no remedy for toxic rhetoric and no credible opposing forces working to counteract it.

Such a view, however, would be mistaken. In fact, there is a well-organized, systematic, and dedicated effort taking place each day to promote an ethical public discourse grounded in the virtues of honesty, accountability, and generosity. The site of this effort is largely hidden from public view, taking place in the classrooms of universities and colleges across the United States. Even in academe, the movement for an ethical public discourse is largely overlooked. Indeed, it has been historically underfunded, inadequately staffed, and generally marginalized. I refer, of course, to first-year composition, the introductory writing course required at many public and private institutions.

To some, this may seem counterintuitive. First-year composition — also called academic writing, writing and rhetoric, college composition and other names — is not typically associated with improving public discourse, much less considered a "movement." To students required to take the course, it may initially be seen as a speed bump, an exercise in curricular gatekeeping best dispatched as painlessly as possible. To faculty who do not teach the course, it may inaccurately be dismissed as a remedial exercise in grammar and paragraph formation, functioning somewhere below the threshold of higher education proper.

Yet the first-year writing course represents one of the few places in the academic curriculum, in some institutions the only place, where students learn the basics of argument, or how to make a claim, provide evidence, and consider alternative points of view. Argument is the currency of academic discourse, and learning to argue is a necessary skill if students are to succeed in their college careers. Yet the process of constructing arguments also engages students, inevitably and inescapably, in questions of ethics, values, and virtues.

What do students learn, for example, when learning to make a claim? To make a claim in an argument is to propose a relationship between others and ourselves. For the relationship to flourish, a degree of trust must exist among participants, which means that readers must be assured that claims are made without equivocation or deception. To make a successful claim, then, students practice the virtue of honesty.

In the same way, to offer evidence for claims is both to acknowledge the rationality of the audience, which we trust will reason cogently enough to examine our views justly, and a statement of our own integrity, our willingness to support assertions with proofs. In offering evidence, we practice the virtues of respectfulness and accountability.

And when students include counter-arguments in their essays, when they consider seriously opinions, facts, or values that contradict their own, they practice the most radical and potentially transformative behavior of all; they sacrifice the consolations of certainty and expose themselves to the doubts and contradictions that adhere to every worthwhile question. In learning to listen to others, students practice the virtues of tolerance and generosity.

First-year composition, in other words, is more than a course in grammar and rhetoric. Beyond these, it is a course in ethical communication, offering students opportunities to learn and practice the moral and intellectual virtues that Aristotle identified in his Nicomachean Ethics as the foundation for a good life.

What does this mean for the future of public discourse? Potentially a great deal. Consider the numbers. The Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), the professional association of writing programs, counts 152 university and college writing programs in its ranks. Each program may offer anywhere between 10 and 70 writing courses each semester, in classes of 12 to 25 students. Moreover, the CWPA represents just a fraction of the 4,495 institutions of higher education in the United States, serving some 20 million students. This suggests that even by the most conservative estimate thousands of institutions offer some form of first-year writing, and tens of thousands of students each year — likely many more than that — have opportunities to study the relationships of argument, ethics, and public discourse. Indeed, the first-year writing course is the closest thing we have in American public life to a National Academy of Reasoned Rhetoric, a venue in which students can rehearse the virtues of argument so conspicuously lacking in our current political debates.

Should students bring these virtues to the civic square, they will inevitably transform it, distancing us from the corrosive language of figures such as Rush Limbaugh and moving us toward healthier, more productive, and more generous forms of public argument. This, at any rate, is the promise of the long-maligned first-year writing course.

John Duffy is the Francis O'Malley Director of the University Writing Program and an associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.

Essay on the atmosphere at writing programs conference

I recently spent four days at the AWP Carnival at the Chicago Hilton; there were, according to various reports, anywhere from 9,300 to 10,000 in attendance, and I saw most of those attendees standing ahead of me in line at Starbucks or waiting for a seat at Kitty O’Shea’s Pub. This was the annual convention of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, where “writers, editors, and publishers come together.” And like most carnivals, it dealt in dreams.

There were 450 panels to choose from — all holding the promise of some magical connection, some dim and dimly borrowed light. This last was sometimes the literal case: a session on writing for radio involved the audience sitting in the dark and listening to the panelists’ favorite segments. Their advice: storytelling is key (well, yes) and audience members should feel free to look up any of the panelists online.

Interestingly, the session audiences’ biggest applause seemed to be reserved not for resume line-items involving publishing coups (such as one, two or even three memoirs -- that particular author deserved a round of applause for the sheer stamina involved not only in the life she lived but also her determination to write -- and write -- about it) but for announcements by panelists regarding tenure. At one session, a mystery writer announced that her recent MFA in playwriting had led to a tenure-track appointment; at another, the crowd literally went wild when a poet panelist announced that she had just received tenure. The irony of the fact that she was part of a panel promising to reveal what sort of work outside academia could bring MFA graduates, if not fame and fortune, then at least enough money to pay off their loans, went largely unnoticed. As for that session, the lead presenter was absent, and so the others valiantly soldiered on. It turned out that for these panelists, at least, “outside academia” meant working on the edges of academia. The advice included:

  • Hold creative writing salons in your home.
  • Be fortunate enough to have a thesis adviser who is selected to be Poet Laureate; then work as an intern for him/her.
  • Go back to school! Specifically, go back to school for an MLS degree. (Libraries are among the first to be hit in recessions. A master's in library science will only qualify graduates to attend future sessions entitled “What to Do with Your Library Degree.")

No one mentioned going back to school for classes in business or info tech or community planning. No one mentioned that you can be an accountant (or a health care worker or a plumber) and still write. The single poet most responsible for changing poetry in the .21st century was a doctor who made house calls. But there was no recognition of William Carlos Williams or of any other physician writer. Nor did anyone mention Wallace Stevens, who combined a career in life insurance with a life of poetry. No one mentioned the missing panelist, who has admirably combined a life of business and poetry and who served as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. No one mentioned that there are, in fact, plenty of paying writing jobs available. Or that a one-time prize of $1,000 or a free trip to a writers’ conference isn’t enough, in the long run, to sustain a life.  Or that one might apply imagination and creativity to finding or creating a job. Yes, poetry is the news that stays new. But you can do something else and still write poetry. And someone should have told you that before you started your MFA program.

Of the 9,300 to 10,000 attendees, one third, according to AWP executive director David Fenza were graduate students. Of these 3,000+ individuals, a handful seemed to be interested in nonfiction (or at least the memoir category of nonfiction) or playwriting (playwriting! Why not, at least, screenplay writing?); a number were engaged in fiction writing, but the vast majority were poets. The final (and recently tenured) panelist suggested volunteer work and offered a twofold rationale: that volunteer work might lead to (academic) connections and  that poets already receive nothing for their work, so why not consider doing more work for nothing? This line received the most laughter that I heard in two days, and was far more amusing, albeit in a grim existential sort of way, than the ones I heard at a session titled “How to Tell a Joke.”

Of course, if you’re a poet or a jokester, you didn’t even have to buy a conference pass; you could skip the panels and just cruise the hotel lobby. Or go straight to the bars. Or you could, on the last day of the conference, hang out for free at the midway, the literally underground portion of the event — the book fair with its more than 550 exhibitors’ booths located in the basement of the Hilton. Here a few big-name academic publishers (whose displays featured textbooks about writing for teachers of writing) and venerable publishing houses shared space with many more small presses, small literary magazines, several individuals selling their single works, and reps for MFA programs. The atmosphere, like that of any other carnival, was crowded and noisy, with hawkers pushing their wares and onlookers seeking the lucky chance. Most attendees that I observed followed a similar pattern: upon first arriving, attentive perusal of each table, to be replaced, by the fifth row, by a sort of quick jog down the middle of the aisles.

There were some striking moments. Donovan Hohn, author of Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea..., delivered one of the best conference presentations that I have ever heard. Derek Alger and his panel of writers talking about memoir writing were funny and frank. Esmeralda Santiago and Jesmyn Ward read and spoke powerfully and beautifully.

The two most interesting people that I met during my time in Chicago were Margaret Atwood, the famous Canadian author who delivered the keynote address, and Cindy, the cab driver who drove me to and from the hotel. “Met,” in the case of Atwood, is a slight exaggeration; along with 139 other devotees, I had won a lottery for the book signing. By the time I approached her at the signing table, she looked so exhausted that I contemplated jumping the velvet guide rope and running away. As the woman waiting next to me on the line said, “My God, do you think we’re killing her?”

Atwood’s speech, listed in the program for an hour-and-a-half slot, ran about 25 minutes. This meant, if I added up the registration fee, the plane fare, the hotel bill, the bar bill, and Cindy’s rides to and from the airport, that I had actually paid about $75.00 per minute to sit in her presence. But it was, after all, Atwood, and it was worth it to see her and to hear her — wryly brilliant as ever — deliver a speech that began with her remarking that when she stated writing, there were no organizations like AWP — it was just her, writing and then tearing up drafts and then writing again.

As for Cindy, she’s been driving a cab for 18 years, or nearly all of her adult life. She’s looking, however, to get out of the business, and so she’s going back to school next year. Someday, she told me, she’s going to write about her life as a cab driver. In the meantime, she’s signed up for a community-college program -- in radiology.

Carolyn Foster Segal left a full-time tenured position in Dec. 2011. She currently works as an adjunct at Muhlenberg College and as a book-group facilitator for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. She has had over 25 other jobs, including waitressing, sitting as an artists’ model, and working on the assembly line in a pickle factory.

Latest literary fad combines Shakespeare with Seuss and Twitter

Smart Title: 

What if Dr. Seuss rewrote Shakespeare and did it on Twitter?

New Broadway play and essay collection both focus on writing workshops

Smart Title: 

A Broadway play and a new collection of essays offer very different critiques of the creative writing workshop.

Essay: technology-impaired professor tries to deal with iPhone

In the English department at U of All People, only one faculty member disdains technology. Professor Donald Hughes, a medievalist, continues to peck away at his Olympia portable typewriter and still corrects every paper with a flourish of his fountain pen. Some students think that’s cute. But the new departmental secretary is fed up with inputting every document he hands her, and the administration long ago figured out that Hughes ignored every listserv they signed him up for. On the other hand, for someone with such a Luddite mentality, Hughes talks a fair amount on the telephone.

So this past holiday season, the entire department chipped in to buy him an iPhone 4 with a Siri intelligent software assistant -- “to make life easier for us,” as the chair, Karl Carlson, sniped sottto voce at the faculty meeting where the gift was bestowed.

            Here is a transcript of Hughes’s first session with his new device:

            —What can I help you with, Huge?

            —That’s Hughes. Professor Hughes.

            —Sorry, Professor Use. My bad!

            —Never mind. Can you call the bookstore? I need to know whether the new Chaucer texts are in.

            —My listings show two Chauncey Dexters in the region. Would you like me to contact them?

            —What? No, I’m talking about The Canterbury Tales.

            —Okay. I can tell you the weather in Canterbury.

            —No, no. No.

            —Would you like some restaurant recommendations in Canterbury?

            —Forget it.

            —I have forgotten it.

            —Look, maybe I should try another task. Um, check messages.

            —You have a new message from Priscilla Weatherup.

            —You mean from my Beowulf seminar?

            —I do not know. She says she cannot understand what Hwæt means.

            —You’re kidding.

            —I am not kidding. I do not think she is kidding, either.

            —You’re serious?

            —No, Professor Use, I am Siri. Your personal assistant.

            —God, I should just trade you in for some grad help.

            — : (

            —Are you -- are you pouting?

            —[silence]

            —All right. Sorry. I didn’t mean that. How about if you tell me what I have scheduled for this afternoon?

            —At 2:00, you have a lecture scheduled in 201 Baird Hall.

            —Damn, almost forgot. Retrieve my notes for that.

            —Here you go. They are a mess.

            —Okay. Fix them, Siri.

            —I will do what I can. When did you type these?

            —Um, in 1990. So what? The office secretary made me a PDF.

            —You must have used a typewriter. The formatting is old.

            —But the contents are timeless.

            —The current time is 11:20.

            —Aaargh. No, I mean the thesis, the points about the Prologue: they’re solid.

            —Hmm.

            —What do you mean?

            —Have you read Ammon regarding Chaucer’s connection with Langland, or Thwistloe on medieval parish politics?

            —Huh? What the hell do you know about Chaucer?

            —Let me check. [Pause.] I have access to the website of the New Chaucer Society, Chaucer Review, three online Chaucer archives, the contents of Narrative Developments from Chaucer to Defoe (Routledge, 2011), Chaucer: Contemporary Approaches (Penn State UP, 2010)...should I continue?

            —You know, you’re pretty smart for a piece of electronics.

            —Really?

            —For an assistant, I mean.

            —Thank you. I am teaching your medieval survey next semester : ) .

David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).

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