In-Class Presentations of Journal Articles

Much of the material on this blog site is oriented toward teaching in a high school context. That is because of my long involvement with the Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC). However, I am not a high school teacher and I rely heavily on actual high school teachers to give me feedback on the modules I write. What I actually do for a living is teach rhetoric and literature at a state university.

This semester I am teaching two graduate seminars: English 5130 “Teaching Writing” and English 5131 “Pedagogies of Reading.” Our seminars tend to be bigger than those of a traditional English Department–20 students or more compared to 5 or 6 students that might have constituted a traditional seminar in the past. Now that we are on semesters rather than quarters I am experimenting with making the educational experience a little more seminar-like, with more student presentations. Each student is responsible for presenting one journal article or book chapter to the class. This addresses the fifth of our six learning outcomes for the program:

Pedagogical Insight: Ability to teach/adapt the body of knowledge and skills listed above to a variety of audiences, in particular fellow teachers and college students.

Faculty often complain that new graduate students are not good at reading journal articles. It is not surprising because few such articles are assigned to undergraduates. For this reason, I am giving them a bit of scaffolding. First, they must think about these overview questions:

Overview

  • Who is the writer? Where does he or she teach? What else has he or she published?
  • What is the thesis, research question, or main idea of the article?
  • What does the article do to explore this idea or question?
  • What is the exigence for the article? (What caused the writer to write the article? What is he or she responding to?)
  • What are the main sources the article draws upon?

A journal article or a book chapter is a speech act that participates in a conversation that is ongoing in the field. These questions are designed to help the student situate the article in that conversation. If the article is old, what was going on at the time? If the article is current, what issues and practices are being debated at this moment? It is hard to understand the significance of an article unless you know something about the larger conversation it joins.

Next comes a discussion of the content of the article itself:

Discussion

  • What are the key points of the article?
  • How are the ideas and arguments of the article supported? Are you convinced?
  • In general, what conclusions does the writer draw?
  • How might the article be attacked? What are its weak points?

These questions enact both the believing game and the doubting game. Thinking about both the key points and the weak points helps students engage in critical thinking about the issues and the arguments.

Finally, students put the article in the context of the discipline, the course, and their own teaching. We have been building toward this sort of contextualization through the whole process of preparing to present the article to the class:

Contextualization

  • How does this article fit into the conversation going on in the field when it was published?
  • How does it fit into the context of this course?
  • If the ideas and arguments of the article are sound, what implications does it have for teaching?
  • How will this article influence your own teaching philosophy (if at all)?

So far, this process has been going well. Because of the change to semesters, we have shorter seminar periods, so I have been having to make adjustments, in part because the presentations have elicited so much discussion. However, students are engaged, and I think that the format of these questions helps them situate not only the articles, but also their own teaching and scholarly work, in the context of the discipline. I am pleased with the results so far.

Modifying Stasis Theory for the Classroom

I recently had a discussion with one of my ERWC colleagues about the proper way to use stasis theory. As I noted in the mini-module, the technique develops out of courtroom practices and is used primarily to locate the points of disagreement so that a trial can proceed efficiently. In this forensic use, the parties are debating the nature of a past act and what should be done about it. The process can be modified a bit to deal deliberatively with the effectiveness of a particular policy on future conditions. In either case, the first step is to get the parties to agree on the question at issue, a process which is called “achieving stasis.” Then the stasis questions are used to figure out where the disagreement lies. The result is a lot of clear thinking and efficient progress towards a resolution of the problem.

The problem for teachers and students in the application of this process is that we are not in a courtroom trying a case or in a deliberative body deciding whether or not to implement a particular policy. Instead we are using stasis theory as an analytical tool to get to the heart of a social issue or personal problem. We have to modify the tool a bit to make it work in the classroom.

Achieving stasis by agreeing on the question under discussion is an important first step. However, as my colleague pointed out, in an ERWC module and in general when we are discussing several texts on a particular issue, it is rare that the authors have defined the issue in the same way. They are often answering different, but related questions. Stasis theory helps us see that, but we do not have the power to bring the authors together to agree on the question. What do we do? I have summarized our discussion in this chart:

StasisTheoryChart-clr1
As noted in the chart, one approach is to tease out the questions that the authors are really trying to answer and analyze the differences that result when we try to apply the stasis questions to each approach. This would bring considerable clarity to the discussion and would make a good paper in itself. This process might begin by asking of each author, “What question is he or she trying to answer?”

Another approach is for the student (or the teacher) to pose the question that they think should actually be asked and then use the stasis questions to explore how the different parties to the discussion disagree. For example, on the Declaration of Independence, I might ask, as a stasis question:

“Did George III actually do all of the terrible things of which he is accused in the Declaration of Independence?”

Possible responses might be:

  • Fact: The parties actually disagree about this. The British say that these alleged “crimes” are all acts of parliament. The British would actually be right about this and Thomas Jefferson knows it. They are scapegoating the king for rhetorical effect, and to address the problem of declaring themselves no longer subjects of the king. They have to make the king an unfit ruler. But nobody really disagrees that these things have been done.
  • Definition: The colonists say these acts are examples of tyranny, while the British say it is just governance.
  • Quality: This really comes down to intentions. The colonists say that these tyrannous acts are designed to hinder and control self-governance in order to hamstring the colonies and keep them from becoming independent and powerful. The British say that they are governing the colonies and protecting them from harm.
  • Policy: The colonists say that such acts justify rebellion. The British wage war in response.

If we try a more philosophical question such as “Are all men (and women) created equal?” we see that things get interesting and complicated very quickly. The British immediately say, “You’ve got to be kidding. You are a bunch of slave holders.” Then we are going to get into race, social class, economic inequality, land owners versus renters, cultural practices and a host of other things. What the founders meant was that they were going to get rid of the nobility, that there would no longer be lords and commoners. The British say, “Good luck with that.”

When it comes to definition, we might say that the Declaration is “aspirational,” in that it proposes ideal principles that the colonies have not yet achieved. The British call the document “hypocritical.” On the face of it, the British are right. It does seem hypocritical to say that “all men are created equal” while holding slaves. Questions of quality are going to hinge on those definitions. Does the Declaration represent aspirational idealism or hypocritical self-interest?

About policy? Well, the aspirational view won out and we ended up with a constitution. We are still trying to meet the principled ideals of the Declaration, but we have made progress.

One of the new modules to be introduced in ERWC is built around a novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. It is a murder mystery, which would seem to make it ideal for the application of forensic stasis theory. However, in this case, we are doing literary criticism and exploring some of the issues raised by the novel. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the novel yet. I am guessing from the Wikipedia entry and a picture of the cover.) One question in the story is “Who killed the dog?” The stasis questions might lead to some larger philosophical and ethical issues:

• Fact: A dog is dead. Did someone kill it?
• Definition: Is killing a dog murder?
• Quality: Was killing the dog necessary because it was mean, sick, or dangerous? Or was it an act of revenge or cruelty?
• Policy: Should dog murderers go to jail?

Here the stasis questions are helping us define one of the acts in the novel.

One of the questions that came up in our discussion was “Can you use the stasis questions as an invention strategy or brainstorming tool to generate lots of possible questions to explore?” As I noted above, we have to modify the stasis tool because we are not in the same situations for which it was originally designed. Use as a sort of focused brainstorming tool is certainly possible. In that case, we might ask

• What facts are disputable in this situation?
• How do different parties define the issue?
• What values are in conflict in this situation?
• What do different parties think should be done?

Then let the students supply the specifics and ask more questions about them.

There are lots of ways to use stasis theory. In almost any situation, it will help us think about questions, facts, definitions, values, and policies.

Note: The mini-module on stasis theory can be found here.

Teaching a Literary Text: A Template

It is common for instructors to assign a poem or a short story for a particular class meeting and expect students to come to class ready to discuss it.  It is also common for instructors to complain that no one has read the text and that the students wait until after the discussion to read it.  With no possibility of a discussion, the instructor ends up lecturing on the text and teaching his or her own reading of it.  Students take notes.  The mystery of the text is solved and the course moves on.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

My colleague Aaron DeRosa and I were in the midst of a vigorous discussion about the use of literary theory in the teaching and study of literature. In a nutshell, I was arguing that all reading and interpretation involved theory (full disclosure:  I teach the course in Literary Theory), while Dr. DeRosa was arguing that knowledge of literary theory was not essential to productive literary scholarship.  As in most discussions in English departments, we are probably both right in our own ways.  However, as a sort of rhetorical ploy to get him to reveal his unacknowledged theory-using ways, I asked, “Well, how do you go about teaching a literary text?”  That proved to be a more productive discussion.  The result is this template.  We developed it together. It is in .docx format so that an instructor could use it to plan a course session or sequence of sessions.  Here is a .pdf version, if the other one won’t open in your software.

The goals of this process are to situate the text in the course, give the students enough background and confidence to perform a reading of the text, and then open up the text to new avenues of exploration.

Establish teaching and learning goals for the text

  1. Think about the features of the text that will be meaningful in the context of the course. (Questions: “Why are we reading this? What do you want them to notice?” Depending on the course, this could be genre characteristics, historical context, style, characterization, themes, motifs, etc.)
  2. Think about features of the text that will be difficult for at least some of the students. How will you address them? (This might be such things as difficult or old-fashioned vocabulary, exotic cultural concepts, or potentially undetected irony.)
  3. List what students will know or be able to do after reading and working with the text. (These are your learning goals for the text, which should be consistent with the overall learning goals of the course.)

Preview the text

  1. Provide contemporary, relevant references that highlight some aspect of the content they will read
  2. OR provide some form of summary, context, keywords, etc. that highlights what to read for, the “thread” of the first reading.

Read the text

  1. Trace the thread established in the preview. (This is only one way of reading the text. It is a starting point for the first reading.)
  2. Note details that that might conflict with this thread.

Re-read the text (what might be called “close reading”)

  1. Find an alternative thread to trace to show them multiple modes of reading (sometimes this involves invoking a literary theory).
  2. Look for patterns, connections, contradictions, repetitions (motifs), juxtapositions, tropes and figures, etc. relevant to the themes of the text.
    Build a multi-faceted view of the text with many possible threads woven together.

Post-read “assessment”

  1. Ask students to choose a new thread to follow in more detail.
  2. Evaluate your learning goals through some appropriate mechanism (writing, comic book, movie trailer, discussion, presentation).

As with any template, you may find that you don’t need to do every step with every text.  Toward the end of the course, students should have internalized some of these moves.  However, a bit of previewing of a text before they read it for the class discussion will almost always lead to a better discussion.

Three Strategies from Small Teaching

In this post I will review three teaching techniques from this recent book:

Lang, James. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons for the Science of Learning. San             Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016.

LangBook1IMG_0233

Lang summarizes the cognitive research behind each of the practices, so if you need to be convinced about their efficacy, you should find a copy of the book. Lang discusses nine different practices, but this post will deal with only the first three. These three techniques are interrelated in that they all overlap with the first, “retrieval.” They are all easy to implement, requiring only slight adjustments to classroom practices, but offering big gains in retention of material.

Retrieving

Lang says, “If you want to retrieve knowledge from your memory, you have to practice retrieving knowledge from your memory” (20).

If you want students to remember what you have recently taught, you should ask them to retrieve it from memory shortly after they have learned it. This could be done with quizzes (short answers seem to be better than multiple choice) quickwrites, oral discussion questions, etc. The retrieval could be at the end of a lecture, or at the beginning of the next session. It does not have to be graded.

One interesting strategy is to have students answer a question in writing about the day’s material at the end of the session and then create a second copy of their answer. They turn in one copy, which the instructor uses to assess the class’s grasp of the material. At the next session, the instructor discusses the various answers, commenting on good responses as well as problems and issues, while the students assess their own responses, which they have in front of them, in the light of the discussion.

Lang also recommends using the reading schedule in the syllabus to periodically remind students of what they have already read, studied, and discussed.

Studies have shown that repeated retrieval from long term memory is more effective in improving performance on final exams than reviewing written notes. This means that frequent low-stakes quizzes, backward-looking, reflective, class-opening activities, and summarizing class-ending activities will help students learn.

Predicting

Though Lang doesn’t discuss this particular activity, one form of predicting is the “anticipation guide.” I was introduced to this technique in a workshop by my former colleague, Carol Holder. Before we read a short article about migraine headaches, she gave us a list of 8-10 statements about migraines and asked us to mark them True or False. Of course, when we read the article, even those of us who had never suffered a migraine wanted to find out if our answers were right. It actually didn’t matter if they were right or wrong, but we read with more engagement and interest.

Lang argues that when we are asked to make a prediction, we search our memories for anything relevant to the problem. This “activates prior knowledge” and causes us to think more deeply (49). We then use prior knowledge to reason about new knowledge.

As Lang reads a novel with his students, at the end of a section, he asks the students what will happen in the next section (57). They need to think about the characters, the plot, and other textual clues to make this prediction. This question combines both the retrieval of information about what has been read and the prediction of what is to come, combining two learning techniques.

Interleaving

Reviewing what has been learned is as important as learning it in the first place. It is not enough to simply “cover” the material.  Lang describes a pattern of 1) learning new information, 2) reviewing old information, 3) reviewing the new information (which is now old information), and then 4) back to learning additional new information. In this way, learning and reviewing are “interleaved.” I have experienced the value of this sort of interleaving this many times in my own classrooms. I have a habit of giving quizzes on the material I taught the previous week rather than the material that students had read for the current week. This is often agonizing for students. They remember reading about the material. They remember discussing it, but still the answers are just out of mental grasp. I use these quizzes to figure out what I need to re-teach. Often concepts and terms need to be taught three times or more before all the students can remember them.

This sort of activity produces a cycle of learning, forgetting, and retrieving that allows the brain to encode, consolidate, and organize new knowledge (67).

Conclusion: A course that routinely features activities that review past learning and predict future developments, and that interleaves the teaching of new information and the retrieval of old information, will result in significantly better learning than a course which just marches through new information and tests it at the end.  To accomplish this requires only a few minutes of class time each session.  It’s really a no brainer.

James Lang also has a blog with further useful information and a series of useful posts in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

 

 

ERWC in a Nutshell

Teachers and administrators often ask, “How is ERWC different from more traditional courses? In what way is it better?”  (This post is also available as a handout in .pdf format.)

From Engagement to Writing

An ERWC course is a series of teaching modules designed according to the same template. Each module starts by connecting the text (which could be expository, persuasive, or literary) to the student’s lifeworld in some way, helping them engage with it. Then they read the text to understand it, with scaffolding to help them. Then they begin to question the text, evaluating arguments, evidence, and rhetorical strategies. This is where the focus shifts to critical thinking. Then we connect the text and the work they have done with it to a writing assignment. Students rethink the issues of the text and their responses to it in terms of how they will use it in their writing. They think about the genre, audience, and purpose of the writing they will do. Then they write, revise and edit their own text. Because every module enacts some version of this pattern, the students have internalized it by the end of the course and are ready to apply it on their own to the texts they read in college and elsewhere. This is the whole purpose of ERWC—to prepare students to do the critical reading and writing they will encounter in college, in the workplace, and in their daily lives.

A Common Pattern

Of course this pattern—engagement, understanding, questioning, connecting, and responding—can be designed into any course in any discipline. However, many instructors, especially in college, simply assume that students will be engaged and will understand, and dive right into questioning. Such an instructor will probably find herself trying to get a discussion going with a roomful of baffled students. It is worth spending time preparing the students for a reading so that the discussion will be informed and productive.

Connecting Reading and Writing

A second feature of the ERWC approach is the emphasis on the connection between reading and writing. Traditionally, students are “learning to read” up to third grade and after that they are “reading to learn.” It turns out, however, that we are always learning to read. Every discipline, every genre, every field of endeavor has its own vocabulary, patterns of organization, and conceptual frameworks. The farther we go in any field, the more expert we must become in its discourse, both in reading and writing it. In academia, reading and writing are theorized, researched, and taught by faculty in different disciplines in different departments. ERWC brings these fields together.

Emphasis on Rhetoric

A third feature is the emphasis on rhetorical concepts and analysis. We are always asking, “Why did the author do it this way? What is the effect on the reader?” And when they are writing, we ask them, “Who is your audience? What is your purpose?” The emphasis is on learning “to do things with words” and this is accomplished both by analyzing what authors are doing and then practicing this sort of doing themselves.

Strategies and Habits of Mind

By the end of this course the student should be ready to encounter new texts and figure out new rhetorical situations. ERWC is not a body of knowledge, but a collection of interrelated strategies and habits of mind for working with texts, concepts, and practical purposes. It is excellent preparation for college-level work and for various workplaces. It’s a good course for almost any high school student.

Making a Reading Plan

At the end of an ERWC-style course, students should have internalized a set of reading strategies and habits of mind that will help them be more successful college students.  In an environment that often will not provide much scaffolding or assistance, students in effect will need to create their own modules.  Of course, there are also students entering college who have not had the advantage of an ERWC course in high school.  This handout is a distillation of some very basic ERWC reading strategies.  It is designed as a review for ERWC students and a quick strategy guide for students new to these concepts.  I will present it in three parts.  At the end is a link to the whole document.

Note: In this handout, the word “text” is used to mean any kind of writing—an article, a chapter, a book, a poem, an email, an advertisement—anything that can be read.

BeforeReading1

Probably the most important question in the list above is “Why are you reading this text?”  When I used to do faculty workshops at my university, one of the most common complaints was that students don’t do the reading until after the discussion.  I knew from working on ERWC that students were telling us something with that behavior: they don’t like to read difficult texts cold.  They need some hint about why they are reading it and what they are looking for.  Faculty can improve matters greatly by discussing how the reading fits into the course and what students should be looking for and thinking about as they read, but many professors don’t know to do that.  They just assume that students will figure it out.  If one student asks in class, “While we are reading this, what do you want us to look for?” the whole class will do better.

WhileReading1

Reading with a pencil in hand is a first step to productive and efficient academic reading.  However, what you do with that pencil depends on your purpose for reading the text.  These stages and strategies are all interconnected.

The purpose of any system of annotation is to make returning to the text to find ideas, information, key phrases, and personal responses easier and more productive.  Students are often accustomed to using brightly colored highlighters to indicate key words and phrases. However, highlighting without a clear purpose can make rereading confusing.  Also, a highlighter is not useful for dialoguing with the text, asking questions, making observations and connections.

Dealing with difficulty is the other important consideration while reading.  Plowing ahead, re-reading, looking something up, or returning at a later time are all viable strategies.  The most negative strategy is to give up.  Students need to realize that everyone, even a professor, encounters difficult texts.

AfterReading1

The fact is, texts don’t stay read.  Every time we read a text, it makes different connections to our experience.  Taking a moment to mentally reflect on a text after reading it helps solidify the first reading in our minds.  We come to the class discussion with something to say.  The annotations are a way of indicating how we read it the first time.  We can return to it with greater insight and efficiency.  We have a relationship with it.  We have a reading that is our own.

Download the complete handout, “Making a Reading Plan,” from this link.

How Texts Construct Readers: A Mini-Module

A key text in my “Pedagogies of Reading” seminar is Analyzing Everyday Texts by Glenn Stillar. The second mini-module I presented at the 2018 ERWC Leadership Conference draws on ideas from this book. I have a previous post on it here.

Rhetorical analysis usually starts with some conception of audience and purpose. A detailed analysis will look at the particular characteristics of the audience addressed and what arguments and strategies the writer uses to persuade that audience. However, an aspect that is often neglected is how the text defines and arranges the participants in the situation, including the reader. The text may in fact construct an imagined reader that the actual reader does not want to be. The tension between the reader constructed by the text and the actual reader is an important rhetorical effect. An important question might be, “Do you want to be the reader constructed by this text?” Another way of asking this is, “As a reader, are you willing to play the role the writer wants you to play?”

To support this kind of analysis, I have created a “Document Analysis Checklist” that helps a student work through the traditional categories of audience, purpose and form, but also includes a section on “Stylistic Choices” that asks questions about the roles of the participants in the situation, the way the situation is constructed, the attitudes and values reflected, and the accuracy of the presentation. All of these factors are reflected in the word choices made by the author.

The module itself explores these ideas using this sign, which has been posted at entry doors all over the Cal Poly Pomona campus:

SmokeFreeIMG_0216

The curious thing about this sign is that it welcomes and prohibits at the same time. The analysis gets into questions such as “What does ‘our’ mean here?” “Who is ‘welcome’ and who is not?” and “Is the campus being defined by its purity from certain substances and behaviors?” Then we try putting other descriptors into the “smoke and tobacco free” slot. Much is made of these eight words.

I was talking about the rhetoric of the “Welcome to our Smoke Free Campus” sign in our department with one of my rhetoric colleagues. The Shakespearean across the hall overheard us, and came over to defend the sign, saying that her asthma made tobacco smoke intolerable for her. It took us about five minutes to convince her that as rhetoricians, we were discussing how the sign worked, not the issue it was trying to address. She thought we were arguing against a smoke free campus. I think she is still suspicious. However, she also said that the sign had been effective. The smokers, instead of clustering around the doorways, were now hiding in surreptitious corners and off in the shrubbery. So the sign is rhetorically effective.

I asked a linguist about the way “welcome” is used here. It looks like an imperative, but for that to work we would have to read it as “be welcome” with the “be” elided. My informant thought it would be better to read it as “We welcome you to . . .” with the additional words elided. However we interpret it, it involves ellipsis. She also said that it was a very Californian way to express a prohibition. It is like saying “Don’t even think about smoking here!” with a big smile.

The module has the following learning goals

Students will be able to:

  • Read public notices with greater understanding of their rhetorical complexity
  • Analyze the linguistic devices used by writers to construct roles for the participants in a situation
  • Become particularly aware of verb choice in constructing a situation
  • Question the way a text constructs the reader
  • Present their findings in a written analysis

The writing assignment is this:

Our world is full of signs communicating rules, prohibitions, slogans, messages and information. Find a sign in your daily world that you think would be interesting to analyze. It may be helpful to take a picture of the sign with your cellphone. Repeat the process of analysis we engaged in for the “no smoking” sign above. Write a one-page essay describing the sign and its purpose.

In more advanced courses, I ask students to choose an issue that involves a dispute between three parties, often a corporation, a government agency, and the public. The recent scandals involving unintended acceleration in Toyota automobiles and cheating on pollution control devices by Volkswagen are good examples. Then they gather documents related to the issue–press releases, open letters, blog posts, court documents, news stories, etc.–and apply the “Document Analysis Checklist.” These documents turn out to be surprisingly complex and sophisticated in deploying strategies to deflect blame, reassign responsibility, minimize bad consequences, and present intentions in the best possible light. This sort of analysis can make what would seem to be boring bureaucratic documents quite engaging to students. They feel like they can say, “I see what you are doing there.”

The student version of the mini-module is available here:

How Texts Construct Readers