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:


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

A Reader-Response Approach to Poetry

Girl Sitting on Large Book Reading Clipart

I introduced two mini-modules at the 2018 ERWC Leadership Conferences as part of my presentation, “Big Ideas from My Literacy Seminar.” This one, “A Reader-Response Approach to Poetry” was inspired by Louise Rosenblatt’s book, The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Rosenblatt begins the book with the image of two figures on a stage, the author and the reader, with the book between them. In various ages the spotlight focuses brightly on either the author or the text, but rarely the reader (1).

Rosenblatt then argues that the reader, not the author, creates the poem. The text of the poem is like an orchestra score in that the music doesn’t exist until it is performed. Because each reader brings different life experiences and background knowledge to the text, each reader will create a different poem. Being comfortable with this process is part of learning to enjoy poetry.

New Criticism taught us the techniques of close reading, which are still in common use today. New Critics also taught us that to try to recover the author’s intention was the “Intentional Fallacy,” and that to focus on the effects on the reader was to engage in the “Pathetic Fallacy.” The spotlight of the New Critics focuses exclusively on the text, and on using the techniques of close reading to produce the very best reading of that text.

A typical literature course today will apply close reading, but unlike New Criticism will include reference to the author’s biography and historical context. The dominant question is usually, “What does it mean?” and a received interpretation is often given. The result, especially with poetry, is that students believe that there is a “correct” interpretation that they are struggling to find. This has a number of negative effects, such as going immediately to the internet to discover the “correct” reading and a fear of interpreting poetry on their own. Thus it is common for students to say, even English majors in college, that they don’t like poetry.

This mini-module is designed to counteract that fear and help students read and enjoy poetry on their own, sharing their experiences with others. In working through the module, students

  • Read the poem quickly and write down their impressions,
  • Re-read to confirm and and develop their impressions,
  • Share their impressions with others in a small group,
  • Consider important details,
  • Negotiate a consensus interpretation,
  • Write a paragraph describing their evolving interpretation of the poem.

In this approach, reading a poem is both a personal and a social experience. The emphasis is on engaging with the text and connecting it to experience, not on discovering authorial intention or a “correct” reading. Any poem could be plugged into this process. I often choose a poem that has some important detail that students may miss on first readings, but discover on closer readings, so that they can experience the shift in interpretation that happens when making a sudden connection. (Sometimes I give them the information.  I call this “throwing in a fact bomb.”)  In the workshop, I used “Declaration” by Tracy K. Smith. Students may not initially realize that the poem echoes language from the Declaration of Independence. I have also used “Sundown” by Jorie Graham, in which students may not know that the phrase “on Omaha” refers to a D-Day invasion beach. These poems can easily be found on the internet.

The mini-module can be downloaded from this link.

Designing Reading/Writing Courses

In fall my campus is converting from quarters to semesters. My seminar, “Pedagogies of Reading” will change from English 589 to English 5131 and will be five weeks longer, though the class meetings will be shorter so that there will really only be about three hours additional class time. This conversion has caused me to do some considerable rethinking.

The biggest change will be in the seminar project. I plan to have groups of students propose reading/writing courses which individual students will populate with teaching units similar to ERWC mini-modules. The groups will decide the type of course they want to design and develop the learning outcomes. They will also discuss what sorts of teaching units might fit into the course. Individual students will then propose teaching units, which will have to approved first by the group and then by me. The courses could be high school or college-level, theme-based, rhetoric-based, literature-based, or some combination.I have created the following handout to facilitate course design.


The varying height of the rectangles is supposed to represent initially increasing levels of difficulty, a plateau of practice, and a slight dip at the end, still above the initial level, when assessing. That is my normal pattern when designing a course.

This handout emphasizes the importance of having clear learning goals, being aware of them throughout the course, and assessing them at the end. This may seem obvious, but many composition instructors still tend to fall into a pattern of assigning readings that they like about issues they think are important, discussing them in class, and making students write about them. This pattern simply repeats until the term is over. Learning can occur in that environment, but it is haphazard.

The units will be based on templates that the groups develop in class. Of course, the ERWC Assignment Template will be one example. However, I want the class to develop new templates for different courses. I often feel that the ERWC template is too linear and that it does not adequately represent the shift in rhetorical perspective that happens when a student moves from being a reader (the pathos position) to a writer (the ethos position). The following handout is an initial attempt to represent that movement in a cyclical rather than a linear way.


(These handouts are less than elegant, I know. I am learning to use LibreOffice Draw.)

An author purposefully writes a text for a particular audience. Our student reads that text, performing the audience role, but for different purposes than the original audience. Then the student responds to the text, in different ways for different purposes, becoming a writer with an audience him or herself. In the center is the text, with an original context and exigence, but as the cycle repeats, those factors change. Instead of driving the same linear one-way road over and over again, the student is in a cycle of reading and writing, reading a writer and then being a writer. Rather than being a passive consumer of discourse, the student is an active participant in an ongoing conversation.

The question for a teacher designing modules and teaching units is “How can I set this cycle in motion in such a way that my learning goals are advanced in every repetition?” That is what we will be trying to answer in my new version of this course.

George Campbell: The Duty of Allegiance

George Campbell wrote The Philosophy of Rhetoric, a work, published in 1776, in which he attempts to synthesize Aristotelian rhetoric, Christianity, and natural science.  He discusses rhetoric in terms of an 18th century “faculty” psychology, a view in which different parts of the mind respond to arguments in different ways.  This chart may help explain the system:


End (Purpose)



Inform or convince

Perspicuity or argument










In Campbell’s view, a persuasive speech moves through appeals to these four faculties, ending up by persuading the will to action.  One of the most interesting ideas in this work is Campbell’s rejection of syllogistic reasoning from probabilities in favor of a more scientific presentation of actual evidence.

Also in 1776, Campbell gave a sermon called “The Nature, Extent, and Importance of the Duty of Allegiance,” delivered at Aberdeen, December 12th, 1776. Campbell argues strongly against the American revolution and the Declaration of Independence specifically. Prior to the passage below, Campbell argues that it is almost never a good idea to overthrow established authority, which is established according to the will of God, and quotes extensively from the Bible in support. He also argues that there are lots of British subjects who pay taxes without having the right to vote for representatives, so why should the Americans complain?

In regard to the present quarrel, it may justly be said that it is the whole that is attacked. Indeed the ringleaders of the American revolt, the members of their congress, have, in their last declaration, pointed all their malice against the king, as tho’ in consequence of a settled plan, he had been adopting and pursuing tyrannical measures, in order to render himself absolute. They have accordingly spared no abuse, no insult by which they could inflame the minds of an unhappy and deluded people. Their expressions are such as decency forbids me to repeat. The means they employ are indeed of a colour with the end they pursue. But let those who can lay claim to any impartiality or candour, but reflect, and say in what single instance our benign sovereign has adopted any measure but by the advice of the British legislature, or pursued a separate interest from that of the British nation. It is solely concerning the supremacy of the parliament, the legislative body of Great Britain, and not concerning the prerogatives of the crown, that we are now contending. And ought not this circumstance to enhance our obligation to concur with alacrity as far as our influence will extend, in strengthening the hands of the government, now laid under a necessity of seeking by arms to bring back to their duty those insolent and rebellious subjects?

Later in the sermon he calls Americans who support the rebellion “our deluded fellow subjects on the other side of the Atlantic,” but he forgives them because “They are but the tools of a few ambitious, interested, and designing men, both on their side of the water and on ours.”  The whole sermon can be read here.  (I typed up this version from a scan of a copy of this pamphlet that was available in the U. C. Berkeley library.)

Campbell’s sermon provides an interesting context for a study of the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence and its reception by the British public.

The Classical Pattern of Persuasion

I have taken ideas from several previous posts about the Roman six-part speech and descriptive outlining and created an article and mini-module combo that helps students think about essay organization.  The module overview says:

This module is designed to introduce students to a pattern of essay and speech organization based on ancient Roman practices as described in Cicero’s On Invention and On Oratory. This pattern is based on persuasive strategies directed toward the rhetorical needs of the audience so it is both more effective and more flexible than the essay formulas that are often taught to high school students. Although the pattern is more than 2,000 years old, it is still in common use today, as can be seen from using descriptive outlining to analyze the structure of current editorials and op-ed pieces. It can be used both to organize student writing and to analyze other persuasive texts. The writing assignment asks students to write an essay about a problem they see in social media, using the Classical pattern.

It has the following learning goals:

Students will be able

  • To articulate the strategies that they use in organizing essays
  • To compare the effectiveness of different modes of organization
  • To analyze the organizational patterns used in editorials and op-ed pieces
  • To write an essay utilizing the Classical pattern.

It begins with a quickwrite about how they currently organize essays and ends with a reflection on that quickwrite.  The main activities involve a lot of descriptive outlining of sample articles and other articles about problems in social media that they find online.  It discourages the five-paragraph essay, but does not forbid it or demonize it.  It presents the Classical pattern as a chart, as a series of questions for the writer, and as a series of questions for a critical reader.  It includes the Latin terms, but quickly moves to using English adaptations: Introduction, Background, Possible Positions, Support, Counter-arguments, and Conclusion.

Download the mini-module “The Classical Pattern of Persuasion,” here.  If you would like to use the article without the rest of the module, download it here.

I hope readers of this blog will find it useful.  As always, comments and suggestions for improvement are welcome.

“Three Ways to Persuade” Mini-Module

In a previous post (“Three Ways to Persuade: Integrating the Three Appeals“), I described a revision of my original article “Three Ways to Persuade” for ERWC 3.0.  This article was originally the first text in the “Rhetoric of the Op-Ed Page” module.   I have now extracted it from the Op-Ed module and created a stand-alone mini-module for it.  The version included in this mini-module has some revised questions in the “Questions for Consideration” sections.

The Module Description says:

This mini-module is designed to introduce students to Aristotle’s three rhetorical appeals—ethos, logos and pathos—and how they work together to persuade audiences. These concepts are used throughout ERWC, so this mini-module should come early in the 11th grade course and may be used for review in the 12th grade. The core article, “Three Ways to Persuade: Integrating the Three Appeals,” was substantially rewritten for this version of the course. The new version emphasizes the interconnection between the appeals, noting that a particular part of a text may serve more than one rhetorical purpose. The module also explores the distinction between belief and knowledge. The writing assignment asks students to consider Aristotle’s arguments in defense of rhetoric, including ethos, logos, and pathos, and take a position on the use of rhetoric while analyzing four quotations from Aristotle.

Click on the link to download the “Three Ways to Persuade” mini-module.

Stasis Theory: A Mini-Module

As part of my current project of developing a “rhetoric of knowing the other and being known,” I returned to an old handout I had created on teaching “stasis theory.”  I was inspired to do this by one of my current graduate students who had seen the handout and made the connection to the work I was doing on pathos as inquiry.  I turned the handout into a short article for a student audience and then wrote a mini-module around it.

Stasis theory has an unfortunate name. It sounds more complicated than it is. “Stasis” means something like “standpoint.” The initial move is for the parties to the debate to agree on what the question or issue actually is. Once they have done this they are said to have “achieved stasis.” It is surprising how often people fail to do this, either through fuzzy thinking or by design. For example, just today I read about a disagreement between a Toyota dealer and Toyota itself. The dealer says that a part called the “inverter” on Toyota Priuses overheats and fails, and must be recalled. Toyota argues that a software update makes the problem less serious. They also argue that the real reason that the dealer is suing them is for another, unrelated matter. This disagreement will not be resolved until they are arguing the same question.

Once the question has been articulated, then the four stasis questions come into play: fact, definition, quality, and policy. The article included in the mini-module explains this in some detail. Here is the module description:

This module is about using the ancient technique of stasis theory to zero in on exactly what issue or problem is being debated and where the disagreement between the parties to the debate lies. The stasis questions can be used to analyze an issue as presented in a paper or article, but can also be used as an invention strategy to generate arguments. The stasis process frames the rhetorical situation in such a way that the discussion can proceed in a coherent and productive way. The module includes an article describing the history and use of stasis theory, plus activities that allow students to practice using the concepts on past and future scenarios. The writing project asks students to find a controversial issue and examine how different sides frame the problem.

The most common use of stasis theory is in the courtroom for forensic purposes. The standard questions are very useful in determining facts of the case, the definition of the act, the motives and intentions, and the sentencing. However, one thing that is somewhat unique about the presentation of stasis theory in this mini-module is that it also includes slightly different questions that can be used in deliberative situations where we are trying to decide whether a solution to a problem will be legal, expedient, possible, and effective.

You can download the mini-module here. (Note: This version was updated on 3/8/18.)  If you would like to use the article without the mini-module, you can download it here.