Why Do Rhetorical Analysis?

In my writing courses I teach a lot of rhetorical concepts and assign a great many rhetorical analysis activities and papers. However, instead of analyzing what a writer is trying to do and how they are doing it, many students respond by agreeing or disagreeing with the position the writer takes. For example, I recently asked students to find three op-eds taking different positions on an issue they were interested in and analyze the way each writer talked about the issue, how they framed it, what terms they used, etc. They found the articles, but many of them crafted a thesis statement on the issue and used the articles to support their own positions. My instructions were detailed (perhaps too detailed, when many students misunderstand an assignment it is almost always the instructor’s fault), but in this case disregarded.

In part, I think this happened because students did what they had been taught to do. They had an issue, so the thing to do is take a position and support it, something that at this point (a junior-level course in college) they had done many, many times before. They thought that they already knew how to do this.

Taking Things Apart

When I read drafts of application essays by engineering students, they almost always talk about how when they were kids they took everything apart to see how it worked. It’s such a cliche that I usually advise them to take that part out. However, why don’t English majors want to take texts apart to see how they work? That is essentially what rhetorical analysis is. And just as when you take a machine apart, you need wrenches, sockets, screwdrivers, pliers, and other tools, rhetoricians have their tools too.

Tools from Classical Rhetoric and Beyond

Aristotle’s three appeals allow us to investigate the role of the writer, the nature of the arguments, and the effects of emotions on the attempt to persuade the reader. The concept of the enthymeme helps us break down the arguments into premises and tease out hidden assumptions.

The sophistic concepts of “mythos” and “nomos” help us think about the big narratives we all share and the unwritten expectations for behavior that guide every community and shock us when they are transgressed.

Stasis theory and Toulmin argumentation help us figure out where the parties disagree and how well their claims are supported. Dissoi Logoi helps us see who benefits and who is hurt by whatever policy we choose. The concept of “exigence” helps us define the rhetorical situation and our reasons for responding to it.

Descriptive outlining updates the classical concept of “arrangement” and helps us see how a text is organized and how the parts work together.

To move to modern rhetoric, Kenneth Burke’s “pentad” helps us Look at the same situation from different perspectives and track different sources of motivation for acts. We can think about, for example, whether it is just to blame an individual or a particular environment for an act. His concept of “Terministic Screens” can help us see how the language we use affects the world we see. His concept of “identification” can help us see how groups form and re-form and how the terms and symbols they use to signal membership relate to arguments and persuasion.

The Right Tool and the Right Attitude

Selecting the right tool for the text and the purpose is a skill gained through practice. Students will gravitate toward the tools they find most useful to them, but they need lots of practice.

They also need to cultivate what might be called “a moment of neutrality.” They need to step back from the issue and analyze what is really going on in the text at hand. If we really disagree with the writer, but the text also seems very persuasive, our question is “How do they do that?” To combat the opposition, we need to understand their moves. But it is also the case that if we can cultivate this moment of neutrality, we may be able to understand where they are coming from and find some common ground.

Finding common ground is the most effective persuasive strategy of all.

Kenneth Burke on Terministic Screens

The terms we use to discuss something have a big effect on our perception of it. In his book Language as Symbolic Action, Kenneth Burke says, “Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (45). Burke calls a terminology a “terministic screen.” We might also call it a terministic “filter.”

What he means is that though we see through words and think about reality in words, no set of words accurately represents reality. The words we use influence how we see. When we speak or write, the words we use can make others see things as we do. Analyzing the terms that a writer or speaker uses can therefore tell us a lot about how they see the world. It also means that if we can get an audience to start using a different set of terms, we might change their views.

Burke’s fundamental example is the distinction between “action” and “motion.” Where Burke sees a motive and an act, a behaviorist sees a “stimulus” and a mechanistic “response.” In the behaviorist terminology, human action is reduced to a serious of chemical reactions, turning us into chemical machines (A Grammar of Motives, 59-60).

An Activity

In this activity, find two articles that take very different positions on an issue. As you read them, collect a list of three to six key terms for each article. These “terms” could be nouns, verbs, adjectives, or phrases. For each term, you will think about the following questions and record your findings in a chart like the one below.

  • What object in reality does the term reflect? What is the denotation?
  • What qualities does the term select from or emphasize about the object? How does the term draw attention to this particular object and away from others?
  • What qualities does this term deflect or conceal?
  • What other terms are related to this term in the system of this terministic screen? What relations do they have?

Here are some examples of different terms that might be used to describe fighters in a political situation:

When you have a set of key terms for each article, compare them to see how they overlap and how they differ. Finally, what is the effect on the attitude of the audience when seeing through these terministic screens?

A copy of this post as a .docx file plus a chart for tracking terms is provided in the link below.

Using Kenneth Burke’s Concept of Identification

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book in which you “identified” strongly with the main character? This is what Kenneth Burke means by “identification.” We want to be like characters we admire. But this is also true in real life.

I took up the topic of Kenneth Burke’s concept of “Identification,” in a previous post, “Identification and Division in the Current Crisis.” In this post, I want to delve further into the concept and explore some possible uses of the concept.

Identification and Division

Burke notes that “Identification,” (and rhetoric itself) is necessary because there is division. In The Rhetoric of Motives he says,

Identification is affirmed with earnestness precisely because there is division. Identification is compensatory to division. If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity. (22)

“Division” is our natural state. However, humans are also social creatures. We form families, tribes, communities, nations, alliances, and movements. Each of these groupings has ways of signaling membership and recognizing outsiders. Problems arise when different groups want to occupy the same territory, or use the same resources. But where there is division, we can try to overcome it by finding common ground.

It is likely that some identification is unconscious. We see or hear a person and we immediately “identify” with them. They seem to be like us in some way, or to be someone we would like to emulate or believe, but we don’t know exactly why. It might be gestures, a tone of voice, a remembrance of someone we admire who is similar in some way. But identification can also be consciously attempted.

Current Politics

We see this in our current politics. A politician has a core “base” of supporters who think like she does. These people strongly identify with their candidate. However, it is usually the case that the “base” is not enough to win the election. The candidate has to find ways to appeal to a larger group, without alienating her base. She has to find ways to signal to other groups that she is one of them too. Sometimes this involves using terms that have one meaning to the base, but have another to an outside group. This strategy is often called a “dogwhistle.” An actual “dogwhistle” is a whistle that when blown produces a sound that is too high pitched for humans to hear, but can be heard by dogs, who can hear a higher frequency range. In politics, by analogy, a “dogwhistle” is term that sounds positive to the base, but neutral to outsiders, who may actually disagree with the implications it has for the base if they understood them.

Identification is not just in politics, however. It is part of persuasion in schools, workplaces, corporate boardrooms and in the news. It is part of families and communities. It is even part of friendships. How does it work?

Tracking Identifications

One way to think about this is to track ways to signal identification. A short list might include:

  • Clothing including uniforms
  • Colors such as gang colors, school colors, red states and blue states, Dodger blue and Angel red
  • Symbols such as flags, insignia, designs, logos
  • Images and memes
  • Words identified with particular viewpoints (including “dogwhistles”)
  • Slogans, maxims, and stock phrases
  • Gestures such as salutes and handshakes
  • Associations with occupations, regions, social classes

Of course, there is some overlap in these categories.

Military uniforms have a long history. At a very basic level they function to help soldiers tell friend from foe and combatants from civilians. Military organizations also have various badges and insignia that indicate rank and achievements. The uniform and various attachments signify to all that this individual is a member of this organization and what role they perform in it. Of course, members of this organization are more skilled in interpreting these signals than outsiders, which increases the insider/outsider effect of identification.

Outside of the military, uniforms and other clothing choices can help observers tell employees from customers, students form teachers, and identify members of social groupings such as athletes, “goths” or other groupings defined by choices in music, sports, gaming, or other cultural activities. Of course, if an individual attempts to identify with a group by wearing its clothing, but gets it wrong in some way, that will unintentionally signal outsiderness. There is nothing more embarrassing than attempting to identify with a group and failing.

Of course, symbols such as flags and logos also define groups. Recently, there has been considerable controversy about the Confederate battle flag, the “stars and bars.” Does it signify “southern pride” or racism and slavery? Does it unify through identification or divide? The answer will probably be found by exploring what groups want to be identified with the symbol.

Internet memes are now a powerful way of signaling identity. Images from films and other media are combined with short phrases to make concise points that often signal a specific point of view.

Inducing Identification (The Ethos Move)

An interesting exercise is to read an article or listen to a speech with identification in mind. We might ask

  • Who is the audience (or audiences) that the writer/speaker wants to persuade?
  • What are some of the things that this audience identifies with?
  • What moves does the writer/speaker make to identify with this audience?
  • How successful is the writer/speaker in getting the audience to identify with them? What goes right and what goes wrong?

Responding to Identification (The Pathos Move)

Another exercise is to analyze your own response to an article or speech. We might ask

  • What are some of the groups I identify with? What are some of the things that I associate with those groups?
  • Do I identify with this writer/speaker? Do I feel part of their group? Why or why not?
  • What moves does the writer/speaker make to try to win my identification? How do I react to these moves?
  • What could this writer/speaker do better to make me identify with them?
  • How much does identification influence my willingness to accept their arguments?

Recognizing False Identifications

Sometimes attempts at identification simply don’t work. The banker in a cowboy hat does not make a convincing member of a group of cattle ranchers. The white politician who doesn’t know how to eat a tamale is unsuccessful in convincing a Latino group that he is simpatico. The democratic politician from Massachusetts looks ridiculous wearing a helmet and sitting in a tank.

However, sometimes identifications are consciously deceptive. They are an attempt to fool the audience into believing that the writer/speaker is something they are not.

For example, from sea stories by Patrick O’Brian I learned that in the 18th century, it was considered a legitimate ruse of war to fly a false flag when encountering and approaching an enemy warship, as long as the true flag went up before a shot was fired. Many English warships were captured French ones because the French built better ships, but the English sailed them better, so this ruse often brought victory. The French saw a French ship flying a French flag. Then suddenly they saw an English ship and an incoming broadside. But firing a shot under a false flag was a court martial offense, in any navy. It was against the rules of war and highly dishonorable.

In our society, is it ever acceptable to pretend to be someone or something you are not by using the terms, symbols, and other signals of identification of another group? If so, under what circumstances? I’ll leave that up to the reader.

This post as a .pdf.

How ERWC Informs My Online Instruction

In face-to-face, you can think “If it can go wrong, I’ll fix it in class.” Online, “If it can go wrong, well, I’d better make sure it doesn’t.”

It has now been two years since I stepped down from the ERWC Steering Committee after chairing it for 15 years. (For those who don’t know ERWC, it stands for “Expository Reading and Writing Course,” a California State University project designed to prepare high school seniors for reading and writing in college. The course is now taught in more than half the high schools in the state. There are lots of ERWC materials on this site, but for an overview of the approach, you might look at ERWC in a Nutshell and What Will ERWC 3.0 Be Like?)

I have lost track of how many ERWC modules I wrote and I have written others that are on this site that never became part of an ERWC course. I am now out of the loop on what ERWC is doing, as it is in the capable hands of Jennifer Fletcher at CSU Monterey Bay. However, as I plan my courses for fall 2020, I find myself falling back into ERWC ways.

Bridging Gaps on the Fly

A good course needs learning goals, accessible materials, effective pedagogy, structure, connections, and assessments. This is true whether the course is face-to-face or online, but in the face-to-face situation, a lot of gaps and disjunctions can be bridged on the fly. For example, if I have assigned a difficult reading, when I walk into the class meeting I can tell from silences, body language, and facial expressions that the class didn’t read it or didn’t understand it. I have to change strategies in the moment. On a Zoom session, I don’t have enough resolution or bandwidth to assess the situation in this informal way.

An Imaginative Process

ERWC has always been highly structured by the common template that forms the skeleton of every module. (You can see an outline of this template in “What Is a Mini-Module?“) Whenever I wrote an ERWC module, I felt like I was engaged in an imaginative process. I had to imagine a teacher teaching the material and students, who were not my own, doing the tasks. I had to imagine what the students were capable of doing at each point in the module and what they needed to learn or do to perform the next set of tasks. The module would unfold in time, but it was also connected in sort a timeless moment because every element had to connect with every other element. The template was the foundation of this imaginative process.

Remote Course Design

I am now in the midst of an online course for the faculty at my institution called “Remote Course Design Course” (RCDC). It has been very helpful. We are using a Blackboard template (Blackboard is our course management system) based on the principles of “Quality Matters.” Students begin by clicking on “Start Here!” In “Course Content” they find folders for each week that contain the learning outcomes, a step-by-step guide to all the materials and assignments, and links to all the texts. Everything they need for the week is right there. Although we still produce a syllabus, one of the participants commented that the syllabus is actually redundant because the whole structure of the course is visible in Blackboard. Here’s a screenshot of Module 1 Week 1:

Blackboard Screenshot of Advanced Expository Writing, Module 1, Week 1
Advanced Expository Writing, Module 1, Week 1

The Course Introduction video and the video on the first chapters of Performing Prose are not posted yet because, while I have done the PowerPoints for them, I haven’t shot them yet.

I used to have all of the materials of a course in two Blackboard folders: “Course Documents” and “Online Resources.” Students had to read the syllabus and then hunt down the documents, which were not organized in any particular order. I now realize how confusing that was!

Advanced Expository Writing

I am designing a junior-level “Advanced Expository Writing” course. I have five modules:

  • Thinking about Style and Narrative
  • Thinking about Rhetorical Strategies
  • Thinking about Argument and Evidence
  • Thinking about Research
  • Thinking about Publication

Each one takes between one to four weeks. As I design the assignments and populate the folders with links, I find myself thinking about ERWC modules. I am not using the ERWC template, or any template really. But I find myself imagining moving through time with the students, anticipating their needs and questions, structuring activities, and designing little formative assessments to make up for the lack of resolution in Zoom.

As I said above, in face-to-face, you can think “If it can go wrong, I’ll fix it in class.” Online, “If it can go wrong, well, I’d better make sure it doesn’t.”

I got some online teaching experience in spring when we had to shift from face-to-face to online in five days because of the pandemic. I am drawing on that experience, but I think that right now, ERWC is informing my teaching design more than that, and more than the RCDC course. It is good stuff.

Identification and Division in the Current Crisis

I don’t usually write about politics in this blog because I think that rhetoricians should be as objective as they can be. I often tell my students that their job is to analyze how the rhetoric works and how effective it is, not who has right on their side. But there comes a time when certain things must be addressed.

As I write this, the whole country, already in the midst of a pandemic, is dealing with the anger, grief, and frustration of yet another death of a black man at the hands of police. I want to write about this in terms that Kenneth Burke would use. (A previous post explains more about Burke.) There is a danger that in using theoretical terms to analyze such a visceral and traumatic event, I am putting in too much emotional distance and escaping into cold abstractions. That is not my intent. I want to try to understand what is happening.

On May 25, 2020, a white police officer in Minneapolis put his knee on the neck of a black man and kept it there for nine minutes, even while the suspect complained that he could not breathe. The suspect, George Floyd, died.

Agent-Act Ratio

An agent-act ratio would determine that the act was motivated by the nature of the agent, in this case the police officer. This ratio is at the heart of all of the “bad apple” explanations of police brutality. If a few bad officers are the root of the problem, logically the solution is to investigate and fire those officers and improve hiring procedures. Invoking this ratio has the effect of deflecting blame away from institutions and officials and onto individuals.

However, at least three other officers stood by or assisted in this act. They qualify as co-agents. Are they more bad apples? They are all members of a police department. Are all the officers in the department co-agents responsible for this act? Is the training and culture of the department at fault?

Circumference

What I am doing here is what Burke would call expanding the “circumference.” Burke usually uses this term in talking about the “scene.” The scene, or context for an act can be small, a particular intersection in a particular neighborhood, for example, or it can be as big as a nation and as long as history. But here, as I expand the circumference from one agent, to co-agents, to the whole department, perhaps to police departments throughout the nation, the concept of “agent” begins to become scenic. I’ll get back to scene in a bit.

Agency-Act Ratio

Another aspect of this discussion is how police departments are equipped. In recent years, it has been the practice to sell surplus military gear to police departments. This brings us to an agency-agent ratio. If police are equipped like soldiers with assault rifles, flak jackets, and even armored vehicles (all “agencies” in Burke’s sense), how does that define their role in the community? An individual equipped like a soldier is likely to think of him or herself as a soldier. This is sometimes discussed as a warrior/guardian binary. Is a police officer a warrior at war with the community or a guardian of the safety of the citizens?

In Flint, Michigan, a sheriff, Chris Swanson, put down his riot gear and was invited by protesters to “walk with us.” This sheriff opted to put off the agencies of a warrior and become one with his community, using instead the agencies of negotiation and identification.

Scene-Act Ratio

Of course, the larger question is whether the “scene” of American culture naturally produces acts like the killing of George Floyd. If we are going to define this act through a scene-act ratio, we have to define the circumference quite broadly because acts such as this happen to black people regularly throughout the country. Is racial prejudice and injustice an irredeemable, unerasable part of American society? Is the history of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, segregation, and institutional racism simply too powerful to overcome? I hope not. But overcoming it certainly can’t be achieved by removing a few “bad apples” or retraining the police, though certainly those things should be done.

Identification and Division

For Burke, the most powerful rhetorical strategy is “identification.” He says early in his book, The Rhetoric of Motives, contrasting it with the earlier Grammar of Motives, from which the ratios I was using above came, and the planned Symbolic of Motives, which was never finished

The Rhetoric deals with the possibilities of classification in its partisan aspects; it considers the way in which individuals are at odds with one another, or become identified with groups more or less at odds with one another.

Why “at odds,” you may ask, when the titular term is “identification”? Because, to begin with “identification” is, by the same token, though roundabout, to confront the implications of division. (22)

For Burke, rhetoric would not be necessary if there were no identifications and divisions. And he notes that such rhetoric often depends on “a body of identifications that owe their convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily reinforcement than to any exceptional rhetorical skill” (26).

We have been subjected to nearly four years of this sort of trivial repetition and dull reinforcement, all repeated in the name of division.

However, as I noted above, Sheriff Swanson of Flint, Michigan, at least for the moment, knocked down two divisive barriers,  the black/white divide and the people/police divide, when he put down his battle gear and said, “We want to be with y’all for real so I took the helmet off and laid the batons down. I want to make this a parade, not a protest” (Taylor). We need more actions like this.

Conclusions

As Burke knew, we can never eliminate division from our society. Divisions and identifications are always being re-negotiated. But we are all human, and that is a starting point. We are all Americans too, but we have to be careful, lest we divide ourselves from the rest of the world. Identification starts with respect and builds with recognition of common goals and values. Understanding is often too much to expect, but we can try. At least we can try.

Addendum: Here are a couple of links that I think are quite powerful. A high school teacher who had been in one of my ERWC module development workshops sent me the first one. It’s a powerful impromptu speech, full of pathos, but also arguing that protestors should channel their anger into working within the system, broken as it is. The teacher who sent it to me said, “It hits all the targets of rhetorical appeals in a profound way. I know my students will connect with it and perhaps be inspired to emulate its features in their own writing.”

Rapper Killer Mike gives impassioned speech during Atlanta protests

This second piece is from filmmaker Kasi Lemmons. She says,

As a filmmaker, I help people imagine what’s it’s like to be someone else, to experience things from a character’s point of view — things they never will experience outside the theater. But when it comes to black life in America, there’s only one conclusion I can reach about some white people: You don’t care to put yourself in our shoes. The consequences of this lack of imagination for black Americans are deadly.

White Americans, your lack of imagination is killing us

Both of these pieces ask us to imagine the life of the other. I think that is a first step toward identification rather than division.

This post available as a .pdf.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1950.

Taylor, Ariana. “‘Let’s walk’: Sheriff joins Flint protesters in show of solidarity.” The Detroit News, May 31, 2020.

Literature Program Outcomes

As I noted in my previous post, I am teaching a section of our capstone course “Senior Symposium” in the fall. One feature of this course is a portfolio that counts as part of the course grade, but is later used to assess the program. Those of you who are high school teachers have been living with Common Core learning outcomes and other top down standards for some time now. In higher education, outcomes assessment has been a topic among administrators for more than a decade, but departmental faculty are still pretty much doing their own thing.

I was on the Learning and Teaching Committee, responsible for developing and assessing Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs), for many years. At first it was fun and it seemed important. University faculty tend to think seriously about their own courses without ever thinking about what the whole program adds up to. This was a way to make faculty think about the whole.

I came to think about outcomes assessment in terms of four questions:

  • What are we trying to do?
  • How are we doing it?
  • How do we know we are doing it well?
  • How can we improve?

A discussion of just those four questions can help a department come together and function as a team with a vision of the big picture beyond individual courses.

However, administrators tended to want to make things much more complicated than a discussion of four questions. And teaching literature is not quite the same as teaching engineering or science. The administration kept asking for lists of the knowledge and skills we were teaching and matrices that indicated in which courses those skills were introduced, reinforced, and mastered. We called these “lego matrices” because they appeared to assume that a degree was built up out of a series of small pieces. This never worked very well for an English Department. They kept asking for more and more detail and it became clear that many thought that if you had trouble filling out the matrix, you weren’t teaching anything of real substance.

Another problem was that over the years, we kept changing the outcomes and the assessment procedures. That probably surprises high school teachers, who usually don’t have much control over the SLOs or the assessments. However, because we kept changing them, we don’t have a baseline, so we can’t answer the “How can we improve?” question.

As part of the portfolio for the “Senior Symposium,” my students will have to write a cover letter that argues that they have met the current outcomes and point to evidence in the rest of the portfolio, which contains a critical paper and some other materials, including papers from past courses if they want to include them, to support their argument. I created a worksheet including the current outcomes to help them prepare to write this paper:

ReflectiveCoverLetter-wrksht-colors

We used to have an “Oral Communications” outcome that caused most faculty to require student presentations in their courses. Some students reported in exit interviews that this practice had made them much more confident about speaking in front of people. However, other students complained that they didn’t get enough guidance in creating the presentations or enough feedback afterwards. The presentations were also difficult to evaluate on a program-wide basis. Rather than taking steps to improve, the department decided to eliminate the outcome. Again, I am sure high school teachers are surprised. I was too.

However, I do think the above outcomes represent a reasonable set of goals for the program. I also think that having students connect their own experiences to the SLOs and think about work they have produced that demonstrates that they have met them is a very useful culminating activity. Students are often surprised at how much they have learned.

Teaching Haruki Murakami

As a capstone course for the Language and Literature option, my department offers a “Senior Symposium.” The course is designed to allow students to apply everything they have learned in the program to an array of unfamiliar texts and literary works.

The course is usually designed around a study of multiple works by a single author. When I was asked to teach the course, I chose to assign a selection of novels by Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami. Murakami is popular, but controversial, in Japan. He is also very popular world-wide, translated into many languages. Do Murakami’s novels and short stories represent achievements of enduring literary merit? Or are they books of the moment, designed for popular appeal? Even in Japan, critics are unsure. And why, exactly, are they so popular? We will explore these questions, among others.

HearWindSing
The Kodansha Edition of  Hear the Wind Sing, Murakami’s first novel, written on a whim and submitted to a contest. The cover shows The Rat sitting and watching a beacon, thinking about the woman he is seeing, like Gatsby watching the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.

My late wife was an early fan of Murakami when she was in college in Yokohama and his novels were being serialized in literary magazines in Japan. She gave me English translations of his first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, published by Kodansha in Japan before he became internationally famous with the publication in the U.S. of Norwegian Wood and A Wild Sheep Chase. I also became an early fan.

Along with Wild Sheep Chase, the three early novels are often called “The Rat Trilogy.” They all feature the same nameless narrator, his friend “The Rat,” and J’s bar. Hear the Wind Sing is the novel Murakami wrote on a whim and sent to a contest, which he won. Pinball, 1973 is a sequel, also written while he was still running a jazz bar. In a strange way, the narrator, The Rat, and J of J’s bar, all seem to be versions of Murakami himself. In the course, we will start with Wild Sheep Chase.

Typical Characters

A Murakami novel usually has a first person narrator, often nameless, who calls himself “boku,” an informal first-person pronoun usually used by young boys. The narrator lives a relatively nondescript life on the margins of Japanese society, but often experiences visions of another world through powerful dreams, or through such actions as taking an elevator to the wrong floor, opening the wrong door, or even through climbing down a well. He has often lost his wife or girlfriend and doggedly seeks her, often encountering other versions of her in the process. The boundary between the “real” world and the other world is variously permeable. Characters who are dead in the “real” world often continue to exist in the other world. Some characters, such as the Sheep Man in Wild Sheep Chase, exist primarily in the other world.

The narrator generally lacks affect, and responds to extraordinary and unexplainable events by reverting to daily routines, such as making coffee, drinking a beer, or cooking spaghetti. The only unique characteristic of the narrator is that he loves jazz (sometimes American pop music, sometimes classical) and usually has an encyclopedic knowledge of the recordings.

Though the writing is rather flat emotionally (though often evocative of emotions in the reader), Murakami novels are laden with symbols, portents, historical anecdotes, and odd metaphors. Common themes include friendship, love, marriage, divorce, sexuality, aging, identity, boundaries and borders, sanity, and responsibility. Some later novels deal with aspects of recent Japanese history, including World War II.

Not Quite Japan

The world of the novels has the geography of Japan, but is not quite Japan. The real Japan is full of salarymen in suits and office ladies in fashionable attire hurrying to and from work. If a car is seen parked on the street with a small dent in it, passersby assume that it must belong to a foreigner. Maintaining appearances is an essential aspect of social life. However, Murakami’s characters are more likely to wear blue jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, and drive old, dented cars. They are often in-between jobs. They are odd-balls, just barely getting by. They often favor American products and cultural artifacts, such as beer, music, and films. They don’t seem very Japanese. And yet, they are.

Non-fiction and Other Novels

We will also read sections of Underground, Murakami’s non-fiction account of interviews with the victims and the perpetrators of the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. This book is filled with stories from real Japanese people, in their own words, describing their experiences on that fateful day. The ordinary Japanese in these accounts are rather different from the typical Murakami characters in the novels.

For further contrast, this time we will also read a couple of novels by Japanese women, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa and Convenience Store Woman by by Sayaka Murata. The Memory Police is a take on 1984 in which the government decrees that certain “useless” things must be forgotten. The police have some sort of mind control that causes most people to forget the forbidden things entirely. Early in the novel, birds disappear. Some people can still remember the forbidden things, but those who can are tracked down and arrested.

Convenience Store Woman is a hilarious, but sad novella about a woman who just likes running a 7-Eleven or a Lawson’s, both of which are ubiquitous in Japan. She doesn’t want a husband or a better job or anything else, but just to work in a little store. It is what brings her joy. Of course, no one in her family approves.

The students will bring everything they know about literary interpretation to these novels. They will demonstrate this knowledge and these skills in writing about these works as a culminating experience. I am looking forward to working with them.

Update (2/25/20): I created a sort of Murakami Bingo Card for students to fill out as they read each novel. It is designed to help them notice commonalities between the novels and see how his technique develops over time.

Teaching Online in Fall 2020

I am teaching English 3150 “Advanced Expository Writing” in the fall. I have taught it several times before, but never in a completely online asynchronous situation. When students enrolled in it, it was listed as face-to-face. It is still three months before classes start, but I wanted to contact the students to make sure that they knew what was in store, so I sent the following email to the class:

Dear English 3150 Students:

You recently got an email informing you that the course you signed up for has been switched to an online format. We had to do this because of decisions made by the Chancellor’s Office and Cal Poly Pomona to protect students, faculty, and staff from Covid-19. It is disappointing, but is probably a wise decision.

I want to tell you a bit about how English 3150 will be designed. During the summer, all faculty will be taking an online course about best practices for teaching online, so this may change a little as I learn new techniques, but here are my plans at the moment.

The course will be designed around the theme “How Life Has Changed.” I have Covid-19 in mind, but the theme could go beyond that. I will produce podcasts and videos on the course content and provide feedback on the submitted projects. We will also have weekly Zoom meetings.

Throughout the course, you will work together in small writing groups. Your group will be able to form their own discussion places on Blackboard and elsewhere to give each other feedback, advice, and encouragement. You will get to know your group very well.

In the first part of the course we will work on style with exercises, experiments, and other activities designed to stretch your stylistic repertoire. This will result in a personal narrative about your own experiences of change in the world and in your life.

In the second part of the course we will focus on rhetorical strategies, argumentation and persuasion. We will explore different organizational patterns and ways of persuading audiences. In this part of the course you will write an op-ed arguing for a particular change or course of action in how we do things. You might be writing about employment, racial disparity, medical issues, social practices, protests, supply chains, scarcity, art, literature, technology, politics etc., anything that is interesting to you.

In the final part of the course you will begin a research project that will look like investigative journalism. You will choose an issue and go on a research expedition to take a deep dive and follow links and connections to discover the truth about the matter. You will do this through online library databases and other online resources.

I have several blog sites that I maintain. I plan to convert one of them into a sort of online magazine. In the final weeks of the course, your group will decide which pieces–the narrative, the op-ed, or the investigative piece, one from each writer–should go up on the public website. At this point you will be functioning as editors, choosing and revising pieces for a new audience.

That’s the plan so far. I look forward to working with you in the fall.

Synchronous or Asynchronous?

I learned a lot in the past three months about teaching online. The first question is whether the course should be synchronous, with the students meeting online with the professor through Zoom or another platform at the designated class times, or asynchronous, with online lectures and online work to be done according to the student’s schedule. In the spring, I kept my graduate seminar in teaching writing synchronous through Zoom and Slack meetings every Tuesday evening, as originally scheduled. This worked well. It was a small class with engaged, well-prepared students. They all finished the work.

My Genre Fiction course became asynchronous. I created podcasts, and at the end a video using Kaltura, a video capture and hosting app. I had blogs and discussion boards. I felt I was losing track of some students so I started doing a weekly voluntary Zoom meeting that attracted pretty much the same seven students every week. A number of students were not participating in the discussion boards, so I created alternative extra credit assignments. I ignored due dates. By the end, I lost only two students. One other student got a D. The rest passed and there were many A’s because of the extra credit and the relaxed due dates.

The upshot? A synchronous course provides structure and can build community. However, student work and family schedules under lockdown or semi-lockdown can vary widely. An asynchronous course provides much more flexibility. My informal surveys of students were inconclusive. Some students prefer synchronous, some asynchronous. What was clear was that they preferred face-to-face meetings.

I am going to go asychronous with voluntary weekly Zoom meetings. In the spring, these turned into group office hour sessions that were as helpful for me as for the students.

Discussion Boards?

The other thing I learned was that students hate discussion boards. In a face-to-face class, there are always five to seven students who are eager to participate, while the majority of the students prefer to sit back and listen to smart people talk. Even in a face-to-face course, I usually have an online discussion board of some kind, but it is usually low stakes. However, the discussion board in the newly online Genre Fiction course was high stakes because it was replacing the class meetings. It became a big part of the grade. I had multiple discussion questions for each week. Many students listened to the podcasts, read my notes, but did not post to the discussion boards. I felt that a major component of my teaching was simply not working.

Story Response Sheets

However, I found that students liked another aspect of the course, something I called the “Story Response Sheet” or SRS. This sheet asks questions about themes, characters, exposition devices, plot, point of view, style, and other aspects of story craft. Then it asks for a rating on the “Read-O-Meter” from 1 (Totally Dreadful) to 10 (Totally Awesome) and a paragraph about why they gave the story that rating. They happily turned these in and reported that filling them out caused them to think about aspects of the stories they would not normally think about.

Conclusions

In fall 2020 I intend to continue to use a discussion board, but I will make it mostly about personal responses–things they noticed, things they liked, things they didn’t like, things that surprised them, etc. I will use something like the SRS assignment for more substantive questions. Those will be submitted to me and will not be available to other students.

Fall 2020 will be an adventure for the students and for me. All faculty will take an online course in teaching online starting in June, so I will have more ideas by the end of the summer. I will report on those too.

The Two Fallacies That Aren’t

When I was an undergraduate English Major at Cal State L.A. in the 1970’s, most of the faculty in the English Department had been trained as New Critics. New Criticism was focused on the text of the literary work itself to the exclusion of historical context, authorial biography, authorial intention, or any kind of reader response. The practitioners of New Criticism called it “objective criticism” because they wanted to exclude factors that were either unknowable or subjective. Their method was a close reading of the text, looking at the topic and theme of the work and such formal elements as ambiguity, irony, metaphor, symbolism, imagery and other devices.

New Criticism dominated English departments from the 1940’s to the 1960’s, so my professors were already having some questions about it. However, the practice of close reading continues and has even been officially revived in the Common Core. Two other concepts remain as well, concepts I consider pernicious. These are what Wimsatt and Beardsley called “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy.” My complaint about these phrases is more about the rhetorical effect of the word “fallacy” than the concepts themselves.

The Intentional Fallacy

Wimsatt and Beardsley argue that “The design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art” (468). They do not want to ask, “What was the author trying to do?” and then “Was he or she successful in accomplishing this intention?” Even if they could ask the author, as they could in the case of T.S. Eliot, they do not wish to because to do so “would not be a critical inquiry.” They make a strong distinction between evidence internal to the text of the work and external evidence that might be found in the author’s biography or journals and letters. We could ask, if Charlotte Bronte writes a novel about a governess, does it matter that she herself was a governess”? For Wimsatt and Beardsley, that fact is irrelevant to the text.

From many other points of view, the fact that the Bronte sisters did indeed work as governesses and were concerned about the existential conditions of such work is indeed relevant and interesting. That is why I object to the word “fallacy.” There is nothing wrong with bracketing authorial intention and other matters external to the text in order to focus more closely on the text itself. But to stigmatize attention to these external matters as a “fallacy” is ideological. It is to brand all such inquiries as illogical from the outset.

The Affective Fallacy

In the introduction to their article on the “Affective Fallacy,” Wimsatt and Beardsley state their definitions:

The Intentional Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its origins,
a special case of what is known to philosophers as the Genetic Fallacy. It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological causes of the poem and ends in biography and relativism. The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does) . . . It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism. The outcome of either Fallacy, the Intentional or the Affective, is that the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear. (31)

Note that in both cases what they are concerned about is deriving “the standard of criticism.” A New Critic attempts to provide an indisputable definitive reading of the work. The standard they strive toward is one of scientific certainty. They want to be able to say, “This is what it means.” Of course, in order to do that you have to leave out the squishy uncertain parts, such as what the author was thinking and how unpredictable readers might respond.

A Rhetorical Critic

Of course for a rhetorical critic, the New Critical approach leaves out all of the interesting parts. Such a critic sees the work as a rhetorical act, constructed by an author in order to have particular effects on readers. Author, text and reader are all equally important. Authors write for readers and so readers influence authorial decisions. Authors and readers are situated in contexts that are external to the text. Taken together, the two New Critical fallacies neutralize and render motionless all of this rhetorical interaction.

Conclusions

I rather like reading New Critics. They are attentive readers of literary works. But these two “fallacies” are fallacies only if one completely buys into New Critical dogma. It is unfortunate that we continue to react to them as if they were true. It cuts off so many other interesting approaches.

The most pernicious aspect of this terminology is the effect it has on pedagogy and the enjoyment of literature. For any reader, the first concern is how he or she responds to the work. We want to make connections to our own lives and feelings. We ask questions such as

  • Why do I identify with this character?
  • What does this character tell me about myself?
  • How does this situation relate to my life?
  • What would I do in that situation?
  • How would I feel if that happened to me?

It is questions like this that lead to engagement and the enjoyment of literature. These are starting points for real readers, who might think that a work is “good” because they engage with it. But unfortunately, the “Affective Fallacy” has taught us to be suspicious of engaging the reader’s emotions. It is a great loss.

Works Cited

W. K. Wimsatt Jr. and M. C. Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1946), pp. 468-488

W. K. Wimsatt Jr. and M. C. Beardsley. “The Affective Fallacy.” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Winter, 1949), pp. 31-55

Borne by Jeff Vandermeer

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Rachel, a scavenger in a burned out city in a dystopian world, finds a houseplant-sized piece of glowing biotech tangled in the fur of Mord, a giant flying bear who terrorizes the human inhabitants. She lives in an abandoned, partially-ruined apartment complex called “The Balcony Cliffs,” with Wick, a genius biotech designer. She takes her salvaged biotech home to find that it grows and learns and becomes a sentient being she calls “Borne.”

This science fiction novel has a hint of Frankenstein about it. Mord was created by the “Company,” along with other monsters, but they lost control of him. Is Borne another Frankenstein? Will we have Frankenstein versus Frankenstein?

I used to teach Finch, another Jeff Vandermeer novel in this course. Finch is about a noir Sam Spade or Phillip Marlow-style detective trying to solve a double murder in a city run by “Gray Caps,” fungal alien beings who came up out of the ground. It’s a science fiction detective novel. However, it went out of print and used copies are very expensive. I’ll bring it back if it ever goes back in print. But my students enjoyed Borne.

As with Stranger in Olondria, I made podcasts for each section of the book. However, these podcasts are organized a bit differently. I focused on character development and issues rather than doing a chronological walk through of the reading. I also stopped putting a list of questions at the end because the students felt that they had to answer the questions rather than engaging in their own speculations. The questions are still there, but they are scattered throughout the presentation.

I may be teaching this again a year from now. I imagine that for now the podcasts and questions could also be used for a book club sort of discussion. The podcasts contain spoilers, so it is best to read the section before listening to the podcast or reading the notes. The notes were created to script the podcasts, but the podcasts often contain additional comments that come to me on the fly.

Borne Part 1, 3-56

Notes

Borne Part 2, 59-193

Notes

Borne Part 3a, 197-264 (Part 3 has been divided in half)

Notes

Borne Part 3b, 264-323

Notes