Transfer and the ERWC Template

The concept of educational “transfer” is a hot topic in composition and rhetoric circles these days. Much of this interest is inspired by a recent publication, Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Yancy, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. Yancy and her co-authors ask “Do the knowledge and skills learned in a writing course transfer to other courses and workplaces?” and is it possible to “teach for transfer”?

Yancy et al found that college students tended to rely on what they had been taught in high school when writing for college courses rather than what they learned in their First Year Writing course. They redesigned the FYC course to emphasize a limited number of concepts:

  1. Audience, genre, rhetorical situation, and reflection
  2. Exigence, critical analysis, discourse community, and knowledge
  3. Context, composing, and circulation
  4. Knowledge and reflection (57)

To me, these concepts appear to be a mix of categories and of varying utility, though it is a positive step to look beyond the immediate course to the student’s future rhetorical situations.

ERWC and Transfer

ERWC has been interested in transfer from the beginning. In the ERWC document “Transfer and Engagement: From Theory to Enhanced Practice” Nelson Graff cites Smith and Wilhelm, who argue that four factors make it more likely that students will transfer concepts and strategies from one context to another:

  • Students have a command of the knowledge that is to be transferred.
  • Students have a theoretical understanding of the principles to be transferred.
  • The classroom culture cultivates a spirit of transfer.
  • Students get plenty of practice.

Graff notes that that is why ERWC repeats the same strategies across modules. ERWC is certainly an ideal environment for creating the conditions for transfer.

What Actually Transfers?

However, if we look at what kinds of concepts and strategies powerfully transfer from high school to college, the list is pretty small. In my experience, it includes the five-paragraph essay, Toulmin argumentation (in a simplistic and reduced form), and more recently, ethos, pathos, logos. I have a suspicion about why this is so.

In Thinking and Writing in College: A Naturalistic Study of Students in Four Disciplines, (a very interesting book, available here at the WAC Clearinghouse) Barbara Walvoord and Lucille McCarthy describe longitudinal studies of four classrooms. They collected assignments and student writing and interviewed instructors and students. One of their findings was that

Students in all four classes typically used the assignment sheet as a kind of recipe for completing the assignment. The sheet seemed often to supersede other models or instructions given in class or remembered from other situations. Students usually kept the assignment sheet beside them as they composed, consulting it frequently,especially when they felt confused. They tended to see themselves as following step-by-step the explicit instructions contained in it, and they often interpreted it very literally. (57)

This led to serious miscues. In the business class they studied, the students were asked to go to two different fast food restaurants and observe how they dealt with customers. At the bottom of the sheet, the instructor had written “Chapters 7 and 8 in the Stevenson text can provide guidance” (62). Because this instruction was at the bottom, many students made their observations before reading the chapters, but the categories they were supposed to use were in the assigned reading, so their data was almost useless.

This finding indicates that when students are confronted with a task, especially a task they have not done before (a common experience in higher education), they look for a step-by-step solution to the problem of doing the task, one that they can deploy in the moment. Eventually they realize that some of the tasks in their discipline, such as writing a lab report in biology or analyzing a case study in business, are recurring problems that require them to develop routine strategies.

Rhetorical Strategies as Solutions to Recurring Problems

However, before they get to that point, essay-writing in Language Arts is the most common recurring writing task they have encountered. The five-paragraph essay provides a solution to the recurring problem of “how to write an essay.” The Toulmin model, presented as a checklist, offers a solution to the “how to structure an argument” problem. It doesn’t really matter that students often fill in the checklist incorrectly, citing warrants that aren’t really warrants and backing that is just further supporting evidence rather than reference to a body of knowledge or a system of rules, as Toulmin intended. The model still serves as a content-generating device for making claims and supporting them.

Recent changes in standards for Language Arts have made rhetorical analysis assignments much more common. The Aristotelian appeals have become the standard solution to that recurring problem, generating a paragraph about each appeal.

ERWC 3.0 attempts to teach a broader range of rhetorical concepts, such as audience, purpose, exigence, kairos, rhetorical situation, and stasis theory. I do not think that these concepts will transfer unless students see them first as solutions to doing the immediate task at hand, and second, as possible solutions to recurring problems they will face in the future. We cannot teach them as simply content to be mastered.

What to Do?

How do we help them see these new strategies as useful? The ERWC template as currently structured does not reveal the writing task until the middle of the module, in the “Connecting Reading to Writing Section.” Though we may see the reading tasks as at least equal in importance to the writing task, the students are unlikely to see it that way. They think that the culminating task is the problem they have to solve. They will be thinking, “How will this weird new concept of ‘kairos’ help me write this essay? Will the essay be about kairos?”

The ERWC template is still one of the best vehicles we have for designing teaching units and courses that are conducive to transfer. It just needs a little adjustment. If the writing assignment is at least previewed in the “Preparing to Read” section, it will give the students a clear idea of where they are going, making the tools and experiences that are provided by the module more relevant to doing the task as they perceive it. Second, if the new concepts and strategies are presented in the context of possible future tasks and problems to which they may be relevant, students are more likely to remember them.

I am still exploring how this might be accomplished. But as a first step, I created a Flexible Module Planner that is a bit less linear than the current template. Comments and suggestions, as always, are welcome.

Works Cited

Smith, Michael W., & Jeffrey D. Wilhelm. Going with the Flow. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006. Print.

Walvoord,Barbara and Lucille McCarthy. Thinking and Writing in College: A Naturalistic Study of Students in Four Disciplines. Colorado State Univ. WAC Clearinghouse. Accessed 2 Dec. 2018.

Yancy, Kathleen. Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. Logan, UT: Utah State Univ. Press, 2014. Print.

Using Kenneth Burke’s Pentad

Note: Updated 11/8/18 with additional literary examples from The Great Gatsby, better citations, and other minor adjustments.

Literary critic and rhetorician Kenneth Burke calls humans “the symbol using animal.” In his long career exploring how humans communicate, he has invented a variety of systems for analyzing speech and writing. In his book A Grammar of Motives he describes what is perhaps his most useful device, a five-term system for analyzing the motivation of characters that he calls the “pentad” (xv).

Most of us are familiar with the the five W’s—Who, What, When, Where, and Why—sometimes called “the reporter’s questions.” A sixth question, “How?” is often added. These questions are designed to elicit the basic facts of a situation. A good news story should answer all of these questions in the first three paragraphs. Everything after that is added detail.

Burke’s pentad is similar, but rather than facts, he is interested in motives. His set of terms is designed to help us think about what motivates the things that people do. Here are Burke’s terms:

PentadChart

Note that Burke collapses “when” and “where” into “scene” and “how” becomes “agency.”

The terms “act” and “scene” may remind you of a play and you would not be entirely wrong, although in a play an “act” is a major section of the play and not an individual action.  Burke calls his system, “dramatism” in part because it treats real life as if it were a drama.  In Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, a character says “All the world’s a stage,/
And all the men and women merely players.” Burke would agree.  Burke says,

Dramatism centers on observations of this sort: for there to be an act, there must be an agent.  Similarly, there must be a scene in which the agent acts.  To act in a scene, the agent must employ some means, or agency. And it can be called an act in the full sense of the term only if it involves a purpose (that is, if a support happens to give way and one falls, such motion on the agent’s part is not an act, but an accident).  These five terms (act, scene agent, agency, purpose) have been labeled the dramatistic pentad; the aim of calling attention to them in this way is to show how the functions which they designate operate in the imputing of motives (A Grammar of Motives and a Rhetoric of Motives 1962, Introduction).  (Gusfield 135)

Shifting Points of View

Each term represents a perspective or point of view. There is no right way to answer the questions posed by the terms in a particular situation. Rather than a tool for finding right answers, the pentad is a tool for shifting your point of view around to see new possible arguments and ways of thinking about a situation. It can be used to discover the gaps, ambiguities, and contradictions in an opponent’s arguments, plus find ways to counter them by taking on a completely different perspective yourself.

Though newcomers to this system often start by looking at a situation and trying to answer all of the questions as a sort of checklist, the most useful way to use the terms is to combine two of the terms into what Burke calls “ratios.” The most important question is almost always, “What caused or motivated the act?” A lot of the most useful combinations will have “act” on the right side and another term on the left side, representing the source of the motivation you want to emphasize.

Some Examples

We often think that when people do something, they do it either because of their own personal nature (agent→act) or because of their purpose (purpose→act). (Here I am using an arrow to show that the motivation for the act comes from the term on the left. You could think of the arrow as representing something like “leads to.”)

However, there are many other useful combinations. Let’s imagine a neighborhood that has a lot of graffiti. Young people are painting slogans, gang signs, four-letter words, and other messages on buildings, bridges, billboards, and even garage doors. Homeowners and businesses are upset about it. The people doing this are agents. Painting the graffiti is an act. What motivates this act?

In this example, some people in the community argue that the young people have no respect for the property of others, so they commit this vandalism. Burke would call that an agent→act ratio. Bad people commit bad acts. The solution to the problem, defined by this combination, might be to punish or re-educate the agents. However, others argue that the bad neighborhood creates bad people who do this. That would be a scene→agent ratio (We could actually think of this as a three term combination, scene→agent→act.) Here the solution might be to improve the neighborhood through addressing root causes, such as poverty or homelessness. On the other hand, perhaps young people see all of the graffiti in the neighborhood and want to imitate the behavior. That would be a scene→act ratio which might imply a graffiti removal campaign to clean up the city. Finally, someone else might argue that the graffiti is legitimate political or artistic expression. That would be a purpose→act ratio. In that case, the solution might be to engage with the community and address the issues that the perpetrators are talking about. Each of these ratios defines the problem in a different way and implies a different kind of solution. Each implies different kinds of arguments. It is not clear that any one of these perspectives is “correct,” but they are all possible positions. The pentad has opened up a lot of possibilities for discussing the situation.

Defining the Terms

In the example above, the “act” was consistently defined as painting graffiti. Also as noted above, because we are talking about motivation, the act tends to be central no matter what other terms are put into play. How you define the act may totally change the argument. Perhaps one side says the act was murder, while the other says it was self-defense. Similarly, what you call the agent can have important rhetorical effects. One man’s terrorist, is another man’s freedom fighter. Notice also how the scene often defines an act. If a soldier in the scene of war kills an enemy, we don’t call it murder. However, if the same man kills someone in his hometown in a bar fight, we define the act in a different way.

Often we are using the pentad to analyze a speech or a text that someone has written. Beginners often make the mistake of defining the writing of the text as the “act.” That makes the author the “agent,” the computer or other writing tool the “agency,” the society or the audience the “scene,” and the author’s point the “purpose.” This is not the most interesting way to use the pentad because each analysis tends to be exactly the same.

The Pentad in Action

Let’s say that a writer in an online newspaper has written an editorial arguing that graffiti artists are criminals who should be caught and given jail time. The writer is arguing that there should be increased enforcement and punishment. You recognize this as an agent→act combination. However, you think that at least some of the graffiti expresses real issues that are important in the community. You think that problems in the neighborhood are causing the inhabitants to express their voices in the only way they know. You see this not as a (bad) agent→act combination, but as scene→act. And instead of defining the act as vandalism, you want to define it as political expression.

Of course, when you write your response, you don’t mention agent→act or scene→act. Your readers would not know these terms (unless you are writing for your teacher). The pentad is your own secret tool. However, you describe the neighborhood problems and the ways in which the graffiti addresses them. You use this to build a case for addressing the real problems. Your readers do not need to know that you have used Burke’s pentad to think clearly about the issue and to plan your response. They just see the results of your analysis.

Burke’s pentad can be used in almost any rhetorical situation. For example, recently in the news there was a controversy about an alleged sexual assault that happened at a high school party long ago. Much of the discussion was about how much beer underage high school students were accustomed to drinking at the time. At one point, the accused said something like, “Everybody was doing it.” This is a clear scene→act combination. He is saying, “Everybody drank beer, so I drank beer too.” Alcohol can also be an instrument or “agency” of assault. Some people who were part of that scene said that they observed young men spiking the punch with grain alcohol or drugs to make girls more vulnerable to assault and to reduce their ability to consent to a sexual act. In this case we have an agency→act combination, quite a horrifying one. We could also turn this around and ask, “What kind of agent would commit this act?” or “What does this act tell us about the agent?” That would be an act→agent combination, in this case with the “act” on the left side.

Literary Criticism

Believe it or not, Burke’s pentad can also be used for literary criticism. For example, in The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway describes West Egg, the place he has rented a house as “one of the strangest communities in North America” (4). Across the bay “the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered across the water” (5). The newly rich and the not-so-rich live in West Egg, while the truly rich who have inherited their wealth and prestige live in East Egg. Gatsby lives in West Egg while Daisy, his love, lives in East Egg, making Gatsby immediately suspicious to the truly wealthy. Burke would call this a scene→agent ratio. In this combination, the “scene,” which can be a place, a culture, or a historical moment, forms the nature and character of the “agent,” the person who acts. At one point, Tom Buchanan calls Gatsby “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (130). For Tom, if you are from nowhere, you are nobody, and for him that is the ultimate insult.

When Tom and Daisy attend one of Gatsby’s parties, Gatsby points out various famous people including an actress and her director. He identifies people by what they do, an act→agent combination. He introduces Tom to people as “Mr. Buchanan . . . the polo player” (105). Tom rejects this act→agent ratio.

“I’d rather not be the polo player,” said Tom pleasantly, I’d rather look at all these famous people in—in oblivion.” (105)

Tom does not need fame to feel important. He’s too rich. If we think of wealth as a tool for doing things, in Burke’s terms an “agency,” we could say that instead of his actions, Tom is defined by his wealth, an agency→agent ratio.

It is also possible for the scene in which the act takes place to motivate the act, a scene→act ratio. In this novel, the action moves from East Egg to West Egg, and from East Egg to New York, passing through “the Valley of Ashes.” The Valley of Ashes is where Wilson, the gas station owner, and his wife Myrtle, with whom Tom is having an affair, live. Myrtle wants to marry Tom to get out of this place, a scene-act ratio.

Conclusions

The pentad is especially useful if you are trying to respond to an article that you think you disagree with. How does the writer define the act? If the writer is emphasizing the agent, what happens if you look at it from the point of view of the scene? If the writer is emphasizing a tool, such as some kind of new technology (agency), what if you emphasize the purpose? The pentad is a way of shifting perspectives that just might lead you to some winning arguments.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley:Univ. Of California Press, 1945.

Gusfield, Joseph R. ed. Kenneth Burke: On Symbols and Society. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.

Click here to download this post as a .pdf for classroom use.

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

A Reader-Response Approach to Poetry

books-IMG_0227

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.

Update: English teacher extraordinaire Carol Jago has published an essay, “Agents of Imagination,” on the Poetry Foundation site.  It’s about teaching science fiction poetry and also includes a poem by Tracy K. Smith, who seems to have a talent for writing beautiful, evocative, yet approachable poems.   This essay is a mini-module in essay form!  Highly recommended!