Designing Postreading Activities

As noted in the previous post about designing the writing assignment, the “Postreading” section is where we stop playing the believing game and begin the disbelieving game. In previous sections, our stance was “What if this is all true?” Now, our question is “What is wrong with this?” We also decided that we want to design critical thinking activities that will help students respond to the question “When, if ever, should government limit or prevent people from doing things that are bad for them?”

Summarizing and Responding

The cheat sheet question for this section is “How can you help students express the ideas and arguments of the text in their own words?” One cannot summarize an argument unless one understands it and has command of the main points.

One technique that is often used in ERWC is to ask the students to make a PAPA Square, a technique adapted from Maxine Hairston’s Contemporary Composition (short edition). Through a PAPA Square, students analyze the purpose, argument, persona, and audience of a text—either their own or a published writer’s. The PAPA square looks like this:

papasquare1

However, for this this particular article, some of the questions may be difficult to answer. What is Kinsley’s purpose? His final conclusion is that Bloomberg, “deserves a pass on this one,” but this is connected to the ironic theme maintained throughout the article that Bloomberg is his boss. Kinsley does not seem to want to win an argument. The piece is more of a commentary on the issue of government “nannying” than an opinion piece on the Big Gulp soda ban. Kinsley, a professional journalist of long standing, may actually be more interested in entertaining his readers than anything else, though part of the “entertainment” is thinking critically about the issue.

Another common and useful technique is the “Rhetorical Précis.” In a rhetorical précis, students use the questions below (from Reading Rhetorically by John C. Bean, Virginia A. Chappell, and Alice M. Gillam) to write a brief four-sentence analysis of the content, purpose, and persuasive strategies of a text:

  • Sentence 1: Note the name of the author, the genre and title of the work, and the publication date in parentheses; a rhetorically accurate verb; and a “that” clause containing the major assertion or thesis statement in the work.
  • Sentence 2: An explanation of how the author develops and supports the thesis, usually in chronological order.
  • Sentence 3: A statement of the author’s apparent purpose, followed by an “in order to” phrase.
  • Sentence 4: A description of the intended audience, the relationship the author establishes with the audience, or both.

This pattern will work very well for most op-ed pieces, but not this one. Kinsley’s thesis and purpose are unclear. We might address this problem by directing attention to it. We could say, “An explicit thesis is stated directly and clearly. An implicit thesis is implied by the text, but not stated. What kind of thesis does Kinsley have in this piece?” They might come up with something like the passage late in the text quoted in the previous post: “What people think about this issue depends on how they weigh various factors.”

For students who may have trouble even recognizing a glaringly obvious thesis, however, finding an implicit thesis might be too much.

In “Considering the Structure of the Text” we asked the students to identify the topic of the article and make a “T” chart of pro and con arguments. Here we could ask students to revisit that chart, considering one additional rhetorical question: “What does this piece do for the reader?” Our summary format might look like this:

  1. Who is the author of this piece?
  2. What is the issue the piece discusses?
  3. According to the author, what factors should we consider in making a decision about this issue?
  4. What does this piece do for the reader?

The answer to the last question might be, “The author analyzes various factors and arguments related to Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban on Big Gulp sodas so that the reader can make an informed decision.”

Thinking Critically

The cheat sheet question for this section is “How can you help students notice and respond to the rhetorical decisions made by the author, especially regarding ethos, logos, and pathos?”

The Assignment Template uses questions based on Aristotle’s three appeals as the basis for thinking critically about a text. This approach means that students are thinking about claims, arguments, and evidence in the context of the writer’s credibility and their own emotional reactions.

Questions about Logic (Logos)

In a sense, the purpose of Kinsley’s article is to lay out possible avenues of critical thinking on this issue. To the extent that he is successful in doing that, much of the work of this section has already been done.

For much of this article, Kinsley is laying out arguments made by people in opposing camps, the Libertarian “Leave the people alone” camp and the Liberal “Protect the people from their own bad decisions” camp. Thus the Assignment Template’s questions about claims and evidence are a little off:

  • What are the major claims and assertions made in this reading? Do you agree with the author’s claim that . . . ?
  • What evidence has the author supplied to support the claims? How relevant and valid do you think the evidence is? How sound is the reasoning?
  • Is there any claim that appears to be weak or unsupported? Which one, and why do you think so?
  • What counterarguments has the author addressed?
  • Do you think the author has left something out on purpose? Why?
  • How have the author’s ideas developed over the course of the text?

However, Kinsley does make a couple of claims himself. In paragraph six, he claims that the law as proposed “would be comically easy to evade.” Then he argues that Libertarians have nothing to fear from an ineffective law, though he does note that arguing in favor of a law because it will be ineffective is a pretty weak argument.

In paragraph nine, Kinsley argues that drinking sugary soda does harm people other than the drinker because it will make health insurance costs go up. However, the most important claim he makes is in paragraph 12, where he argues that “nannying does work” because another of Bloomberg’s laws requiring restaurants to post nutritional information about the meals they serve caused him to give up beef. He provides further support for this claim with some statistics about smoking.

We might deal with Kinsley’s claims by framing the question in the following way: “Although much of the article lays out possible claims and arguments made by other parties, Kinsley himself does make some claims. What are they and how does he support them?” Students might work in pairs or small groups to find the claims and discuss the support.

Questions about the Writer (Ethos)

When Aristotle talks about ethos, he is thinking about a persona constructed by the speaker to help persuade the audience that he or she is a credible speaker with the good of the polis in mind. In ERWC, we tend to use the concept critically in a double-sided way. We look at the persona and how it is constructed by the text, but we also encourage research into who the writer actually is and what qualifications he or she brings to the issue. The Assignment Template questions are

  • What can you infer about the author from the text?
  • Does this author have the appropriate background to speak with authority on this subject?
    Is the author knowledgeable?
  • What does the author’s style and language tell the reader about him or her?
  • Does the author seem trustworthy? Why or why not?
  • Does the author seem deceptive? Why or why not?
  • Does the author appear to be serious?

Note the words “seem” and “appear to be” in some of those questions. These are hedge words that are normally avoided in academic arguments, but here they signal that there might be a gap worth investigating between the persona and the person. We might ask the students to do some searches on Michael Kinsley.

The questions above will work for this text. The last question, “Does the author appear to be serious?” raises the issue of the irony again. If we really wanted to work on this, we could ask the students to write an imaginary conversation between Michael Bloomberg and Michael Kinsley about this article. Perhaps we could give them this starting point:

MB: I heard you wrote an article about my Big Gulp ban.
MK: Yes, I did.
MB: Did you give it strong support?
MK: Well . . .
MB:
MK:
And so on . . .

Questions about Emotions (Pathos)

Many teachers are under the impression that emotional appeals are a logical fallacy. Aristotle compares using emotional appeals to “warping the ruler” by which you are trying to measure something, but he also recognizes that they are very effective and often necessary. The Assignment Template questions are as follows:

  • Does this piece affect you emotionally? Which parts?
  • Do you think the author is trying to manipulate the readers’ emotions? In what ways? At what point?
  • Do your emotions conflict with your logical interpretation of the arguments?
  • Does the author use humor or irony? How does that affect your acceptance of his or her ideas?

In this case, we might try to focus the questions a little more specifically. We might ask

  • Do you resist arguments that soda is bad for you because you enjoy drinking soda? Does this resistance influence your logical interpretation of the arguments?
  • Do Kinsley’s repeated statements that Bloomberg must be right because he is his boss give you a favorable or unfavorable impression of the Kinsley? How do you feel about Kinsley?
  • Do you think that Kinsley’s use of irony was an effective strategy?

The irony in this piece, once invoked, is never really overcome. Again, these questions might be discussed in pairs or small groups.

Reflecting on Your Reading Process

The cheat sheet question for this section is: “How can you help students reflect both on the problems they had reading this text, and the discoveries they made about reading strategies?”

This section was added to the Assignment Template in the last revision. It is designed to facilitate the internalization of reading strategies so that gradual release of responsibility is possible.

  • What was the most difficult part of reading this article?
  • What strategies did you use to overcome the difficulty? Will these strategies work for other articles that you might read in the future?
  • Did reading this article change your views in any way? Did it push you toward the “leave the people alone” position or the “protect the people from their own bad decisions” position?
  • What parts of the article influenced you the most?

The last two questions are based on a recognition that we do not read merely to comprehend, but to respond. Arguments engage not only our reason, but also our belief system. When we engage fully, we are changed.

An interesting assignment at this point might be a “Note to Self Regarding Reading Strategies.” It might start out, “Next time I read a difficult text I should try . . . because it worked for this one.”

3 thoughts on “Designing Postreading Activities

  1. Hi John,
    This section was so detailed that I went back and reread the article, and then reread your analysis of it. I think it’s spot on; the usual suspects won’t apply here because so much of this is tongue in cheek (and maybe sleight of hand). it strikes me that an interesting question for discussion might be, “When Kinsley set out to write this article, what sort of rhetorical problem was he facing? What were his options in handling a delicate rhetorical context, in which the subject of his argument is his boss?”

    I love the imagined dialogue between Bloomberg and Kinsley. Who says creative writing is dead?

    The overall effect of the article for me is to believe that Kinsley is actually arguing against his boss, while doing some window dressing to make it appear as though he is being more even handed than he is. I think it’s the cumulative effect of the irony: if you say something must be true quite often (Bloomberg must be right on this, because he’s my boss), then you really are arguing the reverse. It’s also structured in such a way that leaves a negative impression at the end (the final obsequious paragraph, preceded by a paragraph in which the Mayor’s views are supported by those who are “authoritarian in habits of thought”–that can’t be good.

    All of which makes me think that although the article resists it, a rich question for discussion is, “Given the author’s possible deceptive approach, and heavy use of irony, how do we decide what to make of this piece? Is it possible for us to decide what Kinsley really believes about this issue? What evidence or information could we use to decide?” (For example, we could read other pieces he’s written on this subject, which might spoil the fun, but would give us a sense of his persona as a writer).

    One last thing–I really like the self-talk you’re doing as a teacher, the using and rejecting of ideas (without dispairing, but with an upbeat attitude, as if to say that the challenge is what makes teaching fun).

    • Mary,

      Those are great questions! Are you suggesting the last one as a possible alternative writing assignment?

      Kinsley has been a reporter so long that he is famous for something called the “Kinsley gaffe,” which is when a politician inadvertently reveals a truth during an interview. He sounds like a young whippersnapper in this piece, but he is actually the same age as I am. He is also famous for being diagnosed with Parkinson’s and writing about it. He has an article in a recent New Yorker, “Have You Lost Your Mind?” in which he discusses the history of his disease and a recent test he took to find out if he had lost any cognitive function. Apparently, to his surprise, he had. It is an interesting, but sad piece.

      http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/04/28/have-you-lost-your-mind

      As for the “self-talk” (a nice phrase!) these posts are essentially think-aloud pieces. This is how I work on writing a module. I look for possibilities, explore them, and often reject them. I have written whole chunks of modules only to reject the whole activity, sometimes reluctantly, because I decide it won’t work for the teachers or the students or both. It is like writing a quest story with the students as heroes. The hero has to be able to accomplish the task and the task has to advance the story line.

      In this case I am not writing the module, but pretending to. I suppose at some point we could put the module together, but my main purpose is to model the kind of thinking that I think teachers who write modules need to do. Other module writers might not make the same decisions I would, especially if they are writing for a specific student population, but they need to keep weighing all of these factors: the text, the purpose, the goals, the students, the teacher, the timeline, the writing.

  2. Hi John,
    You must not sleep much. (She says, at 9:55 pm). I will read the Parkinson’s piece. It’s good to hear the background on Kinsley. He does write very well, so I didn’t think him a whippersnapper, but I do agree that his tone is fresh and contemporary feeling. Maybe his sarcasm gives him the feel of a young person.

    I do think that the last question would make a good writing prompt. Something like this:

    Kinlsey is a slippery fellow to pin down. What do you think is his personal position on the topic of a sugary soda ban? Is he pro, con, ambivalent–or is it impossible to identify? Regardless of which option you choose, use evidence from the article to support your point.

    Students would really have to use close reading to get at this. I am not sure how excited they would be to engage in it, except as a puzzle to figure out what someone is thinking from the traces in their language.

    The hero quest is a great analogy for teaching! Will have to think about that some more!

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