Connecting Reading to Writing: Discovering What You Think

Considering the Writing Task

The cheat sheet questions here are “How do you want students to use the material from the text? What writing skills and rhetorical strategies do you want them to work on? What writing task will best help students do these things?”

In the previous version of the Assignment Template, the writing topic was introduced later in the “Writing Rhetorically” section. However, we realized that students needed to re-read their notes and parts of the text with the writing topic in mind. They have read to understand, read to question and critique, and now they begin transitioning to reading as writers. We have already decided on one writing topic:

Considering the issues raised by Michael Kinsley in “Mayor Bloomberg’s war on soda: Why does New York’s mayor want you to stop guzzling sugary drinks?” write an essay answering the following question:

“When, if ever, should government limit or prevent people from doing things that are bad for them?”

In answering this question, discuss the factors that should be considered, both about the nature of the dangerous or unhealthful actions and the people who potentially do them. Where should we draw the line between safety and health on the one hand and individual choice on the other? Support your position with logical arguments, examples, and relevant facts. You may need to do additional research to support some of your arguments.

However, one of my colleagues asked a couple of interesting questions in response to the “Designing Postreading Activities” post:

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?

Given the author’s possibly 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?

Up to this point in thinking about this module, we have acknowledged the irony, but danced around the issue at the heart of it, which might be framed as “Can a reporter report objectively on his own boss?” The first question gets at this rhetorical problem. The second question is simpler, but perhaps even more interesting. What does Michael Kinsley really think?

In a way, Kinsley’s problem here is akin to what every teacher faces in trying to get students to think critically about a controversial issue: Should he reveal his own position? When I was starting out as a writing teacher I used to try to present issues as objectively as possible and hide my own opinions. Over the years I found that students were very good at figuring out what my views were, and that it was better to simply be honest about them. (One of my freshman writing students at USC once wrote on my evaluations, “Mr. Edlund should take his liberal views to UCLA where they will be appreciated.”) However, this requires developing an atmosphere of trust in the classroom in which views do not determine grades.

My colleague’s questions open up the possibility of a rhetorical analysis paper focused on determining what Michael Kinsley really thinks about this issue. The previous topic we formulated is a good exercise in thinking about the issue with a little bit broader focus. The rhetorical analysis paper will be an exercise in thinking about the rhetoric and language of the piece. Much of the stylistic analysis we have done so far will apply to this analysis. Students could learn a lot from both assignments, but they have different purposes. It is also not unusual for a module to have alternative writing assignments. Let’s call these Assignment #1 and Assignment #2.

Taking a Stance

Cheat sheet question: “How can you help students consider possible positions on the issues raised by the text and decide what stance they will take and how they will support it?”
For Assignment #1, students will need to map out where they are on the ideological spectrum. We might give them the following positions:

  • Libertarian—Leave the people alone, no exceptions. (Explain why you take this extreme position.)
  • Libertarian—Leave the people alone, with some exceptions. (What are the exceptions and why should they be made?)
  • Liberal—Protect the people from their own bad decisions, no exceptions. (Explain why you take this extreme position.)
  • Liberal—Protect the people from their own bad decisions under certain circumstances. (What are these circumstances and why should we make these exceptions?)

For Assignment #2, students need to decide what they think Michael Kinsey really thinks and why.

Gathering Evidence to Support Your Claims

Cheat sheet: “How can you help students select evidence to support their position and deal with contrary evidence?”

Here, for both assignments, students need to review their annotations and notes. Students doing Assignment #1 will need to list factors that might be considered in deciding whether a “nanny” law is appropriate. If they are taking a Libertarian viewpoint, they need to argue against considering these factors. If they are taking a Liberal view, they will need to argue why at least some of these should be considered. Kinsley deals with some of these, but they may come up with more. Students doing Assignment #2 might want to research more about Kinsley and read additional articles.

Getting Ready to Write

Cheat sheet: What sort of pre-writing strategies will help students begin to compose their texts?

Students are now about to compose their first draft. They should be very well prepared to do this at this point. Traditionally, invention strategies such as brainstorming, freewriting, clustering, and outlining are used at this point in the writing process. ERWC students may not need these strategies because they have already done so much reading, writing, and thinking. However, a scratch outline might help them organize their materials in preparation for writing. A focused freewrite might help them consolidate their ideas, something like “How have your views on the Big Gulp soda ban changed as you read and worked with this article? Write for five minutes.”

Another tool that might be helpful for students at this point is the “Rhetorical Essay Planner.”  This handout asks questions about audience, purpose, ethos, arguments, and possible emotional appeals that help the writer construct the rhetorical situation.

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