Teaching Literature Rhetorically: Transferable Literacy Skills for 21st Century Students

As a follow-up to her popular Stenhouse book, Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response (see review here), Jennifer Fletcher has published a new book, Teaching Literature Rhetorically: Transferable Literacy Skills for 21st Century Students. This new book is even more jam-packed with classroom-tested teaching strategies, graphic organizers, handouts, and big ideas. Literature teachers are guaranteed to find something immediately useful in this book. Like the previous volume, it is written in first person with lots of classroom anecdotes and a passion for teaching and learning.

Fletcher-TeachingLiteratureRhetorically

What exactly does it mean to “teach literature rhetorically”? Teachers who are used to teaching close reading, analyzing figurative language, and exploring themes and motifs may be initially puzzled. They may ask, “Does this mean I would be focusing on ethos, pathos, and logos and analyzing arguments?” Actually, both sets of techniques apply in combination. At its core, rhetoric is about how language affects audiences and this is true whether we are looking at aesthetic or persuasive effects. Jennifer puts it this way:

From literature, we learn about the transformative power of stories, the gifts of the imagination, the pleasures of reading, and the importance of craft. From rhetoric, we learn about critical reasoning, the structure of arguments, the tools of persuasion, and the significance of context. Combining the two gives students the best of both worlds. (xiii)

However, this new book does far more than combine the techniques of literary criticism with strategies for rhetorical analysis. The key claim of this book is that a rhetorical approach will “promote the kind of deep and transferable learning that prepares students to be adaptive thinkers and communicators who thrive across the diverse contexts of their lives.” And it does this without diminishing the aesthetic experience of literary texts.

As an example, lets look at what Jennifer does with the familiar “Say, Mean Matter” activity that originally came from Sheridan Blau’s book The Literature Workshop.

  • What does it say? (A quotation)
  • What does it mean? (A paraphrase or close reading)
  • Why does it matter? (A connection to a theme of the work)
  • What does it do? (Effect on the reader; rhetorical function or move)(35)

The addition of the “What does it do for the reader?” question connects the literary questions to questions about their rhetorical effect on the audience. It makes us think about who the readers are and why authors do what they do.

I should note here that in asking these questions, we are boldly engaging in two perspectives that the New Critics (1940’s through the early 1970’s) called fallacies: the “Intentional Fallacy” (focusing on what the author intended) and the “Affective Fallacy” (focusing on the emotional response of the reader). As a critical focus, New Critics were not interested in authors or readers, only texts, and some of their prejudices have been passed on to us in one form or another. However, as teachers, we want our students to learn how to do things with words, so of course we are interested in authors and readers, as well as texts.

Immediately after the “Say, Mean, Matter, Do” activity Jennifer introduces another of her own inventions, the “Descriptive Plot Outline.” This combines the “descriptive outlining” that is common in ERWC (and was originally developed by Ken Bruffee) with the standard plot outline in order to create something new and very useful. Students draw the line for the plot chart with its depiction of rising and falling action. Then on the outside they describe the events of the plot and on the inside they describe the impact that each event has on the reader, the character, or the theme. This very effectively combines literary and rhetorical approaches, while also enhancing the student’s understanding of the work.

Chapters in the book deal with integrating skills and knowledge, close and critical reading, analyzing the rhetorical situation, analyzing genres, negotiating voices and meaning, developing and supporting a line of reasoning, communicating with yourself and others, and reading and writing with passion. The appendices contain more than 20 pages of graphic organizers, handouts, charts, sample texts, and other useful materials designed to implement the activities in the book.

Jennifer says that the final chapter, “Reading and Writing with Passion,” is about “changing the measure for postsecondary success from academic proficiency to intellectual passion, from workforce preparation to liberal learning, and from diploma or degree completion to a life well lived” (220). In that sense, she is going against the grain of our time. But I think she is selling herself short here. The approaches delivered in this book may change the focus, but I think they will accomplish all of those goals, both the practical and the ideal, with passion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s