The Pentad Is Not a Checklist

I’m doing a session at the ERWC conferences this year. The northern conference is in Sacramento on June 20, 2023. The southern conference is in Pomona on June 26. I’ll be at both of them. This is the 20th anniversary of ERWC. I haven’t been involved for about five years, so it will be exciting to see all the new developments.

My session will be on applying Kenneth Burke’s pentad—Act, Agent, Scene, Agency, Purpose—using the ratios that appear when the terms are combined. Too often, students trying to use the pentad simply label the elements of the rhetorical situation with the five terms. This is only a first step. Burke’s question, however, is “From whence does motivation flow?” What pentadic element motivates the act? When we use the pentad as a checklist we end up with a static picture and we miss the movement of motivation and the rhetorical possibilities.

The most common ratios are scene→act and agent→act. (Burke doesn’t use the arrows–he just uses a hyphen–but I am trying to emphasize the direction of the flow of motivation.)

Nature Versus Nurture

Let’s take the common argument in psychology about “nature” versus “nurture.” Which is the biggest factor in determining a person’s character? “Nature” is about the factors inherent in the inherited genetic makeup of the individual, or perhaps, from a theological perspective, the “soul.” If we believe that nature is the dominant factor, we are buying into an agent→act ratio. The agent acts according to their inherent nature.

On the other hand, the “nurture” perspective argues that the environment and upbringing have a greater impact. This is a scene→act ratio.

Of course, the reality is that both nature and nurture have effects on individual behavior. Both ratios are valid. This is where rhetoric comes in. We can choose which ratio to emphasize when we talk about specific individuals and specific acts. The ratio we choose to emphasize will have an effect on the persuasiveness of our arguments.

Political Narratives

We can find many examples in the ways that politicians present their life stories. A politician who grew up in poor circumstances, overcame many hardships, but had supportive and hardworking parents, may emphasize how this background built strong character and empathy with the poor. That narrative presents a scene-act or a scene→agent ratio.

On the other hand, a politician who grew up in wealth and privilege may want to de-emphasize that background and argue that their own intelligence, drive, and business acumen made them wealthy, creating an agent→act ratio.

The way to counter the first narrative is to do some research and discover whether the narrative of poverty and hardship is true. In the second case, we can argue that money begets money, and that someone who starts out with wealth and privilege doesn’t necessarily need to be a genius to become even richer.

The Presentation

In my presentation, I will discuss many other examples and ratios. There will also be some group discussion of speeches made in the Tennessee State House when the state legislature voted to expel two young Black members for organizing a protest inside the chamber instead of outside. This case has come to be called, “The Tennessee Three.” I hope to see you there!

Here is a link to the speeches on CSpan.

Here is a transcipt I made.

Here is my slide deck for the presentation in .pdf format.

Previous post on using the ratios.

Conceptual Representation for Learning

In a recent post on her blog, Rhetorical Thinking, Jennifer Fetcher raises some important issues about the utility of the rhetorical triangle she says,

These days, I want to know more about human communication than what the rhetorical triangle can tell me. I want to know what’s behind and underneath this one-dimensional model: what relationships and identities underlie a social interaction, what ways of thinking people bring to the exchange, what sources of knowledge they value, and what communication habits shape what is said (or miss-said) and understood (or misunderstood).

My initial response, which I posted as a comment, was this:

Well, Aristotle doesn’t have these terms arranged in a triangle. I think James Kinneavy was the first to do that, in Theory of Discourse. If we see ethos as speaker, pathos as audience, and logos as the world, we have a speaker speaking about the world to an audience, but both audience and world influence what is said and how it is said. And audiences can speak back. And words frame the world in different ways. It is too dynamic to be captured in a triangle or a pyramid, except as a frozen simplification (which can be useful). M. Jimmie Killingsworth makes a similar point in Appeals in Modern Rhetoric. For me the individual appeals can be seen as nodes spinning in a sort of a magical vortex; you can catch one for a moment and look at it, but it won’t give you the whole picture.

However, I felt there was more to these questions than offering a different metaphor would answer. Let’s start out with these assertions:

  • Making a representation or model of a concept is a rhetorical act in itself
  • As a rhetorical act, such a representation has an audience and a purpose
  • All representations are a simplification of the actual phenomenon, though some are simpler than others
  • There is no final, most true representation; the final representation is no representation at all, but the actual living phenomenon.

Aristotle’s Argument with Plato

Much of Aristotle’s Rhetoric is a response to Plato’s argument in the Gorgias that rhetoric is not an art, but a kind of artifice that can make the better appear the worse and the worse appear the better. For Plato, rhetoric is a tactic for trickery and deception. Aristotle argues that rhetoric is indeed an art because some speakers are more effective than others and we can systematically analyze why. He acknowledges that rhetoric can deceive, but also argues that rhetoric can defend the truth against lies.

However, there is a problem. Aristotle believes that logic is the best path toward truth, but when analyzing the most effective speakers he finds that people are often more strongly persuaded by the perceived credibility of the speaker or their own emotional reaction to the speech. Many audiences are neither informed enough nor patient enough to follow a long chain of reasoning. He prefers logos, but allows ethos and pathos into his analysis of the art of rhetoric. He also presents the concept of the “enthymeme,” the argument with some of the premises suppressed or assumed. Such hidden premises relieve the audience from the need to follow chains of interlocking arguments, but also can be a tactic for deception.

Those are the basic concepts of Aristotelian rhetoric. They are useful for understanding many aspects of politics, business genres, family arguments and other interpersonal communication. How do we operationalize them for teachers and students?

Conceptual Representation

This is where the idea of what I am calling “conceptual representation” comes in. All models, metaphors, analogies, outlines, descriptions, and definitions have advantages and disadvantages. Simple models are easier to grasp, but hide complexity. Complex models may provide a more sophisticated representation, but may also be confusing. Every model has a purpose and should be designed to fulfill that purpose. As noted above, there is no true model that represents all of the complexity of the actual phenomenon. What Jennifer is noting in her blog post is that the rhetorical triangle is not effectively representing these concepts for her or for her students. It is not serving its purpose. We need something new.

Of course a simple model poorly used can also cause confusion. This is what happens when the ethos, logos, pathos model is used as a set of pigeonholes in which to categorize specific elements of a text under analysis. In fact, the same element in a text can simultaneously function as part of a logical argument, influence the speaker’s credibility, and create an emotional effect. It is better to ask, “How does this element in the text function to create rhetorical effects.”

Jennifer’s question about how to represent the dynamism of the interaction between these three elements is an important one. I want to discuss it in the context of some recent events in the social media universe.

The Three Appeals on Social Media

I have had a Twitter account for several years, ever since I participated in a CSU English Council workshop on how to use it. I didn’t post or access the account much until I started using it this year to follow the Ukraine war. For a while I was addicted. There was always something new. When I got to the bottom of the feed, there were more tweets at the top of it. There were military experts, mapmakers, soldiers in the field, videos of things blowing up, clips from Russian television, memes (lots of memes), trolls, bots, idiots, the whole range. I learned to sort the real from the false according to my own sensibilities and judgment. I felt like I was always about two days ahead of the mainstream news sources, but I also realized that the journalists were reading the same tweets I was reading.

Deciding who is credible on Twitter is an ethos call, but that call is based on the arguments they make and how they are supported (logos), and on the responses of other people (pathos). The responses of others are also judged according to the same pattern, so pathos leads to logos to ethos in a never-ending spiral.

Argument on Twitter unfolds in a Toulmin-like pattern. A claim is made, say “A Russian Ka-52 helicopter was shot down yesterday.” A video is produced to verify the claim. Someone asks, “Is that really a Ka-52?” Someone with technical knowledge of Russian military aircraft will verify. This is a warrant based on backing in knowledge of helicopter design. “Was that really yesterday? Isn’t it old footage?” The video will be geolocated and people familiar with Ukraine will discuss the weather and even the foliage in the trees. The pattern of claim-evidence-warrant-backing repeats over and over.

Why Do People Post?

I understood why I was reading Twitter, but I felt no desire to post anything. And I wondered, “Why are all these people posting?” Some had clear political purposes, especially the Ukrainians trying to get resources to defend their country. But others seemed to be cheerleading, spectating, or just trying to be witty.

Because of recent changes in the ownership and policy practices of Twitter, many people are exploring other social media possibilities. One of these is Mastodon, an open source non-corporate communications platform. In joining Mastodon, one joins a specific instance, which often has a particular focus, but that instance is part of a “federation” of Mastodon servers, so one is part of a small group that is also part of a much bigger group. I joined an instance called “,” for two reasons: 1) the big popular general instances of Mastodon were overwhelmed by Twitter refugees and not accepting new users, and 2) my computer runs Linux.

On Twitter, your feed is governed by who you are following and who they follow, plus some Twitter algorithms, and more recently by whims of the new owner. On Mastodon, you have your home feed of people you follow, plus a local feed of things posted on your particular instance, and a “federated” feed of popular posts from the whole federation, whether you are following them or not. You can choose which feed you want to view at that moment.

Audience and Self

This multiple feed creates audience problems, leading a lot of Twitter refugees to be puzzled by Mastodon. One said, “I don’t know what to post because I don’t know what you folks like.” I felt the same way, but I didn’t know what to post on Twitter either. However, I think this post is interesting because it shows that the poster wants to please the audience, but doesn’t know that audience yet. I might rewrite this to say, “I don’t know who to be because I don’t know who you are.” This is an instance of the audience potentially defining the self, pathos working backwards toward ethos. And indeed, constructing a self seems to be a major impetus to posting.

In Conclusion

In my initial response to Jennifer’s post I suggested ethos-logos-pathos as a magical vortex from which could pluck a particular perspective. That is a nice image, but probably not helpful as a conceptual representation. Perhaps a turning wheel would be better, or three electrodes from which sparks shoot from one pole to another as discourse progresses. I do think, however, that these are useful terms, however we represent them to ourselves and our students.

To finish off this very long post, I would say that we probably make a mistake when we try to get students to analyze op-ed pieces in terms of Aristotelian categories, at least as an introduction to these concepts. It might be better to ask:

  • What social media do you use? What influences your choices?
  • How do you determine who is trustworthy and who is not? (ethos)
  • What feelings do you experience when you read and watch social media? (pathos)
  • Why do you post to social media? What are you trying to do? (purpose)
  • When someone makes a claim that you disagree with, do you respond? How do you support your view? (logos)

Re-Post: The Reading Conundrum

This was originally posted to my guitarsophist blog in January 2009 before I started this one. We used to hand out copies of Reading Rhetorically in ERWC professional development meetings. The “conundrum” is this: A professor observed that his students “have a limited range of ability, can read textbooks, but not other books.” The rest of the professors in the workshop agreed. Have students become dependent on the reader-friendly, learner-friendly style of presentation developed by textbook publishers?  When instructors create similar scaffolding and support for an ordinary book, are we improving learning while also fostering that dependency? Where do we strike the balance? I thought it might be valuable to revisit this post.

The book for last week’s seminar meeting was Reading Rhetorically by John Bean, Virginia Chappell, and Alice Gillam.  As I noted in another post, this is designed as a freshman text, but I tend to use it as a teacher resource.  It is full of reading strategies for students approaching unfamiliar material.  Students are taught such things as pre-reading, descriptive outlining, reading with and against the grain, rhetorical questioning, and techniques for integrating and citing quoted and paraphrased material.  Fluent academic readers do nearly all of these things by habit and instinct.  However, these strategies are rarely taught overtly because freshman composition courses generally focus on writing, not reading.  Reading is a skill that is pretty much taken for granted after third grade.  If students struggle with reading after third grade, the most common solution is to review phonics and other “learning to read” techniques.

Something is not working because university faculty complain a lot about student reading behaviors.  When I do Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) workshops these days, I usually start out by asking the participants what sorts of problems students have doing the reading for their courses.  Here is a typical list (I posted this previously to the WPA-L discussion listserv):


  • Only read material directly connected to grading
  • Will not read before class
  • Skip difficult material
  • If they don’t see the relevance, they won’t read it
  • Form an incorrect hypothesis of the meaning and misread
  • Decoding problems
  • Unknown vocabulary
  • Expect to read only once
  • Take everything at face value
  • Highlight everything
  • Can’t understand written directions
  • Are egocentric, can’t see another point of view
  • Are unable to reserve judgment until an argument has been completed
  • Lack reading practice
  • Have a limited range of ability, can read textbooks, but not other books
  • Have no background schema to take in learning
  • Can’t understand irony or understatement
  • Believe everything they read

The “Will not read before class” complaint comes up every time.  I finally realized that students were telling us something with that behavior.  They do not like to read difficult material cold.  They don’t know what to attend to until after the discussion.  In my own classes I now give them reading questions and instructions, including things like, “What are the author’s three main points about x?” and “Pay special attention to the paragraph at the bottom of page 47.”  Given some guidance, my students usually read the material before class.

If students habitually practiced the strategies presented in Reading Rhetorically, most of these problems would be solved.  Most students have not had such training, however, so it is up to the instructor to provide guidance, most often in the form of guide questions and pre-reading activities.   In my experience, such measures significantly improve the quality of the discussion and student performance on quizzes and papers.  Instructor evaluations also improve.

However, the observation in the list above that students “can read textbooks, but not other books” is telling.  Textbook publishers are knowledgeable about reading theory and pedagogy.  Textbooks have illustrations, graphs and charts, sidebar guide questions, subheads, summaries, and even CD roms with animations and simulations.  A whole arsenal of reading pedagogies is deployed for every style of learning.  Have students become dependent on this reader-friendly, learner-friendly style of presentation?  And when instructors create similar scaffolding and support for an ordinary book, are we improving learning while also fostering that dependency?

This is the often unasked question at the heart of all “learning-centered” pedagogies.  When does the enabling of the learner become too much?  When does nurturing the student in a learning-centered environment end up disabling the student for learning in the real world?

I am not asking these questions with curmudgeonly intent.  I am not asking “What’s wrong with our students?”  The students are great.  I am also not trying to dodge the work involved in creating guide questions and thinking about why we are reading this and what students should take away from it.  I am asking how we can best serve them in the long run.  I think we have to be careful to design our reading assistance with an eye toward strategies that can be internalized over time, so that the student can begin to approach unfamiliar material with his or her own questions and purposes.  Reading Rhetorically does that well.   Like that book, we need to teach strategies, not do the work for the students.  It’s harder than it sounds.

Mythological Imagining

I have three active blogs: 1), which was my first blog. It is mostly about guitars, amplifiers, and drums. 2) Teaching Text Rhetorically, which is this blog. This is about teaching, applied rhetorical theory, and mini-modules for teaching rhetorical and literary concepts. 3) Mythopoetic Imagining. This blog has been dormant for a while. It started out as a place to experiment with an omniscient narrator and write myths for kids about literacy. I had my granddaughter in mind. She added a bit to those stories. Now I am posting experiments in point of view and other aspects of writing fiction. My current focus is on writing personal narratives in third person, borrowing a technique from Kafka. This creates some distance. Already, one of my readers has complained about it. There are three new posts there, if anyone is interested.

Tuesday at the Beach J. takes a rather anthropological approach to beachgoing.

Squirrel Nutterkin  One of J.’s neighbors is a cranky squirrel.

The Battle of the Paper Wasps When wasps decide to build a nest above your front door, what is the ethical approach? A study of human/insect relations.

That site is a free site at the moment, so there are ads. My apologies. I will make a decision about that soon.

My WordPress themes are all outdated and I am writing in the “Classic Block” rather than learning the new WordPress block editor. Not everything works as well as it used to. Soon, I will probably have to choose an up-to-date theme and redo my sites in blocks, but for now, I am proceeding in the old way.

I am also working on a second Bakhtin post. It will be about reported speech, quoting, and paraphrasing. This all hinges on one of Bakhtin’s favorite theoretical words: heteroglossia. Don’t worry. It is not as complicated as it sounds.

In Your Own Words


When I was in grad school in the 1980’s, various works of Mikhail Bakhtin, most written several decades before, were being translated from Russian for the first time. The ideas in these books and essays were refreshingly different and had interesting implications for work in fields such as literary criticism, philosophy, and linguistics, causing a Bakhtin boom that lasted about 10 years. Though the boom is long past, it is still common to find citations of Bakhtin in critical works in many different disciplines.

Note: Most of Bakhtin’s work was written under the authoritarian regime of Josef Stalin. Intellectuals were always in danger. Bakhtin avoided being shot, as some of his friends were, but he was exiled to Kazakhstan for many years. Some of his books were published under the names of his friends. Some, such as Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, include Marxist terminology in order to avoid censorship or political trouble.

Bakhtin’s ideas are simpler, and more useful, than they first appear. Part of the difficulty is his terminology. In a series of posts, I will attempt to recast some of Bakhtin’s basic concepts into more accessible terms and apply them to teaching and learning. In this post, I want to talk about what it really means when we ask students to write something in their “own words.”

No Man is Adam

Bakhtin is fond of saying that no man is Adam. No speaker is “the first speaker, the one who disturbs the eternal silence of the universe” (Speech Genres 69). We do not invent the words we use, like Adam naming all of the animals and plants in the garden of Eden. The words we use belong to the language, and we get them from other speakers. Every word we use, and many of the phrases and combinations too, we got from someone else. We cannot own words. There is no such thing as “your own words.” Bakhtin also argues that a word continues to resonate with all of the voices that have spoken it before. We get the word from a context, from a conversation, and some of that context sticks to it.

So, what do we really mean when we ask a student to use their own words? When we say that, we are usually concerned about plagiarism. However, it is not the theft of words that is the problem. Bakhtin calls the word, “a bridge thrown between myself and the other” (Marxism 86) When a student pastes a passage from a website into an essay, they are hiding behind a wall of dead words, words that are not an authentic response in a dialogue between speakers. Bakhtin says

The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes “one’s own” only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions. (Dialogic Imagination 293)

Note how active that word “appropriate” is. We grab our words from other mouths and use them for our own purposes.

The “Utterance”

If we cannot “own” words, how can words become “dialogic” in this sense? For Bakhtin, the basic unit of conversation is the “utterance,” which he defines as a bit of speech that is complete enough for a response. He notes that we are already responding internally even when we begin to hear the utterance. This back and forth saying and responding is the essence of dialog. In dialog, each participant is both listener and speaker, taking turns.

Authoritative Discourse

Bakhtin makes a distinction between “authoritative” and “internally persuasive” utterances (Dialogic Imagination 342). An authoritative utterance is one that does not seek a response other than agreement and perhaps obedience. Dialogue is not initiated. For the student inserting a passage from a website into their essay, that passage is authoritative discourse. Its authoritative nature makes it impossible to alter, paraphrase, or respond. It’s a wall of dead words.

“Internally persuasive” discourse on the other hand initiates a response. It fits into the thinking system of the listener. The response might be agreement or disagreement, but the meaning created by the utterance can trigger a response. Dialogue ensues.

Ideological Becoming

Can authoritative discourse become internally persuasive? Yes. This is the process that Bakhtin calls “ideological becoming” (Dialogic Imagination 342) “Ideology” in Bakhtin means something like “thinking system.” It does not have the political connotations that it normally has in English. Your thinking system is made of words. New words can be assimilated into your thinking system, but it takes time.

Time is the problem here. Most “plagiarism” that students engage in is when they take an utterance from another dialogue in which they are not a participant, not an addressee, and simply mouth it without making a response. This usually happens because they are being forced by an authority such as a teacher to enter into a dialogue with a monological authoritative discourse that they have no way to respond to. The shortcut they take is to grab some utterances that look relevant and mimic participation in the dialogue.

As I noted above, the word is a bridge between myself and the other. New words assimilated into the thinking system create new pathways of thinking. Even one new word opens up new perspectives. Students encounter giant piles of authoritative pages in their daily school lives. The way in is through the words and through dialogue with the words, eventually a dialogue with the author. Education and learning are all about what Bakhtin calls, “ideological becoming.” Students need the opportunity and the time.

What Is the Meaning of Retirement?

It is good for blog posts to have images. Here’s a LOLcat meme I made. I’ll explain more about this later.



Five years ago I stepped down from chairing the ERWC program and officially retired. However, I enrolled in what CSU calls the “Faculty Early Retirement Program” or “FERP.” This allowed me to teach half-time for five years, but those five years are up. I thought that I would spend those years teaching fun courses like Science Fiction and Fantasy. I also thought that I would be teaching face-to-face. However, the rhetorician we hired to replace me left after less than two years, so I ended up teaching writing courses and seminars, whatever the department needed. And then there was the pandemic. I learned how to teach online, in Blackboard and then Canvas. I got pretty good at it. All in all, not what I expected, but interesting.

A Career

I have done a lot of things. I have washed dishes in a convalescent hospital, delivered newspapers, worked as a shipping and receiving clerk, driven a delivery van, worked for an insurance company, and loaded trucks for United Parcel Service. My first teaching job was at Cal State L.A. teaching ESL in the American Culture and Language Program (ACLP), an Extended University program started by a Lithuanian married to a Korean. I’ve tutored writing and taught Basic Writing, Freshman Composition, and Professional Writing courses. I started two University Writing Centers, one at Cal State L.A. and one at Cal Poly Pomona, and directed each of them for nine years. I was Secretary, Composition Coordinator, and then President of CSU English Council. I chaired the ERWC task force and then the Steering Committee for 15 years. In 2010, I stepped down from the writing center and began teaching full time in the English and Foreign Languages Department.

In the English Department I taught 16 different courses, including some that I took over in emergency situations. I took over the myth course when the professor had to go in the hospital. I learned a great deal about Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Norse eddas, staying about one or two myths ahead of the students. Near the end of my last semester, one of my colleagues who is in the Navy Reserve was called up for deployment and I was asked to take over his “Bible as Literature” course. That course was about as far out of my area of expertise as it could be, but I agreed. Fortunately, they had already finished the Old Testament. The instructor found some audio files of lectures he had recorded in spring 2020, when we all had to suddenly go online, so I edited these and turned it into a flipped classroom with online lectures and in-class discussion. It was actually fun.

What to Do Now?

I have been teaching for forty years or so. Now I am not. So what do I do?

I have been writing science fiction stories. I actually sold one. I will continue to do that.

I have been playing guitar since I was in high school. I also play cajon and banjo (a little). I will continue to do that.

I intend to keep posting to this blog. My intent from the beginning on this site was to demystify theory and turn it into usable concepts and strategies for teachers and students. I want to continue to do that. Right now, I am interested in applying the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, particularly his concept of “heteroglossia” or “multi-voiced discourse,” to 1) issues in quoting, paraphrasing, and using sources and 2) related issues in the creation, use, and interpretation of internet memes. Trading memes is as natural as breathing for the average internet user, but they are rhetorically complex and an interesting aspect of digital culture to explore. There are many possible projects for students. Perhaps a mini-module is in order.

I also want to work on strategies for teaching science fiction and fantasy stories.

Back to the Meme

Back to the meme, as promised above: In researching memes, I came across a description of the genre of LOLcat, so I decided to try my hand at creating one. My first effort said “You gots a problem with this?” and “I doesn’t care.” That version was pronounced “lame” by my friend’s granddaughter, so I changed the text. I fear, however, that the young lady’s judgement will be the same, if not worse. In a previous post, I created a Doge meme, another specific meme genre. It seems to me that part of being a rhetorician these days is playing with concepts and playing with technology. I will continue to do that too.

One Last Thing

When creating teaching materials, it is the classroom that keeps us grounded. I will be out of the classroom, at least for a while. Because I am not a high school teacher, I have always relied on solid feedback from high school teachers to improve my materials. I need it even more now. Suggestions, comments, complaints have always been welcome, but will be even more so now.

C. S. Peirce’s Pathways to Belief

(This post offers a summary and analysis of C. S. Peirce’s four methods for resolving doubt. At the end I apply this system in some general activities for students. The fact that we resolve our doubts in different ways has clear rhetorical and political implications. I should point out that Peirce is not talking about religious faith, but facts, courses of action, and solutions.)

I recently read an interview in the New York Times Magazine with science fiction writer Neil Stephenson, whose most well-known books are probably Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. Stephenson is a writer of big ideas who does lots of historical research, so I was interested when he said that he was reading “The Fixation of Belief” by American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced like “purse”), known for developing the branch of philosophy called “Pragmatism” and for his work in semiotics, the study of sign systems. In this essay, Peirce lists what Stephenson describes as “four methods that people use to decide what they’re going to believe.” Stephenson summarizes this list as follows:

The first one is called the method of tenacity, which means you decide what you’re going to believe and you stick to it regardless of logic or evidence. The next method is called the method of authority, where you agree with other people that you’re all going to believe what some authority figure tells you to believe. That’s probably most common throughout history. The third method is called the a priori method, and the idea is, let’s be reasonable and try to come up with ways to believe things that sound reasonable to us. Which sounds great, but if it’s not grounded in any fact-checking methodology, then you end up just agreeing to believe things by consensus — which may be totally wrong. The fourth method is the scientific method. It basically consists of accepting the fact that you might be wrong, and since you might be wrong, you need some way for judging the truth of statements and changing your mind when you’ve got solid evidence to the contrary. . . . But what we’ve got now is almost everybody using Method 1, 2 or 3. We’ve got a lot of authoritarians who can’t be swayed by logic or evidence, but we’ve also got a lot of a priori people who want to be reasonable and think of themselves as smarter and more rational than the authoritarians but are going on the basis of their feelings — what they wish were true — and both of them hate the scientific rationalists, who are very few in number.

That seems to me like a pretty accurate description of the current state of affairs, though Peirce was writing about this in the 1870’s. Peirce’s framework might help students figure out our current polarization, why people believe what they do and where their own beliefs come from.

Peirce argues that all inquiry begins with doubt. Belief brings us comfort, but doubt is an irritant. When we are irritated by doubt, we try to eliminate it through inquiry to bring us back into the comfort of belief through one of the four paths described above by Stephenson. I will expand and apply them below.


Of course, one way to avoid doubt is simply to never question your beliefs and avoid all facts, arguments, or authorities that might disturb them. This is the approach Peirce calls “tenacity” because such a person holds on to their beliefs at all costs. He doesn’t exactly condemn this view because such a person, safe in the comfort of belief, may be happy and may have great peace of mind. Peirce is a Pragmatist, so he is more interested in what works than in absolute Truth. However, he does note that we are social beings, and sooner or later we will encounter individuals with different views who may cause doubt that will unsettle us. He compares this approach to the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, which is perfectly happy while it can’t see the lion, but may come to an unhappy end. Most of us know people like this. You probably have someone in mind as you read this.


Peirce’s discussion of the second approach, the method of authority, is not as benign as Stephenson’s summary would imply. Peirce begins with a thought experiment:

Let the will of the state act, then, instead of that of the individual. Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time power to prevent contrary doctrines from being taught, advocated, or expressed. Let all possible causes of a change of mind be removed from men’s apprehensions. Let them be kept ignorant, lest they should learn of some reason to think otherwise than they do. Let their passions be enlisted, so that they may regard private and unusual opinions with hatred and horror. Then, let all men who reject the established belief be terrified into silence. Let the people turn out and tar-and-feather such men, or let inquisitions be made into the manner of thinking of suspected persons, and when they are found guilty of forbidden beliefs, let them be subjected to some signal punishment. When complete agreement could not otherwise be reached, a general massacre of all who have not thought in a certain way has proved a very effective means of settling opinion in a country.

Of course this pattern has been repeated throughout history by dictators, religious leaders, and powerful criminal organizations. It is often successful for a good long time and Peirce notes that some of the greatest building projects in human history have been accomplished by such regimes. He acknowledges that it is also possible for people to be happy in such an environment, though with some reservations. He says, “For the mass of mankind, then, there is perhaps no better method than this. If it is their highest impulse to be intellectual slaves, then slaves they ought to remain.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Peirce posits that when individuals from such an authoritarian regime encounter people from other communities they will discover that these foreigners believe things that are different from what they believe, yet are still successful. This can lead to critical thinking and is clearly why authoritarian regimes attempt to control information and contact with outsiders.

A Priori

Rejecting the authoritarian method leads to Peirce’s third path to belief which he calls “a priori,” using a philosophical term from Latin that means using general principles to predict likely outcomes. Peirce says of this method,

Let the action of natural preferences be unimpeded, then, and under their influence let men, conversing together and regarding matters in different lights, gradually develop beliefs in harmony with natural causes. . . . Systems of this sort have not usually rested upon any observed facts, at least not in any great degree. They have been chiefly adopted because their fundamental propositions seemed “agreeable to reason.” This is an apt expression; it does not mean that which agrees with experience, but that which we find ourselves inclined to believe.

As Peirce notes in this passage, the problem with this method, though it is more intellectually respectable than the first two, is that it is not necessarily based on observed facts, but is more like the development of fashion or taste. We might think of this method as shared habits of mind, ways of thinking that seem reasonable to most people in our group. It is not objective; instead it is a kind of group subjectivity obtained through consensus. This is the realm of rhetoric and for purposes of social cohesion, progress, even happiness, it can work quite well. It is what most of us do, most of the time. However, it does not lead to “Truth” with a capital T.

Scientific Method

The fourth path to belief is the scientific method. The a priori method works pretty well for things that we are familiar with through long experience. However, sometimes problems arise which are not solved by our previous habits of mind, and new doubts arise. The Covid-19 pandemic we are currently experiencing is one such case. Peirce says, “To satisfy our doubts, therefore, it is necessary that a method should be found by which our beliefs may be caused by nothing human, but by some external permanency — by something upon which our thinking has no effect.” Scientists attempt to conduct objective research by observing and measuring phenomena, creating a hypothesis, devising methods to test the hypothesis, and sharing the results with other scientists for confirmation. Each scientific discipline has its own theories, methods, and standards for conducting research, but the basic scientific method is common to all of them.

Science is the most rigorous mode of inquiry. The goal is to find out what is really going on, not prove what we wish were going on, or even prove what we think is going on. It is also the most the most rigorous form of doubt. This is both the power and the weakness of science. Scientists are always doubting. Each answer leads to more questions. Each study is narrow and limited in its conclusions. Did rising C02 levels cause more hurricanes or cause a particular hurricane to be more intense? Does the fact that a rover detected methane on Mars mean there is life there? Do masks prevent the spread of Covid-19? On each of these questions, scientists have data and can draw conclusions, but will probably hedge and qualify their answers. The scientific method is an attempt to factor human nature out of the inquiry, but when the results are presented to non-scientists, human nature re-enters the inquiry and conclusions are drawn according to the a priori method.

Advantages of Each Method

Peirce thinks that scientific inquiry is the best way to turn doubt into belief, but he notes that the other three paths have their advantages.

The a priori method is distinguished for its comfortable conclusions. It is the nature of the process to adopt whatever belief we are inclined to, and there are certain flatteries to the vanity of man which we all believe by nature, until we are awakened from our pleasing dream by some rough facts. The method of authority will always govern the mass of mankind; and those who wield the various forms of organized force in the state will never be convinced that dangerous reasoning ought not to be suppressed in some way. . . . But most of all I admire the method of tenacity for its strength, simplicity, and directness. Men who pursue it are distinguished for their decision of character, which becomes very easy with such a mental rule. They do not waste time in trying to make up their minds what they want, but, fastening like lightning upon whatever alternative comes first, they hold to it to the end, whatever happens, without an instant’s irresolution. This is one of the splendid qualities which generally accompany brilliant, unlasting success. It is impossible not to envy the man who can dismiss reason, although we know how it must turn out at last.

Ironically, those who practice tenacity are the most decisive, while scientists, who have the the greatest possibility of being correct, are the most inclined to be cautious in their claims and decisions!

Using the System

Pierce presents this system as if individuals largely practice one mode of belief, changing modes only when they encounter a successful and persuasive person who thinks very differently, or when circumstances simply make it impossible to continue to believe what they believe. In practice, most of us shift modes all the time, depending on the nature of the doubt. Let’s simplify the system a bit:

  1. Tenacity: I know what I believe. Don’t bother to confuse me with your so-called facts.
  2. Authority: I will believe what those with power or with knowledge and expertise tell me to believe.
  3. Habits of Mind (what Peirce calls “a priori”): I will believe what my common sense tells me. I usually agree with my friends and like-minded colleagues.
  4. Science: I will believe what a properly conducted scientific inquiry indicates is true, even if the conclusions are unwelcome or contrary to what I thought before.

If we are going to apply this system to a situation, a conversation, or an article, there are some questions we should ask:

  • What question are we trying to resolve? In other words, what is the doubt?
  • What path to belief (1, 2, 3, or 4) do each of the participants use? In other words, why do they believe what they believe?
  • Who has authority or expertise? Why do they have it? (When Peirce describes “authority” he has dictators in mind, but even if we mainly act according to our habits of mind, we might also decide to follow the guidance of scientific or medical authorities. Not all authority is authoritarian or coercive.)


Activity 1: In a small group of four or five, discuss a controversial issue. You might start with a broad question such as “What do you think we should do about X and why?” Assign one member to take notes on the discussion, writing down the name of the speaker and the gist of the argument they make. After each member of the group has spoken, look at the notes and try to decide which of the four paths to belief each speaker has followed. Remember that each path to belief has its advantages. After this discussion, the group reports their findings to the class.

Activity 2: This activity is similar to Activity 1, except that it is in writing. A group of four or five takes up a controversial issue. For 10 minutes, each member writes on the question, “What do you think we should do about X and why?” When the group has finished writing, each student passes their paper to another student. That student tries to decide which of the four paths to belief the writer has used in writing their response. Remember that each path to belief has its advantages. If there is time, pass the papers to another student and repeat. The responders discuss their findings with the group, then the group reports out to the class what they have learned from the activity.

Activity 3: Take two different op-ed pieces on a current controversial topic. In groups of four or five, have students analyze which paths to belief the writers relied on in making their arguments. After the discussion, the groups report out to the class. This activity will work best if the two opinion pieces make radically different arguments.

Our current society is quite polarized on many issues. Peirce does not talk much about conflicts between different pathways to belief, but I think that much of the conflict stems from conflicting pathways to belief taken by different groups. Activities such as the three above may help surface some of these conflicts and open possibilities for dialogue.

Download this post as a .pdf here.

Works Cited

Marchese, David. “Neal Stephenson Thinks Greed Might Be the Thing That Saves Us.” The New York Times Magazine. 9 Jan. 2022.

Peirce, Charles S. “The Fixation of Belief” Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877), pp. 1-15.

A Science Fiction Mini-Module: Boojum

“Boojum” by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette has pirates, tentacled aliens, brains in jars, and a crew member who really loves her ship. It’s a good read. It was published in an online science fiction magazine called Lightspeed. You can read it here. A warning: the text uses the F-word a couple of times. It sounds natural in the context, though it is probably unnecessary.

I started reading science fiction when I was in grammar school. I think it was what made me really, really interested in reading. At one point, I had read every single science fiction book in the public library. I ran out. I think that science fiction and fantasy can still make high school students interested in reading. However, some people have trouble getting into a science fictional world because it is so different from what they are used to. Here are some pre-reading questions that may help get them engaged:

 Pre-reading Questions

These are questions to think about before you begin reading “Boojum.” Briefly write down your answers. Your instructor may ask you to discuss your answers in a small group, which may change your views. If so, write down any additional insights you gained from the discussion. Save this paper because you will be asked to look at it again after you have read the story.

1. If you were offered a choice between death and joining a pirate crew, which would you choose? Why?

2. If you were offered a choice between death and being a disembodied but living brain in a jar, which would you choose? Why?

3. Do you think a human could learn to love an alien being? Why or why not?

These questions preview some of the ethical and moral questions the story raises, but in a context that is not quite science fictional, but closer to ideas that students may have thought about.

Reading Questions

I found these questions on my hard drive from the last time I taught this story as part of my science fiction course. They were designed to help students notice certain features of the text and then later serve as discussion prompts in class. This was with college students, but even so, it would have been better to design some sort of pre-reading activity such as I have above. Here is a sampling of the questions. You can see more of them in the linked mini-module.

1. What is the difference between a “steelship” and a “boojum”?

2. What is Black Alice’s greatest ambition?

3. How did Black Alice come to be on the Lavinia Whateley?

4. What do Black Alice and Dogcollar find in the hold of the Josephine Baker? Why is Black Alice upset about it?

5. What happens to the Josephine Baker when the pirates are finished with it?

6. What is wrong with Vinnie?

7. What happens to Black Alice? Does she achieve her ambition?

Notice that these are questions that the reader cannot answer or even understand without reading the story. These might be seen as old-fashioned “comprehension” questions. However, I see them as “noticing” questions. I want them to attend to certain features of the story.


Back when I used to teach American literature to non-native speakers, I developed a three-level questioning pattern. Here’s a chart:


My international students were acquiring English as they tried to read the stories. They were sometimes confused about the events of the story. They were also confused about the motivations of the characters because they came from cultures that were quite different from the U.S. In their countries, the characters would behave quite differently due to social expectations, parental pressure, religious beliefs, and other factors. I found that I had to move up and down these levels to keep everyone in the discussion. If a student was confused, it might be that they did not actually know what had happened in the story. We had to clarify this first.

The discussions about motives were very interesting because of all the different interpretations based on different cultural perspectives. We often never got to the thematic level. I developed this way of thinking for international students, but I later realized that it was applicable to all teaching of literature. Don’t start with theme. Work your way up.

Anyway, these questions are mostly on the event level. They are designed to make sure that everyone knows what is going on.

Post-reading Questions

These questions operate on the motive and thematic levels. They get into choices and principles. The last question revisits the pre-reading questions so that students can notice how their opinions might have changed.

1. Do you agree with the choices that Black Alice makes? Would you have done the same things if you were in her situation? Why or why not?

2. The Mi-Go say to Captain Song, “We do not bargain with thieves.” Are the Mi-Go justified in what they do to the crew of the Lavinia Whately? Why or why not?

3. In this story, who are the good guys and who are the bad? Why?

4. Look at your answers to the pre-reading questions. Did your views change?

Post-reading Activities

These activities are designed to help broaden the context of the story and give some insight into what the authors were thinking about when they wrote it.

1. Black Alice’s ship is called the “Lavinia Whateley.” Lavinia Whateley is a character in a story by H.P. Lovecraft called “The Dunwich Horror.” Working in teams and using internet searches, look up the personages represented by the names of the other ships mentioned in this story. Do these names have any significance, or are the authors simply having fun? Each team can report what they found to the class.

2. In Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark” the Baker (who only knows how to make wedding cake) begins to describe how to recognize a snark when you see one. He cautions, however,

But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!

In this poem, a “boojum” is a particularly dangerous type of snark. Is this a good name for the kind of creature Vinnie is? Does this reference have any other significance for this story? You may want to look at the rest of the poem. Note: Lewis Carroll also wrote Alice in Wonderland.

Writing Task

I tried to make the writing prompt as accessible as possible. The theme here is about character and the substance is about events and motives. The danger of this prompt is that a student might simple write a summary of the story, so I added a warning. Some students will still write summaries. Let’s hope they will be summaries with a focus on Alice and some supporting detail.

In some ways, this story is a character study of Black Alice. Try to think of one or two words that you believe characterize Black Alice. What kind of person is she? Then write an essay in which you describe her situation, her actions, and her motives for acting. Use details from the story to support your view of Alice and what we can learn from her.

Note: This is not a summary of the story. Keep the focus on Black Alice’s character and how her actions and motives reflect her principles.

Another possible prompt might be about trust. Black Alice survives among very disreputable characters and at the end she has to trust the “ship” “Vinnie,” to “save” her. I still might develop that one. The module can be downloaded in .doc form. Here is the link again.

Teaching Behind the Mask

Yesterday, I taught two classes face-to-face. One was the senior capstone course and the other was a grad seminar in “Pedagogies of Reading.” It was the first time I had been in front of actual students in a year and a half. We were all masked and vaccinated, but not socially distanced. Four students attended virtually through my iPad. One was in San Jose, one was self-isolating, and two were sick.

I asked the students how they felt about being back in a classroom. In both classes there were a handful who were happy to be back, a handful who were uncomfortable, and the rest were unsure. To tell the truth, I would put myself in the uncomfortable group. As a result, I lectured far more than I normally would. I just kept talking.

Performing Identity

In some ways, the trouble with teaching on Zoom or now behind masks is the adjustments we have to make in performing our identities and in reading the performances of others. On Zoom we have students and teachers peering into each others’ homes and private lives. We can counter this by turning into a black square or displaying a fake context signifying comedic irony or a desire to be anyplace but where we are. On Zoom we pixelate and freeze and our voices turn robotic and metallic or echo across vast virtual canyons. We got used to this, but it was like being in a foreign country while also being in our own kitchen, communicating with strangers we used to know.

Now behind masks we are present to each other, but our expressions are hidden. We have to learn to read each other’s eyes. Teaching yesterday made me realize how much I depend on the faces in front of me to know what to do. Do they understand what I just said? Did they get the concept? Did they get the joke? Do I need another example?

There are cultures where the women are always veiled. I am sure they learn to read the eyes. We will learn too. But for now, it is strange.

Making Strange

However, perhaps there is some benefit in this strangeness. Victor Shklovsky, in “Art as Technique,” argues that

Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. “If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as they have never been.” And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stoney. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important. (720)*

For Shklovsky, the purpose of art is to “make strange” the habitual, the ordinary, the familiar, the comfortable, so that we can see it again. The pandemic is not art, but its effect has been similar. It has made teaching strange. And once made strange, we can see more clearly how it works, and how to make it better. I think we have learned a lot from it, and will learn more before it is over.

*In Richter, David H., ed. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998. Emphasis in the original.

Mini-Module: Exploring Disciplinary Discourse

Note: This post is part of a series on “Teaching First Year Composition.”

First Year Composition programs often appear to exist in a discourse universe of their own. They focus on the so-called “college essay,” a genre that most students will not write again in their other courses or in their careers unless they become public intellectuals writing op-eds for newspapers and magazines. Most students in an FYC course are not English majors or future journalists. The purpose of the course is to develop rhetorical skills and practices that will be useful in writing other genres and addressing other discourse communities. Writing essays can help develop these skills, but for students to see the relevance of these skills to new situations, we have to make some connections to other disciplines and their associated workplaces.

A complicating factor is that most FYC instructors are English majors with some training in writing about literature. The elegant style of literary criticism is unfortunately quite the opposite of what is considered good style in engineering or business. But how can we teach all the different genres and styles of all of the disciplines that our students will be going into?

The answer is that we can’t. However, using concepts such as audience and purpose, we can help students explore the discourse of their chosen discipline using web searches. This mini-module, Exploring Disciplinary Discourse, is designed to help students do this. The final project is a version of an I-Search paper, as originally developed by Ken Macrorie in his book Searching Writing. In this I-Search paper, the student investigates the discourse of their chosen major and then writes a paper describing what they investigated, how they went about conducting the investigation, and what they found. The audience for this paper is other students who may be considering majoring in this field.

Learning Outcomes

Students will be able to:

  • Use different search terms to discover the genres and styles of their major field
  • Make decisions as they design and conduct their own inquiries
  • Describe their experience of the research process and their findings from beginning to end in a paper addressed to other students who may be considering the same major
  • Make connections between concepts and strategies taught in their composition class and writing in their majors

A Mini-Proposal

The first step in the module is a mini-proposal. The student submits answers to the following questions:

  • What is your intended major? (If you have not yet chosen a major, explore one that you are considering.)
  • What do you already know (or think you know) about writing in this field? (Note: Some students choose a major such as engineering because they think there will not be much writing. However, engineers write a lot and the ones who write well are the ones most likely to get promoted.)
  • What do you want to find out about the work people do in this field?
  • What search terms will you use in your initial investigation? (A starting point might be “writing in MY MAJOR” or “How to write like an engineer, scientist, CEO, etc.”)

Some Sample Searches and Results

Here are two search strings that resulted in useful links for learning about writing in engineering:

  • What do engineers write?
  • Write like an engineer

Students in other disciplines could substitute “scientist,” “anthropologist,” “manager” or other profession for “engineer” in these searches.

A search on “engineering genres” led to a link at the University of Illinois about “Writing Across Engineering and Science: Genres and Genre Systems.” It presents an interesting word cloud that represents a survey of instructors about what writing genres were taught in courses and what genres students would be expected to write after graduation when they were working as engineers. There is quite a difference.

A search on “engineering sample documents” resulted in useful links to documents that could be used in rhetorical analysis assignments. One of these was a report on “Document Types and Naming Conventions” for the CERN Large Hadron Collider project in Geneva, Switzerland. That is an interesting document, but the student would have to decide if it was relevant to their project, which will evolve as they find things. They will have to decide which paths to follow and when they have gone too far down a rabbit hole. However, these decisions are all part of the description of the research process they will include in the I-Search paper.

A Progress Report

After they have done some searches, the module asks them to submit a progress report to the instructor. This will give the instructor a chance to offer suggestions to students whose searches have been unproductive, or who have gone down too many rabbit holes.

An Academic Extension

The module also includes an optional academic journal component that is appropriate for college-level courses. This section asks them to find a relevant article in an academic database, perhaps after engaging in some online chat with a research librarian, and doing some rudimentary analysis.

Writing the Paper

The module asks the student to look back at the mini-proposal to remember where they were when they started. This is used to establish a sense of audience for the paper–a student interested in this field but uninformed about the discourse community. Then it gives them step-by-step instructions for writing the paper.

Peer Review

The final element is a peer review session in which they trade papers with a student who investigated a different major and answer some questions.

Final Outcomes

One of the questions asked in the writing section is “What connections did you find between the concepts and strategies you learned in your English course and the writing in the discipline of your choice?” This is perhaps the most important purpose of this module. We want students to see that the rhetorical concepts they get from FYC connect to their work in other classes and finally to their careers.

The full mini-module can be downloaded here.