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.

Tenacity

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.

Authority

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

Activities

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.

Event-Motive-Theme

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

Event-Motive-Theme-cropped

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.

How Is a Course Like a Song?

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

How is a course like a song?

A typical American pop song is usually structured as follows: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, outro. It also has a title, a theme, and often a story, as well as a catchy melody that sticks in your head. It is a structure of repetition and difference that unfolds in time. Each verse advances the theme, while the repetition of the chorus ensures memorability and connection.

I want to argue that a good course has exactly these elements.

It is easy to design a course, especially a composition course, that is a series of issues and texts with no connection between them other than “and now for something completely different.” When students look back on that course they will remember that they discussed a lot of issues and wrote a lot of essays, but they won’t remember concepts and strategies that they can deploy in other contexts. For concepts to be remembered and used later, they need repeated application and foregrounding.

Teaching MLA Style

Several years ago I was teaching a First Year Writing course in which I decided, as a sort of experiment, to focus heavily on using MLA-style documentation. I used both in-text and “Works Cited” documentation in my syllabus and I made MLA documentation a separate row in my grading rubric. I went over MLA on the first day and on several subsequent days. In my assignment sheets, I specifically asked for MLA documentation of sources, including essays in the textbook. For the first two papers, most students ignored the request for citation and got zeros on the rubric in that category. Finally, a student asked, “What is this documentation thing and why do I keep getting a zero?” I explained again. On the more researched papers, the students starting giving me URLs. I noted that this was better than nothing, but still not correct. By the end of ten weeks, most students, most of the time, were giving me something that looked pretty much like MLA documentation. For them to acquire the concept and the habit of doing it, they needed repetition, reinforcement, and consequences. There is no way that you can teach something once and have students retain or practice it.

(Note: A colleague commented that my example here makes it sound like I am recommending that FYC instructors teach Modern Language Association or MLA style. Students in FYC will go on to work in many different disciplines which use many different citation systems. They should know that MLA is only one such style. Others include APA, Chicago, CSE, AIP, and many others. Now there are also Digital Object Identifiers or DOIs. The issue of what citation style or styles to teach is too complex for this post, but whatever style you teach, make sure that students know that their discipline may use a different one.)

The Basic Elements

So, how is a course like a song? A course is about something. It has a title and a theme. In a previous post, I discussed designing learning modules. A learning module is like the verse of a song. Each module is related to the theme of the course, but has a different perspective or approach. The repetition of the theme is the chorus. In a composition course, the theme is probably “audience, purpose, and occasion” because the effectiveness of every rhetorical act is determined by how well it is adapted to these factors. It is good to keep returning to them.

Bob Dylan Songs

My favorite Bob Dylan songs are the ones that tell stories verse by verse with choruses that repeat the same lines, but mean something slightly different with each repetition. In “Like a Rolling Stone,” the verses describe the tragic fall of someone from riches to poverty, each verse describing another aspect of the fall, with the chorus repeatedly asking, “How does it feel to be on your own, no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?” In “Memphis Blues Again” verse after verse describes decisions made that land the speaker in the wrong place at the wrong time in different ways, with the chorus repeating, “Oh mama, can this really be the end, to be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again?”

Your course can be a series of experiences that all look back to a set of foundational concepts that form the theme of the course.

The Bridge

What about the bridge? The bridge of a song is a deviation from the pattern established by the verses and choruses. It has a different chord progression. It may even change keys. It takes on the issue from a different perspective. In “No Reply,” a song recorded by the Beatles in 1964 for the album Beatles for Sale, the verses are about a young man complaining that when he knocks on his girlfriend’s door, she doesn’t answer, and when he calls on the telephone, her family says she isn’t home. In the bridge, the speaker says,

If I were you, I’d realize that I
Love you more than any other guy
And I’ll forgive the lies that I
Heard before, when you gave me no reply

Here the speaker tries to imagine the situation from the girl’s point of view, though he ends up projecting his own desires anyway and creating some very tangled up pronoun references. It’s a failed attempt at changing perspective. In effect, it demonstrates how hard it is to truly see from another person’s point of view.

Designing a module in your course that radically changes the perspective can serve to reinforce the design of the more conventional modules that surround it. For example, asking students to write in a different genre for a very different audience and purpose can actually help them see the decisions they are making in the other modules. Or you might turn your normal process around backwards and have them write first and then read. Or you might have them do a rhetorical analysis of another student’s paper. Anything you do to change things up can actually reinforce the pattern you have been establishing.

Intros and Outros

Finally, we all naturally provide an intro to the course, but what about the outro? And the end of a course, students should reflect on what they have read, written and learned. It is the time to consolidate the learning and connect it all together. It is good to design an activity for that.

A course is actually more complicated than most pop songs, with Bob Dylan as a possible exception. However, thinking about your course in this way may help you remember the power of repetition and difference and help your students come away from the course with concepts they can remember and transfer to other contexts.

Crafting a Syllabus

Note: Much of the advice here is specific to new Graduate Teaching Associates using Canvas at Cal Poly Pomona. However, there are aspects that apply to any new instructor who is going to teach First Year Composition. This post is part of a series on “Teaching First Year Composition.”

Cal Poly Pomona’s Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence (CAFE) offers a Syllabus Template that works as a fill-in-the-blank starting point for creating an effective syllabus. I’ll go through the basic elements. I think it is a good idea to create a document with all of this information in it that you can send to students who have added, but don’t yet have access to the course on Canvas. You can then paste the text from this document into the Canvas syllabus page. (Here is my syllabus for English 3151 “Writing In the Professions” as a sample.)

Welcome!

The prompt says “Add a friendly welcome-to-the-course.” Here you put a description of the course from your point of view including what it covers, how it fits into the context of the university, and what students will learn to do. The paragraph or two you put here will set the tone for the rest of the syllabus and the course itself. It is a bit paradoxical. You want to engage students, calm their fears, but also prepare them for challenges. You want to create excitement, but also make them feel that there is difficult work that is worth doing that they are capable of doing. You also begin building your ethos as an instructor here.

Your Instructor

Here you put the name you would prefer to be called, your email address, your office hours, and perhaps a picture of yourself. You may also want to write a short paragraph about yourself. You do not have to reveal that you are a TA or a new instructor, but you may want to talk about why you wanted to be a composition teacher, your philosophy of teaching, and other information that might help your students feel comfortable learning from you.

What students will call you is a complicated question. Technically, you are a Graduate Teaching Associate or GTA, but they don’t need to know that. Most of the faculty teaching FYC are lecturers, not “tenure-track” or tenured faculty. Among tenure-track faculty, there are specific ranks. New faculty are Assistant Professors. After six years of excellent evaluations of teaching, scholarly work, and university service, an Assistant Professor can apply for tenure and promotion to Associate Professor. After four more years of excellent work, an Associate Professor can apply to be promoted to the rank of Professor. Thus the rank of “Professor” is actually the highest rank, earned over a period of ten years of teaching, scholarship, and service to the department and the university. (As I am semi-retired at this point, I am “Professor Emeritus.”)

However, the general public thinks that all people who teach at a university are professors who hold doctoral degrees. It is probably simplest if your students call you “Professor Your Last Name.” That is what they will probably do naturally.

Course Information

Here you put basic course information such as department, course number, section, class number, the name of the course. You can get this information from the campus website.

Course Format

This has gotten complicated recently because of the pandemic and the shift to various kinds of online instruction. The full list of instruction modes recognized by Cal Poly Pomona can be found at Online or Hybrid Course Definitions. “Asynchronous” means instruction is online to be done “at time/location of students’ choice.” “Synchronous” means instruction is online, but delivered at specific times through Zoom or another platform. Looking through these definitions, I realize that my courses have been “web-assisted” for more than 20 years. My current courses are listed as “Hybrid with Synchronous Component,” but really should be listed as “Hybrid with Asynchronous Component.” Oh well. I think that most of the TA sections of FYC will be either “Fully Synchronous” or “Hybrid with Synchronous Component.”

You should also put the days and times of your face-to-face and/or synchronous meetings here.

Course Description and Learning Outcomes

The template says “Give the catalog description and your learning outcomes.” The catalog description for ENG 1100 – Stretch Composition I is “Writing fluency, basic essay structure and rhetorical principles, critical reading, and online research. Frequent practice writing essays.” For ENG 1103 – First Year Composition (3) it is “Principal concepts of rhetoric, argumentation, and research. Frequent practice writing essays, letters, and other genres commonly used in academic writing.”

The full 15 outcomes might be a little intimidating for students at the very beginning of the course, so in your syllabus, you might use this collapsed version. You can use the more detailed ones for individual assignments:

  • Pre-writing and Drafting–Generate ideas using appropriate pre-writing strategies; develop those ideas into readable drafts
  • Rhetorical Analysis and Argumentation–Explain and respond to the rhetoric and arguments of others
  • Critical Reading–Read difficult, research-based texts with critical understanding
  • Researching, Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Documenting Sources–Design academic inquiries and develop strategies for finding, evaluating, and integrating information purposefully in a given context
  • Style, Genre Conventions, and Disciplinary Knowledge–Craft a style appropriate to the genre, audience, and purpose of the text
  • Revision–Revise his or her own texts considering genre and rhetorical situation
    Proofreading–Improve correctness and clarity of his or her own texts

Required Materials

List the required books and other resources in MLA format. You might follow this with a narrative description of the texts and how you plan to use them. Students in FYC are sometimes surprised when they find out that they have to buy the books because books in high school are loaned to them for free.

Prerequisites, Co-requisites, and Necessary Skills

ENG 1100 has no prerequisites. ENG 1103 says “CO Category II,” but under Directed Self-Placement, this is pretty meaningless, so you could leave this category out of your syllabus.

Communication

Here you should describe how you will communicate with students and how they should contact you if they have questions. I usually send announcements twice a week, once on Sunday to remind students of what is due and to preview the coming week, and another later in the week with a class meeting agenda. These appear on the Canvas site and are also emailed to the students (if it works on Canvas the way it works on Blackboard). The best way for students to contact me is through email. However, there are more up-to-date modes of communication which you may use. I would avoid giving them your cell phone number, however.

Instructor Responsibilities

This is an interesting category. I would not have thought of this before I saw it in the template our eLearning people created for teaching online in Blackboard. I usually put something like the following:

  • I have taught this course many times before, but this is the first time I have taught a hybrid semi-online version in Canvas, so there may be glitches. I will do everything I can to resolve them as soon as possible.
  • I generally begin grading and responding to work soon after it is submitted and complete the responses within three days. For papers I make in-text comments in Canvas and use a rubric specially designed for the assignment to give a score. I usually make a summary comment at the bottom of the rubric, so be sure to look there.
  • I will respond to emailed questions as quickly as I can. I will also email you if I have questions about your work or if I cannot open the file you have uploaded.
  • I try to make my assignments as clear as possible, but if you have questions, please email me or ask in my in-person or Zoom office hours.

Student Responsibilities

I usually put something like the following:

  • Read all emails and announcements from me about the course
  • Read texts and other materials in the week assigned for them
  • Participate in discussion boards and writing groups
  • Avoid angry messages, flaming, trolling, offensive or profane language.
  • Be sensitive to those with different cultural and/or linguistic backgrounds, as well as different political and religious beliefs.
  • Upload work to Canvas by the due date in a format I can read (I can read most common file formats, such as .doc, .docx, .pdf, .odt, and .rtf, though Apple formats such as Pages files are more difficult. The most common problem is when students post links to Google Doc files instead of the actual files.)
  • If you email me with a question, please include your name and the course you are in.
  • If you email a paper to me, please name the document file something like this: LastNameFirstName-Assignment-Course.doc (I get lots of papers called “mypaper.doc” and it is easy to lose track of who submitted it.)
  • Perhaps most important of all, be engaged in the course! I have designed it to be a learning experience, not a series of busy work assignments to get a grade.

Grades

Explain your grading system. Lately, I have been using a 500-point system. I include a chart which shows how many points a student needs to get specific letter grades. The chart is based on the percentage of the total points the student has. Using a points system in this way means that all of the assignments have to be designated from the beginning and each assigned a point value consistent with the time, effort, and skills put into accomplishing it. The other disadvantage of this system is that if you decide to omit a planned assignment for whatever reason, you have to re-balance the points. I often have to do a bit of re-balancing near the end of the semester. Here is my chart:

GradeChart-500points-color-cropped

Another popular system is to have categories such as Homework, Quizzes, Discussions, Exams, and Research Paper and assign a percentage to each category. The gradebook in Blackboard allowed you to categorize assignments in this way, though I never used this feature. I assume Canvas will also do this. The advantage of this system is that you can add or subtract assignments in a category without changing the weight of that category. There is a pretty good explanation of this system on this Lansing Community College site.

Whatever system you choose, make sure that it is clearly understood by your students.

Make-Up and Late Work Policies

Most new TAs want to have very strict policies about attendance and late work. They might say something like “No more than three unexcused absences and no late papers.” In my experience, with such strict policies, you will find yourself at times wanting to circumvent your own policy for good reasons, especially during the pandemic. Students have lives and responsibilities beyond the classroom. Last semester, I was doing breakout groups on Zoom, and one student did not immediately join her group. I asked her why and she didn’t respond at first. Finally she said, “Sorry, I’m at work and I am hiding my phone in my apron.” I appreciated her honesty, and I find that the more honest they are with me, the easier it is to work with them.

One way to give yourself some flexibility is to be generous in the way you define “excused.” I generally consider an absence excused if the student emails me before or shortly after the meeting with a reasonable excuse. I want the students to stay in contact with me. I also generally give them the benefit of the doubt, even if the excuse sounds fishy. I never ask for doctor’s excuses or mechanic’s invoices.

Last semester I used Blackboard’s attendance tool, which keeps track of attendance as a percentage. I allotted 40 points to attendance and gave them whatever percentage of the points they had earned. That worked well. (It turns out that Canvas has a similar attendance tool, but you have to go to to “Settings” then “Navigation” and then drag the Attendance tool into the upper menu and then click “Save.”)

On late work, during the pandemic I became very flexible. I said that a paper would get full credit if submitted by the due date, but would be docked 15% no matter how late it was submitted, up to the end of week 15. Last semester, I had only five F’s out of about 50 students, and some of the late work was of very high quality. This liberal policy saved about 10 students from failing. A couple of students put off too much work so that they were too far behind to catch up. That is the disadvantage of such a liberal policy. Deadlines serve both the instructor and the student by keeping a pace and distributing the workload over time. A more normal policy would be to dock points for each day it was late until it would be fruitless to turn it in.

The Rest

The rest of the syllabus is about university policies. The template includes a lot of very useful links that you can leave in there for students.

Next up: The reading schedule, which is a week by week articulation of the readings, the activities, and the writing assignments. I work this all out in a single document, but in Canvas, I will use the “Modules” feature to lay everything out. As you plan your course, it is best to think in terms of modules, then weeks, then days.

Creating and Using Rubrics

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

A well-designed grading rubric does two important things: It helps students understand how they will be evaluated and it helps teachers grade consistently and fairly. When used in an online learning management system, the rubric can also speed up grading quite a bit.

Rubrics are easy to create and edit in Blackboard. I have only created one rubric in Canvas, but my first impression is that this is one area where Blackboard is easier to use than Canvas. However, once you have created a few different types of rubrics in Canvas, they should be easy to modify for different assignments. It is only the initial creation that is a bit troublesome.

A Sample Rubric

Some rubrics look like outlines with bullet-point descriptions of each score level. The most common format, however, is a grid with assignment criteria down the left hand column and levels of performance across the top. Here is a sample rubric from my Professional Writing course. It is a group assignment in which a team has to design a flyer for a fictitious event.

FlyerRubric-color-grid-1-cropped
This is a multi-modal assignment that includes design principles (alignment, repetition, proximity, and contrast), images, information, rhetorical appeals, and text. I ask the group to assign the following roles to the group members:

  • Coordinator—Sets up meetings, reminds members of dates and tasks, keeps things going. Coordinates discussions. Uploads the final product.
  • Image Sleuth—Once the group has decided on an event and a theme, this person searches the web for possible images.
  • Designer—Integrates images and text into an appealing design. Should be familiar with design and image editing software.
  • Copywriter—Writes the text for the flyer. Chooses appropriate language and sentence structure. Deploys rhetorical strategies.

The criteria you choose should reflect the learning outcomes for the course and your own goals for the assignment. In the example above, my overall goal is for students to see that all of the elements combine together to create a rhetorical effect. I also want them to learn to work together as a team to produce a satisfactory product.

Weighting the Criteria

In this case, I have weighted each of the five criteria equally, at 20%. You may want to assign heavier weight to criteria you deem of the most importance and reduce the weight of others. My performance criteria–poor, marginal, adequate, good, excellent–roughly correspond to letter grades, but note that a submission could be “excellent” on one criteria, but lacking in another. Also note that I am giving 25% even for the poor ranking. I am giving them some credit for turning something in. You don’t have to do that.

Revising the Rubric

The first time you use an assignment, you may find that your initial ideas for the rubric don’t fit. In most learning management systems, you cannot modify a rubric after you have used it to grade one paper. Although it is a good idea to give the students access to the rubric before they begin the assignment, this is not always possible for an assignment you haven’t tried before. You may want to read some of the papers and see what is going wrong and what is going right before you commit to a rubric for that assignment. You may want to change some of the descriptors for different levels of performance, the weighting, or even add a new criterion.

It is usually a good idea to create a specific rubric for each assignment because your focus and the learning outcomes may be different for different assignments. However, you might have a generic rubric that remains pretty much the same throughout the course with variations for different topics and genres.

It’s Worth the Time

It may seem like a lot of work to create a rubric in Canvas to grade papers. One of the truths about using technology is that the first time you do something in software, it takes three times as long as it would take to do it by hand. However, the next time, it takes about the same amount of time as by hand, and after that, you start to reap the benefits and many things are automated. Once you start using automated rubrics to grade papers, it will save you a lot of time. It will also make you a more consistent grader.

My sample rubric above is probably quite different from your early assignments in First-Year Composition. Here is a rubric from my “Advanced Expository Writing” course that is probably closer to what you are assigning. It may give you some ideas you can adapt to your own assignments.

Designing Reading/Writing Assignments

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

In designing assignments, you can begin in a number of places. You might have a text to teach that you think would be interesting to your students. Where does it fit in your course? How will they use it? You might have a need to focus on a particular learning outcome. What writing assignment would be appropriate? What texts and activities might support it? Or you might have a topic or theme you want your students to explore. What texts would help students learn about this topic?

An Assignment Template

Whatever motivates your assignment, you should probably end up with a pattern similar to this:

  • Prereading: What can students do to prepare to read this text?
  • Reading: What should students be looking for as they read the text?
  • Postreading: What should students do to analyze and assimilate what they have read?
  • Prewriting: How will the students connect the text to the writing assignment?
  • Writing: What will students write? What audience and purpose will it serve?
  • Revision: What criteria will you use to evaluate the student responses? How can students use this criteria to revise their texts?

This is a very simplified version of the template used by the Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC). The handout in this link provides a much more detailed version of this template.

The TILT Framework

The Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) project recommends an even simpler “Transparent Assignment Template.” They say that students should know:

  • The Purpose of the assignment: what skills are practiced and what knowledge is gained.
  • The Task: What to do and how to do it.
  • The Criteria: a checklist or rubric for self-evaluation and annotated examples of excellent examples of the assignment.

These two templates are not mutually exclusive. The TILT framework could be used to frame the more detailed reading/writing sequence in the ERWC-inspired template.

Looking at the Learning Outcomes

Let’s say that it is early in the course and we want to address the following learning outcomes:

  • B: Explain in clearly written English the rhetoric of others.
  • C: Develop written arguments in response to others’ arguments.
  • D: Write reasonably lucid, well-organized essays that address purpose, audience, and situation—in response to timed-exam prompts.

However, right now we are not interested in “timed exam prompts.”

Finding a Topic

I did a quick search on “Should Americans be required to do public service?” I thought this might be a good issue because I think most students will say no, we are already too busy with school and work, but some may say yes for idealistic reasons or because they are not sure what they want to do in the future and an opportunity for service might give them some experience and direction. There should be enough difference for a good discussion in class. It is best to choose an issue that has some connection with students’ lives and that has a least two different positions, ideally more, that can be supported by reasonable people.

I found an op-ed by David Brooks: “We Need National Service. Now.”

Brooks is a good writer and is supposed to be a conservative, though he has drifted to the left in recent years.

Our Tasks

Our first task in designing this assignment is to devise a prereading activity: What can students do to prepare to read this text? In this case, I think it could be pretty simple. We could ask students to write down an answer to this question: Should Americans be required to do public service? Why or why not? They can put their response aside for now.

What should they be thinking about while reading? We can ask, “Does David Brooks persuade you that the U.S. needs to invest more in public service programs? Do his arguments confirm or refute your previous response?”

Because Outcome B asks students to be able to explain “the rhetoric of others,” we can ask students to apply the Aristotelian appeals, ethos, logos and pathos, to the essay by Brooks. We can also ask them to revisit their original response to see if Brooks has changed their views.

Brooks also asks a number of rhetorical questions, such as

What would it mean to the future social cohesion of this country if a large part of the rising generation had a common experience of shared sacrifice?

What would it mean to our future politics if young people from Berkeley spent a year working side by side with young people from Boise, Birmingham and Baton Rouge?

Has any nation prospered that did not encourage in each new generation the habits of work, the taste for adventure, a sense of duty and a call to be of use to neighbors and the world?

Students could try to answer these questions, or talk about the rhetorical effect on the reader of asking them. All of these postreading activities could be done individually in writing, or in group discussions.

The Writing Assignment

Now for the writing assignment. There are a number of possibilities, depending on what we what to accomplish. If we were attending to Outcome L: “Design their own academic inquiries and develop strategies for finding, evaluating, and integrating information purposefully in a given context,” we could have them research what programs like AmeriCorps do, or what other public service programs exist. They might also research public service in other countries and find that in South Korea, every male must engage in two years of military service, or that in Israel, every citizen, male or female, is required to participate in the military. However, we are focusing on the earlier outcomes. We might ask them to focus on a specific point made by Brooks that they strongly agree or disagree with and write a letter to the editor type of response, giving them some examples of the genre to look at first. Because we have already asked them to do some rhetorical analysis, we could ask them to write a rhetorical analysis paper. See “Writing a Rhetorical Analysis” for some instructions.

It is common for instructors to ask students to agree or disagree with the author and explain why. A problem with this sort of assignment is that the paper that is in agreement ends up largely being a restatement of the author’s arguments, with little original thinking.

A more personal take might be to ask students, if given the choice, what kind of public service they would want to engage in, why they would make that choice, and what effect they think it might have on their lives.

Framing the Assignment

Whatever writing assignment you decide on, think about the TILT framework described above. Tell the students the purpose of the assignment, perhaps referencing the learning outcomes, how to do the assignment, and the criteria for evaluating their response, perhaps in a rubric. Designing a rubric will be discussed in a subsequent post.

Of course, the assignment I have created here could be taught, though it might not be appropriate for your students or your course. My intent, however, was to demonstrate the kind of thinking and planning that goes into designing a short integrated assignment sequence, which in ERWC we called a “mini-module.” A well-planned assignment sequence is a joy to teach (though things can always go wrong) and if the work seems well-structured to the students, they are more likely to engage with it.

One last comment about the TILT framework. When I first starting reading about some of the applications and studies on their Examples and Resources page, I was a bit put off by the emphasis on explicitly telling students exactly how to do the tasks. It seemed like too much spoon feeding. However, in one of the introductory PowerPoints (Using a Transparent Framework to Remove Barriers to College Students’ Success (15-min research update and project overview), they note that some instructors wanted the students to spend the bulk of their work time figuring out how to address the problem or question. For these instructors, they recommended the following statement: “The purpose of this assignment is for you to struggle and feel confused while you invent your own approach to addressing the problem or question.”

I like that. Sometimes the purpose is to create difficult problems for students to solve. The trick is in knowing when they are ready for that. If your assignment causes confusion, confusion should be part of the design, not an accidental result.

Responding to Student Writing

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

Last but not least, Outcome O:

StretchComp-ProofreadOutcome-1-color-cropped-1
As I noted in the previous post, most people outside of composition and rhetoric think that the purpose of a writing course is to eliminate all grammatical errors and usage problems so that students don’t inflict them on faculty in upper-division courses, other disciplines, and later, on employers. They also tend to think that these are problems that should have been addressed in high school, so college-level writing courses are by definition “remedial.” As you can see from the first 14 outcomes, there is a lot more to an FYC course than grammar instruction.

Perhaps a more important problem is that students often agree. They think that the goal is always to produce an error-free text. When students come to the writing center, the first thing they want is to have the tutor “fix” all of the errors. The tutor has to be very persuasive to get the students even to consider more global revisions.

However, different rhetorical situations require different styles, genres, and strategies. As the cognitive load increases, especially when learning new concepts and vocabulary, the likelihood of linguistic error also increases. Focusing exclusively on error blocks learning and growth. Error is a fact of life. We can’t ignore it because it has rhetorical consequences, but we can’t beat it to death until it goes away before moving on to other concerns. If we do that, we will stay on square one forever. So, how do we balance all of these concerns in responding to student writing?

Steps in a Response

The first step is to design a good assignment. I will discuss that in more detail in a subsequent post. For now, let’s just say that it is important to make it clear what the student is supposed to do and how they will be evaluated.

What comes naturally to most instructors is to read and mark errors as they go. This might work for a fluent writer, but for most students it results in a heavily marked up paper that discourages the student and doesn’t offer a coherent plan for revision or improvement. It may seem like the most efficient way, but in reality it is not. It is best to skim the paper quickly first to see what you’ve got. Then think about the following steps:

  1. Introduction: Does the introductory material effectively guide the reader in anticipating the topic and purpose of the paper? Does the paper fulfill those expectations? If necessary, comment on possible improvements.
  2. Style: Is the style of the paper appropriate to the audience and purpose? Are sentences readable and clear? Are word choices appropriate? Identify particular instances where sentence structure or word choice could be improved. This may include punctuation marking sentence boundaries or other punctuation problems.
  3. Grammatical Systems: Is there a pattern of error in a particular feature of the grammatical system, such as subject/verb agreement, the tense system, or pronoun reference? If there are many errors in many systems, don’t mark all of them. Focus attention on a specific problem for the writer to work on.
  4. Assignment: Finally, is the paper an effective response to the assignment? Does it do the task? Does it demonstrate the required thinking, even if there are grammatical errors or other problems? Give comments that reflect the extent to which the paper is successful in this regard and suggestions for improvement, if needed. These comments may appear at the end of the paper, but your impressions begin forming upon your initial skim of the paper.

Rubrics

I am a fan of rubrics for responding to writing because they show the student what the criteria are and they keep the instructor on track too. Critics of rubrics argue that they are too restrictive and punish creative or innovative responses. I find that if I receive a superior response that does not fit my rubric for that assignment, I can find a way to reward it anyway. I will discuss rubric design in a subsequent post.

Balancing Praise and Critique

It is easy to make lots of negative comments on student papers without giving them any praise. We want our criticism to be seen as constructive and we want our students to feel like they can improve. While there are students who think that they are better writers than they really are, often because they have gotten praise for using a lot of big words that don’t really mean what they think they mean, most students have already been convinced that they are “bad writers.” We want to convince them otherwise. In fact, that may be the most important unwritten learning outcome of the whole composition program.

Genre, Research, and Disciplinary Outcomes

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

In previous posts I have discussed the “Fluency Outcomes” and “Cultural Studies” outcomes in Cal Poly Pomona’s stretch composition program. In this post, I will discuss the outcomes related to Genre, Research, and Disciplinary writing. Then in the final post in this series about outcomes I will discuss outcome O, the outcome that deals with grammar and “correctness,” which is what outsiders think composition is all about.

Here’s the list of the Genre, Research, and Interdisciplinary outcomes:

StretchComp-GenreOutcomes-color-cropped-1

Outcomes I and J are about learning to read and write in genres other than the essay. High school students are usually taught the 5-paragraph essay and many only know how to write in that formulaic way. Some have been taught to write in even more formulaic systems such as the Jane Schaffer essay, in which each paragraph must have a topic sentence and a specific number of “concrete details” and “commentaries.” I recently read an article, “Difficulty Paper (Dis)Connections: Understanding the Threads Students Weave between Their Reading and Writing,” in which the authors noted that students routinely identified as elements of difficulty the fact that the assigned text did not conform to the rules they had been taught for writing essays. They wanted Malcolm Gladwell, for example, to have a thesis statement in his first paragraph, transitions between between topics, no seemingly irrelevant examples, and a conclusion. They thought this noted stylist was a bad and confusing writer because he did not have these things. The disjunction between what is taught in school and what professional writers actually do is puzzling and disturbing to students.

Redefining the Essay

The first step toward comfort in writing other genres is probably to loosen up the students’ ideas of what defines an essay. I like to offer the Roman six-part speech as an alternative format that is defined by rhetorical purposes rather than the number of sentences or paragraphs. You can find more about that format in my post “The Classical Pattern of Persuasion.” For some suggestions about how to wean students off the 5-paragraph essay, look at “What about the Five-Paragraph Essay?

Business letters and emails are useful alternative genres for students to practice. More can be found in this post: “Business Letters and Formal Emails.”

Reading Complex Texts

Outcome K is about learning to read complex texts without the glossaries, sidebar commentaries, pre-reading questions, chapter summaries, and other apparatus that textbooks normally provide. Students need to develop their own strategies for resolving difficulties. We can help them by telling them why they are reading a particular text and what they should attend to in it. We can provide some scaffolding, but it is best to gradually withdraw it so that students are left more and more to their own devices.

Conducting Research

Outcome J is about conducting research in library databases and on the internet. Today, it is easier than ever before to gather information. In fact, the problem is that there is too much information, often of doubtful quality. Students need to learn to find and evaluate sources, integrate material from sources into their own writing, and document it properly, both in-text and in the Works Cited page. Students also need to learn not to cherry pick research that supports their thesis while ignoring inconvenient facts. Politicians may do that, but scholars should not.

I was teaching a class at USC once when a student asked, “What should I do if I cannot find any sources that support my thesis?” I waited a beat and before I could respond the student next to him said, “Change your thesis!”

Strategies for Revision

Outcome M, though it begins with “critique their own ideas,” is really about seeing opportunities for revision. Though students usually proofread for errors, they often do no substantial revision. Closely related to the concept of revision is a sense of audience and purpose. The writer needs to understand who they are writing for and what they are trying to accomplish before they can evaluate the effectivness of their text and see ways to improve it.

Writing for their Majors

Finally, Outcome N is about writing for other discourse communities in the university. Most of the students in an FYC class are not English majors. They need to learn how to write in the style and genres of their majors. We in English cannot teach them everything they need to know about writing in engineering or the sciences, but we can help them understand that different disciplines have different conventions and expectations. One way to do this is to have them do some searches such as “Writing in Engineering” or “Writing in Biology,” find examples of typical texts in their discipline and apply some of the rhetorical concepts you have taught them. With this preparation, they probably won’t try to turn their first lab report into a 5-paragraph essay, something science teachers often complain about.

Works Cited

Sweeney, Meghan A.and Maureen McBride.”Difficulty Paper (Dis)Connections: Understanding the Threads Students Weave between Their Reading and Writing.”College Composition and Communication, vol. 66, no. 4, 2015,
pp. 591-614.