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.

Cultural Studies Outcomes

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

There are many different ways to organize a composition course. Outcomes A-F, discussed in the previous post, imply an applied rhetoric course, a course designed to prepare students to participate effectively in a variety of rhetorical contexts through concepts from classical and modern rhetoric. In the recent past, many courses were focused on formal characteristics of writing including grammatical correctness, idiomatic consistency, organizational formulas, topic sentences and transitions. This approach came to be known by the paradoxical name of “Current Traditional Rhetoric” or CTR. When I was first learning to be a composition instructor, the CTR approach was being challenged by the “process” approach, with the slogan “Teach process, not product!”

The interest in the writing process originated in work done by Janet Emig, especially in her 1971 monograph, The Composing Processes of 12th Graders. Initially, researchers imagined a four-stage process: pre-writing, composing, revising, proofreading. This four-stage model eventually became more and more complicated until it became less and less useful in teaching, but the original insight is still important: A student who is trying to do all four tasks at once is likely to struggle with writing.

The process approach was also associated with what has been called the “expressivist” or “vitalist” approach championed by Peter Elbow. This kind of course is focused on the personal essay and on helping students express their own views. For a period of time, the rhetorically-oriented teachers clashed with the expressivists.

Cultural Studies

This all changed in the 1980’s with the advent of postmodernism and French theorists such as Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault. Thus, outcomes G and H:

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Postmodernism brought about the practice called “cultural studies.” In a nutshell, cultural studies considers the world to be a text, subject to interpretation. In composition, perhaps the best expression of this approach can be found in James Berlin’s Rhetoric, Poetics, and Cultures, which in a previous post I called, “an exposition of an unabashedly Marxist cultural studies pedagogy aimed at teaching students to recognize the insidious influence of a capitalist/consumerist ideology and to resist hegemonic discourses.” In that same post I discuss Thomas Rickert’s Acts of Enjoyment: Rhetoric, Žižek, and the Return of the Subject. Here is a passage from my post, beginning with a quote from Rickert:

“Sometime deep in the sixth inning of the 1990s, teaching my latest version of a cultural studies-oriented composition class, it struck me that something was awry. In retrospect, my unit on advertising seems particularly suspect. My students were becoming adept at picking apart ads and identifying their most pernicious features: the inducement to buy unnecessary, expensive items; the achievement of identity and modes of being through products; the reification of unjust class, race and gender roles; and so forth” (1). He reports that he faced little resistance from his students, and that they wrote competent, even excellent papers. Beyond that, there was little change other than growing cynicism, and they still bought the $75 jeans. He asks why “training students to be attentive critics of texts, culture, and ideology so seldom induces real transformation in their lives?” (3).

Rickert’s solution is to develop a Lacanian pedagogy of desire. If you are interested in that, you might want to read the rest of the post linked above.

Should You Teach Cultural Studies?

Because Rickert’s experience with a cultural studies pedagogy resonates with my own, when I teach my seminar in teaching writing, I tend to downplay cultural studies and recommend other approaches. However, I find that most grad students who begin teaching want to implement a cultural studies design. Why is that?

I think there are a number of reasons:

  • Cultural studies is readily applicable to the issues that students and teachers are passionate about.
  • Cultural studies is an “unmasking” process. It goes beyond the arguments, facts, and rhetorical appeals to an inspection of the ideology behind them. We like thinking that we know what is really going on.
  • Social hierarchies such as structural racism and gender norms are enacted and perpetuated through cultural formations that include everything from terministic screens to architecture. Cultural studies is an ideal tool for addressing them.

There are also disadvantages:

  • Cultural studies is inherently political and probably progressive in that it challenges the established order. There is no way to step out of ideology altogether and remain in a neutral unbiased state. Conservative students will certainly challenge you, or tune you out.
  • The “unmasking” process can challenge the core beliefs of the students. They can become unmoored.
  • The above can result in the cynicism that Rickert notices. We probably don’t want our courses to take passionate believers and turn them into apathetic cynics.

Having said all this, I want to note that outcomes G and H are only two of the 15 outcomes in the program. Including a module in the course that explores the ideology embodied in a set of terms or cultural artifacts will probably do more good than harm. As Aristotle said, “Moderation in all things.”

Stretch Learning Outcomes

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

I started working on a stretch model redesign of our composition program in 2010. The Chancellor’s Office wanted to eliminate so-called “remedial” courses, but the “Early Start” plan they were introducing actually created more mandated “remediation.” Stretch courses were a way of offering more time for struggling writers to improve their skills while still offering them a university-level course. In the cover letter introducing the plan I wrote:

The attached plan for redesigning the EFL composition program as a “stretch” program draws on program designs at CSU Channel Islands and CSU San Bernardino. The original concept for the stretch design came from Greg Glau at Arizona State University. In a stretch program, the assignments and outcomes for the one-term freshman composition course are rigorously defined, and then this curriculum is “stretched” into multi-term implementations that offer more scaffolding and more time to meet the needs of students who are not outstanding writers when they are admitted. The “stretched” versions of the course meet the same outcomes as the one-term version. There are no “remedial” courses in this design.

The plan had 15 learning outcomes, which I quickly came to believe were too many. I made an attempt to combine them in 2013, but this only caused confusion, and the long list remained. Originally, when we were on quarters, we had one-quarter, two-quarter, and three-quarter versions of the course. In the three-quarter version, the outcomes fell neatly into three sets: fluency, intertextuality, and interdisciplinarity. In other words, the first quarter was about developing basic writing skills, the second about researching, quoting, paraphrasing, and documenting sources, and the third about exploring other genres, including the discourse of the student’s major. Somewhere along the way the outcomes were reorganized so that they no longer fell neatly into these sets, but these concepts remain active in the list.

In the remainder of this post, I will discuss the “fluency” outcomes. In subsequent posts, I will discuss the other sets of outcomes. Here are what I consider the fluency outcomes, with annotations to help instructors think about how to implement them:

StretchComp-fluencyOutcomes-color-cropped

When the list of outcomes was first introduced to the instructors, many of them were unused to working with learning outcomes. Some believed that every assignment had to address every outcome! Others felt that the outcomes were an imposition on their academic freedom. Eventually, however, the instructors saw the list as a way of bringing some uniformity and consistency to the program.

Outcomes A-F in the list above are the nuts and bolts of most writing programs. The early part of a single semester course or the first semester of a two-semester stretch course should probably focus on these things. The most difficult aspects here are probably rhetorical analysis and argumentation. For more insight about rhetorical analysis, you might look at these additional posts on this blog: “Three Ways to Persuade” and “Writing a Rhetorical Analysis.” For more on argumentation, “Teaching Toulmin Argumentation” and a post on Aristotle’s concept of the enthymeme.

Here is a .pdf of the complete list of annotated outcomes.

So You’re Going to Teach Composition

I wrote this originally for the composition TAs I am supervising, but the questions are relevant to anyone designing a university-level reading/writing course. In subsequent posts, I will expand on many of these ideas. These posts will be listed on the page, “Teaching First-Year Composition.” When I taught my first composition course, more than 30 years ago, I was given a book and told to teach from it. I ordered the instructor’s manual and did exactly what it said. Fortunately, it was a good instructor’s manual. These days, most grad students and new instructors have considerably more background in composition theory and practice than I did. However, no matter how much background you have, the first time you face a roomful of live students where you are in charge of making things happen is a daunting prospect. This series of posts is designed to help a new instructor make the transition from theory to effective practice.

Students

Who are your students? What are their needs? Are they native speakers of English? Are they ethnically and linguistically diverse? Do they have books in the home? Are they new to the institution? Do they have jobs? What goals do they have? (You may want to do a survey.)

Learning Goals

What are your learning goals? What will students be able to do at the end of the course that they were unable to do at the beginning? What skills and abilities will they be able to improve? (You may need to consult program guidelines.)

Connecting Reading to Writing

What will the students read? (Hint: It is usually a mistake to assign your favorite story/poem/article because your students are unlikely to love it the way you do and you will be disappointed. Also, articles that you find hilariously witty will probably be puzzling at best to a diverse student audience.) Will you have a theme? How will these materials help develop your reading and writing goals? How will they connect to the writing assignments? How will you prepare students to do the reading? What kinds of pre-reading activities will help them understand why they are reading and what they are looking for? How will they use the materials? Will the texts serve as models, discussion fodder, argumentative foils, sources of information to support arguments, or in some other way? What policies will you deploy to encourage students to do the reading?

Concepts and Strategies

What rhetorical concepts and strategies will you teach? How will students use them? How will you work to ensure that they transfer to settings beyond the course?

The “Arc” of the course?

What is the arc of the course? How will the beginning be different from the middle or the end? Will students have a sense of progress, that they are going somewhere? Will strategies and concepts introduced early in the course be practiced and mastered later? How will you sequence the reading and writing assignments?

Genres beyond the Essay

What written genres will you teach and why? What genres do students know that you can build on? (Hint: Texting and social media posts.) What writing process will you encourage? Will you respond to rough drafts? Will you have portfolios with multiple drafts? How will you respond to the writing? Will you have a rubric or other scoring system? Will you have a point system or percentages?

Using Sources

Will students do research? How will they learn research techniques? How will you address matters of quoting, paraphrasing, and documenting sources?

Course Policies

What policies will you enforce about attendance, tardiness, and late papers? How will you deal with plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty? (Include a link to the institutions policies on such matters.)

Class Sessions

What will you actually do in class? Having a reading for the day is not enough. Will you lecture? (Don’t do this too much, but sometimes it is the best way.) Will you have a class discussion? (Have some questions ready.) Will you have a quickwrite to get things started? Will you have in-class writing? (Often a good idea at the beginning, middle, and end of a course.) Will you have a quiz on the reading? (Sometime the threat of a quiz is enough. Another strategy is to ask, “What was your main takeaway from the reading?)

Grammar and “Mechanics”

How will you deal with grammatical, mechanical, and idiomatic problems? Will you have mini-lessons? Will you do “minimal marking”? Will you attempt “consciousness-raising” by focusing on a limited number of problems to facilitate language acquisition?

Your Teaching Persona

Finally, what sort of ethos do you want to project in your class? Do you want to be the student’s best buddy? (Probably not.) The authoritarian taskmaster? (Probably not.) The approachable coach? (Possibly.) Don’t be too self-deprecating. You were offered this course because you have certain accomplishments. Also, resist the temptation to be a despot in the small fiefdom that is your course.

More

You may also want to look at these additional posts: “What Do Writing Courses Do?,” “Writing Matrix Extension” and “Writing Matrix Extension 2.”

Persuading the Will to Action

Recent national events caused me to think about George Campbell again. I think this eighteenth-century rhetorician has something to say about how conspiracy theories take hold and move otherwise reasonable people to irrational action.

In a previous post I discussed George Campbell’s sermon “The Duty of Allegiance” as an argument against the Declaration of Independence and the American revolution. George Campbell also wrote a major rhetorical work, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, which is an interesting title because philosophy and rhetoric have been at odds since Plato. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, the editors of The Rhetorical Tradition, say that this work “has been justly praised as the turning point in the development of rhetoric in the eighteenth century, as the first modern rhetoric, and even as the first real advance in rhetorical theory since Aristotle” (901).

Campbell’s System

In devising his system, Campbell draws on philosophers such as Aristotle, Locke, and Hume, plus Christian moral reasoning and empirical science. However, the essence of his rhetorical thought is fairly simple. In his view, the mind has four “faculties,” and the goal of every speech is “to enlighten the understanding, to please the imagination, to move the passions, or to influence the will” (902). Each of these ends could be a primary purpose of the speech, but in his view, if the end is to move the will, the speech will move through the other faculties in a regular progression because “each subsequent species is founded on the preceding” (902). Here is a chart:

Campbell-4Faculties-cropped

This progression through the faculties is what I thought of when I heard about the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Thousands of people were moved to this action. This involves persuading the will. How was this done?

Informing (or Misinforming) the Understanding

In Campbell’s system, persuading the will starts with informing the understanding. But what if this is not informing, but misinforming? Campbell does not really deal with this possibility in The Philosophy of Rhetoric, but in his sermon against the American revolution, as I noted in my previous post, he calls Americans who support the rebellion “our deluded fellow subjects on the other side of the Atlantic,” who “are but the tools of a few ambitious, interested, and designing men, both on their side of the water and on ours.” Campbell is arguing here that supporters of the American revolution have been misinformed by the ringleaders. One aspect of this misinformation is blaming the king for what the parliament has done.

Pleasing the Imagination

Once we have been misinformed, the next step is to activate the imagination. We can imagine a world in which people like ourselves are powerful. We can imagine a world in which the things we have been misinformed about have been corrected, in which the wrongdoers we have been misinformed about will be punished, the scapegoats scorned and eliminated.

Moving the Passions

The next stage is to move the passions. Even with a vision of an attractive imagined world based on misinformation, we are not yet ready to act to bring it into being. We need to feel it. We need to be angry enough or inspired enough to get off the couch, stop ranting on social media, and do something. In today’s media environment, this is mostly done with memes, images, and slick political ads.

Influencing the Will to Action

The next step is to move the will to action. There are those who know how to push us forward in this final step without overtly telling us exactly what to do and taking responsibility for it.

Using the System for Analysis and Persuasion

The point is that this process, which could be used for positive ends, is subverted by misinformation at the start. We might reduce it to the following questions:

  • What are the facts? (Countermeasure: Fact-checking)
  • What do they mean? (Countermeasure: Argument)
  • How do you feel? (Countermeasure: Sympathy, empathy, and calm)
  • What are you going to do about it? (Countermeasure: Deterrence)

These questions and countermeasures, judiciously employed, might help counteract the powerful effects of conspiracy theories. They can also be used to promote fact-based and well-reasoned policies.

Conclusions

Of course, this is a vastly simplified and inadequate summary of George Campbell’s work, which is certainly worth further study. Campbell’s attempt to move from Aristotelian syllogisms and enthymemes to a more empirically based system of argument is certainly more consistent with modern science than classical rhetoric is. And though his psychology, based on four faculties of the mind, is outdated, it still provides a useful way of conceptualizing the process of persuading people to action.

Works Cited

Bizzell, Patricia. and Bruce Herzberg, Eds. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001.

The Recommendation Report

In spring 2021, I am teaching two sections of English 3151, “Writing in the Professions.” I have taught the course many times before, but this is the first time I have taught it entirely online, so I had to redesign it quite a bit. It is essentially a business and technical writing course, heavy on workplace genres such as memos, emails, letters and reports. I resurrected it from oblivion in order to make English majors who did not want to teach more employable. It has become quite popular, not only among English majors, but for students in majors as diverse as nutrition and philosophy.

According to former students, it actually has helped them get jobs in diverse fields.

In addition to all the memos and emails (more on this here), the course has two major research projects. One is a rhetorical analysis of public documents associated with a scandal.  I discuss this assignment in a previous post.

The other project is a “Recommendation Report.” In this project, students define a problem, gather information, develop criteria for evaluating approaches, choose the best approach, and discuss implementation. This is a common writing task in many work environments. In some cases, the writer is asked to do the research and the analysis, but leave the selection of the best course of action to the decision-maker. This is a clear example of an inquiry-driven assignment.

The recommendation report is a very rational approach to problem solving. The thinking process can be used to address everything from family difficulties, to the problems of businesses, organizations, and communities. It is what our politicians should be doing instead of jockeying for partisan advantage.

Problem Solving

If you do a search on “problem solving” on the internet, you will find lots of different systems, sometimes offering contradictory advice. Often these systems are designed for business managers or military officers. Even the US Army’s seven-step system has different steps in different presentations. What follows is a distillation of what I consider the best and most flexible advice from many sources, based on my experience as a Writing Center director. It is also available as a handout for students.

Note that this process could easily be turned into a teaching module that might last about three weeks.

1. Define the Problem

Before you can solve a problem, you have to define it. Ask yourself the following questions, which are somewhat based on the journalistic pentad: who, what, when, where, and why (sometimes known as “the five W’s”).

  • Why do you, or others, think there is a problem?
  • When and where is it happening? (How long has it been going on? Where was it first noticed?)
  • With whom is it happening? (Note: Don’t jump to blaming individuals. People may be making mistakes because of bad equipment, bad information, a bad system, or other factors beyond their control. Also, if people think you are trying to assign blame, they may be less open about talking about the problem.)
  • What is the scope of the problem? (How big is it? How many people does it affect? How many parts of the organization?)
  • Who has authority over the problem? Who should you present your solution to?
  • Could there be more than one problem? What are other possibilities?

2. Gather information

Some say “You can’t solve a problem without understanding the cause” (McNamara), while others say, “If ever there was a time-waster in problem solving, it has to be the search for the cause of the problem” (Nikols). Nikols explains, “the concept of cause is frequently relevant, but its usefulness depends on the kind of problem being solved. It’s not relevant all the time and, for some problems, it’s never relevant.” The bottom line is not to get fixated on finding causes if they are too complex because of multiple variables, or are simply beyond your power to address.

  • What are the facts?
  • What do people affected by the problem think?
  • What assumptions do they make about the problem that might be questionable? Are any decision-makers influenced by political views or ingrained thinking that might cloud their judgment?
  • What are some possible causes? Is the problem caused by technology (or lack thereof), policy, procedure, scheduling, people, or some other factor?
  • What potential causes and solutions to the problem do you find on the internet?
  • What have other people done in the past to address similar problems? Were they successful?
  • Considering your research, should you re-evaluate your definition of the problem?

3. Develop Criteria for Success

To evaluate possible solutions and make a case for one of them, you need to have a list of criteria that the solution must meet.

  • What does an ideal outcome look like? What is the end goal of the problem-solving process?
  • What limitations exist in terms of costs and resources?
  • What standards must the solution meet in terms of physical space, capabilities, and other qualities?
  • Can you answer “Yes” to all of the following questions (These are deliberative stasis questions from ancient Roman rhetoric, but they are quite applicable here.)
    • Is it legal?
    • Is it expedient? (Is action necessary and will it work?)
    • Is it possible?
    • Is the anticipated effect positive? (Will it produce honor, happiness, satisfaction, or other positive effects for those who implement it? This is an important factor in persuading decision-makers to accept your recommendation.)
  • If more than one solution meets these criteria, how will you make a decision?

3. Identify possible approaches

Some experts avoid the term “solution” in favor of “approach” because some problems can only be addressed or improved, not solved. The military tends to use “Course of Action,” abbreviated as COA.

  • List approaches that people involved in the situation offered.
  • List approaches that appeared in your research.
  • Brainstorm for alternative approaches to the problem. (Brainstorming is collecting as many ideas as possible, then screening them to find the best idea. Do not pass any judgment on the ideas— just write them down as you hear them.)
  • Considering your evaluation criteria, select a short list of the best possible approaches and compare them. Try not to be biased in favor of a particular solution. Be as objective as possible.

4. Select an approach to resolve the problem

When selecting the best approach, consider:

  • Which approach satisfies the most criteria in your evaluation scheme?
  • Which approach is most likely to achieve the desired outcome?
  • Which approach is the most realistic to implement in terms of time and resources?
  • What is the extent of risk associated with each alternative?
  • Which approach do you think has the best chance of being acceptable to decision-makers? Can you make a case for it if you have to?

5. Plan the implementation of the best alternative

Carefully consider:

  • What will the situation look like when the problem is solved?
  • What steps should be taken to implement the best alternative to solving the problem?
  • What resources will you need in terms of people, money and facilities?
  • How much time will you need to implement the solution?
  • Who will primarily be responsible for ensuring implementation of the plan?
  • How will you know if the approach is successful?

An important aspect of this step in the problem-solving process is continual observation and feedback.

The Report

The assignment asks students to identify a problem at “a company, an organization or an institution with which you are connected.” University students often write about their part time jobs on campus or with local retailers. High school students might write about their schools, or clubs they belong to, or their jobs. Then they go through the problem-solving process. At the end of the process they prepare the report and a PowerPoint to present it.

I link to some sample reports to use as models. There is a lot of useful material on David McMurray’s Online Technical Writing site. He provides an overview of recommendation reports and numerous examples. I often discuss the sample report on “Fire Ant Control” with my students. I note that if “Use a natural product that does not damage the environment” were added to the criteria, a different recommendation would be made.

Conclusions

As an assignment, the Recommendation Report has many advantages. It is a research project with practical, real-world outcomes. It is a common workplace genre. It is flexible, adaptable to problems great and small. It unfolds in stages, so it is easy to monitor students’ progress over time. And finally, it models a rational approach to problem solving that includes fact-finding, critical thinking, and engagement with the needs and opinions of other stakeholders.

If more people had these abilities, the world might become a better place. Or at least a more rational one.

Works Cited

McMurray, David. “Recommendation and Feasibility Reports.” Online Technical Writing.  Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.

McNamara, Carter. “Problem Solving and Decision Making.” Free Management Library. Accessed 18 Jan. 2021.

Nikols, Fred. “Ten Tips for Beefing Up Your Problem-Solving Tool Box.” Distance Consulting. Accessed 18 Jan. 2021.

Smith, Miles Anthony. “The Ultimate Problem-Solving Process Guide: 31 Steps and Resources.” Initiative One Leadership Institute. 6 Dec. 2017. Accessed 18 Jan. 2021.

Thesis-Driven Versus Inquiry-Driven Assignments

Does the strong emphasis on the thesis/support model in our schools have something to do with the polarization of our society?

In my previous post I described a “Survey of Opinion” assignment in which I asked students to find three op-eds taking different positions on an issue they were interested in and analyze the way each writer talked about the issue, how they framed it, what terms they used, etc. They found the articles, but instead of doing the rhetorical analysis, many of them crafted a thesis statement on the issue and used the articles to support their own positions, essentially writing their own op-eds. They were quite surprised when I told them they had not done the assignment.

In response I wrote the post “Why Do Rhetorical Analysis?” in which I argued that a rhetorician must cultivate a “moment of neutrality” and step back from the ideological fray in order to objectively analyze the discourse.

Later in the course I assigned another inquiry-driven project that was modeled on investigative journalism, inspired by Marilyn Cooper’s article “How Bruno Latour Teaches Writing” (185-201) in the collection Thinking with Bruno Latour in Rhetoric and Composition edited by Paul Lynch and Nathaniel Rivers. Bruno Latour is a sociologist whose main contribution is something called Actor-Network Theory or ANT, which treats both humans and nonhumans (machines, animals, texts, and hybrids, among others) as potential actors or “actants” in a network.

Basic concepts from Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT)

  • None of us acts alone. Everything we do is part of an Actor-Network.
  • Actor-Networks are made up of both human and non-human actants, such as animals and computers. From this perspective, we might see the novel corona virus as an actant.
  • An Actor-Network is made up of intermediaries and mediators. An act flows through an intermediary without being changed. However, the input and output of a mediator is not the same, so the act is transformed to an extent.
  • Actor-Networks are constantly being formed and unformed.
  • We study an Actor-Network by describing it, not interpreting or explaining it.

I also told my students that in this assignment, “You don’t start with a thesis and look for ways to support it. That is actually not a legitimate way to proceed with research anyway. That is cherry picking items that support the thesis and ignoring conflicting information. Instead, you might start with a research question, such as ‘How did this happen?’ or ‘How did this get here?’”

A Model Text

As a model, I gave my students an article from the New Yorker (“Donald Trump’s Worst Deal” by Adam Davidson) about a Trump Tower in Azerbaijan, a 5-star luxury hotel which has been completed but never opened, so inconveniently located that local taxi drivers can see it, but don’t know how to get to it. How in the world did this hotel get there? The writer describes the scene of the hotel, then proceeds to trace the network of connections that caused it to be built, including politicians, financiers, investors, contractors, lawyers, oligarchs, and powerful families in Azerbaijan, Iran, and of course the Trump Organization. The writer has no explicit thesis for all of these connections, but part of the network extends to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and the most charitable conclusion that a reader can draw is that the Trump Organization is none too careful about whom it will deal with.

To help my students engage with the lengthy text, I divided it into sections and annotated it. I also gave them a handout with just the annotations. I am sure that some of them only read the handout.

The Resulting Papers

I got some good papers from this. One student was investigating Planned Parenthood and found that the founder, Margret Sanger, had connections to the eugenics movement that also inspired Adolph Hitler. Another discussed a bridge over the Grand Canyon and looked at the plans and actions of a Native American tribe, environmentalists, politicians, investors, and the tourist industry, all pulling the project in different directions. Another investigated Mt. Rushmore, and found that not only had the land been stolen from the Lakota, but the sculptor had connections to the KKK and had also been involved in a project, never completed, to make a similar monument to Confederate leaders. These projects followed the dictates of the assignment. No thesis, trace a network of connections, let the reader draw the conclusions.

However, many of the papers took the standard thesis/support approach. They thought they knew that a “research paper” was a paper in which you stated your thesis and found facts to back it up, while mostly ignoring contrary facts and views. They fired up their “research paper generation process” and largely ignored the particulars of the assignment. A middle group did some network tracing, but lapsed into editorializing at various points. I guess we could say that their “moment of neutrality” was brief and unstable.

Conclusions

Of course, this kind of writing is never entirely objective. When the author of “Trump’s Worst Deal” began his investigation, he undoubtedly thought he would find corruption. But going into the investigation with an open mind, following the connections where they lead, and letting the reader draw the conclusions is ultimately more persuasive than the standard thesis-driven op-ed. And both the writer and the reader learn so much more.

I might be stretching things a bit, but I think that the strong emphasis on the thesis/support model in our schools may have something to do with the polarization our society experiences today. The “Survey of Opinion” assignment has behind it the question “What do people think and how do they talk about it?” The network tracing assignment asks “Who are the actors, what are the facts, and where do they lead?” The thesis/support model, at least in its most simplistic form, is about “This is what I think and this is why I’m right.”

Perhaps we should diversify our assignment game a bit.