When I first started teaching the science fiction class at the university, I struggled with what sort of paper I could expect from the students. Because it was a G.E. course, I had a lot of aspiring engineers and scientists in the class and very few English majors. I couldn’t expect them to know how to do close reading or apply literary theory. My solution was to teach them story craft. First, we talk about how science fiction starts from a “What if?” question, imagining a world with a fundamental change of some kind, often regarding new technology. Then we talk about character, setting, plot, and style. As I continued to teach the course, I added some material about the difficulties of exposition, point of view, and verb tense. Then I added some discussion of different ways of representing dialogue.
My original intention was to teach these concepts so that they could write more insightful critical papers. However, it soon became clear that many students wanted to use these techniques to write their own stories. I thought it was cool that engineers wanted to write stories, so I began offering a choice of assignments, a critical paper or a short story. In current versions of the course, about 90% of the students choose to write a story.
I created a four-page handout with advice about the basics of story craft. You can download it here.
I warn them about some of the typical mistakes new short story writers make. The most common problem is to have two and a half pages of exposition about the world and the character before anything happens. In every published story we read, I read the first sentence or two aloud and ask, “What expectations do these sentences create? What does the writer imply about the character and the world? How does this grab your interest?” And I ask them, “How many pages of a story would you read if it is all description and nothing is happening?” They admit that they would get bored. But they still write these stories.
The other common problems usually involve weaknesses in characters or worlds, a lack of conflict or motivation, or too much influence from current TV, movies, or video games. We might have a highly developed character that is some version of the writer, with not much of a world and no real conflict. Or we might have a highly detailed and well-planned world with cardboard characters.
I don’t worry too much about these problems. They are beginners. It is probably the first science fiction story they have ever written and it may be their last. Still, learning the craft and applying it causes them to read stories with greater awareness. They learn to tell good writing from bad, as long as it is not their own. And I always get some good stories. I can tell because I forget I am grading and get engaged with the story as a story.
In addition to the handout linked above, I have a couple of templates for character development and world building. These can be used by new writers to think more deeply about their characters and the worlds they inhabit. It is also interesting to divide the students into small groups and have some of them design a character while others build a world. Half-way through the activity, you merge the groups and see what happens when one group’s character is thrown into another group’s world. This requires some adjustments, as when one group’s fish-like being ends up on another group’s desert world with three suns.
This course is one of my favorites to teach and a big part of that is watching them learn to analyze and write science fiction stories using these concepts.
This started out as an assignment for my English 301 “Professional Writing” course. I was teaching memos, emails, letters, reports and other common workplace genres. The actual assignment said:
Office Blog (A weekly blog post on Blackboard consisting of an email, memo, or letter related to an ongoing situation or problem in the fictional workplace you imagined. After you post, comment on at least one other student’s post.)
I made this assignment because I wanted English majors to have an opportunity to write a lot of business-oriented documents while also developing their creative writing skills. Because I had not used this sort of epistolary assignment before, I decided to write the assignment myself as a science fiction story called “Missing Intentional Manifestation Unit.” See what you think. Also available as a .pdf.
Missing Intentional Manifestation Unit
Deity Supply Enterprises We Bend the Universe to Your Will
To: Teleportation Department
From: Shipping Department
Subject: Missing Intentional Manifestation Unit
Date: Elapsed second 1,000,41699,01404 K
Around about elapsed second 1,000,41617,01139 K we shipped a selection of 12 Low-Power Intentional Manifestation units to Teahouse Demi-God Training Dojo, in pocket universe 71B. Records indicate that the shipment went out via standard interdimensional wormhole vortex. However, one of the units did not arrive at its intended destination. The fluxproof wrapper apparently disengaged during transit.
This is annoying and potentially dangerous. The unit in question conforms to user expectations, reads the user’s intention and manifests it in whatever surrounding environment within which it is activated. Such units are not approved for use by beings below Deity Five certification and are completely illegal in cultural environments below Tech 3. We must trace this unit and retrieve it.
Please initiate interdimensional trace procedures and report back ASAP!
Deity Supply Enterprises We Bend the Universe to Your Will
To: Shipping Department
Subject: Missing Intentional Manifestation Unit
Date: Elapsed second 1,000,51655,01504 K
Data tracing indicates that that at the time of shipping a Delorean (Tech 3.2) Enforcer-Class warship was having a skirmish with a RRisconic Entity (Tech 0) in an adjacent dimension. The warship’s probability disruptor may have affected transport. Warship destroyed. (RRisconic Entities have no tech, but they don’t need it and are very powerful when angered. Deloreans can be idiots when something gets in their way.)
The Intention Manifestor does not have a reading in any commonly traveled dimension or pocket universe. It is probably floating in an uninhabited bubble of space-time. Will continue trace, just to be sure.
Happy Fangledors! May your simpkins return to roost!
Deity Supply Enterprises
We Bend the Universe to Your Will
Pocket Universe 93012, Portal 42, Array 4, Plane of Being 39
Teahouse Demi-God Training Dojo
Moon of Tunis
Pocket Universe 71B
Oh Most Gracious and Benevolent Beings:
We were so sorry to hear that one of the Intentional Manifestation Units you ordered was lost in transit. Our entire shipping staff is inconsolably rolling on the floor in grief. Once we have finished our lamentations, we will get right to work producing a replacement unit and shipping it your way, double-protected against flux storms and unfortunate probability adjustments. We will make sure it is a deluxe model equipped with enhanced benevolence and happiness potential. Customer satisfaction among both deities and their believers is our highest priority!
Our trace indicates that the unit in question was deflected in transit by a probability disruptor in an adjacent dimension. There is a slight possibility that the unit is stuck in a warp loop and will eventually manifest in your location. If this happens, please notify us as soon as possible. Do not attempt to use the unit. It will undoubtedly need calibration and may not work as designed.
One thousand face palms in your direction,
Shipping Minion 85th Class
Deity Supply Enterprises
I haven’t taught a Freshman Composition course in several years, though I used to make my living doing it and I am currently teaching a graduate seminar called “Teaching Freshman Composition.” For fall, I was offered an honors section of English 105 “Freshman Composition II,” which the catalog describes as
Frequent papers, chiefly informative and persuasive, with an emphasis on language and logic. Techniques of the research paper. Readings. Course fulfills GE Sub-area A3.
I have taught an honors course before, though it was in science fiction. Students from the Honors College are bright, motivated, and very competitive. It is a bit like teaching high school because it is a small program and they all know each other, so their competition is very personal. It was fun. They hated the Blackboard discussion board so much that they created their own in Forumotion and offered to give me administrator privileges. I took them up on the offer.
So I decided to accept the course. But now I have to design it! And the bookstore wants the book order immediately!
In my seminar, we have been discussing various approaches to teaching composition–expressivist, epistemic, rhetorical, grammatical, current traditional, argumentative, and ideological (cultural studies)–and finding all of them wanting in some way. My students tend to respond to this situation by wanting to combine the best of several approaches. I always caution against creating a theoretical hodge-podge because a little bit of this and a little bit of that might not add up to a coherent course.
This course is supposed to feature argumentation and logical fallacies, plus research techniques. I think I need to honor that. I tend to favor a rhetorical approach to composition because I think that rhetorical principles and strategies will transfer from situation to situation. The main purpose of a composition course, in my view, should be to prepare writers to discover ways to write effectively in whatever rhetorical situation they find themselves, whether it be another course or a workplace. So a rhetorical approach it will be. But should I use a book? Textbooks these days are so expensive that students sometimes refuse to buy them. I often go textbookless and use my own materials combined with materials on the web, or use trade books not designed as textbooks, which are much cheaper. This is a lot of work, however.
One of my colleagues recommended Rhetorical Analysis: A Brief Guide for Writers by Mark G. Longaker and Jeffrey Walker, both at University of Texas, Austin. The table of contents looks good. The approach is built on classical rhetoric, with terms from Aristotle (ethos, logos, pathos), the sophists (kairos) and a bit of Cicero (the five canons of rhetoric.) It has a chapter on argument and another on ideology, updating Aristotle’s concept of logos a bit. This looks quite serviceable, and not too expensive. I ordered it.
But what will we research, discuss, argue and write about? I usually avoid creating theme courses in which I impose a topic on the students. I usually find that we are all happier if the students are working on topics of their own choosing. However, at this particular moment in time, I think that there is one issue that trumps all others, that is, if you will, the mastodon in the room that no one wants to see or talk about. That issue is climate change. At one point, I had thought about doing an ERWC module on climate change, but my initial research on the topic revealed that there was essentially no debate. The articles in the press amounted to nearly all of science on one side and the Bush administration on the other. I also saw that climate change was not something that was going to happen in the far future. It was happening now, and it was really scary. I decided not to pursue that module, at that time (about 10 years ago).
Knowing that climate change was a concern close to my heart, my colleague also recommended building a course around The Moral Challenge of Dangerous Climate Change: Values, Poverty, and Policy by Darrel Moellendorf. The author is a philosopher, and this is an account of the morality and ethics of climate change. It is a very interesting book, but the prose is dense and the arguments complex. It didn’t seem appropriate for a freshman course, even for honors students. However, in looking for this book I encountered two others that seemed more approachable.
The first was Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed–And What It Means for Our Future by Dale Jamieson. As one can see from the title, this text is about reasoning and why the rhetoric presenting this reasoning failed to effect change in policy. It is pessimistic. Jamieson clearly believes that it is already too late to prevent the dire effects of climate change. One of his themes is about how to live meaningful lives in such times. Though Jamieson is also a philosopher, he writes for a much more diverse audience than Moellendorf. The book is readable and strangely enough, not depressing. Things are bad and will get worse, but we are not helpless.
The second book is The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, who is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Kolbert traces the history and scientific evidence of each of the five major extinction events of the past. She visits paleolithic excavations, travels with geologists to collect samples and observe rock formations, and accompanies biologists collecting specimens of disappearing amphibians and bats. Part of the book is done in first-person, on the spot reporting. The rest is a readable narrative of the history of life on Earth.
Of course, the “sixth extinction” is the one that is currently unfolding. It is possible that each previous extinction was caused by warming or cooling associated with a change in atmospheric CO2 levels, in some cases caused by volcanism, in some by an overabundance of one highly successful species. The dinosaurs may have been finished off by an asteroid strike, but it is possible they were already doomed. The current extinction is almost without a doubt caused by us. The only difference is that we are the first causal species capable of understanding what we are doing.
The arguments associated with the issue of climate change are scientific, economic, political, technical, philosophical, and even religious. They are interdisciplinary. The opportunities for rhetorical analysis are almost unlimited. The issue is undoubtedly the most important faced by homo sapiens in the history of the species. For all of these reasons, this is the course I have chosen to teach. I will post later on the design and sequencing of the course and the writing assignments.
Note: The picture above represents an internet meme called “Doge.” This is related to the LOL Cats meme, but Doge must feature a picture of a shiba inu dog (a Japanese dog, very active and smart, I have known one), several ungrammatical phrases, usually two words, starting with “very,” “so,” “much,” “many,” or “such,” rendered in fluorescent comic sans font. See this article for more information.
Last quarter I taught a Composition Theory seminar that was heavily invested in Lacan. We began with James Berlin’s Rhetoric, Poetics, and Cultures, 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 the past I have followed this book with Thomas Rickert’s Acts of Enjoyment: Rhetoric, Žižek, and the Return of the Subject.
Rickert’s book begins as a critique of Berlin’s pedagogy. On the first page he writes, “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 questions are important. Should composition instruction change not only the student’s writing strategies, but also his or her behavior? What if instruction in perceiving and understanding rhetorical appeals, instead of helping students make better choices, simply makes them cynical about all discourse? Rickert argues that what is needed is “a contemporary rhetoric that builds on the social dimension opened up by cultural studies while taking full account of the nonrational, affective, and unconscious factors that shape human conduct” (5).
Rickert does a good job of raising these questions and developing, mostly through Slavoj Žižek, a set of Lacanian terms that are very useful in theorizing these pedagogical issues. (A colleague of mine said recently “Lacan is great as long as you don’t have to deal with actual Lacan.”) However, he does not deliver a pedagogy suitable for addressing these issues. For that reason, in this seminar, I chose to assign Changing the Subject in English Class: Discourse and the Construction of Desire by Marshall W. Alcorn Jr.
Alcorn says, “The central argument of this book is that in changing the subject matter we teach, in order to change the human subject we teach, we have come to adopt an insufficiently complex understanding of subjectivity ” (2). This statement echoes the pun on the two meanings of “subject” in the title of the book. Alcorn then points to a fundamental contradiction in Berlin, that Berlin’s theoretical subject is a postmodern subject constructed by ideology and discourse, but that his pedagogy appears to depend on a traditional humanist subject free to critique ideology. This is a crucial point that addresses Rickert’s concern that students are unchanged in their behavior by his cultural studies course. Alcorn argues
The postmodernist subject, unlike the humanist subject, is essentially a structure of discourse conflict; it has no mechanism or motivation for being anything other than such a structure of conflict. A teacher could never hope to change the structure of, or resolve the conflict in, a subject by merely adding more discourse or more conflict to the subject. (19)
And later Alcorn argues
Logical argumentation of the sort that Berlin wants to develop in the classroom typically does not address the real binding effects of ideology. Too often, logical and informative arguments have no effect on the commitments students have to ideology. This is true because the real binding effects between subjectivity and discourse are not made in relation to linguistic representations but in relation to structural patterns of identity that are mapped out libidinally in the body. The body operates as the deep structure for much of language, the space where adhesive attachments to discourse are made. (25)
For example, I once taught a composition class in which I assigned a piece by Kate Millet called “Manifesto for a Sexual Revolution.” Millet argued, among other things, that marriage was simply another form of prostitution. A student from Texas came up to me after class and said that his head could understand her arguments, but that his heart, and the way he was brought up, said they were wrong. This is exactly what Alcorn is talking about here.
Before the class read Alcorn, however, I wanted to introduce some basic Lacanian concepts. We read Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture by Slavoj Žižek. Žižek is a big fan of popular culture, especially movies and especially Alfred Hitchcock movies. Žižek illustrates Lacanian concepts with scenes from science fiction novels, short stories, plays, movies, and historical events. At times, it is hard to tell whether Lacan, or the cultural artifacts are the real focus, but the book is an enjoyable and informative read.
Let me outline some of these concepts.
Lacan distinguishes between “reality,” the social world constructed in discourse that we all live in, and “the Real,” the uncaring physical universe that cannot be fully represented and tends to erupt into our reality at unpredictable and inopportune times. There is always a gap between the word and the thing, an insight that goes back to the sophist Gorgias. Žižek says that the emergence of language opens up a hole in reality (13). He says, “The role of the Lacanian real is, however, radically ambiguous: true, it erupts in the form of a traumatic return, derailing the balance of our daily lives, but it serves at the same time as a support of this very balance. What would our daily lives be without some support in an answer of the real?” (29)
For example, as I write this a Santa Ana wind is raging outside. In this area, the winds are strong enough to pick up plastic trash cans and lawn furniture and carry them over fences into neighboring yards. However, I am protected from the wind by a comfortable two-story house with thick walls, double-paned windows, tables and chairs, photographs, artwork, musical instruments, and shelves lined with books. My house is designed to accommodate human needs and I am surrounded by objects that have social meaning. The wind rages outside, but even in choosing that verb I am imputing to the wind an emotion it cannot have as part of the Real. Imagine that suddenly there is an earthquake that splits the house in two, and the wind intrudes. Am I being punished for neglecting to buy earthquake insurance? Has the wind “intruded” or is it simply flowing mindlessly where it can go? The Real erupts, but we immediately begin trying to make sense of it in reality.
The Symbolic Order is the order of signifiers, of words, of values, and ideology. This is where we live, but the Real exists. Rickert notes that nothing is lacking in the Real, but symbolization introduces a lack which extends into all of human affairs (55). The Symbolic bars us from the Real. This lack, or gap, is the price we pay for being language and symbol users. Rickert, following Žižek, says the Real “is distinguished from reality by the fact that it cannot be represented. In this sense the Real is foreclosed from direct apprehension in reality. But continuing further, Žižek reminds us that what is foreclosed always returns, just not in any direct form of representation. The Real returns in the form of gaps, errors, symptoms, slips, and other behavior idioms” (31). Language fails to capture the Real. There is always a surplus.
Often when we talk about teaching “critical thinking” we mean something like casting aside superstition, cultural beliefs, personal opinion, and appeals to pathos and ethos in favor of logos, some kind of rational, logical argument, grounded in reality. This distinction between reality and the Real makes it clear that this definition of “critical thinking” is either impossible or insufficient. Language and arguments exist in the Symbolic Order.
We all live in a fantasy, a necessary story we construct about who we are, what we are doing, and where we are going. When this fantasy is disrupted by an eruption of the Real (the uncaring physical universe that cannot be completely represented in the symbolic) we ironically feel that the world has become “unreal.” Thus a death, a natural disaster, an illness, can dissolve our fantasy and make us uncertain about how to go on until we create a new fantasy.
Lacan says, “Desire is always the desire of the other.” This means that what we desire, we desire not for ourselves, but for how it makes us appear to others. In a classroom, this often translates into a desire to please the teacher. For learning to take place, clearly there must be desire. Alcorn says that teaching is necessarily, “a training of desire” (58).
The Big Other
Part of living in a society is a desire to please the “big Other,” which is the Symbolic Order, the language system and all of the cultural values and attitudes encoded and enforced in it. The English teacher is a representative of the big Other.
Alcorn says, “My central argument is that the rhetoric of discourse is libidinal” (26). He argues that some discourses are libidinal for us, eliciting strong attention and response, while others are “inert representations that we handle like packages.” Of course “libidinal” here is used in a Freudian sense in which the sex drive underlies all other drives. In this view, people have libidinal attachments to ideas, worldviews, practices, rituals, routines, etc., and are very resistant to giving them up, especially on rational or logical grounds. We could say that these things are “loved ones.” Part of teaching is breaking these attachments and encouraging the formation of new ones. However, when people break libidinal attachments, they must go through a period of mourning. This will necessarily take place in the classroom too.
Alcorn devotes a whole section of his book to mourning. He says,
All changes in deeply held beliefs involve and experience of loss or mourning. If writing teachers are to help in this activity of changing deeply invested feelings, they would do well to understand the mourning process. Too often, we consider thought as a process that can effortlessly move the elements of signification in all possible logical permutations. Changes in meaning, however, are not the effect of instant change in signification. Important changes in meaning require significant changes in feeling. These changes are not instant permutations in relationships of signifiers; they require slow changes in libidinal investments. (112)
People experience “jouissance” (a French word that means something like “enjoyment”) when they are doing things according to the way of being to which they have libidinal attachments. Rickert notes that strict ascetics who appear to renounce all pleasure have instead “merely redistributed their pleasures, setting up an alternative libidinal economy whereby they come to enjoy—obtain jouissance from—their renouncements” (3). Students should feel jouissance when doing classroom assignments, or they will not be engaged.
Language is a heterogeneous mass of signifiers that comes into alignment with the emergence of a Master Signifier. Mark Bracher, in Lacan, Discourse and Social Change: A Psychoanalytic Cultural Criticism, links Master Signifiers to identification. Bracher says that “when an identification becomes established as our identity, it functions to repress all desires that are incongruent with this identity,” as when a male who wants to be seen as “masculine” avoids wearing pink, drinking white zinfandel, or eating tea sandwiches. Master Signifiers are identity-bearing words, such as “strong,” “smart,” “American” or “freedom-loving” that organize other signifiers under them. Bracher says, “The way in which such signifiers function as bearers of our identity can easily be seen from our reactions when someone attempts either to damage one of our identity-bearing signifiers (e.g., disparages a signifier bearing our familial, national, ethnic, racial, or sexual identity) or to deprive us of one of these signifiers (e.g., by calling us a girl if we are a boy or vice versa)” (25).
What Does All This Mean for Teaching?
James Berlin’s approach could be seen as the unmasking of Master Signifiers through a process of rational, logical argument. We can see that this does not usually produce change in the student subject, as in the case of my student who understood Millet’s arguments about marriage and prostitution, but could not accept them as part of his belief system. If teaching necessarily involves breaking libidinal attachments and forming new ones, simply making logical arguments and supporting them with evidence will be ineffective. This is clearly illustrated in our current political discourse about climate change, gay marriage, or even Christmas. Alcorn puts this well, saying, “Rational truth claims can be changed by knowledge, but symptomatic beliefs cannot” (39).
This fact alone is enough to make us consider teaching, as Rickert suggests, a rhetoric that takes into account nonrational, affective, and unconscious factors. Perhaps even a small step in this direction will result in less student resistance to teaching, and fewer cynical non-resisters. It’s worth a try.
Alcorn, Marshall W. Jr. Changing the Subject in English Class: Discourse and the Constructions of Desire. Carbondale: Southern Ill. Univ. Press, 2002. Print.
Berlin, James. Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies. Lauer Series in Rhetoric and Composition. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press 2003. Print.
Bracher, Mark. Lacan, Discourse, and Social Change: A Psychoanalytic Cultural Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993. Print.
Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991. Print.
Students in my English 303 “Advanced Expository Writing” course study rhetoric, style, and writing for the web. This quarter they
Read Performing Prose: The Study and Practice of Style in Composition by Holcomb and Killingsworth and did quite a few of the writing exercises contained in it. Here is a review of the book by one of my former students.
Read Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts by Joseph Harris. This book is not about revision. It is about interacting and using the texts of others.
Created a WordPress blog.
Kept an online commonplace book of quotations with responses.
Wrote five major assignments, each of which was posted to Blackboard for feedback from me, then posted to their blogs, most of which are open to the public.
The five major assignments were as follows:
An introductory piece called “A Brief History of Myself as a Writer”
A review of a product or a service
A rhetorical and stylistic analysis of a prose piece using concepts from Performing Prose.
A research piece on a case of disputed authorship. These posts were on anonymous publications, pseudonyms, pen names, plagiarism cases, and ghostwriting.
A reflective piece on “Advice for High School Writers and New Freshman.”
After all of this work on rhetoric and style and writing assignments with different genres and purposes, plus their experiences in Freshman Composition and other courses, the students had a lot of interesting advice for upcoming students. Perhaps the three best were by theprickliestpear, indecisiveturtle, and wordpanini. Readers may not agree with everything they say, or how they say it, but they certainly have advice to give.
Do you want to be a writer? Do you want to get paid? Is it even possible in an environment of internet publishing that has brought traditional newspapers and magazines to their knees? You might want to look up Dr. Sarah Mesle, visiting professor in English at UCLA, Senior Humanities Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), and co-editor of avidly.org, who gave an informative talk on publishing in the digital world to students, mostly English majors, at Cal Poly Pomona, last Wednesday, May 14, 2014.
Dr. Mesle said that the purpose of the Los Angeles Review of Books is to “revive and re-invent the book review.” Avidly.org, which she started with Sarah Blackwood, and which exists as a “channel” of LARB, “specializes in short-form critical essays devoted to thinking and feeling about culture.” Articles on both sites tend to be written in first person and take a subjective gonzo-style approach. For example, a piece on Avidly called “Silly Theory” by Jordan Alexander Stein describes his friends in grad school learning about theory by making jokes about it (The illustration for the piece is a parody of the the Obama “Yes We Can” poster that says “Yes We Lacan”). Dr. Mesle’s latest piece on LARB is about the latest episode of Game of Thrones and is called “Ten Things I Hate about My Favorite Show.”
I am jumping ahead in the presentation, but Dr. Mesle discussed the importance of developing a voice, a persona, perhaps, though she did not use the word, a “brand.” However, Dr. Mesle noted that she presents herself differently in different contexts.
Here is her photo from UCLA: Here is her photo from LARB:
Dr. Sarah Mesle at UCLA Dr. Mesle at Los Angeles Review of Books
Dr. Mesle had lots of solid advice for students aiming at publishing careers on the Internet. She said
Know your readers, know your effect.
Basic strategies don’t change in different registers.
Writing isn’t magic. It’s a craft.
Believe in your voice.
Keep it in perspective.
The first two points are basic rhetorical concepts of audience and purpose. It is true, but not obvious, that whether you are writing a sermon in the high style or assembly instructions in the low style, or conversation in a dialect, rhetoric applies. The latter three points are good advice for those who are intimidated by writing itself and by the blank screen. You don’t have to be a genius.
The next set of points were about a particular stance toward the world and toward text. She says
Be interesting (and college is where you go to learn to be an interesting person).
Learn to be interested.
Learn to love sentences and stories.
One could dispute the assertion about college, but the rest is hard to question. To write, you must be interested in ideas, people, and things. Knowledge brings interest, interest leads to more knowledge. Language is the medium of learning, and of expression. And without doubt, the world is made of stories.
The last point she added to this set was “Grammar matters.” Don’t submit material or post it to your own sites with obvious, or even not so obvious, grammatical mistakes. That doesn’t mean you can’t play with language, use dialect, or break so-called rules. Just make sure you know what you are doing and understand the effect on the reader.
Dr. Mesle advised students to read the Internet and read their own reading. In other words, pay attention to how what you read affects you. What makes you excited? What makes you bored? What do you learn from that?
She also said that she wishes now she had taken a design course and a programming course. Writers who publish on the Internet are probably going to be involved in visual design as well, and maybe even coding. At any rate, those who know these things will be more marketable.
Dr. Mesle closed with some ideas about getting published. These were
Pick the low-hanging fruit: Easy places to publish.
Start your own site (Learn WordPress).
Pay attention to what succeeds and why.
She noted that posting to Twitter is good practice because it forces you to be concise. It is hard to be funny in 140 characters. She also recommended writing captions for the New Yorker cartoon contest for the same reason.
Finally, she had some suggestions for pitching a piece to a website:
Try to get an introduction to the editor (This helps you get out of the “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts).
Write your email in the style of the piece you are submitting (It also helps to be familiar with the style of pieces that are usually published on that site).
Tell the editor your audience and effect.
At the end we had some discussion about what she means by “effect” here. Is this the purpose? Is this what Aristotle calls “pathos,” the effect on the audience? Is it the effect of the persona of the writer has on the audience, an effect of ethos, or a kind of schtick? I think it is a bit of all of these.
It was an interesting and useful talk that left the students in attendance with much to think about.
English professors spend a great deal of time and energy teaching and analyzing complex literary texts. Rhetoricians often focus on great speeches delivered on momentous historical occasions. However, the vast majority of texts produced in our society are ignored by scholars. Such texts facilitate the business of the world, yet are considered too ordinary, uninteresting, and mundane for study. One of the goals of my “Pedagogies of Reading” seminar is to change that view.
This week I succeeded in doing so, at least for my 22 students. I gave them an official letter written by Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. to Toyota owners about hazardous floor mats. I divided the students into groups and asked them “What is going on in this letter? How does it work?” and lively discussion ensued. We ran out of time before we could discuss all of the insights we had about this letter. More about this letter below.
Much of what my students had to say derived from a book I regularly assign in this seminar: Analyzing Everyday Texts: Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives, by Glenn Stillar. This is a short but very ambitious book. Stillar’s analysis triangulates linguistic theory derived from M.A.K. Halliday, rhetorical theory from Kenneth Burke, and social theory from Pierre Bourdieu. Stillar’s task in the book is to explain how each theoretical perspective works and fit them together into a complementary whole so that we can understand the linguistic, rhetorical, and social functions of any text we encounter. The presentation appears to be orderly and logical, but there are some problems. Stillar’s structure is essentially that of an outline, but in presenting an outline in prose, it is hard to maintain the different levels of subordination. That problem is hard to fix. Another problem is that Stillar shifts the order of topics without apparent reason or warning. For example, the subtitle of the book is “Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives,” and indeed that is the order of presentation in the book. However, on page 10, as he summarizes his approach, he discusses rhetorical theory first, then social theory, and then discourse. This kind of shifting about happens several times. A third source of confusion derives from shifting between Halliday’s terms and his own. Stillar says that a text performs three functions: organizing, representing and interacting . Halliday calls these functions “textual,” “ideational,” and “interpersonal.” Stillar uses both sets of terms.
Confusion about levels of subordination, shifts in the order of presentation, and shifts in terms, especially in the early chapters, make this ambitious book a difficult read for students. However, it is well worth the effort.
I ended up makingan outlineof Stillar’s theory of discourse analysis so that my students could keep the categories straight. The chapters on Burke and Bourdieu are less problematic. In fact, the Burke chapters gather together into one discussion useful concepts from a number of important books, no easy task as Burke has new theories in each book. More about this in a future post.
What I would like to do in this post is work toward a presentation of some of the basic insights of Stillar’s adaptation of Halliday that would allow undergraduate students to use these concepts.
What Stillar calls the “organizing” function is mostly about devices of cohesion and coherence, things such as article usage, pronoun reference, and demonstratives that make text stick together. Let’s put that aside in our focus on teaching undergraduates. Stillar is building a set of tools for research in discourse analysis. In our pedagogical orientation, we want to focus on what students can be taught to notice, and what they can do in responding to a text and in their own writing.
Stillar says of the “representing” function that a text is “about” something in that it “names and arranges participants, processes and circumstances” (18). The “interacting” function constructs “forms of interaction between an addresser and an addressee in particular social roles” (19). Exploring these functions is clearly relevant to teaching students to understand and deploy the rhetoric of everyday texts.
Let’s look at the first paragraph of the letter from Toyota:
This notice is being sent to you in accordance with the requirements of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Toyota has decided that a defect which relates to motor vehicle safety exists in certain 200_ through certain 200_ model year [name of model] vehicles. The defect is the potential for an unsecured or incompatible driver’s floor mat to interfere with the accelerator pedal and cause it to get stuck in the wide open position. Toyota has determined that this defect does not exist in vehicles in which the driver side floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured.
The first sentence indicates that the letter is being sent in compliance with a law. Toyota does not want to write to the addressee, but is being compelled to do so by another agent, in this case the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This statement “arranges” the participants: the NHTSA as the coercive authority, Toyota as the unwilling correspondent, and the car owner as the hapless addressee. Stillar suggests that in determining “what is going on” in a text, we first look at the main verbs, which he says will represent action processes, mental processes, or relations. The “action” in this sentence is cast in passive progressive, “is being sent,” making the grammatical subject “this notice,” clearly reducing Toyota’s agency in this matter. The two verbs which do have “Toyota” as subject, “has decided” and “has determined,” represent mental processes rather than actions. The “defect” which is the motivating theme of the letter simply “exists” without cause or culprit. Stillar would characterize this use of “exists” as relational, although it represents a non-relation more than any relation to any participant.
The final sentence of the paragraph indicates that the defect does not even “exist” in vehicles with the right floor mats properly secured. Up to this point, the text has done everything possible to keep Toyota from being a responsible agent. This last sentence begins to renegotiate the interaction among the parties. If the defect does not exist in vehicles with floor mats of the right type properly installed, but does exist in some vehicles, then the defect is caused by whoever installed the floor mats. That is likely to be the car owner.
Toyota is in a difficult rhetorical situation. They don’t want to be responsible. They want to blame the customer, but they can’t do that overtly without potentially losing future sales. This leads to a very carefully constructed letter, in some ways as rich in complexity and nuance as a literary text.
I think that this sort of analysis reveals more about the rhetorical effect of a text than what is offered by the tools that students are normally taught, such as the Aristotelian appeals and Toulmin argument. More on this in future posts.
Note: I created a “Document Analysis Checklist” that draws mostly on the traditional rhetorical categories of audience, purpose and form, but includes a “Stylistic Choices” section at the end that draws on insights from the Stillar book. I wrote questions that are designed to help students do the kind of analysis I did with the Toyota document above. I will test it this quarter in my English 301 course.