The Madness of Herds

There are indications that the policies that my campus was promoting regarding offering both online and face-to-face instruction simultaneously are going to be mitigated. Our department had a very interesting video meeting through Zoom in which it was clear that we were all in agreement. After the meeting, one of our members crafted the following statement:

The Department of English and Modern Languages (EML) holds that pedagogy rests in the hands of teachers. We collectively do not subscribe to the “banking concept of education,” where content is deposited into the minds of students through strict lecture (and recording). This is not a model for humanities instruction. To that end, faculty are empowered to make pedagogical decisions that match their subject matter to students’ needs while maintaining consistent instruction through the end of the semester. Under pandemic conditions, this will likely mean primary virtual instruction. Faculty will make reasonable accommodations to help students succeed when access and resources are restricted or unavailable.

I think that most faculty on campus would agree with this statement. The union has pushed back strongly. I think that we will be teaching fully online courses.

However, I think that higher education will be forever changed by this crisis. We are all being forced to think, teach and learn in new ways.

Today I went to a supermarket to buy milk and ice cream. I had been to the same store three days before. At that time, although toilet paper and bottled water were in short supply and hand sanitizer was not to be found, everything else was normal. But today, the store was tremendously crowded. There were no shopping carts in front of the store. Pasta, flour, canned soups, milk, and many other items were sold out. I know that in many countries it is not unusual to see bare shelves in a market, but I have never seen this in California before. I was told by someone that all the local stores were the same. Suddenly, everyone was behaving as if civilization were ending.

I don’t think civilization is ending. That might come later if we don’t do something about climate change. But people are suddenly very insecure. And somehow they all become insecure in the same way all at once. It is very strange.

However, strange as this behavior is, humans are also brilliantly adaptable. We will get through this.

Online Instruction

On Wednesday we got a message from the President of our university that instruction will be “paused” from today until Tuesday next week and that we would move to a “virtual” form of instruction after that until March 27, which is the beginning of spring break. After spring break they will “reassess” our local context and risk. Then we got a message yesterday from the Provost that said that we would be providing both “virtual” instruction and face-to-face instruction unless “all” of our students preferred “virtual” instruction. Apparently, the administrators bought cameras for the classrooms. They seem to think that an online class is just the same as a traditional class, but with a video feed of the lecture.

I think that these administrators have forgotten what actual teaching is like.

As soon as I heard that we were switching to online instruction, I redesigned my courses.

  • I eliminated some assignments and activities that required face-to-face interaction.
  • I added some new discussion boards.
  • I shifted points around to accommodate participation in discussion boards instead of in class discussion.
  • I made plans to produce podcasts instead of lectures.
  • I informed my students of these changes and got feedback on the changes.

I also began helping the Teaching Associates that I supervise to begin thinking about redesigning their courses. They were freaking out because they are new to teaching face-to-face and suddenly, midstream, they have to switch to an entirely different mode of instruction. I told them that there were actually better prepared than many faculty for this change because they are much more familiar with the technology. One responded, “Yes, we can do this!”

Composition courses are not lecture-based. We have writing activities, whole class discussions, group discussions, collaborative projects, presentations, poster sessions, etc. If we lecture, it is only for a short part of the class meeting.  Meeting with a few students in an almost empty room and lecturing to a camera will not work. This is not information transfer. It is teaching and learning. And it doesn’t make sense to move instruction online and then try to move it back again.

I am afraid that the administrators are afraid to be truly decisive. They want to have it both ways. And they have forgotten the reason we are doing this. If we want to reduce or slow the spread of Covid-19, we have to take decisive action, not a little of this and a little of that, leaving all options open.

I plan to post my podcasts and other instructional materials here. Those who follow this blog for teaching materials and ways of presenting rhetorical concepts may find the series of posts I put up in the next few weeks a bit course specific for their own use, but I hope you will find something useful for your teaching as well.

The Alternate Style

In late June I went to Santa Cruz for a graduation, Sacramento for a presentation at an ERWC leadership conference, and then to Monterey for the Young Rhetoricians Conference, a delightful small conference frequented mostly by Community College folk, but with a smattering of K-12 and university people as well. The hotel is right on the beach. These days, the high tide reaches almost up to the seawall. It’s lovely, but probably doomed by climate change.  The ocean will take it eventually.

One of the presentations I saw was “On and beyond Grammar B” by Randy Fallows and Tamar Christensen from UCLA. Grammar B is a concept introduced in a 1980 book by Winston Weathers, An Alternate Style: Options in Composition. “Grammar A” is what Weathers calls the traditional “grammar of style” that insists on “continuity, order, reasonable progression and sequence, consistency, unity, etc.” (6). Weathers argues that whether you write like Henry James, or write like Ernest Hemingway, you are still writing in Grammar A.


Grammar B is an alternate “grammar of style” that deploys variegation, synchronicity, discontinuity, ambiguity, and other disjunctive devices. Grammar B is not bad Grammar A. Weathers characterizes it as a different game, with its own rules, played with the same deck of cards. Grammar B is not new, nor was it invented by Winston Weathers. Writers as diverse in style and time as Laurence Sterne, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and D. H. Lawrence have played this game.

However, even as we have students read Grammar B authors such as the above, we persistently teach them Grammar A. Weathers argues that if we add Grammar B, we will give students “a much more flexible voice, a much greater communication capacity, a much greater opportunity to put into effective language all the things they have to say” (8). I might also add that there will be less disjunction between the literature they read and the writing they are asked to do. Also, Grammar B is more fun.

What exactly is Grammar B? First, it deploys some different genres and treats traditional genres in a looser, more playful way.

The “Crot”

According to Weathers, “crot” is a obsolete word meaning “bit” or “fragment” resurrected by Tom Wolfe in the introduction to a book of fiction from Esquire magazine. It is an autonomous bit of discourse, set off without transitions between previous or subsequent crots. (If you don’t like the sound of “crot,” in “Collage: Your Cheatin’ Art” Peter Elbow calls them “blips” (3).) A crot can be a single sentence or many.

One way of thinking about this is to use the ancient Greek term “parataxis.” “Parataxis” is to put elements side-by-side and let the reader intuit the connections between them. Humans are good at this, but different readers will imagine different connections. The opposite is “hypotaxis” in which transitions and connections are made clear. Logically, this is the sophists versus Aristotle, or Grammar B versus Grammar A. Note also that by putting “versus” between those terms, I am specifying a contrastive relationship.  For the most part, this blog post is written in hypotaxic Grammar A.

Really Long Sentences and Fragments

Two other stylistic devices favored by Grammar B are “the labyrinthine sentence” in which one grammatical sentence goes on forever, and the sentence fragment. Both of these are strongly discouraged by Grammar A teachers, often marked as “run-on” or “frag.” Yet both are common in literary texts.

This section of the book reminded me of Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, by Ursula K. Le Guin, a book I assign in my genre fiction course. One of the early activities is “write a half page to a page of narrative, up to 350 words, that is all one sentence” (32). My students usually freak out because this is so contrary to what they have been taught. They freak out even more when she asks them to write 150-350 words of narration with no punctuation or breaks of any kind. Exercises such as this demonstrate how much students have been brainwashed by their instructors about “correctness.”

The List

Many students have read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. One whole chapter is simply a list of items carried by G.I.s in Vietnam during the war, clearly a Grammar B technique. Lists are powerful. The items form connections. They have contexts. They say things about the listmaker and his or her times and purposes. It is easy for students to make lists.


This technique involves a conversation between two voices that may in fact not be hearing each other. There might be tension between what the writer is thinking and what he or she is writing. It might be objective description plus ironic commentary. The voices might be in separate columns or alternating sentences. This is not quite the heteroglossia that Bakhtin is talking about when he describes an author taking speech from a specific part of society and putting it into the mouth of a character, where it has the voice of the original speakers, the voice of the character, and the voice of the author, all speaking at once. However, Bakhtin would recognize the technique instantly.

Repetition and Refrains

Writing that repeats phrases almost like the refrain of a song is discouraged by English teachers, though in disciplines like Engineering, synonyms and circumlocutions are frowned upon and a strut remains a strut throughout the document no matter how many times it is repeated. Here in Grammar B, however, repetition is used for an aesthetic effect, to remind, to call upon sameness and difference, in the way that a refrain like “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Memphis Blues Again” in a Bob Dylan song repeats the same words in every chorus, but evokes a different meaning every time it comes around.

There’s more of course. Language play. Puns. Fanciful spelling. Unconventional orthography and layout. Lots of fun stuff. (A bit of Grammar B here.)

In the Classroom

Fallows and Christensen Have incorporated activities based on Grammar B in their First Year Writing course and upper-division courses. A lower-division assignment says:

While more traditional academic essays compel you to justify your perspective and reach definitive conclusions in a seemingly objective manner, grammar b essays encourage you to explore your ambivalence in an openly subjective manner. That being said, grammar b shares the same goal as traditional academic essays in that it should bring about new perspectives and insights as you explore the nuances of your subject. Through the use of stylistic choices, you can explore any number of conflicting or coinciding thoughts by utilizing different genres, juxtaposing opposing perspectives, jumping around in time, and making the layout of your page reflect the layout of your thoughts.

To my eye, this assignment is dancing between Grammars A and B, probably to avoid freaking out the students (as my students did when asked to write without punctuation) and to appease the institutional authorities, who will perhaps tolerate alternative pedagogies as long as the students end up fluent in Grammar A. But there is a lot of leeway here for exploration and expression, much more than in a traditional essay. This looks really cool.  I think writing courses should teach both grammars.

Update: Here is a link to a poem about teaching that I wrote in Grammar B.

Works Cited

Le Guin, Ursula K., Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. New York: Mariner Books, 2015.

Weathers, Winston. An Alternate Style: Options in Composition. Rochelle Park, New Jersey: Hayden Book Co., 1980.

In-Class Presentations of Journal Articles

Much of the material on this blog site is oriented toward teaching in a high school context. That is because of my long involvement with the Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC). However, I am not a high school teacher and I rely heavily on actual high school teachers to give me feedback on the modules I write. What I actually do for a living is teach rhetoric and literature at a state university.

This semester I am teaching two graduate seminars: English 5130 “Teaching Writing” and English 5131 “Pedagogies of Reading.” Our seminars tend to be bigger than those of a traditional English Department–20 students or more compared to 5 or 6 students that might have constituted a traditional seminar in the past. Now that we are on semesters rather than quarters I am experimenting with making the educational experience a little more seminar-like, with more student presentations. Each student is responsible for presenting one journal article or book chapter to the class. This addresses the fifth of our six learning outcomes for the program:

Pedagogical Insight: Ability to teach/adapt the body of knowledge and skills listed above to a variety of audiences, in particular fellow teachers and college students.

Faculty often complain that new graduate students are not good at reading journal articles. It is not surprising because few such articles are assigned to undergraduates. For this reason, I am giving them a bit of scaffolding. First, they must think about these overview questions:


  • Who is the writer? Where does he or she teach? What else has he or she published?
  • What is the thesis, research question, or main idea of the article?
  • What does the article do to explore this idea or question?
  • What is the exigence for the article? (What caused the writer to write the article? What is he or she responding to?)
  • What are the main sources the article draws upon?

A journal article or a book chapter is a speech act that participates in a conversation that is ongoing in the field. These questions are designed to help the student situate the article in that conversation. If the article is old, what was going on at the time? If the article is current, what issues and practices are being debated at this moment? It is hard to understand the significance of an article unless you know something about the larger conversation it joins.

Next comes a discussion of the content of the article itself:


  • What are the key points of the article?
  • How are the ideas and arguments of the article supported? Are you convinced?
  • In general, what conclusions does the writer draw?
  • How might the article be attacked? What are its weak points?

These questions enact both the believing game and the doubting game. Thinking about both the key points and the weak points helps students engage in critical thinking about the issues and the arguments.

Finally, students put the article in the context of the discipline, the course, and their own teaching. We have been building toward this sort of contextualization through the whole process of preparing to present the article to the class:


  • How does this article fit into the conversation going on in the field when it was published?
  • How does it fit into the context of this course?
  • If the ideas and arguments of the article are sound, what implications does it have for teaching?
  • How will this article influence your own teaching philosophy (if at all)?

So far, this process has been going well. Because of the change to semesters, we have shorter seminar periods, so I have been having to make adjustments, in part because the presentations have elicited so much discussion. However, students are engaged, and I think that the format of these questions helps them situate not only the articles, but also their own teaching and scholarly work, in the context of the discipline. I am pleased with the results so far.

Designing Reading/Writing Courses

In fall my campus is converting from quarters to semesters. My seminar, “Pedagogies of Reading” will change from English 589 to English 5131 and will be five weeks longer, though the class meetings will be shorter so that there will really only be about three hours additional class time. This conversion has caused me to do some considerable rethinking.

The biggest change will be in the seminar project. I plan to have groups of students propose reading/writing courses which individual students will populate with teaching units similar to ERWC mini-modules. The groups will decide the type of course they want to design and develop the learning outcomes. They will also discuss what sorts of teaching units might fit into the course. Individual students will then propose teaching units, which will have to approved first by the group and then by me. The courses could be high school or college-level, theme-based, rhetoric-based, literature-based, or some combination.I have created the following handout to facilitate course design.


The varying height of the rectangles is supposed to represent initially increasing levels of difficulty, a plateau of practice, and a slight dip at the end, still above the initial level, when assessing. That is my normal pattern when designing a course.

This handout emphasizes the importance of having clear learning goals, being aware of them throughout the course, and assessing them at the end. This may seem obvious, but many composition instructors still tend to fall into a pattern of assigning readings that they like about issues they think are important, discussing them in class, and making students write about them. This pattern simply repeats until the term is over. Learning can occur in that environment, but it is haphazard.

The units will be based on templates that the groups develop in class. Of course, the ERWC Assignment Template will be one example. However, I want the class to develop new templates for different courses. I often feel that the ERWC template is too linear and that it does not adequately represent the shift in rhetorical perspective that happens when a student moves from being a reader (the pathos position) to a writer (the ethos position). The following handout is an initial attempt to represent that movement in a cyclical rather than a linear way.


(These handouts are less than elegant, I know. I am learning to use LibreOffice Draw.)

An author purposefully writes a text for a particular audience. Our student reads that text, performing the audience role, but for different purposes than the original audience. Then the student responds to the text, in different ways for different purposes, becoming a writer with an audience him or herself. In the center is the text, with an original context and exigence, but as the cycle repeats, those factors change. Instead of driving the same linear one-way road over and over again, the student is in a cycle of reading and writing, reading a writer and then being a writer. Rather than being a passive consumer of discourse, the student is an active participant in an ongoing conversation.

The question for a teacher designing modules and teaching units is “How can I set this cycle in motion in such a way that my learning goals are advanced in every repetition?” That is what we will be trying to answer in my new version of this course.

Teaching Story Craft

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.

Update (11/24/18): In the spring I will be teaching this course for the first time on semesters.  I think this will give the students more time to develop their stories, so I expanded my story assessment rubric.  I plan to have the students use this rubric to evaluate the professional stories we read, and then I will use it to grade their stories. I have already converted it for use in Blackboard, but the version available in the link above is in .docx format so that teachers can modify it.

Science Fiction Epistolary

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!

Data Trace

Deity Supply Enterprises
We Bend the Universe to Your Will

To: Shipping Department
From:Teleportation 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
Stardate 5435542

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,

Bloog Glaxon
Shipping Minion 85th Class
Deity Supply Enterprises

Continue reading “Science Fiction Epistolary”

English 105

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!

The Approach

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.

The Texts

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 Decision

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.


Composition and the Irrational: Some Lacanian Concepts

Lacanian Doge
Lacanian Doge

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.

The Real

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.

Libidinal Attachments

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.

Master Signifiers

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.

Works Cited

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.

Writing Advice for New Freshman

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:

  1. An introductory piece called “A Brief History of Myself as a Writer”
  2. A review of a product or a service
  3. A rhetorical and stylistic analysis of a prose piece using concepts from Performing Prose.
  4. A research piece on a case of disputed authorship.  These posts were on anonymous publications, pseudonyms, pen names, plagiarism cases, and ghostwriting.
  5. 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.

I have more about this course on my guitarsophist blog.