Pathos as Inquiry Rewrite

In response to feedback from teachers I have rewritten the “Pathos as Inquiry” mini-module. The mini-module itself has become an official ERWC module and is still going through an editing process, so I don’t want to post it here. However, I have extensively revised the accompanying article, and I do want to share that.

The original version was a pretty good summary of Aristotle’s views. However, it didn’t do enough to help students apply the concepts. In addition, the language of the original version was unnecessarily complex. It is quite ironic. I am trying to teach about audience and I was not considering my high school student audience at all! I have sentences like “As noted above, the root cause of negative emotions according to Aristotle is disparities in social standing.” I have worked to dial that back a bit.

The revised version of “Pathos as Inquiry: Knowing Your Audience” is available here. The original materials are in this post.

A Podcast on Stasis Theory

As an experiment, I am putting up some audio of me talking about modules.  My first effort is a 15-minute talk about my mini-module, “Stasis Theory: Asking the Right Questions.”

In discussing stasis theory, I reference two other posts on this blog:

Stasis Theory: A Mini-Module

Modifying Stasis Theory for the Classroom

If I get good feedback on this, I will do more.

Update: One of my friends told me that the touch of reverb I had added to this was distracting, so I took it out.  Now it is just my voice, plan and simple.

An Update to the “Three Ways to Persuade” Mini-Module

The feedback from teachers on my original “Three Ways to Persuade” mini-module was substantially negative.  Most teachers liked the article and the first half of the module.  However, the writing assignment dealt with issues of knowledge versus belief and whether rhetoric was good or bad.  It also asked the students to paraphrase quotations from Aristotle.  All of this turned out to be too challenging, as well as diverting students away from learning about ethos, logos, and pathos.  A few teachers found that their students were capable of dealing with all of these challenging questions and activities, but most complained.  I thought that these complaints were quite well taken.

I ended up moving most of that material to a new mini-module: “Knowledge, Belief and the Role of Rhetoric.”

That worked, but now I had to come up with a new writing assignment for the original module.  I decided to have the class create an annotated list of rhetorically interesting websites that might be used to help outsiders understand what “rhetoric” is and how ethos, logos and pathos work together to persuade.  Each student would create a paragraph for this list.  Here is the assignment:

Many people don’t know what “rhetoric” is. Some people who do know have a bad impression of it. They think it is all about deception. However rhetoric is everywhere. It can be used for both good and bad purposes. You and your fellow students will create a list of rhetorically interesting websites that will help people understand how rhetoric works, or at least how ethos, logos, and pathos work together to persuade people to do or believe things. You will write a short paragraph that will become part of this list.

Choose a website that focuses on an issue, problem, or cultural trend that you consider important or interesting. Explore the website carefully. Then write a paragraph answering the following question:

How do ethos, logos, and pathos work together (or not work together) in helping to achieve the writer’s purpose?

Activity 8 contains some questions that will help you gather information and ideas for this analysis. Remember that you are doing a rhetorical analysis, not arguing for or against a position on the issue.

The next activity includes some questions to help students do this analysis:

The following questions will help you in your rhetorical analysis of the website. In answering the questions, in addition to the words and sentences, also consider images and other visual aspects of the site.

Purpose

1. What is this document or web site about?
2. What is the writer of the document trying to accomplish? Why is he or she writing?
3. What kind of ethos or image does the writer project? What are some of the elements that create this ethos? Is it believable?

Audience

4. Who is the primary audience for this document or web site? What are their characteristics? Is the document well-adapted to this audience?
5. Who else might read this document? (This is called a “secondary audience.” If the website was not created with you or your classmates in mind, you are a secondary audience.) What are their characteristics? Does the document work for them too?
6. What arguments and evidence (logos) does the writer use to persuade the audience? Are the arguments convincing? Is the evidence true and reliable? Summarize the main points.
7. Does the writer try to create an emotional response (pathos), or keep the reader’s emotions in check? What are some examples? If the writer does not try to engage the reader’s emotions, what is the effect of this emotional neutrality?
8. Do all of these elements work together to achieve the desired response from the reader? Why or why not?

The student version of the new version is available here. There is also a somewhat revised version of the “Three Ways to Persuade” article.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

In a previous post I described a “Flexible Module Planner” that introduces a bit less linearity to module design. My colleagues saw this planning document not only as a guide for designing new modules, but also for planning how to teach an existing one. This post is an expansion of that one, providing some background questions for discussion. The problem is, none of these questions have right answers. They all require decisions, sometimes made on the fly.

Here is a list of important concepts in ERWC (and teaching in general) that we often talk about in isolation though they overlap, interact, and sometimes contradict. For each one, success is about hitting the sweet spot for students, but those sweet spots can be different for different students even in the same classroom.

  • Backwards mapping (We plan the beginning with the end in mind. How much should we preview the end at the beginning?)
  • Gradual release of responsibility (If the goal is independent learning, when does scaffolding help and when does it hinder? How do we know?)
  • Self-teaching (What you teach yourself, you remember for a lifetime. How can we facilitate such independence?)
  • Connection (We want connections in all directions—text to text, reading to writing, student to issue, strategy to task, present task to future problem-solving. How do we make those connections, yet stay focused?)
  • Perceived Utility (We attend to and value what seems useful, but the use of a strategy is not always immediately apparent. How can we cultivate persistence in the face of a lack of perceived utility? How can we make the utility of a strategy appear?)
  • Engagement (Is engagement the product of a formula, i.e. Connection + Strategy + Utility + Goal? How do we implement this formula in the classroom?)
  • Transfer (Is transfer a product of sustained engagement? How do we design lessons with engagement in mind?)

I’ll discuss them one by one.

Backwards Mapping

We begin with the end in mind. A teaching unit is somewhat like the Midgard Serpent from Norse mythology, a snake eating its tail. The head and the tail are in the same place. When we begin a journey, we want to know where we are going, even if when we arrive it is not exactly as we imagined. Seeing the summit, even dimly through the clouds, inspires us to move on. I think that too many teaching modules, including some of my own, don’t reveal enough of the destination to inspire students to want to go there. We know what the writing task is. Why not show it to them? (One answer is that we want them to value the reading for its own sake, which is a valid point. So, a decision must be made.)

Gradual Release of Responsibility

This is a tough one. How much scaffolding is enough? How much is too much? How do we know? Formative assessment can help, but sometimes it is too late to change a decision. Even subtle hints can imply a reading and deny a student an opportunity to think for themselves. For example, in my seminar this semester, one group of students decided that they were against “prereading” activities and the “Preparing to Read” section of the ERWC template. Why? Because they were English majors and they thought that students had a right to their own interpretation. I argued against this because I think that prereading activities make a big difference in how students respond to reading. Activating background knowledge is an important reading strategy and students also want to know why they are reading something and what the teacher thinks is important to attend to. However, my students had a point. Everything we do before they read influences their interpretation.

For example, in my first mini-module built around two tiny stories written by Lydia Davis, my prereading instruction was simply, “As you read the following stories, think about relationships.” I gave them a theme for the stories. Without that theme, they would struggle longer, I think, to make sense of the stories, but would that struggle be productive? By giving them a push toward a particular reading, am I taking their own reading away? But perhaps they would give up on the odd little stories entirely? Again, it’s a decision. Even one word has consequences.

My students in “Advanced Expository Writing” had to research a topic of their own choice and create a website to present their findings. One task was to create a literature review. I did not tell them how many sources they needed to have. I said it was a rhetorical decision. They kept asking me, so often that I finally got mad at them (never a good development). I said, “It would be a lot easier for me if I just told you exactly what to do.” They answered, almost the whole class in unison, “That’s what we are used to!” I asked, “If you were going to your site for information about this topic, would you be satisfied with two sources?” They agreed that they would not. “How about three sources?” They got the point. And they agreed that they learned more this way. I was trying to get them to actually do the task of informing their readers, while they were looking for completion criteria so that they would know when they could stop pretending to do the task.

The model that Fisher and Frey discuss in Better Learning through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility is basically “I do, we do, you do together, you do alone.”  In this .pdf from Doug Fisher, this translates to an instructional template with the following stages: Focus Lessons, Guided Instruction, Collaborative Learning, and Independent Tasks. The decision-making and control move from the teacher, to groups of students working collaboratively, and finally to the individual student.  Teacher lore says that it is better to be a “guide on the side” than a “sage on the stage.”  In the gradual release model, this is not a binary.  The teacher shifts her role from sage to guide to inspirational presence over time, as needed.

Of course, the “gradual” part of gradual release means that we scaffold more at the beginning, but less and less as students learn more and more to work independently as they internalize concepts and strategies. The Fisher and Frey model shows that it is not only the amount of scaffolding that should change, but also the way it is offered and by whom.  Again, formative assessments, formal and informal, will help, but this is largely a matter of listening to and observing your students. In focus groups, ERWC teachers have reported that students sometimes say, “We have done this a million times [referring to an ERWC strategy], can’t we just read it?” This means they have internalized the strategy.  It’s time for a decision.

Self-Teaching

What we are taught by others often lasts only until the test, but what we teach ourselves or teach others remains for a long time. When I started learning music theory I wanted to write songs in modes other than major or minor. I spent half a day building triads on each degree of modal scales only to find that they were the same as the harmonized major scale, just starting in a different place. Then I turned to the next chapter in the music theory book and found that the author presented everything I had just discovered on my own. However, I still remember it, 40 years later. I remember little else from that music theory course. This is clearly related to the “gradual release” issue. Teaching yourself is the ideal, but it is not always possible. We all need guidance and help. But when should we step out of the way?  It’s a decision.

Connection

Probably the most important connection to be concerned about is the connection to the student’s lifeworld. We are interested in what seems real to us. But texts, issues, strategies, and writing tasks should all seem connected. When students get a worksheet on this and another on that, then a reading on lizards in Guam and another on a boy in Afghanistan, followed by an essay on “My Spring Break,” it all seems random, perhaps even postmodern. When you think about introducing a worksheet, a strategy, a reading, ask yourself, “How does this connect with what they are doing right now? How will it connect with what they are going to be doing tomorrow?” It’s a decision.

Perceived Utility

Here I might bring up what I call the “effort to benefit” ratio. We are usually willing to work to learn something that looks useful for the current task. If it also looks like it might come in handy for future imagined tasks, we might even put in more effort, and we might remember what we learned. However, if the strategy or tool appears very difficult and time-consuming to learn, and the benefit looks small, we might pass on it. I had this sort of experience when I first encountered Microsoft Excel. Learning to use formulas in spreadsheets was tough. I avoided it. Word processing was much more useful. However, when I started running a writing center and I had to make budgets and cost out proposals, I learned quickly. I realized that the first time I created a spreadsheet, it was a lot of work, but after it was created, I could use it over and over.

I think perceived utility is the first necessary condition to what people are now calling “transfer.” We need to help students see how the strategies we teach are actually useful, not meaningless rigmarole that they are being forced to learn. Here, the students make the decision, but we have to persuade them.

Engagement

“Engagement” is a hot topic in educational circles, but it is somewhat mysterious. Sometimes it is confused with “relevance,” and sometimes “entertainment.” Your mileage may vary, but I think it is actually a product of the right combination of the five factors described above.

Transfer

Transfer, in my view, is not just a matter of reinforcing the same limited number of concepts and strategies over and over. It is a matter of sustaining engagement over time so that the concepts are not only reinforced, but valued, perceived as useful, even loved because they solve problems and reduce anxiety.  It’s all about making the right decisions, in the right places.

Transfer and the ERWC Template

The concept of educational “transfer” is a hot topic in composition and rhetoric circles these days. Much of this interest is inspired by a recent publication, Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Yancy, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. Yancy and her co-authors ask “Do the knowledge and skills learned in a writing course transfer to other courses and workplaces?” and is it possible to “teach for transfer”?

Yancy et al found that college students tended to rely on what they had been taught in high school when writing for college courses rather than what they learned in their First Year Writing course. They redesigned the FYC course to emphasize a limited number of concepts:

  1. Audience, genre, rhetorical situation, and reflection
  2. Exigence, critical analysis, discourse community, and knowledge
  3. Context, composing, and circulation
  4. Knowledge and reflection (57)

To me, these concepts appear to be a mix of categories and of varying utility, though it is a positive step to look beyond the immediate course to the student’s future rhetorical situations.

ERWC and Transfer

ERWC has been interested in transfer from the beginning. In the ERWC document “Transfer and Engagement: From Theory to Enhanced Practice” Nelson Graff cites Smith and Wilhelm, who argue that four factors make it more likely that students will transfer concepts and strategies from one context to another:

  • Students have a command of the knowledge that is to be transferred.
  • Students have a theoretical understanding of the principles to be transferred.
  • The classroom culture cultivates a spirit of transfer.
  • Students get plenty of practice.

Graff notes that that is why ERWC repeats the same strategies across modules. ERWC is certainly an ideal environment for creating the conditions for transfer.

What Actually Transfers?

However, if we look at what kinds of concepts and strategies powerfully transfer from high school to college, the list is pretty small. In my experience, it includes the five-paragraph essay, Toulmin argumentation (in a simplistic and reduced form), and more recently, ethos, pathos, logos. I have a suspicion about why this is so.

In Thinking and Writing in College: A Naturalistic Study of Students in Four Disciplines, (a very interesting book, available here at the WAC Clearinghouse) Barbara Walvoord and Lucille McCarthy describe longitudinal studies of four classrooms. They collected assignments and student writing and interviewed instructors and students. One of their findings was that

Students in all four classes typically used the assignment sheet as a kind of recipe for completing the assignment. The sheet seemed often to supersede other models or instructions given in class or remembered from other situations. Students usually kept the assignment sheet beside them as they composed, consulting it frequently,especially when they felt confused. They tended to see themselves as following step-by-step the explicit instructions contained in it, and they often interpreted it very literally. (57)

This led to serious miscues. In the business class they studied, the students were asked to go to two different fast food restaurants and observe how they dealt with customers. At the bottom of the sheet, the instructor had written “Chapters 7 and 8 in the Stevenson text can provide guidance” (62). Because this instruction was at the bottom, many students made their observations before reading the chapters, but the categories they were supposed to use were in the assigned reading, so their data was almost useless.

This finding indicates that when students are confronted with a task, especially a task they have not done before (a common experience in higher education), they look for a step-by-step solution to the problem of doing the task, one that they can deploy in the moment. Eventually they realize that some of the tasks in their discipline, such as writing a lab report in biology or analyzing a case study in business, are recurring problems that require them to develop routine strategies.

Rhetorical Strategies as Solutions to Recurring Problems

However, before they get to that point, essay-writing in Language Arts is the most common recurring writing task they have encountered. The five-paragraph essay provides a solution to the recurring problem of “how to write an essay.” The Toulmin model, presented as a checklist, offers a solution to the “how to structure an argument” problem. It doesn’t really matter that students often fill in the checklist incorrectly, citing warrants that aren’t really warrants and backing that is just further supporting evidence rather than reference to a body of knowledge or a system of rules, as Toulmin intended. The model still serves as a content-generating device for making claims and supporting them.

Recent changes in standards for Language Arts have made rhetorical analysis assignments much more common. The Aristotelian appeals have become the standard solution to that recurring problem, generating a paragraph about each appeal.

ERWC 3.0 attempts to teach a broader range of rhetorical concepts, such as audience, purpose, exigence, kairos, rhetorical situation, and stasis theory. I do not think that these concepts will transfer unless students see them first as solutions to doing the immediate task at hand, and second, as possible solutions to recurring problems they will face in the future. We cannot teach them as simply content to be mastered.

What to Do?

How do we help them see these new strategies as useful? The ERWC template as currently structured does not reveal the writing task until the middle of the module, in the “Connecting Reading to Writing Section.” Though we may see the reading tasks as at least equal in importance to the writing task, the students are unlikely to see it that way. They think that the culminating task is the problem they have to solve. They will be thinking, “How will this weird new concept of ‘kairos’ help me write this essay? Will the essay be about kairos?”

The ERWC template is still one of the best vehicles we have for designing teaching units and courses that are conducive to transfer. It just needs a little adjustment. If the writing assignment is at least previewed in the “Preparing to Read” section, it will give the students a clear idea of where they are going, making the tools and experiences that are provided by the module more relevant to doing the task as they perceive it. Second, if the new concepts and strategies are presented in the context of possible future tasks and problems to which they may be relevant, students are more likely to remember them.

I am still exploring how this might be accomplished. But as a first step, I created a Flexible Module Planner that is a bit less linear than the current template. Comments and suggestions, as always, are welcome.

Works Cited

Smith, Michael W., & Jeffrey D. Wilhelm. Going with the Flow. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006. Print.

Walvoord,Barbara and Lucille McCarthy. Thinking and Writing in College: A Naturalistic Study of Students in Four Disciplines. Colorado State Univ. WAC Clearinghouse. Accessed 2 Dec. 2018.

Yancy, Kathleen. Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. Logan, UT: Utah State Univ. Press, 2014. Print.

ERWC in a Nutshell

Teachers and administrators often ask, “How is ERWC different from more traditional courses? In what way is it better?”  (This post is also available as a handout in .pdf format.)

From Engagement to Writing

An ERWC course is a series of teaching modules designed according to the same template. Each module starts by connecting the text (which could be expository, persuasive, or literary) to the student’s lifeworld in some way, helping them engage with it. Then they read the text to understand it, with scaffolding to help them. Then they begin to question the text, evaluating arguments, evidence, and rhetorical strategies. This is where the focus shifts to critical thinking. Then we connect the text and the work they have done with it to a writing assignment. Students rethink the issues of the text and their responses to it in terms of how they will use it in their writing. They think about the genre, audience, and purpose of the writing they will do. Then they write, revise and edit their own text. Because every module enacts some version of this pattern, the students have internalized it by the end of the course and are ready to apply it on their own to the texts they read in college and elsewhere. This is the whole purpose of ERWC—to prepare students to do the critical reading and writing they will encounter in college, in the workplace, and in their daily lives.

A Common Pattern

Of course this pattern—engagement, understanding, questioning, connecting, and responding—can be designed into any course in any discipline. However, many instructors, especially in college, simply assume that students will be engaged and will understand, and dive right into questioning. Such an instructor will probably find herself trying to get a discussion going with a roomful of baffled students. It is worth spending time preparing the students for a reading so that the discussion will be informed and productive.

Connecting Reading and Writing

A second feature of the ERWC approach is the emphasis on the connection between reading and writing. Traditionally, students are “learning to read” up to third grade and after that they are “reading to learn.” It turns out, however, that we are always learning to read. Every discipline, every genre, every field of endeavor has its own vocabulary, patterns of organization, and conceptual frameworks. The farther we go in any field, the more expert we must become in its discourse, both in reading and writing it. In academia, reading and writing are theorized, researched, and taught by faculty in different disciplines in different departments. ERWC brings these fields together.

Emphasis on Rhetoric

A third feature is the emphasis on rhetorical concepts and analysis. We are always asking, “Why did the author do it this way? What is the effect on the reader?” And when they are writing, we ask them, “Who is your audience? What is your purpose?” The emphasis is on learning “to do things with words” and this is accomplished both by analyzing what authors are doing and then practicing this sort of doing themselves.

Strategies and Habits of Mind

By the end of this course the student should be ready to encounter new texts and figure out new rhetorical situations. ERWC is not a body of knowledge, but a collection of interrelated strategies and habits of mind for working with texts, concepts, and practical purposes. It is excellent preparation for college-level work and for various workplaces. It’s a good course for almost any high school student.

Making a Reading Plan

At the end of an ERWC-style course, students should have internalized a set of reading strategies and habits of mind that will help them be more successful college students.  In an environment that often will not provide much scaffolding or assistance, students in effect will need to create their own modules.  Of course, there are also students entering college who have not had the advantage of an ERWC course in high school.  This handout is a distillation of some very basic ERWC reading strategies.  It is designed as a review for ERWC students and a quick strategy guide for students new to these concepts.  I will present it in three parts.  At the end is a link to the whole document.

Note: In this handout, the word “text” is used to mean any kind of writing—an article, a chapter, a book, a poem, an email, an advertisement—anything that can be read.

BeforeReading1

Probably the most important question in the list above is “Why are you reading this text?”  When I used to do faculty workshops at my university, one of the most common complaints was that students don’t do the reading until after the discussion.  I knew from working on ERWC that students were telling us something with that behavior: they don’t like to read difficult texts cold.  They need some hint about why they are reading it and what they are looking for.  Faculty can improve matters greatly by discussing how the reading fits into the course and what students should be looking for and thinking about as they read, but many professors don’t know to do that.  They just assume that students will figure it out.  If one student asks in class, “While we are reading this, what do you want us to look for?” the whole class will do better.

WhileReading1

Reading with a pencil in hand is a first step to productive and efficient academic reading.  However, what you do with that pencil depends on your purpose for reading the text.  These stages and strategies are all interconnected.

The purpose of any system of annotation is to make returning to the text to find ideas, information, key phrases, and personal responses easier and more productive.  Students are often accustomed to using brightly colored highlighters to indicate key words and phrases. However, highlighting without a clear purpose can make rereading confusing.  Also, a highlighter is not useful for dialoguing with the text, asking questions, making observations and connections.

Dealing with difficulty is the other important consideration while reading.  Plowing ahead, re-reading, looking something up, or returning at a later time are all viable strategies.  The most negative strategy is to give up.  Students need to realize that everyone, even a professor, encounters difficult texts.

AfterReading1

The fact is, texts don’t stay read.  Every time we read a text, it makes different connections to our experience.  Taking a moment to mentally reflect on a text after reading it helps solidify the first reading in our minds.  We come to the class discussion with something to say.  The annotations are a way of indicating how we read it the first time.  We can return to it with greater insight and efficiency.  We have a relationship with it.  We have a reading that is our own.

Download the complete handout, “Making a Reading Plan,” from this link.

How Texts Construct Readers: A Mini-Module

A key text in my “Pedagogies of Reading” seminar is Analyzing Everyday Texts by Glenn Stillar. The second mini-module I presented at the 2018 ERWC Leadership Conference draws on ideas from this book. I have a previous post on it here.

Rhetorical analysis usually starts with some conception of audience and purpose. A detailed analysis will look at the particular characteristics of the audience addressed and what arguments and strategies the writer uses to persuade that audience. However, an aspect that is often neglected is how the text defines and arranges the participants in the situation, including the reader. The text may in fact construct an imagined reader that the actual reader does not want to be. The tension between the reader constructed by the text and the actual reader is an important rhetorical effect. An important question might be, “Do you want to be the reader constructed by this text?” Another way of asking this is, “As a reader, are you willing to play the role the writer wants you to play?”

To support this kind of analysis, I have created a “Document Analysis Checklist” that helps a student work through the traditional categories of audience, purpose and form, but also includes a section on “Stylistic Choices” that asks questions about the roles of the participants in the situation, the way the situation is constructed, the attitudes and values reflected, and the accuracy of the presentation. All of these factors are reflected in the word choices made by the author.

The module itself explores these ideas using this sign, which has been posted at entry doors all over the Cal Poly Pomona campus:

SmokeFreeIMG_0216

The curious thing about this sign is that it welcomes and prohibits at the same time. The analysis gets into questions such as “What does ‘our’ mean here?” “Who is ‘welcome’ and who is not?” and “Is the campus being defined by its purity from certain substances and behaviors?” Then we try putting other descriptors into the “smoke and tobacco free” slot. Much is made of these eight words.

I was talking about the rhetoric of the “Welcome to our Smoke Free Campus” sign in our department with one of my rhetoric colleagues. The Shakespearean across the hall overheard us, and came over to defend the sign, saying that her asthma made tobacco smoke intolerable for her. It took us about five minutes to convince her that as rhetoricians, we were discussing how the sign worked, not the issue it was trying to address. She thought we were arguing against a smoke free campus. I think she is still suspicious. However, she also said that the sign had been effective. The smokers, instead of clustering around the doorways, were now hiding in surreptitious corners and off in the shrubbery. So the sign is rhetorically effective.

I asked a linguist about the way “welcome” is used here. It looks like an imperative, but for that to work we would have to read it as “be welcome” with the “be” elided. My informant thought it would be better to read it as “We welcome you to . . .” with the additional words elided. However we interpret it, it involves ellipsis. She also said that it was a very Californian way to express a prohibition. It is like saying “Don’t even think about smoking here!” with a big smile.

The module has the following learning goals

Students will be able to:

  • Read public notices with greater understanding of their rhetorical complexity
  • Analyze the linguistic devices used by writers to construct roles for the participants in a situation
  • Become particularly aware of verb choice in constructing a situation
  • Question the way a text constructs the reader
  • Present their findings in a written analysis

The writing assignment is this:

Our world is full of signs communicating rules, prohibitions, slogans, messages and information. Find a sign in your daily world that you think would be interesting to analyze. It may be helpful to take a picture of the sign with your cellphone. Repeat the process of analysis we engaged in for the “no smoking” sign above. Write a one-page essay describing the sign and its purpose.

In more advanced courses, I ask students to choose an issue that involves a dispute between three parties, often a corporation, a government agency, and the public. The recent scandals involving unintended acceleration in Toyota automobiles and cheating on pollution control devices by Volkswagen are good examples. Then they gather documents related to the issue–press releases, open letters, blog posts, court documents, news stories, etc.–and apply the “Document Analysis Checklist.” These documents turn out to be surprisingly complex and sophisticated in deploying strategies to deflect blame, reassign responsibility, minimize bad consequences, and present intentions in the best possible light. This sort of analysis can make what would seem to be boring bureaucratic documents quite engaging to students. They feel like they can say, “I see what you are doing there.”

The student version of the mini-module is available here:

How Texts Construct Readers

A Reader-Response Approach to Poetry

books-IMG_0227

I introduced two mini-modules at the 2018 ERWC Leadership Conferences as part of my presentation, “Big Ideas from My Literacy Seminar.” This one, “A Reader-Response Approach to Poetry” was inspired by Louise Rosenblatt’s book, The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Rosenblatt begins the book with the image of two figures on a stage, the author and the reader, with the book between them. In various ages the spotlight focuses brightly on either the author or the text, but rarely the reader (1).

Rosenblatt then argues that the reader, not the author, creates the poem. The text of the poem is like an orchestra score in that the music doesn’t exist until it is performed. Because each reader brings different life experiences and background knowledge to the text, each reader will create a different poem. Being comfortable with this process is part of learning to enjoy poetry.

New Criticism taught us the techniques of close reading, which are still in common use today. New Critics also taught us that to try to recover the author’s intention was the “Intentional Fallacy,” and that to focus on the effects on the reader was to engage in the “Pathetic Fallacy.” The spotlight of the New Critics focuses exclusively on the text, and on using the techniques of close reading to produce the very best reading of that text.

A typical literature course today will apply close reading, but unlike New Criticism will include reference to the author’s biography and historical context. The dominant question is usually, “What does it mean?” and a received interpretation is often given. The result, especially with poetry, is that students believe that there is a “correct” interpretation that they are struggling to find. This has a number of negative effects, such as going immediately to the internet to discover the “correct” reading and a fear of interpreting poetry on their own. Thus it is common for students to say, even English majors in college, that they don’t like poetry.

This mini-module is designed to counteract that fear and help students read and enjoy poetry on their own, sharing their experiences with others. In working through the module, students

  • Read the poem quickly and write down their impressions,
  • Re-read to confirm and and develop their impressions,
  • Share their impressions with others in a small group,
  • Consider important details,
  • Negotiate a consensus interpretation,
  • Write a paragraph describing their evolving interpretation of the poem.

In this approach, reading a poem is both a personal and a social experience. The emphasis is on engaging with the text and connecting it to experience, not on discovering authorial intention or a “correct” reading. Any poem could be plugged into this process. I often choose a poem that has some important detail that students may miss on first readings, but discover on closer readings, so that they can experience the shift in interpretation that happens when making a sudden connection. (Sometimes I give them the information.  I call this “throwing in a fact bomb.”)  In the workshop, I used “Declaration” by Tracy K. Smith. Students may not initially realize that the poem echoes language from the Declaration of Independence. I have also used “Sundown” by Jorie Graham, in which students may not know that the phrase “on Omaha” refers to a D-Day invasion beach. These poems can easily be found on the internet.

The mini-module can be downloaded from this link.

Update: English teacher extraordinaire Carol Jago has published an essay, “Agents of Imagination,” on the Poetry Foundation site.  It’s about teaching science fiction poetry and also includes a poem by Tracy K. Smith, who seems to have a talent for writing beautiful, evocative, yet approachable poems.   This essay is a mini-module in essay form!  Highly recommended!

The Classical Pattern of Persuasion

I have taken ideas from several previous posts about the Roman six-part speech and descriptive outlining and created an article and mini-module combo that helps students think about essay organization.  The module overview says:

This module is designed to introduce students to a pattern of essay and speech organization based on ancient Roman practices as described in Cicero’s On Invention and On Oratory. This pattern is based on persuasive strategies directed toward the rhetorical needs of the audience so it is both more effective and more flexible than the essay formulas that are often taught to high school students. Although the pattern is more than 2,000 years old, it is still in common use today, as can be seen from using descriptive outlining to analyze the structure of current editorials and op-ed pieces. It can be used both to organize student writing and to analyze other persuasive texts. The writing assignment asks students to write an essay about a problem they see in social media, using the Classical pattern.

It has the following learning goals:

Students will be able

  • To articulate the strategies that they use in organizing essays
  • To compare the effectiveness of different modes of organization
  • To analyze the organizational patterns used in editorials and op-ed pieces
  • To write an essay utilizing the Classical pattern.

It begins with a quickwrite about how they currently organize essays and ends with a reflection on that quickwrite.  The main activities involve a lot of descriptive outlining of sample articles and other articles about problems in social media that they find online.  It discourages the five-paragraph essay, but does not forbid it or demonize it.  It presents the Classical pattern as a chart, as a series of questions for the writer, and as a series of questions for a critical reader.  It includes the Latin terms, but quickly moves to using English adaptations: Introduction, Background, Possible Positions, Support, Counter-arguments, and Conclusion.

Download the mini-module “The Classical Pattern of Persuasion,” here.  If you would like to use the article without the rest of the module, download it here.

I hope readers of this blog will find it useful.  As always, comments and suggestions for improvement are welcome.