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

Girl Sitting on Large Book Reading Clipart

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.

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.

“Three Ways to Persuade” Mini-Module

In a previous post (“Three Ways to Persuade: Integrating the Three Appeals“), I described a revision of my original article “Three Ways to Persuade” for ERWC 3.0.  This article was originally the first text in the “Rhetoric of the Op-Ed Page” module.   I have now extracted it from the Op-Ed module and created a stand-alone mini-module for it.  The version included in this mini-module has some revised questions in the “Questions for Consideration” sections.

The Module Description says:

This mini-module is designed to introduce students to Aristotle’s three rhetorical appeals—ethos, logos and pathos—and how they work together to persuade audiences. These concepts are used throughout ERWC, so this mini-module should come early in the 11th grade course and may be used for review in the 12th grade. The core article, “Three Ways to Persuade: Integrating the Three Appeals,” was substantially rewritten for this version of the course. The new version emphasizes the interconnection between the appeals, noting that a particular part of a text may serve more than one rhetorical purpose. The module also explores the distinction between belief and knowledge. The writing assignment asks students to consider Aristotle’s arguments in defense of rhetoric, including ethos, logos, and pathos, and take a position on the use of rhetoric while analyzing four quotations from Aristotle.

Click on the link to download the “Three Ways to Persuade” mini-module.

Stasis Theory: A Mini-Module

As part of my current project of developing a “rhetoric of knowing the other and being known,” I returned to an old handout I had created on teaching “stasis theory.”  I was inspired to do this by one of my current graduate students who had seen the handout and made the connection to the work I was doing on pathos as inquiry.  I turned the handout into a short article for a student audience and then wrote a mini-module around it.

Stasis theory has an unfortunate name. It sounds more complicated than it is. “Stasis” means something like “standpoint.” The initial move is for the parties to the debate to agree on what the question or issue actually is. Once they have done this they are said to have “achieved stasis.” It is surprising how often people fail to do this, either through fuzzy thinking or by design. For example, just today I read about a disagreement between a Toyota dealer and Toyota itself. The dealer says that a part called the “inverter” on Toyota Priuses overheats and fails, and must be recalled. Toyota argues that a software update makes the problem less serious. They also argue that the real reason that the dealer is suing them is for another, unrelated matter. This disagreement will not be resolved until they are arguing the same question.

Once the question has been articulated, then the four stasis questions come into play: fact, definition, quality, and policy. The article included in the mini-module explains this in some detail. Here is the module description:

This module is about using the ancient technique of stasis theory to zero in on exactly what issue or problem is being debated and where the disagreement between the parties to the debate lies. The stasis questions can be used to analyze an issue as presented in a paper or article, but can also be used as an invention strategy to generate arguments. The stasis process frames the rhetorical situation in such a way that the discussion can proceed in a coherent and productive way. The module includes an article describing the history and use of stasis theory, plus activities that allow students to practice using the concepts on past and future scenarios. The writing project asks students to find a controversial issue and examine how different sides frame the problem.

The most common use of stasis theory is in the courtroom for forensic purposes. The standard questions are very useful in determining facts of the case, the definition of the act, the motives and intentions, and the sentencing. However, one thing that is somewhat unique about the presentation of stasis theory in this mini-module is that it also includes slightly different questions that can be used in deliberative situations where we are trying to decide whether a solution to a problem will be legal, expedient, possible, and effective.

You can download the mini-module here. (Note: This version was updated on 3/8/18.)  If you would like to use the article without the mini-module, you can download it here.

Pathos as Inquiry: A Mini-Module

I have integrated my recent work on pathos, which I wrote about in two previous posts, “Pathos as Inquiry and Strategy” and “More on Pathos as Inquiry” into a mini-module.  This mini-module includes a short article, similar to “Three Ways to Persuade,” called  “Pathos as Inquiry: Knowing Your Audience.”  The module description says:

This mini-module is designed to help students think about the relationship between arguments (logos) and emotions (pathos). It presents pathos as an essential counterpart to logos rather than as a fallacy to be avoided. It explores pathos through a rigorous process of audience analysis that helps the writer to put the audience in the right frame of mind and to tailor the arguments to fit that audience. In the process, the writer’s own views and the reasons for them are foregrounded and the resulting dialog between differing views may strengthen or alter the writer’s position.

The mini-module provides activities that help students explore these concepts and apply them to different scenarios. The writing assignment asks them to find an article that takes a position that they disagree with and use the analysis and strategy questions provided to plan a response.

This is an early draft, so feedback will be much appreciated!  If you would like to use the article without the mini-module, you can download it here. (Updated 3/24/18)

More on “Pathos as Inquiry”

Several people emailed me about my previous post on pathos asking “What if the audience is not angry? How should we deal with other emotions?”

Anger is where Aristotle starts his analysis of the emotions in Book 2 of the Rhetoric, which George Kennedy notes in his translation is “the earliest systematic discussion of human psychology” (122). In his discussion of anger Aristotle lays out his basic three-step strategy for dealing with emotions: 1) discover the state of mind of the audience, 2) discover the people toward whom the emotion is directed, and 3) discover the grounds or causes of the emotion. With this knowledge, the speaker can work to create the particular emotional state that is conducive to his or her case.

Aristotle’s List

Aristotle’s list of emotions and definitions is very Greek and not quite what we would produce. In addition to anger and calm, he analyzes “friendly feeling” versus enmity, fear versus confidence, shame versus shamelessness, kindliness versus unkindliness, pity (which he notes could be paired with either indignation or envy as opposites), “being indignant” (which is related to a number of other emotions), and finally envy, which is seen as desiring the good that others have, contrasted with “emulation,” which is also a state of desiring what others have but working to acquire these goods. Thus “envy” is negative and unproductive and “emulation” is a positive striving.

There is quite a bit of overlap and things don’t fit together neatly in the way that Aristotle usually attempts. However, these emotions are all rhetorically useful. Kennedy notes that Aristotle saw the emotions as moods or temporary states that “arise in large part from perception of what is publicly due to or from oneself at a given time” and thus affect judgment (124).

Social Standing and Emotions

The root cause of negative emotions according to Aristotle is disparities in social standing. We are angry if we are insulted by someone we consider a social inferior. We are envious of someone who possesses goods that we think we deserve. We have enmity or hatred toward a person who is from an unrespectable group, such as criminals or beggars. All of these emotions are about a disturbance in the social calculus. Aristotle doesn’t include emotions such as love or sadness, or grief, because unlike Plato, who sees rhetoric as the “art of leading the soul to truth by means of words,” he sees rhetoric mainly as a one-to-many enterprise for persuading groups. Thus emotions that are essentially individual mental states are not rhetorically useful.

Even fear has a social dimension. Aristotle says “If fear is accompanied by an expectation of experiencing some destructive misfortune, it is evident that no one is afraid if he is one of those who thinks he will suffer nothing; people fear neither things they do not think they will suffer nor other people by whom they do not think they will be harmed” (141). Fear is often fear of others, but if social relationships are in order, we have nothing to fear.  Aristotle acknowledges that it may help the speaker’s case to make the audience fearful.

Some who emailed me mentioned states of mind such as indifference or apathy. “Apathy” is literally the absence of emotion. If the audience is in this state, the rhetorical move is likely to be to make them feel something.

A Revised List of Questions

So, how can we help students navigate the range of possible emotions beyond anger? Robby Ching suggested modifying my questions a bit:

Analysis Questions

  • Who is my audience? How do they define themselves?
  • What do they already believe about my topic?
  • What do they value?
  • What do they desire?
  • What is their state of mind? What emotions do they feel?
  • What makes them feel that way?
  • Who makes them feel that way?
  • What are their reasons (arguments) for feeling that way?

Strategy Questions

  • How can I find common ground with this audience?
  • How can I present myself as someone they will listen to? (ethos)
  • If they feel negatively about my argument, how can I make them feel more positively?
  • What emotion would put them in a better state of mind for my purposes? (This is where Aristotle’s threefold analysis comes to bear: state of mind, target of emotion, and grounds for emotion )
  • How can I present my arguments in a way that will make them more receptive?
  • How can I make sure I don’t make them feel even more negatively?
  • How can I be persuasive with this audience without compromising my own beliefs and values?

My analysis here goes a bit beyond Aristotle. Aristotle is basically talking about creating emotional states that are conducive to the speaker’s argument. I am expanding on this idea to include an analysis of the audience’s present state of mind.  The whole process looks like this:

  • What does my audience feel now?
  • Is this emotion conducive or not conducive to the reception of my argument?
  • What emotional state would be more conducive?
  • How can I create that emotional state?

The most important feature of all this analysis, however, is to help students think more deeply about their audiences. In many ways, the audience is an important writing partner that helps us know what to say and how to say it. The audience is an essential part of the creative process.