Blogging in WordPress

I have been writing several blogs in WordPress for about 10 years. In WordPress, you can create a free blog in five minutes. Supply a username and an email address and you are up and running. You don’t even have to pick a theme. The editor, now called the “classic” editor, was very much like a simple wordprocessor, so in many ways, you already knew how to use it.

It was so easy that I used to have students in my “Advanced Expository Writing” course create WordPress blogs. I have placed some screenshots of some excellent blog projects below. Clicking on the image should bring you to the blog.

A Student Blog for “Advanced Expository Writing”
Another Student Site: The Prickliest Pear
A Third Student Blog: Wordpannini

You may have noticed my use of past tense in the paragraphs above. That is because the WordPress community is in a bit of upheaval at the moment. The “classic” editor has been replaced by something called “Gutenberg.” The new editor, which I am writing in now, is “block-oriented.” Above this block are two paragraph blocks and three “image” blocks. The support page lists 39 types of blocks. Hitting enter, as I am about to do now, will end this block and start a new paragraph block.

The classic editor is still available, but I have been told that it will be gone by 2022. My experience has been that there is both subtle and not so subtle pressure to switch now, even though the new editor is unpopular with what appears to be a large majority of users. And there are still bugs. For example, I originally had the screenshots above in a “gallery” block that I wanted to have clickable images, but it put the urls in front of the pictures. When I asked WordPress support about this, they said pictures in gallery blocks can’t have outside links. However, they have a link button in the pop-up menu which asks for a url when clicked. The documentation doesn’t actually fit the reality of the block.

Different Metaphors (This is a heading block.)

However, I don’t want to go into the pros and cons of the new editor or the way WordPress is handling the transition. Because this is “Teaching Text Rhetorically,” I am interested in the rhetorical effects of the two metaphors of writing involved here. The classic editor produces a stream of text with inserted images and links. Gutenberg produces a stack of blocks of different types. Is Gutenberg better, worse, or just different?

The stack of blocks becomes a stream when posted. For the reader, it is a linear flow. Does it make a difference for the writer if it is a stack, perhaps similar to a PowerPoint slide deck?

My writing process for this blog was generally to write in a text editor that had no formatting codes, copy and paste into the WordPress editor, and then format in that environment. Copy and pasting from Word or LibraOffice tended to bring in formatting codes that could be troublesome in WordPress. If I paste unformatted text into Gutenberg, all line breaks trigger new blocks and formatting is unpredictable. It seems better to write in Gutenberg than copy and paste, at this point. That is quite a different writing process, but I could do it, if I could trust Gutenberg not to lose my text.

What About Students?

I don’t think I will assign blog creation to students in WordPress anymore. I think Gutenberg is too daunting. I think I would have to spend a week teaching Gutenberg. But we shall see. Perhaps it will turn out to be more appealing to students than I think.

Designing a Reading/Writing Course

I wrote this for the composition TAs I am supervising, but the questions are relevant to anyone designing a reading/writing course. (Edit: I just realized that I have another post with a similar title that has additional information.)

Here are some questions to consider in designing your reading/writing course.  Thinking about these questions is good preparation for writing a syllabus and a schedule of assignments. 

Who are your students?

  • What are their needs?
  • Are they native speakers of English?
  • Are they ethnically and linguistically diverse?
  • Do they have books in the home? Do they like to read?
  • Are they new to the institution?
  • Do they have jobs?
  • What goals do they have?
  • (You may want to do a survey to answer some of these questions.)

What are your learning goals?

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

What will the students read?

(Hint: It is usually a mistake to assign your favorite story/poem/article because your students are unlikely to love it the way you do and you will be disappointed. Also, articles that you find hilariously witty will probably be puzzling at best to a diverse student audience.)

  • How will these materials help develop your reading and writing goals?
  • How will they connect to the writing assignments?
  • How will you prepare students to do the reading?
  • What kinds of prewriting activities will help them understand why they are reading and what they are looking for?
  • How will they use the materials?
  • Will you have a theme that connects multiple readings?
  • Will the texts serve as models, discussion fodder, argumentative foils, sources of information to support arguments, or in some other way?
  • What policies will you deploy to encourage students to do the reading?

What rhetorical concepts and strategies will you teach?

  • Will you teach strategies from classical rhetoric, such as ethos, logos, and pathos, stasis theory, kairos, or the Roman six-part speech? 
  • Will you teach modern prewriting strategies such as brainstorming, clustering, scratch outlines, or freewriting?
  • Will you teach strategies from modern rhetoric such as the Kenneth Burke’s pentad? 
  • How will your students use these strategies in their work? (Hint: Don’t teach strategies that you don’t expect students to use multiple times in the course.)

What is the arc of the course?

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

What written genres will you teach and why?

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

How will you deal with grammatical, mechanical, and idiomatic problems?

  • Will you have mini-lessons?
  • Will you do “minimal marking”?
  • Will you attempt “consciousness-raising” by focusing on a limited number of problems to facilitate language acquisition?

Will students do research?

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

What policies will you enforce about attendance, tardiness, and late papers?

  • How will you deal with plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty
  • (Hint: Include a link to the institutions policies on such matters.)

What will you actually do in class?

  • (Hint: Having a reading for the day is not enough.)
  • Will you lecture? (Don’t do this too much, but sometimes it is the best way.)
  • Will you have a class discussion? (Have some questions ready.)
  • Will you have a quickwrite to get things started?
  • Will you have in-class writing? (Often a good idea at the beginning, middle, and end of a course.)
  • Will you have a quiz on the reading? (Sometime the threat of a quiz is enough. Another strategy is to ask, “What was your main takeaway from the reading?)
  • Note: The Expository Reading and Writing Program (ERWC) recommends that every reading/writing assignment go through the following process: Preparing to Read, Reading for Understanding, Questioning the Text, Responding to the Text, Writing about the Text, and Revising the Writing.

Finally, what sort of ethos do you want to project in your class?

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

This post is also available as a Word document.

Was Shakespeare A Woman?

In June 2019 I presented on my “Knowledge, Belief, and the Role of Rhetoric” module at the Young Rhetoricians Conference and at two ERWC leadership conferences. Almost any issue can be plugged into this mini-module. For the purposes of these workshops I chose the longstanding controversy over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.  Because time was limited and the articles were long, I provided cheat sheets with selected quotations and summaries. The materials I used in these workshops are linked below. One could make an interesting module about the Shakespeare authorship question from these materials.

What became clear as teachers responded to the various articles was that we all bring a lot of prior experience, knowledge, and preconceptions to our reading of articles on topics about which we already have strong opinions.

Here is the PowerPoint for the workshop in .pdf format: Knowledge and Belief Presentation

The mini-module itself and accompanying handouts can be found in the blog post Knowledge, Belief, and The Role of Rhetoric.

Core Issue Texts

Was Shakespeare a Woman?” by Elizabeth Winkler, published in the June 2019 issue of The Atlantic.  Although this article suggests that the plays were written by Emilia Bassano, there are links to other pieces that argue for a variety of authors, including William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon.

I prepared a Descriptive Outline and a Cheat Sheet for this text.  The cheat sheet consists of some selected quotations and a section by section summary of the arguments. 

The Winkler article links to a number of other relevant texts.  I chose two of them to supplement the workshop:

The Case for Shakespeare: In defense of Shakespeare as the author of the Shakespeare works” by Irving Matus.  I produced a Descriptive Outline and a Cheat Sheet for this text.

2 Shakespearean Actors Revive Debate Over The Bard’s Identity. This is an interview done by NPR with Mark Rylance and Derek Jacoby.  I have also provided the interview in .pdf form.

Update: The Winkler article that argues that Shakespeare might have been a woman set off a lot of controversy at The Atlantic and inspired a flurry of letters and articles in response.  See the responses here.

Teaching (in Grammar B)

Where’s my roll sheet?
sleep oh sleep
Most of them are here.
didyoudo the reading the writing the reading
Hector? Oh there you are.
werewe supposed to
Does this work?
idk idk
OK, let’s get started.
omg quiz
ARISTOTLE!
no quiz no quiz
LOGOS!
richard textingme
ARISTOTLE!
ohoh sisterphone
ETHOS!
howmany pages whendo
GROUP DISCUSSION!
didyoudo
didyoudo
idid
whatdid itsay
idk idk
googlephone
REPORT!
wesay this
wesay this
ASSIGNMENT!
howmany pages whendo
DISMISSED!
nextclass
didyoudo
howmany
pages

See previous post for info on Grammar B.

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.

AlternateStyle

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.

Double-Voice

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.

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.

What Makes Punctuation So Confusing?

When I directed a University Writing Center we fielded a lot of questions about punctuation, and we saw a lot of punctuation problems in writing produced by students, staff, and faculty. Most writers, even professional writers, feel uncertain about proper punctuation on occasion. The main problem is that we have three contradictory systems of punctuation operating at once: a breath and pause system, a grammatical system, and a system of rhetorical effects. It’s normal to be confused.

Punctuation practice is rooted in oral language. Face-to-face speech is a multimodal, multichannel event that encodes a lot of redundant information. In addition to speaking words embedded in grammatical structures, we vary the intensity of our speech, we pause for effect, we modulate the intonation, making the voice rise and fall, and we use physical gestures, body language and facial expressions.

In a telephone conversation we are no longer in a face-to-face situation and we lose the visual channels. Generally, we compensate by attending more closely to words, intonation and syntax.

A Significant Disadvantage

However, in a speakerphone conference in which some of the participants are physically present to one another while another only has access to audio information, the latter party may feel that he or she is at a significant disadvantage. And when the two parties to a telephone conversation have different cultural backgrounds, or when one party doesn’t speak the language of the conversation well, we feel the need of information from the missing channels to confirm our interpretations.

When we write, we lose all visual and auditory channels, leaving only words and grammatical structures to carry the message. Rather than a broad array of redundant channels to rely on, when we write, we have only two. Or perhaps I should say two and a quarter, because we also have punctuation.

These days we might also include emojis, a more recent and very interesting development in the history of punctuation. 🙂

Bringing Back Intonation

The punctuation system is designed to bring back into writing some of the information encoded in pauses, gestures, and intonation. As a substitute for the living voice, it is a pale shadow only. Instead of shouting and shaking a fist, we have the exclamation point. Instead of a conspiratorial whisper we have . . . well, we don’t have anything, because there is no mark for whispering. In fact, there are many common devices of speech that have no equivalent in the punctuation system. What marks we do have commas, colons, semi-colons, dashes, question marks and the rest—are generally seen to indicate pauses of varying lengths and are historically associated with the breath. However, they are also associated with the grammatical structures, and thus there are grammatical rules for their use.

Contradictory Conceptions

The two traditional conceptions of punctuation—to indicate pauses for breathing and to delineate the grammatical boundaries of the text—are to a certain extent contradictory, opposing the creative, living, breathing, individual voice with an analytical, logical, rule-driven structure. These conceptions co-exist in our society, making punctuation both difficult to teach and confusing to learn.

The earliest work on punctuation in English is the anonymous Treatise of Stops, Points, or Pauses, published in London in 1680. The theory of punctuation presented here is based entirely on breathing and rhetorical pauses. Clearly designed for classroom use, it contains the following verses for easy memorization:

A comma is a breathing stop: no more,
Stop at it while you may tell one, therefore.

Where semi-colon placed is; there you,
May please to make a stop, while you tell two.

A colon is a longer stop; therefore,
Stop at each colon, while you may tell four.

The author of the Treatise is also aware of the intonation patterns implied by certain punctuation marks, as is illustrated by the following couplet on the question mark:

When e’re a question you shall propound,
An interrogation’s made: but raise the sound.

Indeed, the Treatise is valued by linguists today more for what it says about the pronunciation and intonation of seventeenth century English than for the author’s insights into the use of punctuation marks (and certainly not for the author’s poetic ability!). Still, it is a good example of the relationship between breath and punctuation in the historical tradition.

Modern authors are likely to attempt a compromise between the two views. G.V. Carey, author of Mind the Stop: A Brief Guide to Punctuation, writes: “I should define punctuation as being governed two-thirds by rule and one-third by personal taste. I shall endeavor not to stress the former to the exclusion of the latter, but I will not knuckle under to those who apparently claim for themselves complete freedom to do what they please in the matter.” Carey’s position is probably an accurate statement of the case, but we might ask, “What kind of rule applies only two thirds of the time?”

The Harbrace Handbook

Even the Harbrace Handbook hedges its position on the comma: “The use of the comma depends primarily on the structure of the sentence and signals a small interruption. Inflexible rules governing the use of the comma are few, but there are several basic principles.” So far, so good.

The Harbrace then lists four principles, stating that commas: a) precede coordinating conjunctions when they link main clauses; b) follow introductory adverb clauses and, usually, introductory phrases; c) separate items in a series (including coordinate adjectives); and d) set off nonrestrictive and other parenthetical elements.

A Morass of Jargon

For the average handbook consulter, in the move from the general statement to the basic principles the Harbrace has leapt from cogent wisdom into a morass of grammatical jargon. The four principles are constructed almost entirely of complex grammatical terminology. One gets the feeling that those who understand this terminology probably already know how to use a comma.

For the reader with a little more understanding, the principles appear to contradict one another. For example, principle “a” says that commas precede coordinating conjunctions, while “b” puts a comma after a conjunction (which is not, in fact, “coordinating” in this instance). Similarly “c” contains a parenthetical element (set off with parentheses) while “d” says that commas will be used to set off parenthetical elements.

There is nothing incorrect here, just potential confusion. The Harbrace comma principles conform to the condition known in technical writing as C.O.I.K: Clear Only If Known.

The Handbooks are Wrong

In “Teaching Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool,” John Dawkins advises us to disregard handbook advice on punctuation anyway. He says, “Manuals of style and college handbooks have it all wrong when it comes to punctuation (good writers don’t punctuate that way).” He proposes that there is “a system underlying what good writers, in fact, do; it is a surprisingly simple system; it is a system that enables writers to achieve important—even subtle—rhetorical effects; it is, even, a system that teachers can teach far more easily than they can teach the poorly systematized rules in our handbooks and style manuals” (CCC December 1995 533). Let us hope that Dawkins’ system is simpler than the punctuation he uses in that last sentence!

A Simple System

Dawkins argues that “all discourse, written or spoken, consists of independent clauses or underlying independent clauses.” What Dawkins calls “underlying” independent clauses are clauses that would be sentences on their own were it not for a subordinating word, such as “although” or “because,” or missing elements that make it necessary for the clause to be attached to a main clause, which could stand by itself. Dawkins sees the various punctuation marks as encoding different degrees of separation between independent clauses, or between elements in independent clauses. This perspective is different from either the breath-related or the grammatical perspectives already discussed, in that it is based on the writer’s perception of the conceptual relationships.

Three Patterns and Three Possibilities

Dawkins argues that independent clauses either have extra words, phrases or clauses attached to them, or they don’t. If they do, there are three patterns: the attachment can come at the beginning, at the end, or in the middle. In each pattern, the question for the writer is “Do I punctuate, or don’t I?” If punctuation is used, it is chosen on the basis of the degree of separation or connection the writer wishes the ideas to have, or in other words, the “meaning and intended emphasis.”

There are also three possibilities. 1) If the attachment comes at the beginning, only zero, comma, dash, or colon are permissible. 2) If the attachment is at the end, all functional marks are permissible. 3) If the attachment comes in the middle, only paired marks (commas, dashes, zeros, and parentheses) are possible. In this case, with the added material in the middle, the choice boils down to “two marks or none.”

Raising and Lowering

Dawkins then introduces the concept of raising or lowering. By “raising” he means using a mark that is higher in the hierarchy than would normally be used. He includes a chart of the “degree of separation” each mark signifies (535):

PunctuationHierarchyChart

Here is a sentence with a single independent clause and material added at the end. The basic marks are zero or comma:

1) Gerald promised to write the paper when he had the time.
2) Gerald promised to write the paper, when he had the time.

Example 2 gains more emphasis for the attachment. The higher up in the hierarchy you go, the greater the separation, and the greater the emphasis for the added materials. Thus:

3) Gerald promised to write the paper—when he had the time.
4) Gerald promised to write the paper. When he had the time.

The likelihood of Gerald actually writing the paper diminishes, and the irony of the tone increases, as the punctuation marks get stronger. This is Dawkins’ main point—that good writers use punctuation not to indicate breathing points, not to satisfy grammatical rules, but to create rhetorical effects. Example four creates a sentence fragment, violating a basic handbook rule that is often violated by published writers. Dawkins’ system explains why this rule is so often broken.

It should be said, however, that novelists and short story writers are much more likely to punctuate in the manner Dawkins describes than writers of business correspondence or scientific reports. There is insufficient space to summarize Dawkins’ whole article here. However, perhaps it is enough to know that punctuation cannot be reduced to rules of breath, counting, or grammar, and that there are good reasons to be confused about it.

Note: This post is a revised and updated version of a newsletter article I wrote for the faculty at Cal State L.A. in the mid 1990’s, which you may find online in various places.  A copy of this revised version in .pdf format can be downloaded here.

What We Talk About When We Talk About “Exigence”

“Exigence” is a term that has recently become common in discussions of rhetoric and composition. It appears in the influential book Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak as a term for transfer. ERWC has introduced it as a concept in the newest version of the curriculum (ERWC 3.0), and it is used in numerous articles about teaching reading and writing. In this long post I will outline the history of this concept and the conversation it has provoked over many decades.

Note: If you just want a handful of questions to help your students use this concept, perhaps without using the term itself, skip to the end of this post.

“The Rhetorical Situation”

“Exigence” was introduced into the conversation of the discipline of rhetoric and composition by Lloyd Bitzer in his article “The Rhetorical Situation” published in the inaugural issue of the journal Philosophy and Rhetoric in 1968. Bitzer defines the rhetorical situation as having three components: the exigence that initiates the need for discourse, the audience to be moved to decision and action, and the “constraints which influence the rhetor and can be brought to bear upon the audience” (6).

Bitzer defines “exigence” as “an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be” (6). This definition is not the ordinary one. Dictionaries note that the adjective “exigent” means “demanding” and comes from the Latin exigere, which means “to demand.” The noun form is generally “exigency” and is usually in the plural, such as “the exigencies of war,” which could be rendered as “the demands of war.” These usages go back to the 15th century. The word “exigence” is more common in French than in English. As in English, it tends to to refer to a demand, either from a person or from a situation.

Going back to Bitzer’s definition, we could note the value judgments and ask, “Imperfect or defective by whose standards?” and “Other than it should be by whose judgment?” For Bitzer, the urgent “imperfection” is a disturbance in the way the true world ought to be. If there is a “demand,” for Bitzer the scene is making it.

An example: Let’s say there is a big pothole in the street in front of your house. You are worried that it will cause an accident, or damage your car, so you write an email to the city maintenance department asking them to send a crew to fix it. In a nutshell, that is Bitzer’s rhetorical situation.

Bitzer’s purpose in writing the article is to make a distinction between “rhetorical discourse” and non-rhetorical discourse. He says, “An exigence which cannot be modified is not rhetorical; thus, whatever comes about of necessity and cannot be changed — death, winter, and some natural disasters, for instance — are exigences to be sure, but they are not rhetorical” (6-7).

Bitzer argues by this logic that scientific and poetic discourse are not rhetorical because “neither requires an audience in order to produce its end; the scientist can produce a discourse expressive or generative of knowledge without engaging another mind, and the poet’s creative purpose is accomplished when the work is composed” (8). He acknowledges that scientists and poets have audiences, but that these are not “rhetorical” audiences because they are not capable of “making the change that the discourse functions to produce” (8).

If this strikes you as odd, it is because it is common these days to argue that all discourse is rhetorical, making such a peculiar distinction moot. However, this article started a conversation, mostly in the same journal, that was more about defining “the rhetorical situation” than about making distinctions between “rhetorical” and non-rhetorical discourse. Bitzer’s article had clearly made an impression and elevated the concept of “exigence” to rhetorical prominence.

After Bitzer

Bitzer has had many critics. In “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation” Richard E. Vatz asks “What is the relationship between rhetoric and situations?” and responds

I take the converse position of each of Bitzer’s major statements regarding this relationship. For example: I would not say “rhetoric is situational,” but situations are rhetorical; not “. . . exigence strongly invites utterance,” but utterance strongly invites exigence; not “the situation controls the response . . .” but the rhetoric controls the situational response; not “. . . rhetorical discourse . . . does obtain its character-as-rhetorical from the situation which generates it,” but situations obtain their character from the rhetoric which surrounds them or creates them. (158-59)

From Vatz’s point of view, the “exigence” is not found in the situation, but is constructed by the the rhetor through the way he or she defines the situation.

It is no accident that this conversation is largely occurring in a journal called Philosophy and Rhetoric. Beyond Vatz’s question about the relationship between rhetoric and situations is a question about how language constitutes the world.

In fact, the way this conversation has unfolded over decades in that journal was not so much about scholars disagreeing about how to define “the rhetorical situation,” but more about scholars inhabiting different world views. Bitzer is a Platonist and a realist. There is a real world and it makes us do things. Vatz is a social constructivist whose world is mostly cultural and manipulable by rhetoric. Scott Consigny, in “Rhetoric and Its Situations,” takes the position of a scholar of classical rhetoric who focuses on practical matters, and argues that “The real question in rhetorical theory is not whether the situation or the rhetor is “dominant,” but the extent, in each case, to which the rhetor can discover and control indeterminate matter, using his art of topics to make sense of what would otherwise remain simply absurd” (185).

Postmodern and Posthuman Readings

In “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from within the Thematic of ‘Différance'” Barbara Biesecker performs a postmodernist reading that sees the world as a text and the rhetor making a cut that constitutes a speaker-audience-world relation. Diane Davis,  in “Rhetoricity at the End of the World,” provides a summary of the conversation about the rhetorical situation up to that point and, building on Biesecker, expands that view to include non-human participants and even non-human languages, such as DNA, chemical reactions, and physical forces. In this perspective, we take into account not only the pothole and the city maintenance department, but also the nature of the asphalt, the rain, temperature fluctuations, and the passing vehicles that caused the pothole to appear.

Another example: let’s imagine that a pair of birds has decided to build a nest in the housing that protects the red light in a traffic signal (I have actually seen this). The go, slow, stop of the traffic light’s sign system is easily interpreted by almost all humans, but meaningless to birds. The birds have read other aspects of the situation to indicate a well-protected nesting site of the appropriate height and size. In fact, the location and design of the traffic light may have seemed to be an invitation to build.  However, their exigence, the demand of instinct to build a nest and the invitation to build one, is in conflict with the human exigence in installing the traffic light, the desire to control traffic flow in a safe and convenient way. As the traffic light continues in its mindless signifying, the nest may in fact block the view of the red light and cause an accident. The perspective Davis adopts would see all of this as connected and rhetorical, without privileging the human point of view.

What About the Classroom?

But you may be asking, “How is this useful for teaching reading and writing?” It is always perilous to move from philosophy to pedagogy. Let’s see what we can do.

As I see it, the concept of rhetorical exigence splits one question, “Why am I writing?” into two: “What moves me to write?” and “What am I trying to accomplish by writing?” These are productive questions for students because of all the time they have spent in academic settings where the “exigence” for writing comes from the assignment and the demand of the teacher. It is time for them to see that the real world often demands writing. For the same reason, it is time for them to understand that audiences other than teachers exist, audiences that have needs and characteristics that must often be researched, recognized, or intuited. Writing is an act that occurs in a context and has purposes and audiences.

Do we need the term “exigence” to teach this? It is probably handier for philosophers and theoretical rhetoricians than for students. Many of the people using the term as part of this rhetorical conversation have lost the connection to “demand” that is implicit in the Latin root and common usage in English. Bitzer himself sees the term as more important for rhetorical analysis than for the production of discourse, for he says

The exigence may or may not be perceived clearly by the rhetor or other persons in the situation; it may be strong or weak depending upon the clarity of their perception and the degree of their interest in it; it may be real or unreal depending on the facts of the case; it may be important or trivial; it may be such that discourse can completely remove it, or it may persist in spite of repeated modifications; it may be completely familiar — one of a type of exigences occurring frequently in our experience — or it may be totally new, unique. When it is perceived and when it is strong and important, then it constrains the thought and action of the perceiver who may respond rhetorically if he is an a position to do so. (7)

In other words, plenty of discourse happens in the real world without anyone perceiving or thinking about exigence. Would we write more effectively if we thought about it? Perhaps. If we want students to use concepts related to exigence without being confused by the term itself, we might have them ask

  • What aspect of the situation calls out for change?
  • Who could help bring about this change?
  • What factors in the situation (both in the world and in the audience) do I need to consider in making my case for change?
  • How can I persuade this audience to work toward this change?

I think that these questions will help students explore the concept of “exigence” no matter what world view or philosophical perspective we take up.

Works Cited

Biesecker, Barbara A. “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from within the Thematic of ‘Différance.'” Philosophy and Rhetoric vol. 22, no. 2, 1989, pp. 110-130.

Bitzer, Lloyd. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol. 1, no. 1, 1968, pp. 1-14.

Consigny, Scott. “Rhetoric and Its Situations.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 7, no. 3, 1974, pp. 175-186.

Davis, Diane. “Rhetoricity at the End of the World.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol 50, no. 4, 2017.

Vatz, Richard. E. “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 6, no. 3, 1973, pp. 154-161.

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

Using Kenneth Burke and Implementing Gradual Release of Responsibility

In a previous post, “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions,” I explored several concepts related to designing instructional units, among them “Gradual Release of Responsibility” as presented by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. In this post, I will begin to apply this concept to the design of a module built around another previous post, “Using Kenneth Burke’s Pentad.” Writing this mini-module may take several posts. When I finish, I will post the whole module as a downloadable unit.

Fisher and Frey describe gradual release as a continuum: “I do, we do, you do together, you do.” I find those pronouns a little confusing because in writing modules we often shift from the teacher view to the student view. I think it is clearer to say, “teacher does, teacher and students do together, students do together, student does.” They also discuss this as “Focus Lessons, Guided Instruction, Collaborative Learning, and Independent Tasks.” Activities do not necessarily have to be done in that order. What is important is to be aware of where the responsibility for learning and thinking lies and to have a mix of different types of interactions as appropriate to the learning goals. For convenience, lets imagine a 1-4 scale with “1” representing “teacher does” and “4” representing “student does.”

Because of my concern with backwards mapping (or “Backwards Design”), another concept I discussed in the “Decisions” post, I want to start out by laying out for the students what they are going to learn and how they are going to use it. I am going to try being very direct. This is very much a “teacher does” activity:

A student (or teacher) reads aloud:

In this unit, you will learn about a useful strategy called “the pentad” that is related to the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions that you probably already know. As you explore this strategy, you will analyze relationships between people and places, between tools and actions, and think about why people do the things they do. We will use this strategy to analyze movies, stories, and political issues in new ways. When we are asked to write about something, one of the biggest problems is thinking of new things to say. The pentad can be a big help. At the end of this unit, you will be asked to write about a novel or story you have studied or written about before, but in a new way. After learning about the pentad, it will be easy to take a new approach.

After reading this paragraph, what questions do you have? What more do you want to know about “the pentad”? Write down at least one question to share with the class.

The follow up question moves from “teacher does” or “1” on my scale to “teacher and students do together,” which is “2” on my scale. The purpose here is to create some anticipation of what is to come.

Now I want to activate background knowledge by asking students to do a task that shows them that they already know something about this, but also allows them to see this knowledge in a new way. I want them to think about “scene” words, words that name or define a location or context. One way of doing this is to give them a passage and ask them to find “scene” words:

When someone does something, they have to do it somewhere. Action is situated. It happens in a time and place. We can call a time and place where something happens a “scene,” as in the phrase “the scene of the crime.” When a writer begins a story, the first few paragraphs usually “set the scene.” Here is the first paragraph of a famous short story, “Hill Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway. As you read the paragraph, try to identify “scene” words and phrases, words and phrases that are associated with places or parts of places where things might happen.

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.

How many words did you find? For example, the “Ebro” is a river. That is a place. It has formed a valley, and there are hills. There are names of cities. There are also location words such as “side” and “between.”

The Hemingway passage “sets the scene” for the story, but you could substitute a passage from almost any literary work. I would rate this activity a “2” on my scale because the teacher is supplying the passage and asking the questions.

Next, I would like to explore the relationship between the scene and the people in it, what Burke will call a scene→agent ratio.

Write a paragraph about how where you grew up (scene) influenced who you are as a person. You can define the “scene” in various ways big or small–a country, a city or town, a neighborhood, a school, an ethnic community, a household, a family, etc.

This writing task will initiate a scene→agent ratio without using all of Burke’s terms. The task itself is a “4,” because the students are deciding what to write about and working independently. We could transition to a “3” type of activity by having students share their paragraphs in groups or pairs and commenting further on the ways that scenes influence the people in them.

At this point, the students have been introduced to the concept of “scene” and have worked on the relationship between scenes and agents with knowing very much about Burke’s entire scheme. They are now ready to read my short introduction to Burke’s pentad. This is a “Focused Instruction” activity, a “1” on my scale. It is essentially a lecture.

I will follow this with some group activities using the pentad to analyze popular movies, moving from “2” type “guided instruction” activities to “3” type collaborative activities. At the end they will get an independent writing assignment. I will describe these activities in detail in a following post.  So far, I have introduced some new concepts, explored them a bit with examples, and asked students to apply them.  In the following post, they will begin to use them for their own purposes.

Using Kenneth Burke’s Pentad

Note: Updated 11/8/18 with additional literary examples from The Great Gatsby, better citations, and other minor adjustments.  Some preliminary ideas for turning this into a mini-module are here.

Literary critic and rhetorician Kenneth Burke calls humans “the symbol using animal.” In his long career exploring how humans communicate, he has invented a variety of systems for analyzing speech and writing. In his book A Grammar of Motives he describes what is perhaps his most useful device, a five-term system for analyzing the motivation of characters that he calls the “pentad” (xv).

Most of us are familiar with the the five W’s—Who, What, When, Where, and Why—sometimes called “the reporter’s questions.” A sixth question, “How?” is often added. These questions are designed to elicit the basic facts of a situation. A good news story should answer all of these questions in the first three paragraphs. Everything after that is added detail.

Burke’s pentad is similar, but rather than facts, he is interested in motives. His set of terms is designed to help us think about what motivates the things that people do. Here are Burke’s terms:

PentadChart

Note that Burke collapses “when” and “where” into “scene” and “how” becomes “agency.”

The terms “act” and “scene” may remind you of a play and you would not be entirely wrong, although in a play an “act” is a major section of the play and not an individual action.  Burke calls his system, “dramatism” in part because it treats real life as if it were a drama.  In Shakespeare’s play As You Like It, a character says “All the world’s a stage,/
And all the men and women merely players.” Burke would agree.  Burke says,

Dramatism centers on observations of this sort: for there to be an act, there must be an agent.  Similarly, there must be a scene in which the agent acts.  To act in a scene, the agent must employ some means, or agency. And it can be called an act in the full sense of the term only if it involves a purpose (that is, if a support happens to give way and one falls, such motion on the agent’s part is not an act, but an accident).  These five terms (act, scene agent, agency, purpose) have been labeled the dramatistic pentad; the aim of calling attention to them in this way is to show how the functions which they designate operate in the imputing of motives (A Grammar of Motives and a Rhetoric of Motives 1962, Introduction).  (Gusfield 135)

Shifting Points of View

Each term represents a perspective or point of view. There is no right way to answer the questions posed by the terms in a particular situation. Rather than a tool for finding right answers, the pentad is a tool for shifting your point of view around to see new possible arguments and ways of thinking about a situation. It can be used to discover the gaps, ambiguities, and contradictions in an opponent’s arguments, plus find ways to counter them by taking on a completely different perspective yourself.

Though newcomers to this system often start by looking at a situation and trying to answer all of the questions as a sort of checklist, the most useful way to use the terms is to combine two of the terms into what Burke calls “ratios.” The most important question is almost always, “What caused or motivated the act?” A lot of the most useful combinations will have “act” on the right side and another term on the left side, representing the source of the motivation you want to emphasize.

Some Examples

We often think that when people do something, they do it either because of their own personal nature (agent→act) or because of their purpose (purpose→act). (Here I am using an arrow to show that the motivation for the act comes from the term on the left. You could think of the arrow as representing something like “leads to.”)

However, there are many other useful combinations. Let’s imagine a neighborhood that has a lot of graffiti. Young people are painting slogans, gang signs, four-letter words, and other messages on buildings, bridges, billboards, and even garage doors. Homeowners and businesses are upset about it. The people doing this are agents. Painting the graffiti is an act. What motivates this act?

In this example, some people in the community argue that the young people have no respect for the property of others, so they commit this vandalism. Burke would call that an agent→act ratio. Bad people commit bad acts. The solution to the problem, defined by this combination, might be to punish or re-educate the agents. However, others argue that the bad neighborhood creates bad people who do this. That would be a scene→agent ratio (We could actually think of this as a three term combination, scene→agent→act.) Here the solution might be to improve the neighborhood through addressing root causes, such as poverty or homelessness. On the other hand, perhaps young people see all of the graffiti in the neighborhood and want to imitate the behavior. That would be a scene→act ratio which might imply a graffiti removal campaign to clean up the city. Finally, someone else might argue that the graffiti is legitimate political or artistic expression. That would be a purpose→act ratio. In that case, the solution might be to engage with the community and address the issues that the perpetrators are talking about. Each of these ratios defines the problem in a different way and implies a different kind of solution. Each implies different kinds of arguments. It is not clear that any one of these perspectives is “correct,” but they are all possible positions. The pentad has opened up a lot of possibilities for discussing the situation.

Defining the Terms

In the example above, the “act” was consistently defined as painting graffiti. Also as noted above, because we are talking about motivation, the act tends to be central no matter what other terms are put into play. How you define the act may totally change the argument. Perhaps one side says the act was murder, while the other says it was self-defense. Similarly, what you call the agent can have important rhetorical effects. One man’s terrorist, is another man’s freedom fighter. Notice also how the scene often defines an act. If a soldier in the scene of war kills an enemy, we don’t call it murder. However, if the same man kills someone in his hometown in a bar fight, we define the act in a different way.

Often we are using the pentad to analyze a speech or a text that someone has written. Beginners often make the mistake of defining the writing of the text as the “act.” That makes the author the “agent,” the computer or other writing tool the “agency,” the society or the audience the “scene,” and the author’s point the “purpose.” This is not the most interesting way to use the pentad because each analysis tends to be exactly the same.

The Pentad in Action

Let’s say that a writer in an online newspaper has written an editorial arguing that graffiti artists are criminals who should be caught and given jail time. The writer is arguing that there should be increased enforcement and punishment. You recognize this as an agent→act combination. However, you think that at least some of the graffiti expresses real issues that are important in the community. You think that problems in the neighborhood are causing the inhabitants to express their voices in the only way they know. You see this not as a (bad) agent→act combination, but as scene→act. And instead of defining the act as vandalism, you want to define it as political expression.

Of course, when you write your response, you don’t mention agent→act or scene→act. Your readers would not know these terms (unless you are writing for your teacher). The pentad is your own secret tool. However, you describe the neighborhood problems and the ways in which the graffiti addresses them. You use this to build a case for addressing the real problems. Your readers do not need to know that you have used Burke’s pentad to think clearly about the issue and to plan your response. They just see the results of your analysis.

Burke’s pentad can be used in almost any rhetorical situation. For example, recently in the news there was a controversy about an alleged sexual assault that happened at a high school party long ago. Much of the discussion was about how much beer underage high school students were accustomed to drinking at the time. At one point, the accused said something like, “Everybody was doing it.” This is a clear scene→act combination. He is saying, “Everybody drank beer, so I drank beer too.” Alcohol can also be an instrument or “agency” of assault. Some people who were part of that scene said that they observed young men spiking the punch with grain alcohol or drugs to make girls more vulnerable to assault and to reduce their ability to consent to a sexual act. In this case we have an agency→act combination, quite a horrifying one. We could also turn this around and ask, “What kind of agent would commit this act?” or “What does this act tell us about the agent?” That would be an act→agent combination, in this case with the “act” on the left side.

Literary Criticism

Believe it or not, Burke’s pentad can also be used for literary criticism. For example, in The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway describes West Egg, the place he has rented a house as “one of the strangest communities in North America” (4). Across the bay “the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered across the water” (5). The newly rich and the not-so-rich live in West Egg, while the truly rich who have inherited their wealth and prestige live in East Egg. Gatsby lives in West Egg while Daisy, his love, lives in East Egg, making Gatsby immediately suspicious to the truly wealthy. Burke would call this a scene→agent ratio. In this combination, the “scene,” which can be a place, a culture, or a historical moment, forms the nature and character of the “agent,” the person who acts. At one point, Tom Buchanan calls Gatsby “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (130). For Tom, if you are from nowhere, you are nobody, and for him that is the ultimate insult.

When Tom and Daisy attend one of Gatsby’s parties, Gatsby points out various famous people including an actress and her director. He identifies people by what they do, an act→agent combination. He introduces Tom to people as “Mr. Buchanan . . . the polo player” (105). Tom rejects this act→agent ratio.

“I’d rather not be the polo player,” said Tom pleasantly, I’d rather look at all these famous people in—in oblivion.” (105)

Tom does not need fame to feel important. He’s too rich. If we think of wealth as a tool for doing things, in Burke’s terms an “agency,” we could say that instead of his actions, Tom is defined by his wealth, an agency→agent ratio.

It is also possible for the scene in which the act takes place to motivate the act, a scene→act ratio. In this novel, the action moves from East Egg to West Egg, and from East Egg to New York, passing through “the Valley of Ashes.” The Valley of Ashes is where Wilson, the gas station owner, and his wife Myrtle, with whom Tom is having an affair, live. Myrtle wants to marry Tom to get out of this place, a scene-act ratio.

Conclusions

The pentad is especially useful if you are trying to respond to an article that you think you disagree with. How does the writer define the act? If the writer is emphasizing the agent, what happens if you look at it from the point of view of the scene? If the writer is emphasizing a tool, such as some kind of new technology (agency), what if you emphasize the purpose? The pentad is a way of shifting perspectives that just might lead you to some winning arguments.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley:Univ. Of California Press, 1945.

Gusfield, Joseph R. ed. Kenneth Burke: On Symbols and Society. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.

Click here to download this post as a .pdf for classroom use.

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