In Your Own Words

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When I was in grad school in the 1980’s, various works of Mikhail Bakhtin, most written several decades before, were being translated from Russian for the first time. The ideas in these books and essays were refreshingly different and had interesting implications for work in fields such as literary criticism, philosophy, and linguistics, causing a Bakhtin boom that lasted about 10 years. Though the boom is long past, it is still common to find citations of Bakhtin in critical works in many different disciplines.

Note: Most of Bakhtin’s work was written under the authoritarian regime of Josef Stalin. Intellectuals were always in danger. Bakhtin avoided being shot, as some of his friends were, but he was exiled to Kazakhstan for many years. Some of his books were published under the names of his friends. Some, such as Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, include Marxist terminology in order to avoid censorship or political trouble.

Bakhtin’s ideas are simpler, and more useful, than they first appear. Part of the difficulty is his terminology. In a series of posts, I will attempt to recast some of Bakhtin’s basic concepts into more accessible terms and apply them to teaching and learning. In this post, I want to talk about what it really means when we ask students to write something in their “own words.”

No Man is Adam

Bakhtin is fond of saying that no man is Adam. No speaker is “the first speaker, the one who disturbs the eternal silence of the universe” (Speech Genres 69). We do not invent the words we use, like Adam naming all of the animals and plants in the garden of Eden. The words we use belong to the language, and we get them from other speakers. Every word we use, and many of the phrases and combinations too, we got from someone else. We cannot own words. There is no such thing as “your own words.” Bakhtin also argues that a word continues to resonate with all of the voices that have spoken it before. We get the word from a context, from a conversation, and some of that context sticks to it.

So, what do we really mean when we ask a student to use their own words? When we say that, we are usually concerned about plagiarism. However, it is not the theft of words that is the problem. Bakhtin calls the word, “a bridge thrown between myself and the other” (Marxism 86) When a student pastes a passage from a website into an essay, they are hiding behind a wall of dead words, words that are not an authentic response in a dialogue between speakers. Bakhtin says

The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes “one’s own” only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions. (Dialogic Imagination 293)

Note how active that word “appropriate” is. We grab our words from other mouths and use them for our own purposes.

The “Utterance”

If we cannot “own” words, how can words become “dialogic” in this sense? For Bakhtin, the basic unit of conversation is the “utterance,” which he defines as a bit of speech that is complete enough for a response. He notes that we are already responding internally even when we begin to hear the utterance. This back and forth saying and responding is the essence of dialog. In dialog, each participant is both listener and speaker, taking turns.

Authoritative Discourse

Bakhtin makes a distinction between “authoritative” and “internally persuasive” utterances (Dialogic Imagination 342). An authoritative utterance is one that does not seek a response other than agreement and perhaps obedience. Dialogue is not initiated. For the student inserting a passage from a website into their essay, that passage is authoritative discourse. Its authoritative nature makes it impossible to alter, paraphrase, or respond. It’s a wall of dead words.

“Internally persuasive” discourse on the other hand initiates a response. It fits into the thinking system of the listener. The response might be agreement or disagreement, but the meaning created by the utterance can trigger a response. Dialogue ensues.

Ideological Becoming

Can authoritative discourse become internally persuasive? Yes. This is the process that Bakhtin calls “ideological becoming” (Dialogic Imagination 342) “Ideology” in Bakhtin means something like “thinking system.” It does not have the political connotations that it normally has in English. Your thinking system is made of words. New words can be assimilated into your thinking system, but it takes time.

Time is the problem here. Most “plagiarism” that students engage in is when they take an utterance from another dialogue in which they are not a participant, not an addressee, and simply mouth it without making a response. This usually happens because they are being forced by an authority such as a teacher to enter into a dialogue with a monological authoritative discourse that they have no way to respond to. The shortcut they take is to grab some utterances that look relevant and mimic participation in the dialogue.

As I noted above, the word is a bridge between myself and the other. New words assimilated into the thinking system create new pathways of thinking. Even one new word opens up new perspectives. Students encounter giant piles of authoritative pages in their daily school lives. The way in is through the words and through dialogue with the words, eventually a dialogue with the author. Education and learning are all about what Bakhtin calls, “ideological becoming.” Students need the opportunity and the time.

What Is the Meaning of Retirement?

It is good for blog posts to have images. Here’s a LOLcat meme I made. I’ll explain more about this later.

CatinBowl-meme-1b

 

Five years ago I stepped down from chairing the ERWC program and officially retired. However, I enrolled in what CSU calls the “Faculty Early Retirement Program” or “FERP.” This allowed me to teach half-time for five years, but those five years are up. I thought that I would spend those years teaching fun courses like Science Fiction and Fantasy. I also thought that I would be teaching face-to-face. However, the rhetorician we hired to replace me left after less than two years, so I ended up teaching writing courses and seminars, whatever the department needed. And then there was the pandemic. I learned how to teach online, in Blackboard and then Canvas. I got pretty good at it. All in all, not what I expected, but interesting.

A Career

I have done a lot of things. I have washed dishes in a convalescent hospital, delivered newspapers, worked as a shipping and receiving clerk, driven a delivery van, worked for an insurance company, and loaded trucks for United Parcel Service. My first teaching job was at Cal State L.A. teaching ESL in the American Culture and Language Program (ACLP), an Extended University program started by a Lithuanian married to a Korean. I’ve tutored writing and taught Basic Writing, Freshman Composition, and Professional Writing courses. I started two University Writing Centers, one at Cal State L.A. and one at Cal Poly Pomona, and directed each of them for nine years. I was Secretary, Composition Coordinator, and then President of CSU English Council. I chaired the ERWC task force and then the Steering Committee for 15 years. In 2010, I stepped down from the writing center and began teaching full time in the English and Foreign Languages Department.

In the English Department I taught 16 different courses, including some that I took over in emergency situations. I took over the myth course when the professor had to go in the hospital. I learned a great deal about Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Norse eddas, staying about one or two myths ahead of the students. Near the end of my last semester, one of my colleagues who is in the Navy Reserve was called up for deployment and I was asked to take over his “Bible as Literature” course. That course was about as far out of my area of expertise as it could be, but I agreed. Fortunately, they had already finished the Old Testament. The instructor found some audio files of lectures he had recorded in spring 2020, when we all had to suddenly go online, so I edited these and turned it into a flipped classroom with online lectures and in-class discussion. It was actually fun.

What to Do Now?

I have been teaching for forty years or so. Now I am not. So what do I do?

I have been writing science fiction stories. I actually sold one. I will continue to do that.

I have been playing guitar since I was in high school. I also play cajon and banjo (a little). I will continue to do that.

I intend to keep posting to this blog. My intent from the beginning on this site was to demystify theory and turn it into usable concepts and strategies for teachers and students. I want to continue to do that. Right now, I am interested in applying the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, particularly his concept of “heteroglossia” or “multi-voiced discourse,” to 1) issues in quoting, paraphrasing, and using sources and 2) related issues in the creation, use, and interpretation of internet memes. Trading memes is as natural as breathing for the average internet user, but they are rhetorically complex and an interesting aspect of digital culture to explore. There are many possible projects for students. Perhaps a mini-module is in order.

I also want to work on strategies for teaching science fiction and fantasy stories.

Back to the Meme

Back to the meme, as promised above: In researching memes, I came across a description of the genre of LOLcat, so I decided to try my hand at creating one. My first effort said “You gots a problem with this?” and “I doesn’t care.” That version was pronounced “lame” by my friend’s granddaughter, so I changed the text. I fear, however, that the young lady’s judgement will be the same, if not worse. In a previous post, I created a Doge meme, another specific meme genre. It seems to me that part of being a rhetorician these days is playing with concepts and playing with technology. I will continue to do that too.

One Last Thing

When creating teaching materials, it is the classroom that keeps us grounded. I will be out of the classroom, at least for a while. Because I am not a high school teacher, I have always relied on solid feedback from high school teachers to improve my materials. I need it even more now. Suggestions, comments, complaints have always been welcome, but will be even more so now.

C. S. Peirce’s Pathways to Belief

(This post offers a summary and analysis of C. S. Peirce’s four methods for resolving doubt. At the end I apply this system in some general activities for students. The fact that we resolve our doubts in different ways has clear rhetorical and political implications. I should point out that Peirce is not talking about religious faith, but facts, courses of action, and solutions.)

I recently read an interview in the New York Times Magazine with science fiction writer Neil Stephenson, whose most well-known books are probably Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. Stephenson is a writer of big ideas who does lots of historical research, so I was interested when he said that he was reading “The Fixation of Belief” by American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced like “purse”), known for developing the branch of philosophy called “Pragmatism” and for his work in semiotics, the study of sign systems. In this essay, Peirce lists what Stephenson describes as “four methods that people use to decide what they’re going to believe.” Stephenson summarizes this list as follows:

The first one is called the method of tenacity, which means you decide what you’re going to believe and you stick to it regardless of logic or evidence. The next method is called the method of authority, where you agree with other people that you’re all going to believe what some authority figure tells you to believe. That’s probably most common throughout history. The third method is called the a priori method, and the idea is, let’s be reasonable and try to come up with ways to believe things that sound reasonable to us. Which sounds great, but if it’s not grounded in any fact-checking methodology, then you end up just agreeing to believe things by consensus — which may be totally wrong. The fourth method is the scientific method. It basically consists of accepting the fact that you might be wrong, and since you might be wrong, you need some way for judging the truth of statements and changing your mind when you’ve got solid evidence to the contrary. . . . But what we’ve got now is almost everybody using Method 1, 2 or 3. We’ve got a lot of authoritarians who can’t be swayed by logic or evidence, but we’ve also got a lot of a priori people who want to be reasonable and think of themselves as smarter and more rational than the authoritarians but are going on the basis of their feelings — what they wish were true — and both of them hate the scientific rationalists, who are very few in number.

That seems to me like a pretty accurate description of the current state of affairs, though Peirce was writing about this in the 1870’s. Peirce’s framework might help students figure out our current polarization, why people believe what they do and where their own beliefs come from.

Peirce argues that all inquiry begins with doubt. Belief brings us comfort, but doubt is an irritant. When we are irritated by doubt, we try to eliminate it through inquiry to bring us back into the comfort of belief through one of the four paths described above by Stephenson. I will expand and apply them below.

Tenacity

Of course, one way to avoid doubt is simply to never question your beliefs and avoid all facts, arguments, or authorities that might disturb them. This is the approach Peirce calls “tenacity” because such a person holds on to their beliefs at all costs. He doesn’t exactly condemn this view because such a person, safe in the comfort of belief, may be happy and may have great peace of mind. Peirce is a Pragmatist, so he is more interested in what works than in absolute Truth. However, he does note that we are social beings, and sooner or later we will encounter individuals with different views who may cause doubt that will unsettle us. He compares this approach to the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, which is perfectly happy while it can’t see the lion, but may come to an unhappy end. Most of us know people like this. You probably have someone in mind as you read this.

Authority

Peirce’s discussion of the second approach, the method of authority, is not as benign as Stephenson’s summary would imply. Peirce begins with a thought experiment:

Let the will of the state act, then, instead of that of the individual. Let an institution be created which shall have for its object to keep correct doctrines before the attention of the people, to reiterate them perpetually, and to teach them to the young; having at the same time power to prevent contrary doctrines from being taught, advocated, or expressed. Let all possible causes of a change of mind be removed from men’s apprehensions. Let them be kept ignorant, lest they should learn of some reason to think otherwise than they do. Let their passions be enlisted, so that they may regard private and unusual opinions with hatred and horror. Then, let all men who reject the established belief be terrified into silence. Let the people turn out and tar-and-feather such men, or let inquisitions be made into the manner of thinking of suspected persons, and when they are found guilty of forbidden beliefs, let them be subjected to some signal punishment. When complete agreement could not otherwise be reached, a general massacre of all who have not thought in a certain way has proved a very effective means of settling opinion in a country.

Of course this pattern has been repeated throughout history by dictators, religious leaders, and powerful criminal organizations. It is often successful for a good long time and Peirce notes that some of the greatest building projects in human history have been accomplished by such regimes. He acknowledges that it is also possible for people to be happy in such an environment, though with some reservations. He says, “For the mass of mankind, then, there is perhaps no better method than this. If it is their highest impulse to be intellectual slaves, then slaves they ought to remain.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Peirce posits that when individuals from such an authoritarian regime encounter people from other communities they will discover that these foreigners believe things that are different from what they believe, yet are still successful. This can lead to critical thinking and is clearly why authoritarian regimes attempt to control information and contact with outsiders.

A Priori

Rejecting the authoritarian method leads to Peirce’s third path to belief which he calls “a priori,” using a philosophical term from Latin that means using general principles to predict likely outcomes. Peirce says of this method,

Let the action of natural preferences be unimpeded, then, and under their influence let men, conversing together and regarding matters in different lights, gradually develop beliefs in harmony with natural causes. . . . Systems of this sort have not usually rested upon any observed facts, at least not in any great degree. They have been chiefly adopted because their fundamental propositions seemed “agreeable to reason.” This is an apt expression; it does not mean that which agrees with experience, but that which we find ourselves inclined to believe.

As Peirce notes in this passage, the problem with this method, though it is more intellectually respectable than the first two, is that it is not necessarily based on observed facts, but is more like the development of fashion or taste. We might think of this method as shared habits of mind, ways of thinking that seem reasonable to most people in our group. It is not objective; instead it is a kind of group subjectivity obtained through consensus. This is the realm of rhetoric and for purposes of social cohesion, progress, even happiness, it can work quite well. It is what most of us do, most of the time. However, it does not lead to “Truth” with a capital T.

Scientific Method

The fourth path to belief is the scientific method. The a priori method works pretty well for things that we are familiar with through long experience. However, sometimes problems arise which are not solved by our previous habits of mind, and new doubts arise. The Covid-19 pandemic we are currently experiencing is one such case. Peirce says, “To satisfy our doubts, therefore, it is necessary that a method should be found by which our beliefs may be caused by nothing human, but by some external permanency — by something upon which our thinking has no effect.” Scientists attempt to conduct objective research by observing and measuring phenomena, creating a hypothesis, devising methods to test the hypothesis, and sharing the results with other scientists for confirmation. Each scientific discipline has its own theories, methods, and standards for conducting research, but the basic scientific method is common to all of them.

Science is the most rigorous mode of inquiry. The goal is to find out what is really going on, not prove what we wish were going on, or even prove what we think is going on. It is also the most the most rigorous form of doubt. This is both the power and the weakness of science. Scientists are always doubting. Each answer leads to more questions. Each study is narrow and limited in its conclusions. Did rising C02 levels cause more hurricanes or cause a particular hurricane to be more intense? Does the fact that a rover detected methane on Mars mean there is life there? Do masks prevent the spread of Covid-19? On each of these questions, scientists have data and can draw conclusions, but will probably hedge and qualify their answers. The scientific method is an attempt to factor human nature out of the inquiry, but when the results are presented to non-scientists, human nature re-enters the inquiry and conclusions are drawn according to the a priori method.

Advantages of Each Method

Peirce thinks that scientific inquiry is the best way to turn doubt into belief, but he notes that the other three paths have their advantages.

The a priori method is distinguished for its comfortable conclusions. It is the nature of the process to adopt whatever belief we are inclined to, and there are certain flatteries to the vanity of man which we all believe by nature, until we are awakened from our pleasing dream by some rough facts. The method of authority will always govern the mass of mankind; and those who wield the various forms of organized force in the state will never be convinced that dangerous reasoning ought not to be suppressed in some way. . . . But most of all I admire the method of tenacity for its strength, simplicity, and directness. Men who pursue it are distinguished for their decision of character, which becomes very easy with such a mental rule. They do not waste time in trying to make up their minds what they want, but, fastening like lightning upon whatever alternative comes first, they hold to it to the end, whatever happens, without an instant’s irresolution. This is one of the splendid qualities which generally accompany brilliant, unlasting success. It is impossible not to envy the man who can dismiss reason, although we know how it must turn out at last.

Ironically, those who practice tenacity are the most decisive, while scientists, who have the the greatest possibility of being correct, are the most inclined to be cautious in their claims and decisions!

Using the System

Pierce presents this system as if individuals largely practice one mode of belief, changing modes only when they encounter a successful and persuasive person who thinks very differently, or when circumstances simply make it impossible to continue to believe what they believe. In practice, most of us shift modes all the time, depending on the nature of the doubt. Let’s simplify the system a bit:

  1. Tenacity: I know what I believe. Don’t bother to confuse me with your so-called facts.
  2. Authority: I will believe what those with power or with knowledge and expertise tell me to believe.
  3. Habits of Mind (what Peirce calls “a priori”): I will believe what my common sense tells me. I usually agree with my friends and like-minded colleagues.
  4. Science: I will believe what a properly conducted scientific inquiry indicates is true, even if the conclusions are unwelcome or contrary to what I thought before.

If we are going to apply this system to a situation, a conversation, or an article, there are some questions we should ask:

  • What question are we trying to resolve? In other words, what is the doubt?
  • What path to belief (1, 2, 3, or 4) do each of the participants use? In other words, why do they believe what they believe?
  • Who has authority or expertise? Why do they have it? (When Peirce describes “authority” he has dictators in mind, but even if we mainly act according to our habits of mind, we might also decide to follow the guidance of scientific or medical authorities. Not all authority is authoritarian or coercive.)

Activities

Activity 1: In a small group of four or five, discuss a controversial issue. You might start with a broad question such as “What do you think we should do about X and why?” Assign one member to take notes on the discussion, writing down the name of the speaker and the gist of the argument they make. After each member of the group has spoken, look at the notes and try to decide which of the four paths to belief each speaker has followed. Remember that each path to belief has its advantages. After this discussion, the group reports their findings to the class.

Activity 2: This activity is similar to Activity 1, except that it is in writing. A group of four or five takes up a controversial issue. For 10 minutes, each member writes on the question, “What do you think we should do about X and why?” When the group has finished writing, each student passes their paper to another student. That student tries to decide which of the four paths to belief the writer has used in writing their response. Remember that each path to belief has its advantages. If there is time, pass the papers to another student and repeat. The responders discuss their findings with the group, then the group reports out to the class what they have learned from the activity.

Activity 3: Take two different op-ed pieces on a current controversial topic. In groups of four or five, have students analyze which paths to belief the writers relied on in making their arguments. After the discussion, the groups report out to the class. This activity will work best if the two opinion pieces make radically different arguments.

Our current society is quite polarized on many issues. Peirce does not talk much about conflicts between different pathways to belief, but I think that much of the conflict stems from conflicting pathways to belief taken by different groups. Activities such as the three above may help surface some of these conflicts and open possibilities for dialogue.

Download this post as a .pdf here.

Works Cited

Marchese, David. “Neal Stephenson Thinks Greed Might Be the Thing That Saves Us.” The New York Times Magazine. 9 Jan. 2022.

Peirce, Charles S. “The Fixation of Belief” Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877), pp. 1-15.

Persuading the Will to Action

Recent national events caused me to think about George Campbell again. I think this eighteenth-century rhetorician has something to say about how conspiracy theories take hold and move otherwise reasonable people to irrational action.

In a previous post I discussed George Campbell’s sermon “The Duty of Allegiance” as an argument against the Declaration of Independence and the American revolution. George Campbell also wrote a major rhetorical work, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, which is an interesting title because philosophy and rhetoric have been at odds since Plato. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, the editors of The Rhetorical Tradition, say that this work “has been justly praised as the turning point in the development of rhetoric in the eighteenth century, as the first modern rhetoric, and even as the first real advance in rhetorical theory since Aristotle” (901).

Campbell’s System

In devising his system, Campbell draws on philosophers such as Aristotle, Locke, and Hume, plus Christian moral reasoning and empirical science. However, the essence of his rhetorical thought is fairly simple. In his view, the mind has four “faculties,” and the goal of every speech is “to enlighten the understanding, to please the imagination, to move the passions, or to influence the will” (902). Each of these ends could be a primary purpose of the speech, but in his view, if the end is to move the will, the speech will move through the other faculties in a regular progression because “each subsequent species is founded on the preceding” (902). Here is a chart:

Campbell-4Faculties-cropped

This progression through the faculties is what I thought of when I heard about the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Thousands of people were moved to this action. This involves persuading the will. How was this done?

Informing (or Misinforming) the Understanding

In Campbell’s system, persuading the will starts with informing the understanding. But what if this is not informing, but misinforming? Campbell does not really deal with this possibility in The Philosophy of Rhetoric, but in his sermon against the American revolution, as I noted in my previous post, he calls Americans who support the rebellion “our deluded fellow subjects on the other side of the Atlantic,” who “are but the tools of a few ambitious, interested, and designing men, both on their side of the water and on ours.” Campbell is arguing here that supporters of the American revolution have been misinformed by the ringleaders. One aspect of this misinformation is blaming the king for what the parliament has done.

Pleasing the Imagination

Once we have been misinformed, the next step is to activate the imagination. We can imagine a world in which people like ourselves are powerful. We can imagine a world in which the things we have been misinformed about have been corrected, in which the wrongdoers we have been misinformed about will be punished, the scapegoats scorned and eliminated.

Moving the Passions

The next stage is to move the passions. Even with a vision of an attractive imagined world based on misinformation, we are not yet ready to act to bring it into being. We need to feel it. We need to be angry enough or inspired enough to get off the couch, stop ranting on social media, and do something. In today’s media environment, this is mostly done with memes, images, and slick political ads.

Influencing the Will to Action

The next step is to move the will to action. There are those who know how to push us forward in this final step without overtly telling us exactly what to do and taking responsibility for it.

Using the System for Analysis and Persuasion

The point is that this process, which could be used for positive ends, is subverted by misinformation at the start. We might reduce it to the following questions:

  • What are the facts? (Countermeasure: Fact-checking)
  • What do they mean? (Countermeasure: Argument)
  • How do you feel? (Countermeasure: Sympathy, empathy, and calm)
  • What are you going to do about it? (Countermeasure: Deterrence)

These questions and countermeasures, judiciously employed, might help counteract the powerful effects of conspiracy theories. They can also be used to promote fact-based and well-reasoned policies.

Conclusions

Of course, this is a vastly simplified and inadequate summary of George Campbell’s work, which is certainly worth further study. Campbell’s attempt to move from Aristotelian syllogisms and enthymemes to a more empirically based system of argument is certainly more consistent with modern science than classical rhetoric is. And though his psychology, based on four faculties of the mind, is outdated, it still provides a useful way of conceptualizing the process of persuading people to action.

Works Cited

Bizzell, Patricia. and Bruce Herzberg, Eds. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001.

Thesis-Driven Versus Inquiry-Driven Assignments

Does the strong emphasis on the thesis/support model in our schools have something to do with the polarization of our society?

In my previous post I described a “Survey of Opinion” assignment in which I asked students to find three op-eds taking different positions on an issue they were interested in and analyze the way each writer talked about the issue, how they framed it, what terms they used, etc. They found the articles, but instead of doing the rhetorical analysis, many of them crafted a thesis statement on the issue and used the articles to support their own positions, essentially writing their own op-eds. They were quite surprised when I told them they had not done the assignment.

In response I wrote the post “Why Do Rhetorical Analysis?” in which I argued that a rhetorician must cultivate a “moment of neutrality” and step back from the ideological fray in order to objectively analyze the discourse.

Later in the course I assigned another inquiry-driven project that was modeled on investigative journalism, inspired by Marilyn Cooper’s article “How Bruno Latour Teaches Writing” (185-201) in the collection Thinking with Bruno Latour in Rhetoric and Composition edited by Paul Lynch and Nathaniel Rivers. Bruno Latour is a sociologist whose main contribution is something called Actor-Network Theory or ANT, which treats both humans and nonhumans (machines, animals, texts, and hybrids, among others) as potential actors or “actants” in a network.

Basic concepts from Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT)

  • None of us acts alone. Everything we do is part of an Actor-Network.
  • Actor-Networks are made up of both human and non-human actants, such as animals and computers. From this perspective, we might see the novel corona virus as an actant.
  • An Actor-Network is made up of intermediaries and mediators. An act flows through an intermediary without being changed. However, the input and output of a mediator is not the same, so the act is transformed to an extent.
  • Actor-Networks are constantly being formed and unformed.
  • We study an Actor-Network by describing it, not interpreting or explaining it.

I also told my students that in this assignment, “You don’t start with a thesis and look for ways to support it. That is actually not a legitimate way to proceed with research anyway. That is cherry picking items that support the thesis and ignoring conflicting information. Instead, you might start with a research question, such as ‘How did this happen?’ or ‘How did this get here?’”

A Model Text

As a model, I gave my students an article from the New Yorker (“Donald Trump’s Worst Deal” by Adam Davidson) about a Trump Tower in Azerbaijan, a 5-star luxury hotel which has been completed but never opened, so inconveniently located that local taxi drivers can see it, but don’t know how to get to it. How in the world did this hotel get there? The writer describes the scene of the hotel, then proceeds to trace the network of connections that caused it to be built, including politicians, financiers, investors, contractors, lawyers, oligarchs, and powerful families in Azerbaijan, Iran, and of course the Trump Organization. The writer has no explicit thesis for all of these connections, but part of the network extends to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and the most charitable conclusion that a reader can draw is that the Trump Organization is none too careful about whom it will deal with.

To help my students engage with the lengthy text, I divided it into sections and annotated it. I also gave them a handout with just the annotations. I am sure that some of them only read the handout.

The Resulting Papers

I got some good papers from this. One student was investigating Planned Parenthood and found that the founder, Margret Sanger, had connections to the eugenics movement that also inspired Adolph Hitler. Another discussed a bridge over the Grand Canyon and looked at the plans and actions of a Native American tribe, environmentalists, politicians, investors, and the tourist industry, all pulling the project in different directions. Another investigated Mt. Rushmore, and found that not only had the land been stolen from the Lakota, but the sculptor had connections to the KKK and had also been involved in a project, never completed, to make a similar monument to Confederate leaders. These projects followed the dictates of the assignment. No thesis, trace a network of connections, let the reader draw the conclusions.

However, many of the papers took the standard thesis/support approach. They thought they knew that a “research paper” was a paper in which you stated your thesis and found facts to back it up, while mostly ignoring contrary facts and views. They fired up their “research paper generation process” and largely ignored the particulars of the assignment. A middle group did some network tracing, but lapsed into editorializing at various points. I guess we could say that their “moment of neutrality” was brief and unstable.

Conclusions

Of course, this kind of writing is never entirely objective. When the author of “Trump’s Worst Deal” began his investigation, he undoubtedly thought he would find corruption. But going into the investigation with an open mind, following the connections where they lead, and letting the reader draw the conclusions is ultimately more persuasive than the standard thesis-driven op-ed. And both the writer and the reader learn so much more.

I might be stretching things a bit, but I think that the strong emphasis on the thesis/support model in our schools may have something to do with the polarization our society experiences today. The “Survey of Opinion” assignment has behind it the question “What do people think and how do they talk about it?” The network tracing assignment asks “Who are the actors, what are the facts, and where do they lead?” The thesis/support model, at least in its most simplistic form, is about “This is what I think and this is why I’m right.”

Perhaps we should diversify our assignment game a bit.

Why Do Rhetorical Analysis?

In my writing courses I teach a lot of rhetorical concepts and assign a great many rhetorical analysis activities and papers (a basic post with instructions for rhetorical analysis is here.) However, instead of analyzing what a writer is trying to do and how they are doing it, many students respond by agreeing or disagreeing with the position the writer takes. For example, I recently asked students to find three op-eds taking different positions on an issue they were interested in and analyze the way each writer talked about the issue, how they framed it, what terms they used, etc. They found the articles, but many of them crafted a thesis statement on the issue and used the articles to support their own positions. My instructions were detailed (perhaps too detailed, when many students misunderstand an assignment it is almost always the instructor’s fault), but in this case disregarded.

In part, I think this happened because students did what they had been taught to do. They had an issue, so the thing to do is take a position and support it, something that at this point (a junior-level course in college) they had done many, many times before. They thought that they already knew how to do this.

Taking Things Apart

When I read drafts of application essays by engineering students, they almost always talk about how when they were kids they took everything apart to see how it worked. It’s such a cliche that I usually advise them to take that part out. However, why don’t English majors want to take texts apart to see how they work? That is essentially what rhetorical analysis is. And just as when you take a machine apart, you need wrenches, sockets, screwdrivers, pliers, and other tools, rhetoricians have their tools too.

Tools from Classical Rhetoric and Beyond

Aristotle’s three appeals allow us to investigate the role of the writer, the nature of the arguments, and the effects of emotions on the attempt to persuade the reader. The concept of the enthymeme helps us break down the arguments into premises and tease out hidden assumptions.

The sophistic concepts of “mythos” and “nomos” help us think about the big narratives we all share and the unwritten expectations for behavior that guide every community and shock us when they are transgressed.

Stasis theory and Toulmin argumentation help us figure out where the parties disagree and how well their claims are supported. Dissoi Logoi helps us see who benefits and who is hurt by whatever policy we choose. The concept of “exigence” helps us define the rhetorical situation and our reasons for responding to it.

Descriptive outlining updates the classical concept of “arrangement” and helps us see how a text is organized and how the parts work together.

To move to modern rhetoric, Kenneth Burke’s “pentad” helps us Look at the same situation from different perspectives and track different sources of motivation for acts. We can think about, for example, whether it is just to blame an individual or a particular environment for an act. His concept of “Terministic Screens” can help us see how the language we use affects the world we see. His concept of “identification” can help us see how groups form and re-form and how the terms and symbols they use to signal membership relate to arguments and persuasion.

The Right Tool and the Right Attitude

Selecting the right tool for the text and the purpose is a skill gained through practice. Students will gravitate toward the tools they find most useful to them, but they need lots of practice.

They also need to cultivate what might be called “a moment of neutrality.” They need to step back from the issue and analyze what is really going on in the text at hand. If we really disagree with the writer, but the text also seems very persuasive, our question is “How do they do that?” To combat the opposition, we need to understand their moves. But it is also the case that if we can cultivate this moment of neutrality, we may be able to understand where they are coming from and find some common ground.

Finding common ground is the most effective persuasive strategy of all.

Kenneth Burke on Terministic Screens

The terms we use to discuss something have a big effect on our perception of it. In his book Language as Symbolic Action, Kenneth Burke says, “Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (45). Burke calls a terminology a “terministic screen.” We might also call it a terministic “filter.”

What he means is that though we see through words and think about reality in words, no set of words accurately represents reality. The words we use influence how we see. When we speak or write, the words we use can make others see things as we do. Analyzing the terms that a writer or speaker uses can therefore tell us a lot about how they see the world. It also means that if we can get an audience to start using a different set of terms, we might change their views.

Burke’s fundamental example is the distinction between “action” and “motion.” Where Burke sees a motive and an act, a behaviorist sees a “stimulus” and a mechanistic “response.” In the behaviorist terminology, human action is reduced to a serious of chemical reactions, turning us into chemical machines (A Grammar of Motives, 59-60).

An Activity

In this activity, find two articles that take very different positions on an issue. As you read them, collect a list of three to six key terms for each article. These “terms” could be nouns, verbs, adjectives, or phrases. For each term, you will think about the following questions and record your findings in a chart like the one below.

  • What object in reality does the term reflect? What is the denotation?
  • What qualities does the term select from or emphasize about the object? How does the term draw attention to this particular object and away from others?
  • What qualities does this term deflect or conceal?
  • What other terms are related to this term in the system of this terministic screen? What relations do they have?

Here are some examples of different terms that might be used to describe fighters in a political situation:

When you have a set of key terms for each article, compare them to see how they overlap and how they differ. Finally, what is the effect on the attitude of the audience when seeing through these terministic screens?

A copy of this post as a .docx file plus a chart for tracking terms is provided in the link below.

Using Kenneth Burke’s Concept of Identification

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book in which you “identified” strongly with the main character? This is what Kenneth Burke means by “identification.” We want to be like characters we admire. But this is also true in real life.

I took up the topic of Kenneth Burke’s concept of “Identification,” in a previous post, “Identification and Division in the Current Crisis.” In this post, I want to delve further into the concept and explore some possible uses of the concept.

Identification and Division

Burke notes that “Identification,” (and rhetoric itself) is necessary because there is division. In The Rhetoric of Motives he says,

Identification is affirmed with earnestness precisely because there is division. Identification is compensatory to division. If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity. (22)

“Division” is our natural state. However, humans are also social creatures. We form families, tribes, communities, nations, alliances, and movements. Each of these groupings has ways of signaling membership and recognizing outsiders. Problems arise when different groups want to occupy the same territory, or use the same resources. But where there is division, we can try to overcome it by finding common ground.

It is likely that some identification is unconscious. We see or hear a person and we immediately “identify” with them. They seem to be like us in some way, or to be someone we would like to emulate or believe, but we don’t know exactly why. It might be gestures, a tone of voice, a remembrance of someone we admire who is similar in some way. But identification can also be consciously attempted.

Current Politics

We see this in our current politics. A politician has a core “base” of supporters who think like she does. These people strongly identify with their candidate. However, it is usually the case that the “base” is not enough to win the election. The candidate has to find ways to appeal to a larger group, without alienating her base. She has to find ways to signal to other groups that she is one of them too. Sometimes this involves using terms that have one meaning to the base, but have another to an outside group. This strategy is often called a “dogwhistle.” An actual “dogwhistle” is a whistle that when blown produces a sound that is too high pitched for humans to hear, but can be heard by dogs, who can hear a higher frequency range. In politics, by analogy, a “dogwhistle” is term that sounds positive to the base, but neutral to outsiders, who may actually disagree with the implications it has for the base if they understood them.

Identification is not just in politics, however. It is part of persuasion in schools, workplaces, corporate boardrooms and in the news. It is part of families and communities. It is even part of friendships. How does it work?

Tracking Identifications

One way to think about this is to track ways to signal identification. A short list might include:

  • Clothing including uniforms
  • Colors such as gang colors, school colors, red states and blue states, Dodger blue and Angel red
  • Symbols such as flags, insignia, designs, logos
  • Images and memes
  • Words identified with particular viewpoints (including “dogwhistles”)
  • Slogans, maxims, and stock phrases
  • Gestures such as salutes and handshakes
  • Associations with occupations, regions, social classes

Of course, there is some overlap in these categories.

Military uniforms have a long history. At a very basic level they function to help soldiers tell friend from foe and combatants from civilians. Military organizations also have various badges and insignia that indicate rank and achievements. The uniform and various attachments signify to all that this individual is a member of this organization and what role they perform in it. Of course, members of this organization are more skilled in interpreting these signals than outsiders, which increases the insider/outsider effect of identification.

Outside of the military, uniforms and other clothing choices can help observers tell employees from customers, students form teachers, and identify members of social groupings such as athletes, “goths” or other groupings defined by choices in music, sports, gaming, or other cultural activities. Of course, if an individual attempts to identify with a group by wearing its clothing, but gets it wrong in some way, that will unintentionally signal outsiderness. There is nothing more embarrassing than attempting to identify with a group and failing.

Of course, symbols such as flags and logos also define groups. Recently, there has been considerable controversy about the Confederate battle flag, the “stars and bars.” Does it signify “southern pride” or racism and slavery? Does it unify through identification or divide? The answer will probably be found by exploring what groups want to be identified with the symbol.

Internet memes are now a powerful way of signaling identity. Images from films and other media are combined with short phrases to make concise points that often signal a specific point of view.

Inducing Identification (The Ethos Move)

An interesting exercise is to read an article or listen to a speech with identification in mind. We might ask

  • Who is the audience (or audiences) that the writer/speaker wants to persuade?
  • What are some of the things that this audience identifies with?
  • What moves does the writer/speaker make to identify with this audience?
  • How successful is the writer/speaker in getting the audience to identify with them? What goes right and what goes wrong?

Responding to Identification (The Pathos Move)

Another exercise is to analyze your own response to an article or speech. We might ask

  • What are some of the groups I identify with? What are some of the things that I associate with those groups?
  • Do I identify with this writer/speaker? Do I feel part of their group? Why or why not?
  • What moves does the writer/speaker make to try to win my identification? How do I react to these moves?
  • What could this writer/speaker do better to make me identify with them?
  • How much does identification influence my willingness to accept their arguments?

Recognizing False Identifications

Sometimes attempts at identification simply don’t work. The banker in a cowboy hat does not make a convincing member of a group of cattle ranchers. The white politician who doesn’t know how to eat a tamale is unsuccessful in convincing a Latino group that he is simpatico. The democratic politician from Massachusetts looks ridiculous wearing a helmet and sitting in a tank.

However, sometimes identifications are consciously deceptive. They are an attempt to fool the audience into believing that the writer/speaker is something they are not.

For example, from sea stories by Patrick O’Brian I learned that in the 18th century, it was considered a legitimate ruse of war to fly a false flag when encountering and approaching an enemy warship, as long as the true flag went up before a shot was fired. Many English warships were captured French ones because the French built better ships, but the English sailed them better, so this ruse often brought victory. The French saw a French ship flying a French flag. Then suddenly they saw an English ship and an incoming broadside. But firing a shot under a false flag was a court martial offense, in any navy. It was against the rules of war and highly dishonorable.

In our society, is it ever acceptable to pretend to be someone or something you are not by using the terms, symbols, and other signals of identification of another group? If so, under what circumstances? I’ll leave that up to the reader.

This post as a .pdf.

Identification and Division in the Current Crisis

I don’t usually write about politics in this blog because I think that rhetoricians should be as objective as they can be. I often tell my students that their job is to analyze how the rhetoric works and how effective it is, not who has right on their side. But there comes a time when certain things must be addressed.

As I write this, the whole country, already in the midst of a pandemic, is dealing with the anger, grief, and frustration of yet another death of a black man at the hands of police. I want to write about this in terms that Kenneth Burke would use. (A previous post explains more about Burke.) There is a danger that in using theoretical terms to analyze such a visceral and traumatic event, I am putting in too much emotional distance and escaping into cold abstractions. That is not my intent. I want to try to understand what is happening.

On May 25, 2020, a white police officer in Minneapolis put his knee on the neck of a black man and kept it there for nine minutes, even while the suspect complained that he could not breathe. The suspect, George Floyd, died.

Agent-Act Ratio

An agent-act ratio would determine that the act was motivated by the nature of the agent, in this case the police officer. This ratio is at the heart of all of the “bad apple” explanations of police brutality. If a few bad officers are the root of the problem, logically the solution is to investigate and fire those officers and improve hiring procedures. Invoking this ratio has the effect of deflecting blame away from institutions and officials and onto individuals.

However, at least three other officers stood by or assisted in this act. They qualify as co-agents. Are they more bad apples? They are all members of a police department. Are all the officers in the department co-agents responsible for this act? Is the training and culture of the department at fault?

Circumference

What I am doing here is what Burke would call expanding the “circumference.” Burke usually uses this term in talking about the “scene.” The scene, or context for an act can be small, a particular intersection in a particular neighborhood, for example, or it can be as big as a nation and as long as history. But here, as I expand the circumference from one agent, to co-agents, to the whole department, perhaps to police departments throughout the nation, the concept of “agent” begins to become scenic. I’ll get back to scene in a bit.

Agency-Act Ratio

Another aspect of this discussion is how police departments are equipped. In recent years, it has been the practice to sell surplus military gear to police departments. This brings us to an agency-agent ratio. If police are equipped like soldiers with assault rifles, flak jackets, and even armored vehicles (all “agencies” in Burke’s sense), how does that define their role in the community? An individual equipped like a soldier is likely to think of him or herself as a soldier. This is sometimes discussed as a warrior/guardian binary. Is a police officer a warrior at war with the community or a guardian of the safety of the citizens?

In Flint, Michigan, a sheriff, Chris Swanson, put down his riot gear and was invited by protesters to “walk with us.” This sheriff opted to put off the agencies of a warrior and become one with his community, using instead the agencies of negotiation and identification.

Scene-Act Ratio

Of course, the larger question is whether the “scene” of American culture naturally produces acts like the killing of George Floyd. If we are going to define this act through a scene-act ratio, we have to define the circumference quite broadly because acts such as this happen to black people regularly throughout the country. Is racial prejudice and injustice an irredeemable, unerasable part of American society? Is the history of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, segregation, and institutional racism simply too powerful to overcome? I hope not. But overcoming it certainly can’t be achieved by removing a few “bad apples” or retraining the police, though certainly those things should be done.

Identification and Division

For Burke, the most powerful rhetorical strategy is “identification.” He says early in his book, The Rhetoric of Motives, contrasting it with the earlier Grammar of Motives, from which the ratios I was using above came, and the planned Symbolic of Motives, which was never finished

The Rhetoric deals with the possibilities of classification in its partisan aspects; it considers the way in which individuals are at odds with one another, or become identified with groups more or less at odds with one another.

Why “at odds,” you may ask, when the titular term is “identification”? Because, to begin with “identification” is, by the same token, though roundabout, to confront the implications of division. (22)

For Burke, rhetoric would not be necessary if there were no identifications and divisions. And he notes that such rhetoric often depends on “a body of identifications that owe their convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily reinforcement than to any exceptional rhetorical skill” (26).

We have been subjected to nearly four years of this sort of trivial repetition and dull reinforcement, all repeated in the name of division.

However, as I noted above, Sheriff Swanson of Flint, Michigan, at least for the moment, knocked down two divisive barriers,  the black/white divide and the people/police divide, when he put down his battle gear and said, “We want to be with y’all for real so I took the helmet off and laid the batons down. I want to make this a parade, not a protest” (Taylor). We need more actions like this.

Conclusions

As Burke knew, we can never eliminate division from our society. Divisions and identifications are always being re-negotiated. But we are all human, and that is a starting point. We are all Americans too, but we have to be careful, lest we divide ourselves from the rest of the world. Identification starts with respect and builds with recognition of common goals and values. Understanding is often too much to expect, but we can try. At least we can try.

Addendum: Here are a couple of links that I think are quite powerful. A high school teacher who had been in one of my ERWC module development workshops sent me the first one. It’s a powerful impromptu speech, full of pathos, but also arguing that protestors should channel their anger into working within the system, broken as it is. The teacher who sent it to me said, “It hits all the targets of rhetorical appeals in a profound way. I know my students will connect with it and perhaps be inspired to emulate its features in their own writing.”

Rapper Killer Mike gives impassioned speech during Atlanta protests

This second piece is from filmmaker Kasi Lemmons. She says,

As a filmmaker, I help people imagine what’s it’s like to be someone else, to experience things from a character’s point of view — things they never will experience outside the theater. But when it comes to black life in America, there’s only one conclusion I can reach about some white people: You don’t care to put yourself in our shoes. The consequences of this lack of imagination for black Americans are deadly.

White Americans, your lack of imagination is killing us

Both of these pieces ask us to imagine the life of the other. I think that is a first step toward identification rather than division.

This post available as a .pdf.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1950.

Taylor, Ariana. “‘Let’s walk’: Sheriff joins Flint protesters in show of solidarity.” The Detroit News, May 31, 2020.

The Web Requires a New Kind of Reading

Reading on the internet is a new kind of reading. Some of the skills we use when we read printed material still apply, but we need to develop new skills as well. Because almost anyone can post images and text to the internet, we have new questions about who is an expert, who is knowledgeable, and who trustworthy. Because texts link to texts and then to other texts creating hypertexts, we no longer read in a predictable linear fashion. There is a sense in which the entire internet is just one big text. And while the internet is full of helpful volunteers willing to share valuable knowledge, it is also full of pretenders, deceivers, and charlatans with political or criminal agendas.

I used to read the Los Angeles Times every morning. The paper was delivered about 6:30 am and I had read or skimmed most of it by 8:00. News stories covered the basic who, what, when, where, why in the first three paragraphs. Details followed, sometimes spiraling down to the very specific, but it was often enough to read the first three paragraphs of stories that interested me. This was my habit for decades. I always knew where I had read something, even to the page. If I discussed it with someone, they had read the same article. We had the same facts.

Now I still read the L.A. Times, but also the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Sacramento Bee, and a vast selection of articles delivered through the Apple news app. I read everything on my iPad and I end up having little idea of where I read something. I know things, but I don’t know how I know them. I am exposed to a great deal of news and opinion, but it is an effort to sort it all out. Is this better? Well, yes and no. But one thing is clear: we need to develop a new skill set to sort through all of this information. We need to retrain our brains.

Traditional newspapers were never perfectly objective, but they made an attempt to be so, and they had procedures for fact-checking and policies in place to prevent the advertising department from influencing or even contacting the newsroom. Now they are struggling to survive, as readers and advertisers leave and shareholders demand more and more profits. They also have to compete with news aggregating sites that are often reporting on their reporting, without having to pay the expense of having reporters on the scene. In this kind of environment, how can we know what is true?

Four Moves

Mike Caulfield, in his very useful online book “Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers,” offers four moves for students who are trying to check the validity of information they find on the internet:

  • Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research.
  • Go upstream to the source: Go “upstream” to the source of the claim. Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information.
  • Read laterally: Read laterally. Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network.
  • Circle back: If you get lost, hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions.

Caulfield also advises students to “check their emotions.” He says, “When you feel strong emotion–happiness, anger, pride, vindication–and that emotion pushes you to share a ‘fact’ with others, STOP. Above all, these are the claims that you must fact-check.”

Something Simpler and Deeper

Caulfield’s online book offers detailed procedures for implementing each one of these moves. It is certainly worth a look if you are assigning a full-blown research paper. However, it seems to me that we need something both simpler and deeper. Also, I think that Caulfield relies too much on finding out what other people think, instead of having the students think for themselves. We need a new way to read. Perhaps we could call it “skeptical reading” that leads to “informed reading.”

What Caulfield is getting at with “check your emotions” is what psychologists call “confirmation bias”: we enthusiastically accept information that confirms what we already believe and we resist information that runs counter to our own opinions. (This article. “Confirmation bias: 6 ways to recognise it and 5 ways to counter it,” and the included links offer a detailed account.) Google’s algorithms have confirmation bias built into them. Google wants to make us happy, so it shows us what we want to see. Different people doing the same search on their own computers will get different results. Trump supporters will see pro-Trump sources. Democrats will see liberal sources. It is all tailored to the individual. One solution is to search with DuckDuckGo instead of Google. But Facebook and other social media platforms have similar algorithms. Perhaps the question is “Do I want to be happy, or do I want to know the truth?”

Caulfield makes “check your emotions” a kind of unnumbered fifth step, a “habit of mind” rather than a move, but I think understanding and accounting for your own biases is a fundamental first step. The questions to ask are “Why do I like/dislike this? Is my bias influencing my judgment about this article?” This is related to the “believing game” and the “doubting game.” If you are inclined toward the believing game, try the doubting game first, and vice versa. We could associate this move with pathos.

Once we have thought about our own personal biases, we can start more objective moves. Caulfield’s second move is to “go upstream” to the original source. Because a lot of content on the internet is reporting on reporting, i.e. paraphrases, summaries, or commentary on other writer’s stories, a good move is to follow the links or do searches to find the original source. The questions here are “Where did this come from?” and “Who did the original reporting?” If there is no actual source, this is a big red flag. Caulfield recommends what he calls “reading laterally” at this point, by which he means doing searches to find out what other people think of this source and this writer. We could call this an “ethos investigation.”

At this point I am going to depart from Caulfield’s recommendations and make a more rhetorical move. The question to ask is “What is this writer or source trying to do?” This is a question about motives and purpose. Thinking about why a writer is saying what he or she is saying will likely reveal much about the writer’s agenda.

A Summary

To summarize, there are three moves in my simplification:

  • Check Personal Bias: Why do I like/dislike this? Is my bias influencing my judgment about this article?
  • Check Original Sources: Where did this come from? Who did the original reporting? What do other people think of this source and/or this writer?
  • Check Motives and Purposes: What is this writer or source trying to do?

I think these three moves are possible for students to remember and implement. These habits of mind will lead to informed reading.