Stasis Theory: A Mini-Module

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pathos as Inquiry: A Mini-Module

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

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

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

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

More on “Pathos as Inquiry”

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

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

Aristotle’s List

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

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

Social Standing and Emotions

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

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

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

A Revised List of Questions

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

Analysis Questions

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

Strategy Questions

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

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

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

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

Teaching Story Craft

When I first started teaching the science fiction class at the university, I struggled with what sort of paper I could expect from the students.  Because it was a G.E. course, I had a lot of aspiring engineers and scientists in the class and very few English majors.  I couldn’t expect them to know how to do close reading or apply literary theory.  My solution was to teach them story craft.   First, we talk about how science fiction starts from a “What if?” question, imagining a world with a fundamental change of some kind, often regarding new technology.  Then we talk about character, setting, plot, and style. As I continued to teach the course, I added some material about the difficulties of exposition, point of view, and verb tense.  Then I added some discussion of different ways of representing dialogue.

My original intention was to teach these concepts so that they could write more insightful critical papers.  However, it soon became clear that many students wanted to use these techniques to write their own stories.   I thought it was cool that engineers wanted to write stories, so I began offering a choice of assignments, a critical paper or a short story.  In current versions of the course, about 90% of the students choose to write a story.

I created a four-page handout with advice about the basics of story craft.  You can download it here.

I warn them about some of the typical mistakes new short story writers make.  The most common problem is to have two and a half pages of exposition about the world and the character before anything happens.  In every published story we read, I read the first sentence or two aloud and ask, “What expectations do these sentences create?  What does the writer imply about the character and the world?  How does this grab your interest?”  And I ask them, “How many pages of a story would you read if it is all description and nothing is happening?”  They admit that they would get bored.  But they still write these stories.

The other common problems usually involve weaknesses in characters or worlds, a lack of conflict or motivation, or too much influence from current TV, movies, or video games.  We might have a highly developed character that is some version of the writer, with not much of a world and no real conflict.  Or we might have a highly detailed and well-planned world with cardboard characters.

I don’t worry too much about these problems.  They are beginners.  It is probably the first science fiction story they have ever written and it may be their last.  Still, learning the craft and applying it causes them to read stories with greater awareness.  They learn to tell good writing from bad, as long as it is not their own.  And I always get some good stories.  I can tell because I forget I am grading and get engaged with the story as a story.

In addition to the handout linked above, I have a couple of templates for  character development and world building.  These can be used by new writers to think more deeply about their characters and the worlds they inhabit.  It is also interesting to divide the students into small groups and have some of them design a character while others build a world.  Half-way through the activity, you merge the groups and see what happens when one group’s character is thrown into another group’s world.  This requires some adjustments, as when one group’s fish-like being ends up on another group’s desert world with three suns.

This course is one of my favorites to teach and a big part of that is watching them learn to analyze and write science fiction stories using these concepts.

The ERWC Approach: Inquiry-based Instruction

At our recent meeting to review ERWC modules in process, one of the issues that came up was explanation-based versus inquiry-based instruction. Robby Ching responded to one of the module writers with the following suggestions, which we thought were so good that they deserved to become a guest post on this blog. These suggestions apply to all kinds of texts–fictional and non-fictional.  Thank you , Robby!

###

1. ERWC modules are inquiry-based. Their end goal is to enable students to do the work of understanding and analyzing texts independently. Instead of directing teachers to explain something, whether it is the meaning of a word, the way in which a text is structured, the purpose of a text feature, or a literary interpretation, see if you can set up an activity so that students can figure out answers themselves, either by collaborating in pairs or a group or independently.

2. Much of the inquiry students should be doing is rhetorical. At its most basic level, this is asking them to realize that the text was written by a real person who had an authentic reason for writing and hoped to accomplish something as a result. The module writer should be setting up opportunities in the form of activities in which students ask themselves why the writer chose to do whatever she or he did and what the effect of that choice is. Why did the writer choose the title or create short or long paragraphs or use a particular word or type of words (formal vs. informal, Spanish vs. English, disciplinary vs. familiar). Why did the writer structure the text in a particular way? Why include pictures or a subtitle or headings—or not? Why did the writer tell a particular story or use a particular piece of evidence? What did the writer want us to think? And then how do we as readers respond to what the writer is doing? What do we feel and think? Are we persuaded? At every point from Getting Ready to Read to Thinking Critically, there are “why” questions that can and should be asked. We don’t want to explain things about a text and its writer to students; instead we want to them to discover things—and what they discover may surprise us and enrich our own understanding. We include “possible answers” in italics not because they are right but because they suggest the intellectual bar we want to guide students toward.

3. Academic discussion is central to ERWC and to the goals of the NPD project. Most activities should take the form of a series of questions or collaborative activities that students respond to or work on in pairs or small groups. This then dictates the format: the purpose, the procedure, and the student activity done in pairs or small groups followed by some kind of reporting out, debriefing, or reflection that takes their understanding to a new level. Often this involves further questions for them to consider as a class.

4. Writing during the reading process is important both to get students thinking before they begin an activity and to reflect on what they learned at the end. Quickwrites can be used for multiple purposes, but keep them short. They should be focused on a single question. Reading a few aloud lets students benefit from what their peers are thinking. You can also provide formative assessment guidance to the teacher by suggesting what she may want to look for to guide her future instruction.

Updated Gatsby Module

I have updated the module on The Great Gatsby to ERWC 3.0.  This version includes the new 3.0 cells.  I eliminated some of the possible literary approaches and streamlined it a bit.  I now have a short writing assignment after each section so that instead of one module “arc” it has four mini arcs.   It is currently being piloted by at least one teacher.  After the pilot, I will create a teacher version.  If you have a chance to pilot it, please give me feedback.

The post on the older version is here.

The ERWC “Cell”

Why are the third-level headings in the ERWC Assignment Template called “cells”? Are we supposed to imagine them looking like this?

purplecells1

When we designed the first ERWC Assignment Template, we created a two column table with the ELA standards on the left hand and a description of an activity that addressed those standards on the right. As we added activities, we added rows, and eventually, we started naming categories of activities and describing the kinds of things that would happen at that point in the process. We started calling these categories “cells” because they were inserted into cells in the big table that was developing.

Recently, as we work on designing ERWC 3.0, some members of the committee began to question the term “cell,” saying that it wasn’t intuitive and that it reminded them of a prison cell. One even said that the term was “just weird.” I found myself defending the term, having used it without thinking much about it for more than 14 years.

Element

One of the suggested replacements was “element.” I took an immediate dislike to this, but I had to think carefully about why. In one sense, an “element” is a substance with a unique molecular structure that is uncombined and pure. In another sense, it is a necessary part of something else. Neither of these descriptions fit what we have in mind when we imagine our activity categories, which are not unique, pure, or necessary.  And “element” seemed solid and static. It didn’t feel right.

A Container

I began to think about the connotations of “cell.” A cell is a space with boundaries in which things happen. Yes, there are prison cells, but there are also monk’s cells. A cell has an inside and an outside. A biological cell is full of activity, consuming energy, processing things, accomplishing tasks, performing functions. A biological cell has a role to play, connects and collaborates with other cells, does work and passes the results on to other cells with different roles. A cell is part of a whole, part of an organism without which it cannot survive.

So a “cell” is an activity node, a waystation in a network of activity. I think this is exactly what we are trying to accomplish in naming the places and pathways of the template. We fill the cell with possible activities, processes, and products that connect to other cells and other products. And moving from the template cell to the module cell is a kind of reproduction, mitosis if you will. So yes, I think we should imagine a module to look something like the picture at the beginning of this post.  It is a pretty good metaphor for what we are doing. I think we should keep the term.