ERWC in a Nutshell

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

From Engagement to Writing

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

A Common Pattern

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

Connecting Reading and Writing

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

Emphasis on Rhetoric

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

Strategies and Habits of Mind

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

Making a Reading Plan

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

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

BeforeReading1

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

WhileReading1

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

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

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

AfterReading1

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

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

How Texts Construct Readers: A Mini-Module

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The module has the following learning goals

Students will be able to:

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

The writing assignment is this:

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

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

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

How Texts Construct Readers

A Reader-Response Approach to Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mini-module can be downloaded from this link.

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

Designing Reading/Writing Courses

In fall my campus is converting from quarters to semesters. My seminar, “Pedagogies of Reading” will change from English 589 to English 5131 and will be five weeks longer, though the class meetings will be shorter so that there will really only be about three hours additional class time. This conversion has caused me to do some considerable rethinking.

The biggest change will be in the seminar project. I plan to have groups of students propose reading/writing courses which individual students will populate with teaching units similar to ERWC mini-modules. The groups will decide the type of course they want to design and develop the learning outcomes. They will also discuss what sorts of teaching units might fit into the course. Individual students will then propose teaching units, which will have to approved first by the group and then by me. The courses could be high school or college-level, theme-based, rhetoric-based, literature-based, or some combination.I have created the following handout to facilitate course design.

CourseArc-hnd-1

The varying height of the rectangles is supposed to represent initially increasing levels of difficulty, a plateau of practice, and a slight dip at the end, still above the initial level, when assessing. That is my normal pattern when designing a course.

This handout emphasizes the importance of having clear learning goals, being aware of them throughout the course, and assessing them at the end. This may seem obvious, but many composition instructors still tend to fall into a pattern of assigning readings that they like about issues they think are important, discussing them in class, and making students write about them. This pattern simply repeats until the term is over. Learning can occur in that environment, but it is haphazard.

The units will be based on templates that the groups develop in class. Of course, the ERWC Assignment Template will be one example. However, I want the class to develop new templates for different courses. I often feel that the ERWC template is too linear and that it does not adequately represent the shift in rhetorical perspective that happens when a student moves from being a reader (the pathos position) to a writer (the ethos position). The following handout is an initial attempt to represent that movement in a cyclical rather than a linear way.

ReadingtheRhetoricalSituation

(These handouts are less than elegant, I know. I am learning to use LibreOffice Draw.)

An author purposefully writes a text for a particular audience. Our student reads that text, performing the audience role, but for different purposes than the original audience. Then the student responds to the text, in different ways for different purposes, becoming a writer with an audience him or herself. In the center is the text, with an original context and exigence, but as the cycle repeats, those factors change. Instead of driving the same linear one-way road over and over again, the student is in a cycle of reading and writing, reading a writer and then being a writer. Rather than being a passive consumer of discourse, the student is an active participant in an ongoing conversation.

The question for a teacher designing modules and teaching units is “How can I set this cycle in motion in such a way that my learning goals are advanced in every repetition?” That is what we will be trying to answer in my new version of this course.

Stasis Theory: A Mini-Module

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pathos as Inquiry: A Mini-Module

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

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

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

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