Teaching Literature Rhetorically: Transferable Literacy Skills for 21st Century Students

As a follow-up to her popular Stenhouse book, Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response (see review here), Jennifer Fletcher has published a new book, Teaching Literature Rhetorically: Transferable Literacy Skills for 21st Century Students. This new book is even more jam-packed with classroom-tested teaching strategies, graphic organizers, handouts, and big ideas. Literature teachers are guaranteed to find something immediately useful in this book. Like the previous volume, it is written in first person with lots of classroom anecdotes and a passion for teaching and learning.

Fletcher-TeachingLiteratureRhetorically

What exactly does it mean to “teach literature rhetorically”? Teachers who are used to teaching close reading, analyzing figurative language, and exploring themes and motifs may be initially puzzled. They may ask, “Does this mean I would be focusing on ethos, pathos, and logos and analyzing arguments?” Actually, both sets of techniques apply in combination. At its core, rhetoric is about how language affects audiences and this is true whether we are looking at aesthetic or persuasive effects. Jennifer puts it this way:

From literature, we learn about the transformative power of stories, the gifts of the imagination, the pleasures of reading, and the importance of craft. From rhetoric, we learn about critical reasoning, the structure of arguments, the tools of persuasion, and the significance of context. Combining the two gives students the best of both worlds. (xiii)

However, this new book does far more than combine the techniques of literary criticism with strategies for rhetorical analysis. The key claim of this book is that a rhetorical approach will “promote the kind of deep and transferable learning that prepares students to be adaptive thinkers and communicators who thrive across the diverse contexts of their lives.” And it does this without diminishing the aesthetic experience of literary texts.

As an example, lets look at what Jennifer does with the familiar “Say, Mean Matter” activity that originally came from Sheridan Blau’s book The Literature Workshop.

  • What does it say? (A quotation)
  • What does it mean? (A paraphrase or close reading)
  • Why does it matter? (A connection to a theme of the work)
  • What does it do? (Effect on the reader; rhetorical function or move)(35)

The addition of the “What does it do for the reader?” question connects the literary questions to questions about their rhetorical effect on the audience. It makes us think about who the readers are and why authors do what they do.

I should note here that in asking these questions, we are boldly engaging in two perspectives that the New Critics (1940’s through the early 1970’s) called fallacies: the “Intentional Fallacy” (focusing on what the author intended) and the “Affective Fallacy” (focusing on the emotional response of the reader). As a critical focus, New Critics were not interested in authors or readers, only texts, and some of their prejudices have been passed on to us in one form or another. However, as teachers, we want our students to learn how to do things with words, so of course we are interested in authors and readers, as well as texts.

Immediately after the “Say, Mean, Matter, Do” activity Jennifer introduces another of her own inventions, the “Descriptive Plot Outline.” This combines the “descriptive outlining” that is common in ERWC (and was originally developed by Ken Bruffee) with the standard plot outline in order to create something new and very useful. Students draw the line for the plot chart with its depiction of rising and falling action. Then on the outside they describe the events of the plot and on the inside they describe the impact that each event has on the reader, the character, or the theme. This very effectively combines literary and rhetorical approaches, while also enhancing the student’s understanding of the work.

Chapters in the book deal with integrating skills and knowledge, close and critical reading, analyzing the rhetorical situation, analyzing genres, negotiating voices and meaning, developing and supporting a line of reasoning, communicating with yourself and others, and reading and writing with passion. The appendices contain more than 20 pages of graphic organizers, handouts, charts, sample texts, and other useful materials designed to implement the activities in the book.

Jennifer says that the final chapter, “Reading and Writing with Passion,” is about “changing the measure for postsecondary success from academic proficiency to intellectual passion, from workforce preparation to liberal learning, and from diploma or degree completion to a life well lived” (220). In that sense, she is going against the grain of our time. But I think she is selling herself short here. The approaches delivered in this book may change the focus, but I think they will accomplish all of those goals, both the practical and the ideal, with passion.

Aristotle’s Poetics in the Classroom

In this blog, I have written a lot about Aristotle’s Rhetoric. However, I have not written about his literary criticism, which he develops in the work called the Poetics. The Poetics has had a great deal of influence on literary thought and practice for many centuries, especially on drama. Though Aristotle was mainly concerned with the dramatic form of the Greek tragedy, his principles can be usefully applied to other art forms, including novels, short stories, and movies, and perhaps even poetry. The principles are simple, easily understood, and useful for students.

Perhaps the genre in our own time that is closest to Greek tragedy is the dramatic movie, perhaps even a horror movie.  Analyzing a movie is probably the best vehicle for introducing students to Aristotle’s ideas.

Aristotle, like most ancient Greeks, thinks that art is about imitation of life. The Greek word is “mimesis,” which we find in “mime and” “mimic.” He thinks that humans are natural imitators and that we enjoy representations, even of things we would not like to see in real life, such as dead bodies or fearsome beasts. This literary theory is pretty easy for students to apply. Is the work realistic? Is it lifelike? Does that mean it is good? They can also easily disagree with it because they often enjoy fantasy and other things that are abstract or unrealistic. Disagreeing with Aristotle is fun, and it gets them thinking. They can have a dialogue with Aristotle.

Aristotle argues that tragedy has six components. I have created a simplified chart, with questions for students:

AristotlePoeticsChart-Simple-1a

A more detailed version of this chart with more extensive questions is available here.

Plot

Aristotle argues that plot is the soul of tragedy and that while there could be a tragedy without character, there could not be without plot. Simply relating the events of a tragic plot should create pity and fear in the hearer. Students appear to agree with Aristotle on this in that when they write about a novel or a short story, they tend to summarize the plot. However, such summaries rarely analyze the plot in terms of Aristotelian plot elements such as reversal, recognition, and what he calls the “scene of suffering,” the climatic scene in which the different strands of the plot come together for the greatest emotional effect.  The plot itself creates emotions, for Aristotle pity and fear, in the audience.   The questions in the chart linked above help students analyze the plot from such a perspective.

Character

Aristotle’s views on good character are probably more at odds with the students’ views than on any other aspect of literature.  He believes that the protagonist should

  • Have good moral values
  • Be above average in nobility and birth
  • Behave appropriately according to his station in life
  • Be realistic and life-like
  • Be consistent in behavior
  • Have a flaw or other characteristic that causes him to experience a dramatic change in fortune

Today we are used to viewpoint characters and heroes who are quite unlike Aristotle’s ideal.  The disjunction between Aristotle’s views and the students’ should provide lots of interesting discussion.

Thought

When Aristotle discusses “thought” in tragedy, he refers to his work on Rhetoric.  He says, “Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite” (XIX)  Clearly arguments are part of thought, but also emotional and ethical appeals, the full range of ethos, logos, and pathos.  Themes, philosophical questions, and exploration of moral and ethical choices are also included here.

Diction

Under “diction” Aristotle discusses formal and informal language, the use of strange and unusual words, and other aspects of style.  His concern appears to be mostly about the effects of word choice on the audience.  Some of the factors that we might assign to style, such as the creation of emotional effects, Aristotle sees as belonging to Thought.

Song and Spectacle

Song and Spectacle are considered to be the least important factors in Aristotle’s scheme.  For students, they may be the most important factors.  Some movies rely on exciting music and spectacular visuals, often created by computers, to become big hits, while neglecting plot, character, and thought.  Can the musical score and cinematic effects successfully make up for a lack in other categories?  This is an interesting question for students to discuss.

Conclusions

Aristotle has two big disadvantages in relating to current students: 1) he is analyzing an ancient dramatic form that is no longer produced, and 2) his analysis reflects the cultural values and customs of Athenian Greeks in the fourth century B.C.  However, looking at current cultural productions, such as movies and novels, from an Aristotelian point of view, produces what Kenneth Burke calls a “perspective by incongruity,” that allows the student to have insights into Aristotle, current artistic work, and their own perceptions and values.  It is a worthwhile discussion.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher. The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed 16 Feb. 2019.

 

Mini-Module: Knowledge, Belief, and the Role of Rhetoric

Note: Revised version updated 6/7/19. Also, this article, “Chances Are You’re Not As Open-minded As You Think,” might be a good pre-module reading or a follow-up.

While revising the “Three Ways to Persuade” module to fix some serious problems with the writing assignment, I ended up writing a lot of new material that I ultimately decided not to include in that module. These “outakes” eventually became a new module that is designed to be a follow-up to “Three Ways.” It deals with rhetoric’s age old epistemological questions: What can we know and how can we know it? The problem is, sometimes there is no way to be certain, yet we still have to act. That is where rhetoric comes in.

This new module has the following learning goals:

Students will be able to

  • Make distinctions between certain knowledge, belief, and opinion
  • Understand the role of rhetoric in matters where we do not have certain knowledge
  • Assess the effectiveness of different rhetorical appeals in different situations
  • Surface assumptions in their own thinking and in that of others
  • Write a list of rhetorically effective “talking points” regarding a specific issue or problem that demonstrates their understanding of the previous outcomes

Most of the activities involve charts to fill out. First,after exploring the concepts of persuasion, knowledge, belief, opinion, and probability, the students or the teacher select a current controversial event such as a murder, a scandal, a celebrity divorce, or other prominent news item. Then they fill out a chart and share it with a partner:

HowIknow-chrt-1

Because their charts probably differ, they explore the differences by filling out this second chart and discussing the assumptions they made:

Assumptions-chrt

Note: I took the following section out of the revised version of the module.  These ideas are still important, but I felt that as a mini-module was getting too conceptually complex.

Then, we discuss Aristotle’s statement that “The duty of rhetoric is to deal with such matters as we deliberate upon without arts or systems to guide us, in the hearing of persons who cannot take in at a glance a complicated argument, or follow a long chain of reasoning” (Book 1, Part 2). This translates into two main functions for rhetoric:

  1. Rhetoric is useful when we don’t have certain knowledge, but we still feel that we must do something.

  2. Rhetoric is also useful in cases where we have certain knowledge, but the meaning of the knowledge has to be explained to the audience to make it persuasive.

After the initial activities about knowledge and belief and the assumptions we make when reading or listening, I present the three Aristotelian appeals–ethos, logos, pathos–as strategies for controlling the assumptions made by the audience. Then students explore different uses of rhetoric by filling out a chart like this for different situations. In this example, one student makes a claim that his favorite song is better than his friend’s favorite song:

RhetoricalEffectiveness-chrt

For each situation they rate which type of appeal is likely to be most persuasive, though they also see that they work together.

Finally, they take all of this rhetorical practice and write a list of “talking points” for an issue they have chosen. Here is the assignment:

For this assignment you are going to think about a community problem. This could be a problem at your school, in your neighborhood, or something on a bigger scale, such as your city, your state, or the whole country. If you can’t think of a problem, you could use the Flint, Michigan example from the previous activity.

When a leader has to speak or write publicly about a problem, he or she will have a member of the staff write up a bulleted list of “talking points.” The purpose of the list is to help establish the message and help the leader stay on that message, no matter what questions he or she is asked. This list should have the following:

  • A clear purpose. What are we trying to accomplish?
  • Arguments that support that purpose, expressed in clear language, short and simple enough to memorize. These arguments should address all three appeals: ethos, pathos, logos. (Just like you have been doing in the charts above.)
  • Anecdotes (personal stories) that people can relate to that support the arguments are very useful. Keep them brief, however!
  • Points of common ground that both sides can agree on.
  • A proposed call to action.

With your issue or problem in mind, imagine that you are a staff member working for a community leader. You have been asked to come up with talking points for an upcoming press conference. Write a one-page list of talking points for your boss.

This is a challenging module with lots of important concepts. It builds on what they learn from the article “Three Ways to Persuade: Integrating the Three Appeals.” I think high school students can do this, however. You may disagree. Please leave a comment if you have feedback, positive or negative, or have a suggestion.

Download the latest draft of the module in a Word document or as a .pdf.  Here are some handouts that might also be useful:

Activity 5: Applying the Concepts

Activity 6: Clarifying Assumptions

Activity 10: Talking Points Assignment

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

In a previous post I described a “Flexible Module Planner” that introduces a bit less linearity to module design. My colleagues saw this planning document not only as a guide for designing new modules, but also for planning how to teach an existing one. This post is an expansion of that one, providing some background questions for discussion. The problem is, none of these questions have right answers. They all require decisions, sometimes made on the fly.

Here is a list of important concepts in ERWC (and teaching in general) that we often talk about in isolation though they overlap, interact, and sometimes contradict. For each one, success is about hitting the sweet spot for students, but those sweet spots can be different for different students even in the same classroom.

  • Backwards mapping (We plan the beginning with the end in mind. How much should we preview the end at the beginning?)
  • Gradual release of responsibility (If the goal is independent learning, when does scaffolding help and when does it hinder? How do we know?)
  • Self-teaching (What you teach yourself, you remember for a lifetime. How can we facilitate such independence?)
  • Connection (We want connections in all directions—text to text, reading to writing, student to issue, strategy to task, present task to future problem-solving. How do we make those connections, yet stay focused?)
  • Perceived Utility (We attend to and value what seems useful, but the use of a strategy is not always immediately apparent. How can we cultivate persistence in the face of a lack of perceived utility? How can we make the utility of a strategy appear?)
  • Engagement (Is engagement the product of a formula, i.e. Connection + Strategy + Utility + Goal? How do we implement this formula in the classroom?)
  • Transfer (Is transfer a product of sustained engagement? How do we design lessons with engagement in mind?)

I’ll discuss them one by one.

Backwards Mapping

We begin with the end in mind. A teaching unit is somewhat like the Midgard Serpent from Norse mythology, a snake eating its tail. The head and the tail are in the same place. When we begin a journey, we want to know where we are going, even if when we arrive it is not exactly as we imagined. Seeing the summit, even dimly through the clouds, inspires us to move on. I think that too many teaching modules, including some of my own, don’t reveal enough of the destination to inspire students to want to go there. We know what the writing task is. Why not show it to them? (One answer is that we want them to value the reading for its own sake, which is a valid point. So, a decision must be made.)

Gradual Release of Responsibility

This is a tough one. How much scaffolding is enough? How much is too much? How do we know? Formative assessment can help, but sometimes it is too late to change a decision. Even subtle hints can imply a reading and deny a student an opportunity to think for themselves. For example, in my seminar this semester, one group of students decided that they were against “prereading” activities and the “Preparing to Read” section of the ERWC template. Why? Because they were English majors and they thought that students had a right to their own interpretation. I argued against this because I think that prereading activities make a big difference in how students respond to reading. Activating background knowledge is an important reading strategy and students also want to know why they are reading something and what the teacher thinks is important to attend to. However, my students had a point. Everything we do before they read influences their interpretation.

For example, in my first mini-module built around two tiny stories written by Lydia Davis, my prereading instruction was simply, “As you read the following stories, think about relationships.” I gave them a theme for the stories. Without that theme, they would struggle longer, I think, to make sense of the stories, but would that struggle be productive? By giving them a push toward a particular reading, am I taking their own reading away? But perhaps they would give up on the odd little stories entirely? Again, it’s a decision. Even one word has consequences.

My students in “Advanced Expository Writing” had to research a topic of their own choice and create a website to present their findings. One task was to create a literature review. I did not tell them how many sources they needed to have. I said it was a rhetorical decision. They kept asking me, so often that I finally got mad at them (never a good development). I said, “It would be a lot easier for me if I just told you exactly what to do.” They answered, almost the whole class in unison, “That’s what we are used to!” I asked, “If you were going to your site for information about this topic, would you be satisfied with two sources?” They agreed that they would not. “How about three sources?” They got the point. And they agreed that they learned more this way. I was trying to get them to actually do the task of informing their readers, while they were looking for completion criteria so that they would know when they could stop pretending to do the task.

The model that Fisher and Frey discuss in Better Learning through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility is basically “I do, we do, you do together, you do alone.”  In this .pdf from Doug Fisher, this translates to an instructional template with the following stages: Focus Lessons, Guided Instruction, Collaborative Learning, and Independent Tasks. The decision-making and control move from the teacher, to groups of students working collaboratively, and finally to the individual student.  Teacher lore says that it is better to be a “guide on the side” than a “sage on the stage.”  In the gradual release model, this is not a binary.  The teacher shifts her role from sage to guide to inspirational presence over time, as needed.

Of course, the “gradual” part of gradual release means that we scaffold more at the beginning, but less and less as students learn more and more to work independently as they internalize concepts and strategies. The Fisher and Frey model shows that it is not only the amount of scaffolding that should change, but also the way it is offered and by whom.  Again, formative assessments, formal and informal, will help, but this is largely a matter of listening to and observing your students. In focus groups, ERWC teachers have reported that students sometimes say, “We have done this a million times [referring to an ERWC strategy], can’t we just read it?” This means they have internalized the strategy.  It’s time for a decision.

Self-Teaching

What we are taught by others often lasts only until the test, but what we teach ourselves or teach others remains for a long time. When I started learning music theory I wanted to write songs in modes other than major or minor. I spent half a day building triads on each degree of modal scales only to find that they were the same as the harmonized major scale, just starting in a different place. Then I turned to the next chapter in the music theory book and found that the author presented everything I had just discovered on my own. However, I still remember it, 40 years later. I remember little else from that music theory course. This is clearly related to the “gradual release” issue. Teaching yourself is the ideal, but it is not always possible. We all need guidance and help. But when should we step out of the way?  It’s a decision.

Connection

Probably the most important connection to be concerned about is the connection to the student’s lifeworld. We are interested in what seems real to us. But texts, issues, strategies, and writing tasks should all seem connected. When students get a worksheet on this and another on that, then a reading on lizards in Guam and another on a boy in Afghanistan, followed by an essay on “My Spring Break,” it all seems random, perhaps even postmodern. When you think about introducing a worksheet, a strategy, a reading, ask yourself, “How does this connect with what they are doing right now? How will it connect with what they are going to be doing tomorrow?” It’s a decision.

Perceived Utility

Here I might bring up what I call the “effort to benefit” ratio. We are usually willing to work to learn something that looks useful for the current task. If it also looks like it might come in handy for future imagined tasks, we might even put in more effort, and we might remember what we learned. However, if the strategy or tool appears very difficult and time-consuming to learn, and the benefit looks small, we might pass on it. I had this sort of experience when I first encountered Microsoft Excel. Learning to use formulas in spreadsheets was tough. I avoided it. Word processing was much more useful. However, when I started running a writing center and I had to make budgets and cost out proposals, I learned quickly. I realized that the first time I created a spreadsheet, it was a lot of work, but after it was created, I could use it over and over.

I think perceived utility is the first necessary condition to what people are now calling “transfer.” We need to help students see how the strategies we teach are actually useful, not meaningless rigmarole that they are being forced to learn. Here, the students make the decision, but we have to persuade them.

Engagement

“Engagement” is a hot topic in educational circles, but it is somewhat mysterious. Sometimes it is confused with “relevance,” and sometimes “entertainment.” Your mileage may vary, but I think it is actually a product of the right combination of the five factors described above.

Transfer

Transfer, in my view, is not just a matter of reinforcing the same limited number of concepts and strategies over and over. It is a matter of sustaining engagement over time so that the concepts are not only reinforced, but valued, perceived as useful, even loved because they solve problems and reduce anxiety.  It’s all about making the right decisions, in the right places.

Transfer and the ERWC Template

The concept of educational “transfer” is a hot topic in composition and rhetoric circles these days. Much of this interest is inspired by a recent publication, Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Yancy, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. Yancy and her co-authors ask “Do the knowledge and skills learned in a writing course transfer to other courses and workplaces?” and is it possible to “teach for transfer”?

Yancy et al found that college students tended to rely on what they had been taught in high school when writing for college courses rather than what they learned in their First Year Writing course. They redesigned the FYC course to emphasize a limited number of concepts:

  1. Audience, genre, rhetorical situation, and reflection
  2. Exigence, critical analysis, discourse community, and knowledge
  3. Context, composing, and circulation
  4. Knowledge and reflection (57)

To me, these concepts appear to be a mix of categories and of varying utility, though it is a positive step to look beyond the immediate course to the student’s future rhetorical situations.

ERWC and Transfer

ERWC has been interested in transfer from the beginning. In the ERWC document “Transfer and Engagement: From Theory to Enhanced Practice” Nelson Graff cites Smith and Wilhelm, who argue that four factors make it more likely that students will transfer concepts and strategies from one context to another:

  • Students have a command of the knowledge that is to be transferred.
  • Students have a theoretical understanding of the principles to be transferred.
  • The classroom culture cultivates a spirit of transfer.
  • Students get plenty of practice.

Graff notes that that is why ERWC repeats the same strategies across modules. ERWC is certainly an ideal environment for creating the conditions for transfer.

What Actually Transfers?

However, if we look at what kinds of concepts and strategies powerfully transfer from high school to college, the list is pretty small. In my experience, it includes the five-paragraph essay, Toulmin argumentation (in a simplistic and reduced form), and more recently, ethos, pathos, logos. I have a suspicion about why this is so.

In Thinking and Writing in College: A Naturalistic Study of Students in Four Disciplines, (a very interesting book, available here at the WAC Clearinghouse) Barbara Walvoord and Lucille McCarthy describe longitudinal studies of four classrooms. They collected assignments and student writing and interviewed instructors and students. One of their findings was that

Students in all four classes typically used the assignment sheet as a kind of recipe for completing the assignment. The sheet seemed often to supersede other models or instructions given in class or remembered from other situations. Students usually kept the assignment sheet beside them as they composed, consulting it frequently,especially when they felt confused. They tended to see themselves as following step-by-step the explicit instructions contained in it, and they often interpreted it very literally. (57)

This led to serious miscues. In the business class they studied, the students were asked to go to two different fast food restaurants and observe how they dealt with customers. At the bottom of the sheet, the instructor had written “Chapters 7 and 8 in the Stevenson text can provide guidance” (62). Because this instruction was at the bottom, many students made their observations before reading the chapters, but the categories they were supposed to use were in the assigned reading, so their data was almost useless.

This finding indicates that when students are confronted with a task, especially a task they have not done before (a common experience in higher education), they look for a step-by-step solution to the problem of doing the task, one that they can deploy in the moment. Eventually they realize that some of the tasks in their discipline, such as writing a lab report in biology or analyzing a case study in business, are recurring problems that require them to develop routine strategies.

Rhetorical Strategies as Solutions to Recurring Problems

However, before they get to that point, essay-writing in Language Arts is the most common recurring writing task they have encountered. The five-paragraph essay provides a solution to the recurring problem of “how to write an essay.” The Toulmin model, presented as a checklist, offers a solution to the “how to structure an argument” problem. It doesn’t really matter that students often fill in the checklist incorrectly, citing warrants that aren’t really warrants and backing that is just further supporting evidence rather than reference to a body of knowledge or a system of rules, as Toulmin intended. The model still serves as a content-generating device for making claims and supporting them.

Recent changes in standards for Language Arts have made rhetorical analysis assignments much more common. The Aristotelian appeals have become the standard solution to that recurring problem, generating a paragraph about each appeal.

ERWC 3.0 attempts to teach a broader range of rhetorical concepts, such as audience, purpose, exigence, kairos, rhetorical situation, and stasis theory. I do not think that these concepts will transfer unless students see them first as solutions to doing the immediate task at hand, and second, as possible solutions to recurring problems they will face in the future. We cannot teach them as simply content to be mastered.

What to Do?

How do we help them see these new strategies as useful? The ERWC template as currently structured does not reveal the writing task until the middle of the module, in the “Connecting Reading to Writing Section.” Though we may see the reading tasks as at least equal in importance to the writing task, the students are unlikely to see it that way. They think that the culminating task is the problem they have to solve. They will be thinking, “How will this weird new concept of ‘kairos’ help me write this essay? Will the essay be about kairos?”

The ERWC template is still one of the best vehicles we have for designing teaching units and courses that are conducive to transfer. It just needs a little adjustment. If the writing assignment is at least previewed in the “Preparing to Read” section, it will give the students a clear idea of where they are going, making the tools and experiences that are provided by the module more relevant to doing the task as they perceive it. Second, if the new concepts and strategies are presented in the context of possible future tasks and problems to which they may be relevant, students are more likely to remember them.

I am still exploring how this might be accomplished. But as a first step, I created a Flexible Module Planner that is a bit less linear than the current template. Comments and suggestions, as always, are welcome.

Works Cited

Smith, Michael W., & Jeffrey D. Wilhelm. Going with the Flow. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006. Print.

Walvoord,Barbara and Lucille McCarthy. Thinking and Writing in College: A Naturalistic Study of Students in Four Disciplines. Colorado State Univ. WAC Clearinghouse. Accessed 2 Dec. 2018.

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

In-Class Presentations of Journal Articles

Much of the material on this blog site is oriented toward teaching in a high school context. That is because of my long involvement with the Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC). However, I am not a high school teacher and I rely heavily on actual high school teachers to give me feedback on the modules I write. What I actually do for a living is teach rhetoric and literature at a state university.

This semester I am teaching two graduate seminars: English 5130 “Teaching Writing” and English 5131 “Pedagogies of Reading.” Our seminars tend to be bigger than those of a traditional English Department–20 students or more compared to 5 or 6 students that might have constituted a traditional seminar in the past. Now that we are on semesters rather than quarters I am experimenting with making the educational experience a little more seminar-like, with more student presentations. Each student is responsible for presenting one journal article or book chapter to the class. This addresses the fifth of our six learning outcomes for the program:

Pedagogical Insight: Ability to teach/adapt the body of knowledge and skills listed above to a variety of audiences, in particular fellow teachers and college students.

Faculty often complain that new graduate students are not good at reading journal articles. It is not surprising because few such articles are assigned to undergraduates. For this reason, I am giving them a bit of scaffolding. First, they must think about these overview questions:

Overview

  • Who is the writer? Where does he or she teach? What else has he or she published?
  • What is the thesis, research question, or main idea of the article?
  • What does the article do to explore this idea or question?
  • What is the exigence for the article? (What caused the writer to write the article? What is he or she responding to?)
  • What are the main sources the article draws upon?

A journal article or a book chapter is a speech act that participates in a conversation that is ongoing in the field. These questions are designed to help the student situate the article in that conversation. If the article is old, what was going on at the time? If the article is current, what issues and practices are being debated at this moment? It is hard to understand the significance of an article unless you know something about the larger conversation it joins.

Next comes a discussion of the content of the article itself:

Discussion

  • What are the key points of the article?
  • How are the ideas and arguments of the article supported? Are you convinced?
  • In general, what conclusions does the writer draw?
  • How might the article be attacked? What are its weak points?

These questions enact both the believing game and the doubting game. Thinking about both the key points and the weak points helps students engage in critical thinking about the issues and the arguments.

Finally, students put the article in the context of the discipline, the course, and their own teaching. We have been building toward this sort of contextualization through the whole process of preparing to present the article to the class:

Contextualization

  • How does this article fit into the conversation going on in the field when it was published?
  • How does it fit into the context of this course?
  • If the ideas and arguments of the article are sound, what implications does it have for teaching?
  • How will this article influence your own teaching philosophy (if at all)?

So far, this process has been going well. Because of the change to semesters, we have shorter seminar periods, so I have been having to make adjustments, in part because the presentations have elicited so much discussion. However, students are engaged, and I think that the format of these questions helps them situate not only the articles, but also their own teaching and scholarly work, in the context of the discipline. I am pleased with the results so far.

Modifying Stasis Theory for the Classroom

I recently had a discussion with one of my ERWC colleagues about the proper way to use stasis theory. As I noted in the mini-module, the technique develops out of courtroom practices and is used primarily to locate the points of disagreement so that a trial can proceed efficiently. In this forensic use, the parties are debating the nature of a past act and what should be done about it. The process can be modified a bit to deal deliberatively with the effectiveness of a particular policy on future conditions. In either case, the first step is to get the parties to agree on the question at issue, a process which is called “achieving stasis.” Then the stasis questions are used to figure out where the disagreement lies. The result is a lot of clear thinking and efficient progress towards a resolution of the problem.

The problem for teachers and students in the application of this process is that we are not in a courtroom trying a case or in a deliberative body deciding whether or not to implement a particular policy. Instead we are using stasis theory as an analytical tool to get to the heart of a social issue or personal problem. We have to modify the tool a bit to make it work in the classroom.

Achieving stasis by agreeing on the question under discussion is an important first step. However, as my colleague pointed out, in an ERWC module and in general when we are discussing several texts on a particular issue, it is rare that the authors have defined the issue in the same way. They are often answering different, but related questions. Stasis theory helps us see that, but we do not have the power to bring the authors together to agree on the question. What do we do? I have summarized our discussion in this chart:

StasisTheoryChart-clr1
As noted in the chart, one approach is to tease out the questions that the authors are really trying to answer and analyze the differences that result when we try to apply the stasis questions to each approach. This would bring considerable clarity to the discussion and would make a good paper in itself. This process might begin by asking of each author, “What question is he or she trying to answer?”

Another approach is for the student (or the teacher) to pose the question that they think should actually be asked and then use the stasis questions to explore how the different parties to the discussion disagree. For example, on the Declaration of Independence, I might ask, as a stasis question:

“Did George III actually do all of the terrible things of which he is accused in the Declaration of Independence?”

Possible responses might be:

  • Fact: The parties actually disagree about this. The British say that these alleged “crimes” are all acts of parliament. The British would actually be right about this and Thomas Jefferson knows it. They are scapegoating the king for rhetorical effect, and to address the problem of declaring themselves no longer subjects of the king. They have to make the king an unfit ruler. But nobody really disagrees that these things have been done.
  • Definition: The colonists say these acts are examples of tyranny, while the British say it is just governance.
  • Quality: This really comes down to intentions. The colonists say that these tyrannous acts are designed to hinder and control self-governance in order to hamstring the colonies and keep them from becoming independent and powerful. The British say that they are governing the colonies and protecting them from harm.
  • Policy: The colonists say that such acts justify rebellion. The British wage war in response.

If we try a more philosophical question such as “Are all men (and women) created equal?” we see that things get interesting and complicated very quickly. The British immediately say, “You’ve got to be kidding. You are a bunch of slave holders.” Then we are going to get into race, social class, economic inequality, land owners versus renters, cultural practices and a host of other things. What the founders meant was that they were going to get rid of the nobility, that there would no longer be lords and commoners. The British say, “Good luck with that.”

When it comes to definition, we might say that the Declaration is “aspirational,” in that it proposes ideal principles that the colonies have not yet achieved. The British call the document “hypocritical.” On the face of it, the British are right. It does seem hypocritical to say that “all men are created equal” while holding slaves. Questions of quality are going to hinge on those definitions. Does the Declaration represent aspirational idealism or hypocritical self-interest?

About policy? Well, the aspirational view won out and we ended up with a constitution. We are still trying to meet the principled ideals of the Declaration, but we have made progress.

One of the new modules to be introduced in ERWC is built around a novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. It is a murder mystery, which would seem to make it ideal for the application of forensic stasis theory. However, in this case, we are doing literary criticism and exploring some of the issues raised by the novel. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the novel yet. I am guessing from the Wikipedia entry and a picture of the cover.) One question in the story is “Who killed the dog?” The stasis questions might lead to some larger philosophical and ethical issues:

• Fact: A dog is dead. Did someone kill it?
• Definition: Is killing a dog murder?
• Quality: Was killing the dog necessary because it was mean, sick, or dangerous? Or was it an act of revenge or cruelty?
• Policy: Should dog murderers go to jail?

Here the stasis questions are helping us define one of the acts in the novel.

One of the questions that came up in our discussion was “Can you use the stasis questions as an invention strategy or brainstorming tool to generate lots of possible questions to explore?” As I noted above, we have to modify the stasis tool because we are not in the same situations for which it was originally designed. Use as a sort of focused brainstorming tool is certainly possible. In that case, we might ask

• What facts are disputable in this situation?
• How do different parties define the issue?
• What values are in conflict in this situation?
• What do different parties think should be done?

Then let the students supply the specifics and ask more questions about them.

There are lots of ways to use stasis theory. In almost any situation, it will help us think about questions, facts, definitions, values, and policies.

Note: The mini-module on stasis theory can be found here.

Teaching a Literary Text: A Template

It is common for instructors to assign a poem or a short story for a particular class meeting and expect students to come to class ready to discuss it.  It is also common for instructors to complain that no one has read the text and that the students wait until after the discussion to read it.  With no possibility of a discussion, the instructor ends up lecturing on the text and teaching his or her own reading of it.  Students take notes.  The mystery of the text is solved and the course moves on.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

My colleague Aaron DeRosa and I were in the midst of a vigorous discussion about the use of literary theory in the teaching and study of literature. In a nutshell, I was arguing that all reading and interpretation involved theory (full disclosure:  I teach the course in Literary Theory), while Dr. DeRosa was arguing that knowledge of literary theory was not essential to productive literary scholarship.  As in most discussions in English departments, we are probably both right in our own ways.  However, as a sort of rhetorical ploy to get him to reveal his unacknowledged theory-using ways, I asked, “Well, how do you go about teaching a literary text?”  That proved to be a more productive discussion.  The result is this template.  We developed it together. It is in .docx format so that an instructor could use it to plan a course session or sequence of sessions.  Here is a .pdf version, if the other one won’t open in your software.

The goals of this process are to situate the text in the course, give the students enough background and confidence to perform a reading of the text, and then open up the text to new avenues of exploration.

Establish teaching and learning goals for the text

  1. Think about the features of the text that will be meaningful in the context of the course. (Questions: “Why are we reading this? What do you want them to notice?” Depending on the course, this could be genre characteristics, historical context, style, characterization, themes, motifs, etc.)
  2. Think about features of the text that will be difficult for at least some of the students. How will you address them? (This might be such things as difficult or old-fashioned vocabulary, exotic cultural concepts, or potentially undetected irony.)
  3. List what students will know or be able to do after reading and working with the text. (These are your learning goals for the text, which should be consistent with the overall learning goals of the course.)

Preview the text

  1. Provide contemporary, relevant references that highlight some aspect of the content they will read
  2. OR provide some form of summary, context, keywords, etc. that highlights what to read for, the “thread” of the first reading.

Read the text

  1. Trace the thread established in the preview. (This is only one way of reading the text. It is a starting point for the first reading.)
  2. Note details that that might conflict with this thread.

Re-read the text (what might be called “close reading”)

  1. Find an alternative thread to trace to show them multiple modes of reading (sometimes this involves invoking a literary theory).
  2. Look for patterns, connections, contradictions, repetitions (motifs), juxtapositions, tropes and figures, etc. relevant to the themes of the text.
    Build a multi-faceted view of the text with many possible threads woven together.

Post-read “assessment”

  1. Ask students to choose a new thread to follow in more detail.
  2. Evaluate your learning goals through some appropriate mechanism (writing, comic book, movie trailer, discussion, presentation).

As with any template, you may find that you don’t need to do every step with every text.  Toward the end of the course, students should have internalized some of these moves.  However, a bit of previewing of a text before they read it for the class discussion will almost always lead to a better discussion.

Three Strategies from Small Teaching

In this post I will review three teaching techniques from this recent book:

Lang, James. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons for the Science of Learning. San             Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016.

LangBook1IMG_0233

Lang summarizes the cognitive research behind each of the practices, so if you need to be convinced about their efficacy, you should find a copy of the book. Lang discusses nine different practices, but this post will deal with only the first three. These three techniques are interrelated in that they all overlap with the first, “retrieval.” They are all easy to implement, requiring only slight adjustments to classroom practices, but offering big gains in retention of material.

Retrieving

Lang says, “If you want to retrieve knowledge from your memory, you have to practice retrieving knowledge from your memory” (20).

If you want students to remember what you have recently taught, you should ask them to retrieve it from memory shortly after they have learned it. This could be done with quizzes (short answers seem to be better than multiple choice) quickwrites, oral discussion questions, etc. The retrieval could be at the end of a lecture, or at the beginning of the next session. It does not have to be graded.

One interesting strategy is to have students answer a question in writing about the day’s material at the end of the session and then create a second copy of their answer. They turn in one copy, which the instructor uses to assess the class’s grasp of the material. At the next session, the instructor discusses the various answers, commenting on good responses as well as problems and issues, while the students assess their own responses, which they have in front of them, in the light of the discussion.

Lang also recommends using the reading schedule in the syllabus to periodically remind students of what they have already read, studied, and discussed.

Studies have shown that repeated retrieval from long term memory is more effective in improving performance on final exams than reviewing written notes. This means that frequent low-stakes quizzes, backward-looking, reflective, class-opening activities, and summarizing class-ending activities will help students learn.

Predicting

Though Lang doesn’t discuss this particular activity, one form of predicting is the “anticipation guide.” I was introduced to this technique in a workshop by my former colleague, Carol Holder. Before we read a short article about migraine headaches, she gave us a list of 8-10 statements about migraines and asked us to mark them True or False. Of course, when we read the article, even those of us who had never suffered a migraine wanted to find out if our answers were right. It actually didn’t matter if they were right or wrong, but we read with more engagement and interest.

Lang argues that when we are asked to make a prediction, we search our memories for anything relevant to the problem. This “activates prior knowledge” and causes us to think more deeply (49). We then use prior knowledge to reason about new knowledge.

As Lang reads a novel with his students, at the end of a section, he asks the students what will happen in the next section (57). They need to think about the characters, the plot, and other textual clues to make this prediction. This question combines both the retrieval of information about what has been read and the prediction of what is to come, combining two learning techniques.

Interleaving

Reviewing what has been learned is as important as learning it in the first place. It is not enough to simply “cover” the material.  Lang describes a pattern of 1) learning new information, 2) reviewing old information, 3) reviewing the new information (which is now old information), and then 4) back to learning additional new information. In this way, learning and reviewing are “interleaved.” I have experienced the value of this sort of interleaving this many times in my own classrooms. I have a habit of giving quizzes on the material I taught the previous week rather than the material that students had read for the current week. This is often agonizing for students. They remember reading about the material. They remember discussing it, but still the answers are just out of mental grasp. I use these quizzes to figure out what I need to re-teach. Often concepts and terms need to be taught three times or more before all the students can remember them.

This sort of activity produces a cycle of learning, forgetting, and retrieving that allows the brain to encode, consolidate, and organize new knowledge (67).

Conclusion: A course that routinely features activities that review past learning and predict future developments, and that interleaves the teaching of new information and the retrieval of old information, will result in significantly better learning than a course which just marches through new information and tests it at the end.  To accomplish this requires only a few minutes of class time each session.  It’s really a no brainer.

James Lang also has a blog with further useful information and a series of useful posts in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

 

 

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.