Sophistic Appeals: Mythos, Logos, Nomos

Note: This post is also available as a .pdf for classroom use.

In Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured, Susan Jarratt argues that the ancient Greek sophists existed at a time when human society was shifting from mythos, an uncritical acceptance of tradition as represented in myths and stories, to logos, a system of logical analysis allowing access to certain truth, as represented in Plato and Aristotle (31). Jarratt introduces nomos, or “custom-law,” as a third term (41). She sees the sophists as using logos (words and logic) to challenge traditional mythos in order to renegotiate nomos (cultural values and beliefs). Her model for this process is found in Gorgias’s “Encomium of Helen,” in which he argues that Helen of Troy is blameless because she acted as she did for one of four reasons: she was fated by the gods, abducted by force, persuaded by speeches, or conquered by love. Gorgias invokes the myth of Helen and uses words and arguments to challenge her bad reputation among the Greeks, influencing social attitudes toward women in general at the same time.

This sophistic triad of terms–mythos, logos, nomos–can be a productive alternative to the better known Aristotelian appeals of ethos, logos, and pathos. The advantage of the sophistic perspective created by these terms is that it directly addresses social values (nomoi), a factor that the Aristotelian terms tend to obscure.

mythos-logos-nomos-chart-color

Nomos

Nomos (the Greek plural is “nomoi“) encompasses the unwritten social rules, expectations, and values of a local community concerning behavior, responsibilities, boundaries, rights and other social customs. Nomos is what everybody thinks is proper, a set of agreements that may be in part unspoken and unconscious. Of course, even in a local situation, nomos is always open to renegotiation and change. In the past, such change was slow.

Today, technology has made it possible for individuals in widely separated communities to write, speak, and see each other with great immediacy, across cities, states, countries and continents. This immediacy could lead to greater understanding of different communities and cultures, but it has also led to clashing nomoi. We are in a world that has gone from isolated tribes and nations to global civilization in a handful of decades. Electronic media, cheap air travel, and disparities in economic opportunity ensure that we keep crashing into each other with vastly different languages, religions, morality, values and traditions, so that one can succumb to culture shock in one’s own country. The sophists were really the only ones in ancient Greece who experienced this kind of clash, because they were itinerant and traveled from city-state to city-state.

So people today are shocked by what they read and see from outside their community. They think, “How can they do that? How can they think that? Are they even human? Something must be done about them!” The problems our world faces are more related to clashing values than to misunderstood facts. Logical argument succeeds only when there are shared values.

Mythos

Nomos is rooted in mythos. The sophists had Greek myths in mind–the Iliad and the Odyssey, stories about Greek gods such as Zeus, Hera, Apollo and Athena, and Greek heroes such as Hercules. Today, we know those myths, but they are not the ones that are relevant to our own culture. Instead we think about such things as the Founding Fathers, the Frontier, the American Dream, and Santa Claus. We also have movies, such as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, that create their own mythology. For the purpose of utilizing the concept of mythos in a modern context, I want to define it broadly as “A story that nearly everyone in a community knows that serves as a reference point for community values and behavior.”

Logos

Aristotle uses this term to refer to logical argument, but it literally means “words.” For the sophists, any kind of persuasion that used words was logos. That would include logical arguments, but also stories, images, poetic language, incantations, etc. In this context, logos is the bridge between mythos and nomos. A typical move is to invoke a mythos (such as Helen of Troy) then use words to change the audience’s perception of the myth for the purpose of altering how the community feels about a particular issue. So it’s 1) invoke mythos, 2) deploy logos, 3) change nomos.

Applying the Concepts

This mythos-logos-nomos pattern is actually quite common in modern speeches, op-eds and other articles. In a review of David Silverman’s This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving, Philip Deloria writes

The challenge for scholars attempting to rewrite Thanksgiving is the challenge of confronting an ideology that has long since metastasized into popular history. Silverman begins his book with a plea for the possibility of a “critical history.” It will be “hard on the living,” he warns, because this approach questions the creation stories that uphold traditional social orders, making the heroes less heroic, and asking readers to consider the villains as full and complicated human beings. Nonetheless, he says, we have an obligation to try.

Both Silverman, the writer, and Deloria, the reviewer, invoke the myth of the first Thanksgiving, describe the historical record and the history of the transformation of the holiday to serve particular ideological purposes, and then recommend a changed view. Deloria’s review is titled, “The Invention of Thanksgiving: Massacres, myths, and the making of the great November holiday,” Deloria asks, “So how does one take on a myth? One might begin by deconstructing the process through which it was made.”

Deloria points out that almost none of the traditional Thanksgiving story is true. However, the real point is not to confront a myth with the facts. Rather, it is to change attitudes toward Native Americans in the present. Deloria notes that current politicians want to treat Native Americans as a racial group and disavow the political relationships established by treaties. That is the part of nomos that Native American groups are trying to change.

Different Myths of Love

In “Romantic Regimes,” Russian-born Polina Aronson describes coming to the United States as a young exchange student and learning about American ideas of love from a stack of Seventeen magazines. She realized that the American concept of love was entirely different from the Russian concept. Later she became a sociologist and characterized the American version of love as the “Regime of Choice” and the Russian version as the “Regime of Fate.” She writes,

The Seventeen girl was trained for making decisions about whom to get intimate with. She rationalised her emotions in terms of ‘needs’ and ‘rights’, and rejected commitments that did not seem compatible with them. She was raised in the Regime of Choice. By contrast, classic Russian literature (which, when I was coming of age, remained the main source of romantic norms in my country), described succumbing to love as if it were a supernatural power, even when it was detrimental to comfort, sanity or life itself. In other words, I grew up in the Regime of Fate.

She writes that these romantic regimes are “systems of emotional conduct that affect how we speak about how we feel, determine ‘normal’ behaviours, and establish who is eligible for love – and who is not.” In other words, a myth of love determines nomos, what the society thinks is normal for love. Different myths create different norms. Clearly if a Russian girl and an American boy fall in love, they are going to have trouble negotiating this difference.

Possible Writing Assignments

  1. Select an article that follows the mythos-logos-nomos pattern and write an analysis of how the myth is represented, how it is connected to a particular aspect of nomos, and how the writer develops arguments that might change the attitudes of the community.
  2. Choose an aspect of the nomos of your community that you think should be changed, invoke a myth that supports this attitude, and use stories and arguments to debunk or reinterpret this myth to support the change you have in mind. Examples of nomos might include attitudes toward same sex marriage, attitudes toward LGBTQ people, racial stereotypes, gender discrimination, etc.
  3. Research the history and background of a common current myth. How did it begin? Why did it develop in the way that it did? What effects does the myth have on current society?

Works Cited

Aronson, Polina. “Romantic Regimes.” Pocket, https://getpocket.com/explore/item/romantic-regimes?utm_source=pocket-newtab. Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.

Deloria, Phillip. “The Invention of Thanksgiving: Massacres, myths, and the making of the great November holiday.” The New Yorker. 18 Nov. 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/11/25/the-invention-of-thanksgiving. Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.

Jarratt, Susan C. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1991.

Writing a Rhetorical Analysis

Note: This post assumes you are familiar with Aristotle’s terms, ethos, logos, and pathos. If you are not, you may want to read “Three Ways to Persuade” first.

A rhetorical analysis paper is a common assignment in university writing courses from First Year Writing to graduate courses in rhetoric. The assignment offers an opportunity for the writer to see rhetorical concepts in action, doing real work in real contexts. It is an exercise in critical thinking, pulling the curtain of language aside to look at the rhetorical machinery at work behind it. It is also a step toward being able to put these concepts to use in one’s own writing. However, many students struggle with this type of analysis. Some end up merely paraphrasing the text they are examining. Some go on a search for strategies to identify, pointing out that the author “uses” ethos here and pathos there, but without connecting the strategies to a purpose or an audience. Others make arguments about what the author is doing, but don’t support those arguments with evidence from the text.

This is not really surprising. Most students have been trained to do literary analysis in a close reading, non-theoretical way. Rhetoric is both intuitive and counter-intuitive. It is intuitive in that we are all natural rhetoricians using rhetorical strategies every day. It is counter-intuitive in that thinking deeply about rhetorical strategies makes us see that what at first seems obvious is in fact quite complex and perhaps even devious.

A good starting point for a rhetorical analysis is to produce what is called a “rhetorical précis.” This strategy was first presented in a 1988 article by Margaret Woodworth in Rhetoric Review. The rhetorical précis, as designed by Woodworth, is a paragraph that answers four questions:

RhetoricalPrecisChart-cropped

This semester, my Professional Writing class looked at a resignation letter written by Kelly Mehlenbacher, who was State Operations Director for the Kamala Harris presidential campaign. The letter was published in an article in the New York Times.

A rhetorical précis of the letter might look like this:

Kelly Mehlenbacher, State Operations Director for the Kamala Harris campaign for President of the United States, wrote a resignation letter (dated November 11, 2019, published in the New York Times November 29, 2019) stating that she is resigning because she has never seen a campaign treat its staff so poorly. She supports her argument by describing the lack of a plan to win, laying off staff without notice and without regard for personal consequences, low morale, and divided leadership. She says that she writes in order to cause serious consideration of the structure, goals, internal communications, and values of the campaign. Her immediate audience is the campaign leadership, though once it was published in the newspaper, the audience expanded greatly to include newspaper readers and most importantly, potential campaign donors (Harris dropped out of the race on December 3).

The rhetorical précis is only the beginning of a full analysis. Though it doesn’t go into specific rhetorical strategies, it establishes the basic context–the author, the thesis, a summary of the support, the purpose, and the intended audience. Anyone doing a rhetorical analysis should solidify their grasp of these basic elements first.

The First Paragraph

Now we are ready to start looking at the actual language of the text. One of the books I sometimes use in the professional writing course recommends making a “mental movie” of the reader reading the text. This is a moment by moment imagining of the reader’s responses. This letter starts out

It is with a heavy heart that I submit my resignation as State Operations Director at Kamala Harris for the People, effective November 30, 2019. This is my third presidential campaign and I have never seen an organization treat its staff so poorly.

Often there will be an ethos move in the beginning of a document like this. However, the phrase, “It is with a heavy heart,” cliche or not, signals an emotional state, or an appeal to pathos. The reader knows that bad news is coming. The writer doesn’t like what she is about to do, but she is going to do it. We don’t know whether this letter is a surprise to the reader, or expected, but it is not good. The ethos move comes in the second sentence, with “this is my third presidential campaign.” She is a seasoned campaigner. And then she complains, not about how she herself is being treated, but about how the campaign is treating its staff in general. She is sad, she is experienced, and she is principled and trying to stand up for her people. There is a lot going on in those first two sentences.

After establishing herself as knowledgeable and principled, she delivers the devastating payload of this letter. She writes,

While I still believe that Senator Harris is the strongest candidate to win in the General Election in 2020, I no longer have confidence in our campaign or its leadership. The treatment of our staff over the last two weeks was the final straw in this very difficult decision.

She states that she still believes in the candidate, but not in the campaign or its leadership. The poor treatment of the staff is not the real issue, but a symptom of poor leadership. As we move into the logos of this letter, we have two possible enthymemes. One might be

  • Successful presidential campaigns require dedicated and talented staff.
  • Successful presidential campaigns treat their staff well.
  • The Kamala Harris campaign does not treat its staff well.
  • Therefore, the Kamala Harris campaign is not a successful campaign.

That makes it all about the staff. The implied recommendation would be to treat the staff better to have a better result.

The Second Paragraph

However, at the end of the second paragraph, a paragraph that resonates with the word “unacceptable,” she writes,

It is unacceptable that with less than 90 days until Iowa we still do not have a real plan to win. Our campaign For the People is made up of diverse talent which is being squandered by indecision and a lack of “leaders who will lead.”

We might write this enthymeme as follows

  • Successful presidential campaigns require decisive leaders with a real plan.
  • Decisive leaders with a plan use their staff resources well.
  • The Kamala Harris campaign does not use its staff well.
  • Therefore the Kamala Harris campaign needs decisive leaders.

The rhetorically interesting issue here is why focus on the issue of the treatment of the staff when the real issue is about leadership? This is the kind of issue that is often missed when a student is simply focused on finding instances of ethos, pathos, and logos. The writer is using a sub-issue to get at the more difficult issue from an indirect perspective. The text provides one enthymeme, but another is lurking behind it.

The Third Paragraph

The third paragraph continues to focus on staff morale, trusting in the expertise of the staff, and listening to honest feedback. But mixed in are references to the campaign manager and the campaign chair (the candidate’s sister Maya) who have not addressed the staff “to explain, apologize, or reassure us of the decisions being made and the path forward,” and have refused to confront mistakes.

The Fourth Paragraph

In the final paragraph, the writer says that she hopes that her departure “might result in some serious consideration of our structure, our goals, our internal communications and what our organizational values are.” She does not say who should be doing this consideration. The letter is addressed “To whom it may concern,” not to the campaign manager or chair. She has already indicated in the first paragraph that she does not have confidence in their leadership. It is unlikely that she thinks her resignation will change their capabilities. I think a case could be made that the actual intended audience for this letter is the candidate herself, Kamala Harris, and that this is a plea that she fire both Maya Harris, her sister, and Juan Rodriguez, the campaign manager. What happened instead is that Kamala Harris ended her campaign.

Conclusions

What comes out of this analysis is a tension between what the text says and what it does. This tension is designed into the document. The concern for the welfare of the staff is an acceptable theme. A direct attack on the competence of the campaign leadership is much less likely to provoke the desired result. It’s all about rhetorical strategy. Notice also that the rhetorical précis doesn’t get at this. The précis is about the surface, while the in-depth analysis gets at what is really going on. But the précis is a good starting point.

In this analysis, I have been using Aristotle’s three appeals and the concept of the enthymeme, which is the main component of logos, at least for Aristotle. I also noted the repetition of variations of “it’s unacceptable” in the second paragraph, a kind of anaphora or repetition.

However, we could also invoke kairos at this point. This resignation comes at a crucial point in the campaign, a point that comes in most campaigns, where things are not going well and money is short. Money for a campaign is a chicken and egg sort of problem. More money can mean more success, which can lead to more money. However, this campaign is in a downward spiral in polls and in donations. Drastic measures and brilliant leadership will be necessary to turn things around. Kelly Mehlenbacher doesn’t see that happening. It’s time for her to leave.

Works Cited

Martin, Jonathan, Astead W. Herndon and Alexander Burns. “How Kamala Harris’s Campaign Unravelled.” New York Times, 29 Nov. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/29/us/politics/kamala-harris-2020.html. Accessed 18 Dec. 2019.

Woodworth, Margaret K. “The Rhetorical Précis.” Rhetoric Review 7 (1988): 156-64. Print.

The Web Requires a New Kind of Reading

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

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

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

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

Four Moves

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

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

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

Something Simpler and Deeper

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

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

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

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

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

A Summary

To summarize, there are three moves in my simplification:

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

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

Dissoi Logoi (Two Arguments)

Dissoi Logoi” is a document associated with the famous sophist Protagoras, though the writer is unknown. The sophists were often criticized for arguing both sides of the question and for making the worse appear the better and the better appear the worse. This document is part of the reason why. It argues that what is bad for one person is good for another, that what is socially acceptable in one part of the world is shameful in another, and that what is just and unjust depends on the situation and the perspective. This looks like moral relativism and it fits with Protagoras’s statement that “Man is the measure of all things.” However, Aristotle himself argues that rhetoric is morally neutral and should look at arguments from all sides.

The document itself is incomplete. It appears to be speaking notes or perhaps a practice exercise. It is somewhat incoherent, and at times reads like it was written by someone who is crazy, or having fun at our expense. However, the writer is right that any position we take on an issue will have good and bad consequences and will affect different people differently. Our arguments will be stronger and more persuasive if we consider multiple perspectives. “Dissoi Logoi” is good intellectual practice.

Students given an issue or problem to consider and write about will often start with the following questions in mind:

  • What is my thesis?
  • How can I support it?

With the practice of Dissoi Logoi in mind, we start in a different place:

  • What are the possible positions?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of each one?
  • Who is helped and who is hurt by possible policies or solutions?

These questions can be used in group brainstorming sessions so that individual students don’t have to come up with all of the possible positions and consequences themselves. This usually leads to lively discussions. I have a worksheet that I update every time I use it so that the issues it raises are somewhat current. Here are the first two groups:

Group 1
Choose one of the topics below and work out all of the arguments on each side of the issue. If you run out of arguments on one, begin on another.

  • Drones (Remote-controlled pilotless aircraft)
  • Internet Tracking Cookies
  • Food Stamps

Group 2
Choose one of the topics below and work out all of the arguments on each side of the issue. If you run out of arguments on one, begin on another.

  • Free Community College
  • Statewide Educational Testing
  • Organic Food

I give each group three issues to choose from in case they have no knowledge or interest about one of them. However, you could take a single issue that the class is exploring and have the groups brainstorm all the possibilities. After they have done this, they are ready to consider the questions I started with:

  • What is my thesis?
  • How can I support it?

However, because they have explored beyond their own position and understand why people take opposing positions, their arguments are likely to be much more developed and persuasive.

Teaching History of Rhetoric

Book-HistoRhet-crop

I was first introduced to classical rhetoric in a seminar by Lawrence Greene at the University of Southern California. I have been teaching a similar seminar since the mid 1990’s, first at Cal State L.A. and then later at Cal Poly Pomona. This fall, I am about to teach it again. The seminar is called “History of Rhetoric,” but in my hands it is mostly about ancient Greek and Roman works.

My students are mostly high school language arts teachers and prospective composition teachers, so my approach is very practical. Classical rhetoric is not esoteric or arcane. The strategies are designed to help students become more effective speakers and writers. They are mostly simple, but powerful, rules of thumb.

The course will have five basic sections:

  1. Plato versus the Sophists
  2. Aristotle’s Response
  3. A Postmodern Turn
  4. Roman Rhetorical Insights
  5. Beyond Classical Rhetoric

Plato versus the Sophists

We start with two sophistic texts. First, “Dissoi Logoi” (two arguments), a text associated with Protagoras that demonstrates that any outcome has at least two sides. For example, it notes that death is bad for the deceased, but good for the undertaker. This sort of rhetorical practice is what caused sophists to be accused of “arguing both sides of the question” and so having no principles. However, this sort of thinking is excellent for students to engage in. We can ask of any policy decision, “Who does this benefit and who does it hurt?” It is a rare policy that benefits everyone equally. Thinking about all the possible consequences broadens both the discussion and the mind.

The second text is the “Encomium of Helen” by Gorgias. Gorgias is trying to demonstrate that he is such a good rhetorician that he can defend even Helen of Troy. He argues that Helen went to Troy because she was either fated to do so by fortune or the gods, abducted by force, persuaded by speech, or conquered by love. This is an example of the rhetorical strategy of division. Gorgias offers four causes for her behavior, none of them leaving Helen any agency, and then proceeds to show that whichever one it was, she was helpless before it, and so blameless. The trick here is to get the audience to accept the premise that there are only four possible causes.

The most doubtful argument here is that Helen was helpless before persuasive speech. Gorgias argues that speech is like a powerful lord or a drug. He further argues that because it is impossible to know everything about the past, present, and future, we are all forced to rely on opinion rather than truth to make decisions, and opinion is necessarily unreliable and subject to persuasion.

There are some big ideas about truth, epistemology, and the role of rhetoric in these two texts. These are the very ideas that Plato will attack in dialogues such as the Gorgias and the Phaedrus. In the Gorgias, Socrates argues that rhetoric persuades to belief rather than knowledge. Gorgias readily agrees, believing, as I noted above, that there is no other way it could be. In the Phaedrus, Socrates comes around to imagining that a form of rhetoric that was about leading the soul to truth using words might be acceptable.

Aristotle’s Response

The Rhetoric is essentially Aristotle’s response to Plato’s arguments in the Gorgias. He says that rhetoric is an art because some people are better speakers than others and we can study why. He famously defines rhetoric as “the art of finding the available means of persuasion.” And he finds a role for rhetoric that is not about deception. He says, “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).

Aristotle’s three “appeals,” ethos, pathos, and logos, allow us to think about the complex interactions and relationships between the speaker, the audience, and the arguments in more clarity and depth than in Plato’s analysis. Plato is more interested in rhetoric’s deficiencies, while Aristotle is more interested in why we need rhetoric and how to use it.

The Postmodern Turn

At this point in the course, I usually take what I call a “postmodern turn.” We read “Plato’s Pharmacy” by Jaques Derrida, an essay that takes one word that appears twice in the Phaedrus, “pharmakon,” and attempts to read the entire dialogue through that lens. “Pharmakon,” depending on context, can mean either remedy or poison. Derrida argues that writing itself is a pharmakon, and that the Phaedrus is really about the dangers of literacy. Because we have already studied the Phaedrus in detail, students feel capable of responding to Derrida’s reading. At the end of this part of the course, they know the Phaedrus even better and they are also much more comfortable reading Derrida.

Then we move to Rereading the Sophists by Susan Jarratt. Jarratt argues that Plato and Aristotle conducted a smear campaign against the sophists, who were actually more democratic and egalitarian than they were. After all, Aristotle grew up in the court of Phillip of Macedon and was tutor to Alexander the Great. Most sophists were arguing that lineage didn’t matter, what you needed to be an effective leader was speaking ability, which they could teach you, for a price. (By the way, by that definition, all English teachers are sophists. Don’t we say that we can make our students more successful with our teaching, and don’t we get paid for it?)

This time I am also trying out John Mucklebauer’s The Future of Invention: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change. The purpose of this section of the course is to engage classical concepts from a point of view closer to our own time.

Roman Rhetorical Insights

Now we come to the Roman part of the course. I used to assign translations of Cicero and Quintilian, but this time I am relying on the summaries and outlines in James Murphy’s A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric, which also has apparatus to help with Aristotle. Probably the most classroom friendly concepts from the Romans are the six-part speech and stasis theory. (I have linked to posts about those concepts in the previous sentence.)

Beyond Classical Rhetoric

If we have time, we will get into Renaissance rhetoric briefly, mostly with Peter Ramus, a controversial figure who had an outsized influence on how classical rhetoric came down to us. And if we have a few moments more, we might get into George Campbell, whose Philosophy of Rhetoric, published in 1776, had a big influence on rhetoric as it developed in American schools. But classical rhetoric is the heart of this course. By the time they have finished, the students will be well-prepared for deploying concepts from classical rhetoric in their classrooms and for taking the next course, “Modern Rhetoric.”

Student Presentations

Update: I forgot to mention one feature of this course. Each student will choose from a list of journal articles and prepare 15-minute presentation. (Download the guidelines here.) Many of the articles for this course are included in this collection:

Connors, Robert J., Lisa S. Ede, and Andrea Lunsford. eds. Classical Rhetoric and Modern Discourse. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. Print.

However, one of my colleagues pointed out to me that my reading list left out rhetorical traditions outside of Greek and Roman, and that comparisons with other rhetorical traditions would make for interesting research projects. For this reason, I have added the following articles:

Halldén, Philip. “What Is Arab Islamic Rhetoric? Rethinking the History of Muslim Oratory Art and Homiletics.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2005, pp. 19-38.

Liu, Yameng. “To Capture the Essence of Chinese Rhetoric: An Anatomy of a Paradigm in Comparative Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1996, pp. 318-335.

Mao, LuMing. “Introduction: Searching for the Way: Between the Whats and Wheres of Chinese Rhetoric.” College English, Vol. 72, No. 4, Special Topic: Studying Chinese Rhetoric in the Twenty-First Century, 2010, pp. 329-349.

These articles all make comparisons with the classical tradition and raise questions about how scholars working within that tradition have misunderstood other traditions. Each also includes more sources to  explore and paths for possible new research.

Designing a Reading/Writing Course

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

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

Who are your students?

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

What are your learning goals?

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

What will the students read?

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

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

What rhetorical concepts and strategies will you teach?

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

What is the arc of the course?

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

What written genres will you teach and why?

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

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

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

Will students do research?

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

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

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

What will you actually do in class?

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

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

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

This post is also available as a Word document.

Teaching (in Grammar B)

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

See previous post for info on Grammar B.

The Alternate Style

In late June I went to Santa Cruz for a graduation, Sacramento for a presentation at an ERWC leadership conference, and then to Monterey for the Young Rhetoricians Conference, a delightful small conference frequented mostly by Community College folk, but with a smattering of K-12 and university people as well. The hotel is right on the beach. These days, the high tide reaches almost up to the seawall. It’s lovely, but probably doomed by climate change.  The ocean will take it eventually.

One of the presentations I saw was “On and beyond Grammar B” by Randy Fallows and Tamar Christensen from UCLA. Grammar B is a concept introduced in a 1980 book by Winston Weathers, An Alternate Style: Options in Composition. “Grammar A” is what Weathers calls the traditional “grammar of style” that insists on “continuity, order, reasonable progression and sequence, consistency, unity, etc.” (6). Weathers argues that whether you write like Henry James, or write like Ernest Hemingway, you are still writing in Grammar A.

AlternateStyle

Grammar B is an alternate “grammar of style” that deploys variegation, synchronicity, discontinuity, ambiguity, and other disjunctive devices. Grammar B is not bad Grammar A. Weathers characterizes it as a different game, with its own rules, played with the same deck of cards. Grammar B is not new, nor was it invented by Winston Weathers. Writers as diverse in style and time as Laurence Sterne, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and D. H. Lawrence have played this game.

However, even as we have students read Grammar B authors such as the above, we persistently teach them Grammar A. Weathers argues that if we add Grammar B, we will give students “a much more flexible voice, a much greater communication capacity, a much greater opportunity to put into effective language all the things they have to say” (8). I might also add that there will be less disjunction between the literature they read and the writing they are asked to do. Also, Grammar B is more fun.

What exactly is Grammar B? First, it deploys some different genres and treats traditional genres in a looser, more playful way.

The “Crot”

According to Weathers, “crot” is a obsolete word meaning “bit” or “fragment” resurrected by Tom Wolfe in the introduction to a book of fiction from Esquire magazine. It is an autonomous bit of discourse, set off without transitions between previous or subsequent crots. (If you don’t like the sound of “crot,” in “Collage: Your Cheatin’ Art” Peter Elbow calls them “blips” (3).) A crot can be a single sentence or many.

One way of thinking about this is to use the ancient Greek term “parataxis.” “Parataxis” is to put elements side-by-side and let the reader intuit the connections between them. Humans are good at this, but different readers will imagine different connections. The opposite is “hypotaxis” in which transitions and connections are made clear. Logically, this is the sophists versus Aristotle, or Grammar B versus Grammar A. Note also that by putting “versus” between those terms, I am specifying a contrastive relationship.  For the most part, this blog post is written in hypotaxic Grammar A.

Really Long Sentences and Fragments

Two other stylistic devices favored by Grammar B are “the labyrinthine sentence” in which one grammatical sentence goes on forever, and the sentence fragment. Both of these are strongly discouraged by Grammar A teachers, often marked as “run-on” or “frag.” Yet both are common in literary texts.

This section of the book reminded me of Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, by Ursula K. Le Guin, a book I assign in my genre fiction course. One of the early activities is “write a half page to a page of narrative, up to 350 words, that is all one sentence” (32). My students usually freak out because this is so contrary to what they have been taught. They freak out even more when she asks them to write 150-350 words of narration with no punctuation or breaks of any kind. Exercises such as this demonstrate how much students have been brainwashed by their instructors about “correctness.”

The List

Many students have read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. One whole chapter is simply a list of items carried by G.I.s in Vietnam during the war, clearly a Grammar B technique. Lists are powerful. The items form connections. They have contexts. They say things about the listmaker and his or her times and purposes. It is easy for students to make lists.

Double-Voice

This technique involves a conversation between two voices that may in fact not be hearing each other. There might be tension between what the writer is thinking and what he or she is writing. It might be objective description plus ironic commentary. The voices might be in separate columns or alternating sentences. This is not quite the heteroglossia that Bakhtin is talking about when he describes an author taking speech from a specific part of society and putting it into the mouth of a character, where it has the voice of the original speakers, the voice of the character, and the voice of the author, all speaking at once. However, Bakhtin would recognize the technique instantly.

Repetition and Refrains

Writing that repeats phrases almost like the refrain of a song is discouraged by English teachers, though in disciplines like Engineering, synonyms and circumlocutions are frowned upon and a strut remains a strut throughout the document no matter how many times it is repeated. Here in Grammar B, however, repetition is used for an aesthetic effect, to remind, to call upon sameness and difference, in the way that a refrain like “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Memphis Blues Again” in a Bob Dylan song repeats the same words in every chorus, but evokes a different meaning every time it comes around.

There’s more of course. Language play. Puns. Fanciful spelling. Unconventional orthography and layout. Lots of fun stuff. (A bit of Grammar B here.)

In the Classroom

Fallows and Christensen Have incorporated activities based on Grammar B in their First Year Writing course and upper-division courses. A lower-division assignment says:

While more traditional academic essays compel you to justify your perspective and reach definitive conclusions in a seemingly objective manner, grammar b essays encourage you to explore your ambivalence in an openly subjective manner. That being said, grammar b shares the same goal as traditional academic essays in that it should bring about new perspectives and insights as you explore the nuances of your subject. Through the use of stylistic choices, you can explore any number of conflicting or coinciding thoughts by utilizing different genres, juxtaposing opposing perspectives, jumping around in time, and making the layout of your page reflect the layout of your thoughts.

To my eye, this assignment is dancing between Grammars A and B, probably to avoid freaking out the students (as my students did when asked to write without punctuation) and to appease the institutional authorities, who will perhaps tolerate alternative pedagogies as long as the students end up fluent in Grammar A. But there is a lot of leeway here for exploration and expression, much more than in a traditional essay. This looks really cool.  I think writing courses should teach both grammars.

Works Cited

Le Guin, Ursula K., Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. New York: Mariner Books, 2015.

Weathers, Winston. An Alternate Style: Options in Composition. Rochelle Park, New Jersey: Hayden Book Co., 1980.

What Makes Punctuation So Confusing?

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

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

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

A Significant Disadvantage

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

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

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

Bringing Back Intonation

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

Contradictory Conceptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Harbrace Handbook

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

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

A Morass of Jargon

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

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

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

The Handbooks are Wrong

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

A Simple System

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

Three Patterns and Three Possibilities

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

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

Raising and Lowering

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

PunctuationHierarchyChart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the Five-Paragraph Essay?

I remember the first time I taught the five-paragraph essay. It was in 1979. I was a brand new composition instructor and I had been told what book to use and that I needed to teach this formula. It was strange to me because I had never encountered it in my own education and it had not been part of the “Writing in the Schools” course I had taken. However, I did as the program commanded me to do.

I remember two students from the course. One was a Chinese girl who wrote short gem-like pieces that were more like prose poems than essays. They were unconventionally beautiful. The second was an African-American clarinet player who wrote like he was taking a free-form solo in a jazz tune. He wrote pages and pages in a rapid scrawl on any assignment, but it was pretty much free association without any coherence. On the day that I introduced the five-paragraph essay, some instinct was telling me that the Chinese girl shouldn’t listen. I was right. Her attempts to write this sort of essay were short, formulaic and vacuous. Within a couple of weeks, she disappeared from the course.

The clarinet player came up to me and said, “I think I need six paragraphs.” I said, “Go for it.” His writing became coherent after he had a form to pour it into. He went from being an unintelligible writer to a pretty good one.

So, the first time I taught this format, it hurt one student, helped one student, and left the rest pretty much unchanged. It might have helped some others too, though their writing didn’t change significantly. But the one it helped the most realized right away that he had to modify it to suit his purposes.

Build on What They Know

Now the five-paragraph essay is ubiquitous. It is often all students know how to do. When they get to college, some composition teachers teach it, some accept it, and some hate it. What is clear, however, is that to be effective writers at a higher level in any discipline, they have to outgrow the five-paragraph essay.

However, most students have been so thoroughly drilled in producing five-paragraph essays that we can’t simply eliminate this persistent format. After all, it is possible to write a good five-paragraph essay and, of course, no one wants to be told that everything they know about something is wrong. What we have to do is build on what they know, help them write better essays, and help them grow out of the restrictions of the format.

Without the Romans

I have been suggesting that the Roman Six-Part Speech is a good alternative to the five-paragraph essay (also see the mini-module, “The Classical Pattern of Persuasion“). I think it is, but for the reasons outlined above, we can’t just perform a switcheroo. Here are three principles that I think will help students write better five-paragraph essays without getting the Romans involved:

  • Don’t obsess about the number of paragraphs.
  • Think about your audience.
  • Think about your purpose in writing.

If taken seriously, those three directives will go a long way toward producing better essays.

With the Romans

If we do get the Romans involved, they really do have some insights that will generally fit inside the five-paragraph format, although they put pressure on the five-paragraph limit. I have created a comparison chart:

5para-RomanSpeech-Compared-chartimage

Each section in the Roman pattern has a rhetorical purpose.  These are all purposes and functions that writers of five-paragraph essays should also consider.

I think it is key to move students away from the five-paragraph format step-by-step. The first step might be to include a paragraph of narrative about how the issue developed to the point that we have to do something about it. That is introductory material that might create a need for six paragraphs. Students might think about these questions:

  • What background information does the reader need to know to understand the issue I am writing about?
  • What is the story behind the issue?
  • How did things get this way?

The second step might be to introduce a need to refute counter-arguments. This could take the form of questions such as

  • What will people who disagree with me say?
  • What are the arguments against my position?
  • How can I respond to them?

Putting more emphasis on these concerns, which are not generally part of the five-paragraph essay format and which are likely to expand the essay into six or more paragraphs for reasons that are pretty clear to the writer, will put students on the path to growing beyond the rigid five-paragraph format without having to abandon what they already know.