A Science Fiction Mini-Module: Boojum

“Boojum” by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette has pirates, tentacled aliens, brains in jars, and a crew member who really loves her ship. It’s a good read. It was published in an online science fiction magazine called Lightspeed. You can read it here. A warning: the text uses the F-word a couple of times. It sounds natural in the context, though it is probably unnecessary.

I started reading science fiction when I was in grammar school. I think it was what made me really, really interested in reading. At one point, I had read every single science fiction book in the public library. I ran out. I think that science fiction and fantasy can still make high school students interested in reading. However, some people have trouble getting into a science fictional world because it is so different from what they are used to. Here are some pre-reading questions that may help get them engaged:

 Pre-reading Questions

These are questions to think about before you begin reading “Boojum.” Briefly write down your answers. Your instructor may ask you to discuss your answers in a small group, which may change your views. If so, write down any additional insights you gained from the discussion. Save this paper because you will be asked to look at it again after you have read the story.

1. If you were offered a choice between death and joining a pirate crew, which would you choose? Why?

2. If you were offered a choice between death and being a disembodied but living brain in a jar, which would you choose? Why?

3. Do you think a human could learn to love an alien being? Why or why not?

These questions preview some of the ethical and moral questions the story raises, but in a context that is not quite science fictional, but closer to ideas that students may have thought about.

Reading Questions

I found these questions on my hard drive from the last time I taught this story as part of my science fiction course. They were designed to help students notice certain features of the text and then later serve as discussion prompts in class. This was with college students, but even so, it would have been better to design some sort of pre-reading activity such as I have above. Here is a sampling of the questions. You can see more of them in the linked mini-module.

1. What is the difference between a “steelship” and a “boojum”?

2. What is Black Alice’s greatest ambition?

3. How did Black Alice come to be on the Lavinia Whateley?

4. What do Black Alice and Dogcollar find in the hold of the Josephine Baker? Why is Black Alice upset about it?

5. What happens to the Josephine Baker when the pirates are finished with it?

6. What is wrong with Vinnie?

7. What happens to Black Alice? Does she achieve her ambition?

Notice that these are questions that the reader cannot answer or even understand without reading the story. These might be seen as old-fashioned “comprehension” questions. However, I see them as “noticing” questions. I want them to attend to certain features of the story.


Back when I used to teach American literature to non-native speakers, I developed a three-level questioning pattern. Here’s a chart:


My international students were acquiring English as they tried to read the stories. They were sometimes confused about the events of the story. They were also confused about the motivations of the characters because they came from cultures that were quite different from the U.S. In their countries, the characters would behave quite differently due to social expectations, parental pressure, religious beliefs, and other factors. I found that I had to move up and down these levels to keep everyone in the discussion. If a student was confused, it might be that they did not actually know what had happened in the story. We had to clarify this first.

The discussions about motives were very interesting because of all the different interpretations based on different cultural perspectives. We often never got to the thematic level. I developed this way of thinking for international students, but I later realized that it was applicable to all teaching of literature. Don’t start with theme. Work your way up.

Anyway, these questions are mostly on the event level. They are designed to make sure that everyone knows what is going on.

Post-reading Questions

These questions operate on the motive and thematic levels. They get into choices and principles. The last question revisits the pre-reading questions so that students can notice how their opinions might have changed.

1. Do you agree with the choices that Black Alice makes? Would you have done the same things if you were in her situation? Why or why not?

2. The Mi-Go say to Captain Song, “We do not bargain with thieves.” Are the Mi-Go justified in what they do to the crew of the Lavinia Whately? Why or why not?

3. In this story, who are the good guys and who are the bad? Why?

4. Look at your answers to the pre-reading questions. Did your views change?

Post-reading Activities

These activities are designed to help broaden the context of the story and give some insight into what the authors were thinking about when they wrote it.

1. Black Alice’s ship is called the “Lavinia Whateley.” Lavinia Whateley is a character in a story by H.P. Lovecraft called “The Dunwich Horror.” Working in teams and using internet searches, look up the personages represented by the names of the other ships mentioned in this story. Do these names have any significance, or are the authors simply having fun? Each team can report what they found to the class.

2. In Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark” the Baker (who only knows how to make wedding cake) begins to describe how to recognize a snark when you see one. He cautions, however,

But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!

In this poem, a “boojum” is a particularly dangerous type of snark. Is this a good name for the kind of creature Vinnie is? Does this reference have any other significance for this story? You may want to look at the rest of the poem. Note: Lewis Carroll also wrote Alice in Wonderland.

Writing Task

I tried to make the writing prompt as accessible as possible. The theme here is about character and the substance is about events and motives. The danger of this prompt is that a student might simple write a summary of the story, so I added a warning. Some students will still write summaries. Let’s hope they will be summaries with a focus on Alice and some supporting detail.

In some ways, this story is a character study of Black Alice. Try to think of one or two words that you believe characterize Black Alice. What kind of person is she? Then write an essay in which you describe her situation, her actions, and her motives for acting. Use details from the story to support your view of Alice and what we can learn from her.

Note: This is not a summary of the story. Keep the focus on Black Alice’s character and how her actions and motives reflect her principles.

Another possible prompt might be about trust. Black Alice survives among very disreputable characters and at the end she has to trust the “ship” “Vinnie,” to “save” her. I still might develop that one. The module can be downloaded in .doc form. Here is the link again.

Teaching Behind the Mask

Yesterday, I taught two classes face-to-face. One was the senior capstone course and the other was a grad seminar in “Pedagogies of Reading.” It was the first time I had been in front of actual students in a year and a half. We were all masked and vaccinated, but not socially distanced. Four students attended virtually through my iPad. One was in San Jose, one was self-isolating, and two were sick.

I asked the students how they felt about being back in a classroom. In both classes there were a handful who were happy to be back, a handful who were uncomfortable, and the rest were unsure. To tell the truth, I would put myself in the uncomfortable group. As a result, I lectured far more than I normally would. I just kept talking.

Performing Identity

In some ways, the trouble with teaching on Zoom or now behind masks is the adjustments we have to make in performing our identities and in reading the performances of others. On Zoom we have students and teachers peering into each others’ homes and private lives. We can counter this by turning into a black square or displaying a fake context signifying comedic irony or a desire to be anyplace but where we are. On Zoom we pixelate and freeze and our voices turn robotic and metallic or echo across vast virtual canyons. We got used to this, but it was like being in a foreign country while also being in our own kitchen, communicating with strangers we used to know.

Now behind masks we are present to each other, but our expressions are hidden. We have to learn to read each other’s eyes. Teaching yesterday made me realize how much I depend on the faces in front of me to know what to do. Do they understand what I just said? Did they get the concept? Did they get the joke? Do I need another example?

There are cultures where the women are always veiled. I am sure they learn to read the eyes. We will learn too. But for now, it is strange.

Making Strange

However, perhaps there is some benefit in this strangeness. Victor Shklovsky, in “Art as Technique,” argues that

Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. “If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as they have never been.” And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stoney. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important. (720)*

For Shklovsky, the purpose of art is to “make strange” the habitual, the ordinary, the familiar, the comfortable, so that we can see it again. The pandemic is not art, but its effect has been similar. It has made teaching strange. And once made strange, we can see more clearly how it works, and how to make it better. I think we have learned a lot from it, and will learn more before it is over.

*In Richter, David H., ed. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998. Emphasis in the original.

Mini-Module: Exploring Disciplinary Discourse

Note: This post is part of a series on “Teaching First Year Composition.”

First Year Composition programs often appear to exist in a discourse universe of their own. They focus on the so-called “college essay,” a genre that most students will not write again in their other courses or in their careers unless they become public intellectuals writing op-eds for newspapers and magazines. Most students in an FYC course are not English majors or future journalists. The purpose of the course is to develop rhetorical skills and practices that will be useful in writing other genres and addressing other discourse communities. Writing essays can help develop these skills, but for students to see the relevance of these skills to new situations, we have to make some connections to other disciplines and their associated workplaces.

A complicating factor is that most FYC instructors are English majors with some training in writing about literature. The elegant style of literary criticism is unfortunately quite the opposite of what is considered good style in engineering or business. But how can we teach all the different genres and styles of all of the disciplines that our students will be going into?

The answer is that we can’t. However, using concepts such as audience and purpose, we can help students explore the discourse of their chosen discipline using web searches. This mini-module, Exploring Disciplinary Discourse, is designed to help students do this. The final project is a version of an I-Search paper, as originally developed by Ken Macrorie in his book Searching Writing. In this I-Search paper, the student investigates the discourse of their chosen major and then writes a paper describing what they investigated, how they went about conducting the investigation, and what they found. The audience for this paper is other students who may be considering majoring in this field.

Learning Outcomes

Students will be able to:

  • Use different search terms to discover the genres and styles of their major field
  • Make decisions as they design and conduct their own inquiries
  • Describe their experience of the research process and their findings from beginning to end in a paper addressed to other students who may be considering the same major
  • Make connections between concepts and strategies taught in their composition class and writing in their majors

A Mini-Proposal

The first step in the module is a mini-proposal. The student submits answers to the following questions:

  • What is your intended major? (If you have not yet chosen a major, explore one that you are considering.)
  • What do you already know (or think you know) about writing in this field? (Note: Some students choose a major such as engineering because they think there will not be much writing. However, engineers write a lot and the ones who write well are the ones most likely to get promoted.)
  • What do you want to find out about the work people do in this field?
  • What search terms will you use in your initial investigation? (A starting point might be “writing in MY MAJOR” or “How to write like an engineer, scientist, CEO, etc.”)

Some Sample Searches and Results

Here are two search strings that resulted in useful links for learning about writing in engineering:

  • What do engineers write?
  • Write like an engineer

Students in other disciplines could substitute “scientist,” “anthropologist,” “manager” or other profession for “engineer” in these searches.

A search on “engineering genres” led to a link at the University of Illinois about “Writing Across Engineering and Science: Genres and Genre Systems.” It presents an interesting word cloud that represents a survey of instructors about what writing genres were taught in courses and what genres students would be expected to write after graduation when they were working as engineers. There is quite a difference.

A search on “engineering sample documents” resulted in useful links to documents that could be used in rhetorical analysis assignments. One of these was a report on “Document Types and Naming Conventions” for the CERN Large Hadron Collider project in Geneva, Switzerland. That is an interesting document, but the student would have to decide if it was relevant to their project, which will evolve as they find things. They will have to decide which paths to follow and when they have gone too far down a rabbit hole. However, these decisions are all part of the description of the research process they will include in the I-Search paper.

A Progress Report

After they have done some searches, the module asks them to submit a progress report to the instructor. This will give the instructor a chance to offer suggestions to students whose searches have been unproductive, or who have gone down too many rabbit holes.

An Academic Extension

The module also includes an optional academic journal component that is appropriate for college-level courses. This section asks them to find a relevant article in an academic database, perhaps after engaging in some online chat with a research librarian, and doing some rudimentary analysis.

Writing the Paper

The module asks the student to look back at the mini-proposal to remember where they were when they started. This is used to establish a sense of audience for the paper–a student interested in this field but uninformed about the discourse community. Then it gives them step-by-step instructions for writing the paper.

Peer Review

The final element is a peer review session in which they trade papers with a student who investigated a different major and answer some questions.

Final Outcomes

One of the questions asked in the writing section is “What connections did you find between the concepts and strategies you learned in your English course and the writing in the discipline of your choice?” This is perhaps the most important purpose of this module. We want students to see that the rhetorical concepts they get from FYC connect to their work in other classes and finally to their careers.

The full mini-module can be downloaded here.

Responding to Student Writing

Note: This post is part of a series on “Teaching First Year Composition.”

Last but not least, Outcome O:

As I noted in the previous post, most people outside of composition and rhetoric think that the purpose of a writing course is to eliminate all grammatical errors and usage problems so that students don’t inflict them on faculty in upper-division courses, other disciplines, and later, on employers. They also tend to think that these are problems that should have been addressed in high school, so college-level writing courses are by definition “remedial.” As you can see from the first 14 outcomes, there is a lot more to an FYC course than grammar instruction.

Perhaps a more important problem is that students often agree. They think that the goal is always to produce an error-free text. When students come to the writing center, the first thing they want is to have the tutor “fix” all of the errors. The tutor has to be very persuasive to get the students even to consider more global revisions.

However, different rhetorical situations require different styles, genres, and strategies. As the cognitive load increases, especially when learning new concepts and vocabulary, the likelihood of linguistic error also increases. Focusing exclusively on error blocks learning and growth. Error is a fact of life. We can’t ignore it because it has rhetorical consequences, but we can’t beat it to death until it goes away before moving on to other concerns. If we do that, we will stay on square one forever. So, how do we balance all of these concerns in responding to student writing?

Steps in a Response

The first step is to design a good assignment. I will discuss that in more detail in a subsequent post. For now, let’s just say that it is important to make it clear what the student is supposed to do and how they will be evaluated.

What comes naturally to most instructors is to read and mark errors as they go. This might work for a fluent writer, but for most students it results in a heavily marked up paper that discourages the student and doesn’t offer a coherent plan for revision or improvement. It may seem like the most efficient way, but in reality it is not. It is best to skim the paper quickly first to see what you’ve got. Then think about the following steps:

  1. Introduction: Does the introductory material effectively guide the reader in anticipating the topic and purpose of the paper? Does the paper fulfill those expectations? If necessary, comment on possible improvements.
  2. Style: Is the style of the paper appropriate to the audience and purpose? Are sentences readable and clear? Are word choices appropriate? Identify particular instances where sentence structure or word choice could be improved. This may include punctuation marking sentence boundaries or other punctuation problems.
  3. Grammatical Systems: Is there a pattern of error in a particular feature of the grammatical system, such as subject/verb agreement, the tense system, or pronoun reference? If there are many errors in many systems, don’t mark all of them. Focus attention on a specific problem for the writer to work on.
  4. Assignment: Finally, is the paper an effective response to the assignment? Does it do the task? Does it demonstrate the required thinking, even if there are grammatical errors or other problems? Give comments that reflect the extent to which the paper is successful in this regard and suggestions for improvement, if needed. These comments may appear at the end of the paper, but your impressions begin forming upon your initial skim of the paper.


I am a fan of rubrics for responding to writing because they show the student what the criteria are and they keep the instructor on track too. Critics of rubrics argue that they are too restrictive and punish creative or innovative responses. I find that if I receive a superior response that does not fit my rubric for that assignment, I can find a way to reward it anyway. I will discuss rubric design in a subsequent post.

Balancing Praise and Critique

It is easy to make lots of negative comments on student papers without giving them any praise. We want our criticism to be seen as constructive and we want our students to feel like they can improve. While there are students who think that they are better writers than they really are, often because they have gotten praise for using a lot of big words that don’t really mean what they think they mean, most students have already been convinced that they are “bad writers.” We want to convince them otherwise. In fact, that may be the most important unwritten learning outcome of the whole composition program.

The Madness of Herds

There are indications that the policies that my campus was promoting regarding offering both online and face-to-face instruction simultaneously are going to be mitigated. Our department had a very interesting video meeting through Zoom in which it was clear that we were all in agreement. After the meeting, one of our members crafted the following statement:

The Department of English and Modern Languages (EML) holds that pedagogy rests in the hands of teachers. We collectively do not subscribe to the “banking concept of education,” where content is deposited into the minds of students through strict lecture (and recording). This is not a model for humanities instruction. To that end, faculty are empowered to make pedagogical decisions that match their subject matter to students’ needs while maintaining consistent instruction through the end of the semester. Under pandemic conditions, this will likely mean primary virtual instruction. Faculty will make reasonable accommodations to help students succeed when access and resources are restricted or unavailable.

I think that most faculty on campus would agree with this statement. The union has pushed back strongly. I think that we will be teaching fully online courses.

However, I think that higher education will be forever changed by this crisis. We are all being forced to think, teach and learn in new ways.

Today I went to a supermarket to buy milk and ice cream. I had been to the same store three days before. At that time, although toilet paper and bottled water were in short supply and hand sanitizer was not to be found, everything else was normal. But today, the store was tremendously crowded. There were no shopping carts in front of the store. Pasta, flour, canned soups, milk, and many other items were sold out. I know that in many countries it is not unusual to see bare shelves in a market, but I have never seen this in California before. I was told by someone that all the local stores were the same. Suddenly, everyone was behaving as if civilization were ending.

I don’t think civilization is ending. That might come later if we don’t do something about climate change. But people are suddenly very insecure. And somehow they all become insecure in the same way all at once. It is very strange.

However, strange as this behavior is, humans are also brilliantly adaptable. We will get through this.

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
no quiz no quiz
richard textingme
ohoh sisterphone
howmany pages whendo
whatdid itsay
idk idk
wesay this
wesay this
howmany pages whendo

See previous post for info on Grammar B.

In Memoriam: Jim Garrett

Yesterday I went to a memorial service for my friend Jim Garrett, whom I first met back in 1991, when I was setting up a new writing center at Cal State L.A. Jim was a computer programmer who had decided to study literature. He had enrolled in the M.A. program and the English Department had just instituted a requirement that new Teaching Assistants had to work in the writing center for one quarter before teaching. The center was brand new and I had just ordered 10 Apple Macintosh SE-30s and 10 IBM PCs for student use. I was a DOS PC person, but the SE-30s were delivered first. When Jim walked in, he found me puzzling over how to set up the unfamiliar Macs. He introduced himself and immediately began unboxing computers, setting them up, and teaching me how to use them.

Our friendship began at that moment. He was technically my employee at that point, but I was already learning from him. A few months later he found me having no luck trying to figure out how to create a student-tracking database in Dbase. He offered to write a program for me. When he brought the first version in, he sat for an hour watching the staff at the front desk use it. Then he told me, “They don’t use it the way I thought they would. I have to redesign it.” For most programmers, that would be a training issue, but not for Jim. He wanted it to work the way the staff worked. Eventually, that program not only tracked students, but scheduled tutors, did payroll, and generated dozens of reports. We used it for more than a decade.

All of this was typical of Jim. When he saw someone trying to solve a problem, he pitched in. And he brought immense problem-solving skill and considerable knowledge to every scenario. As near as I could tell, he was interested in everything. He had the problem-solving skill of an engineer and the soul of a poet. He could be practical, mathematical, theoretical, and whimsical, sometimes in the same moment. If he didn’t know how to do something, he would learn. If you asked him how to do something, he would more than likely do it for you.

Jim was a mathematically thinking computer programmer who became a Wordsworth scholar. For him, there was no contradiction in that. His thought was not easy to compartmentalize. If you thought you had exhausted the possibilities of something, Jim was sure to have a different take, a new perspective, a useful insight.

All this problem-solving kept Jim very busy, especially when he became chair of the English Department at Cal State L.A., a place with a tremendous number of problems to solve, many of which were off-the-charts intractable and full of Catch 22 traps. Jim continued to act as if data and well-founded arguments would ameliorate things in the long run. He kept trying even when his own particularly rational, genius-inflected approach did not win the day. Though Jim’s approach was always rational and straightforward, he understood human foibles, allowed for them, and took every person he met seriously.

No matter how busy Jim was, he always made time for family and friends. Whatever conversation you started with him, he was always right there. He never seemed to be bored, distracted, or to deflect any concern. He listened carefully, and always seemed to know something about the topic. Whenever I met Jim, no matter how things were going for me, I always smiled. Part of it was his smile, but part of it was simply his stance toward the world. You felt that things were going to be ok.

I considered Jim to be one of my best friends, but at the memorial service I realized that Jim had a huge number of people who considered him a best friend. He always made whoever he was talking with feel special.  Jim was one of those people who make you think that maybe the human race is not so bad after all. I realize now that there are certain kinds of problems that make me think, “I’ll ask Jim about this. He is sure to have some insight.” I still have those questions, but now I can’t ask Jim. We will all miss him so much.

Teaching Rhetoric in a Post-Truth Society

As English teachers, part of our job is to teach students to evaluate sources and arguments, separate fact from opinion, and recognize rhetorical strategies when they are employed to deceive the audience or obscure the truth. What are we to tell our students when fake news and unsupported accusations influence an election? How can we respond to a spokesperson for a president elect who says the following:

“One thing that’s been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts. They’re not really facts,” Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes said on “The Diane Rehm Show” on NPR. “It’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”

This sentiment is not new. Ron Suskind of the New York Times published a now famous quote in an article about the George W. Bush administration:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The “aide” is believed to be Karl Rove.

Comedian and Late Night host Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” for this phenomenon. A statement has “truthiness” if it feels true because it supports the individual’s worldview. We are all susceptible to this.

In 1984, as O’Brien tortures Winston, he argues that there is no world outside of the human mind, so that the Party can control reality in the same way that he can make Winston see five fingers when there are only four. This is “Believing is seeing” rather than “Seeing is believing,” as we would normally say. Winston’s job in Oceania, before he is arrested, is to rewrite news articles and historical documents to reflect Big Brother’s ever changing positions. Big Brother controls the media, controls history, and controls the mind. This is where “post-truth” leads in Orwell’s fictional world. And in our world, surveillance is deeper and more pervasive than in the novel.

In addition to fake news, much of the discourse of the election was conducted in memes–images combined with short pithy texts to make political points. Memes are inherently unstable and open to various interpretations. For example, say I take an image of Darth Vader and combine it with the text “We hold these Truths . . . .” Those words connect Darth Vader to the Declaration of Independence, which says, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Is Lord Vader holding these Truths hostage? Or are the words, and the rest of the text they imply, more powerful than Vader and all he represents? Is the meme a sarcastic assertion of authoritarian power or an argument that these self-evident rights are more powerful than tyranny? Different readers will see different meanings. Yet the meme will circulate, making contradictory arguments wherever it goes.

Similarly, say I combine a picture of Donald Trump with the text, “A Hoax Made in China.” Does that encapsulate Trump’s position on climate change? Or does it imply that Trump is a Manchurian Candidate?

Because memes make up such a big part of internet communication these days, unpacking the arguments and the references in memes is an important skill for students to master. Students can also create memes. One of my graduate students created this meme that updates a phrase from the Declaration of Independence a bit.


So what do we do? A number of things:

Old Stuff:

  • Continue to teach argumentation, including logical fallacies
  • Teach fact-finding, fact-checking, and journalistic principles (Don’t give up on facts!)
  • Teach citation, evaluation, and documentation of sources
  • Teach rhetoric including audience, purpose, and the three appeals (ethos, logos, pathos)

New Stuff:

  • Teach meme analysis and meme creation (Memes are short-form, multi-modal arguments)
  • Expand ethos to include Kenneth Burke’s concept of “identification” (see below)
  • Expand pathos to include the psychological concept of “desire” (see below)

Teaching Identification

In A Rhetoric of Motives Burke substitutes the word “identification” for the traditional term “persuasion.” He says,

All told, persuasion ranges from the bluntest quest of advantage, as in sales promotion or propaganda, through courtship, social etiquette, education, and the sermon, to a “pure” form that delights in the process of appeal for itself alone, without ulterior purpose. And identification ranges from the politician who, addressing an audience of farmers, says, “I was a farm boy myself,” through the mysteries of social status, to the mystic’s devout identification with the source of all being. (xiv)

Burke writes the book “for tolerance and contemplation” in the aftermath of World War II and the defeat of fascism in Europe and Asia. He defines identification as follows:

A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so. (20)

And further on

In being identified with B, A is “substantially one” with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another. (21)

Burke argues that his book “deals with the possibilities of classification in its partisan aspects; it considers the ways in which individuals are at odds with one another, or become identified with groups more or less at odds with one another.” According to Burke, “identification is compensatory to division,” and “the most tragically ironic of all divisions” is war, which Burke calls “a disease of cooperation” because of the many cooperative acts that go into a single act of destruction (22).

For students, this perspective leads to a number of useful questions:

  • What persons and what groups do I identify with and why?
  • Who does this writer identify with? What strategies is he or she using to persuade me to join?
  • How does one group identify itself? Is it in opposition to another group?
  • What are the identifying words and symbols of this group?

Teaching about Desire

The appeal to pathos is an appeal to the emotions. Fear and hate are powerful emotions that can be used by a speaker to persuade an audience to take actions that they would not take through logic. Compassion is another emotion that can be triggered by an image of a starving baby or a cute puppy. Most students are familiar with this sort of appeal. However, a desire is perhaps an even stronger appeal. We want something–a new car, a new guitar, new shoes, a prestigious award, a high position–because of how it makes us appear to others. We are not really pleasing ourselves, but pleasing the other, or in many cases, as Lacan says “the big Other,” the culture, the society, the media, etc. We act according to the desire of the other.

In my seminar this quarter (fall 2016) we read Changing the Subject in English Class: Discourse and the Constructions of Desire by Marshall W. Alcorn Jr. Alcorn articulates a composition course based on Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. He says, “My central argument is that the rhetoric of discourse is libidinal” (26). He argues that some discourses are libidinal for us, eliciting strong attention and response, while others, perhaps a university math course, are “inert representations that we handle like packages.” Alcorn argues, citing Freud, that we are much more moved by libidinal attachments and by the loss of such attachments than by rational discourse. In fact, to sever such an attachment, we must go through a period of mourning.

What does he mean by “libidinal”? Once I was teaching a piece by the feminist Kate Millet, “Manifesto for a Feminist Revolution,” in which she argued, very logically, that all relations between men and women are political, and that marriage is just another form of prostitution. A male student from Texas came up to me after class and said “My brain can understand her arguments, but my upbringing and my heart say that she is wrong.” This student has concisely articulated the problem. When we argue against family beliefs and the heart, we are going to meet resistance, whether we are mere teachers, Kate Millet, or Hillary Clinton.

Alcorn says

An ideal democracy requires that people be able to recognize their own desires and the desires of others. In both cases, desire must circulate freely within and among people. Oppression results whenever desires are cut off from expression and circulation. (66-67)

In the conclusion he argues that

The primary purpose for a composition course, even one that seeks political change, is not simply to teach political truths. Rather than promoting particular political beliefs, we must explore how desire supports beliefs and how the ability to be fully responsive to the ideas and real feelings of others requires slow adjustments in bodily feeling. . . . We do not need to attack the resistance we may find in our students (or ourselves); we need only review those examples that show how characteristic it is for people to dismiss beliefs that challenge their own worldviews. (127-28)

Both identifications and desires are powerful irrational forces that must be taken into account. They cannot be ignored or denied in teaching or in political discourse. No human is above them. I think this explains a lot about what just happened in the election, and what we must do to prepare our students for the world to come.