Genre Fiction: Week 10

The combination of podcasts plus discussion board seems to be working well for some students, but I have about eight students who have yet to participate. Our students are overwhelmed with all the changes. Some have contacted me to say so. I think most instructors are using Zoom to conduct pretty traditional synchronous classes online. That means that students, who are usually taking five classes, are using a lot of Zoom. My asynchronous podcast and discussion board model give them more flexibility, but is different.

There are always students who are reluctant to express themselves in class. Some are also reluctant to express opinions on a discussion board that other students can see. I think this is part of the problem. I emailed the non-participants today. I will follow up.

Here are this week’s story podcasts. I try to do them in such a way that you could get something out of them even if you have not read the story, but if you want to read the stories, they are in the collection The Secret History of Fantasy edited by Peter Beagle.

“The Edge of the World” by Michael Swanwick

This story asks the question, “What if the Earth were flat and had an edge?” A group of teenagers climb down the cliff face of the edge of the world.

Notes

“Super Goat Man” by Jonathan Lethem

A story about a third-rate failed super hero who is also a college professor.

Notes

“John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner” by Susanna Clarke

A very funny short story set in the same world as Clarke’s fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Notes

“The Book of Martha” by Octavia E. Butler

If you had god-like power to make humans better, what would you do?

Notes

 

Genre Fiction: Week 9, Day 2

Our President has finally decided that the rest of the semester will be online. I think that is wise because it is hard to shift from an online course back to a face-to-face one. It is also clear that our Covid-19 situation will last longer than a few weeks.

For the second meeting of the ninth week of this course I assigned two stories from Peter Beagle’s collection, The Secret History of Fantasy. I include a podcast and some notes for each one.

“Fruit and Words” by Aimee Bender

Here is a link to the notes I used in making the podcast.

This story is about marriage, hope, magic and mangoes.

“The Empire of Ice Cream” by Jeffrey Ford

And here are the notes.

So far, this system seems to be working. Students have to listen to the podcasts to get the discussion questions. Then they respond on the new discussion boards. Several students are already doing this.

Genre Fiction: Week 9, Day 1

My “Genre Fiction” class (click link for syllabus) is designed to be either an ordinary literature course or a creative writing course, depending on how the student wants to approach it. As a final project, students can choose to write a critical paper or a short story. However, most students in the past have written stories.

At this point in the semester, we have completed our exploration of detective fiction, reading Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Conan-Doyle’s “Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Dashiel Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and Walter Moseley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. We have begun the fantasy section of the course, reading two Conan stories by Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Red Nails,” plus Tolkien’s The Hobbit. We are now reading a collection of short stories, The Secret History of Fantasy, edited by noted fantasy author Peter Beagle.

Throughout the course, students have been doing writing exercises from Ursula K. LeGuin’s wonderful writing book, Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. We have been discussing plot, characters, world creation, style, point of view, and other issues in story craft.

Now, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we must take our class online. For Tuesday, March 17, we are discussing two stories. I will post podcasts about them and the outlines I used to create the podcasts below.

Stephen King, “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”

“Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” Notes

Neil Gaiman, “Snow, Glass, Apples”

“Snow, Glass, Apples” Notes

We are also reading Chapter 9 “Indirect Narration, or What Tells” in the Le Guin book. The first exercise in this chapter asks the students to write a page or two of dialogue between two characters without any description so that everything the reader knows about who they are comes from what they say. Students will post the results of this activity to their writing blogs.

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.

Online Instruction

On Wednesday we got a message from the President of our university that instruction will be “paused” from today until Tuesday next week and that we would move to a “virtual” form of instruction after that until March 27, which is the beginning of spring break. After spring break they will “reassess” our local context and risk. Then we got a message yesterday from the Provost that said that we would be providing both “virtual” instruction and face-to-face instruction unless “all” of our students preferred “virtual” instruction. Apparently, the administrators bought cameras for the classrooms. They seem to think that an online class is just the same as a traditional class, but with a video feed of the lecture.

I think that these administrators have forgotten what actual teaching is like.

As soon as I heard that we were switching to online instruction, I redesigned my courses.

  • I eliminated some assignments and activities that required face-to-face interaction.
  • I added some new discussion boards.
  • I shifted points around to accommodate participation in discussion boards instead of in class discussion.
  • I made plans to produce podcasts instead of lectures.
  • I informed my students of these changes and got feedback on the changes.

I also began helping the Teaching Associates that I supervise to begin thinking about redesigning their courses. They were freaking out because they are new to teaching face-to-face and suddenly, midstream, they have to switch to an entirely different mode of instruction. I told them that there were actually better prepared than many faculty for this change because they are much more familiar with the technology. One responded, “Yes, we can do this!”

Composition courses are not lecture-based. We have writing activities, whole class discussions, group discussions, collaborative projects, presentations, poster sessions, etc. If we lecture, it is only for a short part of the class meeting.  Meeting with a few students in an almost empty room and lecturing to a camera will not work. This is not information transfer. It is teaching and learning. And it doesn’t make sense to move instruction online and then try to move it back again.

I am afraid that the administrators are afraid to be truly decisive. They want to have it both ways. And they have forgotten the reason we are doing this. If we want to reduce or slow the spread of Covid-19, we have to take decisive action, not a little of this and a little of that, leaving all options open.

I plan to post my podcasts and other instructional materials here. Those who follow this blog for teaching materials and ways of presenting rhetorical concepts may find the series of posts I put up in the next few weeks a bit course specific for their own use, but I hope you will find something useful for your teaching as well.

Will We Have to Move Online?

As the novel coronavirus Covid-19 spreads throughout the world, festivals, conferences, corporate meetings, and schools, colleges and universities are shutting down. Educational institutions are considering moving all instruction off campus and online for a period of time until the crisis passes. My campus has not decided to close at this point, but we have received numerous emails that imply that it is a possibility in the near future.

Many of my colleagues teach classes in the traditional way, without online tools. I am a bit more prepared. My courses are neither hybrid nor online, but all of them are “web-enabled” in that I use our course management system, Blackboard, to host documents, discussion boards, blogs, and group projects. I also use the online gradebook. I have also been supervising Teaching Associates using the video conferencing app, Zoom, for which the campus has a license. Zoom is very easy to use.

My “Teaching Writing” seminar is small, so if I move it online I can use Zoom to hold synchronous class meetings. Combined with the tools on Blackboard, this should work fine.

My “Genre Fiction” class is probably too big for Zoom. For that course, I plan to use a combination of specialized discussion boards and podcasts. Our undergraduates do not always have internet access at home, so we have to be careful about bandwidth. That is one reason I want to avoid video lectures.

I record a lot of music, so I have good microphones and other equipment. However, I am new to podcasts. I tried an earlier one here on Stasis Theory.  I got some good feedback on that, but it wasn’t entirely successful. Today, as an experiment, I did a short podcast on a story for Genre Fiction, “The Barnum Museum” by Steven Millhauser.

I think my students will find this helpful. I have asked them for feedback.

I hope that we don’t have to close the campus. However, I think that the virus is beyond containment at this point and that we are in the mitigation phase. That means that we have to slow the spread so that our health care system is not overwhelmed. Closing the campus may in fact be helpful in that regard.

Writing Matrix Extension 2

In my seminar, we are reading James Berlin’s Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies. I include this book as an example of a cultural studies writing pedagogy aimed at teaching students how to recognize and resist what Berlin calls “hegemonic discourses” expressed in “cultural codes.” This is sometimes called “critical thinking,” in that the goal is for students to see how the language in everything from advertisements to political discourse is designed to make them think and act in ways that support the dominant ideology of the culture. The idea is that if we can see how we are being manipulated, we can free ourselves and make our own decisions.

These days, we have to create a list of public outcomes for every course we teach. I sometimes joke with my students that one of the outcomes for a cultural studies course should be “Students will learn to resist hegemonic discourses.” Because the institutions that offer these courses are often trying to impose hegemonic discourses, or are at least complicit in maintaining the dominant ideology, I wonder if such an outcomes statement would be questioned.

I realized that my writing matrix did not include this concern among the skills and abilities I had listed, so I have made yet another revision. One could certainly argue that other writing skills are more important, but because many university writing courses are organized around a cultural studies pedagogy, I felt that it was important for “Critical Thinking/Ideological Insight” to appear in the matrix.

WritingCourseMatrix-color-extended-1a

This is getting a bit unwieldy, but I think it is still useful for thinking about the goals and content of a writing course.  Again, not every course will include all of these concerns. Previous posts on this matrix can be found here: What Writing Courses Do and Writing Matrix Extended.

Writing Matrix Extension

I used the nine-cell matrix in the previous post in conversations with colleagues and in my “Teaching Writing” seminar. After these discussions, I decided that the matrix needed some extensions, which I have represented here:

WritingCourseMatrix-color-extended

These extensions are closely related to the cells they are above or below. Writing in a home dialect such as Black English, Spanglish, or Hawaiian Creole is clearly related to self-expression and also to audience awareness. Composition instructors need to be aware of the ideological, ethical, and rhetorical implications of insisting that students always write in Standard English. I sometimes have my graduate students look at the websites of Jamaican newspapers, where the articles are written in a prestige Jamaican dialect that has similarities with British English but is not quite the same as either British or American English. However, when the Jamaican reporter interviews a witness to an event, the responses are written in Jamaican Creole.

In the adjacent cell to the right I have introduced the skill of storytelling. Narrative is often neglected in writing courses, but in our culture today, a good story is often more convincing than facts and arguments. I explore this further in the post, “A Narrative with a Point.”

Finally, the cell in the bottom right is a counterpart to the one above it. A good writer knows the conventions and knows how and when to break them, especially in creative writing. I explore this a bit in “The Alternate Style” and in “What Makes Punctuation So Confusing?

The matrix is not so neat and tidy anymore, but the apparent tidiness of the first version was misleading. This one is not designed to be definitive either. What I hope to do is inspire conversations about writing courses that will help teachers and outsiders see how complex they really are.

 

What Do Writing Courses Do?

When we design and teach writing courses (which of course are also reading courses) we often start by looking at the outcomes for the course or by creating our own list of outcomes. Then we start listing writing assignments, often based on texts we find interesting to teach. We imagine how long it will take to present the assignment, for students to write and revise the various sub-components and drafts, how long we need to grade it and return it, and we set a due date. We create a sequence of reading/writing units, probably of increasing difficulty and length. Ideally, each assignment with its various tasks and drafts addresses at least some of the listed outcomes. Realistically however, the connections to some of the outcomes may be tangential at best. In addition, some students started out weaker or stronger than others. They are unlikely to end up at the same place.

And what happens after your course ends? Do students go on to another course? Do they write in their disciplines? Have you prepared them to do that? What is it all for? Where are we going?

In order to think about this a little differently, I created the following chart:

WritingCourseMatrix-color-1

I intend this as a big picture map of what a writing program needs to do. The course you happen to be teaching might be focusing on a few of the cells in the chart more than others, but as you design your course, you should be aware of the big picture. These cells are not discrete items in a list. There are complex relationships between them.

Fluency

Fluency is based on a lack of fear. The fear is usually caused by the concern about “Standard Written Conventions” in the opposite corner of the chart. Students given an assignment will sometimes spend 30 minutes writing and rewriting the first sentence before they have even decided what to write about. No real writing can occur in the face of anxiety about making a grammatical error. We have to work on that.

Self-Expression

“Self-expression” is important to beginning writers. It is a powerful purpose. It shouldn’t be denied absolutely. It is a purpose to build on. How does a student grow beyond self-expression? “Intertextuality” is one direction. What do other people say? Can you quote them to support what you are saying too? “Inquiry” is another. Can you find out more? Do you still think the same thing after knowing more? Both of these types of activities help build audience awareness too.

Interdisciplinarity

“Interdisciplinarity” is the connection of the writing course to the rest of the academic world. The student in your class is not likely to be an English major. When they write in science or in engineering, will they have to unlearn some of your stylistic recommendations? Do you have to know how to write like an engineer in order to teach them? No, but you can help them ask questions and analyze documents to see how it is done. Also, rhetorical strategies such as thinking about audience, arguments, and evidence tend to be universal. It is stylistic preferences and organizational patterns that change.

Making Things Happen

“Making Things Happen” is really the true purpose of all writing, but it is more obviously true of academic and workplace writing. Students should be aware of the connections your course has to writing in other environments for other purposes. It makes your class more meaningful to them and they are more likely to be engaged.

And in fact, thinking about how your course fits into the big picture might help you become more engaged too!

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.