New 1984 Writing Prompts

In a college-level literature course for English majors, the general practice is to assign several novels or other works and then let the students decide what they want to write about. Usually, this involves choosing a theme, a motif, a set of symbols, a social issue, or other focus and examining how it plays out in a particular work or works. Students support their reading of the work with evidence from the text. However, this practice is a bit too open-ended for non-majors. For ERWC, the writing assignment needs to have more focus.

A novel like 1984 is bristling with themes and big ideas to write about. However, the Internet creates problems in this regard. All of the obvious themes and big ideas have been explored in Spark Notes, Cliff’s Notes and various homework helper sites. A student can easily find essays to download, or detailed comments to copy and paste from Goodreads and other review sites.

In my original module, I tried to follow somewhat unconventional themes that perhaps had not been explored so thoroughly. I created four topics:

  1. The Party and Power: Can a society based on hate survive?
  2. The Fall of Big Brother: What might cause the fall of Big Brother?
  3. The Party and Objective Reality: Can Big Brother decide what is real and what is not?
  4. Surveillance and Big Brother: Is our technology taking us closer to the world of Big Brother?

Because these were all complex issues, I tried to help students by quoting relevant passages and asking lots of questions about subtopics. The prompts ended up being long and complicated, which is why I kept coming back to the core questions listed above. Recently, I asked one of my colleagues on the ERWC Steering Committee, who has read more sample ERWC essays than anyone I know, how these topics were working. The news was not good. Most students chose the fourth question about technology. Those who chose the first one about a society based on hate usually just answered “no” and went on to describe how horrible it was to live in Oceania. The topics were not inspiring good writing or thinking.

The other two topics were rarely used. The second topic about the fall of Big Brother requires an understanding of the fictitious book by Emmanuel Goldstein, plus an understanding of the implications of the appendix, the essay on Newspeak. It is an interesting political question, but too much for most students. The third topic, about Big Brother’s control of the perception of reality through language and power, is at its heart an epistemological question. I was setting the bar pretty high.

So as I revise the module for ERWC 3.0, one of my tasks is to create new writing prompts. My criteria are as follows: the prompt should

  • Require that the student have read the novel
  • Connect ideas from the novel to the student’s own experience
  • Be formulated in such a way that the student can take a stance and write a thesis statement

Here is a list of possible new topics (linked here and pasted below).  Please help me refine them by posting a comment:

1. Winston Smith is a low-level party member. In the course of the novel he has several interactions with the “proles” (short for “proletariat, essentially “the people”). How are the lives of proles and party members different? Would you rather be a prole or a Party member in 1984? Provide specific examples from the novel to support your argument.

2. The world of Big Brother has three main slogans:

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

These slogans seem to be paradoxical and contradictory on the surface, but in the world of Big Brother, they make a kind of sense. Each is like an equation, but how can one thing equal its opposite? Perhaps it would be better to ask “How can one thing lead to its opposite?” Could war abroad lead to peace at home? Could absolute freedom make you a slave to your own desires? Could knowing too much make you think more than act? Choose one of these slogans and explore what it means in 1984, using examples from the book. Then think about how the slogan might apply in our own society.

3. The people of Oceania are under constant surveillance by the government, through telescreens and microphones. How does this surveillance affect the lives of the people? If you knew your TV, your smartphone, and other devices were constantly watching and listening to you, how would you change your behavior? In a well-organized essay, discuss the effects of surveillance in the novel and potentially in our own lives.

4. 1984 provides a cautionary tale about the potential of surveillance technology to allow an authoritarian government to control the population. At present, current technology, including smartphones, web cams, GPS tracking, internet-connected home appliances, and many other items, is being used to make daily life more convenient. However, each of these is potentially a very powerful surveillance technology that the totalitarian oligarchy of 1984 would have been overjoyed to use. At this moment, the government, or another entity, could easily see every Web site you have visited, read every message you ever sent, and listen to every phone call. In what ways does 1984 suggest that we should be worried that our use of electronic devices could someday lead to totalitarian control? If Big Brother really might use our electronics to watch us, what could we do to stop it?

5. Science fiction novels don’t always try to predict the future, but in 1984, Orwell is trying to warn us of what might happen if new propaganda techniques and technology were combined in the hands of an authoritarian leader. As a prediction of the future, how accurate is 1984? In a well-organized essay, discuss what Orwell got right, and what he got wrong. Support your arguments with examples from the text.

6. “Newspeak” is attempt by Big Brother to control thought by reducing the number of words in the language and eliminating words that might lead to “thoughtcrime,” which is itself a Newspeak word. Is it possible to control thought through controlling language? Does our own society have similar tendencies? In a well-organized essay, discuss examples of Newspeak in the novel and how this kind of control might function in our own society.

Shorter, Simpler, Smarter: Tips for Module Writers

I have joked in previous posts that my position on new ERWC modules is that they should be “shorter, simpler, and smarter” than our previous efforts.  I have been asked to clarify what I mean by that and how it might be achieved.  As ERWC is about to gear up for a mad dash of module writing, it is an appropriate time to unpack that slogan.  In response, I have brainstormed a series of tips, based on my experience writing modules and getting feedback on how they perform in the classroom.   It turned out there were ten.  Here they are:

  1. What is the most interesting aspect of the text? Is it the rhetorical strategies? Is it the claims, the arguments, and the evidence? Is it the style? Is it ethos constructed by the author? Is it the implications for our lives, or for the future? Focus your attention on the most interesting elements.
  2. Design learning goals that are appropriate for the course, the standards, the students and the text. Don’t try to do everything at once.
  3. Build your module from the inside out by writing a micro-module first. After choosing your text or texts, design a writing prompt, then a prereading activity, a reading activity, and a critical activity that lead up to it. Then consult the template and the course matrix to think about what might be added to enhance the module and support the learning goals.
  4. Don’t go cell by cell and design an activity for each one. Each cell is a possible door. Don’t open every one. You are charting a path, not ransacking a building.
  5. Every activity should have a clear purpose that supports the learning goals and moves the student toward the writing assignment.
  6. When you add an activity, think about how it integrates with other parts of the module. Can a written product produced in this activity be used for another task in a later one? Will the thinking or analysis used here be useful for a later step?
  7. When adding a new text or activity, always consider the effort-to-benefit ratio. Is the effort expended by the student worth the benefit they will get from it?
  8. When you add another text to the mix, think carefully about what is gained by it. Do you really need another perspective or more data? Do the texts complement each other, clash productively, or just give you more of the same?
  9. When writing your module, try to think like a teacher and think like a student. Imagine you are teaching your module, then imagine an inexperienced teacher teaching it, then imagine being a student in the class. Ask yourself, “What can they do now that they couldn’t do before?” and “What am I preparing them to do later?”
  10. Don’t present every interesting thing you have discovered about the text. Leave some treasures for students to find on their own.

To complement this list of tips for module writers, I have also posted the new ERWC 3.0 Assignment Template Outline with Key Questions, which is the short version of the template that serves as a cheat sheet for module writers.

What will ERWC 3.0 be like?

People have been asking me how ERWC will change as we work on the new NPD and i3 grants. I have some ideas, but we are just beginning our work. Although I nominally chair the steering committee, there are a lot of talented people on the various ERWC committees, and we don’t always initially agree. Still, I think that some things have become relatively clear.

11th Grade Course

Currently the ERWC curriculum consists of a 12th grade course with 12 modules, from which teachers select 8-10, with additional modules for grades 7-11. Our new plan is to create an 11th grade course and redesign the 12th grade. Some existing modules will remain, but some may be retired and some shifted to 11th grade. Many new modules will be created. The current plan is for each course to have eight major module slots with at least two to three possible choices for each slot. Mini-modules introducing rhetorical concepts will be available for the transitions between the major modules. The courses will form a coherent whole and the expected outcomes will be more clearly sequenced, but it will not be necessary for a student to take the 11th grade course in order to do well in the 12th grade. Our intention is to provide teachers and students with greater flexibility than in the past.

Literary Texts

The existing ERWC does a good job of addressing California’s English language arts (ELA) standards related to reading and writing expository and persuasive texts. Although literary texts have always been included in ERWC, they have not been a major focus. ERWC 3.0 will include more novels, poems, and short stories and will address all ELA standards, including speaking and listening. The ERWC approach to literature will go beyond the traditional focus on the use and interpretation of figurative language. Each literary module will take up multiple perspectives and theoretical approaches and encourage multiple interpretations. Of course, the rhetorical perspective that is built into ERWC will be a prominent one. The pilot module on The Great Gatsby is a good example of what an ERWC literary module will look like.

The Template

The Assignment Template has been called the DNA of ERWC. It is an apt metaphor because the template contains the structure and sequence of every module. It has been the foundation of our success and we are reluctant to alter it greatly. However, certain aspects of it need to evolve. Right now we are asking ourselves four big questions:

  1. How can we make ERWC more accessible to students with different learning strengths and needs?
  2. How can we incorporate Universal Design for Learning?
  3. How can we better support English learners?
  4. How can we update the template to reflect current research and new approaches?

We have lots of ideas about the first three questions. The problem is to integrate the material without turning the template into a dissertation. On the fourth question, we are still negotiating some important issues about theory and practice.

New Modules

My oft-repeated slogan for our new and revised modules is that they should be “Shorter, Simpler, Smarter.” I think it is beginning to catch on. In the last i3 study we found that many teachers were not able to finish one module before going on to the next one. This was one reason we started talking about the ERWC “Arc” and saying that a module moved from a professional text to a student text. It also was clear that it was difficult for teachers to finish eight modules in a year. In the last rewrite we had simply added too many activities and in some cases, too many texts (I was the biggest offender in this regard). Our idea was that we would provide lots of activities so that teachers could use formative assessment to determine which activities their students needed and which they did not. In practice, teachers new to ERWC may not have had enough experience with the materials to make these decisions. They tried to teach everything.

What the slogan really means is that module writers should be asking themselves questions such as

  1. Do I really need this activity or text to achieve the goals of the module?
  2. Is there a simpler way to do this activity and get the same result?
  3. Can I use the product of this activity in another activity for double benefit?
  4. Has another module already taught this sufficiently? Can I build on it?

Another way to look at this issue is to consider the effort to benefit ratio. In other words, is this complex or difficult activity worth the benefit it will achieve?

And we also face the challenge of balancing the need to add strategies and activities for integrated English language development to modules and still keep them shorter and simpler.

Rhetorical Concepts

When we designed ERWC 1.0, most high school teachers were unfamiliar with rhetoric. We introduced Aristotle’s three appeals—ethos, logos, and pathos—and based most of our critical thinking questions on them. We kept it simple. Now, most teachers are aware of this aspect of Aristotle and are ready to teach a more complex set of rhetorical tools. We will offer more sophisticated means for analyzing audience and purpose, building on Aristotle, but going beyond. The new version of “Three Ways to Persuade” is one example of this extension. We will focus more attention on the rhetorical situation, using concepts such as “kairos” (timeliness and appropriateness) and “exigence” (that which moves the speaker to speak). Our task is to present these concepts in such a way that they are easily understood and used in various contexts and situations. These new materials are under development.

In Summary

There will be lots of tweaks, revisions, and additions, but ERWC will remain recognizably ERWC. The new courses are going to be very interesting. We will address more standards and provide more tools and strategies for different populations of students. We will have new modules, texts, and strategies. It is an exciting time to be involved in ERWC.

ERWC Leadership Event 2017: Speech

We have just completed our ERWC Leadership Conferences for 2017.  The Sacramento event was held at the Hilton Sacramento Arden West Hotel, June 20-21.  Unfortunately, the hotel’s air conditioning system failed at about 11:00 am, so the first day sessions were conducted under less than ideal conditions and the second day sessions were curtailed.  The Los Angeles event, at the Westin Los Angeles Airport June 27-28, ran much more smoothly.  I would like to thank the presenters, the support staff, and the participants for a wonderful event.

I will post on other aspects of the conferences and ERWC 3.0 in the next few days, but today I want to post the speech I gave at both events.


I am sorry I missed the leadership events last year. I had a scheduling conflict. I was in London. My wife and I had been invited to visit her brother, who is an executive in a large scientific instruments company, while he was temporarily stationed in the U.K. The company had rented a lovely home for him in Beaconsfield, an upscale suburb, where we were invited to stay. As it happened, we were in London just before the Brexit referendum and returned from the continent just after it.

The difference was palpable. The city we had left was a vibrant, optimistic, multicultural metropolis. The city we returned to was downcast, confused, stunned. My brother-in-law said he canceled several multi-million dollar deals the day after Brexit, and six months later he was working from Shanghai. The United Kingdom is still in turmoil and the future is difficult to predict.

How did this happen? I would say that it was largely a matter of rhetoric.

The city of London voted largely to remain in the European Union (though I did see “Leave” signs even in Beaconsfield) as did Scotland, Northern Ireland, and most young people, who saw the right to freely travel and live in Europe as a path toward adventure, education and jobs. The rest of England and Wales voted to leave.

I happened to talk to some Welsh soccer fans in Paris, who kept reminding me that they were Welsh, not English. They said that they had voted Leave because of immigrants, whom they felt were getting benefits they had not earned and did not deserve. Membership in the E.U. and the required free movement of people from any E.U. member country to any other has brought lots of Polish and Eastern European people to the U.K. to work in service jobs and to harvest agricultural products. Many British people feel that immigrants from elsewhere in the E.U. are taking away jobs, getting undeserved benefits, diluting British culture with foreign ways, and committing crimes. Sound familiar? So the solution is to exit the E.U. But that also means giving up free access to the European market, which is the foundation of most economic activity in the U.K.

The following image represents two of the main arguments that Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London and a leader of the “Leave” campaign, made to support Brexit:

3000

The slogan on the sign sounds like a simple way to improve the National Health Service, but it ignores all the other benefits that might accrue from E.U. membership. The url on the podium, voteleavetakecontrol.org, makes another simplistic argument that focuses on immigration, but simply ignores the issue of the free market. Johnson, a flamboyant and popular leader, also argued that the U.K. could “Have our cake and eat it,” implying that Britain could negotiate a deal to control immigration and still have access to the free market. He never explained why the E.U. would agree to that.

The arguments for “Remain,” on the other hand, were mostly economic, cast in terms of currency fluctuations, trade figures, economic forecasts. Many arguments sound like this paragraph from an article in the Business Insider:

If the pound is weak, again, it will make it more expensive for us to trade. Equities are already tumbling because extra costs will hurt not just Britain’s biggest companies’ pockets, but also how they can afford to pay staff. Morgan Stanley points out that a Brexit would devastate a number of markets within just six months.

From Here is an avalanche of reasons why Britain should stay in the EU, Business Insider Jun. 16, 2016

The average citizen without a corporate job or any investments in stocks would be unmoved by this rhetoric.

Aristotle 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.” In other words, rhetoric is for matters about which we cannot have certainty, and for audiences who would not understand the proofs we might give if we had them.

Boris Johnson and the rest of the Leave campaign were clearly more persuasive to the electorate in this regard, providing a simple, appealing logos for people who were disinclined to follow complicated arguments. And notice how this logos appeals to both a simple logic and a nationalistic pathos: “Let’s stop giving money to foreigners and spend it on our own health care! Let’s take control of our borders and keep the foreigners out!” On the other hand, the message from the Remain campaign is coldly logical: “If we do this, we will lose money.”

And here we come to my main point in discussing Brexit: the speaker who masters the art of understanding the audience and the rest of the rhetorical situation, and in crafting a message that moves both the emotions and the intellect of this audience in this context, is the one who will be most persuasive. Too often, we are tempted to see Aristotle’s three appeals as discreet elements that can be recognized and sorted into boxes. In fact, they work together seamlessly and harmoniously. Logos alone is rarely persuasive in a public forum.

In your packets you will find a new version of my rather ancient article “Three Ways to Persuade.” In this revision, I have attempted to connect the appeals together, mostly through the conduit of audience. In the updating and re-envisioning of ERWC that is currently ongoing, this is one of the main themes. We want to provide students and teachers with a more subtle, flexible, and useful set of rhetorical tools, for both analyzing and writing texts. Even after 14 years of growth and success, this is an exciting time to be involved in ERWC. And now I want to turn things over to my colleagues Meline Akashian and Nelson Graff for an introduction to more of these rhetorical tools.

 

Revisiting “Three Ways to Persuade”

My short article, “Three Ways to Persuade,” has been a part of ERWC since the early days.  It is included in my first ERWC module, “The Rhetoric of the Op-Ed Page,” but many teachers extracted it and used it earlier in the course.  It was designed to be a simple introduction to Aristotle’s three appeals: ethos, logos, and pathos.  It has been uploaded by teachers to various websites and many teaching websites link to it. It hasn’t exactly gone viral, but it is quite popular.

The earliest version of the article was written as a handout for a First Year Writing class I was teaching as a T.A. at the University of Southern California, probably in 1990.  At that time, the former Yugoslavia was breaking apart and I drew some of my examples of pathos from the conflict between Serbians and Croatians and the practice of “ethnic cleansing.”  Once the article became widely available on the internet, I started to receive complaints from Serbs that my otherwise very useful article was biased against them.  I considered their arguments and decided that I was not an expert on the former Yugoslavia, that my purpose was not to write about Yugoslavia, and that I did not need those specific examples.   I revised the piece.  One of my correspondents about this matter took it upon himself to contact every site that linked to the article and encourage them, quite persuasively I am sure, to upload the revised version.

As I have noted in other blog posts, a couple of years ago instructors in First Year Writing courses in colleges and universities began to complain about receiving large numbers of overly simplistic rhetorical analysis essays that combined ethos, logos, and pathos with the five-paragraph essay.   In a typical example, the writer claims in the introduction that the author of the text under analysis “uses” ethos, logos, and pathos, writes a body paragraph about each appeal with examples from the text showing the “use” of the appeal, and then writes a conclusion that repeats the claim about “using” ethos, logos, and pathos, as if that were an important thing to prove.  It is all quite neat and tidy.  It does show that the student writer has some understanding of the appeals and is able to recognize elements of the text that might function in this way.  However, such an analysis ignores more important concerns such as audience and purpose.  This is akin to naive birdwatching–identifying and checking off birds on a list without thinking about the whole ecosystem and why this bird is in this context at this moment.

I first heard about this problem on the Writing Program Administrators listserv, but when I asked instructors on my own campus about it, they agreed.   There are lots of potential causes for this, including the new emphasis on persuasion and argumentation in the Common Core standards, but I wondered if my semi-viral article was in part responsible.  I started thinking about revising it again.

This issue resulted in lots of discussion in the ERWC committees about the utility of the three appeals, whether we should present Aristotle as Aristotle or try to modernize him, and whether the problems created by this simplistic use of the appeals were inherent in the appeals or a matter of instruction.  One point of contention was Aristotle’s conception of logos.  Aristotle favors arguments from probability, which he calls “artistic proofs,” and distrusts “inartistic proofs,” arguments based on eye witnesses, documents, and other elements that we would call “evidence,” because he thinks witnesses can be bribed and documents can be forged. I think this is why textbooks that are very much based in classical rhetoric, such as Andrea Lunsford’s Everything’s an Argument, bring in Stephen Toulmin’s system when they get to logos.

After all of this discussion, I created a revised version of the piece, which is now called, “Three Ways to Persuade: Integrating the Three Appeals.”  I decided to remain true to Aristotle, but connect Aristotle to more modern rhetorical concepts.  This version makes it clear that the three appeals work in concert together. I reordered the appeals so that I could use Kenneth Burke’s concept of “identification” as a bridge between ethos and pathos and use the psychological concept of “desire,” and the rationalization of desire, as a bridge between pathos and logos.  I have also included a paragraph describing the difference between Aristotle’s syllogistic arguments from probability and evidence-based arguments such as one gets from Toulmin.

It is still only four pages long.  I hope that the additional conceptual material does not confuse students, but helps them use these concepts in a more productive and useful way.  See what you think.  Please post a comment if you have responses or suggestions.

The ERWC and the CAASPP

Teachers have been asking, “Does the ERWC prepare students for the CAASPP (California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress)?” The CAASPP includes the Smarter Balanced English Language Arts assessments, part of which is the “Argumentative Performance Task Full Write.” The sample “Performance Task” on the Smarter Balanced website concerns “Financial Literacy.”

In the sample task, the students are told that their school is considering offering a financial literacy course. The students read four journalistic sources: an article from the New York Times about the need for financial literacy, recommending a particular kind of course; an article from the Chicago Tribune about problems with financial education, citing research showing that such courses are not effective and in fact may be a “racket”; a second article from the New York Times about the drawbacks of financial literacy courses, recommending “just in time” education, simple rules of thumb, and making the financial system more user-friendly; and an article from the Baltimore Sun about the issues involved in implementing a mandated financial literacy course at a particular school.

The first article claims that “Research shows that this type of financial education tends to resonate with the students later,” but cites only one study. The second article reports on another study of a financial literacy course, which concludes “We find no effect.” The third article reports on a meta-analysis of 168 studies and concludes, “financial education is laudable, but not particularly helpful.” The fourth article cites no research, but costs out a required financial literacy course at a single school at $600,000 a year.  Financial literacy courses don’t actually seem like a good idea, given these sources.

In Part 1 of the task, the students are asked to do two things: 1) Determine which source “would most likely be relevant to students researching new approaches to increasing people’s financial literacy,” supporting their choice with two details from the article, and 2) “Paraphrase information from Source #1 that refutes information from Source #2 without plagiarizing.” (I would have put a comma after Source #2, to clarify that they mean that the student is the potential plagiarizer, not Source #2. By “without plagiarizing” I suppose they are emphasizing the imperative to “paraphrase,” not to quote, though proper quotations with citation would not be plagiarizing.)

In Part 2, they are given the following prompt:

Today, in preparation for the school board meeting, you will write a multi-paragraph essay in which you take a stance on the topic of financial literacy courses. Make sure you establish an argumentative claim, address potential counter arguments, and support your claim from the sources you have read. Develop your ideas clearly and use your own words, except when quoting directly from the sources. Be sure to reference the sources by title or number when using details of facts directly from the sources.

Then the students are instructed to plan, write, revise, and edit their “multi-paragraph argumentative essay.”

One could look at the questions in Part 1 as a kind of scaffolding for the writing task in Part 2. In fact, this performance task is rather like an ERWC module at the end of the process of gradual release of responsibility. It has multiple texts that take different positions from different perspectives, and it asks students to synthesize the material, take a position, and support it with evidence from the sources. This is basic ERWC practice.  The questions in Part 1, sitting in between the readings and the writing task, face both ways. They cause the student to re-read the texts in relation to one another and also to think about how they might use them in writing.

The scoring guide is also consistent with ERWC. The sample papers that are now available for most ERWC modules, at least the ones from 7th to 10th grade, were scored using the Smarter Balanced scoring guide (12th grade samples were scored with the EPT rubric because those students may be taking the EPT.) The Smarter Balanced scoring guide is really three scoring guides in one, and is an unwieldy beast. Here I have reduced it to its basic categories:

Organization/Purpose (4 points)

  • A clear claim, focused for the purpose and audience
  • Varied transitional strategies to clarify relationships
  • Effective introduction and conclusion
  • Logical progression of ideas; connection of ideas; syntactic variety
  • Acknowledgement of opposing arguments

Evidence/Elaboration (4 points)

  • Relevant evidence from sources is specific and well-integrated
  • Clear citations and attribution
  • Effective elaboration (may include relevant personal experience)
  • Vocabulary appropriate to audience and purpose
  • Effective style

Conventions (2 points)

  • Sentence formation, punctuation, grammar and spelling

The original scoring guide is available on the Smarter Balanced site. The 11th grade version is on page 96. I have also created a rudimentary Word version.

One important thing I noticed when I was reviewing the sample papers was that they ding students for formulaic organization. One student wrote a typical five-paragraph essay with a claim-and-three-reasons thesis: “Cities and government should not be paying money to have public art pieces put up around towns because it could raise taxes, the art could get ruined and some people could find the art offensive.” The scorer’s response is:

  • Introduction is present. Conclusion simply repeats much of the introduction.
  • Progression of ideas is formulaic

They give the student only “2” out of “4” points for “Organization and Purpose.” So the five-paragraph essay is not going to fare well on the CAASPP. Either the Roman speech or the sort of modified version of it I created for the “Essay Process” post would work better.  Both implement rhetorical principles that are embedded in this scoring guide and address opposing viewpoints.

In a future post I will analyze this scoring guide in more detail. We have also received questions about what they mean by “elaboration,” so I will discuss that.

Ken Bruffee’s Short Course on Writing

In Reading Rhetorically, Bean et al cite Ken Bruffee’s A Short Course on Writing as their source for the “Descriptive Outlining” activity. The first edition was published in 1972. I started teaching writing around 1979, and I had a copy. I don’t think I ever ordered it for a class, but I may have. It is still in print in a 4th edition, but it is from Pearson now, so it costs $95. I found a copy of the 3rd edition from Amazon for $5. The forward to the 4th edition, by Harvey Kail and John Trimbur, was published separately as an article in Writing Center Journal. It provides a good summary of the history of the book and the influence it has had.

BruffeeCover3rdEd

This is a book that has origins similar to Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations. Bruffee found himself in the early ’60’s teaching writing with no clue about what to do or how to respond. He had trouble filling the class time productively and was spending inordinate hours marking every error, but seeing no improvement. We have all been there, I think. His solution to filling class time was to organize the course as a writing workshop with students helping students, the collaborative learning for which he is famous. His solution to the response problem was to teach simple forms of organization and insist that the paragraphs accomplish specific rhetorical tasks. He talks about the “Short Course Form” which is a three-paragraph essay, and he has a four-paragraph form, and others. These can be expanded and adapted. He also teaches “propositions” “assumptions” and support. It is pretty Aristotelian, but not overtly so. The theoretical background for the collaboration is the usual collection of social constructionist suspects.

Two things struck me as I started revisiting Bruffee: 1) This is very similar to the approach to writing we are developing in ERWC (I was probably retaining stuff from the 1st edition without remembering it consciously) and 2) Bruffee’s approach is sort of timeless. One of his goals was “to find out what the students are thinking.” That strikes me as an excellent goal for a writing class!

The course starts out with exercises in storytelling, brainstorming, focused freewriting, and generalizing. Then he begins to work on turning generalizations into “propositions” that can be defended. The next exercises and writing assignments work through proposition plus two reasons, “Nestorian” order (putting your best reason last), strawman plus one reason, and then “concession.” You can see that this gently introduces opposing viewpoints. Along the way, he works on transitions and coherence. He does not allow students to write conclusions until later in the course because the students have a tendency toward unnecessary summarizing and saving their main proposition until the end.

Descriptive outlining is introduced as a way for the student writer to “know exactly what is going on” in his or her own essay. They are to create one for every essay they write, and if there is a discrepancy between the essay and the outline, they are supposed to revise the essay to make it do what they want it to do. However, example essays are included with both “basic” and “detailed” descriptive outlines, so the technique also serves as a way to analyze other texts. It is an essential part of the course, something they apply to everything they read and write.

Section Four is about creating a “meaningful ending.” It is about conclusions. Students don’t write conclusions until page 153 of the book. Section Five is about research writing.

In summary:

  • Students write in class about topics of their own choosing.
  • Students help each other improve their writing through questions and structured activities similar to ERWC activities.
  • Students mostly write essays that take a “proposition plus two reasons” three-paragraph form.
  • Opposing arguments are introduced first through a “strawman” paragraph, then later by presenting a more valid argument and conceding its validity.
  • Students write basic descriptive outlines of each essay they read or write. In some cases they write “detailed” descriptive outlines. Descriptive outlines are a normal part of the revision process.
  • The simple formats allow the instructor to respond easily to the ideas in the paper, saving much time and making comments more productive.
  • When students are more fluent, they can begin writing conclusions and otherwise expanding the format.

It seems to me that there is much here that could be adapted to ERWC. The spirit of Bruffee’s approach is quite consistent with our own principle of respecting the student’s intelligence and being interested in what they think. And what we are principally struggling with right now is the form of the essay: five-paragraph essay, Roman six-part speech, or more organic structures. Bruffee solves the formula problem by teaching a reasonable, but incomplete format that builds skills that will be very useful later. He even says that it is good if students strongly feel like writing a concluding sentence because that means they are developing a rhetorical feeling for the essay. They can write that sentence, he says, but they shouldn’t turn it in with the essay. I have often said that if we teach a formula, it should contain the seeds of its own destruction. Bruffee’s certainly does.

Bruffee still seems fresh to me–practical, doable, principled, grounded.  And his question, “What are the students thinking?” asked in a course that helps them communicate their ideas but leaves them pretty much in charge, seems consistent with both the psychoanalytic approaches and the postprocess/postpedagogy anti-theory that is prevalent in composition these days. Definitely worth a look.