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.

Descriptive Outlining and Arrangement

The New York Times recently published three interesting pieces on politicians and military service.  Each piece has a different organizational strategy.  The first looks similar to the Roman six-part speech I described in a previous post. The second is closer to the five-paragraph essay structure, though it has seven paragraphs.  The third has yet another pattern.

The first two paragraphs of the Brian Adam Stone piece are narrative background about H.W. Bush and Donald Trump. The first sentence introduces the topic of risking everything to serve in the military. The thesis comes in the third paragraph as an answer to the question, “Does it matter if a person who aspires to be president avoided service in Vietnam?” His answer is “yes.” Then there is one paragraph in support. The following paragraph notes that many men avoided the draft and that they have to “live with their decision.” It ends with a quote from Dick Cheney, who like Trump had five deferments and never served, who said he “had other priorities.” I would say that this essay roughly follows the Roman six-part pattern.

The Brandon Willitts piece is closer to the five-paragraph essay. It has the thesis in the first paragraph: “We should stop pretending as though military service matters so much for our elected officials.”” Note however that the thesis statement does not have the claim-and-three-reasons form that many student thesis statements have. This is followed by five paragraphs in support, the first three of which are personal examples, the latter two about politics and history. Then there is a conclusion. This ends up being a seven-paragraph essay, but these are journalistic paragraphs and the third and fourth paragraphs and the fifth and sixth paragraphs could easily be combined. I would say that this is pretty much a five-paragraph essay, a very good one.

I would argue that the Andrew J. Bacevich piece is not really an essay, but more like an answer to an academic test question. The first sentence is an answer and a thesis: “Those who avoid wartime service out of conviction–persuaded that a specific war is illegal, immoral, or wrongheaded–deserve our respect and even admiration.” Note, however, that this implies a counter-thesis: Those who avoid service for other reasons do not deserve our respect. And indeed, this counter-thesis appears in the third paragraph. The pattern is thesis, support, counter-thesis, support, conclusion. The overall implied thesis is that our respect depends on motivation. The title, “Motives Matter,” reflects this, but the title was probably added by a headline writer, not the author. This sort of writing depends a lot on the context the article is placed within, and indeed, the New York Times feature “Room for Debate” sets up the necessary context. In that sense, this is the most rhetorically savvy of these pieces. It is well-adapted to the rhetorical situation and the exigency.

When students read essays and op-ed pieces such as these, they are exposed to a wide variety of organizational patterns. However, when they write, they are often limited to one—: the five-paragraph essay.  I think that we create cognitive dissonance and disengagement when we teach them very strict formulas for writing essays. Why can’t they do what they see published authors doing?  One argument might be that they are not ready to make the rhetorical decisions necessary to adapt the form to their audience and purpose.  OK, how do they learn to make rhetorical decisions about arrangement?

One activity that will help is “descriptive outlining,” an exercise I first encountered in Reading Rhetorically by John Bean, Virginia Chappell and Alice M. Gillam, but which originally came from Ken Bruffee’’s A Short Course in Writing. In this activity, students learn about form by dividing a piece up into sections by topics and stating what the section does for the reader and what it says about the topic.  What follows is my own version of the activity.

Dividing the Essay

This activity works best with a relatively short essay-like piece. Have your students read the piece and divide it into sections based on topics. The first time you do this, it might be useful to start by simply asking them to draw a line where the introduction ends. Then ask individual students to report where they drew the line and why. Students may have drawn lines in different places, but that is ok. The important thing is the kind of thinking they do in making the decision. Once the line is drawn, they will want to defend their decision, and this leads to more thinking and discussion.

One discovery they will make after doing several of these is that the thesis statement is often not in the first paragraph.  This is mind-blowing for students who have been brought up on a strict regime of five-paragraph essays.

After the introduction has been discussed, ask the students to move on to the task of dividing the piece into sections based on topics. Again, students may divide it differently.

Do/Say Analysis

After the sections have been divided, ask the students to write brief statements describing the rhetorical function and content of each paragraph or section.

  • What is the section about? (The topic)
  • What does the section do for the reader? (Rhetorical function)
  • What does it say about the topic? (Content)

This is often called a “Do/Say” analysis, but I think that it is useful to identify the topic as well because topics function at a higher level than paragraphs (some languages, such as Japanese, have special words that serve as topic markers). I have extracted a sample descriptive outline of “”A Change of Heart about Animals“” from my ERWC module, “”A Rhetoric of the Op-Ed Page.””

Descriptive outlining helps students explore different organizational patterns and their effects on readers.  The resulting analysis is useful in creating a summary, abstract, or rhetorical précis of the article, and certainly helps in comprehension.

A Problem with the Aristotelian Appeals

Recently there was a thread on the Writing Program Administrator’s discussion board (WPA-L) in which first year writing instructors at the college level were complaining about receiving large numbers of essays that used ethos, logos, and pathos in ineffective ways. One respondent said that “it seems to have become the new five paragraph essay.” In ERWC, we offer these concepts as a set of analytical tools that allow students to become aware of the claims made on them by the writers of the documents they read. Instead, for some students, the Aristotelian appeals seem to have become a new essay formula.

I asked tutors and instructors on my campus if they were also seeing large numbers of ineffective essays that were framed by ethos, logos, and pathos. They confirmed that they were. One instructor told me that he now routinely says to students “Less pathos! More logos!” This is a recent phenomenon.

In a sense, this is success. Students are acquiring concepts and transferring them to other situations. However, from these reports, some of the transfer is negative and inappropriate. This is a big problem.

The Aristotelian appeals are only a part of a rhetorical approach. Aristotle says that rhetoric is “the art of finding the available means of persuasion.” The most important factors in any rhetorical analysis are audience and purpose. The first questions the student should ask are “Who is the audience?” and “What is the writer trying to accomplish?” not “Where is the ethos?” “Where is the pathos?” and “Where is the logos?”

After audience and purpose, the student needs to explore the issue. How is the issue defined? Who are the parties involved? What is the writer’s position? What are the arguments in favor of it? What are the arguments against it? What are other possible positions? What are the possible consequences? These questions all can be seen as coming under the heading of logos, but the answers may not all be in the text under study. To come up with counter-arguments and alternative positions, the student may have to think outside the text.

Ethos and pathos are also modes of persuasion, not necessary ingredients. Is the text more persuasive because of the way that the writer has constructed his or her ethos? Then we might look at the elements that construct that ethos. Does the writer make moves that invoke the reader’s emotions? We might want to look at how that is done and why the writer did it. However, a writer, such as a scientist, may choose to persuade entirely through facts and arguments and leave character and emotion behind.

In a future post I will explore how the Roman concept of stasis theory might be helpful in analyzing issues. Remember, “Less pathos! More logos!”

CATE Presentation–2/19/16

I presented at the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) conference on Friday with two of my former grad students, Alberta (Albie) Miranda and Amanda Thomason. CATE is a great conference.  It is just big enough and the attendees are all enthusiastic about teaching and learning.

As the ERWC matures, we are beginning to emphasize module creation by individual teachers rather than a prescribed set of official modules.  My part of the session was designed to introduce participants to some of the concepts and tools used to create modules.  I distributed the following handouts:

The micro module is designed to demonstrate how an ERWC-style module works in a very short format in which it is easy to grasp the whole arc of the module.  Lydia Davis writes “stories” that may be only a few sentences long.  The prereading section offers quotations from reviews that give the participant some idea of what kind of stories they are about to encounter.  Before reading the stories, the participant is instructed to think about “relationships.”  After reading, the participant is giving Davis’s definition of a “story” and asked to reread to determine if indeed these short pieces really are stories.  These activities form the “Preparing,” “Understanding,” and  “Questioning” stages of the ERWC arc.  It is typical of ERWC modules to include activities that cause the student to read and reread the texts multiple times from different perspectives.

Students are then given a writing prompt, which initiates the “Responding” stage:

Write an essay in which you explore the problems of relationships as presented in these stories. Define the problems and the implied solutions, supporting your ideas with quotations from the stories and examples from your own experience.

The students then compose drafts, get feedback, and revise.  At the end they are asked, “Do you think that your essay about relationship problems might actually help someone who was having problems in a relationship? It might, if it is easy to read and understand.”

Amanda and Albie both wrote the initial versions of their modules as projects for my English 589 “Pedagogies of Reading” course.  Both are now writing instructors in our department.  Amanda says in the introduction to her module

This module, “Learning to Dream: Dreaming to Learn,” was created for use in first-year college composition classes during the end of the year (once students have already been exposed to the ERWC style module). It takes several weeks to complete. It was developed to introduce students to the topics of dreaming, lucid dreaming, dream interpretation, and whether or not dreams can be harnessed to improve learning. Students are introduced to several different types of texts of varying purposes, styles, and difficulty levels (including web pages, articles, and a research paper) that will allow them to develop and defend an opinion on whether or not dreams are useful – and if so, how. As the final writing assignment, students are asked to either write an argumentative essay or a personal narrative and interpretation of a dream. Depending on the class and teacher, the final paper can be modified to take a more academic or creative slant.

Albie describes her “Romeo and Juliet” module as follows:

This module was develop for use in a ninth grade English class. The module is designed to guide students through their first experience with the works of William Shakespeare. The module will also help students understand why drama must be read differently than poetry or prose; students will work with genre-specific strategies that they will then be able to apply to other dramatic texts. At the end of the project, students will compose a two-part essay: in the first part they will explore one of the major thematic concerns in the play; in the second, they will reflect on their development as readers of drama.

I would guess that there were about 35 people at the session.  I had 28 handouts, and I ran out.  Nearly all of the attendees had some experience with ERWC and I think the session was well-received.  Albie and Amanda gave very professional presentations, there were good questions, and I had fun.

The Arc Revised

The ERWC Steering Committee met on 10/16/15 at the CSU Chancellor’s Office. Among many issues that were discussed was the language of the ERWC Arc. There were two main points of contention:

  • Is “selecting” the right word for the stage of the process that is between reading and writing, what the ERWC template calls “Connecting Reading to Writing”?
  • Does the arc misrepresent what is a recursive and complex process as a linear, stage-driven one?

We had an extended conversation about the word “selecting.” This is a crucial turning point in the student’s relationship with the texts and many different things are going on. It is a Janus-like doorway that swings both ways, looking backward and forward. We tried many words–engaging, framing, connecting, taking a stance, aligning, joining the conversation, positioning (selecting is part of positioning), composing meaning through reading and composing meaning through writing, formulating, aligning, reconsidering, and answering. We considered for a moment adding a seventh term, but because one of our considerations is to create metcognitive terms that students can transfer to other situations, we decided that six terms is already a lot.

We finally decided on “responding.” It is general enough to contain the other processes, and it captures the backward and forward gaze of the moment. “Selecting” was too narrow. You can download a revised version of the “ERWC Arc” Handout.

Here is an image of what it looks like.  The .pdf version in the link above looks better.

RedARC

The second issue was about the linear nature of the model. Here we need to think about the purpose of the representation. Back in the early days of composing process research, a four-stage model–pre-writing, composing, revising, and proofreading–was proposed. Protocol analysis quickly determined that the actual writing process was recursive, that writers did not simply complete one stage and move on to the next. A difficulty in composing might send the writer back to some kind of pre-writing activity, and revising might lead to further composing. The four-stage model was abandoned as simplistic and naive. However, if I am talking to engineers about teaching writing, the four-stage model makes a lot of sense to them. If I then point out that in reality the process is more complex, they just nod. Of course it is. Everything is recursive.

The concept of the arc came out of teacher comments and observations that we did as part of our i3 study. Teachers were not finishing the modules. They were spending too much time on the reading and running out of time for the writing. We are not proposing the arc as an accurate cognitive model for designing research. It is more about the design of modules. As with any simplification, it has its limitations, but as a tool for delivering a quick understanding of ERWC practices, I think it works well.

The arc is also for students. It shows them that there is more to a writing assignment than reading a text and summarizing it. “Responding” encompasses the complex process of having a dialogue with a text and joining the conversation. I think it is a good choice.

ERWC Arc Handout

I think that the concept of the ERWC “Arc” is important to help teachers understand the fundamental pedagogical concepts of ERWC and to help students internalize the concepts so that they can transfer them to other rhetorical situations.  To promote this concept, I created a handout, which has been formatted and enhanced by my wife HeeJung.  Here is an image of it:

ERWC-Arc-Handout ImageThe handout illustrates the concepts of “Text to Text” and the progression of tasks built in to every ERWC module.   Download a .pdf version here: ERWC Arc Handout.

The Gatsby Module: A Draft

I have finished a draft of the Gatsby module (Note: new ERWC 3.0 draft here, as of 10/12/17). This is a complete student version that is ready for feedback and perhaps piloting. It has not been put into the official format, nor has it been edited for consistency. It has not been aligned with standards, though I think the alignments are easy to see.

I need to create a teacher version, so some feedback from teachers on what is unclear would be helpful. This is the first module that prominently features the “arc” language–preparing, understanding, questioning, selecting, writing, revising–so feedback on how that works would be much appreciated. Also, there are some activities here that have not been used before.

Module Description

This module is designed for 11th grade, probably near the end of the first semester. It is designed to allow students to explore multiple critical perspectives and develop their own approach to the novel. There are five possible writing prompts. Each asks students to take a position, write a thesis statement, and support their arguments with evidence from the text. The module does not require students to read secondary sources or do any research. The focus is entirely on the novel itself.

Module Background

The Great Gatsby is among the recommended texts for 11th grade in the CCSS and has been in the 11th grade curriculum for decades. It is a superbly written novel with a complex, multi-faceted structure, flawed but interesting characters, and engaging themes and issues. It is also short. Much is packed into its 180 pages.

The novel is bristling with symbols, metaphors and other literary devices, carefully deployed, but also easy to find and interpret. It is common in teaching this novel to focus on these devices. This module includes those discussions, but also enables other approaches. The overall approach is something I call “Guided Reader Response.” The activities invoke a possible perspective, focus on particular aspects of the text, and allow students to draw their own conclusions and make their own interpretations, building up to their own reading of the novel, which they will express in the final paper. As they work through the novel, they will write down vocabulary, make predictions, create summaries at various points, and share their interpretations with others.

This module has been designed to be significantly shorter than previous literary modules in ERWC, such as 1984 or Brave New World. It should take about four weeks to complete.

Kenneth Burke’s Pentad and Gatsby

As I was describing different approaches to Gatsby in the introductory part of the module I wrote a section called “People and Places” using the Burkean Pentad.  My goal was to introduce just enough Burke to be of use without confusing.  Apparently, I failed.  Several people told me that this was too confusing for 11th graders.  I thought I would post it here to see what others thought.

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In A Grammar of Motives critic Kenneth Burke describes a five-term system for analyzing the motivation of characters that he calls the “pentad.”

  • Act—What was done? “What took place in thought or deed?”
  • Scene—Where and when was it done? (Place, Context, Background, Situation)
  • Agent—Who did it? (What person or kind of person, what co-agents or counter-agents)
  • Agency—By what means or with what instruments was it done?
  • Purpose—Why was it done?

Burke combines these terms into what he calls “ratios.” We often think that when people do something, they do it either because of their inherent nature (agent-act) or because of their purpose (purpose-act). However, in this novel, where someone comes from, especially if they come from the east or the west, or if they come from a poor neighborhood or a rich one, makes a big difference in how other people see them. Burke would call this a scene-agent ratio. In this ratio, the “scene,” which can be a place, a culture, or a historical moment, forms the nature and character of the “agent,” the person who acts. It is also possible for the scene in which the act takes place to motivate the act. In this novel, the action moves from East Egg to West Egg, and from East Egg to New York, passing through “the Valley of Ashes.” In each place, different kinds of action occur. Burke would call this a scene-act ratio. The place motivates the kind of act.

As you read, note where characters come from and how people feel about them. For example, at one point, Tom Buchanan calls Gatsby “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (130). That is the scene-agent ratio. For Tom, that is the ultimate insult. Also note what kinds of things people do in different locations and circumstances. For example, people behave differently in Gatsby’s party house than they do elsewhere. That is the scene-act ratio.

Literary Devices in Gatsby

As I write the module on The Great Gatsby, one of my concerns is how to deal with the issue of literary devices.  I don’t want the students to be intimidated by “hidden meanings.”  I don’t want them to go figure hunting as if they are bird watchers logging sightings of rare specimens.  However, I do want them to be able to interpret the novel, to appreciate the language, and not to be put off by Fitzgerald’s indirect ways.  My first move in this direction was the introduction for students which I posted earlier.

In the section below I am trying to explain how symbols, metaphors, similes, and irony work.  Many of the definitions I found on the web were too complex or confusing, even contradictory.  Others went too deep into semiotics or linguistics, attempting to describe cognitive processes or to create a host of types and sub-types.  I just want students to have a basic working understanding of figurative language so that they can read the novel with pleasure and understanding.  I want to empower them rather than intimidate them.

Please give feedback in the comments.

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Although reading literature is not like an Easter egg hunt in which the reader is looking for hidden meanings buried behind symbols and metaphors, such devices are part of the novel and do have meaning. For example, automobiles are common in this novel. At this time, the automobile is a fairly recent introduction into American culture. Traffic lights to control intersections were introduced around the time the novel was written. In the novel, automobiles are meticulously described. Characters drive them, buy them, sell them, repair them, crash them, and sometimes the wheels fall off. People are killed by them. Is the automobile a symbol of some aspect of American culture? Is steering a car a metaphor for a new kind of American life? It is up to you, the reader, to decide. Maybe a car is just a car. Maybe it is more. Symbols take on their meaning from context and from the evolving value that they have for the characters and the reader. It is never a simple matter of “Symbol X equals Meaning Y.”

Let’s say that the automobile is a symbol of American technological progress. What is implied if the wheels fall off? What is implied if the automobile kills someone?

Some definitions:

A symbol is something concrete (like the automobile) that represents or stands for an abstract idea (such as progress). Symbols are usually related to major themes in the work and may reoccur several times. The symbol does not necessarily resemble the symbolized idea or share any of its qualities. For example, the American flag is a symbol of the United States, but it does not look like the country. The stars on the flag may symbolize the individual states that are the current components of the union and the stripes may symbolize the original states that joined at the beginning, but the states are not like stars or stripes in any way.

A metaphor causes us to see one thing in terms of something else. On page 2, Nick Carraway talks about “the foul dust” that “floated in the wake of Gatsby’s dreams.” There are two metaphors here. First, the dust is not literally dust, but at this point we don’t know exactly what it is. We will find out what dreams Gatsby has and what the foul consequences are as we continue reading. Second, the dust floats in the “wake” of Gatsby’s dreams. As a boat travels through the water it creates a turbulent track behind it which is called the “wake.” So Gatsby’s dreams are being compared to a boat that leaves foul dust floating behind it. But wait a minute! “Wake” is also another word for funeral. Could that be what it means here? It seems unlikely because the word “floating” is associated with water, which triggers the association with a boat. Note that these are not “hidden meanings.” The metaphors are just part of the way that the sentence creates meaning.

A simile is a type of metaphor that uses “like” or “as” or other comparison words to connect the ideas. The most famous simile ever is probably by the poet, Robert Burns, who wrote, “My love is like a red, red rose,” comparing a woman to a flower. In The Great Gatsby, when Nick is criticizing Jordan’s driving he says, to the reader, not to Jordan, “I am slow thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires” (58). This statement compares his “interior rules” to the “brakes” on an automobile. Similes such as this are very common in fiction.

Irony is also common in this novel. The word “irony” comes from a Greek word that means to pretend. There are many types of irony, but in all types the surface meaning is different, often the opposite, of what is intended, creating a humorous effect. For example, if a person walking in pouring rain meets another person and says, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” that would be an ironic statement. Another common form of irony is understatement. Say a woman who is very afraid of spiders finds a spider in her sink, rolls up a magazine and in a panic hits the spider 20 times. Her roommate says, “Do you think that’s enough?” In Gatsby, irony often takes the form of exaggeration, such as when Nick arrives at Daisy’s house and she says, “I’m paralyzed with happiness” (8).

You will find many examples of these and other literary devices in the novel. Take note of these, discuss them with your classmates, and think about how they influence your reading of the novel.