Teaching Toulmin

As I have previously mentioned, I’ve found it difficult to teach Toulmin’s model of argumentation to my ENG 104 students. I tried it during my first quarter but decided that the time it took wasn’t worth it considering the disappointing results. Students could identify data and claims, rebuttals and qualifications in the writings of professionals, but warrants and backing eluded most of them, and they struggled to use the model in their own writing. But Hillocks’ article has caused me to rethink my anti-Toulmin stance (especially since I don’t think Toulmin is optional for 105, which I’m teaching next quarter).

Hillocks unfortunately starts his article about critical thinking in a less-than-logical way, basing his assessment of the current state of the teaching of critical thinking in secondary English education on one single textbook published 20 years ago. He then jumps on the “argument is better than persuasion” bandwagon, linking persuasive writing with propaganda and advertising while prioritizing argument because it is “logical.”

But Hillocks does get on track after this, offering a good overview of Toulmin, the strongest point of which was his reminder that a strong argument follows a close analysis of the data. Often teachers press students to come up with their thesis too early, before really considering the data, having students use the data as support for the thesis rather than having the thesis emerge from their analysis of the data. As Hillocks points out, “without analysis of any data (verbal and nonverbal texts, materials, surveys and samples), any thesis is likely to be no more than a preconception or assumption or cliched popular belief that is unwarranted and, at worst, totally indefensible.”

At the end of his article Hillocks demonstrates how he teaches the Toulmin model of argumentation to a class of 9th graders. By concretizing these abstract concepts–he uses a mystery picture puzzle book—he’s able to have remarkable success teaching Toulmin to high school students. So, did I immediately go to Amazon to see if these Crime and Puzzlement books by Lawrence Treat are still available? You bet.

Questions about Quintilian

Having now read Quintilian, I realize how much our contemporary practices of writing instruction are indebted to the classical rhetoricians whose practices Quintilian synthesized in his Institutes of Oratory, and also how much we could learn from them. One practice that Quintilian advocates seems completely opposite from our standard process writing pedagogy. Here’s a reminder of the gist of what he says (from pp. 404-5):

  • By writing carefully we can develop our ideas more deeply, which will provide us with a store to draw on as needed when speaking.
  • How we should write: “Let our pen be at first slow, provided that it be accurate. Let us search for what is best, and not allow ourselves to be readily pleased with whatever presents itself.” As we write we should judge our thoughts, attend to the organization, and weigh each word and its placement carefully as well as the rhythm of each phrase. Just as an archer pulls back the bowstring, so also should we go back as we’re writing to evaluate what we’ve written.
  • By this method we will write “very few verses in a day” as was Virgil’s practice.
  • Eventually we will be able to write faster, but we must first learn to write slowly: “By writing quickly we are not brought to write well, but that by writing well we are brought to write quickly.”
  • Some people are happy with everything they write and some with nothing.
  • Not only practice will help improve writing but also method. Instead of “looking at the ceiling, and trying to kindle our invention by muttering to ourselves wait[ing] for what may present itself” (doesn’t that sound familiar?), we should consider the subject, the occasion and purpose, and the audience.
  • It is better to write carefully at first than to produce a rough copy. (Quintilian calls a rough copy a silvam or forest because the trees in the forest are arranged in no particular order. Interesting.)

It seems that Quintilian would be in disagreement with our practice of having students talk about their ideas before writing and encouraging them to write quickly with little concern for structure or word choice, just to get the ideas down. So do you think that Quintilian just needs to read some of the research on writing process, or are his ideas worthy of consideration?

The topoi and the writing process

I found the ideas in Frank D’Angelo’s article “The Evolution of the Analytic Topoi: A Speculative Inquiry” to be fascinating. D’Angelo outlines three broad stages (the global, the analytic, and the synthesis stages) in the development of human cognitive abilities and relates these stages to the development of the topoi. But he doesn’t stop there. He says that his main purpose in developing this history is “to provide a conceptual framework for a better understanding of invention and the composing process” (51). So, according to D’Angelo, how we humans developed ways to come up with ideas and organize them is mirrored on a small scale in our students, and we as teachers can help students as they move from the global stage, to the analytic, and finally to the stage of synthesis. “In this view, the composing process is analogous to universal evolutionary processes in which an original, amorphous, undifferentiated whole gradually evolves into a more complex, differentiated one” (51). As students move through the recursive process of writing, they reenact the development of the topoi. Cool insight.

From a historic perspective, the global stage is the most intriguing to me. It’s so hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that preliterate people had fundamentally different thought processes: “The singer of tales and the pre-Socratic Greek thinkers thought differently about the world than we do” (68). I’m intrigued to know how not being able to read and write would influence my thinking. Many days, when I’ve stayed up too late and the alarm goes off when it’s still dark and cold, I justify staying in my cozy bed by thinking, “I’ll plan my class/write my paper/figure out what to do about such and such in my head.” And so I begin my “thinking like an ancient person” experiment: how long can I sustain a cogent series of thoughts in my mind? It goes okay for a while: “Okay, first we’ll discuss this, and then we’ll do this activity,” or “Okay, I’ll start with this point, and don’t forget to use that word. Yeah, that’s good….” But soon I’m having thoughts like, “Wait, what did I just think? I need to not forget that…” etc. And so I’m forced to get up and find a pen and write down my ideas, and my experiment is over. Maybe Einstein or Mozart or Coleridge could have shown succeeded in being brilliant even as a preliterate person (although Coleridge certainly exaggerated his facility of composing in his mind), but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to cogitate nearly as well (or at least the same) without a way to write. D’Angelo claims that “preliterate man was apparently unable to think logically” (52), and after my early morning experiments, I’m inclined to agree. And that certainly seems to characterize my students in their early versions of their essays! But as D’Angelo points out, during the global stage the analytic topoi were “embedded in oral performance” (54), an observation that lends credence to teachers’ use of small group discussions to help students generate ideas.

The topoi of the analytic stage (at least of early Greek thought) are characterized by polarity and analogy, according to G. E. R. Lloyd (55). This seems to be much like the early pro/con orientation of my students to any controversial topic (polarity) and their tendency to start analyzing an issue by using their experiences as a lens through which to understand it (analogy). D’Angelo also posits that the topoi of the analytic stage (the enthymemes of Aristotle, for example) still bear a close connection between commonplace material (maxims, proverbs, popular sayings). My project with my students at this point in the quarter is to help them move from unquestioning reliance on commonplaces to a more analytic approach. Again, I can definitely see the parallels between the historic development of the topoi and the way that individual students develop their ideas.

During the stage of synthesis, D’Angelo contends that rhetoric and the topoi shifted “from tradition to theory” (61). According to S. M. Halloran, “The goal of the classical rhetorician was to prepare others to speak in conformity with the established rhetorical conventions. The goal of the modern theorist is to achieve an abstract understanding of the rhetorical process, and thereby to be able to predict the outcome(s) of a given rhetorical transaction” (62). This seems to correlate to the stage of composition where the student steps back and considers how various ways of approaching the topic will affect his/her audience, where the student tries to see the subject from others’ perspectives.

So besides the historical overview and theoretical understanding that D’Angelo’s article gave me, I also came away with an interesting way to look at my students’ composing process. As teachers we have to allow them to flounder for a while (the global stage), and allow them to rely on clichéd and polarized arguments for a while (the analytic stage), before they will be able to achieve a more mature and nuanced position (the synthesis stage) where they have a better understanding of the rhetorical situation.

Teach what you know

Donald Stewart’s “The Continuing Relevance of Plato’s Phaedrus” offered me some much-appreciated insights into that dialogue of Plato.

If only we would have read this article before class last week! Then we would have known the answer to the question “What is the Phaedrus about?”–and all without having to engage in the mental struggle we did in class! We could have just read that “there is now little doubt about the answer to the first question. The subject of the Phaedrus is rhetoric.” It’s so straight-forward. Thank you, Donald Stewart, for making that imminently clear! (…and for making us feel somewhat slow for not recognizing that truth immediately…) And thank you, Dr. Edlund for making us personally wrestle with the question. Plato would be proud. And I’m sure that Derrida with make all things clear…

I hope I’m not like Derrida in focusing on one obscure passage, but what really stuck out to me was “the true rhetorician must have knowledge.” As a rhet/comp TA, I can get overwhelmed with the vast scope that is the purview of rhetoric. Every text can be examined rhetorically, and let’s not limit that to written texts. Every subject seems to be fair game for my 104 class. And now in planning my 105 class, the process begins again. What am I going to teach? What texts do I use? “Of the making of books there is no end” said Solomon, and that was 3000 years ago! So to the rescue come the ideas of Plato: “The true rhetorician must have knowledge.” With that in mind, I feel more confident that it’s okay to teach what I know. In fact, I SHOULD teach what I know. I’m not strong in analyzing, for example, political discourse, so maybe Plato would say it’s okay if I instead teach analysis of texts I’m more comfortable with. Although I haven’t chosen to adopt a full-on “Writing About Writing” model of teaching, I’m sympathetic to many of its goals (if not its texts). And I think that Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle are on the mark when they say that there is nothing wrong with an instructor teaching “about things she knows and enjoys.”

Dissoi logoi

When I first read this selection, I understood it to be advocating for Protagoras’ way of thinking: “Of all things the measure is man.” The writer seemed to be saying that whatever the situation, good/bad (seemly/shameful, just/unjust, true/false) can only be determined by an individual’s self-interest. An event could be seen as good from one person’s perspective yet bad from another’s.  What we had learned about the Sophists from Dr. Edlund during the course introduction—that the Sophists did not believe that absolute truth could be known and that they had gained an anthropological perspective on the world from their travels—seemed to support this reading.

However, during my second reading I focused more on the second part of each section, where the writer demonstrates that it’s ridiculous and untenable to say that these binaries are actually the same thing, like saying black is white (50, column 2 bottom). The writer argues for both cultural relativism (the first approach) and for some sort of abstract moral qualities (the second approach). These are the two approaches that give this work the title (in English) Opposing Arguments (not, as I initially thought, the opposition between good/bad, etc.) Very sophistic indeed.

So, for me what I got out of Dissoi Logoi (besides an introduction to the Sophists) was the value of having students look at issues from multiple perspectives. As Dr. Edlund pointed out last week, these were practice arguments. In classical education students were given lots of practice arguing both sides of an issue, a practice that I think has much value and one that I plan to utilize more this quarter as I teach my 104 course. From how many different angles can my students look at an issue? How thoroughly do they understand the opposing viewpoint? I think this kind of practice can greatly improve their critical thinking and writing.

Writing to learn

As I read “The Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Movement: 1970-1990” by David Russell, one quote in particular struck me as particularly insightful: “The [American secondary school] system is organized on an industrial model, which uses writing primarily to assess students’ performance, not to improve it” (22). (And while Russell refers to secondary schools, I suggest that college writing may be even more oriented toward assessment.) I don’t know why I had never considered this, but this observation was a revelation to me, and it certainly is true to my experience. Dan Melzer’s research reported in “Writing Assignments Across the Curriculum: A National Study of College Writing” seems to bear Russell’s observation out: nearly a quarter of the writing opportunities he surveyed were short-answer exam questions, and 64% of the assignments were written to the “instructor as examiner.”

Using writing to improve students’ performance rather than to assess it seems to be an apt description of the objective of the “writing to learn” aspect of writing across the curriculum. Susan McLeod identifies two “complementary, even synergistic” (55) branches of WAC—“writing to learn” and “writing to communicate”—the latter often understood to be writing in the disciplines. Even though we have (at least so far) spent more energy in our seminar on the theoretical basis for WID and technical writing, I find “writing to learn” to be equally interesting because of its ability to improve students’ understanding of subject matter and, perhaps even more importantly, to achieve what Russell identifies as WAC’s “ultimate goal: reforming American pedagogy” (36).

I wonder whether the “writing to learn” branch of WAC is weakening as more emphasis is given to WID. Russell details the challenges to the WAC movement in his section “Reform and Resistance” (30-34), and much of his assessment is concerning. WID, on the other hand, with its disciplinary emphasis, seems to be more amenable to institutional structure and more palatable to instructors, and thus is receiving more attention. I think that “writing to communicate”/WID is an important aspect of writing instruction—don’t get me wrong—but not at the expense of “writing to learn.” I’m concerned that an overemphasis on WID shortchanges students; let’s face it, most undergraduates will not become academics, and most writing in the disciplines is aimed at teaching the academic discourse patterns of the discipline, not professional writing. While there is significant overlap between academic discourse and professional discourse in some majors (engineering for example), in other disciplines (history for example), besides teaching students the ways of knowing within the discipline, academic discourse will not serve students in the long term unless they pursue a career in academia.  Furthermore, I think that most WID is used to “assess student performance” rather than to improve it; most of the typical WID assignments seem to be used as a means of evaluating whether students understand the material rather than as a means of helping them understand the material better.

Yes, you may

Let me just say, I didn’t realize HOW EXPLICIT I needed to be until yesterday.

My 104 students have recently been reading two articles that I had chosen not only because they offered an interesting argument to respond to (the content) but also because they provided good examples of lively, interesting writing in the genre my students would soon be producing.

We had utilized all kinds of ERWC reading strategies and had looked closely at the strategies and techniques the writer had employed. I had said things like, “So when you’re writing your essay…” and “Maybe you’d like to use a similar strategy…”

Yesterday, while we were analyzing one of the introductions, a hand went up: “So, Professor…are you saying that it’s okay if we write like this?”

I didn’t entirely realize the magnitude of this question, but when I responded, “Yes, you may. In fact, I want you to write like this,” the relief among the students was palpable. Dare I say, there was a little excitement in the room!

Looking back on that incident, I realize that my students needed explicit permission to abandon their old, familiar, constraining novice roles. It wasn’t enough to provide them with models. It wasn’t enough to point out the neat techniques that the writers were using. It wasn’t even enough to suggest that they try those techniques out. They needed explicit permission. Yes, they could say good-bye to the trusty five-paragraph essay. Yes, they were allowed to imitate the expert style of the “real” writers they were reading. Yes, they could assume the stance of a “real” writer. Yes, they could.

Fluffy things

“They should just say what it is and nothing else, not their feelings or their impressions or sentences that doesn’t actually bring anything into the paper and contribute anything to the understanding of the reader. That should be all removed. If they can get away from this course with one thing, that is, ‘Oh, I should be very clear in my purpose, very clear about how I did it, and why I did it, my results and my interpretations, and nothing else, just what it is.’ That will be very useful for them in their following courses and in their jobs. Nobody wants fluffy things, they just want to the point what it is, except maybe in entertainment, in movies, in novels, in fiction. There could be a lot of other places, but not in the job we are doing here.”

—Cal Poly Physics professor

“The terms students used to characterize the kind of writing they did in FYC and other courses in the English Department included ‘fluff,’ ‘b.s.,’ and ‘flowery,’ whereas in talking about the writing they did in other classes, students used descriptors such as ‘concise,’ ‘to the point,’ and ‘not a lot of flowery adjectives.’”

—Bergmann and Zepernick, “Disciplinarity and Transfer”

I read Bergmann and Zepernick’s article “Disciplinarity and Transfer” while researching my seminar paper about transfer last quarter, and it had a significant impact on my understanding of that subject. When I reread this article this quarter, this time after having read Downs and Wardel’s “Teaching about Writing…”, I viewed Bergmann and Zepernick’s research as providing ample empirical justification for reworking FYC. And our interview with one of our physics professors, quoted above, confirmed that “fluffy things” are just not valued outside of the English department, not by students and not by faculty.

(Now, mind you, I do not believe that fluffy things are all that the English department has to offer. But that is the perception, and it must be addressed.)

So, what about Bergmann and Zepernick’s article provided support for the argument for WAW for me? First and foremost, students rejected the possibility of transfer from FYC to writing in their disciplines primarily because the perceived that FYC lacked any disciplinary content. But WAW provides the disciplinary content that would lend legitimacy to FYC. Second, this content would emphasize the rhetorical approach to FYC, rather than an expressivist pedagogy, that better lends itself to transfer. While I think there is definitely a place in the curriculum for expressivist writing, it doesn’t seem to be appropriate for a course that transitions students into writing in the disciplines. And finally, because although the empirical support is on the side of an apprenticeship model of teaching writing by expert in the discipline, the fact is that most faculty don’t think they have the time or expertise to teach writing, and WAW at least attempts to close the gap by “teaching students how to learn to write” (142). It is this learning how to learn how to write that I think is a strength of WAW.

Bonsai professors

I have been mulling over writing in the disciplines, and much of our reading and discussion has been centered around writing in the technical and scientific disciplines. Now that I have gotten a little more familiar with the type of writing done in these formerly mysterious disciplines, I have started to think how maybe rather than being more difficult (my previous assumption), the teaching of writing in the technical disciplines may have an advantage over teaching writing in the humanities because there is a fairly defined trajectory for its students from university course work to career.  For example, a student who is an engineering major becomes…an engineer. A student who is a chemistry major becomes…a chemist. I know I am simplifying the issue, but my point is that while there can a variety of careers for these majors, the type of writing taught in the discipline correlates closely with the type of writing the student will do in the workplace.

But now let’s consider the situation in the humanities. These are majors in which the career paths of its majors are not as clear cut. How do you complete these sentences? A history major becomes___________. A philosophy major becomes____________. And finally, the fill-in-the-blank question we are all hoping to answer—an English major becomes______________. This is not to imply that these disciplines are less valuable because they are less vocationally oriented (perhaps that is actually a strength), just to acknowledge the situation. With less of a one-to-one correspondence between major and career, writing in the disciplines of the humanities has many challenges to address. One that I’ve noticed is the tendency of faculty in these disciplines to conceive writing in the disciplines to consist of primarily academic genres. Carter in “Ways of Knowing, Doing, and Writing in the Disciplines” relates that faculty in “Research from Sources” metagenres (mainly humanities) identify “the historical narrative from sources, literary criticism, paper, research paper and research project” as the typical genres, and he continues to observe that “the first two are clearly disciplinary genres, but the last three terms, which were used most often, best capture the ambiguous nature of the genres that comprise this metagenre, particularly their lack of correspondence to disciplinary or professional genres in a field…These may be understood as quintessential academic genres, writing that is used to promote certain ways of knowing and doing without much pretense to practical application beyond the classroom” (224). Do instructors only envision their students writing in academic genres? Do they not foresee them in careers outside of academia? Or is the problem that there are SO MANY options for careers following undergraduate studies in humanities? Or that instructors believe that the ways of knowing, doing, and writing taught in the humanities disciplines will easily transfer to the workplace?

Here is where my phrase of the week comes in. Mary Fainsod Katzenstein, in “Writing Political Science,” admits that perhaps professors fail to envision the breadth of career options available to political science majors and that “unwittingly perhaps, we set about cultivating our students to be bonsai…professors (diminutive replicas of ourselves)” (172). That phrase—“bonsai professors”—sums up all that I was thinking about writing in the disciplines of the humanities and writing in the workplace. It seems viewing the humanities through the lens of its disciplinary writing points to few career options outside of academia. “Writing in the disciplines” of the humanities translates to “writing in the academy.” Yet the writing in the other metagenres clearly points to a defined professional practice.

Daniel Ding, in “A Study of Four Engineering Documents,” observes that in contrast to scientists, who frequently produce reports on research that are published in scientific journals, “engineers do not usually publish as a career objective.” (298). This is a simple but profound observation. If publishing is not a career objective for most engineers, it follows that it should not receive focused attention in the education of engineers (and what we have read about the discipline of engineering suggests that it does not.) Similarly, unless a career in academia is the goal of students in the humanities, why should the primary genres humanities students write be such narrowly academic ones—unless the goal is to produce bonsai professors?

I realize that the value of writing in the humanities is to acculturate students into “a distinctive way of knowing that characterizes the discipline” (Carter 224), not just to teach students to write for a particular career. However Severino and Trachsel’s research, quoted in Rebecca Nowacek’s article “Why Is Being Interdisciplinary So Very Hard to Do?” questions whether this actually happens. They report that in a college of liberal arts and sciences, they “did not see disciplinary genres acculturating students to distinct patterns of thought” (388). The differences were found among individual teachers irrespective of disciplinary training. Consequently, I question why we should focus so intently on teaching disciplinary discourse—on producing “bonsai professors”—when this may not produce a distinctive way of thinking.

Transfer vs. transition

[Response to Ann M. Blakeslee, “Bridging the Workplace and the Academy: Teaching Professional Genres through Classroom-Workplace Collaborations”]

I found all the articles we read in Teaching Technical Communication this week to be rich in pedagogical implications. I have notes galore, but I have decided to focus my post on one word—transition.

Seeing everything through the lens of “transfer” as I have this quarter, I found myself almost reading right over Ann Blakeslee’s four organizing issues surrounding classroom-workplace collaborations—exposure, authenticity, transfer, and response (349). Wait—she didn’t say “transfer,” she said “transition.” This transition is defined as “how students move from the contexts of schooling to those of the workplace” (349-50). So the idea is much like, if not synonymous to, transfer. But I think I like the connotations of transition better than transfer. Here are my thoughts:

Transfer implies that knowledge can merely be picked up and carried to a new context. Based on their Latin roots, the words transfer and transport are virtually synonymous; they both mean “to carry/bear across.” When one transfers or transports something, it is carried to a new place unchanged. So when we speak of transfer of knowledge, the implication is that the knowledge stays the same; it’s just used in a new context. Writing skills from school transfer/transport unchanged to the workplace. The problem is that that’s not how it happens. The five paragraph essay doesn’t transfer to writing in the disciplines. The knowledge or skill must be adapted or transformed for use in a new context.

Rather than think of this transformation of knowledge for a new context as “transfer,” I think “transition” better captures what happens. This previous sentence transitions from the subject of the preceding paragraph (transfer) to the subject of this paragraph (transition). It links the old knowledge to a new context. Thinking of knowledge as transitioning (instead of transferring) implies change, conversion, transformation, development, evolution, growth, progress. These ideas are more in line with what situated learning tells us about the transition of knowledge from one context (writing in the university) to another (writing in the workplace). The two contexts are not the same and so writing in each context will not be the same; it cannot transfer unchanged. Students can build on what they have learned, but skills and knowledge that are not transitioned for the new context will be inadequate. That seemed to be the gist of the articles this week—students should realize, and teachers should teach, that moving from writing for school to writing for the workplace involves a transition, and they will be more successful if put their minds to learning how to learn in the new situation.

I doubt that we will adopt this new terminology, but it was a least helpful for me in thinking through what we expect when we talk of transferring genre knowledge from school to the workplace. Transition helps me to better conceptualize the idea.

Writing about writing-my infatuation

I’ll admit it—I’m infatuated with Writing About Writing. Oh yes, as we often do when a friend is trying to set us up on a blind date, I came up with all kinds of reasons that this would never work out—WAW seemed entirely too academic, too self-important (Getting rid of FYC?? What?), not engaging enough for students.

But that was before I actually met Writing About Writing. I’d based my ideas on snippets gleaned from other articles and on comments made in passing by professors. I hadn’t taken time to really get to know Writing About Writing.

I took the time to more seriously consider the concept of WAW last quarter when I was researching my paper about transfer for my Theory of Composition course. I read Anne Beaufort’s book College Writing and Beyond and started to consider that WAW might be a serious contender for an effective pedagogical approach to the transfer of writing skills. And really, if students can’t transfer the skills they learn in FYC to other disciplinary situations (or workplace settings), why do we bother? In short, Beaufort proposes teaching specific disciplinary subject matter about writing, i.e., knowledge about the writing process, the subject of writing itself, rhetoric, genre, and discourse community. By explicitly teaching these topics, in essence cuing the learner of future uses for knowledge, the possibility of transfer is increased.

The importance of teaching disciplinary content became apparent to me after reading Linda Bergmann and Janet Zepernick’s “Disciplinarity and Transfer: Students’ Perceptions of Learning to Write.” These researchers found that students didn’t transfer what they learned in FYC in part because they perceived that writing was not “really” a discipline. Their major courses taught definitive content, and writing in their disciplines was seen as expository, objective, and authoritative. Contrast that with perceptions of FYC: students discerned no disciplinary content (otherwise how could different sections of the same course have the vastly different approaches that they do?) and the writing assignments were seen as expressive, subjective, and creative. How could any skill from FYC transfer to a course in the student’s major?

So, by this roundabout path my inclination was to be favorably disposed to Downs and Wardle’s conception of “ Introduction to Writing Studies,” and now having read the article I find that their version of WAW has many strengths, most of them related to transfer:

• Rather than implying by our actions that writing studies is a “trivial, skill-teaching non-discipline” (553), teaching disciplinary content in “Introduction to Writing Studies” encourages students to take FYC seriously.

• Students learn how to learn to write in other discourse communities: “ They learn that within each new disciplinary course they will need to pay close attention to what counts as appropriate for that discourse community” (559).

• Reflective assignments (such as Downs and Wardle use) encourage transfer by having students reflect on their experiences in the past and abstract principles to can be applied to future writing situations (what Perkins and Salomon call “far transfer”). The course encourages “self-reflection and mindfulness, thereby improving the possibility that students will maintain a stance of inquiry toward writing as they write in other disciplinary systems” (577).

• Writing instructors are allowed to teach in their area of expertise, rather than trying to address a multitude of topics (stem cell research! the death penalty! intelligent design! as the authors list) that instructors are not extremely well-informed on.

• Rhetoric is addressed (553), and in relation to transfer, it seems that rhetorical skills are the ones that transfer. (See Doug Brent, “ Crossing Borders: Co-op Students Relearning to Write.”)

I read the articles by Miles, et al., and Kutney trying to pull me away from WAW by showing that my object of infatuation was not as perfect as I was beginning to think. But honestly I wasn’t swayed (and unfortunately this post is getting long and I’m running out of time, so since others have thoroughly covered those articles, I’m going to skip that for now…)

So, will this infatuation with WAW develop into a deeper committed relationship? At this point I’m not sure, but I’m willing to give it a try!

Diversity or consensus?

Harris’ chapter titled “Community” offered what I found to be a workable approach to the issue of politics in the FYC classroom. Ever since we read James Berlin’s Rhetoric, Poetics, and Cultures last quarter in Composition Theory, I’ve been thinking about how to address the political issues that make their way (or that we intentionally introduce) into the FYC context. Berlin’s solution is to address them head-on, to set up a classroom structure where students confront and resist hegemonic discourse, meaning that students become conscious of, and resist, the political forces that attempt to shape them unawares.

Okay, so far, so good. My issue with Berlin, though, is that he has a very clear idea of what students should resist and what they should strive toward (he’s a Marxist), and he has no qualms about directing them along the “proper” path. “Our teaching strategies may unavoidably shape our students as ethical and social subjects, but this is all the more reason to discuss openly the best procedures for doing so. We cannot help influencing our students, but we can do all we can to be straightforward about our methods and motives” He ostensibly values resistance—as long as the resistance is directed against his chosen targets. When students resist his imposition of values (his hegemony) he’s perplexed. His approach is much like what Harris characterizes as typical classroom procedure (147): students read a text and offer an interpretation, the teacher problematizes (a very Berlinian approach) the interpretation, and so on until consensus (that of the teacher) is achieved.

The alternative that Harris proposes seeks “not to resolve such differences in reading but to highlight them, [to try] to show what might be involved in arguing for the various ways of understanding a text—as well as what might be at stake in the conflicts between them. Such a class would not try to get students to agree on what a certain text means but to see how and why various readers might disagree about what it means” (147-48). I thought that Harris’ approach that he outlines in the following pages, where students view and write about Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and then consider their classmates’ different interpretations with a mind to understanding how these differences were justifiably supported, was fascinating and productive. This approach does a better job of avoiding the hegemony the teacher can wield because of the power structure of the classroom; as Harris says, “A problem with much teaching, it seems to me, is that the teacher often serves only too well as both judge and advocate of what gets said, pointing out the weakness of some positions while accenting the strengths of others” (154). Harris’ pedagogy seems to strive for understanding rather than consensus, in my mind a worthy goal.

Beyond the binaries

It’s probably just a case of too much Berlin (IS there such a thing?), but I’ve become a bit burned out on “binary opposition.” And then I read Kameen’s “Rewording the Rhetoric of Composition.” There they were—more binaries. Kameen lists numerous pairs which, as he says, are “usually conceived as polar opposites rather than dialectical contraries” (4):

  • thought/feeling
  • form/content
  • process/product
  • expression/communication
  • self/audience

I think one strength of Kameen’s argument lies in his attempt to restore “a dialectical relationship among the binary concepts” (4) through the inventive power of language. Kameen invokes Coleridge’s concept of imagination to illustrate “a refreshing and rigorous alternative” (8) to these binaries.

Kameen calls on “a companionable set of dual concepts” (22) from dialectical epistemology: primary and secondary (Freud); complex thinking and conceptual thinking (Vygotsky); and logical and paleological (Arieti). What is most interesting to me is Arieti’s idea of a “tertiary process” that mediates between the two binaries. Arieti explains that “the tertiary process…blends the two worlds of mind and matter, and in many cases, the rational with the irrational. Instead of rejecting the primitive…the creative mind integrates it with normal logical processes in what seems a ‘magic’ synthesis from which the new, the unexpected, the desirable emerge” (22-3). This tertiary process makes synthesis between the two ways of knowing possible, and this, Kameen claims, is most akin to Coleridge’s “imagination.”

Reality is much more nuanced and complex than a choice between two competing binaries. Kameen’s approach was a refreshing respite from the either/or view of most theorists.

More questions than answers about Critical/Cultural Studies

Fulkerson’s article served as an important introduction to the field for me. I found it fascinating to see how much has changed in composition and how much has stayed the same since I was an undergrad in the 80s. Of greatest interest to me in this article was Fulkerson’s overview of the Critical/Cultural Studies approaches, mainly because even though I’ve been aware of the trend toward cultural studies, I had only a vague understanding of how this has impacted the English department, particularly the writing program. I’m hesitant to just jump on the Fulkerson bandwagon critiquing CCS, but I certainly have some questions about this “social turn.” Maybe you can help me out by offering an opposing viewpoint to Fulkerson or by recommending some other readings. (I imagine this topic will be revisited since it appears that Berlin is in the CCS camp.) Here are some of the questions I had after reading Fulkerson:

  1. Why has writing instruction been removed from First Year Writing (at least by CCS advocates)? It does appear that writing is not as much taught as merely expected, much as in other writing-focused courses.
  2. How is a course of the description Fulkerson provides justified as being in the English department? As he points out, the pedagogy and axiology of CCS is much akin to that of courses in the departments of history, sociology, anthropology, or environmental science (661).
  3. What has happened to learner needs and expectations? If students are interested in exploring these ideas, plenty of avenues exist for this in other departments (see #2). As Durst discovered, what students—those “career-oriented pragmatists”—expect from a writing course is “dramatically at odds with the views and approaches of the teacher” (664). Do students’ goals (career and otherwise) have a place in the curriculum?
  4. Aren’t those who are insisting that writing courses must teach resistance to hegemonic discourse in fact practicing a form of hegemony? Fulkerson points out that the texts for examination in the CCS course are those “judged important by the teacher” (662) and that assessment of student writing amounts to judging how well the student has reflected the teacher’s views (“contemporary mimeticism”) (663). With only one perspective represented in readings and with the balance of power clearly still in favor of the professor thanks to his/her greater knowledge and ability to dispense grades, it seems that the ideal of the democratic classroom has been supplanted by further hegemony. Or is this just Fulkerson’s anti-CCS bias?
  5. Is the purpose of FYW to teach values? I laughed when I read Durst’s account of the angst of the first-year teaching assistants lamenting that their students didn’t listen to NPR or read the Atlantic Monthly, but I was frankly astounded when I read of their struggles to define their goals: “Was the goal to teach them better values or better writing or both?” (664) Who exactly is it that decides what these “better values” are?

Although I’ve centered on the CCS aspects of this article, the other areas of focus in Fulkerson’s article were equally intriguing to me, and I look forward to reading others’ blog posts about them. The disunity within the discipline of composition as Fulkerson outlined left me troubled and realizing that with such a lack of consensus, it is more critical than ever that someone wanting to teaching composition have a clear view of the competing composition theories and be able to articulate his/her own theory.

The representative anecdote and heuristics

Ross Winterowd’s “Dramatism in Themes and Poems” provided an “aha” moment for me about why dramatism is so named—it’s about actors (agents), scenes, acts, purposes, agency: basically, all the elements of great drama (and any story) apply to rhetoric as well. It is this perspective of rhetoric as drama that provides what I think is a promising approach to infusing composition with life.

Winterowd points out that Burke’s technical definition of drama is “representative anecdote,” which can be defined in two ways, either “appropriate examples/support” or “conceptual pivot” (enthymeme, thesis, topic sentence, theme). And it is following from this point, Winterowd asserts, that Burke started a “revolution” (582), although be it one that has gone largely unnoticed (584).  Aristotle, of course, elevated the enthymeme as the “most effective among various forms of persuasion” (584), and it has reigned as the quintessence of logic throughout Western history. Burke, on the other hand, took the other course, developing the dramatistic conception of synecdoche (representative anecdote) as conceptual pivot (583).

This development—argument through synecdoche—is not an either/or proposition: “Burke is telling us that we progress not only via enthymemes (logical proposition), but also, importantly, via synecdoches (representative anecdotes)….Humans live not by enthymemes (theses, topic sentences) alone” (582, emphasis mine). Aristotle is not negated, merely supplemented.

Aristotle did address both the deductive argument (based on the enthymeme) and the inductive argument (based on the example), Winterowd reminds us, but Burke’s conception of argument by example differs significantly from Aristotle’s. An example in Aristotle’s paradigm is one of two samples that are classified under a particular genus. For Burke, dramatism as representative anecdote involves synecdoches, i.e., reasoning from part to whole, which Aristotle specifically rejected (587).

Both Aristotelian and Burkean arguments point to an overarching idea or point—the deductive to the enthymeme and the representative anecdote to “the terminological structure that is evolved in conformity with it.” Thankfully Winterowd provides his reader with a translation: this can also be called the “paradigm” or “prototype” (587). Winterowd provides research that demonstrates that readers seek enthymematic generalities (Kintsch and van Dijk, 584), which would seem to disadvantage Burke’s dramatism, but as Winterowd quips, “The great disadvantage of the representative anecdote is that it does not lead readily to the closure of an enthymeme. Its great advantage is that is does not force such closure” (588).

Winterowd suggests four implications for this understanding of appositional style, a term borrowed from hemispheric specialization research by Joseph Bogen (586). I’ll briefly discuss two. He suggests that high school and college writing teachers should respect the appositional styles of the students who prefer this means of expression, which, while a laudatory pedagogical goal, as Ron pointed out, may be more practical in the humanities than in technical disciplines. His second implication, though, I felt was of use to students in many disciplines—Winterowd says that the representative anecdote “is marvelously heuristic,” a way to “build an understanding of the world.” Whether the final product is presented in an enthematic or dramatistic manner, using the representative anecdote could provide students with an effective means of generating content, and one that uses a way of thinking that some students may find more natural.