Reflective Essay

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Reading the newspaper will never be the same.

I can’t just read an article about worsening smog levels in California. No, I look at the headline “Bad Air on the Rise” and I consider what sort of delegated efficacy this pun on the Creedence song carries. Drought and climate change are a factor in these rising smog levels, the reporter claims, and I wonder—what kind of terministic screen will he use to frame the narrative?

Moving on to an article about changing attitudes of Catholic leaders in the L.A. archdiocese towards gays, I quickly search the article for the underlying metaphors that might signal signs of change. Is this evidence of a new discursive formation emerging here, with marginalized voices being heard?

As I read the account of the veteran who recently returned home from Afghanistan only to be killed by another young man with a gun, I reflect on the questions his family and friends posed about motivation and purpose. What sort of an interpretation of act, scene, agent can make sense?

Even what should be an innocuous restaurant review gets me thinking. As the décor and ambiance of this trendy downtown hot spot are described, I think about visual rhetoric and the rhetoric of architecture.

Aristotelean rhetoric is prominent in this article, and that one makes me think of Perelman. And that would be an interesting article to discuss with a first-year composition class…

I can’t help myself.

The following is a short account of how this happened to me.

Composition Theory (Winter 2013)

Beginning my graduate-level rhetoric and composition courses with Composition Theory (I had taken 355 the previous quarter) was like moving to a foreign country. I didn’t speak the language of the natives. I think I was the only student who was learning this new language; everyone else was conversant in the language of rhetoric and had all the cultural background knowledge as well. I needed comprehensible input, but very little made sense. It was like I was the outsider to a crazy rhetoric joke that I didn’t get. It was very disorienting. A mention of Lacan, or Peter Elbow, or that oft-repeated word subjectivity, and everyone (but me) was nodding. So, composition is an art, or a craft, or a gift, or a knack? Is this some sort of a rhet/comp multiple choice quiz? And what? The modes are not good? Everyone seemed so sure of it, but that was how I had been taught to write in College Composition in 1981. How could my teacher, an instructor who was absolutely adored (and rightly so; he was a remarkable man) have been wrong? We had read models of exposition, description, narration, and argumentation and then made our attempts to emulate the examples of great writers. However, as I started to think back on that experience in light of this new perspective, I recognized that some of my difficulties—I’m supposed to be writing a description…can I tell a story too? Is that allowed?— were related to inherent flaws in the modes.

Gradually I started to understand a few of the words these foreigners used. Some of the concepts were similar enough to those from my familiar high school English teacher discourse community that I was better able to transfer them into my interlanguage. Dr. Edlund’s overview of different ways to mark papers, especially his balanced marking approach, stuck with me, as did Patrick Hartwell’s “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.” (Although my inner prescriptivist initially didn’t want to accept the idea of eliminating the teaching of grammar, I was consoled that the best part, stylistic grammar, was still deemed relevant.) I would later employ the idea of using the representative anecdote in the spirit of Burke, as described by Ross Winterowd in “Dramatism in Themes and Poems,” in my ENG 104 course when my students wrote literacy narratives and used the representative anecdote as basis for an argument.

And even if I didn’t fully understand them at the time, some other new ideas introduced to me in this language of rhetoric immersion experience called Composition Theory would prove to have a lasting impact on my thinking:

These would prove to be recurrent themes over the next two years.

In fact, one theme, that of teaching for transfer, quickly broke dormancy and became the focus of my seminar paper. In researching this paper I read “Disciplinarity and Transference: Student’s Perceptions of Learning to Write”  by Linda Bergmann and Janet Zepernick, an article that to me made a compelling argument as to why students have difficulty transferring what they learn in first-year composition courses and which influenced my pedagogy when I taught ENG 104. I also read Anne Beaufort’s College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction, a book whose ideas about teaching for transfer have profoundly informed my pedagogy.

Teaching Freshman Composition (Spring 2013)

My affective filter was much lower for the next course I took in the graduate program. This was the course I had been waiting for. The assignments were geared toward preparing me for what I wanted to do: teach writing at the college level. I found the opportunity to observe an ENG 104 class to be invaluable, and the midterm assignment of outlining a first-year composition course would prove to be beneficial as I planned my ENG 104 course.

The texts were all, in various ways, enlightening and useful resources. Two, however, stand out: Joseph Harris’ A Teaching Subject for its integration of theory, history, and themes presented with the voice of a classroom teacher; and John Bean’s Engaging Ideas for its comprehensive scope and practical approach. I don’t think that I would have been nearly as effective as a teaching associate without these books. I actually used Harris’ chapter “Community” with my 104 students to help them envision the role that I hoped discussion of potentially controversial issues would play in the course, an approach that was distinct from Berlin’s. And Bean’s book was my go-to resource for everything from how to encourage critical thinking to how to make an effective rubric. I adopted his “thinking pieces” for my 104 course, and I credit the concept of backward mapping in curriculum design that he so clearly explained for a good deal of the success my 104 students were able to have with their researched papers.

It was also in this course that I was introduced to Writing about Writing, an idea that, although I haven’t incorporated it into a course, continues to intrigue me. This approach seems to answer the concerns raised by Bergmann and Zepernick; if only I could find enough texts that I think are appropriate for use with college freshmen.

The paper that I wrote for this course, Visual Rhetoric in First-Year Composition: Looking Forward to Writing in the Disciplines integrated two of the themes that I identified earlier— transfer and visual rhetoric—and spurred my decision to use a blog to present my portfolio. If visual rhetoric is important to incorporate into first-year composition courses, then I wanted to challenge myself to learn about some of these newer, more visually-oriented genres.

Special Topics: Writing Across the Curriculum, Writing in the Disciplines, and Transfer (Spring 2013)

I knew I was becoming more comfortable with this new language when I chose to take a class that wasn’t technically required. Understanding the broader picture of writing within the disciplines and in the workplace had a monumental influence on how I would design my ENG 104 course. I left the course with a clearer understanding of my mission as a college writing instructor—it was not to prepare students to produce some abstract archetypal “good writing” or to be English majors; it was to teach them how to learn to write in varied contexts. Much of what I learned came from completing the term project, one that in my mind epitomized an effective graduate project; it was “real” research and “real” writing—a real attempt to overcome the pseudotransactionality that characterizes many writing assignments.

I was even able to adapt many of the concepts I learned in this class to use directly with my students. One idea was that I needed to make sure that I was using “writing to learn” rather than “writing to assess.” A second concept resulted directly in a lesson plan. For my students the idea that thinking and writing are distinct to each discipline, that there is not one standard for “good writing,” was a revelation. I incorporated this idea into one of my classes, having each student write a sentence or phrase on the board that answered the question, “What makes writing good?” We discussed each idea in an affirmative way, and then I, in my best Dr. Kraemer imitation, gave my answer: “It depends.” I revisited each of the students’ responses, problematizing them with observations such as, “This is a great way of thinking of what makes academic writing good, but what if you’re writing for…” I felt that my students really started to understand concepts of genre and discourse community and purpose better after that exercise.

At the time that I took this course I was working at Claremont Graduate University where I was involved in several collaborative workplace writing projects. What I previously would have considered another day at the office became the scene for genre theory, activity theory, and situated learning. The ideas of Bakhtin, and Berkenkotter and Huckin, and Freedman and Adam, and Spinuzzi, and Blakeslee all came to life there in Stauffer Hall at CGU.

Teaching Associate Practicum Fall 2013—Spring 2014

Being a Teaching Associate was the pinnacle of my graduate experience. I considered my being selected for this opportunity as an affirmation. The experience stretched me and made the courses I was taking that much more relevant and applicable. I could write much more about being a TA, but really, most everything before and after this is about this defining experience.

Pedagogies of Reading Fall 2013

Because teaching writing is so closely linked to teaching reading, the Pedagogies of Reading course had a significant influence on my pedagogy. Every book from this class (yes, even Analyzing Everyday Texts) will stay on my professional bookshelf; I refer to them all the time. John Bean’s Reading Rhetorically has been an invaluable resource. (I think I should just leave my comment at that so I don’t spend the rest of this essay demonstrating how influential his books have been.)  James Paul Gee’s Social Linguistics and Literacies gave me a better foundation to help my students understand the Discourses they are a part of, as well as, more importantly, helped me to see my role as a writing instructor through a wide-angle lens that shows the social implications that are inherent in teaching literacy practices. And even though literature is not the focus of a college writing course, Louise Rosenblatt’s The Reader, The Text, and The Poem and Sheridan Blau’s The Literature Workshop have shaped how I choose texts to examine and use as models and how to discuss and interpret them in class. Just because a text that I assign for rhetorical analysis may be classified as “non-fiction” doesn’t mean that it should only be read efferently; I want to choose texts that students can read aesthetically also. As Rosenblatt points out in her epilogue “Against Dualisms,” the efferent/aesthetic distinction is actually a continuum. Similarly, even though I might be using different kinds of texts than Blau demonstrates, I’ve found that the way he structures his literature workshops can be effectively adapted to a classroom that is more focused on analysis of rhetorical texts. And perhaps the most significant idea that I took away from that book is that students should be working at least as hard as the professor to understand the text.

But the books were not the only significant texts. Michael Bunn’s article “Motivation and Connection: Teaching Reading (and Writing) in the Composition Classroom,” with his admonition to “read like a writer” prompted me to intentionally model this practice in my classroom, and with transformative results. (You can read more about that here.) I also mined Ian Wilkinson and Eun Hye Son’s meta-analysis “A Dialogic Turn in Research on Learning and Teaching to Comprehend” for ideas about how to lead discussion effectively, and my plan is in the near future to delve into some of the articles that they summarize.

Even though I made the ERWC unit unnecessarily complicated (is anyone surprised?), it was such a worthwhile project. I ended up using it for my ENG 105 course, and having every detail planned out made it immensely successful.

History of Rhetoric (Winter 2014)

Even though I came to History of Rhetoric with some knowledge of classical rhetoric, that doesn’t mean that I learned less. Even though this is one of the “theoretical” courses, I found that I came away with a lot of pedagogical ideas. The paper I wrote for this class, a practical and theoretical synthesis about the concept of invention, was of immediate benefit for my pedagogy. Because I was able to directly compare the effects of two approaches to teaching invention, I received immediate feedback as to which was more effective. (Classical won out over expressive.)

Every week we discussed a new facet that influenced my pedagogy. Dissoi logoi became routine. Quintilian made me think about how we teach the pre-writing stage. I toyed with the idea of having students write dialogues as an inventional strategy for argumentation because of something Dr. Edlund mentioned (but I haven’t done it yet.) Plato’s wisdom—teach what you know—helped me plan my ENG 105 course, and the topoi (and D’Angelo’s article) gave me analogy for the writing process. I even got an idea of how to teach Toulmin to my ENG 105 class. (I think we were reading the Hillocks article to examine his logically tortured distinction between persuasion and argumentation, but at least I came away with a lesson plan, which by the way was very effective.) Probably the highlight of this class was the group project that we did in lieu of a final in which we each adopted the persona of a rhetor and planned a panel discussion that synthesized each rhetor’s views about the book Roman Blood. That’s definitely an approach that I’ll store in the back of my mind for possible use in the future.

Modern Rhetoric (Spring 2014)

Of all these courses, I feel that it’s most difficult for me to assess the impact of Modern Rhetoric. Being the most recent, the ideas that I was exposed to have had the least time to develop. And being the subject being arguably the most, shall we say, esoteric, I’m still processing all that I learned.

But perhaps the influence of Modern Rhetoric on my thinking can best be explained by narrating a short experience. Before I started this master’s program, I was working a temporary position at a selective college. One of my regular tasks was to design and produce materials to promote special speakers who were scheduled to appear on campus. Sohrab Mohebbi, the next scheduled speaker, emailed me the information about the talk he was going to give about the Arab Spring and visual parrhesia. I dutifully designed the flyer from the text he provided, but inwardly I was full of consternation.

What did this mean? Who was this Michel Foucault and what did he mean by “visual parrhesia?” I googled it, but although I could obviously understand the words, I lacked the background to comprehend the ideas. It dismayed me that I was shut out of this conversation.  (I did receive some small consolation when I discovered that when I asked about Foucault, most of the professors in the departments struggled to explain his ideas. They could discuss Malinowski and Durkheim and Levi-Strauss, but Foucault, not so much.) But having taken Modern Rhetoric, I now have the tools to understand much of the modern conversation that was unintelligible to me. To return to the second language acquisition analogy, these ideas of Modern Rhetoric are at least at the level of comprehensible input now. And that makes me satisfied. And it makes me look forward to reading books that I would have not understood before.

Composition Theory  again (Fall 2014)

One of the best decisions that I’ve made was to audit Composition Theory this quarter. Although I haven’t been able to come to class nearly as often as I’d planned, just rereading the books (or reading the new ones) has made me feel exhilarated. Maybe that seems a tad hyperbolic, but I think not. I’m delighted to understand the books and ideas that previously were enigmatic. I look back and can clearly see how far I’ve come. I certainly won’t stop learning, but I’m satisfied with where I am.

Concluding Observations

As I’ve reflected on my experience in the master’s program, I’ve wondered which course (in an ideal world) should all students take first. I experienced a lot of difficulty taking Composition Theory first. Would there be a better starting point? Perhaps, although every class presents its own challenges, its own requisite knowledge, and I guess students just need to jump into the deep end.

I would suggest, however, that a course comparable to ENG 500 (Introduction to Graduate Research/Literature) or ENG 521 (Introduction to TESL Research) would be valuable. Introduction to Rhetoric (355) is an entirely worthwhile course that should be retained, but since it’s an undergraduate level course there is only so much that can be required. I’d like to see (and again, this is in a perfect world) a graduate course with an intensity comparable to 500 and 521, with more emphasis on the nuts and bolts of graduate-level research and writing. After taking both the literature and TESL intro courses, I came away equipped to write a journal article in those disciplines, but I don’t feel comparably ready in the area of rhetoric. Additionally, in TESL (I don’t know about literature) students are encouraged, and in some cases required, to attend conferences and submit papers, but I feel that emphasis is lacking in the rhet/comp program. I’m hesitant to even suggest these changes because I fully understand that the program is stretched thin, so I wonder if perhaps a graduate student council, with just a little faculty oversight and advice, could increase the professionalization of the program by making students aware of opportunities that they should be taking advantage of. And one issue that this group might want to pursue would be securing a procedure for getting standing IRB approval for seminar projects. (But that’s a whole other story.)

Many things that I’ve learned cannot be traced to a single course. I’ve been greatly influenced in my pedagogy by practices that I’ve merely observed over the past two years. I’ve seen how much more learning can be accomplished by applying concepts to interesting texts rather than discussing topics in the abstract. Reading “For the Love of Money” to relate to the Gorgias and analyzing “The Lie Factory” using classical rhetorical concepts are just two of many examples. And I will feel that I have truly become a teacher if I can learn to listen to students as Dr. Kraemer does and to respond to student writing with the same depth and insight.

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