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.

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.

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.

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.

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.