Composition Pedagogy

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Quick Takes

  • I'd intended to do something for Blog Against Racism Day, but I ended up being too busy yesterday. A day late, I would at least like to point to a couple of posts about low expectations and race: one at Girl Genius and one at Girl-Mom. Go read them now.
  • It has now been about four weeks since I last shopped at Target. I need some toiletries, though, and today I looked to see if there were any stores that have a birth-control-and-Plan-B-friendly policy. Turns out that Planned Parenthood has this handy chart. CVS and K-mart, here I come (actually CVS because they mailed me some coupons). I guess some people already saw the list, but it's new to me.
  • Tina Turner was honored by the Kennedy Center for "lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts." When I saw that story, I thought of What's Love Got to Do with It. I saw that movie in the theater -- I must have been in my late teens -- and I was So Moved by it that I sat down and wrote Tina Turner this multi-page letter. I got a postcard from her fan club.
  • I smiled when I saw this post at Mike's, and I thought of it when I saw a student as I walked into the building to my office today. He was walking in the opposite direction, and as he walked, he was reading comments he'd received on a paper. It was subtle, but he looked up from the paper and was beaming. It was so clear that he was proud of his work and thrilled that the teacher had praised it. I was immensely happy for him. I don't think he saw me, but I'm glad I saw him. And the music swells... "This moment brought to you by Sylvan Learning Center." No, seriously: Seeing him got me excited about being able to teach again in the fall, wherever it may be.

Humor in the Technical Communication Classroom

When I teach technical communication, I try not to make it too dry and "how to" oriented. We cover "how to," of course, but I like to bring in interesting and current cases that illustrate how the kinds of documents we write in class actually work in the world. Last time I taught tech comm, I pointed to the torture memos to show the function of a memo, the importance of primary and secondary audience awareness, and the ways that memos can be circulated and used. When we discussed research reports, I brought in the Gap, Inc. Social Responsibility Report. I used it to talk about how authors of reports address a rhetorical context and situation -- in this case, accusations that the corporation uses sweatshop labor -- and establish an ethos. For the Gap report, we also talk about their use of images and colors to neutralize their opposition.

I also bring plenty of humor into the discussion. I've long used the Dilbert Performance Review Generator and the Mission Statement Generator as a point of entry into talking about discursive practices in organizational and professional settings. For example, the start page of the Performance Review Generator says:

You have to review the performance of a co-worker who exhibits the intelligence of a slug, but since today's incompetent co-worker could become tomorrow's incompetent boss, you don't want to say anything offensive. Do you lie?

Solve the problem with Catbert's Performance Review Generator! Its vague sentences can be interpreted as praise by your dimwitted co-worker, but you'll know that "you would be lucky to get him to work for you" means he never works.

I bring in the laptop and attach it to the LCD projector, and we have a good bit of fun as I enter students' names into the Performance Review Generator and read them aloud. Then we talk about what the performance reviews reveal in terms of communication styles in organizational and professional settings, e.g. the indirectness and tact spoofed to great effect in Office Space:

Performance Appraisal for Ms. Ratliff:

Ms. Ratliff is not afraid to ask questions that check the assumptions of others. Ms. Ratliff makes decisions with minimal direction. A reevaluation of her salary is long overdue and the possibility of hiring more employees like her should be discussed immediately. It is apparent that she sets a compelling example for the younger employees. For completeness I should mention that Ms. Ratliff shows an interest in related tasks not assigned to her.

* In Strict Confidence *

For the Mission Statement Generator, I like to direct students' attention to the word banks. We look at each group of words and use them as a starting point to discuss the values that are privileged in American culture and the economy (though I know there no singular, monolithic "U.S. economy," to be sure):

quickly, proactively, efficiently, assertively, interactively, professionally, authoritatively, conveniently, completely, continually, dramatically, enthusiastically, collaboratively, synergistically, seamlessly, competently, globally

maintain, supply, provide access to, disseminate, network, create, engineer, integrate, leverage other's, leverage existing, coordinate, administrate, initiate, facilitate, promote, restore, fashion, revolutionize, build, enhance, simplify, pursue, utilize, foster, customize, negotiate

professional, timely, effective, unique, cost effective, virtual, scalable, economically sound, inexpensive, value-added, business, quality, diverse, high-quality, competitive, excellent, innovative, corporate, high standards in, world-class, error-free, performance based, multimedia based, market-driven, cutting edge, high-payoff, low-risk high-yield, long-term high-impact, prospective, progressive, ethical, enterprise-wide, principle-centered, mission-critical, parallel, interdependent, emerging, seven-habits-conforming, resource-leveling

content, paradigms, data, opportunities, information, services, materials, technology, benefits, solutions, infrastructures, products, deliverables, catalysts for change, resources, methods of empowerment, sources, leadership skills, meta-services, intellectual capital

What I'd like to start doing, though, is using some of those hilarious letters by Joey Comeau. They're brilliantly ridiculous lampoons of the bravura and hyperconfidence one is expected to demonstrate in cover letters and the innovative and groundbreaking plans and ideas one is expected to have. My favorites are the application for the position of Systems Analyst in the Transplantation Services Department of Queen Elizabeth Hospital*, Salesperson for Toyota**, and the best of all, a letter applying for a position at Microsoft addressed directly to Bill Gates:

I want to start a program down there at Microsoft, where every week five hundred random employees are selected to spend ten thousand dollars of your money each, on making the world more perfect. I want to approve budget increase of fifty thousand dollars for the janitor's idea to build a chess computer that loses every game and hates you for it. A computer that is the worst kind of poor loser.

I want to put satellites into orbit that do nothing but make life better for children, that broadcast an unending documentary we finance where we interview old women and ten year olds about their best friends, where we talk to the CEOs of fortune 500 companies and Tom Cruise and they tell us about that summer by the lake. I want to save the world. Money is so awesome.

Do any of you do anything like this when you teach tech comm? I'd love to hear about it.

Also, I'm down in Alabama for the Thanksgiving holiday, where I'm going to try to participate in Buy Nothing Day. Blogging may be light for the next week.

*(update) This letter also does a fine job of making fun of the Deep Passion for the job that an applicant is supposed to express.

** On second thought, I wouldn't use this one (see the antepenultimate paragraph).

Carnivals and Academy 2.0

I'm liking this Academy 2.0 idea a lot. I agree with Collin and Alex that more mashed-up, collaborative, networked, open source-style public peer production is going on every day. Collin already mentioned the Teaching Carnivals, but I want to go a little further with the whole idea of carnivals. A carnival, in case you hadn't heard this term before, is a collaborative effort to harness good, recent posts on a specific topic. For science, there's Tangled Bank, then there's the History Carnival, the Asian History Carnival, Carnivalesque for early modern history, the Philosopher's Carnival, the Skeptics' Circle, and the Carnival of Bad History. Each carnival consists of a list of links to posts that meet the criteria for the carnival. Usually the person who hosts the carnival provides a one-sentence description of the post.

What are these, if not distributed scholarly journals? It's true that they don't have length requirements and that they're not refereed...well, they're not refereed in the traditional sense of gatekeeping. The posts are still reviewed and commented upon, but in the comments sections of the blogs or on other blogs. Point is, carnivals are clearly intended to be scholarship, however informal, and their resemblance to scholarly journals should be noted. For example, here's one I'm excited about that's taking the resemblance to a new level: the newest Feminist Carnival, which is doing a special issue on 1970s feminist thought. From Sour Duck's Call for Submissions (sound familiar?):

Yes, there's a theme: 1970s feminist thought. However, this won't be a nostalgic look at "second-wave feminism". Oh no. I'm looking for pieces that engage with the themes and ideas of 1970s feminism, while applying them to current events, or looking to the future.

You might say it's a "1970s into 2000" Feminist Carnival issue.

Examples of topics to consider:

  • women and men in the workplace (e.g., creating an even playing field, and equal pay for equal work)

  • reproductive freedom (with the advent of "the pill") & sexual liberation ("sex is fun!")

  • healthcare reform (1970s feminists took on the medical establishment and effected significant change. What else needs to be changed? Can 1970s tactics prove effective again?)

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By the way, don't forget the next Teaching Carnival at Scrivenings. The 1970s into 2000 Feminist Carnival issue will appear on November 16, which is right around the time Scrivener will be posting the new Teaching Carnival.

Hesse "Persuading as Storytelling"

The following is a series of quotations from Douglas Hesse's article, "Persuading as storying: Essays, narrative rhetoric and the college writing course." (In Richard Andrews, ed. Narrative and Argument (pp. 106-117). Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1989.) Yes, that's 1989, and I'll admit, I hadn't happened upon it until just recently. But remember that commercial NBC used one summer to advertise their reruns? "If you haven't seen it's new to you!" I don't have much to add, except that I hadn't thought about narrative and argument in such a closely aligned way before. I'm seeing some similarities to Burke's theory of form from "Psychology and Form" in Counter-Statement. But mostly I'm just impressed with the way Hesse so lucidly sets forth the debates about narrative's place in composition pedagogy. I'm curious to see what the rest of you think about it. Now for the quotations; the remainder of this post consists of Hesse's words only.

"my argument does not rest on narrative as 'an easier, first mode' for young writers. It does not rest on narrative as the best means for developing 'voice.' It does not rest on narrative as the best way to teach students the importance of detail. It does not rest on narrative as a way to introduce the concept of 'thesis' through an Aesop's-Fables-like attachment of meaning to experience. Instead, my argument for narrative rests on its function as a powerful persuasive strategy, one which derives force not from hierarchical logic but from the emplotment of propositions. To put this another way, I suggest shifting our attention from narrative as a type of proof to narrative as a form of argument. To put it a third way, I argue that the best classical account of the persuasive effect of narrative in non-fictional texts is not Aristotle's Rhetorica but his De Poetica, especially the Poetics as read by Paul Ricoeur. (p. 106)

"In the ongoing pedagogical battles between teaching experiential writing and teaching expository/rhetorical writing, champions of the latter make two main arguments. The first, an economic one, assumes the scarcity of personal narrative both in other academic settings and in that golden 'real world' of work after college. Storytelling is dismissed as a largely belletristic exercise that deprives students of writing more apparently susceptible to financial reward. The second, more serious challenge, comes from a different quarter. This charge is that overemphasizing narrative inhibits intellectual growth because it privileges a simplistic mode of cognition. Narrative is 'natural' or 'unavoidable,' the argument begins. Because we narrate all of the time yet we do not naturally construct systematic analyses and syntheses of written texts, the latter activities are more significant to college writing curricula. This argument lies beyond economics, its justification the loftier one of cognitive development. [. . .] Combined, these two arguments pose a serious challenge. If classroom narratives appear to bear no resemblance to real world writing (which often means writing directly susceptible to financial reward), and if writing them appears to contribute little to developing real world skills, what place do they have in writing classes, especially when aesthetic or personal growth rationales are out of favour? (p. 107)

"narrative does not equal autobiography"

I have reviewed the conventional wisdom regarding proof through storytelling. It boils down to two tenets: first, that the highest virtue a story in an expository writing class has is to recreate reality so faithfully that readers feel like 'they were there'; second, that when readers assign a meaning to experience faithfully told, that meaning should be stated or statable as a thesis -- that the story proves the thesis. (p. 108)

"essays with stories" -- story serves to prove or illustrate a point
"stories as essays" -- narration of events (Orwell "A Hanging")
"essays as stories" --
"(Note the distinction I'm making between stories as essays and essays as stories; the latter do not strictly consist of reported events of 'things that happened' in 'the real world', the relation of experience, for example. Rather, such essays are story-like in their form; they present propositions and report and exposition in a narrative form, this 'causing' that, so that the entire essay has the shape and, as I'll argue later, the persuasive force of story.)" (p. 109)

"to the extent that essays are emplotted they persuade by appealing to their readers' sense of well-formedness, both in their familiarity with stories, nurtured by their desire for concordance." (p. 112)

"Instead of action consisting of 'physical events as they happen in the world' -- in other words, what composition textbooks mean by 'narrative' as opposed to 'non-narrative' parts of essays -- action might be seen instead as movement and narrative as the creation of plot. We would do well, then, to consider the sense in which essays can be viewed as being emplotted, their propositions as events in the essay as story. When Orwell asserts, 'When the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys', he gives it a place in the essay as story. The stating of the proposition is an event caused, as it were, by prior events." (p. 113)

Coherence depends on the entailment of assertions, an orderly movement of mind reflected in a sequential interconnection of statements; readers perceive coherence when they perceive the force of a work's entailments (Knoblauch and Brannon 1984, pp. 70-2). An author, therefore, who is able to present something well-formed persuades largely by allowing the reader easily to perceive form. The power arcs between ethical appeal ('Here is someone who is able to form well, so what he says must be true') and the creation of something where there was nothing: 'Here is a constellation. Without a competing version, why should I doubt its existence?' Given the apparent primacy of narrative and story, what more compelling way to reveal form?" (p. 113)

"The power of narrative in essays comes from assertions offered in a shape that is attractive because it is so familiar. 'Story' is a form of narrative argument in the way that 'syllogism' is of logical."

"Argument by narrative draws its power from the reader's involvement in configuring a text."
"Encouraging narrativity in readers involves them in the enterprise of the essay. The result is a rhetorical advantage similar to the one that accrues with such strategies as 'showing, not telling.' Inviting, even forcing, the reader to construct a sense of order in the text makes him or her complicit with the writer. Power comes to writers when they give essays the shape of story because of a fundamental disposition we have toward stories. The rhetorical value of stories, then, is participatory, not logical." (p. 114)

"Writing teachers need to recognize the limitations of textbook depictions of narrative. In particular, we need to recognize that stressing the attachment of 'points' to stories neglects how a narrative may function less as a chunk of evidence than as a form of argument. We should discuss with students how stories can be used not only as bits of proof but also as means of transport, ways of getting readers from place to place, from idea to idea in essays." (p. 116)

Talking points in the teaching of composition

In revising my teaching philosophy statement, I've been trying to parse out what's most important to me in my teaching. I won't be able to talk about all of these in the 1-2 page teaching philosophy statement I send out for my job applications, but I can here, just in time for the new teaching carnival. In no particular order:

Audience, rhetorical context, and kairos. In a lot of ways, I'm very much a basic paideia person, trying to produce students who take an interest in civic rhetoric and think and argue as socially responsible citizens (however the students define that term). The classes I teach (the classes in my department, I mean) are intended to be "writing in your major"-oriented, and I encourage students to avoid hackneyed, overexposed, polarized topics and seek out topics in their majors that are new and preferably local, to intervene at a point when the audience's opinions on the topic are still in a state of formation. I try to cut down on, to use Maxine Hairston's apt term, "cheerleader papers" with theses like, "Drinking and driving is dangerous" or "Teens with eating disorders need to seek help." Also, blogging and peer review really help drive home what I stress in class about being sensitive to the audience and accommodating the audience by addressing opposing views.

Genre. This is a tough one. I can appreciate the need for students to learn about, as Mike has put it, the "intellectual antecedents" of various kinds of texts, especially when the objective is to teach students "academic discourse," whatever that is. From Peter Knapp's article "Disembodied Voices: The Problem of Context and Form in Theories of Genre," pp. 290-291:

Genres are ways of using language; they should not be reduced to simply semiotic systems or codes but also need to be understood as a means of deploying language that are acted as much as they are represented, which is particularly important from a pedagogical perspective. [. . .] Results consistently demonstrate that at all levels of writing competence, students benefit from an understanding of written genres -- writing tasks range from factual texts such as information reports and instructions to creative tasks such as introductions to a narrative and literary descriptions. The fears of a genre-based pedagogy producing uniform, robotic writing have been unfounded, and if anything the opposite is being demonstrated. Competent writers are able to demonstrate an ability and enthusiasm to use generic structures and forms creatively and to great effect. Less competent writers use the boundaries and scaffolds provided by generic forms to write texts that fulfill the demands of the writing task. Without such structures these writers often struggle to know where to start.

I'll admit, I've had those fears Knapp describes. Proficiency in specific genres can come in very handy, but it's hard sometimes, at least for me, to drum up motivation and interest in mastering generic conventions. Putting a lot of emphasis on genre can, in my experience, result in a slump in motivation -- writing done for a grade. The key, I think, is to keep genre in perspective, to balance genre-heavy assignments with others that allow for more experimentation. Which leads me to my next one...

Innovation, experimentation, and creativity. Lillian Bridwell-Bowles has influenced me greatly in this area, and I'm hoping to be able to do a lot more of this in the future. In fact, I'm full of ideas. In Bridwell-Bowles' article "Discourse and Diversity: Experimental Writing Within the Academy," she describes a student who writes an essay that consists of nothing but questions: fifty-eight of them. Another takes quotations from a sampling of feminist theorists and makes a Platonic dialogue type of discussion out of them. Others experiment with interspersing academic and personal voices, like Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary.

While it's important to know how to write a literature review, an abstract, and a research paper, other kinds of texts can have a lot more explanatory and persuasive power. And they can be more FUN to write! Shouldn't writing be fun sometimes? Think about stuff like Celebrity vs. Thing, or all the aphoristic pieces on the web, like The White Privilege Checklist and the many derivative works inspired by it, like The Male Privilege Checklist, The Average-Sized Privilege Checklist, and The Straight Privilege Checklist. Then there's the brilliant post-Katrina piece Being Poor, which shows the participatory, collaborative potential of these aphoristic pieces. Not that I'm trying to say this style is new; I know aphoristic and epigrammatic essays have a pretty rich tradition.

Imagination, affect, and the personal. This one's closely tied to creativity and experimentation, obviously. These qualities have to be there in a writing course; it's essential for so many reasons: building a learning community, establishing trust between teacher and student, keeping morale and engagement up, not to mention the feminist arguments against the exclusion of the personal from academic writing. Blogging is the way I integrate these into my classes the most; I've written before about keeping the weblog as open and unregulated a space as possible, allowing for plenty of free-form, personal writing.

Authorship, intellectual property, and plagiarism. Yawn. That's on every syllabus of every writing course there is. What I want to do in future writing courses is to talk about authorship in a far more sophisticated way, bringing in everyday acts of "plagiarism" like remixing and writing action letters to congressional representatives. I'm also interested in exploring plagiarism thoughtfully in terms of ethics (see the parking tickets section here).

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"Big Brother, give us back our MERCUROCHROME!"

Apropos of Shannon's recent owie, I googled the stuff my dad always reached for when I had a boo-boo: Mercurochrome. Right up there with tobacco'n'spit in the first aid kit. The simple word "mercurochrome" evokes images of toxic waste, yet it was often applied with that little wand right on my open cuts and scrapes. That there's this mini-movement to bring it back amuses me.

But isn't it harmful?

Oh, and the "most toxic element" comment is a scare-tactic also.... The key to that comment is the word element. There's millions of more toxic compounds than Hg (shoot a hornet's nest with mercury and then with Hotshot (tm) Wasp and Hornet spray and then tell me which you think is more toxic). And one other thing about the "toxic element" BS, you will die from a smaller dose of arsenic (you know, the toxic element in apple seeds) quicker than if you sucked 20 thermometers dry!

I know I say this about a lot of things, but you could talk about this in a first-year composition class.

Enthymematic reasoning, Aqua Teen style

Turkitron: Is that a taco pie?
Meatwad: Mmm-hmmm.
Turkitron: Taco pie?!
Meatwad: I added food coloring cause it's a holiday, but it turned black because I added all the food coloring I had, and I ate this butter straight out of the tub, cause it tastes good. There's a reason behind everything.

From The Dressing. You can actually listen to this snippet (.mp3) at Aqua Teen Adventures; I highly recommend it.

Dissertation: Literature Review

Now for my concept map that represents my literature review. This is how it's shaping up, and hopefully I won't have to add too much to it (I'm fine with taking stuff out). I've been struggling with it and getting contradictory advice, which I've come to understand is common, and which boils down to one question: Is it preferable, in a dissertation, to enter a specific conversation in one field of study, or to get a broader sampling of books and articles representing multiple disciplinary perspectives on your general topic/object of study, even though you run the risk of overlooking some important work? I'm hoping to be able to do the former, as you can see on the concept map. I want this thing to be wieldy. (This image links to a larger one.)

Literature Review for Dissertation

But if there are problems, I need to know, and I'm always grateful for feedback, so please leave it here or email me.

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