English 101; or, The Rhetoric of Attention

A famous and memorable scene from toward the end of The Wizard of Oz. As far as I recall, it is my earliest memory of watching a film. I recall great relief when the curtain is opened and we see a man, just a man, behind the curtain–nothing scary. There is an analogy to be pursued, I will argue this semester, with learning about writing and critical thinking–in particular, the kind of writing and thinking we do as academics.

Writing is also a kind of machine and invention (and film is yet another writing machine, as we will explore later in the term). Rhetoric is an art or technology (in the Greek sense, techne) of creating impressive image and sound and persuasion (think of the great and powerful Oz); but it is learned by focusing on what goes on behind the curtain, on getting better at knowing the tools to use and the levers to pull. So, we are going to pay more attention to the man and woman–and the moves, the rhetoric, the logic, the grammar–behind the curtain of the reading and writing we will be doing throughout the course. Moreover, in focusing more deliberately on the rhetorical effects of what and how we read and write–a key element of academic thinking, you will understand by the end of the course–we will give our attention through the Writing Projects and the course work informs them the ethos, pathos, and logos of our reading, writing, and thinking.

Here is the clip from YouTube.

In the meantime, I invite you to explore this site (Comp|Post), get a sense of the kind of work you will be doing in English 101.


Fall 2014 Student Blogs

Literature and Composition: Gutenberg Progenies

Once you have set up your blog at WordPress.com, copy the url address into a comment on this page. List your first name along with the address.

I and other students will then use this page to get to your blog in the future.


Workshop: Signals for argument

When you make an argument in writing you are participating in an ongoing conversation. One of the primary ways that conversation takes place in writing is when you quote other critics and views, bring them into your argument, and in some way work off them: come to terms, forward, counter, take an approach. Because this conversation is taking place in your writing, it is important that you clearly identify things such as: who is speaking, which part of the argument you agree with, where you would disagree. These signals are words and phrases that you can revise and edit into your essay. I adapt the following templates from the book They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein.

Introducing Quotations: X states (argues, believes, asserts), “………..”

Explaining Quotations (a way to begin your follow up): In other words, X believes…..

Signaling Agreement/Disagreement

[Disagreeing with reasons] X’s claim that  ___________ rests upon the questionable assumption that _________.

However, by focusing on ________, X overlooks the deeper problem of ___________.

[Agreeing with a difference] X’s view of ____ is useful because it sheds insight on the difficult problem of __________.

[Agreeing and Disagreeing] Although I agree with X up to a point, I cannot accept his overall conclusion that __________.

My feelings on the issue are mixed. I do support X’s position that ________, but I find Y’s argument about _________ equally persuasive.

Entertaining Objections

Of course, many will probably disagree with my assertion that _________.

Yet some readers may challenge my view that _______. Indeed, my own argument seems to ignore _________.

Yet is it always true that ________? Is it always the case, as I have been arguing, that __________?

Although I grant that _______, I still maintain that __________.

Useful Metacommentary (ways of talking more directly to your reader about your argument)

In other words, _________.

Essentially, I am arguing that _________.

My point is ________.

My conclusion, then, is that __________.

Saying why your argument matters (template for larger implications/resolution)

This argument has important consequences for the larger issue of ___________.

Although X may seem of concern to only a small group of _______, it should in fact concern anyone who cares about ________.


Logical Fallacies

We focus on counterargument for the third writing project. Recall that “countering,” as Harris terms it, doesn’t mean simply letting “the other side” have a say or merely disagreeing with an opposing view. That may be how argument on cable television (unfortunately) works these days, but it isn’t what academic argument is about. Rather, countering means locating a thread or idea or implication in another’s argument that will be useful to the development of your own argument. This oppositional or contradictory thread may be useful in locating a potential weakness of your own argument–a point that your reader might expect you to consider and possibly refute. The thread may well point to a weakness in the other’s argument that you can use to elaborate your own. In other words, you might find language in an argument that you don’t agree with but can put to work.

Given this view of countering, I have suggested that focusing on counterargument can serve as an effective revision strategy. After completing a draft that focuses on developing your argument, you can revise your argument by giving more time to the terms of another’s argument that contends or contradicts your own. One way to evaluate this other argument–and by extension, to reconsider the structure of your own–is to pay attention to its logic. Below are some common errors in logic that you might find in another’s argument (and therefore useful for countering) or may well find in your own. These errors are known as logical fallacies:

Ad hominem: At the man; attacking the person instead of his or her argument.

Ad populum: At the people; appealing to the people’s emotions, prejudices, etc.

Ad Authoritate: Appeal to authority; using a celebrity rather than expertise as authority.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc: After this, therefore, because of this; faulty cause and effect, jumping to conclusions.

Non sequitur: It does not follow; conclusion does not extend from the argument.

Circular logic: Begging the question; using a statement to prove itself.

False dilemma: Giving only two options in a situation when others may be possible.

False analogy: Argument based on incomplete comparison.

Faulty generalization: A conclusion that inappropriately makes a claim for all based on conclusions about a few.

Hidden premise: An unexpressed assumption, hidden agenda.

Reductio ad absurdum: (reduction to the absurd); argument in which a position is refuted by following its implications logically to an absurd consequence.

For a comprehensive listing, see Taxonomy of Logical Fallacies.


Workshop: Counterargument

In addition to our reading into countering in Rewriting, this page from Harvard’s writing program on some of the basics of counterargument is useful. If countering in general terms means challenging or resisting or–as Harris puts it–finding the useful limitations of a critical perspective or assumption, then counterargument is when the writer turns the countering onto his or her own perspective. It is a rhetorical move in critical writing–useful in exploring, anticipating, and answering the limitations of one’s own argument.

Here is a sample from a student in a previous class of mine.

Writing Sample/Workshop: Counterargument

[last body paragraph and conclusion]

As an avid reader myself, I can understand Birkerts’ argument and his justification as to why the changes will be bad. Humanity has lived so long without change and expression through printed text that any shift will be believed to have a negative connotation. Creativity has always been expressed through the use of print, drawing, and writing. The fear that has heightened over the last couple of years has come to the attention of readers and writers because they don’t want to lose what they make their living off doing. Decreasing amounts of people read from books anymore and download anything they need off their ipad or kindle, leaving the printed book in the wind. “The reader tends to move across surfaces, skimming, hastening from one site to the next without allowing the words to resonate inwardly,” Birkerts fears the decreased attention spans that people will establish as they do more things at one time and skim over long documents (Birkerts 72). It seems that he believes that as attention spans decrease, the amount of writing will also decrease because people won’t want to write long novels anymore because they know that no one else will want to read them. Birkerts argument isn’t unreasonable; he is from a time when reading was a major source of social and educational purpose. In today’s age, everyone is attempting to have the latest technology; it’s not about who knows the most, but about who has the most. All people can do know is to cope with the changes and learn to like them. Growing up for me was full of reading and literature, so when I say we must adapt to the changes that technology brings, I say it very cautiously. It is very difficult for human beings to deal with change, most don’t like it and when it comes to something that they make a living off of, it is so much more difficult for them to deal with its effects. Birkerts believes that technology has the control over how readers absorb information; whereas with printed text “is static—it is the reader, not the book, that moves forward” (Birkerts 122). The Museum illustrates the creativity that can go into newer types of literature; Birkerts fears these innovations because they are so different from the type imaginative thinking that he writes with. Human beings assume that anything new will drastically change the way we live; leaving a negative impact on the entire world.

The world is always changing, not only in the societal sector, but the technological sector as well. These two sectors have become intertwined; influencing each other and causing important strides in the world. The more technology seems to advance, the greater the connection between people there will be. “The pace is rapid, driven by jump-cut increments, and the basic movement is laterally associative rather than vertically cumulative,” we are living in a time of fluidity and rapidity and everything must move faster (122). Cities and towns all over the world have become very technologically advanced, because of this; the people are constantly moving and evolving. Literature through technology is just one way people find time to enjoy reading, while still being on the move. Just because the amount that people read has recently diminished, it doesn’t mean that we are losing our intelligence, it just means we are adapting with the pace of the world and still learning what we can when we have time.

For this project, counterargument is an element that needs to show up in your essay, a rhetorical element we are focusing. However, counterargument can also be useful as a composting and revising strategy, as you move from ideas, to outline, to draft, to revised draft. It gets at one of our 4 revision questions: What Else? Imagine another perspective that is out there, or a different perspective from yours, or a perspective that your emerging argument responds to (a basic need for any argument or thesis). In other words, considering counterargument can help you sharpen the focus, purpose, stake of your argument and essay. So use the counterargument exercise (what’s the opposite of my argument? who disagrees with me and why?) to go back to your thesis and refine; to draft out an introduction; to revise one or more of your body paragraphs (strengthen by further complicating); potentially, to find a different and stronger argument.

If the opposite of your initial thesis/hypothesis turns out to be stronger or more compelling than your thesis, that’s a good thing–and a good thing to know in time to revise and change your essay and argument.


Three-Act Thesis

An analogy from film for writing an argument and developing a stronger thesis…

As a way to rethink the definition of a strong thesis in academic writing, I propose we consider the structure of another genre of writing, another writing machine: film writing. In film or screenwriting, the “thesis” is known as the turning point or premise or conflict or (sometimes) the hook of the film; it is the central problem or conflict that sets the action in motion and needs to be resolved by the end, also known as the climax of the film.

Link here for more on the basics of three-act film structure.

Wizard of OZ movie poster

Wizard of OZ movie poster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The basic three-act structure of most films looks something like this [with The Wizard of Oz as a guide]:

  • Act 1: The Set Up
    • Normality (the given, normal, conventional life of the protagonist)
      • Dorothy’s bleak life in Kansas, desire to run away
    • Disturbance/Problem: something that disrupts the given/normal.
    • The tornado; knocked out; not in Kansas anymore
    • Turning point/hook (central problem plus surprise; a real but unusual conflict or problem that follows from the initial disturbance and needs to be solved or answered by the end of the film)
    • Welcome to Oz—must find the Wizard for help to get home.
    • (The resolution of this problem will be the climax of the movie)
  • Act 2: Complications
    • Further complications/problems/obstacles the protagonist faces in trying to resolve the central problem
      • All the trials along the way getting to see Wizard; getting broomstick.
    • Second Act turning point: a further or final problem that leads in to the climax
    • Wizard refuses help.
  • Act 3:   Climax and Resolution
    • Climax: the solving or answering of the central problem
      • Wizard revealed and agrees to take Dorothy in balloon; Good Witch helps her get home (no place like home.
    • Resolution: the ending of the film; the new reality/normality we are left with
    • Dorothy wakes up; implication: never left home? Will never want to leave home again.

My proposal is that a similar three-act structure can be an effective way to think about developing the narrative as well as the logic of an academic thesis. Why? Because the basis of a thesis is: the setting up of a problem (introduction); offering a surprising or unusual or unconventional way to think about that problem (thesis statement); considering complications along the way to solving the problem (supporting examples; counter-argument); the solving of the problem (conclusion as climax); larger implications—where this new way of viewing things leaves us (conclusion as resolution). I suggest that the following structure (or in rhetorical terms, heuristic) could be helpful both at the composting stage, when you are trying to develop ideas for the argument, working toward a thesis, as well as at the revision stage, after an initial draft, when you are working on refining your thesis.

One of the key lessons from film writing I want to borrow can help us with organization: everything in the film must relate to the turning point—the second act complications as well as the climax. At each stage of developing the script, the writer should be able to answer how a particular scene relates back to the turning point. It also emphasizes that strong writing not only relates to a central idea, but moves an audience through the argument, is dynamic (hence: three acts, action). Academic narratives deal with ideas, but still need action and movement to make the ideas/argument work; like a film, critical narratives need an audience engaged.

Another lesson can help us rethink the way a thesis needs to be imaginative, but not necessarily “original”—if by original we take that to mean an idea that no one else has thought or said before. In fact, a good premise or turning point in a film is not entirely new: it takes the old, the familiar, and provides a surprise, an unusual way of thinking about the old. The effect of the turning point in The Wizard of Oz is not Oz by itself, but Oz in relation to Kansas, the technicolor imagination of Oz rethinking the grey familiarity of home. This is also what we do with academic arguments: rethink conventional ways of thinking about various ideas, arguments, texts, problems.

  • Act 1: Introduction/set up
    • Given: normal or conventional view; the context of your focus; where things stand right now with the issue you are taking up
      • Frankenstein, both novel and film, has long been viewed by many in terms of the horror genre. Critics…
    • Problem: a disturbance to the conventional; some initial problems with things that perhaps have emerged more recently (other critics starting to take up); or contradiction/flaw in the conventional view that have been forgotten, neglected
    • However, as suggested by more recent films (or more recent criticism), Frankenstein for some is more in the science fiction genre and not about horror…
    • Thesis: your premise or turning point, a real but unusual or surprising way of thinking about the problem and setting out to solve it.
    • What if Frankenstein were to be viewed not in terms or horror or science but in terms of romance, something few would associate with the title? While I would agree there are important elements of both horror and science in the novel and its film adaptations, I would argue, instead, that the story is at heart a love story. Shelley’s real concern, it seems to me, is with the monstrosity of the human heart, the dangers not of science but of falling in love. In particular…
  • Act 2: Complications
    • First main example or complication directly relating to (and elaborating) the thesis/turning point
      • The danger of falling in love is perhaps first evident when…
    • Second example
    • This particular danger of love [discussed in last paragraph] becomes even more problematic when we see…
    • Second Act turning point: a further complication or even challenge for your thesis; counter-argument
    • However, there are good reasons to think of this work not as a love story; clearly there are key elements critics have rightly discussed in terms of horror and science. For example…While I don’t disagree with the sentiment (or critical point), it also seems to me that the very example she/he addresses has more to do with love than horror…
  • Act 3: Conclusion
    • Climax: how the problem of your thesis is finally solved/answered
      • The horror of science in this story is in fact made horrific by love, not the reverse. It is love that gets in the way of science and love that leads to the tragedy…
    • Resolution: where this leaves us—a reminder that a conclusion should not merely re-state what was given in the introduction; it should provide a more conclusive answer to the various complications (second act) as well as point the reader out to thinking about implications for other or related text. Thinking: what’s next?
    • Speculation on how this rethinking of Frankenstein as love story might be taken up in future film versions; or why the novel has not been traditionally viewed this way—why love has been neglected—and how it might lead to larger implications for rethinking the gothic/horror genre…

Template

You can use this to compost ideas for a draft; might also use this as a revision strategy, to re-outline your argument–test for the thesis thread–after you have a draft.

Act 1: Introduction/Set UP

Given:

Problem/Disturbance:

Thesis/Turning Point:

Act 2: Complications

Complication #1:

Complication #2, #3, etc.

Second Act Turning Point: [further complication; counter-argument]

Act 3: Conclusion

Climax: answer to question/solving of problem

Resolution: new normal—where this leaves us; larger implications


Birkerts: coda, critical application

Sven Birkerts concludes The Gutenberg Elegies by focusing on an opposition between “the solitary self” and “the collective.” For Birkerts, a true self is solitary and a true sense of self exists only in solitude; this condition of selfhood is cultivated best through the pages and linear lines of books. Birkerts sets against this condition of solitary selfhood the “condition of connectedness” that he associates with what he terms “the ever-expanding electronic web.” “They are not only extensions of the senses,” he argues about the technological improvements of the electronic age in his “Coda,” “they are extensions of the senses that put us in touch with the extended senses of others.”  In other words, the problem is not so much that we are, in the age of overwhelming information, overloading our senses by extending their range and reach; more troubling for Birkerts, we are extending ourselves and our senses into and among the extended senses of others. “Others” is the real pejorative term here (224). Birkerts fears contamination through connection.

This is where I disagree most strongly with Birkerts’ understanding of the “amniotic environment of impulses,” to use his telling metaphor of the web. I think Birkerts aptly characterizes the effect of this environment of impulses. He gets the technology right; the uncited echo of Marshall McLuhan’s defintion of technology as the “extensions of man” brings that home. We have, as McLuhan shows, always used technology to extend our senses–long before the age of electronic communication. Birkerts could be more precise in recognizing that such “extensions” would include the technologies of writing and print and bookmaking that informs the books that thus inform the selfhood he fears we are loosing. Books are part of an earlier hive of information and communication network. But no matter; he elsewhere in this book admits that his beloved book is, of course, a form of technology–even if that view is kept to a minimum. Birkerts gets not the technology wrong nor its implications (the extension of senses); he misses the point in fearing the connection to others. That is to say, I am troubled most by the “condition of connectedness” that Birkerts, it seems, forbids the act of reading. Why is connectedness the problem and solitariness the goal of our selfhood or of the creativity of reading and writing that informs it? Why must we think of creation in solitude?

Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein before it, indicates that Birkerts’ problem is in seeing connection as the problem. Rather, in connecting to others, literary texts connect readers to writers and written words they create. And, when we consider an electronic text, we find in many cases, the connections are even stronger.

This is not to say that there aren’t problems lurking in connectivitiy. I would agree with Birkerts to the extent that he worries about…. However, I think he goes too far in arguing that….In my view, creativity can only come through connection. The result, I understand, may be a literary text that undermines what we think of as a traditional novel or poem. Consider, for example, “This is Not a Poem.” That title might remind us that this re-visioning of the traditional relation between reader and writer (the reader here becomes a writer, even rewrites the writing) or between artist and viewer has been going on for some time. For further reading consider On the Virtues of Preexisting Material, by Rick Prelinger: A recent article that takes up the problem of originality in the digital age, and proposes that we think instead of collage and patchwork. He speaks of orphaned works of creation and quilts: the echoes of Frankenstein and Patchwork Girl are noticeable–as are the concerns of Plato.

[The text above is my example of a critical application of Birkerts, stitching in, through paraphrase and direct quotation, a key idea from his conclusion to then set up the focus I will use to read Patchwork Girl: in effect, using Birkerts' own terms and language (connectedness vs. solitariness) for my own thesis, though reversing his view, drawing distinctions. Also, entertaining counter-argument from Birkerts.]


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