Strategies for Revising

Strategies for Revising

In Chapter Five of Rewriting: How to Do Things With Texts, Joseph Harris suggests several ways to think about revising based on the concepts he develops in earlier chapters: Coming to terms, Forwarding, Countering, and Taking an Approach. Below is a summary of the strategies he offers on pages 108-121.

Coming to Terms with a Draft: What’s Your Project?

Create an abstract of your draft: An abstract is a brief summary (usually around 150 words) that sometimes appears at the beginning of an academic article. Once you’ve finished an initial draft, try summing up the entire piece in just a few sentences, making sure to include all the most essential points. Doing this will help you identify key words that might help you focus your draft, and it will help you clarify the real purpose of your paper.

Create a sentence outline of your draft: In the margins of your draft, try to sum up each individual paragraph in one sentence (or two at most). The result will be a kind of outline that shows how you move from one point to another in your paper. Reading back through the summary sentences by themselves will give you a quick version of the draft you’ve written, and it should also point out moments where ideas aren’t connected or logical moves need to be strengthened.

Revising as Forwarding: What Works?

Highlight the strengths of your draft: Look for the moments that you consider to be the strongest in your paper and consider ways that you might bring those moments forward and give them greater emphasis. Also, think about how you might replicate those strong moments in other weaker spots in your draft.

Revising as Countering: What Else Might Be Said?

Identify questions that a reader might have: As you look back through your draft, think about moments where a reader might question you. This strategy might simply make you aware of spots where you need to go into further detail, or it might open up a whole new line of thought for you. As Harris describes it, this process is more than just playing “devil’s advocate.” Instead, it’s an opportunity to look for alternate lines of thinking your draft might open up.

Revising as Looking Ahead: What’s Next?

Look at your final paragraphs to see how you’ve expressed your main idea: When we’re drafting, it often takes several paragraphs (or pages …) for us to “warm up” and begin doing our best writing. Often, the clearest, most articulate statements of purpose occur at the end of a rough draft rather than at the beginning. Take advantage of that by looking at your final paragraphs to see if some of the language there can help you to shape and refocus the earlier parts of your draft.

Look ahead to see the implications of your draft: Once you’ve reached the end of an initial draft, you might think about what the implications of your ideas are. Your conclusion should suggest why your ideas matter and what they suggest for further study. Harris suggests the questions “What’s next?” and “So what?” That last question is particularly powerful. Why should your reader care about what you’ve said, and why does it matter? Those are tough questions, of course, but they’re an essential part of making an interesting point.

 

Rubric: Think of the rubric I will be using as a guideline/checklist for revision. It identifies important terms and characteristics of effective writing (logic, rhetoric, grammar). I will be looking for them; and so you can also look for them in your writing as you revise.

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First Writing Project: Purpose, Audience, Assignment

We are starting the process of moving into the drafting of the First Writing Project, called “The Ethos of Literacy.” The initial drafting is due Friday. One strategy you should take into beginning to think about any writing project that you will undertake, in my class or any other: carefully read through the assignment and any related materials (such as a rubric or guidelines for evaluation). With your notebook, you can begin to annotate any questions you have about the assignment and also jot down initial ideas that come to mind. I call this composting. This reading of the assignment will help you think about purpose and audience for the project–it will vary by class and circumstance. A rhetorically effective project will engage with its audience and focus its purpose; a weaker project will fail to do so. One thing you might do at this stage of the project is take the assignment into the Writing Center (and/or into a meeting with me) and ask questions and start the composting process with another.

I copy here the description of Writing Project 1 (also available on the page Writing Projects) and the audience and purpose for the projects:

Purpose: To engage in the development and revision of a critical argument in writing that responds to a problem relating to the texts and ideas we are exploring in the course. In other words, you will be developing in each assignment a thesis-governed essay. In addition, the purpose in each case will be to focus in on a particular element of critical writing and thinking (what I take Emerson to mean by “creative reading” that will enable you to practice and develop he arts, or what we would now call the “mechanics,” of effective writing for use in any of your college courses, and beyond.  These are the learning focal points we will address one at a time, using terms from classical rhetoric:  ethos, pathos, logos.

Format: The writing projects should be approximately 3-5 double-spaced pages (12 point font, standard margins) or 750-1250 words (approximately 250 words per page), unless otherwise noted.  Each project will be submitted to Canvas as well as posted to your blog. The copy uploaded to Canvas must include this preface either on the document or submitted in a comment. The preface includes:

  1. What the project is: Abstract of your argument (2-3 sentences).
  2. What is working: identify at least one element of your writing  (from the rubric and/or your to-do list) that you have focused on and believe is strong in this project.
  3. What else you could do: identify at least one element or your writing that you will keep on your to-do-list and believe could use further attention and feedback.

Any project missing the preface will not be graded; it will be returned to you and marked as late until resubmitted with proper format. Your essay should also include your statement of the Honor Code pledge.

All citations (direct or indirect) should use MLA format. For guidance on proper MLA citation format [in-text citation; works cited at end] consult the Purdue OWL.

“Approximately “means that a piece much shorter than 3, or much longer than 5, is in need of revision and rethinking for the purposes of the given assignment. The final project will be longer and have additional requirements.

Audience: I am only the initial reader of your essay. Since we are emphasizing that writers seek to communicate their writing in a variety of public/published forms, you need to consider a larger audience for each of the essays–and let that audience inform your writing and revision. Generally speaking, your audience for these projects will be readers who are interested in what first-year students at Washington College are writing and learning. This means that they have a basic knowledge of this course and its assignments, but no specific knowledge of the texts you are discussing or ideas you are exploring. One goal of mine is to have you submit a final version of one of these essays for publication in a digital magazine I am developing for first-year writers at Washington College. Readers of that magazine will be: your peers, other professors on campus, your parents, future students–all interested in getting a better view of how first-year students at WAC think and write.  There are also numerous other publications on campus for you to consider such as The Medium, The Collegian, and The Washington College Review. This is your audience.

Writing Project #1

Coming to Terms with Intellect: The Ethos of Literacy

Develop a 3-5-page essay that reflects on, and argues for, your definition of the meaning of literacy. Think of it as “what it means to be (or perhaps not be) a reader and/or a writer”–particularly for someone in your position, in college. (Literacy suggests both the reading and the writing of words–literally, letters; I will leave it up to you to decide to focus on reading or writing or, if you think it effective, both).  Since this is your definition, your “defense (or revision) of literacy,” the essay will explore how your personal experience as a reader or writer (or perhaps a non-reader/non-writer) informs your definition and reflection; since this is a definition of literacy’s meaning (synonyms here would be “significance” or “character”) informed by your experience, it is also an argument–since others likely won’t agree with you, and you likely don’t agree with other definitions of the character of literacy that you have encountered. From your perspective as a reader and writer, how is literacy significant, important, misunderstood, overvalued, etc?

You have some useful  models to consider (Graff, Birkerts, Berry, Harris) for how strong and engaging critical writing and argumentation can be effective and deliberate in using autobiographical reflection and personal experience to develop a focus and argument about an idea (in this case, defining the meaning of literacy). Our rhetorical focal point for this project, ethos, emphasizes the ways writers strengthen their argument by paying attention to the development of their ethos.

  • The Question you will be answering in this essay (think of your thesis as the answer to this question): What is your view of the meaning (purpose, value) of literacy and how has that view been shaped by your experience as a reader and/or writer?
  • Learning Focal Point for this project: Ethos. We will discuss and workshop ways that Ethos is developed through  critical reflection and by “coming to terms” with our ideas and argument. As Harris argues (Rewriting), “coming to terms” with an argument requires strong reflection from the writer. Think of this reflection as effectively citing/quoting from your own experience and thinking.
  • Citation requirement. Another way you will develop your focus your attention and your argument: cite and explain what Birkerts or Graff or Harris say about reading/writing–and use that to then focus on your own view in response.  Your essay must have at least one direct quotation in it (from either Birkerts, Graff, Harris, or Berry), effectively incorporated into your argument for this essay.
  • Some suggestions for developing your argument and its focus:
      • Identify and respond to a problem:
        • Use another to set up the problem: Although Birkerts argues that reading is X, in my view reading is Y.
        • Use your earlier self/views to set up the problem: Although I used to view reading/writing as ___, now I understand that ____.
      • Another way to focus is to narrow your scope: you will need to focus on some key autobiographical examples of your engagement with reading/writing (say 2 or 3) that help demonstrate and develop the overall significance you are writing about. This is where the reflection comes in–taking your time with your argument and its complications rather than quickly listing off some experiences you have had.

Argument Set-Up: you got a problem with that?

With help from Joseph Harris and Gerald Graff, we have begun to think and rethink argument as something both social and dynamic–something that moves and responds to other arguments, other ideas. I agree with Joseph Harris–this is a crucial element of intellectual or (if we must call it this) “academic writing,” and this stands in stark contrast to the kinds of static essay writing many of us have come to associate with a “thesis statement.” Here is a basic definition of a thesis statement, provided by the writing center at UNC:

A thesis statement:

  • tells the reader how you will interpret the significance of the subject matter under discussion.
  • is a road map for the paper; in other words, it tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper.
  • directly answers the question asked of you. A thesis is an interpretation of a question or subject, not the subject itself. The subject, or topic, of an essay might be World War II or Moby Dick; a thesis must then offer a way to understand the war or the novel.
  • makes a claim that others might dispute.
  • is usually a single sentence somewhere in your first paragraph that presents your argument to the reader. The rest of the paper, the body of the essay, gathers and organizes evidence that will persuade the reader of the logic of your interpretation.

That works for me. However, a problem I often encounter with student writing: students can quote this definition but have difficulty getting two key elements of a thesis into their argument: that it is a matter of interpretation (not a statement of a topic); that it is a matter for disputation. In other words, a thesis is an argument, it must be arguable. It’s not a fixed answer: rather, it’s the pursuit of a possible answer or resolution in response to a question, a problem. Responding to a problem is what makes an argument dynamic rather than static.

Consider the ways Harvard University Press emphasizes this as basic for any type of scholarship they might publish:

Questions to consider as you prepare a book proposal:
  • What problems are you setting out to solve?
  • What confusions do you wish to clarify?
  • What previously unknown or unfortunately neglected story are you planning to tell?
  • How is this book different from all other books?
  • Why does that matter? To whom?

We can also think about the “problem” that an argument needs, and needs to focus its response, its purpose, as the “stakes”: what’s “at stake” in the argument, as we (academics) like to ask? I also refer to this as the “urgency” for the argument–we spoke of the urgency that Birkerts introduces in the opening paragraphs of his book. Here are some options for ways to address the stakes.

A related way to think of this more dynamic kind of academic argument (it’s also the vision Graff has) as opposed to what you might have encountered previously in school–where ‘academic’ as an adjective unfortunately meant ‘dry’ or ‘boring’: think of what we value in the liberal arts, and think of how that contrasts with a focus on narrow specialization. A good argument has the flexibility of moving and responding. Here is a recent description of the liberal arts that made me think of our discussion of the elements of academic argument and writing:

The second, slightly less utilitarian defense of a liberal-arts education is that it hones the mind, teaching focus, critical thinking, and the ability to express oneself clearly both in writing and speaking—skills that are of great value no matter what profession you may choose. It’s not just that you are taught specific materials in a liberally designed context, but more generally, the way your mind is shaped, the habits of thought that you develop.

These skills were well described by a former dean of the Harvard Law School, Erwin Griswold, cited in a recent speech by the current dean, Martha Minow. Griswold was discussing an ideal vision of the law school, but his arguments fit a liberal education wherever it is provided: “You go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts or habits; for the art of expression, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time; for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and mental soberness.” [The Liberal Arts as Guideposts in the 21st Century, Nannerl Keohane]

Artful argument of this sort needs a structure, a set-up; it can’t emerge out of a vacuum. In order to be set up effectively, to be dynamic and responsive, it needs three things: a conventional view (the sources, what others have previously argued), a problem with that conventional view, and a response to that problem (the argument or thesis that leads to the resolution of the problem). One of the central limitations professors often find with student essay writing: a writer delves into the argument without identifying the problem. In other words, there is no thesis. Recall that I indicated that I have found this even amongst advanced student writers–including a student writing a senior thesis.

To help visualize this set-up structure, and particularly the importance of a problem, I suggest we consider film–a dramatic structure that builds on conflict and its resolution. We will later in the semester consider the full structure of a film’s text, that is, the screenplay, as a structure for our writing project. For now, let’s focus on the beginning: the introduction or set-up of a film in relation to the introduction of an argument.

Basically, the introduction of a film (Act 1), the first 15-20 minutes leading up to the ‘thesis statement’ of a film, known as the turning point or promise (sometimes called the “hook”) follows this three step structure.

  1. Given/Conventional View [the normal world of the protagonist]

    1. think of this as the conventional view, the context of the argument–where things stand right now with the particular topic
  2. Problem [in film, a disruption or problem that confronts the protagonist, disturbs the normal world]

    1. think of this as some initial problems with the conventional view of things, perhaps emerging more recently, something that has been neglected by others, not fully considered, etc.
  3. Response [in film, a real but surprising or unusual/unconventional way of thinking about the problem, responding to it, and leading the viewer through the various plot complications that will have to be solved by the end]

    1. your thesis: your response to the problem, also an unconventional or surprising way of re-thinking things, leading to a resolution of the problem and new understanding of the topic. Recall how we saw Gerald Graff’s version of this in “Hidden Intellectualism”: intellectualism is more complicated than the intellectual vs. anti-intellectual terms we tend to use, a complication he argues for by way of this surprise–he realizes that he wasn’t the anti-intellectual as a child that he thought he was.
For practice, we can apply this structure to one or more of the chapters in Birkerts, see how he sets up his argument in each case. I want you to think about this basic rhetorical structure as you being to compost and then draft your first writing project.
Some examples for further reading…

As an example of the set up of an argument that we have begun to discuss in class, consider the following example, an Op-Ed from the NY Times by Lawrence Summers. While an Op-Ed has features that differ from essays and academic research (namely, much shorter, with less quotation of text, no citations), we can see that Summers focuses his “opinion” as an argument in setting up [1]a given issue; [2]a problem with that given; [3]his response to that problem.

A PARADOX of American higher education is this: The expectations of leading universities do much to define what secondary schools teach, and much to establish a template for what it means to be an educated man or woman. College campuses are seen as the source for the newest thinking and for the generation of new ideas, as society’s cutting edge.

And the world is changing very rapidly. Think social networking, gay marriage, stem cells or the rise of China. Most companies look nothing like they did 50 years ago. Think General Motors, AT&T or Goldman Sachs.

Yet undergraduate education changes remarkably little over time. My predecessor as Harvard president, Derek Bok, famously compared the difficulty of reforming a curriculum with the difficulty of moving a cemetery. With few exceptions, just as in the middle of the 20th century, students take four courses a term, each meeting for about three hours a week, usually with a teacher standing in front of the room. Students are evaluated on the basis of examination essays handwritten in blue books and relatively short research papers. Instructors are organized into departments, most of which bear the same names they did when the grandparents of today’s students were undergraduates. A vast majority of students still major in one or two disciplines centered on a particular department.

It may be that inertia is appropriate. Part of universities’ function is to keep alive man’s greatest creations, passing them from generation to generation. Certainly anyone urging reform does well to remember that in higher education the United States remains an example to the world, and that American universities compete for foreign students more successfully than almost any other American industry competes for foreign customers.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to speculate: Suppose the educational system is drastically altered to reflect the structure of society and what we now understand about how people learn. How will what universities teach be different? Here are some guesses and hopes.

Summers provides a useful example for us in the signals he uses to establish his argument: [1]the given is the understanding that the world is changing; and the [2] problem is the “paradox” that (“and yet”) undergraduate education has changed little; his [3] argument in response is to “speculate” and “suppose” (recall I suggested a thesis is a sort of “What if? we find in film) that the educational system could/should be different.

You will note that in this example, Summers doesn’t offer a thesis statement ahead of his “guesses and hopes” (the supporting examples or body of his argument). It is, in effect, half of his thesis, guided by his rhetorical question, with the second half of the thesis (his answer to his question) to come at the end. That’s one model for a thesis statement. The model more familiar to you is the one where the last sentence would answer the question, identify the key elements of his argument that will be explored in the body (we see Sven Birkerts doing this in his introduction to The Gutenberg Elegies). Though I invite you to try some alternative approaches to stating your thesis, since there is more than one way to state one, I will be emphasizing the importance of providing a map of your argument to your reader, giving the reader some keywords for your argument, language that will reappear in your body paragraphs and in transition sentences. In this case, given the brevity of an Op-Ed, Summers has more flexibility in not indicating specifically where he’s going. He does, however, clearly tell us what he is responding to–that he is arguing for change.

In other words, a key to establishing the “thesis” (however it may be stated) is to engage the reader’s focus on a problem and response. This example shows us how one does that very basically and simply–even in the pages of the NY Times by the former president of Harvard. In fact, one of my favorite examples of the set up of the problem/conflict needed for an academic argument comes from Summers. I read once that he set up an economics paper that argues against the convention of the “efficient market hypothesis” (the prevailing view that markets are rational because people are rational) with the following two sentences: “There are idiots. Look around.”

An Op-Ed from a newspaper is a compressed argument. It is not merely one’s opinion; it is an arguable claim that must be supported by a reason and some evidence. For some further discussion on the rhetorical elements of an op-ed that we can learn from, see “Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers,”  by Bret Stephens, The New York Times. Stephens addresses the key element of ethos, the standing or credibility of the writer. But he also notes that a good argument to be effective needs to address counter-positions and move toward more complicated understanding of what we already knew. He calls this “standing with surprise.”


Reading Birkerts: the how as well as the what

In the opening pages of The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts focuses in on a way of thinking about reading (and as he points out, reading/writing, since the two go together) that we are going to explore and exploit throughout the course. Basically, what he does, and what we will do as we continue to read him and other authors, is foreground the process of reading and style of writing that he has in front of him. He pulls back the curtain, as I have suggested (to use the Oz image), on the mechanics and craft (for me, mechanics need not be a bad word; it might be for Birkerts, however) of the writing.

We see this vividly in the opening of his first chapter, in his focus on Virginia Woolf and her ‘stylistic verve’; on the ‘how’ of her writing rather than the ‘what.’ So, this is a useful starting point for us, since we are also interested in exploring the craft of writing (and its relation to the thinking that goes in to critical reading) and want, also, to develop the verve (vivacity, vitality) of our style. A basic definition of style in writing I would suggest is the how that informs the what; the method and mediation that shapes the message.  I wonder what your sense of style is: what the word means to you, in regard to writing and also to other acts and arts. I also wonder what your sense of your own style is.

And so, as we continue to read Birkerts, in addition to developing a grasp of his ‘message’ and pursuing a critical reading of this text, we also want to use him to think about his style and our style. We will often talk about the “how” of his writing in addition to the “what.” To use a famous phrase we will encounter later in the course, we will explore how the medium of his writing informs his message. We want to see what we can learn as writers,what we can borrow from his example.

To give you one example: in his introduction, Birkerts offers all of us (I include myself in this, a writer who still struggles at times in setting up a focus and thesis for a project–particularly larger ones) a useful, decent model for an introduction: declaring ‘straightforwardly’ his ‘premise’ and ‘focus’ and working towards a full statement of his thesis:

As the printed book, and the ways of the book–of writing and reading–are modified, as electronic communications assert dominance, the ‘feel’ of the literary engagement is altered. Reading and writing come to mean differently; they acquire new significations. (6)

We will work throughout the course on ways to develop our own introductions and how to set up our focus and thesis more effectively. So, consider this introduction as a useful example to get back to when you are working on your own essays. We will talk more in class and workshops about what is useful and what is effective in how Birkerts introduces his argument and the ways we can learn from his “how.” One thing we see right away that I would suggest is effective: Birkerts tells us at key points what he is arguing, highlighting key words that signal to us something important: premise, focus. He talks to us as readers of his writing–as though he is having a conversation with us.

Your initial writing in response to our reading, the blog (which can and should lead to stronger writing for your essay projects), can begin to notice and focus more on this ‘how’ in addition to providing some summary of what a particular author has said. Notice how an author like Birkerts uses words like ‘premise’ or ‘focus’ or talks to you as a reader.

And at the same time (of course) we are reading this book for the “what.” What interests me right away is to note the ways that this focus on how–and more generally on the “non-linear” style of writing/thinking that he appreciates in Woolf and wants to imitate in his own–sounds like a key characteristic of digital writing and the technological mediation of thought and language that he is trying to resist. He says in his opening paragraph: “All thinking is relative, relational, Einsteinian. Thinking is now something I partake in, not something I do” (11). At the end of the semester, when we get to electronic literature and digital writing, this quotation will seem very apt for how we “partake” in the thinking of “hypertext” and its Einsteinian relativitiy. So I suppose my question for Birkerts at this point: do you secretly wish, or perhaps by necessity, need to write (the how) in a way that contradicts the logic of your argument (the what: reading should not be relative, relational)?

By the way, Birkerts does–it may surprise you, sometimes post a blog. Here he is on “Resisting the Kindle.”


Making Use of the Medium: Ways of Doing Digital Writing and Reading

I mentioned in the first class that we would be focusing in the course on ways that we could develop and strengthen our writing by paying more attention to, and making better use of, the medium and multiple media of writing–getting behind the curtain. The blog postings you are doing in response to reading and discussion (and on your way to the larger writing projects) are a good example of how to pay rhetorical attention to our ideas, the texts we read, the texts we write. So here are some tips, offered in response to your initial posts, for ways to develop a stronger response and to experiment with future postings. These include examples from previous classes you could consider for some models.

  • Provide a  focus for your response–both in terms of summary (what the reading says) and analysis (what you say, your critical thinking in response to the reading). Some simple ways to develop focus:
    • title: at the end, or while writing the blog (I suggest you save or publish the blog before finishing, and then update it once or twice while writing), use this to ask yourself: what am I getting at.
      • at the very least, don’t title it “blog #1”; start experimenting with some creative thinking–will need a good title for your essays.
    • summary (what you hear the reading say): think 2-4 sentences, an initial paragraph that summarizes in a way that will allow you to later dig in to a key point and elaborate further.
        • Here is a good example of the way a simple blog title can focus the reader’s attention onto the argument, even before it begins (just like Graff does with his title, or Berry)–and then in the opening section, moves into effective summary.
    • elaboration (what you notice; what you want to say about the reading): dig in by providing a  quotation; use the quotation tool (in toolbar) to highlight this. This quotation can be a full sentence or passage that you then discuss; it can also be keywords and phrases that you pull into your conversation and use to elaborate your response to the argument. This is what Joseph Harris will call “forwarding.”
    • basic paragraphing: though the posting need not be fully edited or as formally organized as an essay, consider some basic paragraph breaks to move from summary to analysis, to distinguish different main points; this will also allow you to do some practice with transitions.
    • tags: after finishing the draft, the tag function invites some reflection on what the focus has been, what some key ideas and keywords are; tags can also be effective later when working on an essay and looking for material–to remember or be surprised by some associations (two different posts that turn out to be related by a tag); tags can sometimes lead to interesting associations to other blogs. Some of the WordPress formats will actually suggest automatically other blogs out there that might relate to your post. For example, this artificial intelligence (AI) feature suggested a link in Tim’s blog (about ‘Hidden Intellectualism’) to another that also discussed Gerald Graff. Thus are associations made in the digital world.
  • Advance your focus by making a link
    • the basic links we will use (and mainly use in writing) are quotations and citations.
    • consider digital quotation: a link to a site that offers definition or explanation or example for your focus.
      • use the link function in the toolbar
    • consider linking/inserting an image or other media, if relevant and effective for your focus
    • think of this as a digital means of forwarding and countering (two key elements of academic writing we focus on in the course)
      • Isabella provides a good example of the ways making a link can serve more than a source of information, it can enhance the rhetorical effect that your writing is in conversation with the texts and a larger audience.
  • Look ahead: to discussion in class, to the next section of the reading, to your next posting, to the next writing project where you could delve deeper into the ideas.
    • one way to conclude effectively (wrap up, but not entirely–since a blog by definition is not a finished product, should have more to say): ask a question. A good example of that–note the concluding section of this blog, that opens larger questions that could lead to further writing (perhaps material for another blog, or the writing project).
  • Do some practice revision and editing. You will be doing quite a bit of revision and editing for your writing projects. I don’t expect that level of revision here. However, this is a good place to practice. I suggest after an initial drafting of your blog response, turn back to it with a good revision question: What else might I say (further elaboration, connections, counter-positions)? What else should I say (have I responded thoroughly to the texts)? And then do at least one reading where you edit for sentence clarity, starting to work on some things that are on your grammatical to-do list.

What about new ways and means of reading texts in the electronic age? As I also mentioned, when you are assigned a text that is on the web or a pdf, I still want you to do the sort of active reading that you do with a print text. I don’t want you to come into class on those days empty-handed. The question is, what are better ways of doing that. I experimented with Scrible  for our first two texts, a tool for making annotations on web texts. See what you think:

Graff, “Hidden Intellectualism”

Berry, “In Defense of Literacy”


Ethos, Pathos, Logos: focusing the conversation

I introduced “rhetoric” as one of our keywords, and defined it in this way: the art (in the original Greek, the word is techne) of developing and delivering persuasive expression or communication. In “Hidden Intellectualism,” when Graff argues for the importance of argument, he is arguing for rhetorical knowledge. For Graff, such knowledge can be found in schools, interacting with books, but it can also be found in the vernacular, in the world of what he calls “street smarts.” For some further discussion of the power of rhetoric and its relevance to you as college students, read “How to Think Like Shakespeare.”

I want to introduce three terms from classical rhetoric that can be useful to think about as we go forward in the course–and apply both to our critical reading and our writing. I suspect that some of you have encountered these concepts previously in an English or composition class. Whether you know them well or not at all, I suggest that they can be useful for us as a heuristic, a tool for getting our hands on the rhetorical mechanics that are hidden behind the curtain.

In classical rhetoric, where the focus is on an orator and his/her presentation to a live audience, there were, according to Aristotle, three main appeals or ways of relating to your audience. “Appeal” refers to the ways an orator (now writer) gets her audience to listen and be compelled: ways to focus on the kind of conversation you are having and ways to engage your audience. To use the terms from Harris’s Rewriting, these are older names for ways we do things with texts and engage in the social practice of academic or intellectual argument.

Ethos: as in ethics; where the stature and character of the speaker is what persuades and convinces. One way to think of ethos now–the credibility or authority or expertise of the writer. This authority might be suggested in the writer’s background and credentials; but it can also be demonstrated in the way the writer presents herself and her argument.

Pathos: as in sympathy and empathy; where the orator/author appeals to the emotions of the reader–focuses on convincing by way of feeling.

Logos: as in logic–also more broadly, evidence; where the author follows the laws of logic in providing evidence–and must be careful not to be illogical: for example, contradictory.

These are key elements of what we  can think of as the “rhetorical situation” (more on this from Purdue OWL) that form the conditions for any act of composition–or even prior to that, any act of thought or conversation. We will be focusing on these rhetorical conditions of our writing and critical thinking in each writing project. When we are effective in our composition of writing and thinking, we have a good handle on these conditions. Here is a link to the original discussion in Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

You can think of these rhetorical elements as a sort of template or tool to use in your composting of ideas for a writing project; that could begin with your blog writing, focus your close reading response on an element of the writer’s ethos, pathos, or logos. You can also use these elements as a revision tool: identify a place where you can strengthen your pathos or logos, for example, in a draft you are working on. In a larger sense, the word (and study that goes with it) rhetoric is about how to develop, arrange, and deliver arguments by using these kinds of templates.

A basic definition of rhetoric I am working from is thus: the tools a writer or speaker uses to focus the audience’s attention on being informed, persuaded, delighted–ultimately, compelled–by the conversation at hand. That takes work. But since the very beginnings of the academy, this art of rhetoric has been something  that could be taught, practiced, learned. That’s my guiding assumption in this course.

Think about applying this concept to guide your initial reading. For example: how would you characterize the ethos, pathos, logos of Graff’s argument, or Berry’s “In Defense of Literacy”? Where do you see it at work and effective, and why? Where would you say it is lacking?


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 and thinking and conversing we will be doing throughout the course. The work we do daily and weekly gets us behind the curtain: responding to a reading assignment, bringing your notes and thoughts into the conversation of a class discussion, working further on those thoughts in your weekly blog post, then working and re-working them into a Writing Project (with lots of revision and further reworking), and so on. The Writing Projects, and particularly the final project, where you will return to earlier work and do even further revision, is the place where we close the curtain, step out from behind it, and become writers, great and powerful–or at least, more powerful than when we began the course. That’s the overall goal.

Here is the Wizard of Oz clip from YouTube.

And here is an animated introduction to some basic rhetorical concepts we will be taking up in the coming weeks: How to Use Rhetoric to Get What You Want.

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.