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 the cover sheet (which will include an abstract of the essay and the Honor Code pledge). Any project missing these items will not be graded; it will be returned to you and marked as late until resubmitted with proper 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.
- Identify and respond to a problem:
I am not writing this entirely in private. And yet, as Birkerts sees it, reading should be a solitary act. The picture of reading I get thus far, particularly from the autobiographical perspective he provides in chapter 2, emphasizes what he calls his “hidden reading life” (38). Due to family dynamics that he explores, he learns to associate reading with “feminine” principles shaped by his mother and in some tension with his father. His father emphasizes the activity of doing and associates reading with passivity. I don’t want to psychoanalyze too much–though the way SB presents this, he does seem to invite this kind of analysis of psychodynamics. Is SB’s strong love of books (bibliomania) tied to feelings for his mother? I am not thinking Oedipus here so much as the way he associates reading so strongly with privacy, with the hidden, almost with an illicit activity (daydreaming in the middle of the day, inside, presumably was illicit from his father’s perspective).
Mediation–in the form of digital reading, the screen–of this private and secluded activity thus violates not the object (the text, the book) but the subject of reading: the reading experience that Birkerts has with books. It makes the experience public; it pulls the books out of the boxes: recall his assertion that books are most alluring when being packed up in a box (53). Digital mediation of reading and writing is lots of things; one of which is greater connection with a reading/writing audience. That is of interest to me. I wonder if others agree, are equally interested in the social aspects of digital writing (even something like Facebook). Birkerts is concerned about reading becoming too social. My concern is that his definition of reading and its significance is too narrowly viewed as private, as requiring privacy.
A strong assertion/speculation at this point: the struggles he details in this same chapter with becoming a writer, the difficulty in writing as he had planned–these stem from his overly anti-social view of reading. A key term that emerges for me by the end of chapter 2, then, is social: and all the variations he offers for his vision of reading that is not socially focused–privacy, hidden, individual, etc. As I think further about the focus of the first writing project, thinking about drafting my own vision definition of the reading/writing life from my perspective, I can use my conversation with Birkerts on the social as a guide for thinking about my own emerging argument. Where have I had experiences with reading/writing that would help me elaborate my view in response to SB, my sense that reading should not be viewed as anti-social? Where does that come from in my experience? I am not yet sure what my precise thesis would be at this point. And so, a way to get more specific in my own terms and argument is to dig further into some reflection on my own experience, then work my way back to a stronger and more specific statement of the problem/response of my argument.
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?
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.
Given/Conventional View [the normal world of the protagonist]
- think of this as the conventional view, the context of the argument–where things stand right now with the particular topic
Problem [in film, a disruption or problem that confronts the protagonist, disturbs the normal world]
- 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.
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]
- 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.
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 a given issue; a problem with that given; 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: the given is the understanding that the world is changing; and the  problem is the “paradox” that (“and yet”) undergraduate education has changed little; his  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.”
Here is another example, a case where the author forwards two contrasting conversations, one as the conventional view, one as the problem, and then proposes the less conventional view as his thesis. It is the introduction to Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
I want to introduce three terms from classical (Greek) 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 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.
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.
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 and participate with in the conversation.