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.

Student Blogs Fall 2015

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.

Final Project Portfolios

Gutenberg Progenies | Spring 2015

writing-frankensteinfinal projects from Professor Meehan’s Literature and Composition students

[To link your final portfolio to this class magazine, copy the address of your project (posted on your blog) into the reply box below. Include your first name.]

Final Project: Revision Portfolio

Final Project

Putting it All Together: The Rhetoric of Creative Reading (Portfolio)

Revision, as we have emphasized in each of the writing projects this term, is not so much “fixing” our writing and reading as taking it further. In that sense, writing represents a continual feedback loop of experimentation and recombination. There is more we can do, or might do, or should do, or would do–if only we had more time. The final project obliges you to take that time. This is your final exam. The components are:

  • Essay: You will write a 5-7 page (double-spaced, standard 12pt. font, etc) essay that revises and expands upon something you have already begun in one or more of your previous writing projects.
  • Learning Focal Point: Revision. Your task is to revise this essay: go back and go further with your reading, your thinking, your writing. The revision should reflect substantial development and change, not merely editing. Revision involves taking a risk with your thinking and writing.
  • Publication: Portfolio. You will publish your final project on your blog, in a new category called “Portfolio.” This portfolio will include: your final revised essay, the earlier version of the writing project you are revising, plus a 2 page (approximately 500 word) Preface. You will also submit a final version of the project (along with the preface) to Canvas.
    • Preface: Your preface is an expanded self-reflection, serving as the introduction to your portfolio. In it you should reflect on the work that went into the revision–what you have attempted to do with the essay, why and how you revised it, what you believe you have achieved with this writing. You should pinpoint 1 or more of the key aspects of the revision you have pursued. One way you might want to highlight revision: use Track Changes on the earlier version and then submit that along with the clean, final version. The Self-Reflection should also reflect on your progress and achievement as a writer and reader this term overall–what you have worked on (that to-do list I keep talking about), what you have achieved, what you want to keep working on in the coming semesters at Washington College. In other words, what does this portfolio represent of the work you have done this semester and the writing and critical reading you plan to continue in the coming semesters?
  • As always, your final version of the essay should include proper citation format for any references and include the statement of the Honor Code.

This final project in revised reading and writing tests your progress with the three main objectives of this course (remember those?): developing critical reading; developing thoughtful writing (rhetorical knowledge); developing effective writing (writing processes and conventions). Those objectives, of course, are ongoing; but your final project should demonstrate your development in those areas–in contrast, say, with the last ‘paper’ you wrote in high school or the first essay you wrote in this course.

The project also provides an opportunity for publication–what we do and want to do (in different forms and forums) as writers. For example, you might consider submitting this essay for consideration by one of the numerous publications on campus that highlight student work–and include critical writing, are not limited to fiction or poetry. Those publications include The MediumThe Collegian, and The Washington College Review

For one example of how you might extend your revision work, and extend the medium of your writing (in the senses of Marshall McLuhan), consider this digital version of the project produced by a former student in the class.


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 with the third writing project as a way to strengthen our logos, our handling of evidence. 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 of 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.


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