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.

Student Blogs: Spring 2017, 11.30 class

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.

Student Blogs: Spring 2017, 10.30 class

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.

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.After providing the abstract of the argument in a short paragraph (as you have done with each writing project), you will 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 projects also provides an opportunity for you to put to work the rhetorical focal points we explored and practiced with each project. In a preface to a final project, a former student wrote this review of those focal points, informed by Joseph Harris’s terminology and our use of his book Rewriting:

When Coming to Terms with a text by another writer, I then make three moves:

  • Define the project of the writer in my own terms,
  • Note keywords or passages in the text,
  • Assess the uses and limits of this approach

In Forwarding a text, I begin to shift the focus of my readers away from what its author has to say and toward my own project:

  • Illustrating: When I look to other texts for examples of a point I want to make.
  • Authorizing: When I involve the expertise or status of another writer to support my thinking
  • Borrowing: When I draw on terms or ideas from other writers to use in thinking through my subject
  • Extending: When I put my own spin on the terms or concepts that you take from other texts.

Countering– Three main ways of creating a sort of critical distance:

  • Arguing the other side: showing the usefulness of a term or idea that a writer has criticized or noting problems with one that she or he has argues for.
  • Uncovering values: Surfacing a word or concept for analysis that a text has left undefined or unexamined.
  • Dissenting: Identifying a shared line of thought on an issue in order to note its limits

Revising-My aim is instead to describe revising as a knowledge practice, as a consistent set of questions you can ask of a draft of an essay that I am working on:

  • What’s your project? What do you want to accomplish in this essay? (Coming to Terms)
  • What works? How can you build on the strengths of your draft? (Forwarding)
  • What else might be said? How might you acknowledge other views and possibilities? (Countering)
  • What’s next? What are the implications of what you have to say? (Taking an Approach)”

Student Sample: 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 Caitrin Doyle, a former student in the class. This digital project offers an extension of what the author submitted, which was itself an extension of her third writing project. One of the areas that the author extended in the revision focused on the forwarding and countering of critical perspective. Here is a sample of the extended discussion that allows the author to take her own approach, while clearly responding to and effectively building upon the work and ideas of others (in this case: Murray, Birkerts, Carr, and the hypertext poem “Faith”).

[…]Sadly, however, hypertext literature has been confronted with just as much skepticism as its conduit. According to people like Sven Birkerts, hypertext literature cannot be considered “true” literature and therefore cannot be worth reading because it lacks the depth present in classic literature; but that simply cannot be true. While beauty is in the eye of beholder, it is widely believed that art–and literature as a facet–are successful only if they evoke something in their audience; some emotion, a hard-to-describe feeling, anything. And the hypertext poem “Faith”, written by Robert Kendall, does exactly what Birkert’s claims it is incapable of: it inspires. Kendall’s poem garners its very meaning from the use of technology. With the use of coding and magic, Kendall guides and inspires his readers through a step-by-step journey of his own writing process. In fact, without the use of movement on the screen–entirely credited to his use of the tools that these new technologies have provided–the poem would not have been nearly as poignant. I got so much more out of this poem by physically watching it unfold word by sentence by thought then I would have had I simply read it in its entirety printed on a page. Kendall uses technology to take his readers on an adventure from the birth of his idea to the final executions of the language he uses to shape, flesh out, and express it. The problem with a lot of poetry is, after all, that the author’s meaning, what he or she actually set out to express, often gets lost in the muddied interpretations of its readers. With this multimedia poem, Kendall’s true meaning rings out loud and clear.  This poem is not read, it is experienced.  Multimedia literature–as made evident by this poem and by thousands of others like it–provokes as much thought, evokes as much emotion, and involves the audience as much if not more than any classic literature I have ever read. And by meeting those standards, set out by perhaps hypertext’s most vigilant critic himself, it proves itself worthy.


However, my personal experience with multimedia literature doesn’t do much in the way of convincing, and as Murray points out, “The birth of new medium of communication is both exhilarating and frightening. Any industrial technology that dramatically extends our capabilities also makes us uneasy by challenging our concept of humanity itself”, and that seems to ring especially true with the opponents of hypertext literature. But what everyone seems to be conveniently forgetting is that technology is what started it all, especially when it comes to literature. The printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439, decades before even the American continent was discovered. At the time, thousands of people were wary about the infusion of literature into the everyman’s experience, as literacy tended to breed uprisings and all kinds of problems for the ruling class. But what no one could have predicted, however, was the absolutely enormous influence the printing press would have. It changed every single aspect of life for the people of the world. All of the sudden, entire populations were learning how to read, expanding their minds, inventing, exploring, discovering, creating, and all in the active pursuit of knowledge brought on by easy accessibility to the printed word. The invention of the printing press sparked the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, and led to so many countless new technologies, theories, and efficiencies that I couldn’t even begin to name them. This is the natural progression of our species; we sit and think on some problem for a great long while, we finally make some solution happen, nay-sayers and worshippers alike cry out, and then, often regardless of the public’s reaction, that new technology makes a shift in the world. Eventually, those changes have all proved to serve us and to improve our quality of life. The internet and hypertext, multimedia literature are simply in their “outcry” phase. I believe that once the dust settles, we will be left with a tool just as mighty and powerful as the printing press before it, we are simply following in the footsteps of our own ancestors before us.


All that being said, there are probably hundreds of thousands of people who are still unsettled by the shift occurring in our world right now. And to be entirely truthful, those concerns are not completely unfounded.  For example, Nicholas Carr, a kind of spokesperson for the healthily open-minded and skeptical, believes that if we make efficiency and immediacy our priorities with literature, we “may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace”. And he’s got a point; the types of long, verbose novels that have come out of the invention of the printing press are definitely getting a little tougher to swallow. But I think the cause of that problem is a lot simpler than it may at first appear: just like a child’s favorite toy will inevitably be passed up for a newer, shinier version, so will it always be harder for a reader to engage in a long, complex, linear story printed on a page when they have experienced other complex worlds–co-authored by both writer and technology–that allow them to experience the same story with more than just their imaginations. Technology has made way for a way new kind of story-telling: an experience of the senses. Anyone who has embraced these new technologies has become accustomed to being completely engrossed; eyes, ears, and minds, into the worlds that are being created for them by a medium that uses multiple forms of media. Over time those changes in the way we experience our content have reflected themselves as changes even in the way our brains process new things. It makes absolute sense that people would have a hard time concentrating on and engaging with novels, because they are simply not as engaging as the new types of literature readers have been experimenting with.

However, Carr is right when he points out that “never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives-or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts-as the Internet does today.” But I don’t think he’s really considering the reasons why that would be happening.  The internet is a tool that can make almost every single aspect of daily life go a little bit smoother. It’s a tool that can be used to do literally anything it is programmed to do. Could I sit in the library stacks, combing through text after text, running my finger and my eyes endlessly down the page searching for that perfect quote I read once in seventh grade? Absolutely.  But, do I have the time or the inclination to be doing that on a daily basis? Not at all. The internet gives us the opportunity to explore whole world if we have a few minutes to kill. I know that the argument that Carr is making here is that that all that time spent doing one thing–like reading an 800-page novel–is incredibly valuable, and I think he’s entirely right. But should that mean that people should not also spend their time finding meaning in short little poems that quite literally sing and dance their way across the page? I don’t believe so. Time spent experiencing literature is incredibly valuable, but what Carr is missing is that literature doesn’t have to be experienced solely on the printed page.

Readers who experience hypertext literature are connecting sensory memories; like sound, and sight, with their thoughts and memories. With novels, you can only have thought. If anything, these new forms of literature are opening us up to deeper levels of contemplation. Birkerts takes Carr’s argument a step further: “[Hypertext forms of literature] are not only extensions of the senses, they are extensions of the senses that put us in touch with the extended senses of others,” (224). He is concerned that the Internet’s ultimate goal is to forge connections between every person in the world, turning the individual perspective into a global one. He goes on to say “The end of it all…is a kind of amniotic environment of impulses, a condition of connectedness,” (224), but I really don’t see a problem with that. He uses the image of an amniotic environment, and I think, like Murray’s use of the word “bound” to describe the words printed on a page, that he’s chosen a really appropriate metaphor. The internet and its brain children are still so incredibly young. The symbol he’s provided for us is one of growth, and one of hope. Absolutely endless possibilities have come out of this new form of technology already, and I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that Birkerts wants to stomp it out before it has even had a chance to grow. What might be happening is a sort of social adaptation, a change that will yield a possibly better world. To give all of that hope and opportunity away to revert back to our old ways would only seem to me to be simply barbaric and cowardly. It’s in our blood to move forward, to keep ourselves rooted in the past would be to deny our always striving minds.


Editing 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 ________.

A poorly signaled argument can often lead problems with logos (evidence, logic) known as logical fallacies. We have focused 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.

Special Pleading: Basically, invoking a double standard–arguing that a particular case is an exception to the rule based on an irrelevant characteristic that is not in fact an exception.

Tu Quoque: Turning the criticism back onto the critic.

For a comprehensive listing, see Taxonomy of Logical Fallacies.

Some additional digital tools for editing to consider–ways to go hyper with your text!

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.

An argument, as we have seen, in effect is a counter to a previous argument (or view, idea, understanding, position) that you believe is limited, in need of further thinking, if not rethinking. Thus, counterargument helps us clarify our argument and its stakes–the problem that we are addressing and responding to. For more on stakes in an argument, consider these approaches–and the ways that you might counter others, as well as counter your own argument toward clarifying and strengthening what you are arguing for:

1. Challenge an initial read.

2. Challenge a published view.

3. Explain an inconsistency, gap, or ambiguity.

4. Explain unexpected conclusions.

5. Intervene in a debate.

6. Point out how a piece of evidence encapsulates a larger issue.

7. Point out how an insignificant moment is actually critical.

8. Point out the limits of the existing literature.

9. Point out a problem others don’t usually see.


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.

Workshop: The Abstract

We have used the “abstract” of our arguments this semester as a revision tool: something to develop and revise as we develop and revise the argument. It provides some shorthand for the larger argument (the conventional views, the problems, and the response to the problem that shapes the argument) that is emerging. As I have suggested, the key terms and keywords of your argument that show up in your final version of the abstract need to show up in the essay itself.

Here is an example from Project 3 of what I consider to be an effective abstract. Notice the ways that it condenses the dynamics of the argument (signaled right away with the word “although”) and the keywords that will be developed and extended. Nested in this abstract of the argument is a possible objection that this argument can offer as a counterargument as a way to qualify, and ultimately, to reinforce its argument.

Although proven to be very useful amongst our society today, the convenience of Google is often perceived as laziness and is believed to have altered the way information is seen and obtained. Having used Google before, I believe it to be useful, especially when conducting research. I agree with Carr in the sense that the time it takes to do research has been shortened greatly; however, I do not think that has affected the way we perceive information as a whole. Knowledge is a universal item and remains the same regardless of which medium it is acquired from. Google and its users exist in almost a symbiotic relationship in the sense that Google supplies a universal medium where the contributors can place their ideas and their ideas can be explored and challenged by other readers.

As you work on revising and developing your argument, continue to use the abstract as a revision tool.