Since the beginning of time
Everyone knows in society today
Student writing hasn’t gotten any better
Nor is it really any worse than usual.
The sentences are still afraid of commas
And plurals and possessives share a closet.
I don’t expect much improvement
Without better nutrition and stronger threats.
Plus, there are far too many sentences
That begin with This or There followed
By big empty boxes of Is and Are.
(Perhaps this student should take a year off
And read books with real people in them.)
And I’m only talking about sentences
Not the paragraphs that struggle along
Between the left and right margins
But miraculously start and finish
At the top and bottom of each page.
Also, I was really hoping for an original title
And just once my name spelled right.
Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of English and modern languages at Angelo State University.
What comes to many of our students’ mind when they hear the word "rhetoric"? Specious arguments that are all glamor and little substance? Or perhaps stodgy old professors lecturing on and on about Cicero this and Quintilian that?
As a teacher of writing, and as a proponent of active learning, I have always disdained the traditional lecture. Yet, each term, for each course that I teach — from freshman "basic writing" courses, to graduate courses in teaching (and learning) college writing — I have always included a somewhat traditional introductory lecture on rhetoric. Sure, I give it all I’ve got in order to not only provide students the information I want them to use in their analytical work (content), but also to enact a living model of delivery (form) — what the greatest of the Greek orators, Demosthenes, declared the most important part of any speech. But this term I decided to shake things up a bit. I wondered what would happen if I turned over the reins of my prized rhetoric-lecture thoroughbred over to the hands and minds of the students to ride (deliver).
Like Mike Garver, I wanted to explode the way the lecture typically works rather than, like some of our colleagues in math, attempt to do away with lectures altogether. But I also wanted the students to have a much more active role in the actual generation and delivery of the lecture — a form of instruction I do believe can have merit. Would this experiment result in witnessing my tame lecture turn into a wild stampede? Or would (as I hoped) the students buck up, plant their feet firmly in her stirrups and, like Alexander with Bucephalus, make this beast their own?
The Game Plan
I began my plans by dividing the lecture into parts, depending on how many students were in each of my three classes: for my basic writing course of 10, I had them work in pairs; for my intermediate composition course of 21, teams of three; and for my graduate course of 14, also pairs. Each group was responsible for delivering their section of the lecture in about 10-15 minutes. I told them they had the choice of how they wanted to deliver it. As they buzzed, frenetically strategizing and planning together in class, I fielded their many questions, but tried not to give too much direction. I explained that I wanted them to work on this "problem-situation" with their partners as much as possible. I encouraged them to try not to make too much out of this, that this was a low-stakes assignment designed mostly to prepare them for later work.
The day of the presentation I began by explaining to students that the ancient Roman classroom (especially training in the carefully scaffolded progymnasmataas detailed by Quintilian) was a very interactive place where peer critique was the name of the game. So I let them know that the audience was going to actually be the most important part of the presentations. As an audience we would be critiquing the presenters. We decided that since I had provided most of the content, the assessment criteria would all hinge upon elements of delivery. We agreed upon three broad and interpretive categories: creativity, clarity, and energy. Each category would be scored on a scale of 0-to-5, 5 being the highest, for a possible total of 15 points overall.
I must say, I was beyond pleasantly surprised by what followed. The first class to go was my intermediate-level class in groups of three. The first group made a valiant effort to get our momentum off to a good start. They were strong in creativity but fumbled many of their lines, and overall stuck pretty close to the lecture script I had provided. Two of the presenters also delivered in somewhat monotone voices with relatively low energy. The second group, however, came ready to deliver. Michelle DelGuidice and Adam Aluise, as well as Alyssa Barnhart (all students' names used with permission) who was not in class this day but did contribute her ideas, creatively took Kenneth Burke’s concept of the five dramatistic terms — act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose — and applied them to a real-life event. The act: "O.J. Simpson (allegedly, as Michelle would dark-comically interject) kills two people." The scene: "O.J. and Nicole Simpson’s home." The agent: "O.J. Simpson (allegedly)." The agency: "He stabs them both to death." The purpose: "Jealousy." Each term came complete with an actual picture from the trial. All other groups fell somewhere on a continuum of these two types of presentations. Some really filtered the assignment and lecture notes through what Burke called their interpretive "termistic screens." Others stuck pretty close to the script, perhaps adding some sort of visual element via the projector or the dry-erase board.
The basic writing students also surprised me. The first group, made up of Jahnea Farquharson and Ashley Tremblay, delivered what I often call a "you had me at hello" presentation ("Jerry Maguire"). They had a PowerPoint wherein they delivered their section with significant visual addendums, they projected their voices loud and clear, and they spoke with passion and emphases. This first group even added some additional information involving Aristotle’s three types of rhetorical arguments: deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. Of course, the rest of the class knew that this first group had set the bar extremely high. I played the role of good facilitator and assured them that they would all do just fine and to have confidence. Like the intermediate-level students, the rest of the groups fell along the same sort of oratory-continuum, from low-talkers, to folks who pretty much just read off the paper, to students fumbling with audio-visual buttons and screens.
I had high hopes for my graduate students. And, just like my undergraduates, they didn’t disappoint. The entire class and I sat enrapt and entertained as group after group delivered presentations abounding with thoughtfulness and overflowing with great energy and humor (and this is an evening class, from 7:35 to 10:05 pm). One of the key differences in the performances of the graduate students was how much they drew on the power of acting.
Several groups created characters as the conduits for their delivery. For example, the first group introduced us to the characters of Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. Logos (played by Charles Hamlin) was very matter-of-fact in his speech as he talked of some ways he deploys himself in the service of argumentation. Pathos (played by Jake Goldman) was an energetic and emotional speaker who talked of the significance of the sentimental value of a dinner plate heirloom from his grandmother that he brought in to show and tell us about. Ethos (also played by Jake Goldman) presented an authoritative figure who was actually an expert in the arts of persuasion. He had written many books on the subject and had an impressive way of linking his argumentation to his previous partners’ talks comparatively. After watching my graduate students perform so excellently, I was left to ponder the ancient rhetorical admonishment from the most renowned of Roman orators, Cicero: "The habits of actors must be studied if we wish to perfect our delivery."
For each class, I let them know that each group, at least from me, had received a full score of five on creativity. I let them all know that they all did a good job of making the lecture their own. I told them that if they think they are not "creative" then they had better guess again. (I have had many students say that they are "not creative.") I explained that I believe all humans, and most animals, are creative. I said I have three dogs and I have watched them all solve problems and try to figure things out … creatively. I praised them all heavily, telling all students that they did a much better job overall than I had ever done. And that everyone had some strengths and weaknesses — some groups that may not have been as “energetic” were good with "clarity" for example. By the time I had experienced all three classes, I could report back the results to all my students comparatively.
Sure, maybe I could have been more critical of the students’ performances. Yes, perhaps more critical scrutiny would have been more edifying for the low-talkers, or the underprepared, or the obviously nervous. But what is most important for young, or older, active minds to hear? Since, as a class, we assessed and critiqued each group, everyone knew how they had performed in the eyes of their peers; from our interaction, they knew/learned what they might have done better, more, less. I don’t think they needed me spurring them on any more than that.
Most of my in-class lesson plans do involve collaborative interactivity. And, along with other essays I have written for Inside Higher Ed, this essay has attempted to respond to an argument I recently made regarding teachers of writing holding themselves up to the same rigorous performance expectations and standards (habits of mind) as their students. So when I foresee the chance, I will try to make all of my activities in class reach for the stars like this one. I will consider my students as colleagues more carefully, and I will try to imagine what might happen if I let them ride a wild-horse activity out of the gates from time to time. Maybe they will do their part to put the word “rhetoric” back in the proper intellectual tradition (albeit with an energetic modern twist) that it deserves. (For a lively introduction to the study of rhetoric, created by Clemson grad students, see the YouTube video "In Defense of Rhetoric: Not Just for Liars.")
Steven J. Corbett is assistant professor of English and director of the composition program at Southern Connecticut State University.
Decades ago, two colleges in Virginia decided all students would need to pass essay exam to graduate. Old Dominion just dropped the unusual requirement, while Hampden-Sydney has no intention of doing so.
Submitted by John Duffy on March 16, 2012 - 3:00am
Of all the words that might be applied to Rush Limbaugh’s recent comments about Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke — "vile," "misogynistic" and "repulsive" come to mind — one word that has no place in the discussion is "surprise." Limbaugh has made a phenomenally lucrative career of such comments, mocking women, minorities, and many others with gleeful impunity. In doing so, he has inspired a small but disproportionately loud army of imitators on talk radio, cable television, and, increasingly, in the halls of Congress, whose rhetorical tactics of misinformation, demonization, incendiary metaphors, and poisonous historical analogies have done much to debase public discourse.
To say that the current state of public discourse is abysmal seems self-evident. Toxic rhetoric has become a fact of everyday life, a form of entertainment, and a corporate product. Aside from Limbaugh, the contemporary rhetorical scene features pundits such as Glenn Beck, who once mused on-air about killing a public official with a shovel, and talk radio host Neal Boortz, who compared Muslims to "cockroaches." Politicians can be equally offensive. Allen West, the Florida congressman, has compared the Democratic Party to Nazi propagandists, while California congresswoman Maxine Waters has called Republican leaders "demons." Given the forces of money and the power that support such discourse, it would easy to conclude that there is no remedy for toxic rhetoric and no credible opposing forces working to counteract it.
Such a view, however, would be mistaken. In fact, there is a well-organized, systematic, and dedicated effort taking place each day to promote an ethical public discourse grounded in the virtues of honesty, accountability, and generosity. The site of this effort is largely hidden from public view, taking place in the classrooms of universities and colleges across the United States. Even in academe, the movement for an ethical public discourse is largely overlooked. Indeed, it has been historically underfunded, inadequately staffed, and generally marginalized. I refer, of course, to first-year composition, the introductory writing course required at many public and private institutions.
To some, this may seem counterintuitive. First-year composition — also called academic writing, writing and rhetoric, college composition and other names — is not typically associated with improving public discourse, much less considered a "movement." To students required to take the course, it may initially be seen as a speed bump, an exercise in curricular gatekeeping best dispatched as painlessly as possible. To faculty who do not teach the course, it may inaccurately be dismissed as a remedial exercise in grammar and paragraph formation, functioning somewhere below the threshold of higher education proper.
Yet the first-year writing course represents one of the few places in the academic curriculum, in some institutions the only place, where students learn the basics of argument, or how to make a claim, provide evidence, and consider alternative points of view. Argument is the currency of academic discourse, and learning to argue is a necessary skill if students are to succeed in their college careers. Yet the process of constructing arguments also engages students, inevitably and inescapably, in questions of ethics, values, and virtues.
What do students learn, for example, when learning to make a claim? To make a claim in an argument is to propose a relationship between others and ourselves. For the relationship to flourish, a degree of trust must exist among participants, which means that readers must be assured that claims are made without equivocation or deception. To make a successful claim, then, students practice the virtue of honesty.
In the same way, to offer evidence for claims is both to acknowledge the rationality of the audience, which we trust will reason cogently enough to examine our views justly, and a statement of our own integrity, our willingness to support assertions with proofs. In offering evidence, we practice the virtues of respectfulness and accountability.
And when students include counter-arguments in their essays, when they consider seriously opinions, facts, or values that contradict their own, they practice the most radical and potentially transformative behavior of all; they sacrifice the consolations of certainty and expose themselves to the doubts and contradictions that adhere to every worthwhile question. In learning to listen to others, students practice the virtues of tolerance and generosity.
First-year composition, in other words, is more than a course in grammar and rhetoric. Beyond these, it is a course in ethical communication, offering students opportunities to learn and practice the moral and intellectual virtues that Aristotle identified in his Nicomachean Ethics as the foundation for a good life.
What does this mean for the future of public discourse? Potentially a great deal. Consider the numbers. The Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), the professional association of writing programs, counts 152 university and college writing programs in its ranks. Each program may offer anywhere between 10 and 70 writing courses each semester, in classes of 12 to 25 students. Moreover, the CWPA represents just a fraction of the 4,495 institutions of higher education in the United States, serving some 20 million students. This suggests that even by the most conservative estimate thousands of institutions offer some form of first-year writing, and tens of thousands of students each year — likely many more than that — have opportunities to study the relationships of argument, ethics, and public discourse. Indeed, the first-year writing course is the closest thing we have in American public life to a National Academy of Reasoned Rhetoric, a venue in which students can rehearse the virtues of argument so conspicuously lacking in our current political debates.
Should students bring these virtues to the civic square, they will inevitably transform it, distancing us from the corrosive language of figures such as Rush Limbaugh and moving us toward healthier, more productive, and more generous forms of public argument. This, at any rate, is the promise of the long-maligned first-year writing course.
John Duffy is the Francis O'Malley Director of the University Writing Program and an associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.
Are we holding ourselves to the same rigorous standards we apply to our students? Are we practicing enough of what we preach?
The recent document the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, developed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project, posits eight "habits of mind and experiences that are critical for college success": curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and metacognition.
In a recent exchange on the WPA listserv (subject heading “Measuring the Habits of Mind”) several scholars in writing studies have debated the slippery question of whether these habits of mind can or should be measured or assessed. Most respondents replied with horror at the idea of such motivational terms being put under the scrutiny and micropolicing of assessment. In a passionate reply, one respondent wrote, "If we're going to assess anything, maybe we should start by looking at the conditions in which students are supposed to learn. A student can bring all the curiosity and creativity in the world into a classroom, but it won't help much if what she encounters there is an uninspired, poorly designed course taught by an ill-informed, unreflective dolt who dislikes students as much as the job of teaching (or just spends every hour lecturing 'facts' to students in the manner of Gradgrind)."
In reply to this and other posts, another respondent brought up the fact that a bibliography of selected research accompanies the framework. This teacher-scholar suggests both the importance of and the difficulty inherent in trying to assess (let alone "measure") sociological and psychological habits of mind: "I am sure that it is an odd and willful gesture of our profession, which deals with human beings, to toss so radically out a century of effort by psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychometricians to measure habits of mind — an effort still going strong, though not without plenty of caution, doubt, and resistance within those professions. Indeed, both yearning and qualms have attended the measurement of habits of mind in psychology from the beginning."
While both respondents argue important points to consider in relation to student performances in learning to write and writing-to-learn, the first one above also suggests an important consideration for writing teachers in relation to the eight habits of mind: the fact that these habits of mind should apply just as much to instructors as they do to students. If we ask students to exercise curiosity, then it is only fair to ask: Are we curious as instructors? How do we express that curiosity? Same for openness, engagement, creativity, and all the other terms. It would make little sense, one might argue, to preach to students that they should be exercising (or showcasing or practicing or honing) their engagement and creativity if they are subjected to a teacher in the classroom who drones out boring and uninspiring lesson plans in the classroom.
Unfortunately, I do not have any magical answers to this dilemma. And I certainly do not have the type of psychometric knowledge our more social-scientifically minded colleagues possess. But I do feel the issue is a crucial one for us to consider. The best I can offer fellow teachers of writing is, let’s continue to practice metacognition in our theory and practice. Continue to read books like John Bean’s second edition of Engaging Ideas for tips, pointers, and expert guidance in ways to design inspiring and motivational writing curriculum. Continue to reflect on what students say about us in our course evaluations, and act on revising our teaching performances (and the habits of mind and action that undergird those self-reflections) if we don’t always like what they say. Perhaps readers of this article can offer further suggestions.
There’s a line from one of my favorite films, "Blade Runner," that applies to this situation. Deckard (Harrison Ford) gives a test to Rachel (Sean Young) to see (assess, measure) if she is a replicant (android) or a human being. Later, while visiting Deckard at his home, Rachel asks, “You know that void-comp test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?” Deckard does not reply.
I believe Rachel asks a crucial question that we as teachers should be asking ourselves at least every so often (if not every day). When students — almost always implied — ask us the same question, I hope we can learn how to offer a human-as-possible reply.
Steven J. Corbett is assistant professor of English and director of the composition program at Southern Connecticut State University.