Thinking Outside the Modes

This fall, the English 101 class I’ll be teaching is structured with a healthy mix of standardization and instructor leeway. That is, there are a few things that must be present in every section across the college, but there’s lots that I can jiggle around.

As I’ve been looking through the required textbook, though, I keep feeling this desire to challenge it, to think outside of its boxes. It’s quite solidly rooted in a modes approach (though expanded with plenty more than the classic 4, exposition, argumentation, description, narration)–which I think can be helpful in so far as the modes are differentiated from genres.

Like, the book has a chapter on Examples, which culminates in advice on how to write an “exemplification essay.” This is dumb. There is no such thing as an exemplification essay, and if there were, no one would read it–that is, unless it also had qualities of all sorts of other modes too, which all writing does and that’s obvious so why are we talking about it.

But there are all sorts of genres of communication that are more effective when people use examples well. So yes, let’s talk about how to use examples well in writing and talking and all sorts of multimodal genres, but let’s not isolate “exemplification” as something that can be studied all alone, as if it were a hamburger that you put under a glass dome and watched scientifically. While reading in genres where I expect to see good examples (scholarly essays, newspaper accounts of events, blog posts trying to persuade me of something), I often find myself skeptical because of the lack of good examples. So yes, let’s give writers lots of practice at choosing and integrating them.

All that said, here’s my point: according to the all-section guidelines, this class must give students practice in two out of the following three: definition, compare/contrast, and cause/effect. It also must give them practice at argumentation, which needs to rely on at least two of those modes. So I want to use this space (why not?) to brainstorm some of the many communication genres where these modes could be used.

Part of this comes from another thing I noticed in the textbook: about 1/3 of the readings (it’s a “reader for writers”) are from newspapers (nearly all from–can you guess?–The New York Times). And the more I think about it, the less I think that my 101 class is a course on newspaper writing. Sure, there’s lots of good stuff in there, and lots of good examples of people defining things in interesting, rhetorically powerful ways.

But for goodness sakes, I’d rather teach a class where students practice all kinds of defining (and cause/effecting, and compare/contrasting) in all kinds of genres, and are then equipped to use that basic practice as the ground on which they’ll stand when asked to perform all kinds of other communication tasks in the future, the scope and details of which I am absolutely unable to predict (and so are you).

So: let’s brainstorm. Off the top of my head, some genres in which rhetors will need to know how to use:

Definition

  • Identity-focused journal entries (“Who am I?”)
  • Scientific journal entries (like Lewis and Clark or Darwin, cataloging species for the first time)
  • The beginning of a verbal argument (“Now let’s be clear on what we’re talking about….”)
  • Wikipedia entries
  • Science fiction stories (where new technologies should be gracefully introduced, not explained through awkward speeches)
  • Labels on products (where the question of what something is–leather or pleather?–can make a big difference)
  • Video documentaries, especially those that focus on unusual places/phenomena (“What you’re seeing is….”)
  • Sonatas (when the music played after a brief introduction is “defined” as the main theme, to be developed throughout the piece)

So definition is fundamentally the establishment of something’s being. To define is to label, to explain, to name, to exert an understanding and controlling power over. It’s in the realm of science more than art (or is it?). It’s the end of The Matrix Reloaded, not the end of Lost. (See Damon Lindelof on this comparison in this amazing interview.) (It’s the moments that are explained in parentheses, not the moments that are left ambiguous, struck through.) It’s ontology: what are you? Writing definitions is the act of naming, of Adam watching the beasts pass and exerting a power over them. But to encounter a definition is to have a moment of sharing, not of domination: it’s to identify with someone who wants you to understand something, who wants to assert an equality with you that wasn’t there before her definition brought you up to her level.

Comparison/Contrast

  • Conversations with friends who are trying to make difficult decisions
  • Lists for yourself when you’re trying to make difficult decisions (“But if we move to the inner city we’ll save a lot of money….”)
  • Product review websites
  • Proposals to your boss about which course of action to take
  • Blog posts describing the best way to bake bread
  • YouTube videos that demonstrate the cinematographic and sound-design decisions used to affect viewers’ emotions in big studio films
  • Arguments on a 24-hour news channel
  • Political fliers in the mailbox
  • Reviews of academic books, movies, songs, whatever (“It’s missing the pizzazz of Moulin Rouge! but retains the emotional upheaval of Romeo + Juliet.”)
  • Scientific descriptions of the differences between related bugs (“Though the pincers are similar on both, notice the elongated thorax in species B.”)

The move to compare and contrast is usually a move to assert the reasons for your opinions. It’s justification. It’s “Look, I’m not crazy. This really is the right decision. There are all these things in favor of it, but only two things against it.” Of course, it’s not always: sometimes you want to help people make a good decision on their own, you want to use your expertise to lay out the various overlaps and divergences so they can be well informed, like on ConsumerSearch or when you’re a counselor. But that disinterestedness seems so rare, so gem-like, so ripe for self-deception, as someone tells himself over and over that he just wants to compare and contrast two decisions so she can decide even though he has so-so subtly tried to make the evidence lean in his favor.

Cause/Effect

  • Warning labels (“If you stick your finger in the hole during operation, do not expect to retain it for long.”)
  • Jazz improvisation (I play this collection of notes, she responds with that one; I decide to move this way, and she responds with that.)
  • Proverbs (“If you want this outcome, you should start with this action.”)
  • Plot summaries (“And then he went down this hill, but that made the hill disintegrate! So he got into a refrigerator, but that made him run out of air! And….”)
  • Slippery-slope speeches (“Mark my words, if we allow this moral travesty to continue, we’ll have some dire consequences to deal with later.”)
  • Recipes (“If you beat your eggs for the full five minutes, you should see a nicely puffed, lightly browned top to the souffle by now.”)

The language of causes and effects is the language of predictions, of asserting a control over time. It’s a claim that the way things have been in the past leads us to understand the way things will be in the future. Therefore, it’s not the language of chaos theory, postmodernism, or true love (which instead says that actions of love will continue to be the effect that follows inevitable human failings). Cause/effect is instead the world of Sherlock Holmes and Bean, both of whom are portrayed as so smart that they can look at effects and understand the exact and only causes that could have led to those effects. They are absolutely in control. This is also the language of warnings and hopes, anything that looks to the future with human emotion attached to it, fearing and hoping that certain causes won’t lead to certain effects.

What should I add?

While we’re on different ways of classifying discourse, I’d kind of like to host a video/audio contest where everyone takes the video, audio, or both from this video and remixes it into new fantasticness. Kinneavy have I loved:

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