Tag Archives: teaching

What I Remember from Meeting Mary Karr 15 Years Ago

Of her actual talk, not much. I remember liking her, and how her eyes thinned when she smiled. Worse yet, she couldn’t have spoken in the room I’m remembering (which is in Virginia, and I heard her speak at Rollins College, in Florida), and I don’t know who invited her or what she said.

I mean, let’s be honest: what I really remember is me: my question. “How . . . how accurate would you say your dialogue is? In The Liar’s Club?” I asked after her reading. “It, I mean you were just a child when those events happened.”

(Let’s note that I’m using dialogue here, too, now.)

She laughed. “It’s not like I had a tape recorder.”

That’s all I remember from the event. That and a manila envelope she handed me at the end. In it: a short story I had typed and printed, her comments handwritten on it.

I was a college student, taking a creative writing class that I suspected I didn’t much like, writing fiction I also suspected I didn’t much like. (I was probably a sophomore, which makes this a year after my class on the personal essay, a class where I was amazed to like everything I wrote, all of it, every opportunity for weekly essays a chance to say more about me, me, always me, and always beautiful and powerful and my favorite. Why was I even taking fiction?)

But however uncertain I felt about this fiction class, the professor said I would be the one student whose writing would go to visiting author Mary Karr in advance, for her to read and comment on and deliver lovingly at the end of her reading, like a present. I had read The Liar’s Club and liked it (even though I definitely threw it across my dorm room at one point, but it was a sympathetic sort of throwing, a horror at what she went through, you have to believe me here), so I was pleased at being chosen, but I think I was also kind of confused and didn’t really get it. That is, it was a bigger deal to be chosen than I really realized at the time, but I was too wrapped up in how my stories weren’t very good to notice.

When I looked through what I had to send her, I assumed I had to pick something I had written in this fiction class. (Is that true? Did the teacher insist on it?) So instead of giving her one of the essays I loved and wanted to work on forever, I chose a story–but, tellingly, one of those stories that was essentially 90% memoir with 10% fiction. That must be why I liked it: it was about me. (Shh!)

The 90%: someone who was essentially me was talking to someone who was essentially a friend from high school in a fake cafe on a real road by a real marsh. We talked about why our mutual attraction never quite turned into anything beyond friendship and how her later relationships complicated it. The 10%: the cafe didn’t really exist, and neither did the conversation (at least not all at one time, with those words). I called the story “Marsh Land” at the last minute and hoped that its lack of meaningful action or change (one long conversation in one marshy cafe) would make it feel modern or something, like overlong dialogue from a Quentin Tarantino movie.

What I remember from Karr’s feedback: only one thing: the moment, 3/4 of the way through the story, where I accidentally used “I” instead of “he” on a dialogue tag. She caught it, writing something like “A telling mistake?” in the margin. Mortified, I stuffed the manuscript back in the envelope. I never revised the story.

Next fall, I’m teaching creative nonfiction for the third time, and we’re reading Karr–The Liar’s Club, of course, paired with her new The Art of Memoir. While I eat lunch in my office these days, so much like the office of my essay and fiction professors, I’m reading Lit, her third memoir, chapter by chapter, each little chunk now associated with the salad or sandwich I brought that day.

So she’s on my mind a lot these days. And every time she shares something, here in her books, it has that feeling of a person honoring someone else with the truest meaning they have at their disposal, and I smile and nod in thanks, realizing that all I gave her was a cover-up, a not-quite-really-myself character who I couldn’t even bury as far as I thought I could, and I never even took her advice about how to make him work better.

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Don’t Read the Comments: Teaching Fallacies

Yesterday I pulled one of those last-minute changes to teaching plans, and I think I need to think it through a bit here to figure out what I think.

My students in Rhetoric 102 (an argument/research course) are reading Lunsford and Ruszkiewicz’s Everything’s an Argument, and we’re scheduled to talk about fallacies this morning (in half an hour, in fact). Now, I’ve never liked teaching fallacies–it always smacks too much of memorizing terms that aren’t very useful (despite the usefulness of being able to spot fallacies in practice). In previous semesters, I’ve skipped this chapter, using a different textbook. But this is my first time with this book, so I thought I’d dig in.

Unsure of exactly what I would do, I tossed onto my schedule long ago that on individual computers in the lab, we would find fallacies on Daily Kos (liberal) and Instapundit (conservative), sites that the book recommended as places to find things to analyze. But when I actually sat down yesterday and spent time browsing the sites, I got distracted.

Specifically, by this: “Racists Respond to Article about Racism” on Daily Kos. Author UberGoober is responding to a couple of other articles discussing the use of the word nude as a default word meaning “the color of nude skin if you’re white.” Here’s how he links to the first article and responds to it:

Replacing the Fashion Industry’s Definition of “Nude”

At first, I found myself chuckling over the premise of the article. Of course the author wasn’t wrong, but… Really? Is that such a big problem? Silly college kids…  But finally the author got to her real point:

We aren’t trying to condemn the entire fashion industry or all manufacturers of commercial goods as intentionally racist. What we are saying is there are subtle instances of racism ingrained into our daily lives; instances so commonplace they often go unnoticed.

Wow. Bingo! The author is absolutely right.

But here’s where it gets nasty: when a conservative site later cites the OU story to make fun of it, UberGoober read the comments . . . and he says that every single comment was nasty. Here’s how he ends:

For some reason, I was surprised by this. I know not all conservatives are racist.  But it is so commonplace now that it goes unrebutted. Not a single person pointing out the inappropriate responses or suggesting the author may just have a point. Not one.

I’m disgusted. I used to respect the differences between liberals and conservatives (for the record, I used to  be a conservative). There’s nothing to respect here. They aren’t driven by viable alternative political views. They are driven by willful ignorance, bigotry and hatred. And they like it that way.

Ugh, I thought. Here’s an author who tried to dig into fallacious reasoning and just got disgusted by what he found. And I was feeling the same thing. So how was I supposed to deal with this in class–was there a way to work this into a lesson on fallacies? I don’t know. But here’s what I decided:

This morning (in 20 minutes, now), we’ll go to the computer lab. I’ll tell the story of my poking around and finding those articles. Then we’ll open a shared Google Doc that says this:

Practice Identifying Fallacies

I find that people are especially likely to use fallacies when discussing “isms”: qualities like racism or sexism that stir up passionate debate on both sides.

To explore the ways fallacies work in practice, follow these steps:

  1. Skim the list of “isms” from this page, run by the Social Justice Center at Washington University in St. Louis. Focus especially on ones you aren’t as familiar with.
  2. Pick one of the isms and search for it in Google News’s blog search, which is more likely to give you an opinionated point of view than a factual news story. (You may search for a related word if you like–so you can search ableism or ableist.) Here’s how to search:
    • Head to Google News at https://news.google.com/.
    • Search for your word. The results will include news sources and blogs.
    • Underneath the search bar, you can now click “Search tools.” That will make a new bar appear; on it, click “All news” and select “Blogs” instead.

screenshot of Google News

Now your results are all from blogs!

  1. Skim through the search results until you find an opinionated piece that interests you. It might be an article you agree with, disagree with, or aren’t sure about.
  2. Read the article in search of fallacies. Don’t forget to skim the comments! Use EAA ch. 5 for examples of things to look for. If you’re not finding anything, ask yourself, “Is there a part of this argument that I don’t agree with, or that I can imagine someone else not agreeing with?
  3. If you find some fallacies, report them below, under the horizontal line, following my example. If you can use the term from the book, that’s awesome–but if you can’t quite put your finger on how to name the fallacy, that’s okay too. Just describe it so the rest of us (who haven’t read your article) will know what you found. 

Copy the following template, paste it at the bottom of this document, and then fill it in with what you found.

Your name:
Link to webpage you read: [if you hit the space bar right after pasting, it will turn into a link]
Author and title of the webpage: [put the title of the page in quotation marks and capitalize all the big words]
Fallacies you found: [in your own words]

Your name: Dr. Stedman
Link to webpage you read: http://www.oudaily.com/opinion/editorials/replacing-the-fashion-industry-s-definition-of-nude/article_b1280ffc-376b-11e4-9332-0017a43b2370.html
Author and title of the webpage: By The Editorial Board (no author named), “Replacing the Fashion Industry’s Definition of ‘Nude’”
Fallacies you found:  The first commenter compares the article author to ISIS, essentially saying that these “rigid ideas about women’s clothing” are similar to conservative Islam’s requirements that women dress in a certain way. It seems like a fallacious comparison to me–criticizing the word “nude” in fashion is very different than actually regulating what people wear. If I turn to the book, it’s closest to the “faulty analogy,” I think (87-88).

[End of document, with space where they’ll fill in their findings]

Here’s language that I included at first but took out to make the document easier to use:

Side note: Why are fallacies more common on these topics?

My guess is that this is often because of a fundamental disagreement about how to define the “ism.”

An example: some people see racism as relating to a particular moral failure in a particular moment, kind of like saying that a statement was “hateful.” They might say, “A racist statement is one that was purposefully designed to hurt someone of a different race.”

But others see racism as a broad element that is built into a culture at the deepest levels. These people might say, “A racist statement is one that relies on the deep history of inequality that shapes our ideas and relationships and language.” Therefore, a racist statement might not be a purposefully hateful statement, from this point of view–it might be evidence of a deeper cultural problem.

So consider people with these two very different perspectives arguing about if something is or is not racist. How could they ever agree with each other? In that frustration, I think many turn to fallacious arguments.

So why am I telling you all this? I’m not sure. But it’s bugging me more than usual, our inability to have civil discourse, the disturbing nastiness that is lingering under so many of our facades. I mean, I’m a Presbyterian–I shouldn’t be surprised by disturbing nastiness lingering under facades; it’s part of my worldview. But when you see it come out in the comments, it’s a different thing somehow.

And yes, I know what you’re going to say: Kyle, don’t read the comments. Never read the comments.


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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:


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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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Sirc, Shipka, Summers

Note: This post is my response to Michael J. Faris’s call for a CCCarnival–individual bloggers responding to the same piece in CCC–on Geoffrey Sirc’s recent review essay “Resisting Entropy” (pdf). Check out Michael’s original post for links to other responses.

I guess I should respond to the most controversial points Sirc makes in his essay: his call that we reconsider “composition’s sniffy attitude toward literariness” (510), his frustration with our preference for “savoring ideas” over “savoring prose,” his diss of “us[ing] student texts as the central content focus of a course” (516), and his surprising willingness to throw peer review out the window (518). I’m sure those are the things the other CCCarnival writers will be writing about, so I ought to as well. (I haven’t read anyone else’s responses yet, on purpose.)

But really, I’m thinking about Buffy. Namely, this video that made the rounds a while back:

(And ooh! A pop-up video version!) It’s been discussed to death a million times, but what makes this vid so important is that its creator Jonathan McIntosh wrote so much solid and public commentary on the rhetorical purposes he had in mind when he told this story of Buffy dusting Edward (which we might call meta in a fic/vid context). I.e. he wasn’t just playing around, but he wanted to alert people to the dangerous visions of masculinity and femininity built into the Twilight universe.

After reading Sirc’s piece, my guess is that  our pedagogical visions are most aligned when it comes to texts like “Buffy vs. Edward”: I suspect we both value classes that study texts that blur the boundaries between what counts as rhetoric or poetics and that happily include pop culture (even “literary” texts that tell stories instead of make heavy-handed points). So from that starting point, I felt myself aligned with Sirc on many of his points: his critique of Thomas Miller’s focus on political speeches at the expense of popular culture, his unabashed love for the prose of Henry James (enshrined in the #sircisms hashtag that Trent M. Kays has hilariously begun using), his praise of Byron Hawk’s and Jody Shipka’s moves to dismantle the rhetoric/poetic split, and his plea that we “shake off the gloom” of writing studies and writing itself.

Much of his advice seems to come back to a privileging of style as the heart of what we should be teaching in composition classes–style that is surprising, lively, gut-punchingly-dynamic. And on many days, I’m with him on that. When I turned extra attention to sentences themselves, rhetorical figures, and even They Say, I Say-derived templates in my last expository writing class, I started to feel that students were really learning writing in more concrete, beauty-infused ways than in any of my previous classes. And from Sirc’s glowing review, it sounds like Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole is about the best thing ever, partly because of its emphasis on surprise and effectiveness, but also partly because of her embrace of multimodality and her study of how composers actually compose. (Seriously, I’ve been telling people to pay more attention to composing processes for a while now; it feels affirming to hear that Shipka is helping us out with this needed gap in our knowledge.)

In the midst of all my gushing, though, I can sense myself avoiding the controversies I listed above. I suppose that’s partly because I don’t know what I think about all of them, but I admit that there’s also that bit of fear as a young scholar in the field who knows he hasn’t read everything everywhere; it’s hard to throw in your oar when you feel you might risk saying the wrong thing, annoying the wrong people. I mention that teardrop of fear not (just?) to gain a bit of sympathy, but to point out that these issues of literature in the classroom, the idea/prose split, the use of student texts, and peer review are all high-stakes issues that many have dedicated their hours to dissecting and discussing. It makes me wonder if the sheer bulk of scholarship our field has produced leads more often to the “gloom” that Sirc describes or more often to those discoveries of “the faintest hints of life” that renew our conversations and keep us going. That’s a study in itself: the attitudes and fears of young scholars who are inventing the university in their own ways.

But with that said, my one-sentence takes on some of the #sircisms that are sure to spark the most discussion:

  • Literature in the classroom: Let’s allow that lit can be useful for studies of style and the ways rhetorical points are blended with poetic surroundings (The Hunger Games, anyone?), but let’s always fight to keep class time from turning into a never-ending literature class that privileges the study of texts over their creation.
  • Ideas vs. prose: Let’s revive our interest in prose as Sirc (and Hawk?) promotes, but let’s not fall into the other trap (that Sirc is falling into) of dismissing the crucial work our field can do in areas of civic engagement and critical pedagogy.
  • Student texts: As someone who says that he values student writing so much in his classrooms (top of 516), I don’t understand why Sirc seems so hellbent on criticizing Harris, Miles, and Paine’s collection so thoroughly–especially since it seems hard for me to believe (having not read the book–or any of the four books Sirc reviews, by the way) that so many of the differently authored chapters take the “unnerving” (515) direction Sirc describes.
  • Peer review: I keep moving back and forth between Gut Reaction 1–“Sirc is simply transferring his own dislike of peer review to students, who can get seriously awesome writing instruction from a solid peer review session”–and Gut Reaction 2–“But even when I structure it well, peer review does so often seem to fail. . . .”

Finally, a note on the review’s medium and mode: after watching that Buffy video above, I can’t help but imagine what a live acted video review would look like, and what its strengths and weaknesses might be. I see Sirc in the Buffy (or Angel?) role, walking down a dark street in Sunnydale, Sex Pistols in the background. Thomas Miller, a vamp, leaps out and starts spouting his history of literary and literacy studies, but Sirc (because this is Sirc’s video, his review of these four books) stakes him. Hawk and Shipka approach, and Sirc gives them each a high five; maybe they make small talk about Hawk’s counter-history or Shipka’s pedagogies. But eventually, they make it to their destination: a large catacomb guarded by Harris, Miles, Paine, and all the authors of their collection, and a battle begins. Every time someone throws a punch, they make a claim: “Student [umph] texts [ugh] should be [POW!] the center of [arrgh!] our classes!” “No! [KAZAM!] They shouldn’t!”

There’s an obvious reason this is a bad (even mean) analogy: Buffy was fighting the minions of evil, staking demons and vampires who were hellbent on killing. Our conversations are much more even, with both sides having valid points that deserve attention. And I applaud work that moves us away from the agonistic model of scholarly discourse. Really, I do. But still, I dream of a review essay genre that tells a story, makes its points through a blend of the discursive and nondiscursive, and leaves audiences both entertained and thinking about the issues long after the review is over–much like Buffy vs. Edward.

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Go Read: YouTube and Fair Use

Teacher-friends, I especially urge you to check out a couple of smart posts over at viz. on YouTube’s automatic system for flagging copyrighted material on uploaded material:

What I especially like (besides the wonderfully subtle–or not?–image at the top of each post) is the thoughtful walkthrough of the implications of YouTube’s policy here, which in effect uses very smart tech-driven copyright-detection solutions to spot possible copyright infringements and then freak out confused users, who may be completely within fair use rights but who aren’t really encouraged to understand what that means.
The author (not sure who; it’s listed as being by snelson, who isn’t on the viz. contributors page) writes,
While YouTube doesn’t deny users their Fair Use rights, as such a practice would be illegal, they certainly frame the debate in such a way to make exercising Fair Use difficult. . . . However, even when “educating” the public about copyright, YouTube errs on the side of copyright for owners’ rights.
Seriously. I can’t wait to talk through some of this with students–except I’m not teaching this semester! Curses!
I wonder what Tarleton Gillespie would have to say about this. . . .

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Grading and Voting

This morning, I’m listening to OverClocked ReMix radio over at Rainwave. I enjoy the complex interactivity of the voting system, which allows me both to rate songs I’ve heard and vote on which of 3 upcoming songs I want to hear.

A few minutes ago, though, I had a new thought: as someone who regularly grades student work, including short, informal, online work, do I vote differently than someone else who doesn’t have those judging/scoring/grading habits as deeply ingrained? Or, more perversely, is my grading behavior affected by my habits voting on music on this site?

Here’s an annotated screenshot of what the voting area of the screen looks like:

Annotated screenshot of ocr.rainwave.cc

With videogame remix music (or ReMix music, they would say), there’s a fun interplay of influences guiding my voting. I might choose a given song because:

  • I know the game and love its music
  • I know the original game’s composer and love his/her music
  • I know the ReMixer and love his/her ReMixes
  • I’ve previously rated how much I like the other 2 tunes on the docket, so I want to hear one I’ve never rated before
  • The average rating for a tune is higher than the others
  • The average rating for tunes from a given game is higher than the others

There’s something satisfying about quickly (almost instantly, sometimes) skimming the list of upcoming tracks, voting on which should come next, and then rating the currently playing track. It’s intuitive, sometimes hard to describe, and felt, as opposed to a solidly logical choice based on definable traits of the upcoming tracks. I could have a rubric to try to make my choices make more sense to outsiders, but that rubric would only go so far.

I hope my grading is more consistent and outcomes-driven than that, but especially on small assignments that earn a check, check plus, or check minus, there’s still an intuitive, emotion-tinged, bodily aspect to the decision that can never be wholly explained to another person. And right now, I’m not sure what I think about that. Thoughts? Resources I should read?

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Garfield v. Ginsberg: Arguing with Myself

I’m thrilled to begin teaching expository writing tomorrow, modeled on a professor‘s experiments in teaching expository writing as digital citizenship through blogging. The thing that is least decided at this point is the question of sound: how much shall we practice reading aloud, and how shall I explain why I believe in the live, voiced, spirited language that is both heard and read? (Yes, that’s shall. We’re in serious territory here, baby.)

Soaking myself in these questions, I picked up some old Peter Elbow this morning. In some ways I was encouraged, especially in his descriptions of how writing often trains our ears to pick up on mysterious resonances in writing. But he also says some things about audience that I’ll have to confront in a class about blogging–which is in many ways predicated on the crucial shaping effects of writing with audiences. In Writing with Power (the 1981 edition, bought in a low-ceilinged, yellow-lighted library bookstore in DC), Elbow writes:

Real voice. People often avoid it and drift into fake voices because of the need to face an audience. I have to go to work, I have to make a presentation, I have to teach, I have to go to a party, I have to have dinner with friends. Perhaps I feel lost, uncertain, baffled–or else angry–or else uncaring–or else hysterical. I can’t sound that way with all these people. They won’t understand, they won’t know how to deal with me, and I won’t accomplish what I need to accomplish. Besides, perhaps I don’t even know how to sound the way I feel. (When we were little we had no difficulty sounding the way we felt; thus most little children speak and write with real voice.) Therefore I will use some of the voices I have at my disposal that will serve the audience and the situation–voices I’ve learned by imitation or made up out of desperation or out of my sense of humor. I might as well. By now, those people think those voices are me. If I used my real voice, they might think I was crazy. (306)

There’s a lot there, and I know I’ve broken like every blogging recommendation by going on for so long. But I think his point needs to be dealt with: whether the voices we put on for audiences crowd out our ability to write with a real sense of power, real resonance, real voice.

I’ll be asking my students to write dialogues as freewriting on the first day of class, so I might as well try it here, since my feelings on this are kind of split and uncertain:

  • The part of me that looks like a 19th century photo of a staunch, bearded president, like James A. Garfield: Well, Elbow’s point has obvious problems. When, exactly, am I writing with my “real” self? No, really–I want you to point it out to me.
  • The part of me that looks like a hippy–perhaps if James A. Garfield stopped grooming, like Allen Ginsberg or something: But don’t you feel sometimes like you have a real self? When you write something that feels true and honest, doesn’t it feel true and honest and good? Couldn’t you point out those moments in your writing?
  • Garfield: Well, I suppose. But that’s not the point. The point is that I believe we always put on rhetorically chosen selves when we communicate with different audiences. These rhetorically chosen selves are collectively “ourselves.”
  • Ginsburg: Um, that’s really sad. Seriously, do you know how sad that sounds? You’re basically adopting the persona of secular humanism here, pushing aside all possibility of spirit, of true identity. And more to the point, you’re pushing aside the possibility that writing can be more resonant when writers push aside their fears of how audiences will judge them. That’s the real point here, isn’t it?
  • Garfield: But you can’t just push aside audience concerns, especially in the age of blogging. [Garfield pulls out an iPad or something in the portrait?] Audiences who don’t jive with how you’ve chosen to write won’t take the time to keep reading; they can go elsewhere, to places that fit their discourse style. Audience is king.
  • Ginsburg: If audience is king, then you’d better make sure that you don’t lose something personal and precious in the transaction. In other words, be careful that all that catering to audience doesn’t lead you to ape the content that you think those audiences want to hear. Say the things that you want to say, and to an extent, push the boundaries of what they expect, too. I mean, people like to be surprised, man.

So that’s that. I kind of thought writing this out would lead me to more fully embrace one side or the other, but instead I feel less decided than ever–but more comfortable with my indecision than ever. Nice.

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What is Expository Writing?

I’m not sure I know, and I don’t think you do either.

Let’s look at some definitions of expository writing, all from .edu sites. First, a site that is, oddly enough, hosted at Stanford’s website but updated by people with umich.edu emails, “Information about Expository Writing“:

Exposition is a type of oral or written discourse that is used to explain, describe, give information or inform. The creator of an expository text can not assume that the reader or listener has prior knowledge or prior understanding of the topic that is being discussed. One important point to keep in mind for the author is to try to use words that clearly show what they are talking about rather then blatantly telling the reader what is being discussed. Since clarity requires strong organization, one of the most important mechanisms that can be used to improve our skills in exposition is to provide directions to improve the organization of the text.

The first sentence stops me with a bit of a “Huh?” (This will be a continuing pattern.) I suppose this definition is trying to carve out a space for exposition that is different than persuasion, but the more I think about, the less I buy it. When are we not explaining/informing? There’s lots of explaining in persuasive discourse. We could even make a case that there is a sort of “explaining” that happens in nondiscursive forms, like music and visual art.

But what makes this definition stand out is its focus on what all this explaining means for a writer: that you focus really, really hard on having clear organization. So exposition is all about clarity, which seems to say, “Do you want to make turns toward the creative, toward the beautiful, toward the purposefully roundabout, toward the non-Western? Well, this isn’t the place, buster!” (Am I being too harsh?)

Here’s how expository writing is defined at WikiEd, a College of Education endeavor at the U of Illinois Urbana-Champaign:

Expository writing is the process of writing to communicate information to an audience. It is often an explanation or a process, and tends to emphasize well-organized and concise information.

Again, my first reaction is kind of a dumbfounded silence. “Okay,” I should ask myself when writing, “am I communicating information? Is it for an audience? I guess it’s expository writing, and I ought to be well-organized and concise!”

Professor Marilyn Ivanovici posts a pdf handout on “The Elements of Effective Expository Writing,” listing 12 of them. Here we learn that

The purpose of expository writing is to explain something, that is, to provide readers with information worth knowing and thinking about.

And by implication, other forms of writing/communication are of the kind that aren’t necessarily worth thinking about….? (I’m being harsh, I’ve decided.)

Finally, there’s a chart of possible organizational structures you can use in your expository writing over at Marla DeSoto’s page at Glendale Community College. I find I like this better, if only because of the way the page design emphasizes that there isn’t a single, rigid, 5-paragraph essay design that will give you the best expository writing. We’re told that organization matters because “one of the most important mechanisms to improve skills in exposition is to improve the organization of the text.”

That leads me to Big Question #1: In what ways, exactly, is this emphasis on clarity and organizational perfection different from professional writing? The answer: expository writing instruction seems to focus on making students better at the imaginary academic essay genre, while professional writing seems to focus on making students better at real professional writing genres that they’ll encounter in “the workplace” (whatever that is). I didn’t see any emphasis on these pages on using bullets, headings, extraordinarily clear first sentences. So why are we so dedicated to keeping up this front of artful, essayistic indirection when we tell students over and over to be clear?

Which leads to Big Question #2: If we want our students to use artful, essayistic indirection, to be perfect little Montaignes, why not use examples and techniques from creative writing? There’s plenty of amazing work going on in the creative nonfiction and memoir world right now, and there’s a lot that can be learned from the creative writing workshop model that would help our students find a more engaging style, more natural and beautiful forms of organization, and so on.

But here’s the thing: let’s not present students with the claim that they have to somehow find a middle ground between these professional and creative writing poles, that they must write  stunningly, beautifully, and still with absolute clarity. Right? Wouldn’t some genres/situations demand more or less of this, not both at the same time?

So in the end, I’m not saying I know what expository writing is. I think I’d rather say that nonfiction writers choose from a variety of techniques, depending on the particular rhetorical situation they’re in, and that those situations may demand more or less clarity, more or less pizazz.

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Faking Out Your Readers

I’ve been listening to Jack McDevitt‘s Time Travelers Never Die on the way to and from campus these days. (I was slogging through Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, which I think would be an excellent book to read on paper but which wasn’t the best for listening.) McDevitt’s book so far, after listening to half it, is a fun romp, but I can’t quite tell yet if it’s more. But this morning I heard an interesting chapter that I wanted to think through here:

The time travelers have traveled to the library in Alexandria, hung out with Aristarchus, and scanned a few of Sophocles’ lost plays. When they return home to 2019, they send one to a scholar, who reads it to try to discover its authenticity–she knows nothing of the time travel. McDevitt summarizes the play, the Achilles, for his readers, but he doesn’t give any of the actual dialogue.

The layers of fiction here are intriguing, no? The scholar is reading the play trying to discover if it’s really by Sophocles, and as she does so we readers think, almost simultaneously,

  1. “Come on! The plot sounds so Sophoclean because it is Sophoclean! They really got it from the past, so it’s totally valid! Believe it!” And,
  2. “Wait, this play doesn’t actually exist in the real world–I almost forgot! It sounds real to us in summary, but that summary was carefully constructed by McDevitt to sound authentic as part of his novel.”

In other words, the summary sounds so much like Sophocles that we’re supposed to root for a character to believe that it’s real, even as we know that it isn’t real. We’re rooting for ourselves to be faked out by a forgery. And the fact that we’re carefully given a summary but no actual dialogue helps ensure that the summary will succeed in sounding valid; we’re given only so much information on which to judge.

Is there a connection here to teaching composition here? I’m not sure . . . but I’m reminded of Candace Spigelman’s “Teaching Expressive Writing as a Narrative Fiction,” which I read two or three years ago. She tackles the question of students inventing life stories when writing assigned personal narrative essays, reminding us that all personal narratives are constructed, dishonest in one sense or another. (I’m oversimplifying.)

So I find myself approving of McDevitt’s complex rhetorical move, wondering if there’s a lesson there about constructing layers of meaning and truth in writing of any genre, layering sources with reports about sources and my own narratives about sources in a way that constructs the reader’s understanding exactly as I want it to. And that’s something worth giving students practice in . . . somehow.

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