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As someone who has taught writing to both native English speakers and second-language learners, I’ve noticed something of a “two cultures” situation between these ventures.  The former is dominated by English departments, generally, while the latter is dominated by linguistics.  These two groups have different ideas about how writing should be taught.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about where my own views fit in.  To help figure this out, I’ve drafted a short statement of how I teach writing, a “this I believe” statement, you could say.  Here it is:

  • A writer improves by writing.  The job of the writing teacher is to create an environment in which the writer has to write.
  • To write is to create meanings (interpretations of our shared world) and make those meanings understood.  As such, the student writer must receive constant feedback as to how her meanings are received.
  • Increased linguistic sophistication is achieved when a writer is forced to create meanings beyond the forms on which she normally relies.  The learning environment should be structured to encourage such movement.
  • Conscious knowledge of the writing act (grammatical rules, names for textual features or stages of the writing process) is useful to a limited extent.  The introduction of such knowledge should always be subordinate to active meaning-making.

Reviewing my claims, a number of things stick out.  First, as is perhaps apparent, I make no distinction, on a theoretical level, between teaching native and non-native speakers.  In all cases, I’d argue, teaching writing is a matter of triggering the innate human tendency towards meaning-making.  We learn a second language, I’d say, the same way we learn a first language: by doing it.

Second, my sidelining of the conscious elements of the learning process might surprise some.  Now, I admit that some knowledge of basic textual forms is beneficial.  For example, the idea that it often improves uptake to say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you said (introduction-body-conclusion) is something everyone should know.  In my experience, though, by the time they get to me (a university writing instructor), most students already know such rules, at least in the abstract.  If there’s a problem, it’s that they can’t actualize this knowledge.  This means that presenting ideas about how writing is or should be is usually not an efficient use of class time.  Instead, the students should be the ones producing the content.  They should be doing the writing and thinking, not the teacher.

Third, the ecological nature of writing should be respected.  Smaller units of discourse are inevitably shaped by the larger units of which they are a part: a word gets its meaning from a sentence, a sentence from a paragraph, etc.  This means that you should be very careful about decontextualizing language units.  Consider the sentence.  If you want better (richer, more technically correct) sentences, you can’t focus solely on individual sentences.  Instead, each sentence must be engaged within a larger discursive structure.  This is what I’m trying to get at when I speak of students creating “meanings.”  Meaning, as used here, is a complete idea, projected into the world for a purpose.  This purpose, in turn, shapes each sentence, paragraph, etc.  By focusing on meanings (instead of decontextualized units) students learn to engage in the dialectic between part and whole which is inherent in the writing act.  This helps them become better writers.

Finally, the value of difficulty should be acknowledged.  Students must write, but to grow, they must do more than just write: they need to move beyond the forms they typically rely on.  This implicates content.  Students need to be forced to write about things they haven’t written about before.  And these topics should be complex (relevant to the student’s current level).  Even if students are writing every day, I’d argue, their growth will be limited if the topics they are writing about are too simplistic or too familiar.  In such cases, they’re just displaying their abilities, rather than expanding those abilities.

That’s it.  The above ideas are largely draw from (American, English-department based) composition theory.  I honestly don’t know how they would be received in ESL circles.  But I welcome any discussion the above might spark.

Attunement.  A word I often deploy (e.g., my recent claim that writing instruction involves, at heart, the cultivation of an “ethics of attunement”).  Lately though, I’ve come to think that I’ve been using this term somewhat thoughtlessly.  In the following I’d like to map out attunement’s various meanings, and in the process, argue for a redefinition that foregrounds attunement as a conscious act.

At the most basic level, attunement implicates sound.  A group of individuals is “in tune” when the members of that group vibrate at the same resonance or pitch.  Attunement is the act of moving into alignment with the group’s shared frequency.  There’s an interesting mix of conscious and unconscious, mental and material elements at play in such a act (which perhaps explains attunement’s recent popularity as a means to describe writing and rhetoric).

Attunement, it seems to me, can be driven by an articulable desire—intent to attune, we might say—or it can be totally outside the realm of conscious control.  It can be a rational, step-by-step process of experimentation and adjustment (as when a singer flexes his throat muscles, trying to match a note on a scale) or it can be something that the body seems to do completely on its own (as when we find ourselves becoming nervous around a nervous person).  There’s always some bodily or material aspect at play.  Attunement can never take place completely in the mind or “on paper.”  We’d never say that one formal equation, for example, is in tune with another.  Relatedly, attunement implicates the emotional or affective.  Within psychology, I am told, attunement indicates how in touch one is with the moods or emotional states of another.  To be attuned is to register, and respond, to those states.

So attunement casts a wide net, indicating the ability, either conscious or unconscious, of one entity to adapt (by physically adapting) to another.  With its hint of emotional receptivity, and related ability to capture so much beyond the logical, the term has become commonplace in rhetoric and composition.  Like “care” or “hospitality,” attunement is almost always used in a positive sense.  If we dig a bit deeper though, we realize that attunement is in fact ambiguous, both morally and otherwise.  To be able to intuite that your friend is upset, and display sympathy, is attunement, sure.  But Hitler, for example, also showed a great degree of attunement in his ability to register the energy of German crowds and replicate that energy in his own bodily movements.  So attunement can be for good or ill.

As noted, I have recently written of composition’s ethics of attunement.  In that discussion I used attunement to capture composition’s commitment to teaching students how to know what needs to be done in a given rhetorical situation.  This process is never totally cerebral: we have to be able to “read” the emotional tenor of an audience, for example.  It’s never completely outwardly focused either: we have to constantly monitor both the situation and ourselves, wary of the ways in which our biases and predispositions shape what we see and feel.  My original argument was that via this dual focus we can help bring our thinking and action in line with what is demanded by a situation.  This ability to attune is ultimately what makes a good writer.

Integrally, attunement, as described above, always involves an act of judgement.  I obscured this fact in previous discussions and would like to make it clear now.  As commonly used, attunement—because it is so extra-rational—seems to imply that one has no choice in the matter.  If the crowd wants a speaker to stroke their anger, this thinking goes, the attuned rhetor is one who provides it.  To go against the crowd, to keep breathing regular and heartbeat steady when all around you breaths and beats are racing, represents a lack of attunement, yes?  As the term is conventionally used, this seems to be the case.

We don’t want to teach student-writers to be like Hitler (obviously).  So how can we understand attunement in a more sophisticated manner?  We need a force which checks attunement.  What force though?  To what is the process of adaptation responsible?  The answer, I’d like to suggest, is the ideal.  The ideal is the good, that towards which we strive and by which we measure our practice.  It is a verbalizable statement (not a feeling or “vibe”) and necessarily abstract.  It is actualized via stories which illustrate the application of the ideal in specific contexts.  For example, one might say that she is driven by a commitment to “Justice.”  She might know stories– specific, context-rich examples– of when justice prevailed and when it did not.  Given a situation, it is her responsibility to measure that situation, and compare it to her set of stories.  Though this process, she can know how to think and how to act.  Should she allow herself to become attuned to the fury of the crowd—to channel and embody that passion—or should she remained detached?

This analysis adds a third element to what I previously defined as the dual motion between self and world.  An “ethics of attunement,” we can now say, involves triangulation among self, world and ideal.  Unlike pure bodily or emotional attunement, this is by definition a conscious process. It involves thinking.  Of course, there are no guarantees here.  We must “read” ourselves, the situation and the various ideals implicated, and can never be sure that our reading is right.  In this regard, judgement in the face of actual choice imbues every element of an ethics of attunement.  As suggested, this articulation marks something of a break with previous definitions of attunement, which focused too heavily (in my opinion) on the unconscious and bodily.  It is necessary though, I believe, if we are to understand attunement as a moral act.

I recently had a successful class session which involved evaluating tweets made in response to the infamous “Trump tapes.”  I thought I’d share my lesson plan, in case any other teachers are interested.

Some background: I teach freshman composition at a large public university. The theme of our course is “thinking about thinking,” with the underlying premise being that this sort of (self-)reflection is necessary to be a successful writer.  We do a lot of activities which involve trying to understand the worldviews (or ideologies, you could say) which underlie certain claims.  This activity is in that vein.

Note: This is designed for a 75 minute class.

Background Material:

Prior to this class session, we watched and discussed this interview with Professor Nicholas Epley, a behavioral psychologist from the University of Chicago.  In it he discusses “egocentrism” and how individuals innately view the same event (he uses 9/11 as an example) in different ways.

My class also uses a standardized heuristic to critically analyze statements.  We created this together and have termed it “The DACO method.”  Here is a handout which explains this method and provides an example.  In short, it involves taking a statement or belief and tracing the Definitions and Assumptions which underlie it, the Consequences to which it could lead, and where it fits in a range of Other Opinions.  For this lesson plan to work, it’s not necessary that you use the DACO method.  If you do want to use it though, it may be useful to go over the above handout as a group.

Lesson Plan:

I began the class by breaking the students into groups of 2 or 3.  I then explained that we are going to watch a video that illustrates Epley’s point about the subjectivity of interpretation.  We then viewed this CNN report featuring the video in which Donald Trump is caught making various vulgar comments about women.  [Note: this version of the video is edited slightly, but still pretty offensive.  You may want to issue a “trigger warning.”]

After watching the video, I distributed this handout, which lists 8 tweets interpreting said video.  Tweets, of course, are very short, which makes them neat encapsulations of the writer’s worldview.  Using our DACO method, we then worked together as a class to interrogate the first tweet.  The goal was to try and understand “where the writer is coming from,” how they see the Trump video (and the world at large) and how we can learn to negotiate with such a perspective.

The first tweet states –> If you’re like ‘that’s just men being men’ after listening to the #Trump Tapes it’s seriously time you get some new male friends.

My class discussed how “men” and “friends” might be defined in this case.  We then discussed the assumptions at play, particularly how this writer likely views Trump’s comments as unusual and wrong, and anyone who engages in such talk as shameful.  Regarding consequences, we decided that this writer wants less vulgar talk because it’s “offensive,” meaning it upsets certain people.  Going deeper, we realized that the writer may believe that such talk leads to physical violence.  He or she may therefore view their tweet as a part of an effort to reduce such action.  Finally, we discussed a range of other opinions.  Opposing opinions can often be generated, we found, by challenging the writer’s premises.  For example, if an opponent could show that vulgar talk doesn’t lead to violence, the argument implicit in this tweet would fail.  Such a belief (that vulgar talk doesn’t cause physical violence) is an example of an “other opinion.”

After analyzing the first tweet as a class, each group worked separately to analyze the other 7 tweets.  After about 20 minutes, they were asked to present their findings to the class, facilitating another group discussion.

Conclusion:

Overall, I found this to be a fun and intellectually lively activity.  The tweets examined come from a variety of perspectives; through critical analysis the students had the opportunity to dwell in those perspectives, enriching their understanding of the other (and the way s/he thinks and writes).  Because tweets are so short, such analysis requires both creativity and attention to the nuances of language.  Also, by examining the intended consequences of each tweet– which I frame as “what the writer is trying to accomplish”—the students began to think about rhetorical tactics.  This are all valuable outcomes, in my opinion.

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Yesterday I wandered into a dark corner of the web: the comments section of some obscure right-wing clickbait purveyor. As a writing teacher and student of rhetoric and composition, I find such spots fascinating.   Some thoughts.

First, what is up with all the misspellings and crazy grammatical constructions? I ask this question in all seriousness. Let’s be clear– I am in no way a SNOOT. In fact, in my writing classes I make an exaggerated show of not caring about grammar. But still, on this particular website, almost every comment contains non-standard language. Why?

The easiest explanation is that the people attracted to right-wing clickbait (stories about hero police dogs, etc.) are simply not very “literate.” They are older, perhaps didn’t go to college. This lack of linguistic sophistication is reflected in both consumption (what they choose to read) and production (their commentary).

Let’s unpack this further. In this case, sophistication = socialization. Proper bourgeois subjects like myself (and most likely my reader) have been trained in certain habits of thought and action. These include linguistic norms and rules relating to evidence, logic and narrative coherence. We write in Standard Written English (SWE), understand the world via Standard Bourgeois Logic (SBL). Our click-baited friends, for whatever reason, have internalized different standards. To us, therefore, both their choice of reading material (“libtard teacher stomps on flag”) and language use (no distinction between your and you’re, seemingly random capitalization) seems alien.

The above is pretty basic stuff. A more interesting question is whether discursive practices and social/cultural/political values are linked. Does the internalization of SWE and SBL push learners towards a certain political alignment? Or in other words, if one can write a coherent paragraph is he or she less likely to be attracted to the ideas underlying “Obummer” clickbait?

This is a difficult question. Of course there are both left-wing and right-wing clickbait websites. And of course, one can be discursively sophisticated and hold right-wing views. It does seem though, at least from my admittedly bias perspective, that the least “literate” discourses lean conservative. Hence my titular question.

Let’s talk about writing. Specifically, how to write for a broad audience about complicated, rather esoteric topics in a public, online forum (such as this blog). I’m a writing teacher, but at the moment, I will admit, I don’t really know what such a space requires. One of my goals in starting this blog is to find out.

Stylistically, I want to keep it simple: short paragraphs, as little jargon as possible. I want to talk about big issues in rhetoric, philosophy and education in a way that’s interesting and accessible to people both inside and outside of academia. So in a way, this project involves translation. It also involves practical application. In short, I hope to show how abstract scholarly concepts can help everyone, not just scholars, better understand the world. We’ll see how that plays out!

I may not know what I’m doing, but I do know what I like. In that regard, I’d like to present two recent articles, both from Slate.com, which I think well represent “how to write the internet.” The first is “The Myth of the Hero Cop.”  Here, David Feige shows, quite persuasively, I think, how the US public’s adulation of police officers is both ill-founded and socially destructive. It’s more dangerous to be a black man in Baltimore than to be a cop—that’s a powerful claim. And it makes this article a powerful (and important) piece of public rhetoric.

The second is about little league sports. Here, Justin Peters draws upon personal experience and scholarly sources to make what I feel is a rather counter-intuitive argument about how organized youth sports basically suck. The perspective (as with the previous article) is fundamentally pragmatist, I.E. concerned with real-world thinking and being and its effect on lived experience. This is what I respect and what this blog will try to emulate.

Until next time.