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The Shape of the Thing

posted: 6.6.07 by Barclay Barrios

The one is coming straight from the trenches, Bitsters!

This summer I’m teaching a grad class on Monday and Wednesday evenings, which means I have class tonight, which means I am thinking about what the heck I’ll be doing. The first thing I learned when teaching grad students is that in many ways they’re just like students in my FYC classes: they too are learning new ways of writing, they too are encountering new kinds of difficult readings, and they too don’t always do their homework. What that means for me is that all the tools I use in FYC I use in my grad classes and when I find a new tool in my graduate teaching, I get to put it in my big ol’ pedgaogical toolbag.

The new tool, in this case, is the shape of the thing.

The course I’m teaching right now is titled Principles and Problems of Literary Study, “P&P” for short. It’s a basic introduction to graduate research and writing, which makes it all the more like FYC. Tonight we’ll be looking at some standard academic genres: the proposal/abstract, the conference paper, and the seminar paper/proto-article. I was hoping to find some way for the students to get a general feel for the shape of these rhetorical forms, a sense of what they look like. I have samples of each for us to read, but I already stressed that our goal is not to read them for content but for form (aye, a sticky wicket there I know).

I’ve decided that tonight I’m going to adapt an exercise I’ve used to great success in FYC. That exercise is drawing an author’s argument and if it’s not somewhere up here in Bits-land it will be soon enough. But so far I’ve only used it to have students draw the content of an essay. Tonight I will ask them to draw the form by asking them, in small groups (which, thankfully, work as well with grad students as any students), to draw the shape of each of the genres. Then each group will put these on the board for discussion.

WARNING! This is an as-yet-untested, available only in beta version tip. But I have a hunch it will work. Here’s why. First, I find that all students respond well to anything that smacks of arts and crafts. I think it taps into some deep near-genetic memory of early schooling, when they could put the books away and have fun with macaroni, glitter, and glue. Second, I like switching registers–from the written to the visual–because it offers literally a new perspective on the object of study. Third, in getting them to focus on shape I’m hoping to get them away from the specific arguments of the samples papers we’re reading.

If this works tonight (and I will let y’all know how it goes) then I’ll bring it into my FYC classroom too. I can imagine asking students to draw an outline, draw a paper, draw the shape of the essay and not just its argument. Hmmmm…. possibilities. Me likes possibilities…

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Collaboration, Genre, Learning Styles, Teaching Advice, Visual Rhetoric
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5 Responses to “The Shape of the Thing”

  1. RWL Says:

    I’m curious to hear how this worked! I imagine it would go very well, in a grad class or in FYC. As you point out, just about any new way of thinking about a problem will necessarily highlight different possible approaches. Sometimes reading out loud is all it takes for students to *hear* potential problems that they couldn’t see while reading their papers…

  2. Barclay Barrios Says:

    Details on how it worked in the next post, but I also wanted to say that, yeah totally totally reading out loud is a fantastic tool, but students often seem completely hesitant to do it — have you encountered that?

  3. RWL Says:

    Yes, they’re always a bit hesistant to read out loud. It usually goes like this: I ask them to divide into pairs, or small groups, or whatever for a draft workshop, and read their papers out loud to each other. They hesitatingly move their desks around, and then all turn to questioningly look at me. I have to push them a bit to get started, but once they get over the initial awkwardness, chuckling at themselves, I hear wonderful things. “That just didn’t *sound* right–let me read it again.” “I’m running out of breath–I think that means the sentences are too long!” etc. A few students have told me that reading aloud has been the best tip they took away from the class. For better or worse 😉

  4. Derek Says:

    Shifting from discursive modes to non-discursive modes is tricky. I’m anxious to hear more about how this went, Barclay. Also, I wonder whether there would be any value in working the translation in the opposite direction, perhaps by beginning with shapes and asking groups to work through correspondences between the shapes and patterns and more complex discursive forms and structures that could be said to correspond to them in some way.

    For the graduate-level course, your entry makes me think about bringing in Joseph Williams’ “Problems into PROBLEMS” because in it he offers a smart account of shape grammars (in text) and how arrangement relates to an ethical responsibility to appease readers’ expectations for a particular genre (this as yet another dimension of performing the genre in such a way that it is both persuasive and recognizable).

  5. Barclay Barrios Says:

    I put some details about how it went in the next post Derek. The short of it is this: it worked OK but would have worked better if I had had more samples for them to look at. And I love love LOVE your idea of moving in the opposite direction. Some students already think in this way with shapes like the “inverted pyramid,” so I think they have some mindspace already devoted to moving between shapes and writing. Providing more complex shapes would be a good and interesting exercise I think. Thanks for the suggestion!