Archive for the ‘Rhetorical Situation’ Category

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To Tweet or Not to Tweet

posted: 3.24.11 by Andrea Lunsford

Today I got a question from a colleague, asking about the decline in student writing ability. “Let’s face it,” my colleague said, “students abbreviate their language and limit their attention to basic appeal strategies when they express their opinions on the electronic interface. How do we teachers elevate the quality of their writing in this digital space?” This strikes me as an important and highly relevant question, and certainly one that we teachers should engage. But it also assumes that the quality of student writing in digital spaces is somehow “lower” and needs to be elevated, and it may also assume that quality of writing can be defined once and for all.

When we stop to think rhetorically, however, we see that what counts as good writing varies enormously according to situation, occasion, purpose, audience, and so on. A brilliant piece of advertising, for example, would make a lousy editorial or college essay.  That’s one reason teachers of writing and rhetoric stress the concept of kairos—that is, knowing what is opportune, appropriate, and timely in a given situation.  In ancient iconography, Kairos is depicted as a young man with a prominent forelock on his forehead.  Seize the forelock and you captured the moment; let Kairos run by, however, and you found that the back of his head was completely bald, with not a strand of hair to grasp at.  I think we need to remember Kairos and the importance of context when we think about the many different venues students write for today.  In informal emails, texts, or tweets, it may be perfectly opportune, timely, and appropriate to “abbreviate language” and “limit attention to basic appeals,” while in a college essay very different strategies are appropriate. It all depends, as rhetors across the centuries have reminded us, on your purpose, your audience, and your rhetorical situation. [read more]

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Categories: Rhetorical Situation
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Online Genres

posted: 3.21.11 by archived

I just gave a talk about rhetoric for a group of prospective university students. The students, with their parents, were visiting my school on their spring break and attending “mock lectures,” one of which was mine. Wow, did I feel sorry for these kids: not only were they forced to spend their spring break listening to lectures, they were accompanied by their over-enthusiastic parents. While in the adults’ eyes was a look that said, “this is fun!,”  the students looked either deeply embarrassed or deeply asleep.

The talk was an effort to look at conversations that happened in Athens 2,500 years ago, and then casually relate them to modern culture, especially to social media. I’m not sure I did such a great job with the talk, but in preparing the lecture, I did come upon some interesting points. I’ll share them here, where I have a slightly less divided audience!

In the talk, I discussed Aristotle’s three basic genres for rhetoric: deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. Deliberative speeches try to convince people to take actions; forensic speeches examine what has happened in a given situation, and are a lot like legal proceedings today; and epideictic speeches assign praise or blame.

I then suggested we use Facebook as an example. Deliberative rhetoric tries to convince people to take actions: we post on Facebook to get people to vote on American Idol, or to tell people to go and see a movie or download an album. Forensic speeches examine what has happened in a given situation: there are a million such posts about Charlie Sheen—is he scary and off-the-handle, or is he secretly genius? Epideictic speeches assign praise or blame: today, we have the “Like” button to help us with this. If I had been given the time, I would have loved to have asked students to categorize their own writing on Facebook according to these three categories. [read more]

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Categories: Genre, Jay Dolmage, Rhetorical Situation
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Free Documentary Films for the Classroom

posted: 2.10.10 by Traci Gardner

Last year, I shared a site that was full of ready-to-use movie clips that you can use with students. (found via Lifehacker) is a similar site, but it’s full of nonfiction trailers and movies. That’s right. The site has full-length documentary films. All you have to do is download them.

The Technical Details

The site highlights documentaries like Super Size Me and SiCKO on the home page, but it also includes shorter (and likely, less well-known) documentaries. Menus on the right side of the page allow visitors to browse the documentaries by topic or region as well as to look for French or Spanish documentaries, short documentaries, and documentaries with closed captions.

The length of the videos varies. Many are less than an hour long, so they could be played during a class session. Others are longer feature-length films. Since the site and the movies are free, however, you can manage any time management challenges by having students watch movies outside of class as homework.

The site is still being developed, so there are some features missing. There’s an area on the right for tags, but it hasn’t been developed (or at least isn’t working at this point). The movies launch in a new window, so you may need to turn off any pop-up blockers you are running.

The site also requires visitors to figure out some details about the films on their own. The length of the documentaries wasn’t listed anywhere obvious and to find the dates that the films were released, I had to go to the Site Map. Still, with a free collection of documentaries readily available, the disadvantages are things I can live with.

The Pedagogical Details has an explicitly educational goal, as explained on the site’s About Us page:

Our goal is to have everyone that watches a film at learn something; whether it be a new perspective on a topic, simply understanding a conflict, or being more accepting of a certain belief system.

If your goal is to increase students’ awareness on any of a range of specific topics, there are award-winning documentaries on the site to choose from, such as the Academy Award-winning films Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids and The Fog of War. You’ll also find documentaries that take up opposing perspectives, which you can use in the classroom to foster debate on a topic. Use the “Films by Topic” menu on the right side of the page to find collections that focus on related issues.

If you’re teaching a piece of literature or an essay, you may find a documentary that provides additional background information on the same topic. Talking about Holocaust literature? Add an episode from the Auschwitz series. Teaching The Things They Carried? Hearts and Minds, Vietnam: The Quiet Mutiny, or The Fog of War could be effective complementary texts. The collection of videos leans toward contemporary issues, so you’re not as likely to find a pairing for a Shakespearean play or the Emily Dickinson poetry. If you’re teaching a text from approximately the 1940s on, however, you may find a suitable documentary to supplement class readings.

If you’re teaching nonfiction composition, there are additional ways to use the materials on the site. The documentaries can serve as models for multimodal compositions and as examples of visual rhetoric for class analysis. Most of the documentaries are obviously persuasive (if not propagandistic), so there are opportunities to talk about persuasive techniques, argumentative fallacies, and the rhetoric of argument. As you discuss advertising techniques, for instance, you might show PBS Frontline: Merchants of Cool, which explores how corporations market products to teen consumers.

A Few Comments

  • Be sure the documentaries you choose are appropriate for the classroom, and provide any warnings or disclaimers to the class before showing the film. There is no censorship in the documentaries. Some of the films display raw images of situations that may upset students, including violent and graphic images. Many deal with tough subjects that may lead to controversial discussions. Always preview the entire documentary before you use it. That’s the best way to ensure that the film will fit with the students and local community where you teach.
  • Note the “donate” links. All the documentaries are available for free. You don’t need to donate anything to view the films. If students are confused by the “donate” links, spend a few seconds explaining why they are there and let students know that they do not need to click on them.

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Categories: Discussion, Visual Argument, Visual Rhetoric
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Thinking Gray

posted: 12.9.09 by Barclay Barrios

I recently chatted with a group of teachers at a nearby institution who were going to test the readings in Emerging, Appiah’s “Making Conversation” and “The Primacy of Practice.”  One of the things we talked about is that students always want to flatten what they read, a particular problem when it comes to essays with subtle and complex ideas like Appiah’s.  After reading these selections, students will want to say, “We should all just get along,” or “We just need to talk more and that will solve things.”  And, yes, those reflect Appiah’s ideas.  But things are not so simple, so black and white.  Sometimes the challenge of teaching writing is getting students to think gray—to deal with the messiness of complexity, and to think their own way through it.

I shared with those teachers some of the techniques I use to get students thinking gray.  For example, the class will gravitate to certain sections of an essay or certain quotations; these will probably be the key sections of the reading, but they will also probably be the ones students “get.”  I try to direct students to the ignored parts of an essay.  If a section feels unimportant, then why is it there?  What does it do for the argument?  Along these lines, I ask peer editors to find quotations from the essay that challenge a student author’s argument.

But sometimes the best way to think gray is to pay very close attention to the text.  That was my suggestion for Appiah.  Students will want to dismiss him as all “kumbaya” and “Let’s all get along.”  But then I direct them to a small but crucial quotation from Appiah’s text: “Cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.”  Asking students to explain what Appiah means, to account for this quotation within his larger argument, to see cosmopolitanism as both a challenge and a solution… that is the stuff of thinking gray.

What are your methods for engaging students in a “messy” reading?

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Categories: Argument, Critical Reading, Critical Thinking, Emerging, Rhetorical Situation, Working with Sources
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Warning: No Yelling in the Food Court

posted: 12.8.09 by Traci Gardner

I found an idea in the Problogger post Why Nobody Cares About Your Blog by guest blogger David Risley that you have to try in the classroom. Risley shares this scenario to ask bloggers to think about how they interact with their readers: “If I walked into a crowded mall, went into the food court, stood there in the middle of it and just started talking, what do you think would happen?”

It’s an incredibly simple but quite useful question to ask students struggling with issues of audience and style. Students are likely to understand the original analogy, but you can customize the Food Court Analogy to a Dining Hall Analogy to make it a little closer to campus life if you like.

You can read this passage from the Colorado State University Writing Guide Introduction: Audience to students to focus on the underlying rhetorical principles at play in Risley’s food court analogy:

When we talk to someone face-to-face, we know just who we are talking to. We automatically adjust our speech to be sure we are communicating our message. Many writers don’t make those same adjustments when they write to different audiences, usually because they don’t take the time to think about who will be reading what they write. To be sure that we communicate clearly in writing, we need to adjust our message—how we say to and what information we include—by recognizing that different readers can best understand different messages.

To return to the analogy, someone yelling in the food court is not paying attention to whom he is talking. He’s just yelling at the crowd. There’s no sense of specific listeners (or by extension, readers).

After discussing the food court analogy, ask students to search their writing for indications that they are speaking to, and not at, their audience. Have them imagine they return to the food court, but this time, instead of standing in the middle and yelling at no one in particular, have them focus on their audience by suggesting this scenario:

You’re at the food court, and you sit down at a table with three or four people who are interested in your topic. First, decide who these people are. Jot down a few characteristics about them so that you have your audience firmly in mind before you move on.

Next, think about how you would share the information from your writing with the people at this table. What would they want to hear? What information would they find interesting or convincing? What questions would they ask? What would you need to say to see them nod in agreement with you?

Once students think through the scenario where they are talking to a specific group of people, they are ready to return to their writing. Ask them to consider questions like these:

  • How do your words and sentences engage readers?
  • How can the ideas be personalized for specific readers?
  • Are all the terms clear to readers? Does anything need explained or defined?
  • Are there questions you haven’t answered? What are they?
  • Are you reaching a specific group of readers (and not simply yelling at the crowd)?

If students need an example of how speaking to a specific group of readers can make a difference, look back at my 4.5 Minute Lesson on Audience, Purpose, and Voice. Ask them how the eBay ad included in the video does a good job of talking to the people at a specific table in the food court, and not just yelling at the crowd. Soon they’ll be speaking to, and not at, their audience.

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Categories: Rhetorical Situation, Writing Process
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Getting Beyond Words in Visual Analysis

posted: 12.2.09 by Traci Gardner

Look at any visual text in your community, like a poster or billboard. You’re likely to see a blending of words, images, and layout working to communicate a single message.

Take that poster or billboard into the classroom, and what will students see when you ask them to analyze the message? Most of the time they zoom in on whatever words are included. They may later come back to other aspects of the poster, but the words color what they see.

You can share analytical tools like my WILCO mnemonic to ensure that students look at the whole message before drawing conclusions. Even then, the words in the messages can ultimately take priority.

How can we emphasize the other aspects of these messages? How can we silence the words, even briefly, to teach this lesson? Non-English posters are a great solution. Consider this poster from the Spanish Civil War:

Spanish Civil War Poster from UCSD
Source: The Visual Front


If you cannot read Spanish, you are forced to focus on other aspects of this poster to draw conclusions about its meaning. As the words fall away, the red hand in the center, the children huddled in the lower left corner, and the interplay of strong red, black, and white colors immediately rise to the surface. You have to rely on the images, the colors, and the layout. Granted, propaganda posters have fairly easy to detect messages, but the strategy works with any visual text that incorporates foreign language words.

Here are some sites with resources can you use for this strategy:

You’re bound to be wondering about the students in the classroom who can read the non-English text on these posters. Do exactly what you’d do if the text were in English: ask them to ignore the words and concentrate on the other aspects of the poster. Once you’ve explored the image, layout, and color, these students can be invited to translate the words for the class if desired.

If no one in the class can translate the words, that’s okay too. The point of the activity is just to emphasize how much of the message is communicated by things other than words on the posters. Once you’ve completed the activity, move to some English posters, like those from one of the war poster sites I’ve written about earlier this year. Ask students to use the same strategy they used on the foreign language posters. Urge them to get beyond the words by looking at the image, color, and layout first!

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Categories: Visual Argument, Visual Rhetoric
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Stasis, Movement, and "A Place to Stand"

posted: 12.1.09 by archived

In the spirit of recent posts by Barclay Barrios and Traci Gardner that described secret formulae and favorite lessons, I thought I would write about an activity that has become a favorite of mine.

I have used this activity to introduce the idea of stasis.  In argument theory stasis means a “stand,” from the Greek “standing still.”  In rhetoric, stasis calls for the rhetor to consider key questions that might clarify an issue.  In this way, a “stand” also calls for us to decide what might make an audience move in one direction or another.  When we are in a state of stasis, we might be sitting on the fence, we might be “standing still,” but we are also perhaps curious about where we might move next.  When we identify stases we see where and why people take a stand on an issue, why they disagree, and what might make them change their minds. The Sophists taught that identifying stasis was the best way to understand where an argument should begin.

I like to talk about stasis when teaching argument because I think stasis theory sometimes nicely frames the way I feel about an issue, and the way students may feel too: We aren’t sure yet exactly where we weigh in, we don’t have a “side,” but we are interested in knowing why others take a stand on the issue.  Looking for stasis is a way to value the process of questioning, exploring, and researching the aspects of an issue that lead people to argue or act.

Stasis theory and teaching based on it doesn’t devalue having a strong opinion or taking a strong stance.  Instead, this approach looks at why people take such stands, and what questions and arguments lead to changes in position.

Okay, so the above definition may still leave many wondering what exactly stasis is.  Maybe I haven’t defined it very well!  Or maybe it is just a tricky concept to explain.  Because of this, I try to illustrate the concept through active learning.  If you have an open classroom, then you’ll need to move some desks and chairs; I’ve also moved into the hallway to do this activity if I’ve needed more room.

I choose an issue that is contentious—but not totally divisive.  Issues like year-round schooling, or a four-day workweek might be good examples (the death penalty might not be the best issue for this activity).  Then, I ask students to arrange themselves in the space according to their opinions: take a “stand.”  If you are for year-round schooling, stand to the left of the room (or hall); if you are against it, stand to the right.  If you are really against it, move all the way to the farthest right; stand near the middle if you don’t have much of an opinion yet.  Then, each student states why they are standing where they are standing—what aspect of the issue makes them stand where they are?  Other students can then move if this reasoning makes them change their own position. If I say that I am against year-round schooling because I loved all of the freedom and I learned so much from just playing during my summers as a kid, this opinion may sway some classmates to move over in my direction, or it might not.  Another student might say that he or she is against year-round schooling because children forget much of what they have learned from year-to-year.  This may or may not cause others to move.  We can pay attention to small positional differences, too—why are we just slightly to the left or right of one another?

In this way, as a group, we see what the key questions are, and we see how opinions are formed and altered.  The “debate” is embodied through our movements.  We come to see where an argument begins, and what makes people form opinions.  Whether we call this stasis or not, this is an interesting way to reveal the complexity of an issue, and set students up to identify this complexity when they choose their own issues to research and write about.

Later, once students have begun working on their own research or argumentative essays, they can workshop their topics through this “place to stand” activity—the whole class can again occupy a range of positions, and the student can list key questions, considerations, and viewpoints while the class responds by moving and putting the issue into action.

If you want to go further with this activity, you could also use the true classical categories for stasis analysis. Dorinda Fox (in an awesome blog on comedy and rhetoric) also has excellent analyses of Chris Rock’s and George Carlin’s uses of stasis, for further reading.  Helen Foster’s article in Composition Forum also looks at how stasis theory can be used in the contemporary classroom.

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Categories: Argument, How to Write Anything, Jay Dolmage, Rhetorical Situation
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Argument Haiku

posted: 11.19.09 by Barclay Barrios

One of the teachers in our writing program stopped me in the hall to share his success using argument haiku in class.  I have to admit that it’s one of my favorite activities.  In the book I’ve paired it with a Kwame Anthony Appiah selection, but it’s a versatile tool.  I’ve used it with any number of readings and have used it in peer review exercises as well.

The actual activity is simple: take an argument from a paper or a reading and summarize it as a haiku—three lines of seven, then five, then seven syllables.

I’ve always found anything vaguely creative or arts-and-crafty tends to engage students.  In part I think it gets students excited because it breaks up the usual atmosphere of the writing classroom and in part I think it’s because students love doing something different and in part everyone loves writing haiku (especially bad ones).  But the secret is that it takes a lot of thinking to make this exercise happen and that’s why it is so useful.  Students need to identify the very core idea of an essay to break it into seventeen syllables.  And when used in peer review, authors quickly learn whether or not they’ve successfully expressed and supported their arguments.

We’re reading Thomas Friedman’s “The Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention” right now in our standard assignment sequence.  If I had to make a haiku for that essay I would try:

Global supply chains
Bring peace; terrorists use them
Too. Ai-yah!  Flat world!

Or maybe:

In the flat world works both ways:
Both for peace and war.

Are there any specific readings you would pair with this assignment?

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Categories: Argument, Assignment Idea, Emerging, Rhetorical Situation
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A Simple Starting Point for Visual Assignments

posted: 11.17.09 by Traci Gardner

It’s easy to give students assignments that ask them to create posters, magazine covers, and billboards. It’s somewhat harder to make sure they have the technology support that they need to complete the project. If you’re looking for a very simple starting point for this kind of visual assignments, BigHugeLabs’ toys and utilities is a good option.

On the BigHugeLabs site, you’ll find templates that make very basic images that you can save as JPG images. Some of the utilities offer printing services, but you do not need to purchase anything to save the images. Once saved, they can be added to word processing documents, slide show presentations, or Web pages.

Any of the following tools could be useful in the writing classroom:

In addition, the site has a number of handy utilities if you’re using Flickr extensively in the classroom, such as Flickr DNA and Mosaic Maker. If students are designing a slide show or Web page around a particular photo, the Color Palette Generator can “Automagically create a color palette” for them, based on that image. If you’re up for some fun and mischief, there’s even a Lolcat Generator.

For lots of classrooms, these basic tools are all you need to get students going on a visual assignment. Others, however, will dismiss these utilities as unsophisticated. It’s true that they give students a limited range of options. That limitation can be an actual benefit, however:

  • Use the tools to create “rough drafts” before moving to more sophisticated programs like PhotoShop or Aviary. They allow students to sketch out their ideas and get a mock-up without getting bogged down with the many possibilities of a blank document in more sophisticated tools.
  • Compare and choose the best text or image for a project. Students can quickly mockup multiple versions of their project with different headlines and ask peers which version best catches their attention. Or try the reverse and have students swap in different background images with the same text. This strategy also works if you want to discuss different students’ work.
  • Talk about the limitations and their effect on the rhetorical strategies students can choose. Ask students to think about which limitations would stand regardless of the graphical tool. For instance, the width of a billboard and the size of a magazine cover are fairly standard. You won’t get more space by switching to another program, but you can get more sophisticated layout options, for example. Use the limitations to teach students the value of choosing the tools you use wisely.

Regardless of how you decide to use the tools on the BigHugeLabs site, they’re a nice option for visual rhetoric activities—both when students create texts and when they are exploring the strategies behind how visual texts are made.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Document Design, Visual Argument, Visual Rhetoric
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The Persistence of Stereotypes in Visual Texts

posted: 10.7.09 by Traci Gardner

In my most recent Ink’d In column, I wrote about “Finding Hidden Messages in Visual Texts” and pointed to some World War II posters that demonstrated anti-Japanese bias as examples.  In my related classroom activity, I ask students to look for similar messages in more contemporary texts.

The Inside Higher Ed article “A Tale of Two Posters” provides a perfect contemporary example to use in class: a parody campaign poster that raised questions about racial stereotyping on Tufts University campus this fall. The stereotypes represented in the poster attack Asian appearance (“squinty eyes” and the exaggerated expression in the photo of In-Goo Kwak), Asian language use (use of broken English), and Korean culture (“kimchi”).

Students should easily see similarities if you show them the image of Tojo from the War Posters and the photo of In-Goo from the parody poster:

Tojo from WWII Poster, Hon. Spy Poster Detail from Photo by In-Goo Kwak

The Inside Higher Ed (IHE) article indicates that In-Goo, the parody’s designer, included the stereotypes specifically to counter what he saw as political correctness in the campaign poster of another student. Regardless of the intention, indeed perhaps because of it, the campaign poster lends itself to classroom discussion of how and why stereotypes persist in societies. You can use the WILCO mnemonic to analyze both campaign posters in more detail as part of your exploration.

In addition, take advantage of the opportunity that the article provides to discuss the nature of stereotypes, prejudice, and language use. As always when you explore emotionally-charged issues, be sure to discuss the importance of respecting the feelings of others before your analysis. Once the ground rules are set, students are bound to have an opinion on whether In-Goo’s poster should have been allowed and whether Tufts University responded appropriately. Alongside the related World War II posters, the Inside Higher Ed article will lead to some lively discussion in the classroom.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Discussion, Document Design, Visual Argument, Visual Rhetoric
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