What Do You Do When You Don’t Know What to Do?

By Jennifer Fletcher

This past year forced me to walk the walk in my life as a teacher of rhetorical literacy skills. After all, rhetoric is the art of adaptation.

Me thinking “I don’t know how to do this” or “I’ve never done this before” is an almost daily occurrence these days. I like to work with old books, preferably in hard copy form. The scale of new tech learning I experienced in the past year was off the charts. I would have been tempted to give up if my rhetorical training hadn’t pressured me to practice what I preach when it comes to adapting to new situations.

What do you do when you’re facing something that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen? Adapters do the following:

  • Take stock of our resources
  • Assess the situation
  • Lean heavily on those habits of mind that get us through tough times and tough transitions
  • Get creative
  • Loosen up
  • Keep an open mind and start looking around for new opportunities

These are also the practices that lead to effective rhetorical problem solving—the ability to analyze a communication task and make strategic choices about content and form based on the contingencies of particular rhetorical situations. Rhetorician Linda Flower explains that rhetorical problem solving entails a variety of cognitive strategies for “exploring the rhetorical problem, for generating ideas, for adapting to the reader, and for understanding and monitoring one’s own writing process” (13).

Students are understandably more comfortable with the familiar than the new. It’s easier to just keep doing what we already know how to do. But that’s not how life works, as we all know too well by now. Failing to prepare students for the kind of radical novelty we’re currently living through can cause them significant disadvantages down the road.

I think of the first-year college students who discover that the writing rules they learned in high school (e.g., “Don’t use the first-person pronoun in academic writing,” “Include three main points in your thesis,” etc.) don’t necessarily apply in their college courses. “But I was always taught to do it this way!,” they tell me with a mix of confusion and frustration.

We can better prepare students for the unknown by helping them “to learn how to learn the conventions of writing in new situations they will encounter” (15) (emphasis added) as Anne Beaufort recom­mends in College Writing and Beyond. This includes doing things like analyzing mentor texts and rhetorical situations. Students who can think critically about writers’ choices and contexts have a framework for adapting to new writing situations.

This past year I found, for instance, that I had to learn a new way to write emails to my classes. When I had previously taught online courses, my classes took place during the summer or winter break when students typically only took one or two classes at the most. These classes tended to be mostly asynchronous and have low enrollment, so it worked for me to send a detailed newsletter each week describing that week’s goals, topics, and tasks.

But with the emergency shift to distance learning, I discovered I was facing an entirely different rhetorical situation. The students in my online classes hadn’t chosen this modality. They were juggling several online courses at once. And they were being flooded with emails from the various departments at our university. The amount of electronic communication students now had to manage was overwhelming. Add to this the general distress caused by COVID-19, and it’s little wonder if students didn’t read every email they received or missed some information in the longer messages.

I had to change how I communicated with my classes in response to the changes in my audience and context. Short, frequent communications turned out to be much more effective in this new situation. I learned to write precise subject lines with one big idea. My old approach of just writing “Week Two Updates” wasn’t targeted enough line to focus the attention of email-overloaded and pandemic-stressed students.

We can start shifting students’ mindsets toward greater autonomy and adaptability by asking some reflective questions:

  • Before you ask for help with your writing, what problem solving strategies do you try first?
  • When you don’t know how to write something, what can you do to start figuring out how to respond to the rhetorical situation?

A rhetorical mindset helps students see themselves as independent writers who are capa­ble of figuring out how to write well in new situations. One of the ways they do this is by asking key questions about the rhetorical problem they’re trying to solve:

  • What’s the problem (exigence)?
  • What do I want to do about it (purpose)?
  • Who has the power to make this change (audience)?
  • What’s the best way to reach this audience (genre)?
  • Why is now the right time to act (kairos)?

As students develop a habit of thinking rhetorically, they “learn how to learn the conventions of writing in new situations” (Beaufort 15), so that asking a teacher what to do doesn’t have to be their default response to novelty. Instead, they trust their own ability to take stock of their resources, assess the situation, get creative, and adapt as needed. As teachers, we have to learn to trust students’ abilities to do these things, too.

See my Planning Tool for Taking Rhetorical Action for a resource you can use with your students.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at jfletcher@csumb.edu or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

Works Cited

Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond. Utah State University Press, 2007.

Flower, Linda. “Rhetorical Problem Solving: Cognition and Professional Writing.” Writing in the Business Professions, ed. Myra Kogen. National Council of Teachers of English, 1989.

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