Welcome to the Blog!

By Jennifer Fletcher

If you’ve read my books or participated in one of my workshops, you probably already know I’m kind of a shy person. Give me a book to read in a quiet room, and I’m in heaven. Put me on a stage, and my cheeks flush and heart races. Going public with my thinking and writing isn’t easy for me.

But I’ve learned over my twenty-five plus years as a teacher that the best way for me to continue to grow as educator, reader, and writer is to stay engaged with the communities that are doing this work–to continue to learn from my mentors and challenge myself to step outside of my comfort zone. I’ve learned, too, that the best way to support my students in taking intellectual risks is to take risks myself.

So I’ve started this blog as another way to keep learning and growing. I’ve learned a lot about what it means to teach texts rhetorically over the years–to help students read and write with an awareness of audience, purpose, genre, and context–and I’m excited to push my thinking further. Here you’ll find posts on the issues at the heart of my work with students and teachers today:

  • How rhetorical thinking supports transfer of learning
  • What it means to take an inquiry- and assets-based approach to learning
  • How to teach toward expertise and independence

You’ll notice that I have more to say about “rhetorical thinking” than classical rhetoric. While Aristotelian concepts such as ethos, pathos, and logos can deepen students’ understanding of how to analyze and respond to diverse rhetorical situations, this isn’t a blog meant only for folks who are explicitly teaching rhetoric to their students. This is a blog for anyone who cares about their students’ long-term success.

Rhetorical thinking is the key to transfer of learning. It’s the secret sauce that helps students figure out how to adapt and apply their skills and knowledge in new situations. It helps us to be more effective communicators and more creative problem solvers.

Two plus decades as a teacher and I’m still trying to figure things out. This blog is about helping students figure things out for themselves, too. Things like how to make their own choices as readers and writers. Or how to repurpose their learning for different classes and contexts.

I’d love to hear about your own work with students or the questions you have about about how to take a rhetorical approach to texts. You can contact me at jfletcher@csumb.edu or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher.

Making the Most of the Opportune Moment

By Jennifer Fletcher

In the novel The Hundred Secret Senses (1996), Amy Tan describes the sense of truth as a tingling along the back of the neck. I think of kairos the same way—a felt sense of truth to the moment. It’s that heightened awareness that helps us say the things that need to be said, that must be said, before it’s too late. 

Kairos is a concept from classical rhetoric that can be defined as “the right words at the right time” or “the opportune moment.” The ancient Greeks had two conceptions of time: chronos and kairos. While chronos refers to quantitative or measurable time, kairos represents a sense of relational time. The right time for something depends on the thing’s relationship to other factors.

Kairotic awareness thus heightens our sense of the relative position of an issue, event, or opportunity in a specific context. Kairos also refers to the idea of “right measure.” We see this idea today when something is described as “too much” (i.e., overboard or cringy). The “wrong measure” is inappropriate for the circumstances.

Audience and Opportunity

Because of its attention to the immediate social situation of acts of communication—both in terms of what is possible (the opportunity) and appropriate (the decorum)–kairos is a performance booster. Often we only have one shot at convincing our audience, so our arguments have to be so compelling that they’re heard the first time. In these cases, it’s especially important that we keep our cool, that we are open-minded and discerning, so that we don’t get upset and blow our chance. Here’s where an internalized practice of playing the believe game (Elbow 255) is crucial. In those make-or-break moments, we need to be able to trust our training.

One of my students, for instance, created a PSA on the value of a college education to be shared during morning announcements over the loudspeaker. Knowing that this is a particularly tough gig—poor audio quality, inattentive students, lots of background chatter—my student worked to make his PSA as engaging and entertaining as possible.

Writing his message for a real rhetorical situation made all the difference. He knew he’d need to make some extra clever moves if he was going to succeed in capturing this resistant audience’s attention. The PSA would only be read once, so he’d have to make the most of this occasion.

We can deepen students’ responsiveness to their audience by asking them to think about kairos:

  • What might the audience be feeling in that unique moment?
  • What special circumstances need to be acknowledged? Is there “an elephant in the room”?
  • How much time might the audience need to get used to a new idea or make a decision?

I use a graphic organizer to guide my students’ analysis of the kairos of rhetorical situations when they’re newer to this way of thinking. This kind of perspective shift deepens our empathy as writers by helping us to see the issue and situation from our audience’s point of view.

Being True to the Moment

When we develop students’ kairotic knowledge as part of a rhetorical approach to texts, we prepare them for the novel literacy demands of the postsecondary world by helping them optimize their available resources and opportunities. We also sensitize them to the type of truth Tan describes as a felt sense. Awareness of kairos acts as a gut check of the honesty and importance of our words.

I loved the definition one of my students gave for kairos: “the words that are said that leave you taken aback and leave you with a feeling of a burning passion or leave you humbled.” This is the kind of deep understanding that students carry with them into their future lives.

Honoring the Social Context

In Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, rhetoricians Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee explain how certain cultural experiences or historical events “open a kairotic moment” (48). A mass shooting, they note, intensifies discussion of gun control while making the topic especially urgent (48). A kairotic shift, or opening, also changes what can be said and done in a particular moment. The day of the Columbine shooting, Sandy Hook shooting, Parkland shooting, Uvalde shooting—and the many other tragic school shootings we’ve endured—were hard days to be a teacher. On such days, we stop everything we’re doing to respond to our students’ needs. We instinctively know that ploughing ahead with our lesson plans would be inappropriate, and even traumatizing, given the circumstances.

Kairos teaches us that we can’t just stick to the script and ignore what’s happening in the world around us. In his keynote address at the 2018 CATE Convention, Kelly Gallagher described how he abandoned his plan to start To Kill a Mockingbird in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida that left 17 people dead. Gallagher said it seemed “frivolous” (March 10, 2017) to start Lee’s novel at that moment. So instead, he created a 14-day unit on what should be done to stop mass shootings. Kairotic teaching is responsive teaching.

Watching for Turning and Tipping Points

Awareness of kairos also helps us discern turns in the conversation. We’re on the watch for new arguments and new voices because we understand that the conversation is always changing. And if the kairotic moment doesn’t yet seem right for the issue we want to address, we look for a way to create an opening. Part of our skill set as rhetors is knowing how to shift our audience’s focus when needed.

For a good example of kairos in action, take a look at the following excerpt from an Associated Press article on “fake news.” You’ll see that there’s also a strong sense of exigence (a problem that prompts a response) in this piece:

“Spread of Fake News Prompts Literacy Efforts in Schools”  Ryan J. Foley

Advocates say the K-12 curriculum has not kept pace with rapid changes in technology. Studies show many children spend hours every day online but struggle to comprehend the content that comes at them.

For years, they have pushed schools to incorporate media literacy — including the ability to evaluate and analyze sources of information — into lesson plans in civics, language arts, science and other subjects.

Their efforts started getting traction after the 2016 presidential election, which highlighted how even many adults can be fooled by false and misleading content peddled by agenda-driven domestic and foreign sources.

“Five years ago, it was difficult to get people to understand what we were doing and what we wanted to see happen in education and the skills students needed to learn,” said Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education. “Now there is no question about the vitalness of this in classrooms.”

These are the kinds of turns in the conversation—and the openings—we want students to notice. Kairotic knowledge prepares students to recognize and adapt to change.

Connecting Kairos and Exigence

As the above excerpt shows, the Greek concept of kairos and the Roman concept of exigence are closely related. While these terms come from different social worlds and historical periods, they overlap in significant ways. I share the following Venn Diagram with my students and ask them about the similarities and differences between these concepts, an important practice for building conceptual frameworks as the authors of Learning That Transfers note. (See my previous post on analyzing conceptual relationships.)

The combined power of this conceptual framework enhances students’ ability to take effective rhetorical action. This knowledge helps students think about the problems they want to address and the best times to act. (See my Planning Tool for Taking Rhetorical Action.)

Acknowledging the kairos of a rhetorical situation is a way of showing you’re paying attention. During the 2018 Golden Globes, for instance, Oprah Winfrey noted in her acceptance speech for the Cecile B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement that “it is not lost on me that at this moment there are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given this …award” (January 7, 2018, Beverly Hills, California). Winfrey’s words show she was fully aware of the special opportunity—and power—the televised event afforded her to positively impact girls of color.

Our students can learn from this kind of pro move by trying out similar language in their own writing:

  • I have not forgotten…
  • I am not unaware…
  • I have not lost sight…

Kairos and Transfer

There’s an extra benefit to teaching the concept of kairos: it enhances students’ capacity to make meaningful connections. In Visible Literacy, Fisher, Frey, and Hattie write, “It should come as no surprise that a major condition for transfer to occur concerns relevancy. Learning becomes more meaningful when learners see what they’re learning as being meaningful in their own lives” (112). Seeing the relevance of the conversation they’re joining can also help them see the relevance of what they’re learning, which, in turn, makes them more likely to transfer their learning.

The Power of Kairos

Ultimately, kairotic knowledge boosts our control and confidence as writers, even when the mood or moment is inauspicious. Writers who are attuned to the nuances of timing know that they can use strategies such as a story or a style shift to change the vibe in a rhetorical situation. Anecdotes are moment makers. So are changes in style. For example, a sudden shift from academic to casual English can have the same impact as a speaker making a personally revealing aside during a formal presentation; it’s that moment when the speaker stops, takes a sip of water, removes their reading glasses and looks directly at the audience–and then says, “now let me tell you why this really matters…” And everyone leans in to listen.

Kairotic knowledge–and the in-the-moment responsiveness and resourceful it engenders–is a rhetorical superpower all students deserve to have.

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

Crowley, Sharon, and Debra Hawhee. Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. 4th ed. Pearson Longman, 2009.

Elbow, Peter. Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Learning and Teaching. Oxford University Press, 1986.

Fisher, Douglas, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie. Visible Learning for Literacy: Implementing Practices that Work Best to Accelerate Student Learning. Corwin, 2016.

Paraphrase and Summary: Getting the “They Say” Right

By Jennifer Fletcher

In other posts (see here and here), I’ve written about the value of dialogic argumentation as a mainstay of intellectual work. This is the “they say, I say” approach to source-based writing described by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in their popular little book by the same name. Understanding and responding to what others say is our bread and butter in academia. This is how all intellectual work gets done; we listen and learn from the field, figure out what’s already been done, identify needs and gaps, and make our own contributions. We move from “they say” (i.e, listening, reading, understanding) to “I say” (i.e., analyzing, evaluating, arguing).

“That’s Not What I’m Saying”

As clear and common as this model is, however, it seems that getting the “they say” of a conversation right is an increasingly rare occurrence, at least in the world of public discourse. Understanding before arguing now seems a custom more honored in the breach than the observance.

Think of a time you when you told someone (or wanted to tell someone), “That’s not what I’m saying.” My oldest child said this to me just the other day. He was talking about his grandparents’ senior living community and said, “I don’t even know if there will be retirement homes for my generation.” I joked, “I don’t think humanity will end before you retire,” and my son calmly looked at me and said, “That’s not what I’m saying.” Of course it wasn’t, and I immediately regretted my flippancy. He explained that his point was about declining life expectancy, not the apocalypse.

Inaccurate paraphrases are not always so gently met. It can knock the wind out of us when we work hard to make ourselves understood only to have our views misrepresented. All humans have a profound need to be heard. When someone overstates or oversimplifies our messages or mischaracterizes our intentions, we feel silenced.

Understanding is also a precondition for finding common ground and hence for collective action. We don’t know what cares and concerns we share with others if we don’t understand they’re saying.

Treating Paraphrase and Summary as Prerequisite Skills

Paraphrase and summary are thus some of the most important academic literacy skills we teach. These are gateway competencies if our goal is to promote effective communication and problem solving. I’ll put paraphrase and summary ahead of a skill like rebuttal in my list of teaching priorities any day. Before students learn to rebut others’ arguments ( in those cases in which rebuttal is an appropriate move), they need to learn to understand arguments on the writers’ own terms. And beyond understanding others’ perspectives–and recognizing that these perspectives represent the lived experiences of real individuals–students also need to be able to situate those perspectives within an ongoing conversation and within the context of their own arguments. So synthesis makes my list of instructional priorities, too.

Hosting the Conversation

The three ways of using the words of other writers that form the basis of source-based writing—direct quotation, paraphrase, and summary—can be thought of as three interpretive strategies. In other words, they are tools for figuring out who is saying what. Each citation method has different rhetorical functions:

  • Quotation showcases a source’s language choices when those choices matter.
  • Paraphrase seamlessly integrates a source’s content with a writer’s argument.
  • Summary offers a “big picture” of a source’s main ideas or importance.

In Writing Rhetorically, I explain these differences through the analogy of a talk show. When we write using sources, we act as “conversation hosts” who invite others to join the discussion and share their perspectives. Our “guests” are the sources we cite in our compositions. I invite students to prepare for their role as hosts by creating “Conversation Planning Notes” based on key sources.

Quote, Paraphrase, or Summarize?

In a direct quotation, the host (i.e., writer) passes the mic to the guest (i.e., source), so they can speak for themself. A paraphrase, on the other hand, is a bit more like a mention in a monologue. The host says, “So I was talking to so-and-so the other day . . .” and then relates what the person says. But only the host gets to stand in the spotlight.

Paraphrase is an important way to check for understanding; it is an “imitation or transformation” (Rabinowitz 17) of another person’s meaning. Paraphrases can differ significantly from the original text but still adequately demonstrate understanding. In the landmark work Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation, Peter Rabinowitz gives the example of a parent who says, “It’s time for bed,” and a child responding, “Is it really eight o’clock?” (16). While the child’s paraphrase is not synonymous with the parent’s statement, it nevertheless demonstrates that the child understands what they have been told.

What counts as an adequate paraphrase? An adequate paraphrase fairly and responsibly represents a person’s meaning. There’s a moment in the 2017 Lego Batman Movie that struck a chord with me. See if the following dialogue rings any English teacher bells for you, too:

Batman: We are gonna steal the Phantom Zone projector from Superman.
Robin: [frowns] Steal?
Batman: Yeah. We have to right a wrong. And sometimes, in order to right a wrong, you have to do a wrong-right. Gandhi said that.
Robin: Are we sure Gandhi said that?
Batman: I’m paraphrasing.

A colleague of mine says, “You can make a square peg fit into a round hole, but you have to do violence to the peg.” Ethical communicators don’t do violence to their sources to make them fit their arguments.

Summary Writing

Summary sits just outside the live discussion. While it doesn’t offer the immediate back-and-forth exchange of direct quotation or the specificity of paraphrase, summary does provide the deep understanding of a writer’s contributions that justifies why that writer was invited to join the conversation in the first place.

Developing a habit of effective summary writing is one of the best ways to become an informed writer. I used to think summary writing was a low-level activity analogous to a book report. And then I started reading my students’ summaries instead of just checking them for completion. There’s nothing easy about trying to capture the truth of a whole work. “Good summary writing,” composition scholar Charles Bazerman says, “requires careful attention to the meaning and shape of the entire text,” cautioning that “much meaning can be distorted or lost by too rushed a summary” (77).

Obstacles to Understanding

Paraphrase and summary writing are especially difficult when a text contains both complex language and new ideas. A text such as Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” (a speech we use in a high school curriculum in California) makes heavy cognitive and linguistic demands on readers. When complex texts also contain what researchers have called “troublesome knowledge,” that is, ideas that are particularly difficult for novices to understand, students will have to do even more work before they’re ready to summarize the text.

Threshold concepts are doorways to deeper learning.

Jan Meyer and Ray Land’s work on threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge explain how students encounter not only cognitive and linguistic demands but also epistemological challenges when a text presents a way of knowing that differs from their own. Threshold concepts are counter-initituitive, transformative, and difficult to unlearn.

For example, for people used to thinking about power in hierarchical terms, French philosopher Michel Foucault’s conception of power as a multi-directional network of interconnected social relationships can be difficult to grasp. In Foucault’s model, power doesn’t just move up and down; it circulates pervasively. Understanding Foucault on his own terms (what we aspire to do when we paraphrase a writer responsibly) might mean letting go of centralized and stratified ways of seeing power.

Before I’m prepared to responsibly paraphrase the claims or summarize the theory of a scholar like Michel Foucault, I might need to undergo some radical reorientations in my own thinking.

Getting It Right

It bears repeating that effectively communicating across our differences is one of the hardest things we do. We know from the past couple years of virtual work and distance learning that it’s hard to respond fully to other humans when all we see is a little box on a screen. Written texts likewise require us to imagine more than we can see with our eyes: to see sources as real people, to experience other worldviews, and to enter other ways of being. Treating paraphrase and summary as the foundational skills they are gets us closer to bridging our differences.

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

Bazerman, Charles. The Informed Writer: Using Sources in the Disciplines. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

Fletcher, Jennifer. Writing Rhetorically: Fostering Responsive Thinkers and Communicators. Stenhouse, 2021.

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say. W.W. Norton, 2021.

Meyer, Jan .H.F and Ray Land. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge. London: Routledge, 2006.

Rabinowitz, Peter J. Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation. Columbus: Ohio State University, 1987.

Making Someone Wrong

By Jennifer Fletcher

Pick a side and prove the other side wrong. In a nutshell, this is what many argument prompts tell students to do. But “making someone wrong”—that is, accusing, shaming, or blaming someone else instead of seeking a win-win solution—rarely serves our best interests in personal relationships or in academic and professional settings. 

Argument exercises that force students to see an issue as only having two sides or that quantify the amount of examples or reasons students must provide in defense of their position (give 3 reasons!) or that require students to see the “flaws” in a contrary position close the door on creative problem solving. This isn’t argument as inquiry. It’s argument as debate team.

While a competitive debate can be a fun learning experience for students, it’s important that students understand this isn’t how scholars do their brain work. Nobody keeps score in academic conversations. There aren’t clear winners and losers. And participants aren’t restricted to time limits for making their claims and refuting their opposition. Indeed, scholars work hard to avoid binary thinking and tend to view the other people in a conversation as collaborators and colleagues, not “opponents.”

When we teach argument writing to high school students, we need to be ever mindful of why we’re doing this. “Critical thinking and reasoning” sounds like a great justification, and to be sure, reading-based academic argumentation is a superb means of developing advanced thinking skills, but we also need to think of how and when students are going to apply those skills—in what contexts, with what mindset, and to what effects. I’d be pretty concerned if I believed what I was teaching my students was going to make them more antagonistic in their future lives.

A Better Approach: Collaborative Communication

The importance of creative collaboration is certainly something the business world has taken note of. The delightful book Yes, And: Lessons from The Second City has become a popular resource for organizational leaders who want to help their employees become more flexible and adaptive problem solvers. The title says it all. Based on the remarkable work of The Second City improv school in Chicago—whose alumni include Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, and Oprah Winfrey—Yes, And is about building on the work of others, not shutting others down.  The authors explain their approach in language that will resonate with teachers who have worked to foster academic habits of mind:

[In the business world] the soft skills—such as a willingness to listen, forge trusting relationships, take and support responsible risks, adapt to change, and stay positive in the face of adversity—are seen as those essential to allowing people and businesses to respond with agility and nimbleness to the fast-moving information, opportunities, and challenges of today’s workplace.

(Leonard and Yorton 13)

They add that these skills are “no longer merely nice to have” but are now “paramount” (13). When I read this passage, I can’t help but notice the implicit endorsement of rhetorical knowledge—of attention to audience, kairos, and adaptability. The transferrable communication and teamwork skills that can be learned from improv comedy are the same skills that can be learned from a rhetorical and dialogic approach to texts. Both lead to work cultures that “are more inventive, quicker to solve problems and more likely to have engaged employees than organizations where ideas are judged, criticized, and rejected too quickly” (13).

“No, but” adversarial thinking is as counterproductive in academic settings as it is in the world of work. Whereas “yes, and” validates and extends thinking, “no, but” invalidates a person’s experience or perspective. For this reason, I encourage students to use the word “and” instead of “but” during class discussions. It sounds like this:

  • I appreciate what you’re saying about X and am interested in also exploring Y.
  • Your point about X is important, and I think Y is an additional consideration.
  • What I hear you saying is X, and I’m wondering if we can also talk about Y.

This kind of supportive dialogue helps build mutual understanding.

With any kind of learning experience, including classroom debates, the essential questions to ask are these: What are the most transferrable skills this activity develops? How do I frame this activity to foreground these skills?

I want my students to be open-minded, creative problem-solvers who communicate effectively and ethically, not chronic debaters always looking for a chance to prove people wrong. If we’re teaching for the kind of transfer of learning we want to see happen in the 21st-century, then we need to prepare students to engage multiple perspectives and resist adversarial and reductive thinking. It’s a respect for diverse and divergent views that will lead to the kind of solutions most needed in our world.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. Her new book Writing Rhetorically: Fostering Responsive Thinkers and Communicators is available from Stenhouse Publishers.

Work Cited

Leonard, Kelly and Tom Yorton. Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons from The Second City. Harper, 2015.

Writing in the Presence of Others

By Jennifer Fletcher

As a graduate student, I remember one of my advisors telling me that we’re all just adding our bricks to the wall. At the time, I couldn’t help hearing echoes of Pink Floyd, and I perhaps didn’t fully appreciate my advisor’s point about the collaborative nature of intellectual labor. After a couple decades of working as a scholar and teacher, however, I get it now. None of us does our work alone.

We’re all supported by the different communities, networks, resources, and previous research that allow us to do what we do. We’re all standing on some someone’s shoulders, following in someone’s footsteps. We’re all co-constructors of whatever it is we’re building–not a wall, but the bridges and pathways to deeper understandings that are the goal of education and scholarship.

Going Allocentric

We write in the presence of others. This is what it means to contribute to an unending conversation: the perpetual give-and-take of public discourse that philosopher and rhetorician Kenneth Burke famously describes in The Philosophy of Literary Form. Through his “parlor metaphor,” Burke compares our entry into an academic conversation to an arrival at a social gathering, in which “others have long preceded [us]” and are already “engaged in a heated discussion” (111). (See my post on “parlor crashers” here).

We can’t make an informed contribution to the conversation if we turn our back on the people in the room. We have to patiently prepare for our turn to speak by first listening to what others have to say. In Burke’s words, we have to catch “the tenor of the argument” before we “put in [our] oar” (111). For developing writers, the shift to an allocentric perspective that includes the community of writers they’re engaging and responding to, as well as their own future readers, can be one of the best ways to enhance the authenticity and vitality of their writing.

When Writing Leaves the Room

A narrow focus on the writer’s own needs, on the other hand, often results in perfunctory prose and unconvincing arguments. I’ve learned to watch for the telltale signs of writing that has “left the room.” These include the following:

  • Dropping in irrelevant quotations
  • Not finding common ground
  • Asking a question that’s already been answered and/or is no longer timely and important
  • Disregarding the audience’s concerns and interests

Such writing is no longer in dialogue with the other people in the Burkian parlor. Keeping our writing in the room requires repeatedly imagining our readers looking over our shoulder and our sources standing by to factcheck us if we misrepresent them.

In real academic conversations, for instance, we have to be prepared to have our readers not only agree or disagree with our claims but also with the claims of our sources. Readers who take what we say seriously won’t just view our citations as mere formalities. They’ll genuinely care about what everyone has to say. And they won’t let us get away with using quotations and references as just scholarly window dressing.

Returning to the “Parlor”

For those moments when a writer gets stuck composing or revising, I find there’s nothing better than reading to get the ideas flowing again. Sometime overly cramped and painful prose itself can be a sign of writing that’s “left the room.” Academic writing tends to stall and fall flat when it’s no longer engaged in a lively discussion.

Just as we coach students to listen for the voices and watch for the pictures as a way of monitoring their reading comprehension (see I Read It, But I Don’t Get It by Cris Tovani), we also need to help students monitor when they no longer care about what they’re writing. If they find they’re just going through the motions, they can return to their reading to find something that moves them, that calls for a genuine response. Sometimes we do our best writing when we have a chip on our shoulder or a hero to cheer for.

Returning to the parlor for another listening session can help students discover an exigence, or reason for writing. Rhetorician M. Jimmie Killingsworth describes exigence as “what prompts the author to write in the first place, a sense of urgency, a problem that requires attention” (2005).

By cultivating their awareness of when they get stuck in their own heads, we help students develop a habit of returning to their reading to see what other writers are saying…and, in doing so, discover their own purpose for taking rhetorical action. That extra round of listening can also help students situate their developing position in relation to their sources.

Building on Others’ Contributions

As students develop a more nuanced understanding of the conversation and community they’re joining, we can extend their thinking through questions about the work that has already been done, or what my graduate advisor called the “wall”:

  • In whose footsteps are you following?
  • What’s already been done to address the issue?
  • What’s the big picture/larger context for your work?
  • How will you build on others’ contributions?

Thinking about how our individual “brick” fits into the “wall” we’re all building together gives us a deeper understanding of our rhetorical situation. This full consideration of rhetorical context moves students beyond just using the words of other writers to sincerely acknowledging their sources’ contributions to our collective knowledge.

A Lesson on Source-Based Writing from Walt Whitman

Consciously writing in the presence of others–whether that presence be the work of living colleagues or a long shadow cast by luminaries from the past–centers the social and historical contexts for intellectual labor. In the following stanza from “Starting from Paumanok” by Walt Whitman, notice how the good gray poet tells his precursors he “dare[s] not proceed till I respectfully credit what you have left.” Whitman describes how he studies his predecessors’ work “intently a long while” and acknowledges “it is admirable” before developing his own position.

From "Starting from Paumanok"

Dead poets, philosophs, priests,
Martyrs, artists, inventors, governments long since,
Language-shapers on other shores,
Nations once powerful, now reduced, withdrawn, or desolate,
I dare not proceed till I respectfully credit what you have left
     wafted hither,
I have perused it, own it is admirable, (moving awhile among it,)
Think nothing can ever be greater, nothing can ever deserve more
     than it deserves,
Regarding it all intently a long while, then dismissing it,
I stand in my place with my own day here” (13)

Earlier in the poem Whitman invites his own “interminable audience” to take his words and “make welcome for them everywhere” (13). He then addresses the other writers and thinkers whose work he has so carefully studied, saying, “And you precedents, connect lovingly with them [i.e., my poems], for they connect lovingly with you” (13). Seldom is the cooperative and interdependent nature of writing acknowledged with such affection and gratitude.

Whitman’s version of “they say, I say” (see Graff and Birkenstein) is one of the most arresting I’ve encountered. The turn from his thoughtful recognition of his intellectual antecedents to his utter refusal to conform to their way of thinking is masterful. The concluding lines of the stanza are the poet’s declaration of independence–a declaration that depends on its connections to others for its force and clarity.

A Reciprocal Process

The ideas of the interminable discussion and the parlor invoke a kind of collegiality, and even companionship, that I find deeply reassuring. We do our work as writers and thinkers through the help of others–even if we ultimately disagreed with them. The reciprocal exchange feeds everyone’s best work.

When we write with these understanding in mind, we can say with Whitman: “I sat studying at the feet of the great masters,/ Now if eligible O that the great masters might return and study me” (13).

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. Her new book Writing Rhetorically: Fostering Responsive Thinkers and Communicators is available from Stenhouse Publishers.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Philosophy of Literary Form. Louisiana State University Press, 1941.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Appeals in Modern Rhetoric. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say. W.W. Norton, 2021.

Tovani, Cris. I Read It, But I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers. Stenhouse, 1999.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855-1892. Bantam, 1983.

Understanding “Theme” as Paraphrase

By Jennifer Fletcher

Getting the “They Say” right of an academic conversation (see Graff and Birkenstein’s perennially popular book “They Say, I Say) starts with a willingness to understand a text on its own terms. This involves listening for the questions a text asks and answers and not just mapping a familiar idea or “universal” theme onto the text.

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein talk about the problem of “the closest cliché syndrome” (35): an inaccurate summary that “is not the view the author in question has actually expressed but a familiar cliché that the [summary] writer mistakes for the author’s view” (35). We see this during literary analysis work when students reach for a well-known platitude to describe what a novelist or poet is saying, such as “love is blind” or “power corrupts.”

As in any conversation, a responsible paraphrase of a literary text starts with listening (or reading) with the purpose of understanding.

Avoiding the Closest Cliché in Literary Analysis

“Theme” is the “they say” of a literary text. The process of trying to understand the central claim or message of a short story, play, or poem is similar to the work we do when we try to understand an argument in a persuasive essay. And yet we often teach these processes in vastly different ways. Most of us would never give our students lists of ready-made arguments to pin on the nonfiction texts they read, but I’ve seen lots of canned lists of thematic statements to use with literary texts.

See if any of the following sound familiar to you from your own experiences with literature classes:

  • Growing up is difficult.
  • Personal freedom is more/less important than social stability.
  • Love involves suffering.
  • Appearances can be deceptive.
  • Money can’t buy happiness.

Broadly defined, theme can be studied this way. And, of course, literary texts don’t usually state their meanings explicitly, so a paraphrase of the text’s meaning is often an interpretive claim. This can be challenging work for novice literary analysts. It makes sense that some kind of scaffolding would be helpful.

But if we only teach theme through a set list of stock options for what a text could mean, we discourage students from paying close attention to the peculiarities of what individual texts say. While Charles Dickens, Junot Diaz, Leo Tolstoy, and Toni Morrison all have something to say about the pain of childhood and the complexities of parental love, it is unlikely that four writers from such different historical and cultural contexts are saying exactly the same thing about these subjects. Writers may respond to similar questions about human experience, but their answers will vary. 

Giving students a drop-down menu of literary themes and telling them to choose the one that best fits the novel they just read encourages the closest cliché syndrome. Instead of helping students to postpone their judgment, this approach treats literary analysis as an exercise in confirmation bias. When students only look for the textual evidence that matches a familiar theme, textual inconsistencies and ambiguities that contradict that theme are often ignored.

Working to Understand a Text on Its Own Terms

What’s more, if a thematic statement is so general that it can apply to any work, it likely won’t capture the nuances of an individual text. Sweeping thematic generalizations substitute a simple idea for a complex one.

While we can argue that Shakespeare expresses some version of the idea that power corrupts in Julius Caesar, MacBeth and King Lear, we can also dig into the specifics of each play. What else does Shakespeare say besides “power corrupts”? The three dramas are highly individualized and convey their own messages about how power works and what it does to people.

Working to understand a text on its own terms requires setting aside our preconceptions and trying to see the issues from the writer’s perspective.

So I Hear You Saying…

Imagine being in a conversation with someone who repeatedly oversimplifies what you say:


I wonder how many writers of the literary texts we teach might similarly want to say, “You’re not listening to me.”

Putting an Interpretation to the Test

Fact checking our interpretive claims makes us better critical thinkers and more careful listeners. Sometimes what we think a literary text is saying doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. For instance, when I teach Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138, my students often paraphrase Shakespeare as saying “love is blind” in this poem. So we put this interpretation to the test by asking critical questions:

  • What other readings are plausible?
  • What does the evidence suggest?
  • What do others say?

We can also fact-check our paraphrase by putting it into direct dialogue with lines from the text. This is what this kind of “doubting game” questioning looks like for the opening and closing lines of this poem:

When we practice active listening in face-to-face conversations, we often check our understanding by mirroring back what we’ve heard to the person we’re talking to. Readers can similarly check their understanding of written texts by testing their interpretation against the original work. This is how we say to a poem or novel, “Let me see if I’ve got this right.”

Negotiating Different Textual Voices

One of the challenges of paraphrasing a literary writer’s meaning is that writers often say very different things from what their characters, narrators, or speakers say. While we can grab a character’s words right off the page, we have to make an inference about the writer’s meaning. Learning to paraphrase what is unsaid but implied is an essential critical reading skill.

To help students visualize how these different voices can be negotiated by a text’s reader, I invite students to compare writer and character messages through a graphic organizer:

By synthesizing what both the writer and their characters are saying, students can start to build a hypothesis about the text’s meaning.

Recursive Hypothesizing

The practice of constructing–and then testing–a hypothesis about a text’s meaning is a characteristic of expert readers. In their comparison of the different ways novice and experienced literary readers interact with texts, researchers Todd Reynolds and Leslie S. Rush identify “recursive hypothesizing” (213) as a special mark of expertise. Whereas novices tend to stop short in their analysis, experts engage in an ongoing “maybe this, maybe that” dialogue with themselves and others about a text’s potential meanings. If students are looking for (and not beyond) the closest cliche that fits the text, there’s no need for recursive hypothesizing and extended dialogue. Reynolds and Rush describe the back-and-forth process of meaning making as occurring over multiple stages of reading:

“Interpretation and comprehension do not come at the end of the text, but are formulated and reformulated while reading the text and after reading the text.”

(Reynolds and Rush 213)

Picking a theme from a list of universal truths doesn’t give students the chance to formulate and reformulate their own hypotheses about what a text means. We have to trust our students’ ability to build their own interpretations.

Teaching Literature for Transfer

The opportunity to cultivate ethical and empathic listening skills through literary reading is too important to pass by. Why teach students to jump to conclusions when we can teach them to understand a perspective on its own terms instead? This is the learning that has the most value for our students–and our communities–today and tomorrow.

Louise Rosenblatt’s landmark Literature as Exploration praises literature’s power to develop empathy in readers, calling “the capacity to sympathize or to identify with the experiences of others” a “most precious human attribute” (1965, 37). This gift of empathy isn’t conferred automatically. Literary reading won’t enhance our ability to understand other people if we don’t first set aside our assumptions and biases.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher.

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say. W.W. Norton, 2021.

Reynolds, Todd and Leslie S. Rush. “Experts and Novices Reading Literature: An Analysis of Disciplinary Literacy in English Language Arts.” Literacy Research and Instruction. 56.3, 199-216.

Rosenblatt, Louise. Literature as Exploration. 1938. Modern Language Association, 1995.

How Ethos Impacts Pathos: A Tale of Two Writers

By Jennifer Fletcher

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…or, at least, so we would have to believe to accept the arguments of both Martin E. P. Seligman and Barbara Ehrenreich on the topic of American life in the early 21st century. Seligman is the author of such books as Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness and a celebrated Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Ehrenreich is an award-winning journalist whose many books include the best-sellers Nickle and Dimed and Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of an American Dream. Seligman and Ehrenrich are also the respective authors of Flourish (2012) and Bright-sided (2010), two strikingly different books I happened to be reading at the same time a few years ago.

For me, it’s always exciting to discover that two writers I’m reading are in direct conversation with each other. Not only were Seligman and Ehrenreich writing about the same topic–in this case, optimism and “positive psychology”–they specifically named each other as their naysayer. That thrill of recognition when we discover an unexpected rivalry or alliance in the books we’re reading makes the texts crackle to life. We think, “Hey! I didn’t know these two knew each!” or maybe “Wow! They really don’t like each other, do they?” Suddenly, the readings are full of personality and personal feeling.

That personality, or what rhetoricians call “ethos,” has a strong influence on how we read and respond to texts.

In his classical work on rhetoric, Aristotle says that to be persuasive, a rhetor (ie., a speaker or writer) must make their character “look right” (Book II, Chapter 1). This is achieved not only through the rhetor’s reasoning, expertise, and language choices, but also by the way they position themselves in relation to others. Positive, neutral, and negative characterizations of sources can all become part of a writer’s image and tone, leading, in turn, to different emotional reactions in readers. Ethos thus has a direct impact on pathos: the audience’s “frame of mind” (Rhetoric Book II, Chapter 1). When it comes to source-based writing, how we feel about one writer can determine how we view other voices in the conversation.

Flourish and Bright-sided: Spring of Hope vs. Winter of Despair

The conflict between Seligman and Ehrenreich provides a good example. In Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, a book I read as part of a university co-op on supporting first-year students, Seligman attacks Ehrenreich’s views head-on. I came to my reading of Flourish as someone who likes Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickle and Dimed has become a favorite text in many high school and college English classes, and Ehrenreich’s background as a journalist jibes nicely with my own training in English studies. In other words, we share similar backing for our views.

I was therefore first surprised then annoyed by Seligman’s blunt critique of Ehrenreich. Introducing her as “Barbara ‘I Hate Hope’ Ehrenreich,” Seligman summarizes—then summarily refutes—her central argument in her book Bright-sided. Here’s what he writes in Flourish:

In her chapter ‘How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy,’ she places the blame for the downturn of 2008-9 on positive thinking. Motivational gurus such as Oprah, Televangelist Joel Osteen, and Tony Robbins, she tells us, revved up the general public into buying more than they could afford to repay. Executive coaches espousing positive thinking infected CEOs with the viral and profitable idea that the economy would grow and grow. Academics—she likens me to the Wizard of Oz—provided the scientific props for these hucksters. What Ehrenreich tells us we need is realism, not optimism. Indeed, cultivating realism, rather than positivity, is the theme of her entire book.

He concludes, “This is vacuous” (Seligman 233).

“Vacuous.” Now that’s a harsh word. I remember one exam rubric I saw back in the 1990s that used the word “vacuous” to describe an essay at the lowest level of performance on its nine-point scale. 

An occasionally cranky person myself, I can sympathize with Ehrenreich’s distaste for optimism.  Besides, I teach literature.  Human misery is a central focus of my discipline. For me as a reader, the personal attack on Ehrenreich was strike one against Seligman.

Later in Flourish, Seligman takes a shot at another topic likely to provoke defensiveness among past and present English majors: postmodernism. “History, in the hands of the postmodernists,” Seligman writes, “is taught as ‘one damn thing after another.’ I believe the postmodernists are misguided and misguiding. I believe that history is the account of human progress and that you have to be blinded by ideology not to see the reality of this progress” (238).

I like postmodernism. At least, that is to say, I find its questions helpful and important, and I strongly identify with the generation of students and scholars trained in its theories. So when Seligman says that “postmodernists are misguided and misguiding,” it gets my back up. That’s strike two for Seligman. This is the kind of reader response my colleague Glen McClish, a Professor of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at San Diego State University, encourages students to notice. He offers two great questions for considering the reader’s affective engagement with a text:

  • Who is going to check out at at this phrase/sentence/paragraph?
  • Who is not going to be able to read this?

That “strike three” moment when a reader says, “I’m done” could happen for many reasons. In the case of Flourish, fans of Barbara Ehrenreich or postmodernism might be disinclined to continue reading Seligman’s book if they believe his values, interests, and ways of knowing are too different from their own.

Playing the Believing Game When Our Hackles Are Raised

Readers trained in Peter Elbow’s believing game, however, don’t have to allow off-putting statements by a writer to deter them from engaging a text. As writers, we should certainly consider how our rhetorical choices impact our relationship with our audience. But as readers, we have control over meaning-making, too.  We can temporarily set aside our resistance to a text as we work to understand it on its own terms. Here are the guidelines I share with students for playing the believing game:

A wise former principal once explained to me how she managed parent or teacher complaints. When deeply upset individuals would vent their frustrations to her–no matter how incoherent or personal the attack–she would tell herself, “There’s something important in all of this that I need to pay attention to.” We can do this as readers, too.  Playing the believing game enhances our capacity for self-management. Instead of checking out or shutting down when a writer raises our hackles, we can defer our personal reactions until after we’ve paid attention to a text’s meaning.

Analyzing and Applying Conceptual Relationships

In Learning That Transfers, Julie Stern and her co-authors explain that the process of “connecting concepts in relationships” (15) is what allows students to put those concepts to use in sophisticated and diverse ways. When a concept like ethos or pathos is taught in isolation, students develop a surface-level understanding that enables them to identify examples of the concept, but not necessarily to analyze and apply the concept in new situations. In contrast, an instructional approach that builds conceptual frameworks prepares students to act as creative problem solvers (Chapter One of Learning That Transfer offers a helpful explanation of how this works). I used the stems provided by Stern and her co-authors to create the questions on ethos and pathos that follow:

  • How are ethos and pathos connected?
  • How does ethos affect pathos?
  • What impact does pathos have on a writer’s ethos?
  • How do writers interact with readers?
  • How do writers’ interactions with other writers impact how the audience feels?
  • What role does the writer’s character or “voice” play in shaping the reader’s emotional experience of a text? (adapted from Learning That Transfers, page 15)

A complex emotional tactic like humor, for instance, can do several things at once: bolster the writer’s ethos, break down the audience’s defenses, undermine the opposition, and sustain the audience’s attention. Amusement can also be the gateway emotion that permits the audience to experience other emotions–compassion, regret, resignation, hope–that ultimately impact decision-making. The wry sense of our own limitations that often follows a good joke additionally helps an audience see how claims might be qualified or concessions made.

I happen to enjoy Ehrenreich’s caustic wit. Seligman’s humorless treatment of Ehrenreich, on the the other hand, doesn’t endear him to those readers like me who might feel he takes himself and his philosophy a little too seriously.

Both Seligman and Ehrenreich are big names, with mad credibility in their respective fields. I have colleagues in each writer’s camp. But I know who I’d rather have lunch with…and whose next book I’m more likely to buy.

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

Aristotle. Rhetoric. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts. McGraw-Hill, 1984.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. Metropolitan Books, 2010.

Elbow, Peter. Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Learning and Teaching. Oxford University Press, 1986.

Seligman, Martin E.P. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. Free Press, 2012.

Stern, Julie, Krista Ferraro, Kayla Duncan, and Trevor Aleo. Learning that Transfer: Designing Curriculum for a Changing World. Corwin, 2021.

Writing Thesis Statements as Enthymemes

By Jennifer Fletcher

In my new book Writing Rhetorically, I share one of my favorite quotations from rhetoricians Edward P.J. Corbett and Rosa A. Eberly: “Reasoning, by itself, will not get the potatoes peeled” (1). It takes humans in communication with other humans to accomplish real work in the world. When we reason rhetorically, we pay close attention to how and what our audience thinks because we care about the outcome of our efforts.

A good way to sharpen students’ awareness of other people’s beliefs and assumptions is to teach thesis statements as enthymemes.

What’s an Enthymeme?

Like Stephen Toulmin’s concepts of warrants and backing, the classical enthymeme is another logical tool predicated on audience knowledge (see my post on faulty warrants). An enthymeme is a compressed syllogism. It allows people who share common assumptions to “collaborate on an inference,” as Thomas Farrell expresses it in “Practicing the Arts of Rhetoric: Tradition and Invention” (83). Enthymemes are the ultimate audience participation move. When rhetors and audience members have similar background knowledge, the rhetor can leave some things unsaid, knowing the audience will supply this content themselves. It looks like this:

“He would not take the crown; Therefore ’tis certain he was not ambitious” (Act III, scene ii, lines 117-8). 

From Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

The unstated premise is that an ambitious person would have desired the crown; this idea is already in the mind of the audience, so it doesn’t need to be said.

If you compare that to a syllogism (here’s one I created for Mustafa Mond’s speech justifying the World State in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World), you’ll notice how much an enthymeme leaves out:

A Syllogism from Brave New World (1932)
Chastity leads to destructive passions.
Destructive passions lead to the end of civilization.
Therefore, chastity leads to the end of civilization.

You could have your students turn this syllogism into an enthymeme by omitting the premise. Like so: 

Chastity leads to the end of civilization because it creates destructive passions. 

Again, the audience helps construct the meaning by supplying unstated assumptions.

Today’s students encounter and produce enthymemes in their daily lives. If someone says, “I can’t tell you anything more—security,” we understand that sharing information could endanger people or property. That’s an enthymeme. As my colleague John Edlund pointed out to me, Internet memes are enthymemes; they make widely recognized cultural references through a single image and a few words.

My daughter’s birthday list request for holographic nail polish was expressed as an enthymeme: “holo polish (because rainbows).” I heard this enthymeme in an NPR report on the national budget while driving home from work: “Putting money in one area doesn’t automatically mean money is available for another area because…politics.” Truncating a rationale to “because rainbows” or “because politics” only works if all audience members understand that rainbows are awesome and politics are complicated. The success of an enthymeme depends on a careful audience analysis.

Like the literary device of irony, the enthymeme requires audience participation.

Writing Thesis Statements as Enthymemes

The University of Oregon’s composition program uses the enthymeme as a strategy for teaching students to write thesis statements. Drawing on faculty member John T. Gage’s work in The Shape of Reason, Oregon Ducks learn to uses the enthymeme “as the central basis for the invention and structuring of arguments” (XV). In contrast to more rigid and formulaic approaches to logic, the enthymeme offers an informal method of rhetorical reasoning that fits well with today’s communication contexts. The enthymeme, Gage says, is “open and flexible” (58), making it a proper tool for a generation that can expect an escalating pace of change in their future.

Enthymemes are made up of a reason, an assumption, and a conclusion (61). The assumption and conclusion may be stated or unstated. In the case of my daughter’s birthday request—“holo polish (because rainbows)”—most of her message was unstated, but I still understood she meant, “I want holographic nail polish because holograms create rainbows and rainbows are awesome.” 

Gage explains that “a thesis statement in the shape of an enthymeme will have the following very basic but elastic form”: 

Assertion 1 (thesis) because Assertion 2 (reason) (77)

The reason can come in the first or second part of the thesis statement.

Because ____________________, ____________________________ .
Since ______________________, ____________________________ .
____________________________ because _____________________ .
____________________________ since _______________________ .

Gage provides a checklist for testing whether a thesis is an enthymeme:

  1. Is the because clause a complete, precisely stated idea?
  2. Does it represent a central reason for answering the question “What makes the thesis true?”
  3. Is the implied assumption one that my audience can be expected to accept without further argument?
  4. Have I explored the adequacy of my reasoning in terms of the relevance and connectedness of the because clause, the relative precision of all the terms, and the need to go beyond circular reasoning? (78)

In other words, does the thesis address a question at issue, provide a supporting reason, use a shared assumption, and avoid vague terms? If it does, students have found a “central basis for the invention and structuring of arguments” (Gage XV).

They’ve also found a way to deepen their understanding of other people. You don’t have to be a mind reader to reason rhetorically, but you do need to make a good faith effort to learn about your audience and be willing to collaborate in making meaning.

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

Farrell, Thomas. “Practicing the Arts of Rhetoric: Tradition and Invention.” Philosophy & Rhetoric.
Vol. 24, No. 3, Theory and Praxis (1991), pp. 183-212.

Gage, John T. The Shape of Reason. Allyn and Bacon, 2001.

Diction Design

By Jennifer Fletcher

Did you ever watch the television show Project Runway on Bravo? If so, do you remember the accessory wall with its array of shoes, belts, and handbags suitable for a variety of occasions? Style mentor Tim Gunn always encouraged the fashion designers competing on the show to use the range of available accessories “thoughtfully.” Writers also need to make thoughtful design choices. We can support students in making informed decisions about language by examining how different styles realize different social roles and situations.

Thinking of diction through the transferrable concept of “design” helps students to focus on effects rather than rules. There’s a difference between a base color and an accent color. What rhetorical and aesthetic effect does the writer want to create? Blending or contrasting? Knowing when and why a writer might choose to let the level of diction drop or spike is the conditional knowledge that will helps students make effective language choices.

Notice, for instance, Claudius’s strategic shift in diction in this following scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

And now, Laertes, what’s the news with you?

You told us of some suit. What is’t, Laertes?

You cannot speak of reason to the Dane

And lose your voice. What wouldst thou beg, Laertes,

That shall not be my offer, not thy asking?

(Act I, scene ii, lines 42-46)

The shifts from “you” to “thou” and from “us” to “my” move the scene toward greater familiarity and intimacy and almost serve as stage directions to the actor playing Claudius, telling him to lower and soften his voice in the last two lines. The tone markedly changes through the shift in diction. What begins as a formal conversation between a king and his courtier ends as a confidential chat between family friends.

Valuing Vernacular Eloquence

There’s another tremendously important idea to keep in mind when talking about levels of diction. Many students hear the message that the language they bring with them is inappropriate for academic settings. Telling students that they have to “code switch” because intellectual work can only be done in formal, standardized English not only perpetuates linguistic racism and deficit views of learners, it’s also misleading. Plenty of scholars from April Baker-Bell to Django Paris to Asao Inoue to Peter Elbow use code-meshing and vernacular English to do their work.

Peter Elbow, the rhetorician famous for making freewriting a ubiquitous classroom practice, is one of many scholars who advocate for instructional strategies that promote more natural and engaging ways of communicating in diverse settings. In Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, Elbow writes, “I’ve long been angry at how our present culture of ‘proper literacy’ tells us that we are not supposed to do our serious writing in the mother tongue we know best and possess in our bones–but rather only in the prestige, correct, edited version of standardized English” (3).

My own experience as a teacher corroborates Elbow’s claim that using “whatever language comes most easily to mouth and mind” improves students’ academic or “serious” writing” (3). To be clear, Elbow doesn’t suggest that students just write without planning or care. Instead, he recommends that we “welcome unplanned speech for the rich resources it has, even for careful writing” (4).

Vernacular Eloquence shows how “serious, formal, and ‘literate’ writing can be even more careful and better…if it enlists the various resources of careless speech” (4-5). Communication scholar Vershawn Ashanti Young makes a similar point in the Introduction to Other People’s English. He notes that code-meshing (i.e., blending or remixing linguistic codes) helps “students and anyone else produce expressive, persuasive, effective prose for academic, creative, and professional purposes” (7).

Classroom Activity: Diction Design

The purpose of the following activity is thus not to privilege formal language. As Elbow points out, our writing is often at its best when it’s closest to natural speech. The purpose of this activity is to support students in making their own informed decisions about the effects and functions of their word choices—including choices that resist conventions and celebrate linguistic diversity.

Directions to Students: Each of the following sets of words has one word that is seemingly overdressed or underdressed for the occasion. Which one is more formal or casual than the rest of the words in the group? Circle the word that is a different level of diction from the others in the set.

good evening
as a result
veg out
hecka full

Making Thoughtful Use of Design Choices

“Quick-Write: Making a Fashion Statement”

Directions to Students: Respond to any of the following questions in a 5-minute quick-write. Why might it sometimes be a good idea to make “a fashion statement” by shifting to a level of diction that is different from the rest of the text? When do you want your words to stand out? How might an audience react to language that is unexpectedly casual or formal? Are there times when this kind of reaction can help a writer achieve their purpose? When can this rhetorical move be effective?

Please see the resources page for this and other activities.

The Takeaway

The effectiveness of a particular word choice is determined by the rhetorical situation. Whether a particular word is a good choice, a better choice, or the best choice depends on its function in context. Rather than forcing students to use a universally formal style and standardized English for academic writing, we can support students in mixing and matching a variety of linguistic resources to achieve exciting aesthetic and rhetorical effects. Those seemingly contradictory styles may be just the wow factor their writing needs.

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

Baker-Bell, April. Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy. Routledge, 2020.

Elbow, Peter. Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Young, Vershawn Ashanti, Rusty Barret, Y’Shanda Young-Rivera, Kim Brian Lovejoy. Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy. Parlor Press, 2018.

A Claim by Any Other Name

By Jennifer Fletcher

In an outstanding webinar I recently attended on rhetorical modes, the presenters explained that “modes” are text structures, text types, or organizational patterns.

“Why do we do that?” one participant asked, “Why do we have so many different names for the same thing in English language arts? Wouldn’t it be easier if we all agreed on the same language?” The answer to this thoughtful question has a lot to do with the history of intellectual conversations in our discipline. Because the study and practice of human communication extends back over two thousand years, we have centuries of other scholars’ terms and definitions to contend with in arriving at our understanding of a concept. And I don’t think we’d want it any other way.

Getting everyone on the same page when it comes to the language students use for their academic work can interfere with students’ ability to notice differences in disciplinary contexts. Differences in terminology are not superficial. In Learning that Transfers: Designing Curriculum for a Changing World–a rich and wonderfully actionable resource for helping students to be flexible and adaptable learners–the authors explain that “the major differences among academic disciplines are differences in ways of knowing” (Stern et al. 58). Disciplinary literacies are thus “the unique ways each field constructs knowledge about the world” (Stern et al. 58).

Even within a single discipline such as English studies, we can see how different terms represent the different epistemologies and perspectives that have shaped the development of the field. Disciplines don’t stay frozen in time. We’re not serving students’ long-term interest by smoothing over the intellectual disagreements that characterize the history of a field.

This is why it doesn’t bother me that students learn to “defend a position with reasons” in one class while they learn to “support an opinion with evidence” or “draw a conclusion” in another class. The skills and the language we use to teach those skills shift from class to class, discipline to discipline, grade to grade, and institution to institution (and even, to a certain extent, from generation to generation). Navigating such diverse contexts successfully requires an astounding degree of mental agility. To transfer their learning from one task or setting to another, students need to be able to do the following:

  • Compare and contrast contexts
  • Analyze similarities and differences
  • Make relevant connections
  • Adapt their approach as needed

Teaching for transfer means we don’t try to hide intellectual and disciplinary differences. One content area’s vocabulary or way of thinking will never become the default approach for all content areas, and indeed it would be detrimental to the academic work performed in different disciplines to try to impose a one-size-fits-all approach. Scientists think, work, and communicate in ways that are distinctly different from how historians or literary critics think, work, and communicate (at least in the context of their professional lives). What’s more, the way scientists do their work and talk about their work today is likely to be significantly different from what they’ll be doing twenty years from now.

Calling for a common language for all students works against the goal of transfer of learning and can actually impair students’ rhetorical sensitivity and adaptability. It also erases the historical, cultural, scholarly, and ideological contexts from which language differences emerge—including the many ongoing academic conversations in which the definition of a term is itself the question at issue. Rather than teaching students to use the same terms in all their classes, we can teach them how to discern whose terms and definitions are valued in a given context—and why—and how to engage, affirm, or challenge those terms as critical thinkers.

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.

Work Cited

Stern, Julie, Krista Ferraro, Kayla Duncan, and Trevor Aleo. Learning that Transfers: Designing Curriculum for a Changing World. Corwin, 2021.

Resurrecting Dead Words

By Jennifer Fletcher

In Teaching Arguments, I write about an activity I used for many years with my high school and college students: dead word funerals. I first learned about “dead words” when I was a student teacher back in the mid-nineties. At the time, it seemed like a clever and fun way to teach students about the importance of academic English.

We’d “kill off” a word that I thought was too casual or vague for academic writing—such as “get,” “go,” “thing,” “really,” or “big”—have a moment of silence, and then add the word to our list of deceased diction, meaning that students could no longer use that word in their argument essays. I even displayed a tombstone to drive home the point.

Learning about Linguistic Justice

After reading books like Other People’s English and Linguistic Justice, however, I’m more mindful of the ideological and instructional implications of telling students what words they can and can’t use in my classes. In Linguistic Justice, April Baker-Bell describes the emotional and intellectual harm done when Black students are “faulted, punished, and belittled” for “showing up to school with a language that was deemed incompatible with the literacy conventions expected in the academic setting” (5). Vershawn Ashanti Young, one of the co-authors of Other Peoples’ English, also examines the social costs of undervaluing students’ language resources. He calls code-switching “a form of linguistic segregation” since this practice requires Black students to only “use their language in appropriate settings and almost none of those settings are academic or professional” (3).

I now situate my dead words activity in relation to a tradition of educational approaches that seek to “eradicate speakers’ native/home language patterns from their speech” (Smitherman xv). What does the murder of a word accomplish if not its eradication? As Geneva Smitherman argues in the Foreword to Linguistic Justice, “We need a pedagogy that teaches us to explore why things are the way they are” (xv)—not one that unthinkingly perpetuates the status quo.

Beyond Academic English

Scholars such as Young and Baker-Bell have stretched my thinking about the conventions of academic discourse, including their sources, functions, and implicit social values. Assignment or activity directions that require students to use academic language as the communicative norm undermine students’ agency and interfere with their ability to leverage their linguistic resources. My goal as a teacher of rhetorical literacy skills should be fostering linguistic dexterity, not conformity.

What’s more, the academic language conventions we teach today won’t necessarily be the ones used by the scholars of tomorrow. Rhetorician Peter Elbow identifies a strong trend toward more casual, “vernacular” English across discourse communities, including academic ones. Elbow describes a “a newish world of writing”–the world of email, blogging, and social media–in which people compose in what Elbow calls “everyday vernacular spoken language” (4).

The vibrant, personable prose we enjoy in multiple forms of new media is having an impact on how researchers communicate in their fields. As Elbow notes, we’re all starting to write more like we talk.

Changing Our Instructional Approach

So where does that leave my dead words activity? For starters, I no longer kill off words. Making choices about language is the writer’s job, not the teacher’s. Each option needs to be evaluated in its unique rhetorical context. What counts as an effective word choice depends on the audience’s expectations for the genre and occasion, as well as the word’s function in the composition. (I know lots of scholars who use rhetorically effective profanity in academic prose.)

While I no longer give my students a list of “dead words” to avoid in academic writing, I do invite students to reflect on the rhetorical effects of different language choices, including the information communicated by their words. This activity can be especially helpful preparation for revising writing. Here are my updated directions:

Get Rid of Get 2.0

Directions to Students: In each of the following sentences, replace the word “get” with a different word or word phrase. Then identify the effect of your revision. Consider the list of “Revision Moves” below. If you think “get” is the best word in the context of the sentence, be prepared to explain why.

Possible Revision Moves

  • Toward precision
  • Toward concision
  • Toward genre conventions
  • ?
  1. What did you get on your test?
  2. I don’t get the joke.
  3. Your train may get in late.
  4. Did you get the assignment from Alejandra?
  5. Did your parents get you to do your homework?
  6. I can’t get enough of this chocolate.
  7. What are you getting your boyfriend for his birthday?

Given the casual nature of these sentences, it’s not surprising that many students think “get” sounds just fine in the above examples. I see this as a rhetorically justifiable view. And to be honest, now that I’ve resurrected words like “really,” “thing,” and “get” in my classes, I find that my students’ writing is often livelier and more authentic.

Zombie Fallacies

There is still one place in my curriculum where my old dead words lesson enjoys a lingering afterlife. When I teach qualifiers, I still like to use “zombie fallacies” as part of a lesson on critical reasoning. There’s value in helping students ask questions about the extent and implications of the claims they’re making. Some of those words I used to put on the dead words list were modifiers—such as always, never, all, every–that commit writers to extreme positions.

These are also the words that communication experts tend to see as problematic because they can misrepresent the behavior or viewpoints of other people (“You think you’re never wrong!” or “You’re always late for everything!”). I don’t bother teaching many logical fallacies these days, but I do teach the fallacies that interfere with ethical and effective communication.

Here’s the revised activity (adapted from Teaching Arguments):

Analyzing and Evaluating Claims: Zombie Fallacies

Purpose: To analyze and evaluate the effect of extreme modifiers in claims

Directions to Students: Write a claim in which you “resurrect” as many dead words as possible, using a minimum of four from the list below.  The “dead words” include modifiers, or describing words, that suggest extreme or universal conditions (e.g., “always,” “totally,” and “never”). The list also includes indefinite pronouns that are broadly inclusive (e.g., “everyone,” “nobody,” and “all”). Add some of the extreme modifiers and indefinite (or not specific) pronouns from the list to a claim you’re currently working on or one that you’ve already written with. See what you notice.

After writing your “zombie” claim, identify the logical fallacies you’ve created. Then answer the following questions:

  1. What kind of evidence do you need to reasonably make this claim?
  2. What are the assumptions behind this claim?
  3. Which words, if any, are undefined? How would you need to define these words in order to further develop and support this claim?
  4. How many people are affected by this issue? What do you know about them?
  5. What historical periods and geographical regions are relevant to this issue?
  6. Under what circumstances would this claim not be true?

Example: Because Algebra has always caused graduation problems for everyone, it should never be an admission requirement for any college. (logical fallacy: sweeping generalization)

Dead Words (extreme modifiers and indefinite pronouns): Always, never, everyone, everybody, everywhere, all, none, good, bad, no one, everything, anything, perfect, nobody, obviously, totally, completely, no matter what, absolutely, any

Logical Fallacies (partial list):

  • Band Wagon: Appeal to the popular (e.g., “Everyone is doing it.”)
  • Sweeping Generalization: Making a broad claim that doesn’t account for variations and exceptions (e.g., “All dogs are friendly.”)
  • Hasty Generalization: Drawing a conclusion without sufficient evidence and analysis (e.g., “I’m a boy who likes to play video games. My brother likes to play video games. Therefore, all boys like to play video games.”)
  • Appeal to Tradition: Basing an argument solely on long-standing practice (e.g., “We’ve always done things this way.”)
  • False Analogy: Claiming that something is like something else without sufficient grounds for the comparison (e.g., “Eating a French fry is totally like smoking a cigarette.”)

The Takeaway

As I revise my thinking as a teacher, I also need to revise my instructional approach. Activities that don’t serve students’ best interest need to be changed or retired. It turned out it was my prohibition against “dead words”–and not the words themselves–that needed to be laid to rest.

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

Baker-Bell, April. Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy. Routledge, 2020.

Elbow, Peter. Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Young, Vershawn Ashanti, Rusty Barret, Y’Shanda Young-Rivera, Kim Brian Lovejoy. Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy. Parlor Press, 2018.