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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.

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:

YOU: I'M FEELING REALLY CONFLICTED ABOUT MY PROMOTION. I APPRECIATE THE RECOGNITION BUT AM WORRIED ABOUT THE NEW RESPONSIBILITIES.
THEM: SO YOU'RE SAYING THAT POWER CORRUPTS.
YOU: NO, I'M SAYING I HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT THE JOB.
THEM: OH, YOU MEAN ABSOLUTE POWER CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY.
YOU: GRRR...

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.

father
parent
daddy
thoroughfare
conduit
road
s’up
hey
good evening
potent
formidable
strong
astounding
boss
remarkable
neat
cool
extraordinary
significant
important
big
kids
teens
adolescents
fundamentally
completely
tots
therefore
consequently
as a result
‘cuz
vibe
chill
veg out
decompress
replete
suffused
permeated
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 Transfer: 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.

Working the Problem: Rhetorical Thinking and the Design Process

By Jennifer Fletcher

NOTE: This post first appeared on the Stenhouse Blog.

What do you do when you don’t know what to do? This question has become a guiding line of inquiry in my work as a teacher these days. For both me and my students, the ability to respond effectively to novel challenges has never been more important.

During a meeting on the emergency shift to distance learning last spring, one of my colleagues said in frustration, “We don’t know how to do what we’re supposed to be doing right now.” This statement sums up much of my experience over the past fourteen months.

The problems we’re facing as teachers are new in human history—just as they are new for students, parents, employees, business owners, and all who have found their lives strangely reordered by COVID-19. I think of all those in-person businesses that had to suddenly shift to e-commerce. There were no classes to take or self-help books to read on how to perform an emergency pivot during a global pandemic; people had to figure out for themselves how to evolve their business into something new.

Outdoor dining in Monterey, CA

In Monterey County, California, where I live, it was inspiring to see the creative solutions generated by our local restaurants: new menus, modified locations and hours, gift certificates, pop-ups, delivery services, themed meals-to-go. The innovation of these businesses in the face of devastating losses was uplifting and courageous.

Navigating the Unknown

As a writing teacher, I take heart from these examples of creative problem solving. We may not be able to help our students predict the future, but we can improve their ability to respond to new situations. We do this by cultivating the procedural knowledge and principles that help students practice effective troubleshooting when they need to do something that they don’t know how to do.

This is why I teach rhetorical thinking to my student writers. Rhetorical concepts such as audience, purpose, genre, and context develop students’ capacity to navigate the unknown, including novel communication tasks or what rhetorician Linda Flower calls a “rhetorical problem” (12). Flower says that “writers rise to rhetorical problem solving during at least three occasions: in exploring the rhetorical problem (especially at the outset), in creating a plan, and in reviewing and testing both plans and texts” (1985).

The process Flower describes is not unlike the approach an engineer might take to solve a novel technology challenge, which is also why I also incorporate design theory into my writing instruction. Using design thinking to support rhetorical problem solving gives students an extra boost of flexibility and resilience when they need it most.

When combined with rhetorical principles, such as the importance of audience expectations or the functions of genre features, the design process helps writers to build a new text from the ground up. “Since we cannot hope to teach our students the conventions for the enormous variety of minor genres they will meet,” Flower writes, “they need to have some first principles to build upon when they encounter new tasks” (10).

Learning from Design Thinking

Students who have learned about design thinking have concrete strategies for tackling unfamiliar problems. The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University identifies six phases of the design process: understand, observe, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

If you teach in a school that incorporates elements of design theory, you’ve probably already made the connection between the design process and the writing process. I adapted the following description of the design cycle from the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program to more fully represent the work involved in composing a text, but you’ll see that very few changes were needed. This design cycle works just as well for a building an autonomous robot as it does for writing a researched argument essay. The cycle of research-build-test repeats until a workable solution is produced.

The Design Cycle

When applied to writing tasks, the design cycle invites students to consider the affordances and complexities of a rhetorical situation, including their own language resources. This puts student writers in the driver’s seat and supports them in making their own choices about content, process, style, and structure.

Jim Burke’s book The 6 Academic Writing Assignments: Designing the User’s Journey likewise makes a productive connection between design thinking and writing instruction. Teachers who think like designers enact a “recursive process of ongoing improvement” (Burke 159) that is deeply responsive to the user’s (i.e., the student’s) experience. This back-to-the-drawing-board attitude keeps us going when a composition (or a lesson plan) doesn’t work.

Facilitating Failure: Try, Try Again

I’ll say this for 2020: It helped me get better at letting go of things that weren’t working. Sometimes the success of Plan B depends on how quickly or thoroughly we can ditch Plan A. Mistakes are part of the design process. We learn from researching, building, and testing a product–whether that product is an app or an op-ed letter–that failure is the path to success.

The design cycle also teaches the critical lesson that you don’t know if something is going to work until you try it. In his acknowledgments for The 6 Academic Writing Assignments, Burke shares that he wrote at least three different versions of the manuscript before landing on the ideas that would form the core of the published book—something that fills me with both courage and dismay. If a seasoned pro like Jim Burke still has to grapple with the unexpected twists and turns of the composing process, what hope is there for the rest of us that writing will be anything less than a struggle?

Of course, the answer is that writing is a struggle, but a productive one, as long as we have faith in the process and ourselves. When writers see themselves as designers—and see the composing process as an ongoing effort to understand, observe, and define a problem and then ideate, prototype, and test a solution—they are more willing to approach rhetorical problems with a spirit of resilience and resourcefulness.

Flower offers us this gem of a rhetorical takeaway, too: Some compositions may “fail” not because they were poorly written but because “they were poorly designed for readers” (9).

Cultivating Independent Learners

In an age where we’re increasingly focusing on the importance of innovative problem solving and project-based learning, it seems odd that so much writing instruction doesn’t allow for trial and error. At one local high school in my area, for instance, students have learned how to fix their broken Chromebooks by replacing the damaged screens themselves. That spirit of self-reliance and ingenuity, however, is often absent from writing classrooms.

Writing projects should be projects; they should empower students to build their own texts and try, try again when they fail. We don’t foster creative problem solving if we restrict students to only following someone else’s blueprints. Formulaic and prescriptive approaches to writing impede students’ ability to adapt to new situations.

As Donald Graves made clear decades ago, independent problem solving is essential for writers’ growth. In Writing: Teachers and Children at Work, Graves explains, “There is a long, painstaking, patient process demanded to learn how to shape material to a level where it is satisfying to the person doing the crafting” (6). Students develop this deep procedural understanding by tinkering with their writing.

Taking ownership of the design cycle can help students see that asking a teacher “What should I do?” cuts short the research and development work inherent in any writing project. Not sure what to do? Build a prototype and test it on a focus group. While it’s not easy for me, I’ve learned to let my students flounder a bit when they ask for my advice. Now I say, “Try something, and I’ll let you know how I react. But make sure to get other reactions, too. I’m only one reader.”

Testing a Prototype

The Payoff

We develop problem solving skills by working the problem. The secret to staying calm under pressure is having lots of experience with things going wrong. By facilitating our students’ failures and nurturing their autonomy, we prepare them to expect the unexpected. Things will go wrong, especially when we’re dealing with radical novelty. The past year has taught us that lesson if nothing else. But failure is an opportunity to improve our design, as engineers would say.

Writers who approach rhetorical problems through a flexible, iterative, and principled process develop faith in working the process because the process works for them.

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

Burke, Jim. The 6 Academic Writing Assignments: Designing the User’s Journey. Heinemann, 2019.

Flower, Linda, and Carnegie-Mellon University. “Rhetorical Problem Solving: Cognition and Professional Writing.” Writing in the Business Professions, edited by Myra Kogen. NCTE, 1989. 

Graves, Donald. Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. Heinemann, 1983.

Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. “The Six Phases of the Design Thinking Process.” https://hpi.de/en/school-of-design-thinking/design-thinking/background/design-thinking-process.html

International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program. “Design.” https://www.ibo.org/programmes/middle-years-programme/curriculum/design/

The Bias Against Bias

By Jennifer Fletcher

Students sometimes feel like they can pull a mic drop on other writers by calling them out for their bias. Labeling a writer “biased” is an ethos slam. One Oxford English Dictionary definition describes bias as “prejudice.” Another mentions “slanting” or “distortion.”

It’s hard to read for understanding once you’ve decided a text is prejudiced or distorted. Labeling a text “biased” also implies that there are some texts that are “unbiased”—which, I guess, would mean devoid of all personal values, interests, and needs. Such a text would also be devoid of purpose and exigence, so I’d wonder why anyone would bother to write it in the first place.

In place of narrow understandings of the word “bias” that fuel defensiveness, we can help students explore the idea of “partiality”—the belief that all of us have only partial knowledge of an issue, which is why we need diverse, multiple perspectives to arrive at a fuller understanding. Partiality carries the sense of both preference and incompleteness. We’re partial to certain views and attitudes, and we see only a part of the big picture.

Much research has been done that suggests we all carry hidden biases based on widespread attitudes about gender, ethnicity, sexuality, socioeconomic status, language, and religion, among other identity components. Blind Spot (2013), by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, offers an engaging overview of this scholarship.

Communication studies professors Josina Makau and Debian Marty are among the many scholars who challenge the ideal of absolute objectivity, which they say flatly “doesn’t exist” (112). As individuals with distinct experiences, emotions, beliefs, and attitudes, it is impossible for us to be utterly impartial when engaging diverse views. “Everyone is partial” (112), say Makau and Marty, and I agree. We each see through a unique interpretive lens.

While we can’t be impartial, we can be respectful, informed, and fair-minded. We can be responsive and responsible in our treatment of others’ views and ethical and effective in our communication choices. We can be aware of reactions that impede our ability to listen empathetically. Marty and Makau note several:

  •  judgments—determining whether the speaker is right or wrong
  • distortions—our personal biases and preferences change the meaning of what the speaker said
  •  stereotype—pigeonholing speakers or ideas based on our preconceptions
  • resistance—focus on faultfinding (115)

A commitment to evidence-based reasoning should increase, not limit, our access to evidence. If our bias against bias makes it difficult for us to understand a viewpoint on its own terms or engage multiple perspectives, we might need to take an honest look at our own partialities, including our preferences for ways of communicating and reasoning that privilege the appearance of objectivity. Critical thinking is most useful when it helps us understand ourselves and others at a deeper, more authentic level.

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

Makau, Josina M. and Debian L. Marty. Dialogue and Deliberation. Waveland Press, 2013.

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.