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.

New Online Course! Teaching Argument Writing Rhetorically

By Jennifer Fletcher

This spring, I have the honor of facilitating an online course for the National Writing Project as part of its series on teaching argument writing. I have long been an admirer of everything NWP does, so this is a special treat for me. I feel like I’m among friends whenever I’m with Writing Project folks.

I’m also excited to have the chance to explore one of my favorite topics with colleagues from around the country: teaching texts rhetorically. I continue to see rhetorical thinking as the pathway to independence so many of us are seeking for our students. For the past several years, I’ve been working on doing a better job of supporting my students’ journey from novice to expert. Instead of prescribing rules and formulas that increase students’ dependence on teachers, I’ve focused on developing the rhetorical knowledge that enables students to adapt and apply their literacy learning in new situations.

When we teach argument writing rhetorically, we empower students to make their own choices as thinkers and communicators. A rhetorical approach cultivates flexible, independent learners who can discover their own questions, design their own inquiry process, develop their own position and purposes, and contribute to conversations that matter to them. Those competencies will be a key focus of the NWP course.

The four-week course will also provides strategies and frameworks for taking argument writing to the next level by developing students’ rhetorical problem-solving skills. These include the dialogic and analytical skills that help learners communicate and collaborate across contexts. I daily bump into reminders of how difficult communicating across our differences can be. “Understand before you argue” has become a guiding slogan in both my teaching and personal life. This is one of those areas where my practice can fall short of my aspirations, so I’m especially looking forward to hearing ideas from colleagues for promoting civil discourse and productive, student-led conversations.

Using examples from my book, Writing Rhetorically, participants in the course will examine and design instructional activities that foster inquiry-based argumentation and transferable literacy skills. Here’s a quick preview of some of my top picks:

If I could only use one strategy to scaffold students’ understanding and analysis of texts, I would choose descriptive outlining. If you’ve heard about this high-impact tool and have been wanting to try it with your own students, the NWP course could be a good way to get started. The course will afford participants practice and planning time with these and other signature pedagogies of a rhetorical approach to argument writing.

And because we can all use some extra processing time these days, we’ll be taking a six-week break between Session 1 and Session 2 of this course for folks to pilot the instructional strategies and reflect on their learning. During this hiatus, I’ll be available for one-on-one live coaching sessions (included in the course registration fee).

I hope you’ll consider joining us for this course as we share ways to deepen students’ understanding of how to analyze and compose arguments in diverse settings. If you have any questions, please DM me @JenJFletcher or email me at Jfletcher@csumb.edu.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. She is the author of Teaching Arguments, Teaching Literature Rhetorically, and Writing Rhetorically.

NOTE: The registration fee for this course includes a print copy of Writing Rhetorically: Fostering Responsive Thinkers and Communicators (Stenhouse 2021).

What You Will Get:

  • Four real-time virtual workshops
  • A print copy of Writing Rhetorically: Fostering Responsive Thinkers and Communicators
  • Digital study guide and appendixes for Writing Rhetorically and Teaching Arguments
  • Activities and graphic organizers for teaching audience, purpose, genre, and structure
  • Support for teaching evidence-based reasoning, synthesis, and claim development
  • A digital badge indicating completion of 20 learning hours
  • Option for 2 CEUs through CA State University, Monterey Bay for an additional cost.

Time Commitment

  • This course will run for two weeks in March and two weeks in May:
    • March 6 – 17, 2023
      • Real-time events: March 8th and 15th, 4-5pm PT | 7-8pm ET
    • May 1 – May 12, 2023
      • Real-time events: May 3rd and 10, 4-5pm PT | 7-8pm ET
  • 1 hour of synchronous and four hours of self-paced learning per week for a total of 20 hours

For registration questions and payment options, email teachargument@nwp.org.

Register here. Please visit this link for more about courses offered by NWP.

Why I’m Not Losing Sleep Over AI

By Jennifer Fletcher

The tweets, emails, and articles I’ve read the past few weeks in response to the launch of ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence chatbot that generates readable prose in response to almost any writing prompt, seemingly should have me tossing and turning in my bed. Educators have warned about a tsunami of plagiarism and the end of high school English classes. New apps are rapidly being developed to detect AI-generated homework. But I’m not bothered, as the British would say.

My lack of worry can be explained by the view of John Warner, a view I wholeheartedly share. Warner is the author of Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and an incisive critic of prescriptive writing instruction and standardized testing that reduce composition to its surface features. Warner has repeatedly argued against training students to produce imitations of writing rather than engaging them in processes that result in authentic written communication. Here’s Warner in a Twitter thread from early December:

Later in the thread, Warner explains that the decontextualized, rule-based approach driven by high-stakes testing results in student writing that is “divorced from any kind of rhetorical situation with a defined audience, message, and purpose”–writing, in other words, that could be generated by a machine.

Now that the bots are cornering the market on simulated writing, perhaps it’s time to leave the step-by-step formulas to the software engineers and focus instead on helping students create original content for real social purposes. What matters, now more than ever, is meaningful and ethical communication between human beings.

Taking an Inquiry-Based Approach to Writing

Authentic written communication begins with inquiry. Whether that inquiry takes the form of our lived experience, class discussions, or reading and research, we start by finding a reason to write, something to say, and a conversation to join (not necessarily in that order). This is a big part of what distinguishes the genuine article from the fakes.

However, in addition to the pressure from standardized testing that Warner describes, the mess and frustration of authentic composing processes can often push teachers to look for more expedient ways to teach writing. Inquiry is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and uncertain. We have to be prepared for some productive struggle–both our own and our students’–if we kill the five-paragraph essay and similar formulas.

After and Before

To illustrate this point, I’d like to share a snapshot of what my classroom looks like after I switched to more of an inquiry-based approach to writing. These are all comments that students have said or written in reflections:

“Why are you making us do this? This is hard.”

“It’s too early in the morning for this.”

“It looks like a rainbow of mess.”

“I get stressed about it. I cry. Then I try to narrow things down.”

By giving students more space to do their own thinking and make their own choices as readers and writers, we’re significantly increasing the cognitive load, and that means more frustration and confusion.

I still sometimes feel tempted to rush in and solve their problems for them when I see my students struggling. And that’s what I did as a new teacher. This is what my “before” looked like.

When I first started teaching, my default response to struggle was to hand students a template or outline to follow. I felt like I needed to do something to help students finish the assignment, but I wasn’t really thinking about what students were learning from the assignment or the underlying purpose of my scaffold. There are still lots of scaffolds out there that promise to take the stress and guess work out of writing instruction. Search any marketplace for educational products and you’re likely to see blurbs like these:

 “Do your students have trouble writing paragraphs? Worry no more!”

“Take the guesswork out of writing!”

“Make life easier for you and your students”

On the surface, my “after” probably looks worse than my “before.” When we contract the inquiry space by giving students formulas and lists of instructions to follow, their writing often looks instantly better–like one of those miraculous home makeovers that appear to effortlessly transform a cluttered space into a perfectly organized room.

Writing formulas create instant “makeovers” that hide the mess of authentic inquiry and composing processes.

Indeed, this is exactly the kind of cosmetic filter that algorithms for language composition can provide. But this is faux writing, not rhetorical problem solving since the problem of how to respond to the rhetorical situation as been taken away from writers.

Students need to see the mess to understand the work behind the finished product. We have to be willing to invite mistakes, inefficiencies, and ambiguities when we take an inquiry-based approach. And we do this because we’re pursuing a larger goal than just success on a single, school-based task. Inquiry-based instruction prepares students to succeed in an unpredictable future. It helps them to develop their own theory of communication–a set of principles rather than rules–that informs the choices they make about content, structure, and style in unfamiliar situations.

Developing Conceptual and Conditional Knowledge

Transfer of learning is the adaptation and application of knowledge and skills in new situations. About ten years ago, Elon University hosted a seminar on critical transitions in which around 45 writing studies scholars met to study writing transfer. In the subsequent publication of their findings, the Elon Statement on Writing Transfer, the group made several recommendations to teachers, including focusing “on [the] study of concepts that enable students to analyze expectations for writing and learning within specific contexts” (2013). These include rhetorical concepts such as genre, purpose, audience, and context.

If we want to move students toward independence, we need to help them develop the understandings and dispositions that enable them to enact their own inquiry process. Building student’s conceptual knowledge promotes their growth and autonomy, but students also need conditional knowledge, or knowledge of what to do when. The National Research Council notes that experts are “good at retrieving the knowledge that is relevant to a particular task” (43).

If we’re not helping students to analyze different rhetorical situations and genre conventions and to work to understand the values and practices of different discourse communities, then they can develop a fixed sense of what “good” writing looks like instead of the understanding that good writing looks different in different contexts. This is a distinguishing characteristic of the “academic” and “professional” prose I’ve thus far seen generated by ChatGPT: the text narrowly conforms to standardized English and white language conventions.

Before and After

I want to close with one more before-and-after snapshot–this time, the difference between a novice learner and an expert learner. See what you notice:

Like algorithms, novices depend on a list of instructions to tell them what to do next. Experts, however, have their own flexible, situated processes for doing their work. Expert communicators demonstrate a level of rhetorical agility and linguistic versatility that at present is far beyond the reach of language model programs.

The rise of artificial intelligence to is wake-up call for our profession. Rather than seeing AI as an end to the world we know, we can view it as a reason to return to what we value. Ideas, relationships, human agency–these are the pillars of authentic communication. Real acts of composing are situated within complex discourse communities that don’t follow the rules of algorithms. We can be dismayed by new tools for plagiarism, or we can get out of the business of teaching students to mimic the surface features of composed texts while perpetuating dominant language conventions that marginalize other ways of knowing and being. I say let the machines run their simulations. Our work is elsewhere.

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

Elon Statement on Writing Transfer. 2015. Web. 19 Dec. 2022. <http://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/elon-statement-on-writing-transfer/&gt;.

National Research Council. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. National Academy Press, 2000.

From Rhetorical Triangle to Communication Pyramid

By Jennifer Fletcher

For a while now, I’ve found myself struggling to say anything new or insightful about the Aristotelian rhetorical triangle. When I get to the slide with this diagram during a presentation or workshop I’m giving on rhetorical literacy skills, I say something about how all these components–text (logos), audience (pathos), and rhetor (ethos)–are dynamic and interrelated, and then move as quickly as I can to the next slide.

I’m not sure why the venerable rhetorical triangle stopped working for me. Perhaps it’s because its very familiarity and ubiquity made its meaning appear so obvious that there was nothing left to say.

But I suspect there’s more to it than this. My present lack of enthusiasm for what has long been a mainstay of my introductions to rhetoric in the professional learning sessions I facilitate likely has to do with my own current needs as a learner. These days, I want to know more about human communication than what the rhetorical triangle can tell me. I want to know what’s behind and underneath this one-dimensional model: what relationships and identities underlie a social interaction, what ways of thinking people bring to the exchange, what sources of knowledge they value, and what communication habits shape what is said (or missaid) and understood (or misunderstood).

The Limits of One-Dimensional Thinking

The traditional rhetorical triangle doesn’t account for obstacles to understanding that often determine the efficacy of rhetorical action. In Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness, Krista Ratcliffe asks questions that can’t be answered by a simple diagram:

Why is it so hard to listen to one another? Why is it so hard to identify with one another when we feel excluded? Why is it so hard to focus simultaneously on commonalities and differences? Why is it so hard to resist a guilt/blame logic when listening? And how do power differentials of particular standpoints and cultural logics influence our ability to listen? (3).

Why and how indeed? What I know about the surface features of rhetorical situations isn’t enough to keep me from falling back on my own biases and defenses when engaged in a difficult conversation.

The Move Toward Dialogue

In writing on “conversational rhetoric” in Victorian literature (an interest dear to my own nerdy heart), my Cal State University colleague Glen McClish identifies dialogic moves that facilitate understanding across differences. These include

  • The open exchange of arguments, perspectives, and perceptions
  • Mutual respect for participants
  • The mandate of sympathy

McClish describes a form of conversational rhetoric “built on listening and collaborative invention” (294). Cooperative inquiry and the co-construction of meaning are hallmarks of this approach. Patience and courage are also defining features (294).

While the questions Ratcliffe asks and the dialogic practices McClish describes might be implicit in applications of the rhetorical triangle, in my experience this one-dimensional model doesn’t encourage a lot of surface scratching on its own. Instead, the triangle is often used to identify, rather than analyze, components of rhetorical situations. The three-sided plane with its equilateral angles furthermore suggests an equivalency of components belied by the varying dominance of elements in particular rhetorical situations.

On the whole, the rhetorical triangle just doesn’t do enough to acknowledge what’s happening inside people or how we show up to conversations.

From Triangle to Pyramid

I guess this is why the rhetorical triangle falls flat for me (pun intended). I want rich, full-bodied ways to understand how humans communicate with each other. And so I’ve started to think in terms of a communication pyramid instead of a rhetorical triangle. The schematic that makes the most sense to me for representing the full complexities of rhetorical action is layered and three-dimensional, expressing both what is explicit and what is hidden…a sort of iceberg. A pyramid represents the multi-directionality of power–how resistance and pressure move both laterally and vertically. As a metaphor for discourse, a pyramid conveys the way a conversation is founded on a history of related conversations and constructed through various ways of being and knowing.

A quick Internet search reveals loads of “communication pyramids” already in existence, although these tend to represent differences in proportion (e.g., frequency of forms of media or percentage of message conveyed verbally vs. nonverbally) rather than depth or visibility. The schema I’m looking for is something more akin to the idea of base and superstructure in critical theory or perhaps deep structure and surface structure in linguistics. What’s the relationship between the underlying sociocultural processes and the resulting rhetorical products? That’s what I want to know.

This is what I’ve come up with to represent these ideas:

You can see that I’m leaning on Stephen Toulmin’s model of argumentation as a way to get at the deeper reasoning that manifests itself in our expressed beliefs. You might also notice that there’s a good bit of criticality in this model, thanks to what I’m learning from scholars like Gholdy Muhammad, Sara K. Ahmed, Kimberly N. Parker, and Lorena Germán. I don’t yet know where I’m going with this new model, but I think it has potential.

Prismatic Possibilities

There’s another kind of polyhedron that I find intriguing as a model for rhetorical analysis: the prism. Prisms are multifaceted geometric figures with refracting surfaces; they literally and figuratively help us to see things in a new light. While the flatness of the rhetorical triangle oversimplifies persuasion, a prism is simultaneously generative and deconstructive, offering both clarity and distortion. I’m still working out the implications of this metaphor, but I’m drawn to the idea of viewing communication in a way that realizes a full spectrum of interpretive and productive possibilities, including approaches that shift perspectives, disrupt traditional views, defamiliarize concepts, and reposition writers.

This, too, seems to me a good departure from one-dimensional thinking.

The Path Forward

I keep circling back to these ideas out of a troubled sense that I’m not yet where I want to be with my own communication practices. In my personal and professional life, I still fall short of the standards for ethical and effective rhetorical action I value and pursue. Maybe this is just part of being of being human. We are messy and inconsistent and complex–which is why a communication model that more fully captures our whole humanity might move us further toward being our best human selves.

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

Ahmed, Sara K. Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension. Heinemann, 2018.

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

Germán, Lorena Escoto. Textured Teaching: A Framework for Culturally Sustaining Practices. Heinemann, 2021.

McClish, Glen. “ ‘The Very Breath of Life’: The Conversational Rhetoric of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South.” Journal for the History of Rhetoric, Vol. 25, No. 3, 2022 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. https://doi.org/10.5325/jhistrhetoric.25.3.0279

Muhammad, Gholdy. Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. Scholastic Teaching Resources, 2020.

Parker, Kimberly N. Literacy Is Liberation: Working Toward Justice Through Culturally Relevant Teaching. ASCD, 2022.

Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Ilinois University Press, 2005.

Toulmin, Stephen. The Uses of Argument. Updated edition. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Developing Students’ Genre Awareness

By Jennifer Fletcher

The first time I used an emoticon in a work email it just felt wrong. Years of being told to follow the “rules” of business communications—no exclamation points, nothing cutesy or personal—made that little smiley face seem like an act of rebellion. But I was far from being a rebel. The slang, sentence fragments, and dropped salutations and signature lines that eventually began to characterize my emails were part of a widespread shift toward more casual language in the workplace. I used an emoticon only after repeatedly seeing my colleagues do this and realizing that the conventions of work emails had clearly changed.

Noticing When Genre Conventions Change

Genre awareness—i.e, attention to the social purposes of different genres and genre features—is important because genres change. Linguist John Swales talks about “living genres,” forms of writing that continually morph and evolve (110). This is why our expectations for different genres need to be adaptable, too. Just because business letters or research papers were written a certain way back when we were in school, doesn’t mean the genre has remained frozen in time.

Whether new (e.g., Twitter chats) or old (e.g., parliamentary debates), flexible (e.g., science fiction novels) or relatively fixed (e.g., a research abstracts), all genres bear traces of the collective decision-making process that mark distinct forms of communication. Rhetoricians define genre as “a typified response to a recurring rhetorical situation” (Miller 23). As the rhetorical situations common to a discourse community change, the ways its members communicate change, too.

In long-lived genres like the research paper, some conventions come in and out of fashion. First-person narrative, for instance, has shifted from being a key feature of this genre (documenting the individual researcher’s skill), to being almost entirely absent from the genre, to once again being a popular convention associated with this form of writing. In these changes, we see historical shifts in attitudes towards the roles of researchers. Improvements in research methods and instruments in the 19th and 20th centuries meant valid findings no longer depended on the distinct and exceptional abilities of star scholars. Fast forward to our own postmodern age, and we’ve seen the return of the first person narrative in research papers in candid acknowledgment of the limits of objectivity. Social change drives genre change. 

Classroom Applications

Rhetorician Elizabeth Wardle explains why teaching genre awareness and analysis is more important than teaching genre knowledge (i.e., the “facts” about particular genres): “Recent findings about the nature of genre suggest that genres are context-specific and complex and cannot be easily or meaningfully mimicked outside their naturally occurring rhetorical situations and exigencies” (767). In other words, we need to study living genres in their natural settings. We need to notice how genres work: what they do, why they do this, and how they change. The graphic organizer that follows guides students through the process of genre analysis.

The value of genre awareness is what students learn about the process of analyzing a mentor text in preparation for writing in that genre and situation themselves, not a stock notion of what, for instance, a “short story” or an “argument essay” looks like. The goal is not so much the ability to classify texts as to learn from contextualized models. See my Genre Feature Analysis Matrix under the “Resources” tab on the blog for another activity you can try with your students.

I love the tips for teaching genre awareness Anne Beaufort shares in College Writing and Beyond:

  • Type up a horoscope in poem format (short lines/verses). Ask a student to read this “poem.” Then reveal the true genre and discuss how one’s mental schema for a genre influences the way one reads and interprets texts.
  • Give students a short reading selection without disclosing the source. Ask them to infer the genre, then discuss its properties and how that influences the meaning of the text.
  • After students have collected multiple examples of a genre, analyzed the genre, and have written in that genre, have small groups write a “how to” guide for composing in this genre that other writers can use. (Beaufort 178-179).

Beaufort’s book offers lots of engaging, inquiry-based activities like these.

Cultivating Independent Writers

Genre awareness also enables students to take a principled approach to rhetorical decision-making. In Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being, Deborah Dean explains, “Once students understand the social aspects of genres, they can begin to consider the implications of choosing to follow or to resist the expectations associated with those expectations” (27). Strategic resistance to audience expectations—especially when those expectations deny students the right to their own language resources—can be one of the most important choices students can make.

It’s not our job to give students step-by-step formulas for writing in particular genres. It’s our job to help students learn how to learn how to write in diverse genres and settings (Beaufort 15). That involves learning how to navigate—and sometimes even change—the social aspects of genres.

A Special Note to Colleagues Attending NCTE 2022:

I am very excited to be presenting at NCTE 2022 in Anaheim on 11/18 and 11/20! Please DM me on Twitter or stop by any of my sessions if you’d like to meet. I’d love to chat with you!

Friday November 18, 2022

Event Title:  Fire and Words: Igniting Equitable Writing Instruction

Type: Panel Presentations
Time: 3:30 PM PST – 4:45 PM PST
Location: 202-A

Sunday November 20, 2022

Event Title:  “Unseen: Our Past in a New Light”: Theoretical Perspectives on Literary Occlusion

Type: Panel Presentations
Time: 9:00 AM PST – 10:15 AM PST
Location: 210-CD

Event Title:  Cultivating Compositional Agility: Shining a Light on Learning that Transfers

Type: Panel Presentations
Time: 10:30 AM PST – 11:45 AM PST
Location: 202-A

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.

Dean, Deborah. Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being. National Council of Teachers of English, 2008.

Miller, Carolyn R. “Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 70, no. 2, 1984, pp. 151–67.

Swales, John. 1990. Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Wardle, Elizabeth. “ ‘Mutt Genres’ and the Goal of FYC: Can We Help Students Write the Genres of the University?” College Composition and Communication, vol. 60, no. 4, 2009, pp. 765–789.

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.