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.

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.

Parlor Crashers

By Jennifer Fletcher

Many teachers use Kenneth Burke’s famous parlor metaphor to help their students understand what it means to take a turn in an academic conversation: “Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about” (1941, 111). When we cite sources in academic writing, we’re the ones hosting the party at that particular moment. Burke uses this metaphor to make the point that engaging in an intellectual discussion is kind of like attending a party; we need to pay attention to what’s appropriate in this group setting.

I use Burke’s metaphor to offer students another way to think about academic integrity and fake reading. Unattributed sources or citations from anonymously authored study guides like SparkNotes are “parlor crashers”—people who shouldn’t be in the conversation. By this, I don’t mean writers with legitimate points of view that deserve to be heard. I’m talking about plagiarism and ghost writing here, neither of which has any place in academic work. The problem with both is that we have no idea who’s in the room.

There are two common types of parlor crashers: The Imposter and The Unknown Source. The Imposter is plagiarized writing that pretends to be someone it’s not. The Unknown Source is an anonymously authored source, such as SparkNotes, that students can’t engage in an academic conversation because the writer’s identity is unknown. The Unknown Source is also often the cause of another parlor foul: pushing the invited guest (the book students were supposed to read) out of the parlor. Students can’t engage a writer they haven’t read.

Plagiarism is the worst case scenario of writing that is not communication; plagiarized writing is something to turn in, not something to say. I once called an online essay writing service out of sheer dismay and amazement that this kind of cheating exists. “Why do you do this?” I asked the representative who answered the customer service number, “I’m a teacher who works hard to help my students learn. I want them to get an education, not just a degree. Why do you wrongfully deprive these students of the opportunity to learn?” The rep audibly sighed and hung up on me. When I elaborated on my concerns in a subsequent email to the same service, I received this terse response: “We take this into consideration. Thank you.” I can only wonder how many times cheating services like this one have to field complaints from teachers like me. I hope often.

Aside from the ethical harm academic dishonesty causes to students and learning communities, using someone else’s words without giving them proper credit makes no logical sense if we accept the idea of academic discourse as an ongoing conversation. From this perspective, plagiarism is a weird form of impersonation or ventriloquism. Someone in disguise has crashed the Burkian parlor; we have a voice saying something but no authentic sense of who this person is or where they come from.

In the case of plagiarized material from online sources like Shmoop or LitCharts, the voice the plagiarist has assumed may actually be that of a struggling graduate student or jaded tech writer trying to make some extra money on the side. We simply don’t know. There’s someone hiding in the room who hasn’t been introduced to the group. One anonymously authored notes guide I came across offered what I thought was an inaccurate paraphrase of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 139. Now, my own interpretation could be off, but you can’t argue with a critic who won’t stand behind their words.

For this reason, I tend to discourage students from reading notes publications—not because I have a problem with students getting extra help interpreting challenging works, but because I’d like them to contextualize the other voices in the discussion. There are wonderful resources for students written by people who aren’t afraid to put their own names and credentials to their work.

In academic writing, citations are people. When students see sources as human beings to understand and respond to–and not just as something to use for an assignment–they cross the threshold between “doing school” and authentic written communication.

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

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

A Faulty Warrant Is a Failure to Listen

Surfacing our assumptions enhances our ability to understand and negotiate different perspectives. Reasoning is a both a collective and individual process. The conclusions we reach vary according to our personal values and interests and the extent to which we share these with other participants in the conversation. If we view argument writing as communication, a faulty warrant indicates a failure to pay attention to the audience’s cares and concerns–or, at the very least, a failure to establish shared values.

Let me offer an example. In Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, the irascible and elitist Harold Bloom expresses his frustration with students who read the character of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice sympathetically, noting that they refuse to “accept [his] statements that Shylock is a comic villain and that Portia would cease to be sympathetic if Shylock were allowed to be a figure of overwhelming pathos” (171).

Bloom’s argument rests on an underlying principle about the importance of genre that reveals a great deal about his own highly traditional values and interests. I can paraphrase his implied reasoning this way:

Because The Merchant of Venice is a comedy, the audience must see Shylock as a villain. Comedies have to have happy endings. The audience has to like the comedic hero or heroine. We have to like and admire Portia and see her as the one who saves the day.

(my paraphrase of Bloom’s underlying assumptions)

According to Bloom, if you feel sympathy for Shylock—if you feel like what’s happening to him is really awful and you’re saddened and appalled by the anti-semitism of the play—then you’re reading the play the wrong way. His claim is based on the premise that the genre of a literary work ultimately determines how it should be read. This line of reasoning further suggests that generic distinctions should be preserved.

However, we don’t necessarily have to accept these ideas. A faulty warrant is a logical fallacy wherein a rhetor assumes an audience shares an underlying principle or value that the audience doesn’t actually share. So while Harold Bloom says you have to dislike Shylock because The Merchant of Venice is a comedy and comedies have to have villains, I can say, “No, I don’t think genre is the most important thing we consider when we interpret literary works.” I can say instead that I think the ongoing cultural work a text continues to perform—including, in this case, the representation of racial hatred—is a more important consideration in literary analysis. If I’m Bloom’s target audience, then his claim is predicated on a faulty warrant.

As students become more skilled at reasoning from evidence, we can support them in more rigorously examining the assumptions behind their claims and the extent to which their audience shares those assumptions. We can also help them dig into the warrants authorizing other writers’ claims–and empower students to challenge those principles based on their own best thinking.

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

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Riverhead Books, 1999.

Shakespeare, William. The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice. The Norton Shakespeare. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katherine Eisman Maus. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2008. 1111-1175.

Can We Teach Writing Formulas Rhetorically?

By Jennifer Fletcher

Mark Twain writes in Tom Sawyer Abroad that a man who carries a cat by the tail gets “knowledge that was always going to be useful to him, and warn’t ever going to grow dim or doubtful.” Holistic scoring has been my cat-by-the-tail experience; I’ve learned things from reading thousands of student essays for district, state, and international writing exams that I could not have learned in any other way. And one of these painfully memorable lessons is that formulas can both help and hinder young writers.

If we chose to teach pre-fabricated structures—for instance, the reason-reason-counterargument essay I’ve repeatedly seen as a response to argument prompts on standardized tests—we can at least teach these structures conditionally. “Use only if appropriate” is the message students need to hear if they are going to be able to repurpose their learning for other situations. What matters is that students make their own strategic choices about structure, even if they occasionally choose a stock formula to organize their ideas. Being mindful of a writer’s options will assist students in the many situations in which the formulas they’ve learned no longer apply.

To do this, however, writers have to be able to go below the surface of a text and its rhetorical situation. They have to know how communication works. They need their own internalized understandings of a writer’s options as options, not just assignment directions. In a session I attended at the 2017 Convention of the National Teachers of English (NCTE), literacy scholar Michael Smith called out the importance of this explicit theoretical knowledge for transfer of learning. “Unless you can name it,” he said, “you can’t move it” (“Preparing Students for Tomorrow by Arguing Today”).

Writers also need to be mindful of the effects of our choices, formulaic or otherwise. If playing to our audience’s preference for a formula helps us achieve our purpose, so be it. One might argue that New York Times writers are sometimes formulaic (or at least predictable) in their organizational choices. I recently counted around a dozen op-ed pieces in which the third or fourth paragraph began with the word “but” or “yet,” signally an abrupt shift in the article’s direction. But even a formula should be deployed as a rhetorical choice, not a default response to a task.

The point is that if we want students to successfully navigate the diverse rhetorical situations they’ll encounter in their lives, they need to be aware of when and why they make particular choices as writers–including the choice to use a formula.

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

Smith, Michael. “Preparing Students for Tomorrow by Arguing Today.” National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention, 2017.

Scaffolding for Independence (and Avoiding Acronym Overload)

Scaffolds are temporary structures intended to support and extend learning and move novices toward mastery. Effective scaffolds don’t substitute a simpler task for a more complex one; they support students in developing the procedural and conceptual knowledge that enables them to grapple with complexity. Over-scaffolding, on the other hand, undermines students’ autonomy by telling students what to do and how to do it.

What does over-scaffolding look like? It might look like a few too many acronyms. I’ve been thinking about what our students see—and what they learn—when we fill our curriculum or classroom with mnemonics for teaching literacy skills. Try making a list in your head of all the reading and writing acronyms you’ve seen over the years: TPCASTT, SOAPSTone, OSCAR, RAFT, DBQ, CER, DIDLS, SQ3R. The list goes on and on.

I proudly decorated my first classroom with colorful TPCASTT and OSCAR posters I made on my home computer. A quick search on Pinterest or Teachers Pay Teachers yields thousands of charts for displaying popular teaching acronyms. It can almost seem like we can’t teach a concept or skill unless we encode it in an abbreviated form first.

But here’s the thing: These kinds of acronyms are often just a list of directions. They tell students what to do with the texts they’re reading or composing without developing their understanding of why they should be doing these things or how to change their approach when circumstances demand. A literacy strategy such as RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) or DIDLS (Diction, Imagery, Details, Language, Structure) unaccompanied by any exploration of underlying principles and purposes is just a mandate to do what the teacher says.

We can’t call this modeling expert thinking if we’re not also modeling the deeper concepts, practices, and provisions that experts draw on in doing their work. Too often, the acronym becomes just a shortcut to mimicry—a way to superficially imitate what experts do without engaging in the recursive, interrelated processes that characterize expertise.

What matters is not whether students know what’s a FATT sentence or a DOK question but the extent to which students can activate appropriate strategies and draw on principles as the situation warrants. It’s the questions students learn to ask about concepts such as audience, language, and structure that are important:

  • What are the audience’s values, needs, and interests?
  • How do the writer’s language choices affect the mood and tone?
  • How do the writer’s organizational choices shape the reader’s experience?

If students can’t unpack the questions and principles behind the acronym–principles such as academic discourse being characterized by a shared set of language conventions–the acronym may be getting in the way of deeper learning. The group of letters can seem like just one more thing students have to remember for school that they’ll never use in the real world.

Here’s my other worry about acronyms: they can trick us into thinking we’ve taught a literacy strategy when we haven’t yet. We introduce OSCAR, pass out some OSCAR graphic organizers, put the OSCAR poster up on the wall and believe we’ve taught a revision process when we’re really just getting started. Students learn to revise their writing by revising their writing. OSCAR might help make a few aspects of this process visible, but there’s no substitute for getting into the weeds with writers’ choices and readers’ reactions.

I’m guessing you probably don’t have a RAFT or SOAPSTone poster hanging in your home office or wherever you do your own reading and writing. And why not? Because when you have a deep understanding of literacy principles and processes, you don’t need an acronym to tell you what to do.

And that should be our goal for our students: the kind of expertise that lets them do their own work as readers, writers, and thinkers. Literacy instruction might start with modeling the practices of fluent readers and writers, but it shouldn’t stagnate there. Effective literacy instruction needs to move students beyond just copying someone else’s approach.

Expert learners have their own flexible processes for doing—and enjoying!–intellectual work.

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.

Teaching for Change

By Jennifer Fletcher

Teaching for transfer prepares students to be flexible thinkers who notice what’s going on around them, assess the current situation, and adjust and respond as needed. In 2020, the ground shifted under us. Economies were shuttered, schools closed, tests were suspended, jobs were lost or transformed, and the world turned upside down while millions of people lost their lives to a disease that was new in human history.

While nothing could have prepared us for this catastrophic loss of life, it was clear that the coping skills we most needed were those that help us navigate radical change. Rhetorical thinking and a spirit of transfer help us to be alert to changing conditions and contexts. After years of teaching about the importance of situational awareness and responsiveness, I repeatedly asked myself in 2020, “OK, just how good am I at handling change?” I didn’t always cope as well as I wanted to. But I found that what I had learned about transfer and rhetoric helped me to coach myself through the more difficult transitions.

As the news cycles rolled out in a relentless series of unthinkable headlines, we had to jump from Plan A to Plan B to Plan C. Even the old reliables of K12 education–standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, and AP exams–fell away or were transformed as colleges and testing companies scrambled to adjust to new realities. What remained the same, and indeed was more important than ever, was the need for people to figure out what had changed in their world and adapt accordingly.

We need to prepare students for an unknown future, not teach them rules and formulas that perpetuate the status quo…or even that just assume that the literacy tasks of tomorrow will look the same as the literacy tasks of today. 

But teaching for change isn’t always something we’ve done well as a profession. We tend to prefer fixed targets. And assessment and accountability systems rarely consider the extent to which students can adapt and apply their learning in new situations. Yet this measure of learning is exactly the one that matters most right now. Because we’re all having to adapt like never before.

The things we used to know and do fit a reality that continues to shift away from us even as we struggle to map its contours. Never has a list of fixed rules or stock formulas been less relevant to our students’ lives or to their preparedness for the future.

How many times in the past year have you heard someone say, “there’s no playbook for this”? There is no playbook for the world we’re living in now. We do our students a grave disservice if we act as if everything is business as usual when it’s not.

What endures, what still matters today, is the learning that helps students figure out how to read, write, and solve problems in unfamiliar situations, including like the one we’re all living through now. 

Teaching for that level of destabilizing, disorienting change involves teaching the concepts, processes and ways of thinking that enable students to adapt, respond, and even thrive when the ground shifts under them. Teaching students rules and formulas sets students up to be frustrated with change.

We can’t get things back to the way they were. The most effective vaccines and treatments won’t undo what has already happened. This, of all times, is not the moment to double down on protecting the status quo. Instead, it’s the moment to embrace our human capacities for adaptation, responsiveness, and resilience–and to cultivate these qualities in our students as our best path forward. 

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.