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Advice, Book Reviews, Rhetoric

Propping Up Persuasion in the First Weeks of ENG 1020


I thought I would follow up on Mike’s recent post in this ‘advice’ thread, particularly his attention to the newest teachers in our audience and his attention to the theme of ‘engagement’. To start, those of you teaching the GTA syllabus and starting with Gorgias might appreciate chapter one to The History and Theory of Rhetoric by James Herrick as a potential reading, as it provides a very clear introduction to rhetoric with a range of enjoyable and straightforward examples. As such it might serve as a follow up and clarification that responds to the palpable concern that the Greeks can be intimidating or cause resistance (as one student just put it via email: ‘these readings were interesting, but some parts were impossible for me’). I think for many teaching 1020 at the moment, Herrick’s introduction describes the facets of rhetoric in sufficient detail and in such a way that it would support most of the conclusions about rhetoric that we would like students to take away from these opening weeks. Moreover, Herrick introduces Gorgias in an initial paragraph just before a section on “Rhetoric and Persuasion” that explains why this text’s evocation of an initial “interest and suspicion” in rhetoric and persuasion makes sense as an appropriate introduction to rhetoric and composition, one that is broad and interesting enough to take on Mike’s first concern about reaching out and engaging a swath of students early on, and one that is still flexible enough to still prompt many different directions in a composition course.

Herrick’s introduction establishes a few definitions of rhetoric that emphasize a purpose to persuade or influence, but also to create clarity, beauty or mutual understanding. He thus offers a contemporary definition that like Gorgias’ takes a bit of a ‘blunderbuss’ approach that might make wider contact with students early in the semester, saying rhetoric “includes other goals such as achieving clarity through structured use of symbols, awakening our sense of beauty through the aesthetic potential in symbols, or bringing about mutual understanding through the careful management of common meanings attached to symbols” (7). After some attention to purpose and audience, his focus on how “rhetoric reveals human motives” also seems to be an appropriate way of framing several of the considerations students should take up when selecting an ad or another example of a ‘persuasive text’ for a first analysis.

I found this reading at a point last semester when I realized I wanted to make a couple of my reasons for starting with rhetoric/persuasion more explicit to students, one that makes clear that this emphasis supports analytical projects that can account for a wide range of content and for human ‘motives’ and the ethical questions that come up as they explore the relations between content and contexts under consideration for project one, and another that starts to focus a bit of attention on their own motivation or affective influences as they reflect on their writing throughout the course. Since the prior is a consideration that many of you negotiate well in your own way with your own tool-kit, I’ll discuss briefly how I recently gave more attention to negotiating the latter while trying to build up the kind of engagement Mike advised as being so critical this time of year. In the spirit of reflection (as my previous post and several others have taken interest in this year), I have students devote some attention to affective influences on their writing and research. This semester I’m having them read a selection from a piece by Barbara Bird in week 2, which takes a stance on what makes writing transfer from basic writing to subsequent courses. She discusses “Meaning-Making Concepts” in a Basic Writing context and notes that students need to carry forward three concepts or ideas to develop meaningful writing and a meaningful relationship with writing: one about “reading as interpretation” (which helps rationalize the early attention to analysis), one about “responding to texts” (a prompt which helps justify our series of response and the use of the ultimate tool: They Say/I Say), and one about inviting affective influences into the writing process (perhaps giving more fuel to any discussion about why Pathos really matters to the course…). Working through these three ideas in relation to an initial study of a ‘persuasive text’ seems to reinforce the concepts above as crucial to ‘meaning making’ and thus to their differing engagements with a course where they might not initially see how/why the writing is indeed meaningful, while also emphasizing that 1020 students are expected to be writers that from the get-go “must interpret, not merely apprehend, the texts they read in order to generate a meaningful response that actually contributes to verbal culture conversations… [since] basic writers tend to simply apprehend texts, excluding themselves and their reactions to the texts in their reading process, an exclusion that prevents them from finding something they want to say about the conversations that text engages” (Bird). Bird continues, “engagement in verbal or written culture, though, requires more than interpretive reading and deep-level writing: this engagement also requires our affective responses. Some affective responses, though, are negative, and a common dysfunctional affective response that prevents the positive affective involvements (and one that many basic writers have) is writing anxiety or a propensity to give up and lose patience.” Bird also turns her attention to Mike Rose’s two key concepts in his study of writing anxiety in his “Rigid Rules”: planning and rule adhering (390-393), which seems to support and challenge our teaching of fundamental rhetorical concepts we expect students to learn and apply in the first few weeks.

Jared Grogan is a PhD Candidate in the Department and joined the faculty as a lecturer in Fall 2011. His research interests include Rhetorical Theory, Ecology and Sustainability, Eco-Composition, and Pedagogy. He currently teaches English 1020.

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