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Posts Tagged ‘Composition’

Teaching Audience

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on October 21, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The following post comes from a journal entry I wrote to myself in the fall of 2010.  The post addresses the importance of audience to writing, and more specifically to the teaching of writing.  Other posts on this site have addressed this topic: see here, here, here, here, and here

I’m sitting here at a small wooden desk in my hotel in Destin, Florida, beneath a window that overlooks crowded parking lots, ivy-lined tennis courts, swaying palm trees, and beyond all these, white sand and an emerald-blue ocean.  I haven’t shaved all weekend.  I’m slightly sunburned.  I feel refreshed, except that Giuliana keeps insisting I get a haircut before I head back to Auburn and she to Atlanta.  Instead of walking the beach with her, I’m reading The History of the Kings of Britain and considering what I’ll teach my college freshmen this week. 

I’ve skimmed my syllabus and revisited each underlined phrase and barely legible marginalia from my teaching notes, and now I’m considering a line by Douglas B. Park.  It says, “Locating and discussing the audience for a given piece of prose can be frustrating.” 

Indeed it can.  Just this week I gave my students an assignment that I hoped would teach a thing or two about audience.  I handed out two pieces of paper on which I had copied and pasted three articles about Cancun, Mexico.

I had drawn the first article from the website of a tourist agency, the second from a newspaper, and the third from a literary journal.  I asked my students the same question that Park posed to his students: “Who or what. . . is the audience for this piece?”   

My students replied that tourists—surprise, surprise!—were the targeted audience for article one (perhaps “brochure” is a better term than “article”).  But they couldn’t name the audience for the second and third articles.  They responded with things like “the general public” or “the average reader,” categories so broad as to lack any clear referent.  So I tried, without really knowing what I was doing, asking something like Park’s next question: “How does audience manifest itself to writers writing?”   

I think I put the question more simply: “What’s the point of each piece?”

Perhaps stuck on the first brochure, my students answered, “To persuade you to go to Cancun.” 

I was making progress, but not enough. 

“How,” I asked, “does the article accomplish that?”

One student said, “By bolding words like ‘vacation,’ ‘beach,’ and ‘fun.’”

“What could make this article more effective?” I said.

One student, in so many words, said, “More adjectives.  Some pictures.  Maybe a story or two.” 

The students seemed to “get” article one.  But articles two and three were harder to pin down.  When I repeated my question—“Who is the audience for this piece?”—the students said something like “smart people.” 

Not until this weekend did I realize why my exercise failed.  The failure had something to do with Park’s claim that in the “case of unstructured situations where we would call the audience ‘general,’ where no simple, concrete identifications of audience are possible, the whole concept [of audience] becomes much more elusive.”

Articles two and three were elusive.  Or maybe my exercise for articles two and three was elusive because it created an unstructured situation. 

What documents could I have used to show how different kinds of writings signal different audiences? 

One problem with my activity was that even I couldn’t determine the intended audience for articles two and three.  Presumably there were several audiences.  The point of advertising, after all, is to appeal to as many audiences as possible.     

To satisfy my students, I lumped together articles two and three and said something like, “Now you see how a persuasive piece is different from leisure reading or newspaper reading.” 

That was that.  My activity failed.  I learned, however, about what Park calls the “elusiveness of audience in written discourse.”  I learned that I needed a better exercise to show my students how to anticipate their audiences.  Read the rest of this entry »

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What is a Research Paper, and How Does It Implicate Disciplinarity?

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on September 8, 2011 at 10:51 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Richard L. Larson interrogates the “research paper” signifier. He claims that this signifier lacks settled meaning because it “has no conceptual or substantive identity” (218). He calls the term “generic” and “cross-disciplinary” and claims that it “has virtually no value as an identification of a kind of substance in a paper” (218). Despite its empty or fluid meaning, the term “research paper” persists inside and outside English Departments, among faculty and students, at both university and secondary school levels. The problem for Larson is that by perpetuating the use of this slippery signifier, writing instructors mislead students as to what constitutes research and thereby enable bad research.

The term research paper “implicitly equates ‘research’ with looking up books in the library and taking down information from those books” (218); therefore, students learning to write so-called research papers inadvertently narrow their research possibilities by relying on a narrow conception of research as library visitation, note-taking, or whatever, without recognizing other forms of research that may be more discipline-appropriate: interviews, field observations, and the like (218). Using the term “research paper” to describe a particular type of activity implies not only that other, suitable practices are not in fact “research,” but also that students may dispense with elements of logic and citation if their instructors didn’t call the assignment a “research paper.” Really, though, research papers teach skills that apply to all papers, regardless of whether instructors designate a paper as “research.” In a way, all papers are research papers if they draw from sustained observation or studied experience.

Having argued that the term research paper is a vacant signifier—vacant of identity if not of meaning (not that the two are mutually exclusive)—Larson argues that the “provincialism” (220) of writing instructors (by which he means writing instructors’ presumption that they can and should speak across disciplines despite their lack of formal training in other disciplines) leads to a problem of territoriality. Some information belongs in the province of other disciplines, Larson seems to suggest, and writing instructors should not assume that they know enough about other disciplines to communicate in a discipline-appropriate setting. Some knowledge, in other words, lies outside the writing instructor’s jurisdiction. I’m ambivalent on this score. Read the rest of this entry »

Teaching Bioethics From a Legal Perspective

In Advocacy, Arts & Letters, Bioethics, Communication, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, News and Current Events, Pedagogy, Politics, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on July 6, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Last fall, I was assigned to teach a course called “Health & Medicine.”  Because I know little about health or medicine, I was concerned.  The subject of the course was writing, so I decided to craft a syllabus to facilitate classroom discussion and textual argument.  Here is the course description as stated on my syllabus:

Forensic discourse is one of three forms of classical rhetoric as defined by Aristotle.  It focuses on the relationship between language and law.  This semester we will explore forensic discourse in the context of health and medicine and consider the relationship of law to such issues as physician assisted suicide, surrogacy, cloning, informed consent, malpractice, and organ transplants.  Readings on ethics and philosophy will inform the way you think about these issues.

Your grade will not depend on how much you learn about law, but on how you use language to argue about and with law.  Because the facts of any case are rarely clear-cut, you will need to understand both sides of every argument.  Your writing assignments will require you to argue on behalf of both plaintiffs and defendants (or prosecutors and defendants) and to rebut the arguments of opposing counsel.  You will develop different tactics for persuading your audience (judges, attorneys, etc.), and you will become skilled in the art of influence.

During the semester, your class will interview one attorney, one judge, and one justice sitting on the Supreme Court of Alabama.

My students came from mostly nursing and pre-medical backgrounds.  A few were science majors of some kind, and at least two were engineering majors.

The students were also at varying stages in their academic progress: some were freshmen, some were sophomores, two were juniors, and at least one was a senior.  Throughout the semester, I was impressed by students’ ability to extract important issues from dense legal readings and articulate complicated reasoning in nuanced and intelligent ways.

I thought about this “Health & Medicine” class this week when I came across this article published by the Brookings Institution.  The title of the article is “The Problems and Possibilities of Modern Genetics: A Paradigm for Social, Ethical, and Political Analysis.”  The authors are Eric Cohen and Robert P. George.   Cohen is editor of The New Atlantis and an adjunct fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.  George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals & Institutions, and a fellow at the Hoover InstitutionRead the rest of this entry »

Writing, Workshopping, Emulation

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on May 13, 2011 at 9:49 am

Allen Mendenhall

I remember trying to write a paper for my high school English class and sitting in the library for what seemed like hours, looking at my blank sheet—we didn’t use laptops in those days—and thinking, “How am I going to write six pages about this book.”

The book was Wuthering Heights, and I was, I think, sixteen.  I had written papers before, but never one this long.  I was stuck.  I had writers’ block.  All I could think about was thinking about finishing the paper as soon as possible.

Eventually, I jotted down something that led to something else that led, in turn, to something else, which became the bulk of my paper.  I don’t remember what my paper was about, or the grade I received for my efforts.  All I remember was the panicked moment in the library when that blank-white paper stared back at me and seemed to demand that I fill it with words.

I was angry because I felt helpless.  My high school “not-gonna-do-it” attitude was much like the attitudes I sense in my college students.  Frustrated, I convinced myself that I didn’t need to write about Wuthering Heights because the book was old or for girls or whatever.  The problem was, I liked the book and wanted to write about it.  I just couldn’t.

“If we are going to teach our students to need to write,” remarks James A. Reither, “we will have to know much more than we do about the kinds of contexts that conduce—sometimes even force, certainly enable—the impulse to write.”

Reither is spot on.

Today, I can hardly restrain my impulses to write.  I write all the time.  I feel that I’m always learning how to write—and to write better.

What happened between my junior year of high school and today?  I can’t reduce the explanation to a single cause.

The best answer is probably that many things happened between then and now, each of them influencing me in some way.

As Reither claims, “writing processes and written products are elements of the same social process,” by which he means the social process of immersing ourselves in discourse communities and becoming fluent in the language and cultures of our audience.  Writing is not easy.  It involves repetition, experiment, experience, and mimesis.

Reither submits that “[m]ost of us learned to do what we do on our own—perhaps in spite of the courses we took—and some students continue to do the same.”

In college, I read unassigned essays just to get a feel for how authors conveyed their thoughts and feelings, for how they punctuated their sentences and toyed with syntax.  I underlined vocabulary that I wanted to use in my own papers.  I suppose this method of learning could be called emulationRead the rest of this entry »

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