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Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

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 »

Screening Legal Education

In Arts & Letters, Creativity, Film, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Teaching, Writing on June 15, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Allen Mendenhall

We go to the movies to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality.  We do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days.

 —Robert McKee, from Story

Law school is, in a way, about performing.  From the minute you walk into the building as a 1L, you search for and construct a new identity—one that conforms to your assumptions of what a lawyer is and does.

The first time a professor called on me—Mr. Mendenhall, can you tell us how the judge in this case distinguishes restitutionary from reliance damages?—I panicked.  I knew the answer.  More or less.  But I had no chance to rehearse.  Here I was, before a large audience, a packed house, all alone, all eyes on me.

“Um, yes,” I stammered, apparently suffering from stage fright.

I don’t remember how I answered—not precisely—but I remember taking a deep breath, feigning confidence, and pretending to know what the professor expected me to know.  I must’ve sounded silly talking about things I hardly understood; but I must’ve performed satisfactorily because the professor let me alone and interrogated another student.

My first audition.  Read 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 »

Doug Brent on Reinventing WAC (Again)

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Information Design, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication on March 9, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Doug Brent’s “Reinventing WAC (Again)” argues that WAC pedagogy complements the first-year experience and the related first-year seminar, which shares WAC’s goal of interactivity and cross-disciplinarity.

The author describes the direction that first-year seminars have taken, paying special attention to how they have initiated students into research discourse and culture.  He suggests that these seminars, like WAC pedagogy, emphasize process- and inquiry-based teaching methodologies.

First-year seminars—and in particular the academic-content seminar as opposed to the thematic seminar—are styled to facilitate student participation and engagement.  They encourage students to generate and not just absorb knowledge.  Read the rest of this entry »

Literature and the Economics of Liberty

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Communication, E.M. Forster, Law-and-Literature, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism on February 5, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Recently Jeffrey Tucker, editorial vice president of the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, interviewed me about capitalism, the free market, and literature.  We discussed, among other things, Marxism in literature and humanities departments.  Just days later, a review titled “Marx’s Return” appeared in the London Review of Books.  That shows how relevant my interview was and is.  The interview is below:

On My Teaching

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Information Design, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Writing on January 10, 2011 at 8:05 am

Allen Mendenhall

Everything is an argument.  I say that not because I’m a lawyer, but because all writing has a rhetorical purpose.  Poets have reasons for writing what they write, just as technical writers have reasons for writing what they write.  Poets have audiences; technical writers have audiences.  What distinguishes poetry from technical writing, or from any kind of writing for that matter, is audience expectation, or, in a word, genre.  Students in my classroom quickly learn that all writing has a purpose that usually, though not always, has to do with audience.  They learn to anticipate audience by contextualizing writing.  A brief for a judge, for example, serves a different purpose than an expository essay, and thus a “good” brief will look different from a “good” creative narrative.  A short story by Toni Morrison may be good writing, but it does not fit the needs of a peer-reviewed academic journal because the audience and genre do not match.  A crucial process of writing therefore involves understanding cultural and social interaction and their relation to discourse communities.  Communication, after all, is participatory and not unilateral.  It is the transmission of information from one source to another through particular media such as language.  The receiver or reader is as important to writing as the sender or writer.          Read the rest of this entry »

Drafting and Revision

In Communication, Information Design, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Writing on December 21, 2010 at 10:45 am

In their article “Drafting and Revision Using Word Processing by Undergraduate Student Writers,” Anish M. Dave and David R. Russell attempt to refigure theories of drafting and revision in light of technological advances altering writing processes since drafting and revision became touchstones of composition pedagogy in the 1980s.

Process pedagogy prizes drafting and revision.  Since its inception, however, process pedagogy has undergone many changes.  Composition scholars and teachers have institutionalized the once novel and controversial process pedagogies; and subsequent trends—referred to as post-process pedagogies—have called into question several premises of the process movement.

The authors of this piece rethink concepts of drafting and revision by researching empirical data about pre-computer and computer eras of writing.  Presupposing that drafting and revision demand social as well as cognitive theoretical frameworks, the authors show that research in the late 1980s and early 1990s tended to dismiss word processing as ineffective or irrelevant to the revision process.  Studies from these years also suggest that multiple drafts benefited students, that students preferred hard-copies to computer screens, and that students viewed concepts of “drafts” differently than they do today.  Read the rest of this entry »

Being John Hagerty

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Creative Writing, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication on November 18, 2010 at 8:08 pm

It’s early on a Tuesday morning when I walk into John’s classroom, a cup of coffee in my hand, my too-heavy bag draped over my shoulder.  I gain the nearest desk and sit down.

Outside the leaves are beginning to change, and a cool air whistles through a crack in the window.  “Smells like football season,” I think, even though the room is choked with chalk and dust.  Inside the classroom the students stare at me, the new guy, the stranger, and they look away when I acknowledge their glances with my own.

I probably look funny in this desk on which I’ve arranged various papers: John’s syllabus, his assignments, his pop-quiz for the day.  I’ve been up since 5:00 a.m., reading and rereading my students’ essays, so I’m not a little fatigued when class begins and John introduces me as “a new teacher” and “a lawyer.”  I smile and mutter “hi.”  I even manage half a wave.

John passes out the pop-quizzes, and the students, slightly panicked, seem to forget that I’m in the room.  How nice it is to be sitting here watching students take a quiz rather than taking one myself.   Read the rest of this entry »

Legal Research & Writing, Audience, and Cross-disciplinarity

In Communication, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication on September 6, 2010 at 9:21 pm

Richard L. Larson interrogates the concept of the research paper. He submits that this term (“research paper”) 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 ever-shifting meaning, the term “research paper” persists both inside and outside English Departments, both among faculty and among 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 about what constitutes research and thereby enable bad student research.

The term research paper “implicitly equates ‘research’ with looking up books in the library and taking down information from those books” (218), so students learning to write so-called research papers inadvertently narrow their research possibilities by relying on this narrow conception of research as library visitation, cursory note-taking, and so on, without recognition of alternate forms of research that may be more discipline-appropriate: interviews, field observations, etc. (218).

Furthermore, 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 intertextuality and citation because instructors didn’t refer to those things as elements of research papers.

Research papers, properly understood, teach skills that apply to all papers. In a way, all papers are research papers if they draw from sustained observation or studied experience. Read the rest of this entry »

Discourse and Legal Writing Instructors

In Communication, Information Design, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Literary Theory & Criticism, Rhetoric & Communication on August 28, 2010 at 12:05 pm

My writing instructors in law school parroted a line that I considered both annoying and at times wrong:  “This is bad writing.”  The criteria for what constituted bad (as opposed to good) writing had to do, invariably, with rigid rules of grammar and syntax.  A sentence was “bad,” for example, if it failed to have a comma following an introductory prepositional phrase; or a sentence was good, even if it sounded awkward, so long as it did not violate any rule of basic grammar.  Such over-commitment to formalism quashed any sense of experimentation or creativity that the students might have had.  Rather than trying out new styles and syntaxes, students confined their writing to short, plain statements of fact and conclusion.  Their papers read like boring how-to manuals: monotone and tedious, never lively and engaging.  The problem, as I see it, is that legal writing instructors have little awareness of audience.  They simply have no notion of what Stanley Fish calls “interpretive communities” and so have no notion of genre (categories of discourse) or performative text (text that mimics or signals certain categories of discourse).  Legal writing instructors locate students within a field of discourse akin to technical writing, but they never explain to students why technical writing is appropriate or even desirable in a legal context.  Instead, they inform students that anything that is not technical writing is bad, and they do so without realizing that different communities may have different expectations or prefer different techniques and vocabularies.  Legal writing instructors never explain that certain modes of writing can be good in other contexts but instead treat all writing as belonging to one classificatory scheme.  They force writing into one of two categories—good or bad—without regard to the quality of writing as contextualized in other communities.  Such habits simply will not do.      Read the rest of this entry »

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