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Out of Joint

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Out of Joint

*I wrote this essay in about two hours this afternoon to demonstrate how a descriptive essay could be built from around ten minutes of Internet research. Nothing fabulous, just an example for my students.

A car passing by woke me up. I heard the sound and opened my eyes to see headlights on the pavement from a worm’s eye view. I looked at my watch and saw it was three a.m. I tried to stand up. It wasn’t right.

Under normal circumstances, the heel bone, called the calcaneous, contacts the ground and flexes against the talus stretching the Achilles tendon. Calcaneous means heel in ancient Greek, and just above it rests the talus, a small bone in the center of the foot that acts like the center of a U-joint in the lowest part of the ankle. But talus is also used to refer to the pile of rocks at the base of a cliff. The second meaning seemed closer to me, as I collapsed again to the ground, unable to support my own weight.

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” A bad television commercial from years ago came rushing back in my head. If it wasn’t so embarrassing, I might have laughed. I moved my ankle back and forth. It can’t be broken, I thought, I must have sprained it somehow. I couldn’t remember. The last thing I remembered was waking up on the ground. My ankle seemed oddly disconnected from my body. It was clearly the weak link in the process of standing up. I could move it though, so I was sure it wasn’t broken.

The Dutch anatomist Verheyden first named the “Achilles heel” when he dissected his own amputated leg. According to myth, Achilles’ mother tried to make him strong by dipping him in the river Styx. She immersed him completely, except for one of his heels— leaving him vulnerable to attack there. But that’s not the only version of the myth. According to Homer, the great hero was vulnerable because of his excessive pride. My pride welled up after I fell down. The pain seemed secondary to the thought of being found helpless on the pavement of the parking lot.

I contemplated crawling the hundred yards back to my apartment. As I laboriously tested the limits of my limbs, another car passed by. Every time my tibia, the large bone at the center of my leg, the drive shaft that moves the leg forward, contacted the pavement it began to pipe a song of pain. Appropriate, really, because the word tibia is actually taken from a word for flute. Six flutes were found in China, the same year of my collapse, dating from 7,000 to 9,000 years old made from the leg-bones of cranes. Something was wrong, and the song of my leg told me so. I was reduced to crawling like a worm. After managing to travel the scant four-feet to the end of my car, I was in a cold sweat. It could have been shock; I’m not sure. I passed out. When I woke up, I looked at my watch again. It was 3:15.

It was at least thirty feet to the other side of the parking lot. I wondered if I would be squashed like a can on the pavement if I passed out again before reaching the other side. It was a tough decision, but my pride wouldn’t accept any other choice. I had to use my arms because any attempt to touch my leg to the ground created pain so intense I could not stay conscious. But I made it, and passed out on the other side on the comfortable grass.

I repeated the performance several times, finally arriving at my apartment by 4:30 a.m. where I slept in my own bed. When I woke up several hours later, I realized I needed to call for help. At the hospital, I finally found out what was wrong.

The primary ankle joint is composed of three bones: the talus, the tibia, and the fibula. My fibula, the small thin bone that makes up the other side of the primary ankle joint had sprung apart. Both my tibia and fibula were fractured and occupying different zip codes, leaving the talus a useless stone above my heel. It took thirteen screws and a long titanium strip to bring them back together, including a screw an inch and a half long to convince my fibula to stay in place and form an intact ankle joint. The word fibula actually means pin or clasp, and like a sprung safety pin, mine just wasn’t doing the job without help. Because of this experience, I received a crash course in the anatomy of the ankle joint. The doctor, though helpful, refused to say when I could walk again.

Three months later when they took the massive screw out the joint stayed together. Gradually, I was able to walk. My Achilles tendon had shrunken to a hard-knotted mass, and it seemed to take forever to get it stretched back into place. Only after I began to walk did the doctor tell me that it wasn’t a given. Many people do not recover from this sort of injury. I suppose for me, it was a matter of pride.

What it's not

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What it’s not

Aristotle is really clear in delineating the properties which may be used to describe something in Topics. The motive behind Topics is to identify the constituent parts of an argument. Arguments are derived from propositions that have both a subject and a predicate. If the predicate is interchangeable with the subject, then the proposition is a definition, otherwise it is a property. These properties are enumerated as quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, activity, and passivity.

Having a variety of ESL students in both of my classes, I think it will be a good idea to review many of the descriptive words used to list these properties. I hate flowery description, myself, and there are usually more than enough properties for any given subject to provide a good description without resorting to them. That’s my biggest fear about teaching beginning composition— the “writerly” types who want to load up every page with a bunch of fru-fru nonsense. It’s always best to start with the literal, before you try to start building up chops. Literal description begins with simple properties. The first step towards knowledge begins with arriving at propositions such as these. However, in order to evaluate statements, properties must be compared with the subject to test their scope, their similarity, and their differences from the subject.

It occurred to me last night that it is easy to get stumped when trying to describe something— watching my students scratch their heads when I asked them to make a list of things about themselves to share with the rest of the class made me wonder about ways to overcome that mental-block. I decided that the best strategy I could think of to describe something when you run out of things to say regarding what it is— is to start enumerating the things that it is not.

To that end, I’ve decided to use this fragment of writing by Tom Robbins to illustrate one way of overcoming that block. It also serves as a nice bridge between the literal and the metaphoric, the territory I’ll be exploring next week. It’s always a challenge to come up with ideas for texts that aren’t hard— I like things that are hard, a fascination that not many college freshmen share. Hopefully, this won’t be too challenging to start out with.

Comp I

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Something Old

I was struggling most of last week trying to figure out how I might approach teaching Composition I. It came together today, on the first day of class. Strange how these things work. I was intrigued by Kiraki’s approach of using deliberatory and mediatory essays in Comp. I. One advantage is that it provides an easy way of introducing research as an invention strategy. However, the disadvantage is that first year students need to spend a lot of time on confidence building and using such complex targets takes away from the time you have to deal with the practical matters of style and diction. I wanted to incorporate some of her approach, but not all of it.

The problem is that arcing toward true negotiating skills requires the development of chops that first year writers usually don’t have— it would take a while to get there. I devised a plan, using five rather than the usual four essays assigned in Comp I:

  1. Descriptive essay
  2. Narrative essay
  3. Encomium
  4. Comparative essay
  5. Deliberative essay

When I was lecturing today, I backwards-engineered a great rationale for it. I like modeling the arc of a class against a classical method— in the case of Composition II I use the Ciceronian six-part essay, spending weeks on each of the sections. However, since the emphasis in Comp I is not usually on argument, that just didn’t seem right. Instead, I decided that my arc would be across the three branches of rhetoric— forensic, epideictic, and deliberative. Trying to give a short course in the history of rhetoric as a discipline today, it all began to make even more sense.

Not many first year comp teachers start with Corax and Tisias, but I did. The birth of rhetoric can be traced to the courtroom— the first trials by jury in Sicily in the fifth century BC caused a need for common people to be able to argue their case in front of their peers. Corax and Tisias set up schools to train them. The first rhetoric was courtroom rhetoric, and it was largely focused on the preservation of property in the present. A descriptive essay is classified as forensic because of its similarly present-directed argument. This is what it is— or isn’t. As the teachers (Sophists) spread further, the power of language to move people to political action became clear. One of the surest ways to move people was to stir them up over ancient battles and such, praising their heroes or blaming their enemies. Rhetoric begins to look back, telling stories of praise or blame. Stories are situated in the past— hence, the ability to write a narrative essay combines a talent for present description with the ability to arrange time in a coherent fashion. The most highly developed form of it is really the encomium— epideictic rhetoric in the public square.

To write a good encomium for something requires some research in order to really sing the full praises of your subject, but it isn’t totally essential. I can ease into it there— but as Aristotle enters the equation, the ability to compare things certainly means doing your homework. I want to do the comparative essay on a political topic, and ask them to be dispassionate about it. A deliberative essay should build on the comparison between two courses of action, so I’ll allow them to revise the fourth essay substantially into the fifth— I know how hard it is for first year students to be dispassionate about anything. But the ability to compare two positions is the essential stepping stone to deliberation on future action, and I think that is a nice note to close on— a sort of Isocratian landing spot for the whole class.

What I find the most fun about this is that it matches the historical development of rhetoric so closely— it begins with a need, moves into a fluffier sort of writing, and ends with a concerted look at future action. I love this stuff.

Audience Analysis

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Reading the audience

I was thinking about the first time I encountered “audience analysis” in school. It was my second writing class— persuasive writing. The instructor had the class bring several popular magazines to class so that we might guess what the “target audience” for these publications were. The easy way to do it is to look at the advertisements. Trends were easy to spot, with little actual reading involved.

Watching the History Channel this morning, I was enlightened by the troubled story of the M-16. I didn’t realize that it was created by a man with the surname of “Stoner” and built by the Armalite Rifle Company. Who watches this stuff? Non-stop stories of new and better ways of killing each other. Ah, maybe the ads provide a clue. The first ad was for the Q-Ray Bracelet. Perhaps the same people drawn to weaponry as a talisman of power are also drawn to mystical ionic ray bracelets that relieve all pain. The commercials found on these cable stations seem to have a big overlap with a publication that the instructor made some guesses about in that persuasive writing class— The National Enquirer.

The general consensus of the class was that the audience for supermarket tabloids is women with less than a sixth-grade education. I wonder how the History Channel’s marketing reps sell to these companies? Ozzy Osbourne is a big fan— perhaps there is a connection between ritual healing and ritual destruction? The question of audience is complex though, because the station does have many quality programs besides the constant barrage of war pornography. TV advertising is not nearly as monolithic as print advertising. Next to the ads for diabetes test equipment, teenagers cavort with day-glow cell phones. But there is an overwhelming tone of machismo to the bulk of the History Channel’s programming, so I really do wonder at the presence of the miracle bracelet. Do guys really buy this stuff?

But I wonder more about the statistics that Ampersand posted about our so-called “representative” government. I wonder if the typical member of Congress wears a Q-Ray bracelet to match their M-16? With all the talismanic saber-rattling these days, it would make a lot of sense.

Subtlety

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Subtlety

One of my favorite comments (about me) came when selecting material for my first show. A photographer I respected was helping me. After looking at a large number of my prints, he said:

You aren’t very subtle, are you?
I suppose that might be a contributing factor to my current career in Rhetoric. I’ve had to learn to cope with increasing levels of subtlety, in literature and in other forms of discourse. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m usually embarrassingly direct.

When Spitting Image linked to a page on Hitler’s Art I was curious about just where this resource was coming from. I used several articles on the art of the Third Reich to demonstrate the rhetorical bias behind them in class last semester, so I couldn’t help but question this. The Hitler Historical Museum?

The aim of the site seems innocent enough:
The Museum's chief concern is to provide documents and information that shed light on Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party. Because of the numerous contradicting, disjoint[ed], biased, confused, and deficient interpretations that exist, few scholars are able to gather the facts and to understand and explain them coherently. Whether this failure is from a lack of information, scholarship ability, or honesty is unimportant. What is important is that historical information be made freely available and gathered into exhibits that allow researchers to derive indepedent (sic) conclusions from the relatively well preserved writings of this time period.
Of course, there is an ideological statement:
The teaching of history should convey only facts and be free from political motives, personal opinions, biases, propaganda, and other common tactics of distortion. Every claim that is made about history should also be accompanied by documentation proving its basis. Only responsible scholarship and teaching should be permitted. Those who intend to support particular political interests and agendas should have their biased historical interpretations criticized for lacking proof.
Sounds great— ill informed (communication without bias is an oxymoron)— but noble at any rate. Responsible scholarship? I needed to look at this more deeply.

A quick check of the links page revealed what was really going on. As you might guess, there was no link to what I would consider a reputable historical site, The Holocaust Museum, but instead a link to an article called The Hoax of the Twentieth Century. I read the first line of the introduction, and then stopped:

I see three principal reasons for the widespread but erroneous belief in the legend of millions of Jews killed by the Germans during World War II: US and British troops found horrible piles of corpses in the west German camps they captured in 1945 (e.g. Dachau and Belsen), there are no longer large communities of Jews in Poland, and historians generally support the legend.
Legend? The scary thing that this is the page of a US computer-science academic, complete with .edu address.

I cannot believe that Northwestern University actually underwrites the presence of such utter crap on the web. But they protect themselves with a convenient disclaimer:

The content of all Pubweb pages is solely the responsibility of their authors and not the responsibility of Northwestern University or any of its employees engaged in management or administration of the Pubweb service. Northwestern University will not monitor Pubweb page content except as necessary to investigate allegations that such content violates federal, state, or local laws or University policy.
Following the link-train reminded me of the reason why I spend so much time focusing on reading responsibly. You’ve got to be careful out there. Free from political motives? Yeah, right!

Unnatural Acts

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Unnatural Acts

I received so much material in the last few days for my project that its hard to keep track of. I keep getting lost in the minutiae of it all, along with several new software packages to try to help me keep things straight. Merry Xmas to me, and all that. Strange confluences keep popping up so fast that I’ve got to at least note the web related ones so I can come back to them later.

Steve Himmer noted something about Henry Wallace a few days ago and then today I encountered another article about the presidential race of 1948 which continued the theme. I was doing some research on the Southern Agrarians and then of course, the next day, Wood s Lot provided links to a bio of John Crowe Ransom and some poems. It’s nice when things work out this way. I haven’t really begun to process that part of things yet, but I’ve been reading a lot about it and eventually I’ll have to spit it out. But another link from there lead me to at least to try to sketch something I was thinking about regarding “the resistance to theory.”

Silence of the Critics was strangely appalling to me. David Herman laments the loss of critics like F.R. Leavis and T.S. Eliot, “the golden age of criticism.” I read a lot from those guys a few years ago, when I was working more with the Romantics. I hated them. They used flip rhetoric to dismiss and denigrate anything that wasn’t either 17th century or high modernist. They had goggles on so thick that it seemed incredible to me that they could function in the real world, where literature actually thrives on and depends on context. I’ve learned to get over that chip on my shoulder a little bit, and thinking of those guys again brought something into focus. It made me think of the relationship of critical schools to speech-act theory [bear with me on this].

The fundamental why behind any communicative act is to provoke an effect. Speech-act theory splits this into three phases— locution, illocution, and perlocution. Locution is the utterance itself; the ground in which the “new critics” like Empson, Leavis, etc., staked out their ground. It’s actually a lot like hard-core scientific linguistics— useful, but rather dry and boring. New critics refused to deal with any concept of intention on the part of the speaker/author. That is in the realm of the illocutionary act. Of course, New Historicism, and later schools attempted to add back in context and usually infer a motive for why the speaker would craft an utterance— a guess at what the intention might be based on genre, etc. Oddly enough, many postmodern critical strains have much in common with the New Critics in that they want to remove individual intention from the equation— communicative acts are rooted in the social and market forces that created them, rather than any motive on the part of the author (Benjamin anticipates much of this). What is important to most postmodern accounts is not what was intended, but what actually happens as the result of a text— the perlocutionary sequel.

To twist this observation mercilessly, what is going on in the locutionary and perlocutionary level does not involve an “author” in the slightest— in other words, no “agent” for the action. One level is linguistic, and the other level is sociological. No one wants to confront the concept of agency much. In writing, a sentence which has no agent for its action is called passive voice. It’s discouraged, except in cases where you want the utterance to recede from the rest of the text. The “silence of the critics” that Herman laments is not silence at all, but a passive drone of a life free from the presence of people. That’s why both the New Critics he loves— and the Postmodernists he hates— are, to me at least, just flat out boring. Don’t get me wrong— I find both approaches to be useful in many circumstances, but it just doesn’t generate “edge of the seat thrills” for reading.

Writing without people is an unnatural act.

Teaching Writing

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I love teaching writing

Besides generally goofing-off for a few days, I have managed to get a couple of things done. I uploaded more major updates to my research site, including a page dedicated to Archibald MacLeish providing some bibliographic information, more excerpts, and fleshing out his positions on the timeline.

Grading a bunch of papers (and wondering why one class always does better than the other) I found a bit in a reflective essay that makes it all worthwhile:

At times, the course became confusing as to whether it was teaching “Writing for Work,” “Poetry,” “Literature,” “Rhetoric” or “English.” However, I found the common denominator soon enough to make a general relationship between them.
Sometimes, as my Blake instructor was fond of saying, “confusion is the best response.”

My approach often seems chaotic to people, but if I dig into things deep enough I can usually ferret out enough of a connection to make things work. I do like to make things up as I go along; it’s just the way I am. But I don’t think that even my twisted brain can connect the other things I wanted to remark about in this hurried entry (grades are due soon).

Trashlog is expanding! One of my favorite sites on the web is now soliciting international submissions for The Global Trash Collection Project, providing even more trash for the Internet. An admirable pursuit, in my estimation.

I was also quite taken by Pascale’s pointer to an item of interest in the Washington Post. Interesting is one of my favorite words. I must type interesting about a hundred times any time I try to write something. Then, I’m faced with the task of editing it back out.

Of course it’s interesting, you doofus! Otherwise, why would you be writing about it?