Comp I

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.

2 thoughts on “Comp I”

  1. I haven’t really seen the need to do a class website —yet— but I’m sure I’ll be blogging my way through it.
    I tend to make up things as I go along. That’s why I find blogging to be so damn great!

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