Excerpt from a Letter: Class Updates

Posted on June 8, 2011

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I wanted to write a quick post about how we’ve been approaching rhetoric and writing in the classes thus far, just to give a little briefing on how work is going and what I’m trying to do here. But I wound up writing a long-winded summary to a long-suffering recipient of my ramblings as well as my questions (she’s working on education and critical thought this summer as well). So below is the very sloppy update I sent to my friend:

“I was actually just thinking of doing an update post on ze blogz about the classes, but I’ll give you a little rundown. I broke them into 10 girl groups, and I’ve got 60 girls, so 6 groups. They were divided based on their strengths and weaknesses. I work with three of the groups and have an associate who works with the other three, so we see all of them, just at different times. I do 2.5 hours a day with two groups, so a lot of sitting and teaching and after that grading and lesson planning.

The basic methods are all the same, but in each class I spent the first day of the new week and will spend ten minutes at the beginning of every week hereafter gauging their reaction to the class so far, hearing their feedback and seeing if there’s consensus in what they feel they need more or less of. I’m trying to get them engaged in their own education … and it seems to be working. I think because I treat them as peers in their own education and have selected them into groups and individually conversed with them about their own goals and how this class will play into their goals, it’s gotten them incredibly engaged and willing to suggest more work if they needed it and to help me come up with some creative ways of retooling lesson plans.

I spent a good part of the first class doing a crash course in a modified Socratic method with the girls. I’ve pretty much figured out how they learned how to write, which is just to tell a story, a descriptive story, in which they place key facts that they’ve learned, maybe around one idea. But they’ve never been taught to cohesively argue and none of them had ever even heard the word “rhetoric” before in their lives. They have no sense of attribution and are mostly fine with the concept of appropriating the stories and ideas of others as if they were their own lives and ideas. I shit you not.

So I did my big spiel, which is where I tell them what rhetoric and argumentation are all about and then I tell them that this is important because: ‘Everything in your life makes an argument. Everything you say and do, even the shirt you’re wearing, it’s all making an argument. There’s rhetoric everywhere in your lives and you are all master rhetoriticians, all the greatest of arguers, just because we make arguments on a daily basis, subconsciously, with ourselves and others. And making the arguments in our own lives apparent will make the act of critical reading and critical writing, of argumentation and rhetoric in an academic setting, seem not just natural, but such a beneficial endeavor that you may even find yourself using the things we talk about here in your everyday lives.’

Usually I get a scoff or a mistrusting look and they say something like really, my shirt’s making an argument? So we walk through it and I do a lot of questioning, always asking why and how and why and how. And then once we figure out why she’s wearing the shirt she’s wearing and why she does some of the more common things she does, we talk about heuristics and automatic arguments and thought processes and how intimately argumentation and rhetoric is tied into our daily lives. And they start to feel like this is all simple, but something they’ve never thought about explicitly.

Then I ask one of them to tell me how they approached their practice essay—how they went about structuring it. I start to talk about why the way they’ve done it is good, but how certain elements of their structure are unconvincing, aren’t conveying to me what they want to say. That usually resonates as they say they’re not used to coming up with their own arguments, so they’re unsure how to express themselves and prove their points.

We introduce counter-arguments and refutations and we start to get them engaging each other, poking holes in each other’s arguments and then rebuilding them. We talk about how to structure an essay, how to achieve clarity, about how to cut down on redundancy. We don’t just say, this is the way you do things, but instead I try to convey it with a series of questions: when we phrase it this way, how do you react? What if we did it this way? How do you react? Why is that? And we usually find that the new structure that I’ve suggested is helping to bring out the point or better argue the opinion at hand, and we discuss why that is.

I’ve got them doing a series of practice essays in different styles to get used to explicit and implicit argumentation, argumentation in academic writing, fiction writing, non-fiction writing. Then we do some debating in class to help them see where the holes in their styles and structures are, and to make them feel some ownership and equality in the rhetorical principles that we’re discovering. It’s basically like hybrid Socratic method and workshopping.

They also need to do some work on recognizing implicit arguments in other people’s works and some work on building their vocabularies a bit. So we’re working on breaking down sentences into their constituent parts, talking about why sentences are structured the way they are and how that communicates information and how to pick apart the long sentences that can trip them up as … well, native English speakers, but native speakers who don’t use it as their primary language. Then we break apart paragraphs, who passages, and reassemble and simplify them, doing drills on this together and alone so that they get better and better at reading and interpreting complex passages, and get quicker at recognizing and distilling arguments from even dense pieces. Then as far as vocab we’re using Greek and Latin roots and talking a bit about the history of the English language, syntax, and grammar to get them used to identifying words they don’t usually encounter through common knowledge of base words and through context. That way they get used to the valences in words and their unique meanings and can use them to better aid their argumentation through proper word choice.

And then my colleague and I take Fridays without class to reassess the progress of students and develop new materials for the next week.”

Hope that’s a good enough update for everyone!

Also that friend of mine is working on an amusing little project: she’s trying to work with a team to analyze the bias in Pakistani text books. I weighed in on the methodology of attempting to classify and sort books on levels of bias and how to evaluate the whole system. For any wonks out there, you might find it interesting:

“Eesh, it’s a really complex thing you’re trying to do. I mean it becomes a matter of basically creating a standardized test for books—you can create a number of criteria (slurs, myths, nationalization indoctrination, maybe differentiated by types—Punjabization, or anti-Indian versus anti-Hindu, etc.) and then create a magnitude scale based on an x-y axis of magnitude created on an arbitrary basis that you explain in your methodology and then on frequency, so you can plot each book on several different coordinate planes, weighted, and then use its composite coordinate to rank it within a field of other books … like a field of minor offenders, major offenders, etc.

Probably an SRS of textbooks would be a good idea, so random number generator assigning digits to all the textbooks in use in the field of education you’re looking at, argue why that field is important, and then pick the first 1/10 of the numbers and that’s a good statistical sample. Then as long as you explain your reasons for classifying your planes of identification and bias the way you did, the method should be sound and your results should be significant and robust. Social science woo!”

That’s it for today’s ramble. Soon I think I’ll write a bit about the expectations the girls have of higher education, and the cultural expectations of those who plan to come to America. … And of my brilliant plan to acquaint them with a diverse swath of American experiences by assigning them to listen to choice episodes of “This American Life.” Oh I do love my job.

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