Lecture vs. one-on-one

One of the frustrations of teaching is the limitations of a lecture class. I still much prefer one-on-one interaction. It has been pleasant so far, however, teaching the night 3604 persuasive writing class. I feel like all my strengths get to come to bear with more experienced students, whereas in 1010 I often feel like I’m holding back to some extent in the interests of keeping most of what I say from sailing over everyone’s heads. That may be the key FYC skill – simplification of complex material, much like my pet peeve, the importance of summarization.

What I like about meeting students one-on-one is that this lower-division/upper-division split tends to vanish. When I address a 1010 class as a whole they tend to clam up, especially early in the semester; when I put them in groups and walk around, speaking to only 3 or 4 at a time, they start talking; but when it’s just one student sitting in my office or standing in the hallway, they positively pipe up with whatever’s on their mind. Now, a upper-division class tends to function like a 1010 class does at the small group level, which is good – getting a good discussion going is remarkably easy – but whatever level of student, they all talk more or less freely when it’s just me and them, even if Raven, my officemate, is a mere 5-6 feet away.

I’ve introduced some new peer response stuff in both classes this fall, especially in 1010, and a robust conference schedule in 3604, to nudge them along with their papers (we only meet once a week in that class). With these thoughts in mind. It’s too early to say what the effects will be. But I feel a lot more confident this semester than in any previous other about what I’m doing, I’ll say that much.

With that said, I need a cheeseburger.

Breathing, and Stipends

It’s Saturday, after a very busy week of classes, and I feel like I can’t breathe properly anymore. It’s just one thing after another. I thought I’d be in the semester groove by now, but it hasn’t happened yet. Already this weekend I’m behind, a situation that shouldn’t happen until late October at least. I hope I’m not burning out. I felt like that Thursday morning. Then again, there is no caffeine in the apartment. Maybe I just need my Coca-cola fix, and I can then read through the fifty hojillion pages I need to get through by tonight. I can’t do an all-nighter as H and I are taking a trip tomorrow, but I might stay up too late anyway.

The English department drama that I mentioned earlier was over our teaching assistant stipends. On the 28th, the first day of classes, we all got an email saying the stipend would be cut by over 25% percent in the spring. We’re already well underpaid – the second-lowest in the nation among English departments, according to the Chronicle of Higher Ed two years ago. I’m paid a little more as I’m doctoral, but not much.

Muttering, both constructive and not, ensued. The TAs met to discuss a response.

Earlier this week the department suddenly took back those cuts before the TAs managed to make a official communal response (although the grumbling from the dungeon, the TA offices on the first floor, I think, got heard in some form upstairs, through certain faculty) but there is still resentment, particularly since little explantation was given for why there was a cut to begin with. The drama is not over yet. There will probably be a department/TA meeting to try and resolve the strange lack of communication, and we’ll probably get an official explanation. Either way, I think the TAs will organize as a result of this.

It’s a drain on time to worry about these things, really, when I’ve got papers to go out, clases to teach, and classes to take, but stuff happens and it has to be dealt with. I don’t feel particularly self-conscious about mentioning this to the universe right now, as it’s been almost two weeks since the TAs were told of this, and the news has doubtlessly trickled out in plenty of informal mediums, either in rumor or factoid form.

Great Expectations

On Sunday I read all of George Gopen’s Expectations: Teaching Writing From the Reader’s Perspective.

What a utterly fine piece of work – easily the best book on teaching composition I’ve read yet. I almost never mark up a book’s margins or take notes on damn near anything, but I was commenting away like a madman. It’s safe to say that several of my major assumptions about how to teach composition have changed – how to grade, how to manage a course, how to critique drafts, run conferences, direct peer-response, and particularly how to approach student material that feels unassailable by any means. And the two chapters on paragraphing are probably the best stuff I’ve seen on the subject. There’s even a lengthy aside on termination letters, my old pet project. This book is going to be worn to a nub before I graduate.

I knew the upcoming semester was going to be different, as I am throughly dissatisfied with the way I balanced my teaching load and my own classes last semester. But after this particular read, I know now it’s going to be a change for the better. I feel freshly armed.

Nothing in the book is particularly mind-shattering; its strength rests instead in how it allowed me to confront my various weaknesses as a teacher. I’ve been over-preparing, over-commenting, over-zealous, over-accomodating, and several other annoying words with the same prefix. I’ve been aware of these problems but I didn’t have an good way to fix them all.

First off, my original instincts before I started TAing two years ago were basically right. Good structure can be taught, but it requires an immense amount of one-on-one contact. I can no longer do the minimum and feel adequate. My office hours need expansion and I need to work as many student conferences into the semester as possible. The one asset I have as a teacher (among many faults) is improvisation and this always is strongest one-on-one.

Second, grading their first papers and possibly even their second (depending) is unfair. I’ve always hated doing it. The book has cemented my opinion of grading – I don’t like it. Marking papers does so bloody little, and it takes up a great deal of time that could be used profitably for face-to-face discussion of their work. Grading gets an overhaul.

Third, my previous experimentations with group work were all flawed in some way. I’m going to use the multiple submission method that Gopen recommends, and see what occurs in the peer responses.

Four, I should push as hard as I can how to summarize and how to write a thesis. I’ve developed a quirky way to teach summarization and I can smell a thesis a mile away, but I could do even better. The emphasis on the “stress position” as Gopen describes is probably the clearest way to go about it; I rather like how it allows grammar to creep into the class unnoticed, too. If they leave with only that skill and no others improved, I will have done good, and that is the name of the game.

I have a lot of work still to do today, but that’s not all I took from that book. That would take a entire review. No time for that. But in closing, I’d like to come up with a rejoinder for the devil’s advocate claim posited on p. 342: “This approach, like all others, is doomed to failure because writing cannot be taught.” It is answered fairly well on p.348 with “Knowing what most readers are likely to do most of the time gets us closer to probable communicative success,” and further clarified that it is desireable to limit interpetation to the writer’s fancy.

That answer is good. But I think composition can offer more than approximate success, or at least that it needs to offer more, even if it can’t quite deliver. Sometimes I think comp teachers are like those sophists that Socrates/Plato liked to complain about, promising skill in rhetoric when only rhetoric with a more probable degree of success could ever be at their command or the student’s command. Often I feel like a charlatan when I can’t give them more of my own questionable skills. Effect is an elusive beast to leash to communication. It’s no wonder prescription still plagues composition – it’s the quick and easy path, to quote Yoda and Obi-wan.

The answer is relatively clear now. I need to work harder.


I’m thinking perhaps I should take advantage of the categories in this software and separate my posts by subject, as with this post, where I simply want to babble about some academic books I’ve been reading, rather than world affairs or the many subtle intriacies of my navel.

I just finished The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne Booth, which, as you might guess from the title, examines fiction with a rhetorical lens. I don’t think I’d ever thought about authorial decisions in quite those terms before, save in a hazy, non-conceptual fashion, as in the way I thought about metaphor before reading Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By.

Probably the most impressive thing Booth does is confirm what I’d always suspected but never got around to proving at length; that the conventions of realism are just that, conventions – and rhetorical moves at that, with limited scope. I always got peeved when I took fiction classes as an undergraduate and realism was touted as the ultimate goal, when it’s just another box. To paraphrase a phrase Booth uses over and over, the writer cannot decide not to use rhetoric, only what kind; and I think that statement, to an extent, is a good beginning to validating all fiction genres as optional means of persuasion. And if you buy Aristotle’s general disregard of effect (as I think one must), then all the tools in the toolbox are doubly valid.

I’m thinking of science fiction in particular, of course. H and I watched A.I. the other day. She’d seen it, I hadn’t. Not my most favorite movie – too long and too Spielburgian – but it struck me in the first 15 minutes that a realistic work would have a hard time approaching Kubrick’s concept. A.I. wasn’t great sci-fi, but it had the right intentions, in that it was using the genre to approach a question that traditional fiction would have to do more mundanely, instead of just choosing a novel setting.

“What does it mean to be human?” and “What is love?” are common enough themes, but it’s an interesting move from a rhetorical standpoint to shift that question onto robots – and, further, onto a young robot – and further, onto a young robot that is all that remains of humanity.

Catching up

Perhaps I should take a moment to clue in everybody about where the hell I’ve been.

The PhD grind continues. The spring 2006 semester was easily the hardest I’d had since becoming a graduate student. I escaped with a A- in one class, a scar that will surely haunt me to the end of my days. That’s my second, which keeps me at the frustrating 3.99 mark.

One more 12-hour semester in the fall, though, and the coursework is done.

I guess I did ok. I sent off my first academic paper, on paragraph theory, to a journal; I went to my first conference – CCCC in Chicago – and presented for the first time; and I won an award for being the outstanding graduate student in the English department.

I’m supposed to be revamping the English webpage this summer, but this task (when I actually get the server access to start it) will not quite pay the summer bills. However, I think a small teaching gig has appeared that will make up most of the difference.

In the meantime. I am not entirely idle. I have started teaching myself the Koine Greek of the New Testament, with the goal of getting through the Gospel of John by August. Why? Well, I have become more or less enamored with rhetorical criticism of the NT; I aim to send off a mostly-finished paper on NT agricultural metaphor by July. And I think I will try to write a history of prose rhythm teaching in the fall.

There are plenty of irons in the fire, I think, not counting at least two collaborations going on. If I am extraordinarily lucky, by Xmas I will have sent out five papers in 2006.

That would be a good thing, as when my comprehensive exams approach (spring 2007) I will not have much time to try my hand at publishing. I might get a paper out that summer as sort of a prelim to the dissertation, but I’m not counting on it. I’d like to leave the UoM in spring 2008 with 3 or so publications, and at least 1 of them being a good one in a good journal. Ideally one would be in comp, another in rhetoric, and another in NT criticism or tech writing, to show versitility.

That’s the plan. What actually happens between now and May 2008 is not predictable. But I am on schedule, one year into a planned three-year PhD, and I think it will come off mostly according to plan.

Choosing a name

In launching this site, I figured I’d start with a new domain name.

As I am a PhD student in rhetoric and composition, my first thought was to type in every rhetorical term I could think of into whois. I had high hopes for synecdoche and enthymeme. But practically every term available is taken. One wasn’t – runningstyle.com – and it’s actually highly appropriate for a blog. But it would sound like I’m a long-distance runner to most.

I am a great admirer of Patrick O’Brian’s novels, and noted stephenmaturin.com and diseasesofseamen.com were available, but I might get sued for the first, and as for the second, I imagined myself cheerfully telling someone the name of the site and them picturing a miscolored glop of semen. I already have enough trouble at parties.

Composition terms were also unavailable. Firstdraft was taken. Seconddraft was taken. Thirddraft was taken. Fourthdraft was not, but by that point I was disillusioned.

What about my name? mikeduncan.com = taken. michaelduncan=taken. mduncan=taken. mgduncan and michaelgaryduncan were available, but not snappy enough.

I returned to rhetoric. What about goodrhetoric.com? Available. Positive, too. Badrhetoric.com? Available. I’m an iconoclast (also taken) so it didn’t look bad (cough) either.

I also thought about meansofpersuasion, which is a play off of Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric. “available means of persuasion” is too long, alas. It also has a moderate/mathamathical subtext from “means” and there is a economic “means of persuasion” as well. But it’s also fairly obscure.

So my best choices after an afternoon of searching were runningstyle, goodrhetoric, and badrhetoric. Of the three, the first has a problematic double meaning and Aristotle didn’t favor it anyway. The second sounds a tad pretentious, as would bestrhetoric…

…but badrhetoric, however, has a edge to it. Especially since the difference between “bad” rhetoric and “good” rhetoric is hard to define. One man’s “bad” rhetoric is another man’s “good” rhetoric, and so-called “bad” rhetoric can be more effective than a classical speech that dots the ‘i’ in Aristotle. Plus, I kind of like starting at the bottom.

Well! I have just talked myself into badrhetoric. Both domains will work for the foreseeable future, but the title is officially now Bad Rhetoric.