Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Reflection on course goals, teaching, assignments, and readings

After class today, I started to think about why I decided to give you all such difficult, long, and obscure texts. As I have said several times, these texts are hard even for me with my extensive background in philosophy, cultural studies, literature, and to a certain extent, politics. Part of their difficulty, as many of you pointed out, stems from their length. I agree with all of you that it is more realistic (from a teaching/learning/pedagogy) standpoint to decrease the length of the readings per day, breaking them up or potentially omitting large sections that I can then summarize.

Allow me to think quantitatively for a minute, here. We have had approximately probably about 2 hours (maybe) to discuss each reading, if I give more time to the readings than say lecture or in class activities. While the blog posts (mine and yours) as well as my responses supplements this, I realize that this is not the same as "live" discussion. The Foucault, for instance, is probably about 30-40 pages of a "normal" book (even though its only about 25, give or take, in Ways of Reading).

In graduate seminars, we generally discuss a 250-300 page book in 3 hours. That said, we rarely cover the entire book in 3 hours, something that has frustrated me as someone who really enjoys discussing the little details of the book. Furthermore, its a graduate seminar, so most of us are expected to be able to discuss teh book as a whole.

But rarely do we discuss the particular "rhetoric" or "writing" of the book itself, which is ostensibly what 1102 is supposed to use the readings for.

So what is my point and why am I talking about my graduate seminars? My point is that the major reason I assign all of the text (and don't break it up) is to try and help you in your selections of information/citations and how to make it meaningful. When you do research, some research articles (at least  peer reviewed ones) will be 20-25 pages long  and if you have to cite 8 sources, that is 20x8 = 160 pages of material that you have to sort through to find a few points to include in your 2700 (10-12 page) research essay. If you use books, you need to try and wade through information/text in order to find a point that you can use to support your own argument. This is not easy I tell you, as someone who reads hundreds of pages a semester.

This process of selection, however, is not as difficult as wading through something like Foucault, a complex, abstract, philosopher/historian/theorist that I still have not "mastered" (nor ever will--no one has). Most books/articles will have indexes, abstracts, and sometimes breaks in the article indicated by section titles. These are tricks that you will need to learn in order to manage the amount of research necessary to produce your own work.

Furthermore, I recognize that the majority of us do not encounter such complex texts on an every day basis. The longest piece of writing we are apt to read nowadays might be a two-three page article on the huffingtonpost, but most of writing comes in headlines, soundbites, videos, images, or textbooks (a form of writing that is structured to help students understand meaning). Selection seems determined less by the complexity of the information and more by the amount of the information, each of it easily understandable--for the most part.

The texts that we have looked at disrupt our normal processes of interpretation of meaning and on could make the argument that they may not be rhetorically effective for even a general, educated audience such as yourselves and the public at large (I would include myself, but a lot of these texts fall under my academic specialty --theory/philosophy).

To recap, if we only have 2 hours (approx) that we can devote to an explication to these texts and they are not broken up into sections (such that then the questions might become: what makes this section of Foucault different from the section we discussed yesterday, last week, etc) and texts in the Ways of Reading complicate interpretation and are not representative of the type of research you will encounter and do encounter on a day to day basis, which is more 'accessible' to a certain extent, rhetorically speaking), then it would only be logical to conclude that the readings introduce upon the stated goals of the course in its title: Rhetoric and Academic Research.

In other words, first, if we cannot even understand the basic concepts we are working with, it is doubtful that we will be able to discuss the rhetorical choices of these authors nor will be able to discuss how you can "use" these rhetorical strategies in your own writing or how the rhetorical choices made by the author affect what he or she is trying to say. Second, if our readings are in both meanings of the term, the "exceptional" works (meaning, not the norm but also those that exceed the norm in meaning and richness), than the readings do not prepare you to encounter a typical academic research article.

If you were (or are) working in the realm of theories of power, Foucault is useful to know and indeed you may encounter his name again; if you are working with art criticism, history, and media theory, Berger is an essential voice in the field; but the sad (?) truth is that the complexity of someone like Foucault is greatly reduced in academic texts because they are, like you (and me) readers more often than producers of those "primary" texts that are so rich with meaning that people keep reading and re-reading them.

Very few of us will write like Foucault (including me) and many people outside academia find him, like you may have, impenetrable, dense, convoluted, overrated, obscure (pick your pejorative adjective), but some of us (me included) might write about Foucault or use/cite Foucault. However, that may not involve an explication of  his texts, carefully constructing meaning (many people have already done this work).

This is what makes videos and images so great to teach. Still, we must balance this with a reading of written texts because it is necessary to integrate these written texts in order to support one's argument.


Possible strategies for future courses and/or later this semester

But it is hard to decide what "level" of texts to present. On the one hand, giving news articles only presents us with a journalistic style and rhetoric. op-ed articles are good, but in a way lack the complexity, depth, and breadth of research than an academic article. Academic articles tend to be specific to the academic discipline and address issues that may only be meaningful within that paradigm or if one is familiar with the more 'primary' texts of the field. More 'personal' essays (some of which are in Ways of Reading) may include elements that the writer uses skillfully that may not be acceptable in an academic article or that beginning writers may not use as effectively--perhaps this is why Bartholomae and Petrosky recommend imitating the style. Fiction, although it usually contains implicit arguments, can be even more ambiguous about its "meaning" or the argument its making than the theoretical work we have engaged in. Not to mention, many of you are not literature majors and this technically is not a "literature" class. I do not want this course to be a repeat of your high school literature and language courses and I'm sure you don't really want that either.

The honest truth is that you will learn about the conventions of writing in your discipline; I am not fluent in many of these conventions. These conventions would also lead to a construction of different assignments than analysis, synthesis, annotated bibliography, and research paper. Due to university/department conventions, goals, and restrictions, I am obligated to constrain myself to these major assignments. But more importantly,  since many disciplines require data, experiments, illustrations, measurements--aspects of your discipline I am ill equipped to teach you--I cannot think of how I would construct such assignments that would fit our allotted time schedule.

And so perhaps this is why the course is labeled Rhetoric and Academic Research rather than Rhetoric and Academic Writing. While research processes may be similar (at least when one is researching textual sources, which, regardless of your discipline, you will have to do) the writing produced from this research has its own conventions for making meaning and displaying data.

Therefore, rhetoric can be explained through video clips, images, various different written documents. These should be texts with relatively clear arguments, 'ordinary' language (not necessarily colloquial), and of moderate length given the time we have in class to work on them. This could allow me to choose different articles that we have not discussed in class for our major assignments, but which are "comparable" to the genres and lengths of texts we have discussed in class. Of course, this risks the assignments having less to do with classwork and thus may provide less continuity and unity to the course as a whole (but perhaps this was always a forced unity). On the other hand, as long as these other texts were analogous in theme, it would seem less like the class exercises did not contribute to a larger understanding.

Perhaps introducing something new that we do not discuss in class in addition to 2 articles that we do discuss in class might allow for some tension to form in theses and in the essays in general. Perhaps the two articles in class can be shorter whereas the third one will be longer and more complex, forcing students to figure it out with one another--on the blog or otherwise. Perhaps this would help create tension in the thesis or in the interpretations of the articles. This would also free up more time for other activities besides discussion of texts.

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