The Chicken In the Egg: Theme and Comp in the Truthy Classroom, Revisted

Three people on the street in egg costumes with legs


Aaron Mercier

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I want to revisit my post from last semester today, because it dealt with the lessons of grading the first major assignment in my first advanced composition course, and this week I found myself doing the last class meetings before this semester’s first major assignment deadline.

I put last term’s lessons into practice this time around by revamping the content and sequence of my readings, favoring media criticism and reportage over theoretical material, putting a few more blog assignments in before the first major assignments, and revising the prompts so that they more clearly integrated class conversation and blog work. Last class was devoted mostly to discussion of a recent article by Alexander Zaitchik on, about the Shuar tribe’s struggles against international mining interests and the Ecuadorean government.

Also new this semester, for the first time in my 4 ½ years of teaching composition, is the challenge of a truly combative student. Unchecked, this student will casually dismiss the ideas of others, monopolize conversations, and pull hard to chase down every tangent he sees. After the second class meeting in January, I was sweating bullets over this kid. I didn't know how to keep him in hand without outright suppressing his voice, or getting seriously disruptive pushback from him. As it turns out, however, his approach to the material, and to classroom conversation, has become quite a blessing for me in terms of finding ways to teach rhetoric from strongly thematically-oriented readings. For one thing, he will occassionally make some factual claim that just sounds wrong to me, and as a result, without singling this one student out, I've been much more diligent about making sure students are keeping track of what specific claims are made in discussion, and fact-checking in real time. This use of the networked classroom to habituate "research" as the knee-jerk response to controversy is a good deal less disruptive than it sounds, and has provided tons of opportunities to talk about the differences, and the interrelationships, between information and argument as a class. That set of interrelationships, I think, is at the center of my preoccupying anxiety, the anxiety over balancing strong, interesting, valuable thematic readings (and the energetic class discussions that they provoke) and effective, engaging instruction in the principles of rhetoric and academic composition.  

On Tuesday, my combative student argued that the premise of the assigned reading for the day was ludicrous. The reading was a recent article by Alexander Zaitchik on, about the Shuar tribe’s ongoing struggles against international mining interests and the Ecuadorean government.It's a provocative piece, full of loaded quotations from protestors, scientists, and mining industry reps, evocative descriptions of history, character, and scenery, and engrossing photography. From the title to the last line, it is a well-crafted bit of activist investigative journalism, published with a big budget. My combative student had a problem with a recurring pop-culture reference that helped structure one of the article's lines of argument about international engagement.

In the opening paragraphs, Zaitchik compares the resistance of the Shuar to the rebellion of the N’avi in Avatar, and he repeatedly circles back to develop and interrogate the comparison throughout the piece. My combative student suggested that the likeliest plotline for Avatar 2 is the humans returning to nuke the planet from orbit. The article, he went on, was irresponsible rabble-rousing for a lost cause, that the Shuar could never resist the march of industrial development, and to suggest otherwise actually contributed to their danger by giving them false hope, and making them less likely to compromise somehow. It was little better than incitement to violence. 


I couldn’t have asked for more class participation at that moment. A forest of hands shot up, and I moderated the conversation as nimbly as I could for a couple of minutes while several students debated his point. Things started pretty calmly, and as the passions were escalating, I chose a breathless pause to intervene. I allowed as how there were some interesting and relevant points about the article being made, but said that at the source of the disagreement is a rejection of an argument that Zaitchik isn’t actually making.

While it’s true that the Avatar reference is strange and problematic in a lot of respects, it plays a complex rhetorical role in the article’s subtle account of the situation. The argument my students were having started with one of them taking a passage out of context. You can’t ask for a more teachable moment.

Recently on this blog, my colleague Laura Thain posted an interesting reflection on the controversy model we use to structure lower-division comp courses here at UT, where she talked about the ways in which discussions of popular culture can powerfully engage students and frame effective teachable moments about the relaitonships of the descriptive, analytical, and evaluative modes of reading. Her post struck a chord with me because it offers another way of approaching the concerns I voiced in my last cotribution to BP, and also of thinking about the Avatarargument as well as another recent class discussion.

A couple of weeks ago, you will recall that Applebee’s had a bit of a "social media meltdown" in the aftermath of Pastor Alois Bell’s theological confrontation with the institution of tipping in American foodservice. When that happened, I acted with the hard-hitting, decisive responsiveness that a course on Truthiness allows—nay, demands!—and assigned them a blog post by R.L. Stollar, an Oregonian journalist who stayed up late the night of that "meltdown," taking screen caps of Applebee’s social media feeds. The reporter offered a fairly trenchant analysis of the rhetorical mistakes Applebee’s social media people made, accounting for their content as well as the fundamentally inept negotiation of Facebook and Twitter, both as communications platforms and as communities. He used the screen caps of the feeds as block quotations, and did it like someone who paid attention in his comp courses. Anyway, that was all the stuff that made me interested in the article. The day that reading was due, I actually had to interrupt the class conversation to start class, and had to do so in a raised voice to be heard. Of course, they were arguing about the substance of the issue: the rights and wrongs of Alois Bells’ notes, of the firing of Chelsey Welch, of Applebee’s PR explosion.

In both these cases, I was able to steer the conversation rhetorically simply by asking a student followup questions about their remarks. With the Stollar article, I had to ask two questions: how are the screen caps like block quotations in a lit paper? How does Stollar use them to stack the argument in his favor? After that, they were off and running. In the case of Zaitchik's article, it took quite a few rounds of Q&A, but I started off asking my combative student exactly what part of the article he was objecting to. When he couldn’t point out a specific passage, I asked him how we could investigate the question of the article’s overarching message, and then opened it up to the class. One person suggested looking for a thesis in the introduction. No such luck: the article begins anecdotally and develops as an overlapping series of historical vignettes, editorial asides, narratives and interviews. Another person suggested we look at the conclusion. The last paragraph was baffling. Someone else said maybe the conclsusion came before the last paragraph, and I suggested that perhaps the conclusion spread across two or more paragraphs.


How had the author structured the article, I asked? Silence. Did anyone make a reverse outline, the way we’d practiced in class? No. Fine, that’s why we have whiteboards and projectors and visualization software, right?

So the rest of the class was spent producing, as a class, just such a reverse outline. We didn’t find anything we were all willing to call the thesis of the article until close to the bell, and not in the first or last two paragraphs. More and more notes got taken as the conversation wore on, and I saw quite a few a-ha moments when we’d take a particularly complicated bit of the text and I’d apply some rhetorical or composition principle to it. The abstract, theoretical language of rhetoric instruction was actually making sense out in the wilds of the reportorial jungle.

Still, though. I remembered seeing those sorts of frownsmile-nods before I got the first crop of major assignments last term, and I remember how many hours of feedback-giving on the subject of rhetorical analysis and what it means, and methodologies suited to its execution ensued. I mean, I expect that’s what every first round of feedback in lower-division comp classes always looks like, but I was trying to limit the number of times I’ll need to repeat myself on the basics this time. So I assigned no reading for Thursday’s class. Instead I gave the whole class over a small-group exercise geared towards building on some visual rhetoric practice exercises and getting them to teach each other discovery and outline tactics. I’ll post that plan on the lesson plans archive soon, but for now, a couple of remarks about how it fits.

With the long articles on Appebee’s and Ecuadorian politics, the students encountered levels of complexity and contingency they didn’t expect to find by lingering in the descriptive mode. Conversations that started off with the evaluative mode holding sway quickly bogged down, getting louder instead of moving forward. They couldn’t help but notice this, and when I showed them that the way out of such dead ends was back through the texts at hand, they followed willingly enough, but we only really had the time to cover the basics. What I did with the following class was present more condensed texts (images), and required the students to generate multiple, and if possible opposed, readings of the same text that incorporated local elements that nuanced a global understanding of the image.

So we teach popular culture, as Laura said, not because of any of the inherent merits or problems in its content, but simply because it’s popular. Popular texts are designed to be accessible, to engage readers, assertively develop audience investment and to communicate their contents clearly and efficiently. As such, they quite deliberately invite, and even cultivate an evaluative mode of engagement from a casual reader, but this is more blessing than curse for the rhetoric teacher, because it means you have plenty of opportunities to defamiliarize your students from a lifetime of over-passive reading habits. When that happens, the student, like the scholars Laura talked about, discovers what we did: that defamiliarization and demystification go hand in hand, that analysis is a productive rather than a destructive activity, and that a critical awareness doesn’t have to mean the death of jouissance.  


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