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"It is idle to fault a net for having holes"I’m using Maggie Nelson’s award-winning memoir, The Argonauts, as the central text in an essay course I’m teaching this semester. We’re reading five to ten pages a week, moving slowly through Nelson’s genre-bending reflections on gender-bending relationships. The ostensible subject of the memoir is Nelson’s evolving relationship with Harry Dodge, an artist undergoing gender reassignment, but The Argonauts is actually a 140-page meditation on language and whether “words are good enough” to capture the complexities and the impermanence of human experience.

 

So far, it’s safe to say that the students are baffled by Nelson’s prose and by the practice of reading I’m asking them to try. They are used to reading assignments that are much longer; they know how to find credible online summaries; they’re good enough at the gist. But reading five pages twice? Three times? Five times? Tracking down what Nelson’s referring to when she describes her ambivalent response to Prop. 8; going from her citations back to the original sources; trying to make sense of her use of italics—which sometimes signify a direct quotation from a published work, sometimes a rough gloss of what was said, sometimes a passing remark by an artist or friend: these are not ways of reading familiar to my students. Indeed, one of them has already declared—twice!—that Nelson’s not a good writer.

 

It’s a little early to come to that decision, I say. And besides, this isn’t a course about whether or not Nelson is a good writer; this is a course in learning how to use writing to have a big thought.

 

I’m starting each class with a quiz. Right out of the gate, I made a mistake. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I made the mistake teachers are prone to make when teaching a new group of students: I made unwarranted assumptions about what the students knew how to do as readers. If I told you these were honors students, what assumptions would you make?

 

The first quiz, composed on the assumption that the students had read and re-read the first eight-page assignment with care and that they’d stopped to look up unfamiliar terms, figures, authors, and texts, was a bust. Most hadn’t paused to find out about Wittgenstein or Barthes or to track down Dodge’s film, By Hook or By Crook, or to look up Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting, or to seek out definitions of unfamiliar terms. Those who did no meaningful research had no credible way of describing what their research illuminated and so they defaulted to some variation of this empty claim: “I now understand her point better.”

 

Clearly not.

 

It is idle to fault a net for having holes, my encyclopedia notes.”

 

So says Nelson.

 

I’ve searched in vain for the source of this quote. There’s something about it that just seems, well, fishy to me. Nelson doesn’t tell her readers which encyclopedia she’s using. And it’s hard to imagine under what entry these words appear. Snappy aphorisms? Sayings found in fortune cookies?

 

This quote or “quote” appears on the first page of The Argonauts. Is Nelson telling us language is a net with holes? Is she showing us how her mind works? I’ll have to get back to you on this. For the moment, I’m stuck. I haven’t figured out the right question to ask that will take me to Nelson’s source. (I thought—The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy! But, no.)

 

Not one student had a tale of research that led to a dead end or research that confounded things, making Nelson harder to understand than before. Even though these, surely, are the experiences at the center of curiosity-driven research.

 

Because of the quiz, I’ve got a better idea, now, of what my students don’t know how to do as readers or as writers. I know because you can’t fake intellectual experiences you haven’t had. So, the quiz, though technically a failure, has helped me to see how to start over tomorrow, which is what writers do.

File:MLK mugshot birmingham.jpg

 

I often discuss with students the rhetorical power of using both images and text to help readers understand the nature and stakes of a given problem, and to move readers to action. Civil rights activists have long understood this lesson, particularly Martin Luther King, Jr., whose “Letter from Birmingham Jail” underscored the importance of challenging unjust laws. These laws were designed to disenfranchise black people in their struggle for racial justice and the full rights of citizenship. It’s hard to forget the words that rang out from his cell: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” But equally hard to forget are the images of police using fire hoses and dogs to disperse youth marching peacefully at the Children’s March in Birmingham in 1963, images which moved JFK to promise passage of a Civil Rights Act.

 

To further understand the power of words and images, I invite readers to listen to a National Public Radio interview with photojournalist Matt Black, who describes his experiences traveling across the United States. Black captures images of poverty, now included in an exhibit called “The Geography of Poverty.” It is one thing for Black to speak about the abject poverty he has witnessed at a time when, he explains, many of our nation’s leaders have expressed their confidence about economic recovery, low unemployment rates, and tax cuts. It is quite another thing to view photographs of the lived reality of the people left behind.

 

In one of Black’s photographs, a black woman peers out from her kitchen. She stands next to a battered stove in a shack in the Mississippi Delta – an area which was the site of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s aggressive efforts to register black sharecroppers to vote in 1961. Sharecroppers risked their lives in order to have the right to vote and access to all of the opportunities citizenship affords.

 

The image of a black woman living in a tiny shack among rusted paint cans offers an arresting sense that a dream has been deferred. This image underscores the level of poverty that exists, even as the nation celebrates Dr. King’s dream and our leaders tout economic achievements. Black’s words add power to the image when he observes in the interview, “Many of the benefits of that era and of that movement went elsewhere.” And the images he has captured make his words all the more powerful in an argument that economic recovery is not evenly distributed.

 

In teaching writing, I want students to consider the types and forms of argumentation that might benefit from being presented visually. The power of an image inheres in its ability to make us aware of the gravity of an issue and convey its force, strength, and urgency. But how does a visual image contribute to arousing emotions in readers and motivate them to act?

 

An image of children may very well be an effective means of conveying a sense of urgency to readers about hunger in America, while using a map communicates different information. A map tells a story of where food insecurity exists, its prevalence, and perhaps how food insecurity correlates with other problems, including lack of employment opportunities and residential segregation among different racial and ethnic groups. With numerical data in the form of tables and graphs, students can create a powerful narrative, conveying a sense of immediacy, urgency, and importance.

 

I ask students to think about the following questions in developing a visual argument.

  • What is my purpose for including an image, such as a chart, map, graph, or photograph? What trends or patterns do I want to emphasize?
  • What story does the image help me tell?
  • How does this image complement or highlight my written argument?
  • How do I want readers to respond to this image(s)? What ideas and emotions do I want to evoke?
  • What sort of caption should I include to help readers understand the context and meaning of the image?

 

These are the kinds of questions that place rhetoric at the center of the students’ decisions about the best way to present their argument – if, and how, images can help them fulfill their goals as writers.

 

In From Inquiry to Academic Writing, April Lidinsky and I provide the following practice sequence as they read and then begin to compose their own essays.

  1. As a class or in small groups, discuss the strategies authors use to integrate image and text in the readings in this section.
    • When does using a map make sense? What about a photograph?
    • Are there instances when the authors might have combined strategies to fulfill their purpose as writers?
    • Are there some best practices you can come up with for telling stories that ensure readers understand the importance, immediacy, and urgency of an argument?
  1. Given your own purpose for writing, write down how you would follow the steps for integrating visual images in a written argument.
    • Identify your purpose. What is the story you want to tell?
    • Analyze your audience’s values and knowledge base to determine how they might react to different kinds of media.
    • Evaluate which kind of images will create a sense of importance, urgency, and immediacy.
    • Question the source of the data you want to use. Does the source of data tell us anything?
    • Integrate the text you have written and the image(s) you include. What conclusions can readers make from what you might include?

 

I encourage students to use their voices to share what they know. I want them to capture the humanity of people and places that matter, much in the way of Humans of New York.

 

Given the different models of writing instruction that appear in Bedford Bits, I wonder: what strategies do others encourage students to use to challenge persistent problems; writing strategies that move others to action?

FrogIn earlier posts, I’ve mentioned an assignment I frequently use that asks students to translate, or to repurpose, an academic text (in this case, a scholarly journal article) for a public audience. One of the overarching aims of the assignment is to help students see how - even when the topic discussed and information shared are pretty much the same - a text changes according to the needs of its audience and an author’s purpose for writing it. I want students to see how rhetorical situations shape a writer’s decision-making.

In this post, I wanted to share a related lesson I use in my first-year writing class to reinforce students’ understanding of the rhetorical nature of texts. This one involves tracing the journey of an academic article as it makes its way from an “insider” audience of other academics to a wider, more popular audience. I refer to this journey as an article’s “publication trajectory.” Of course, not all academic articles will make this journey, so article selection is key to the lesson’s success. But the results of this lesson have been pretty inspiring so far. Months after the lesson, I’ve had students tell me that they continue to investigate the relationships between news articles they encounter and the academic sources on which they are sometimes based, and students have repeatedly shared their excitement with me when they’ve stumbled upon the academic source for a news article.

 

Stage 1: Academic Article

First, we explore an academic article. Depending on where we are in the semester, the article could originate from any number of fields of study. But here’s an example from natural science:

 

Frogs use a viscoelastic tongue and non-Newtonian saliva to catch prey

Alexis C. Noel, Hao-Yuan Guo, Mark Mandica, David L. Hu

Published 1 February 2017. DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2016.0764

 

No doubt, students tend to read for content, and the article has much to teach them about frog tongues. However, students’ engagement with the article at the level of content is also an opportunity to teach them something about how communication is fashioned within the community of scholars for which the article was written. As we explore the article, I try to help students identify conventional moves and other features typical of this form of communication among scholars in the sciences. We may explore the article’s organizational design, its reliance on passive voice constructions in particular sections, or the ways sources are documented, just to name a few.

 

Stage 2: Press Release

In my experience, this stage really piques students’ interests. In it, I share a press release linked to the academic study we’ve just discussed.  A press release written to accompany the publication of the study on frog tongues, for example, can be found in the News Center at Georgia Tech University’s website: 

 

Reversible Saliva Allows Frogs to Hang on to Next Meal  

 

Having read the study on which a press release is based, students are generally pretty eager to see how the writers of a press release refashion the presentation of scholarly research in light of a new audience of journalists. Very quickly, they notice the visual elements of the press release, along with the additional videos and links provided as a part of it. They also see, for example, how the structure of the content shifts to move the reporting of research conclusions to the beginning of the press release, along with how careful the authors of the press release are to define jargon for the new audience. Noticing these changes is an important step in their own developing rhetorical sensitivity, I believe.

 

Stage 3: The News Article

The research is published, and the press release is out. So what’s next? In the ideal situation, you’re able to continue to trace the publication trajectory of an academic article’s journey to show students how the press release itself is repurposed (or at least how it influences) the productions of a news article, written for an even more general readership. The research on frog tongues was translated for a number of popular audiences, for instance. News articles on the research appeared online in The Atlantic, Popular Science, NPR, and Smithsonian.com, where the headlines read as follows:

 

 

Obviously, there are many ways to go about fostering students’ growing rhetorical awareness, but I’ve never encountered students more enthusiastic about conducting research for themselves than when I have asked them trace the publication trajectory of ideas in a research article that have made their way to a news article. And I’ve never seen my students more able to analyze their rhetorical situations and craft well-conceived texts in response to them.

 

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