A RhetNet SnapShot

Evolving past the Essay-a-saurus:
Introducing nimbler forms into writing classes

Beth Baldwin
25 Jan 1996
DOI: 10.37514/RNT-J.1996.3.3.18

Let me assume (dangerous I realize) that many of us do not teach writing because we think that essays will be terrifically useful for our students in an of themselves. Many of us use the essay as a means to teach rhetorical skills? Audience sensitivity? Critical thinking? Liberalization? We perpetuate the metaphor of inter-textuality as a "conversation" -- one text speaking to another speaking to another and so on such that there is some kind of dialogism going on?

Cool metaphor, but not particularly practical because essay writing is a particularly solitary activity (even when we do great peer review) and the point is to make your point. There really isn't any dialogue, not on the level of ideas and not on the level of genuine responsiveness. We expect responsibility, but do not provide response-ability.

Electronic conversation via VAX notes discussions or some of the group interactive softwares provides response-ability. Students in my classes spend almost all of every class period "talking" with each other in text -- having textual conversations. Thus, my students are doing far more writing than any of my students have in the past. What they say becomes meaningful to them because it's genuinely social and genuinely interactive. People are going to have responses, for better or worse, to what they have to say. It seems a natural part of the process that they become critically aware of their rhetorical choices such that the conversation is often meta-rhetorical (as often happens on lists?). If I "bank" them a little on logical fallacies, for example, suddenly they're noticing their logical fallacies by name. Suddenly they're seeing the effect the way they talk has on others.

I no longer require essays, although I am "required to require" 20 pages of polished prose. I teach them to write and invite them to write conversational (dialogical or multilogical) pieces. I give no grades on product even though the "product" of conversation is far superior to the product of even process approaches. We study our conversations and look for how we make meaning which also means that we engage, as a whole class, in extensive assessment. I've seen *big* changes in 3 major areas: 1) development and exercise of meta-rhetorical skills, 2) increased inter-subjective tolerance and understanding, i.e., liberalization, and 3) a significant increase in "authentic" learning activity -- they're doing a lot of "unassigned" work for the class simply because they really care about what they're doing.

Since I've been teaching in electronic, interactive classrooms where the main focus is textual conversation, I've been very pleased that so few students any longer "slouch in the back row," nodding their heads and writing their correctly-positioned papers in exchange for the academic goods. They're much less likely now to simply play the school game. This is great in my book because now that they're really engaged with one another, and with me as an equal, in conversation, they're learning what it means to be rhetorically responsible and to be tolerant of others. By sharing narratives and opinions, and getting the kind of feedback one gets in the electronic medium, they all (liberal, conservative, etc.) have learned to see issues that were heretofore "simple" for them as having deep levels of complexity. Seeing deep levels of complexity is liberalization -- not simply switching sides or saying what you think the teacher wants/needs you to say.

Scary thing for many academics, though, (frustrating you may say) is that we have to be just as open to the process of liberalization as do our students. Scary for people accustomed to stratification indeed.

What amazes me is how so many of us seem to be trying to use the new technology to do the same old thing with students, albeit in new ways, rather than in using the technology to totally transform our teaching. In other words, why are so many of us still slavishly committed to the monological essay as a model for teaching rhetoric through writing? Now that we can have real audiences who offer real responses, why not use the interactive capabilities to teach rhetoric through conversation. That's what I've been doing and it's much more satisfying and successful.

This text includes several notes posted to MBU-L@ttu.edu.

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