How to Use This Book – Instructors

First, I’d like to thank you for adopting this book (or at least considering it) for your class. I know the nightmare that textbook adoption can be, and I hope this serves your students’ needs as a primary textbook or a supplementary material.

This text was inspired by my first year as a Graduate Teaching Assistant at Portland State University. I walked into a classroom of first-year students, transfer students, international students, and returning students, all of whom had shelled out $70 for textbooks required by the department. As I planned each lesson, I had this figure in my mind: sure, it wasn’t the most expensive part of college, but my students would feel ripped off if I didn’t use the anthology and instructional handbook that they had been required to purchase.

Both of those books fell quite short. As with any anthology, the selected texts were great, but the scope left a lot to be desired. As with any textbook, the instruction was solid but had different priorities than I had. Nevertheless, I still felt obliged to teach them.

In contrast, this text is free. On the student side, this is great news, but it’s also great for us as teachers. You can use this book in its entirety, or use none of it. You can pick and choose model texts, or you can teach exclusively from one section. Because there is no cost associated with this book, you should feel no obligation to use it in a way that students “get their money’s worth.”

In addition to this advantage, this text afforded me a handful of other opportunities. First, as a digital product, it increases accessibility for students with disabilities. Additionally, because you can use it anywhere with an Internet connection, it is more readily available to non-traditional or distance learning students. Next, because it is zero-cost, it reduces the barrier to access for students entering college, especially from low-income backgrounds.

These characteristics are representative of broader trends in Open Educational Resources (OER), but I’d like to think that other things set this textbook apart: predominantly, I envision this book as a space to advocate for a student-centered writing pedagogy that at once embraces expressivist and social constructivist paradigms of rhetoric. This isn’t the first time a book has pursued this goal, but I consider my approach a valuable contribution to buoying the perception of value in student writing.

Student-Centered Writing and Learning Communities

Before going any further, I want to acknowledge one major goal of this text: to advocate for student-centered pedagogy that fosters learning communities. Most of the texts that make this a reader-rhetoric are actual student work that I’ve encountered over my career as a teacher. This is a deliberate choice which responds to a problem that I have observed: the texts in anthologies are almost always and almost exclusively by professional writers. While this sets, perhaps, a higher standard, it also trains students to think that polished, publishable, and impactful writing is not accessible to them—that it is a different echelon of creativity and mastery. It teaches them that they should imitate the people who write well with the understanding that their writing will never be quite as good.

Teacher Takeaways

Reactions from actual college professors are included in boxes like these.

By the same logic that representations of people of color, different genders, different ability statuses, and so on are important to those who experience oppression, representing student writing in this book allows students to envision themselves in the role of author. This text showcases outstanding student work as evidence that students are very capable of producing beautiful, moving, thorough, thoughtful, and well-informed rhetoric.

To this end, I have edited student work as minimally as possible, foregoing stylistic and some mechanical issues. The use of student writing, in addition to its primary objective of representation, also relates to this book’s focus on writing as process, not product. We’ll discuss this further in the General Introduction, but I want to give you fair warning that the student essays included here would not meet some readers’ standards of “perfect.” They exemplify some strategies very well, but may fall short in other domains. Therefore, it’s important to regularly remind students that no text is perfect; no text is free of bias or ideology. The texts might spark discussions; they might serve as exemplars for assignments; they could even serve as focus texts for analysis. Regardless, though, I encourage you to read critically with your students, unpacking not only the content but also the construction of the rhetoric itself.

Professional authors and teachers know that a piece of writing is never actually finished—that there are always ways to challenge, reimagine, or polish a text. I encourage you to teach both professional and student model texts with this in mind: ask your students, What does this author do well, and what could they do better? In what ways are they fulfilling the imperatives of the rhetorical situation, and what advice would you give them to improve? To support this critical perspective, each text included in the main sections of the book is followed by a “Teacher Takeaway”: ideas from college professors reacting to the work at hand. While these takeaways are not comprehensive, they offer a starting point for you and your students to interpret the strengths of a model text.

I see student-centered curriculum as necessarily invested in what I call learning community. No matter how much support I provide for my students, their opportunities for growth multiply exponentially with the support of their classmates and college resources (like a Writing Center or research librarian).

I build a good deal of time into my classes for community-building for a handful of reasons:

  • Writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Almost all writing involves an exchange between a writer and their audience. Even on the professional level, the best writing is produced collaboratively, using feedback from a cohort of trusted peers. However, many of our students have been trained to believe that their schoolwork is their business and no one else’s—or, at best, that their sole audience is the red-pen-toting teacher. Instead, this text emphasizes collaboration to model real-world writing situations.
  • Writing is hard. Writing is hard because learning is hard: growth only occurs under challenging circumstances. Additionally, whether our students are writing a personal narrative or a research essay, they are putting themselves in a position of vulnerability. While the concept of an entirely “safe space” is largely a myth, it is important that they feel supported by their classmates and their instructor to ensure that this vulnerability is productive.
  • Communities are, to some extent, horizontal. The vertical power dynamic that plagues many college classrooms, where the all-knowing teacher deposits knowledge into their ignorant students, must be dismantled for true learning to take place. Students need to be able to claim the knowledge and skills they build in the classroom, and they can only do so if they feel they have a stake in the mission and operation of the class.1
  • Communities have shared goals and values, but also diversity within them. Each member might have a different path to those goals, might have different needs along the way, might have additional individual goals—but there’s value in acknowledging the destinations we pursue together.
  • Learning communities are not just communities of learners, but also communities that learn. I’ve taught awesome classes, and I’ve taught classes that I dreaded attending. But all of those classes have had one thing in common: they were never exactly what I expected. It is crucial to acknowledge that no matter how much planning we do, our communities will have unanticipated strengths, needs, successes, and failures. Communities that learn adapt to their internal idiosyncrasies in order to make shared goals more accessible to everyone. Furthermore, the skills and concepts for building community that your students learn with carry them forth to shape their future communities.

I will take a moment to clarify: the concept of the learning community is not simply a classroom management technique or a pedagogical suggestion. Rather, I find the learning experience inherent in building and sustaining a community to be inextricable from learning about composition. Developing writers have more to offer one another than any textbook could. Although this book seeks to provide pragmatic and meaty instruction on writing skills, it is from this core assumption that I operate:

Writers write best among other writers. Learners learn best among other learners.

Rhetorical Situations

In this book, I also encourage a deep consideration of writing as a dynamic response to a rhetorical situation. I think we can all acknowledge that different circumstances, different audiences, different subjects require different kinds of writing. This variability demands that we think more expansively and critically about genre, language, style, and medium. It also requires us to acknowledge that there is no monolithic, static, singular model of “good” writing, contrary to what some traditionalists believe—and what many of our students have been trained to believe.

The realization that “good” writing cannot be essentialized is not groundbreaking in the field of rhetoric: indeed, we have known for thousands of years that audience and purpose should influence message and delivery. However, it often is groundbreaking for students today who have learned from both hidden and explicit curricula that certain dialects, styles, or perspectives are valued in academia.

Shifting the paradigm—from “How do I write right?” to “How do I respond to the nuanced constraints of my rhetorical situation?”—requires a lot of unlearning. As your students try to unpack more and more complex rhetorical situations, support them by deliberately talking through the constituent elements of the rhetorical situation and the preferred modes and languages utilized therein. The question I use to turn my students focus to the rhetorical situation is, How will the subject, occasion, audience, and purpose of this situation influence the way we write?

Why this focus? My emphasis on rhetorical situations is twofold:

  • To sharpen and complicate students’ thinking. On a more abstract level, I advocate for critical consumption and production of rhetoric as a fundamental goal of composition instruction. If we, as educators, want to empower our students as thinkers and agents within the world, we must equip them with the habits to challenge the texts and ideas that surround them.
  • To prepare students for future writing situations. On a more pragmatic level, I don’t think it’s possible to teach students all of the ways they will need to know how to write in their lives—especially not in a single college term. Instead of teaching rules for writing (rules which will invariably change), I argue for teaching questions about writing situations. Students will be better prepared for future writing situations if they can analyze a rhetorical situation, determine how that situation’s constraints will influence their writing, and produce a text that is tailored to that situation.

Keep in mind that many of your students don’t think about (or have been taught to actively not-think about) language as dynamic and adaptable, so you will need to provide scaffolding that gradually initiates them into the interrogation of rhetorical situation. Reflect on your own experiences writing: how did you learn to carefully choose a vocabulary and perspective that engages your audience? When did you realize that your purpose would determine your style, length, or content?

I also encourage you to gesture to the many forms that rhetoric takes. Although you are likely using this book for a class with “Writing” in the title, another primary goal of this book is to advocate for critical consumption and production of rhetoric in all its forms. EmpoWord is centered on the nonfiction essay form (in order to satisfy the typical academic requirements of foundational college courses), but very little of the writing, reading, speaking, and listening our students do is in traditional essay form. You can contribute to their critical encounters with all kinds of media and rhetoric that permeate their lives.

Assignments and Activities

Depending on your course schedule and your pedagogical priorities, the content of this book may be too much to teach in one term. I imagined this book as my ideal curriculum: if I could move at a breakneck pace, teach everything I wanted perfectly and efficiently, and expect quick and painless work from all of my students, my course would probably follow this text directly.


However, this has never been and will likely never be the case. Teaching is a game of adaptation: we must be flexible, responding to our constraints and our students’ particular needs. To that end, I encourage you to pick and choose the units, assignments, and activities that you find most valuable. I also encourage you to tailor those units, assignments, and activities to your particular class by adding parameters, providing supplementary materials, opening up discussions, and locating assignments in the sociogeographical place in which you find your class.2 You can also zoom in on certain chapters and create your own corresponding assignments, curriculum, or activities: for instance, if you wanted students to write a purely descriptive essay, rather than a descriptive personal narrative that includes reflection, you could teach from the chapter on description, expand it using your own materials and related resources, and modify the culminating assignment appropriately.

All that said, another major goal of this text is to provide support to developing instructors. Especially if this is your first experience teaching, you are more than welcome to use this text to structure and develop your syllabus, conduct activities, and prepare assignments. Rely on this text as much as you find it useful.

One major insight I have gained from teaching this book in its pilot version is that students learn more when I block out time to discuss the activities after they have been completed. Each activity in this text is designed to help practice a discrete skill, but developing writers don’t always make that connection right away: be sure to allow for time to debrief to explore what the students can take away from each assignment. Doing so will allow the students to translate skills more easily. Furthermore, they will also reveal learning that you may not have anticipated, providing for rich in-class discussion.

Navigation

This textbook is organized according to the following general formula:

Section Topic

Section Introduction

Chapter on a Rhetorical Mode or Skill

Instruction

Activities

Model Student Work

Chapter on a Rhetorical Mode or Skill

Instruction

Activities

Model Student Work

Chapter on a Rhetorical Mode or Skill

Instruction

Activities

Model Student Work

Culminating Assignment

Rubric

Guidelines for Peer Workshop

Model Student Work

Under “Additional Readings,” you will find more sample work by both student and professional authors. “Additional Recommend Resources” includes direction to some of my favorite supplementary materials.

You can take a more specific look at either Table of Contents. (The second provides detail on the readings included.)

image

Key words and concepts are formatted like this the first time they appear, and they are defined briefly in the Glossary. Near the beginning of each chapter, you will find a table of vocabulary, like the one to the left, for terms used in that chapter.

You should feel free to bounce around between Chapters and Sections as you feel it is appropriate to your course.

Feedback

As with any piece of writing, I acknowledge that this textbook will never really be “finished”: it could always be better. I wholeheartedly welcome your feedback—on content, format, style, accessibility, or otherwise—as I continue ongoing revisions to this text. Please do not hesitate to contact me with your criticism, positive or negative, at shaneabrams.professional@gmail.com.

Chapter Vocabulary

Vocabulary

Definition

a network of learners and teachers, each equipped and empowered to provide support through horizontal power relations. Values diversity insofar as it encourages growth and perspective, but also inclusivity. Also, a community that learns by adapting to its unique needs and advantages.

a specific category, subcategory, style, form, or medium (or combination of the above) of rhetoric. A genre may have a “generic imperative,” which is an expectation or set of expectations an audience holds for a particular genre of rhetoric; the foundational assumptions that particular genres carry.

the circumstances in which rhetoric is produced, understood using the constituent elements of subject, occasion, audience, and purpose. Each element of the rhetorical situation carries assumptions and imperatives about the kind of rhetoric that will be well received. Rhetorical situation will also influence mode and medium.

Endnotes
1 This is, of course, a call out to Paulo Freire and the school of popular/critical pedagogy and social justice education. While it’s beyond the scope of the book to consider the intersection of critical pedagogy and writing pedagogy, the two are inseparable for me.
2 Place-based education is the pedagogical manifestation of the mantra, “Think Globally; Act Locally.” It informs what I consider to be the most relevant pedagogy and curriculum. It also draws from the important movements of decolonizing and Indigenous pedagogies. As your students work through this text, try to find ways to make it relevant to the local community: students can complete a micro-ethnography in a place unique to your location; students could choose research topics that are relevant to the local scene; students could analyze op-eds from the local newspaper. To learn more, I encourage you to seek out texts by David Sobel, Vine Deloria, Daniel Wildcat, Matthew Wildcat, and Steven Semken, among others.