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The Meaningful Writing Project

Mere Rhetoric

Release Date: 02/08/2018

James Berlin “Contemporary Composition: the Major Pedagogical Theories.” show art James Berlin “Contemporary Composition: the Major Pedagogical Theories.”

Mere Rhetoric

Some time ago, I was asked by listener Sarah Rumsey to do a podcast on composition theory. That’s a doozy of a topic, so I read a lot, I poked around, even pulled together a couple drafts, but couldn’t find the balance of breadth and depth to do this subject justice. So I gave up.   Ah, clever listener, you know I didn’t really give up, because this is Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history and I am Mary Hedengren and instead of trying to capture the entire depth of rhetorical theory thought I...

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Welcome to Mere R the podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movements that shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary H and if you grew up in the eighties and nineties, like I did, then you might remember a series of posters in your school and public library. Celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker,A-Rod and, of course, Lavar Burton would be posed with a book, smiling, encouraging you to read. They were all readers, and so should you, because being a reader was a worthy identity.     Deborah Brandt, in her decades of interviews with people of all walks of life,...

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Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and I’d like you to think a little about the types of writing you’ve done in the past, oh, let us say, year. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably written breezy email, stern syllabi, obscure academic texts and pun-based posts on Reddit that didn’t get nearly the number of upvotes as they deserve. Now what if a random, oh, say 12% of what you wrote was preserved and no one who knew you was around to testify you wrote it...

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The Meaningful Writing Project show art The Meaningful Writing Project

Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to MR the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history   It’s the start of another semester, which, for me, means a season of wonder. I wonder about who my students will be. I wonder whether my schedule will be crushingly busy. Mostly, though, I wonder how my students will react to the syllabi and assignments that I have lovingly crafted. Will they understand the instructions? Will they learn what I hope they will? Will they find it meaningful?   Many compositionists have wondered these same questions and have...

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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, terms and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and I’ve been reading A Christmas Carol this holiday season because I’m playing Mrs. Crachit in a community theatre production. And wow. There is a story behind that. But becaue I was interested in The christmas carol, so I started reading The Man Who Invented Christmas, Les Standiford’s history of Dickens’s masterpeice. I was surprised to hear how A Christmas Carol had solidified Christmas as we know it, a home-and-family...

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Inventing the University--David Bartholomae show art Inventing the University--David Bartholomae

Mere Rhetoric

[intro] Welcome to MR the podcast for beginngs and insiders aboutt he ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren. This last week I graded my students’ rhetorical analyses. For many of them, this was the first time they had been asked to write a rhetorical analysis and this assignment always makes me nervous. I give them sample papers. We practice writing a rhetorical analysis together. We discuss in depth examples and abuses of ethos, logos, and pathos, but many of them struggle tremendously. I know I could write a 3-page rhetorical analysis in 20...

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Weeeeellllcommmme to Meeeeeereeee Rhetoooooric! It’s our annual Halloween episode, which means a little bit of the people, ideas and movements who have shaped rhetorical history, but mostly a ghost story. This year, we’re going with our first not-MR-James story. Don’t worry--there are still intials--but first--to business.   If you’re going to talk about ghost stories and influential thinkers, you won’t dig long until you come across Freud’s contribution, a little piece called “The Uncanny.” You might not peg Sigmund Freud as a connoisseur of boogeymen, but he was...

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Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and every semester, I feel like it’s New Year’s Day. “This semester,” I say, “everything’s going to be different.” I revise my classes, everything from switching two minor assignments to rehauling the entire curriculum. I try to create assignments that will catch my students’ attention, prepare them for their other classes, and, because I teach dozens of students, be interesting to grade.   But how do I know if the...

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Mere Rhetoric

Andocides (An-DOS-id-dees) Do you remember in the 90s when there was this huge “thug life” thing going on? Shady types getting money doing shady things. Andocides, the 5th century BCE rhetor, would have fit fell into that world. Even though he may have been acquainted with Socrates, he was more interested in roving with his friends of rabble-rousers. He was born to wealth and lived as what one editor called “a hot-headed young man-about-town with more money than sense” (321).   His carefree life came to a hard stop after a significant act of vandalism. Andocides was accused of...

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Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Uh, I guess including recent history, because today we’re going to talk about the February 2017 issue of College Composition and Communication as our “journal of the month” summary. This issue, as editor Jonathan Alexander points out, “takes up the notion of the ‘personal’ in a variety of ways” (436), departing from what we might think of as “composition as usual.” The articles in it include thinking about students who are full-time...

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Welcome to MR the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history

 

It’s the start of another semester, which, for me, means a season of wonder. I wonder about who my students will be. I wonder whether my schedule will be crushingly busy. Mostly, though, I wonder how my students will react to the syllabi and assignments that I have lovingly crafted. Will they understand the instructions? Will they learn what I hope they will? Will they find it meaningful?

 

Many compositionists have wondered these same questions and have argued about what kinds of assignments are best for students--digital or analog? Open-ended or directed? Reflective or projective? The authors of the Meaningful Writing Project,Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, Neal Lerner , had similar questions. But instead of pontificating, they just asked the students themselves.

 

And, boy howdy, did they! They surveyed students at a varied of schools--big state, small private, research and community college--and asked them which (if any) of their writing projects had been the most “meaningful” for them. What they found surprised them, and it surprised me too.

 

The researchers were expecting on finding a small cohort of “meaningful project” professors who had skillfully crafted assignments that were more meaningful to their students, but instead they found that the meaningful projects were scattered across instructors. Some of the instructors were veterans, some were novices; some were full professors and some were adjuncts. There weren’t clear patterns in who assigned meaningful projects. There was also no pattern on where these meaning projects were taking place. Meaningful writing projects occurred in big classes and small, required courses and capstones and in no courses at all. This might seem like a null result--what can we say about meaningful writing projects if any sort of instructor can assign them in any sort of class?

 

Again, the answer is in listening to the students. The authors found that these projects focus on the past (students' personal connection and previous experience) and the future (application to the students' sense of their future selves). These projects recognize that education doesn’t happen in discrete modules, but builds upon past lived experience and anticipates the classes, jobs and lifestyles students will eventually enter.

 

Almost 70% of the students in the study said that the writing project was related to what they expect to do in the future, usually related to their prospective jobs (41). They said things like “”As a teacher, I must write lesson plans that are creative,” “As a physician assistant I will have to write referral letters,” and “As a career artist I..must be able to write about my work when I submit  it to juried exhibitions” (41). Recognizing connections to their future lives envigorates writing for these students. The past also matters, even when the comparison to the past was uneven. One participant, Leah, described her previous writing experience as “neutral.”

 

Leah also gave a good insight into the importance of choice in writing projects.The authors note that the “balance between allow and require once again seems key…[because] Leah’s experiences up tot his point were too close to the require end o the continuum with not enough allow” (48). Accordingly, student choice means a lot--encouraging students to delve into personal interest and to feel "invited and encouraged" (133). This is always a hard balance for me too--do I let my students choose to write on whatever topic they want, assuming that they will write with more passion about the topic of their choice? Or do they not have any particular passion yet, and fall back on standard fare: gun control, abortion, illegal immigration. Similiarly, do they lack the content knowledge to know how to approach that topic and will falter, unable to come up with a meaningful area of research? It’s not enough just to dump novice students into it--”You decide what to write and how to write it,” sounds like agency, but it also sounds like neglect. Instead, the authors say we teachers can “intentionally build optimal conditions for agency to emerge” like directing students to make use of the skills and thoughts that they have developed in and out of the class (53). That’s kind of a big deal, not just for a student’s writing ability, but for their developing sense of self.

 

As the authors put it, the meaningful projects were "holistic--not merely about content or genre or process but also about mind and body, heart and head--and to act as a kind of mirror in which students see their pasts and futures, enabling them to map those on to their writing projects to make meaning" (107). It’s not overstating it to see these meaningful writing projects as meaningful experiences period. Certainly I remember some of the most meaningful projects of my undergraduate life--the time I wrote a platonic dialogue to explain Foucault’s theory for my theory class, the long honors thesis where I was able to pursuit my obsession with an obscure Steinbeck novel, the Shakespeare class that allowed me to delve deep into Renaissance concepts of madness. These weren’t just fun assignments, but projects that helped develop my sense of what mattered to me.

 

But as I reflect on my undergraduate writing, I’m also impressed by the impact that non-required writing had on me. The sketches I wrote for my comedy group, the impassioned articles for the school opinion paper, the poetry and fiction that I was able to give readings of in the library auditorium. While the authors mention that some of the MWP took place without classrooms, teachers or grades (131) there’s not much discussion of those projects. Look, I know that I’m a writing nerd--otherwise I wouldn’t end up the host of a show called Mere Rhetoric--but in addition to designing assignments that might be meaningful to students, we can also nurture environments where meaningful writing can take place outside of our classes too.