RhetConfidential

How to Make Your Writing Flow

When students ask for feedback on their writing, one of the most common requests is to “check and see if it flows.” But what exactly is “flow?” Most of us know it when we see it in other people’s writing—their prose is somehow smooth, coherent, fluid—but it seems that few writers know how to put “flow” into more concrete terms and create it consciously in their own writing.

Before I share my tips for how to achieve flow, I can tell you how not to think about flow. Flow is not a gift that the writing gods bestow on some and not on others (it is a technique that anyone can learn). It is not something that “just happens” without a writer’s conscious intervention (okay, maybe that happens sometimes for experienced writers, but chances are they had to produce a lot of choppity-chop-chop prose in order to get there). And it is not what you feel after you’ve written a first draft and are really jazzed about an idea (when you return to write a second draft, you will wonder what drug you had been slipped when you swore you were channeling Hemingway the day before).

So flow is a learnable technique, and it’s nothing special when you get the hang of it. Yet it noticeably changes how your writing reads.

Some (minimal) grammatical knowledge is required here to grasp what I am about to show you, so before you continue reading, refresh yourself on what the subject of a sentence is. This will come in handy later.

Now read this paragraph:

           For beginning and intermediate skiers, an excellent ski is the Hart Queen. A very thin layer of tempered ash, ash direct from the hardwood forests of Tennessee, is at its core. And to provide added strength and flexibility, two major innovations are used in its outer construction. Two sheets of ten-gauge steel are securely molded to its layer of ash for increased strength. A wrapping of highly active fiberglass surrounds its two steel sheets for increased flexibility. 

How easy was it to read? In other words, how much did it flow?

Notice how many subjects this paragraph contains. Remember, the subject of a sentence tells who or what does the action. Think of it as your sentence’s centerpiece, where all of the attention is drawn. Here are the subjects of each sentence in this paragraph: skiers, layer, innovations, sheets, wrapping.

When there are so many different subjects in a paragraph, readers struggle to understand what a paragraph is about because their attention is pulled in too many directions at once.

Like this:

Image

Made sense when you had to look up a recipe, keep an article to “read later,” and check your 7 email accounts, but a day later… dafuck is this?

The point is, keep track how many distinct subjects your sentences contain. Keep it reasonable and take time to explain your ideas.

Next, make sure that your subjects logically connect to each other.

Look at how I revised the sample paragraph:

For beginning and intermediate skiers, an excellent ski is the Hart Queen. At its core is a very thin layer of tempered ash direct from the hardwood forests of Tennessee. Molded to this layer of ash are two sheets of ten-gauge steel, which provides increased strength. For increased flexibility, these two sheets are surrounded by a wrapping of highly active fiberglass.

What changes did you notice? I changed the order of the clauses in each sentence, but why?

This leads us to a very important formula:

Begin sentences by referring to old, already-known information and end sentences with new information: 

Hart Queen (new) -> its (old). Note: “Its” is a possessive pronoun that refers back to Hart Queen, so it counts as old information.

Layer (new) -> layer (old)

Sheets (new), Increased (new) -> Sheets (old), Increased (old)

Notice how the sentences link more seamlessly together because you help to pace the flow of information to readers.

Flow, therefore, creates a rhythm: old, new, old, new, old, new. Using this model of old/new information can improve both coherence and cohesion in writing: all the parts connect, and readers can easily navigate your ideas because you’ve built those connections right into the prose itself.

I hope this helps to demystify the concept of “flow.” Remember, reduce the number of distinct subjects in a paragraph and connect one sentence to the next by using the “old-new” pattern. And one final comment… for God’s sake, leave this laborious grammatical editing until at least your second draft. There’s nothing wrong with a first draft looking like the sad browser screenshot above. First drafts are meant to be shitty.

Some “nonlinear” thoughts on textual instability…

Has digital media destabilized the meaning of texts?

Tapia would say that texts have always been unstable, nonlinear, and “networked.” I would tend to agree, to an extent. I appreciated how he linked contemporary thought about digital texts to deconstruction, illustrating that semantic instability is a function of previous scholarly thought. He even points to medieval and classical texts to undermine the often heard claim that digital technologies would give rise to “a new kind of man and a new system of thought” (7). Such historicizing work is good to remind us that digital technology may just be the same content put into a different form. The Y2K frenzy is a good example of how erroneous conceptions of technology can lead to wild conclusions about its possibilities.

At the same time, I think digital media makes the instability of meaning all the more apparent as well as more readily available. Literacy no longer means knowledge of the Bible and select other texts; through digital technology it expands across cultures and across history. Tapia, however, draws attention to the fact that some features of digital media, such as user-participation and the increased presence of visual signs, are nothing new. He explains how ancient texts such as the I-Ching were dependent on reader participation, and furthermore, that the semiotic structures of spoken and written language predate digital technologies:  “in the conscious articulation of syntax and punctuation, in the organization of paragraphs, pauses, silences, and digressions, visual signs and their history play a considerable part” (5). This may be true, but it is significant that digital texts have a much wider distribution than certain historical texts did during their time. I’m inclined to think that greater access and greater literacy in general has, in fact, changed the structure of consciousness, if only that it leads to the realization of  polysemia. More and more texts are now consolidated in one place, connected by a network of links and nodes. The sheer diversity and volume of semiotic activities in digital media, arguably more accessible than ever before, is enough to make one a Derridean. Hypertext might serve the same function as “pauses, silences, and digressions,” but it is not the same. Hypertext can be defamiliarizing by emphasizing the “linked” nature of consciousness, indeed, in a new way.

As a sidenote, I think it is incredibly difficult and requires a lot of intellectual gymnastics to determine whether texts have always been unstable. First of all, the postmodern notion of “textuality” complicates the question, because it homogenizes and equalizes all forms of discourse. Literacy systems of the past (I hate being so reductive, but bear with me), on the other hand, vehemently insisted on hierarchy. The Bible was not regarded on the same level as a trading post’s record of goods, for instance. So to evaluate whether or not texts always lent themselves to interpretation requires one to interrogate the notion of the “text” itself and take into account how interpretive strategies and textual hierarchies of the past were different from our own.

Furthermore, Tapia is critical of deconstruction, but no one can deny that it was an important philosophical movement during which theorists became more conscious of their interpretive practices and textual instability. Becoming conscious of something, I believe, is what makes it “exist” in the first place. So did “interpretation” and textuality exist before we became conscious of them? I’m not convinced that they did. Does the tree falling in the forest make a sound?  My solipsistic answer has always been “no.”

Consciousness creates reality.

I think that’s a good way to end my final blog post for this class.

Technology and Ideology: What Are We Giving Students Access to?

Another pedagogy discussion… I am going to be a super teacher by the end of the semester!

No, but really, these questions about technology’s relationship to access and ideology are worth considering…and reconsidering. As Bruce and Moran both indicate, teachers often unhesitatingly incorporate technology into their classrooms—and on an even greater scale, policy-makers do so into their curriculums—wherever  possible. Technology voices a familiar narrative about the “progress” of Western society, and as society “progresses,” so must education, the story goes. But a society that enables the “progress” of the few to the detriment of the many, no matter how flashy its toys, cannot help but carry with it burdens of class. The readings this week encourage teachers to be, at the very least, conscientious when they design and teach their courses using technology. Issues of access and ideology cannot be ignored, or worse, assumed to not exist at all.

Just as we must consider how to meet the needs of students with unequal access, we also must remain cognizant of the values that come attendant with technology itself. Rarely do we characterize technology as anything other than a neutral “tool”; rarely do we consider the ideologies which come embedded with it. Technology is typically seen as a means to an end in the classroom: as a tool that allows students to produce documents, network with employers and other individuals in authority, make purchases (ordering textbooks and software), and so on. But the “ends” itself are inextricable from the means, and must be called into critical reflection. Of course, the “ends” towards which these technological skills are oriented, and the ends which Bruce and Moran criticize, are the maintenance and valorization of a capitalist-consumerist society.

Moran describes his own goals as “Freirian” (220) and according to Bruce, “teachers need to develop critical awareness” (227) with regard to using technology in the classroom. Their approach has a Marxist bent. After having taught and reflected on my own goals as an educator over the past year and a half, I don’t think my approach is as politically invested as theirs. I would describe myself as mildly expressivist with a strong emphasis on critical thinking. When I think about the goals of education, I tend to emphasize the betterment of the individual over the betterment of society at large. Although I am not shy about challenging my students’ assertions and worldviews at every chance I get, ultimately I encourage students to think critically and come to their own conclusions. I would prefer a reflective consumer-capitalist to a blind Marxist ideologue in my own classroom.

In order to understand how our use of technology affects our students’ education, we have to consider of what that education consists. Technology cannot be excluded from the equation. Technology is a tool, but a tool for what? For me, someone who educates primarily young college freshmen, the “what” is helping students develop into self-motivated, self-reflective, and self-determining individuals. I know that the current trends in theory have pretty much decimated the notion of the individual human subject, but the assertion that selfhood is an illusion is, I would go so far to say, damaging for an 18-year-old. It’s not that I think college freshmen can’t process the idea that identity is socially-constructed, it’s that internalizing this view could have negative consequences. This is purely anecdotal, but I believe that my study of poststructuralist and post-Marxist theory, heavily emphasized by some of my undergraduate professors, contributed to my difficulties with being an assertive individual. It’s not that the theory isn’t valuable or that I regret learning it—actually, it’s some of my favorite—but it was hard to see myself as an agent through the lenses of so many respectable people who said that I wasn’t, who said that social/political/economic forces, and not I, were responsible for my self-determination. Women in particular have been told for too long that they are the property of someone or something else. For these feminist reasons, I believe the development of selfhood is still so important for young students, especially students who are marginalized and, often consequently, students of unequal access.

Putting this all together, our pedagogical practices are extensions of the ideologies that we consciously and unconsciously promote. As I would encourage my students to do, I would also encourage teachers to be self-reflective of how their worldviews translate into their actual worlds and affect themselves and others.

And maybe the idea that “technology is ideology” is why that I can’t seem to write very many posts about technology proper. :D

The Natives Are Coming!

I think to a large extent, teachers of composition at FAU already do use a “digital native” pedagogy. We are encouraged to make our classes interactive, “network” students through group work, and use technology in our teaching. The ENC classes, furthermore, assume a certain level of technological literacy by requiring students to use word processors, log on to Blackboard, send emails, and so on. And it doesn’t hurt that many GTAs are digital natives themselves. Prensky makes it seems as if students are bored to tears with their old-fashioned, lecturing professors, but I don’t have much of an issue with getting my students engaged and paying attention. The contrast he implies between digital native students and their digital immigrant educators is not as sharp in an English classroom as it would be in other disciplines, perhaps, and I think younger educators who are digital natives themselves already do use or would find it easy to transition to a digital native pedagogy.

Still, the characteristics of digital native students that Prensky highlights are important to keep in mind, and can help to alleviate some of the frustration teachers feel when they do find their students bored, not listening, and all the other things students do that frustrate us. If this becomes a pervasive issue in our classes, it can be helpful to keep these characteristics in mind: our pedagogy may be missing something.

Another valuable insight Prensky brings to light is students’ need for “future content.” I would add to his discussion that teachers should see their digital native students as not just recipients of but contributors to this education. We need to capitalize on our students’ digital fluency.

For example, this started happening in my classes without me consciously practicing it. My sequence this year is on science, technology, and ethics, which my students seemed pretty interested in. Some students frequently contributed to class discussions with comments like “Did you know they just discovered ______? I read about this technology where…”. I asked one student who did this often where he got his information, and he named a few popular internet news/journalism sites. Science, technology, and current news aren’t really my strengths, so it was hugely beneficial to have students in the classroom who do keep up with it.

That said, it is the responsibility of educators to critically intervene in our students’ usage of digital technologies to make sure, as always, that the information they receive is quality. Of course, we can’t monitor students’ internet usage all the time, but projects like the research paper in 1102 are highly valuable because they provide a small window to teach students about technological research literacy. Many of my students asked why using websites is not considered scholarly. They are used to getting their information online, so this assignment can be useful for intervening in that process and teaching students how to tell if information is credible. For instance, we discussed in class different types of websites, how to find if the website has a sponsoring institution, how to find out of a website cited its own sources, and so on. This led into a discussion about the credibility of academic scholarship versus random websites they ma y stumble upon.

Overall, the more teachers and students are able to align their digital practices with that of the other, the better off everyone will be.

Social Networking and Pedagogy

I have a number of thoughts about the value of social networking sites and technological literacy in the classroom.

First, I am intrigued by the argument that teachers could serve as an “adult presence” on these sites as a kind of “rhetorical modeling” (Maranto and Barton 39). Doing so would require us to, of course, evaluate ourselves as models. Since I have started teaching, a profession in which my voice has a direct influence on students, I have also become increasingly aware of how my voice may influence another section of the public: my online network. That is, my own voice, rhetoric, and presentation have become very important to me. For this reason, I limit most of my posts to social critique, politics, music promotion, and so on. I rarely use it to vent or share very personal information. The point is, if teachers want to friend their students, they need to be committed to serving as role models and thinking about their rhetorical choices.

That said, I think modeling is probably only appropriate for former students—in fact, I am friends with one former student on Facebook, and I would friend more if the opportunity arose—but adding current students as friends raises too many ethical concerns and privacy issues. I would not want my students’ Facebook identities to create bias in favor of or against them, although to some extent those biases are unavoidable, whether they come from online identities or from face-to-face classroom identities. Both have the potential to alter our perceptions of students.

However, my ambivalence about teacher-student relationships on social networking sites does not curb my desire to utilize these sites as powerful pedagogical tools. Educators have only begun to realize the possibilities of social media to serve as a site of learning. As Vie mentions, teachers are generally more resistant to and out of touch with social networking than their Generation M students (17). This is a problem. Some students—myself included—spend quite a bit of time on Facebook and online generally, and as Prensky points out, this increased exposure to technology is literally changing how our students think. If we do not understand how our students think, and therefore how they learn, our potential to be effective educators is limited.

For this reason, I plan to incorporate more technological literacy that uses social media into the classroom. As an experiment, next week, I am going to ask students to post on Facebook about our next reading, Marshall Poe’s “The Hive.” Poe discusses Wikipedia’s role in changing the construction of knowledge, and by asking students to post about the reading—which will hopefully elicit responses from their friends—I want them to consider how Facebook itself can be a site of meaningful intellectual exchange and knowledge-making. Many of them probably do this already, but I want to make them aware of what is happening, since technology is often transparent to Gen Ms/digital natives.

This transparency—the tendency of Gen Ms to take technology as a given rather than as a site of critical inquiry—makes me consider further the educative possibilities that social networking offers as we try to make its effects visible. Technological literacy, as I see it, would have to be critical. I could do this by telling students to find a meme on Facebook and fact-check its claims, which would promote not only critical thinking but also research skills. Furthermore, it may  encourage civic participation in a realm that is familiar and relevant to students.

Still, technological literacy in the classroom can also be problematic. As I mentioned in last week’s post, I may have opened a can of worms by showing my students idebate.org. One student told me she was having a difficult time with her research paper because she, as I predicted, felt intimidated by the wealth of “good arguments” on the site in support of her topic. I think she was worried about originality because I spent the first half of the semester emphasizing it. My former AP students, who were trained in writing essays on authors and not their own ideas, needed that instruction. I was honest with the student, and told her I was struggling with how to deal with these issues myself. I told her to not copy the site directly, and to do her best. This may not have been the most helpful answer, but educators themselves are largely unaware of how to navigate this new terrain.

In sum, teachers and students need to be equally involved and invested in social networking sites. Their education, and our pedagogy, depends on it.

I Told My Students to Remix: Idebate.org and the 1102 Research Paper

One of the most challenging moments I have experienced using digital technology in the classroom conveniently happened last week.

The culprit: idebate.org.

Idebate.org, a nonprofit organization based in the Netherlands, seems like an incredible resource for the 1102 research paper. It consists of a database of current debate topics on politics, science, the environment, education, religion, and other areas which, from what I can tell, are managed by debate “editors” and “curators” (the site prompts its users to apply for these positions, so the digital incarnation of idebate seems to be collaboratively constructed). Under each topic, you can choose subtopics to narrow the focus. The site gives points for and points against the issue being discussed and counterpoints for each. To boot, these arguments often appear in quotation, given by academic sources—professors and scholarly journals.

In other words, the site does our students’ thinking for them.

A student could easily choose an issue, go on the site, and plan out their whole paper, using the claims on idebate as topic sentences for each their paragraphs and the scholarly sources as evidence. How could such a paper possibly be original?

I was completely dumbstruck when I had this realization, but I decided to show my students the site anyway. I was teaching a lesson that day on counterargument and also introducing the research paper, and it was too useful not to. The site could also be a helpful resource for students who struggle to come up with a research topic.

And then something very humbling occurred.

I told my students that they had to remix. Yes, this is coming from the same person who was waving the flag of originality last week, insisting that we needed to keep telling our students to be original. But then I get slapped in the face with this, and I had no choice.

I told my students to remix, take a new lens, and to offer a fresh perspective on their topic. I didn’t mention originality. Sigh.

And the icing on the cake? I found idebate on none other than the FAU library website under the 1102 research guides. Apparently my own university is complicit in this subversive, posthumanist ideology that says it is okay for machines to think for our students… but wait a second here. Machines doing our students’ thinking for them? Even as I write this, I’m debating with myself. The site is a collaboration of differing perspectives, which originate from humans. So maybe that’s not quite the issue here. But something still makes me vaguely uncomfortable, and I’m not sure what it is.

It is true that from what I have seen, the site takes on a lot of the same big, polarizing questions we dissuade our students from writing about in the first place—gay marriage, abortion, the death penalty, and so on—so in that regard perhaps I am overestimating its influence.

On the other hand, weaker students might resort to misusing the site.

So I end this personal lesson on originality, pedagogy, and technology with this uncertain conclusion. Safeassign, here I come. Technology: safeguarding against the threats of technology. I don’t want my students’ writing to read like a distilled version of the website, even if it is becoming more evident than ever that knowledge-making is a collaborative process.

“The A Paper Has an Original Thesis”: Why We Still Need Originality in Student Writing

Theoretical burdens aside…

Students need to learn to think for themselves.

After deconstructing the crap out of “originality” this week and the postmodern subject the past several years of my education, I’ve come full circle. Students need to develop a sense of self before they can start taking it apart. I believe that by foisting on our students the view that their writing is a “remix,”  we are doing them a disservice.

For example, I am teaching ENC1102 this fall. Many of my students came straight out of AP English in high school, where they tell me that they learned how to read analytically and identify an author’s thesis. I spent the first half of the semester working with my students on making authoritative arguments, because many of them were beginning their paragraphs with statements like “In Mary Roach’s essay…” or ending their paragraphs with a quotation from the Dalai Lama. The beginnings and ends of paragraphs are rhetorically powerful places, and I always emphasize that original thoughts should occupy these places for maximum authority. I’ve taught them this lesson so many times that it annoys me if I read writing, even at graduate and scholarly levels, that does the same.

Of course, “original thought” in our students’ writing and in our own derives from somewhere. I am sure there are traces of my mother, father, former teachers, and  writers in my own “original thinking.” And part of “critical thinking” is questioning hidden warrants and invisible assumptions about reality to evince the source of those beliefs.

But I save that for the comments.

Once my students grasp original thinking and how to use authoritative rhetoric, I start to unapologetically question everything they believe. This is a lot of fun. ;) I’ll write something like: “Nicely argued point.  But what about _____?” Counter-arguing spurs students to higher levels of thinking and leads them to perspectives they had not considered before.

But in order to challenge their views, there needs to be something there to challenge. Even if that “something” is a discursive feint.

I think I emphasize originality and the unique voice so much in my classroom partly because finding my own voice and learning how to assert myself has been such a challenge, which I still struggle with. It is my impression that women are not taught to assert themselves as much, even after many of feminism’s political goals have been met. So on the issue of originality in student writing, my perspective is similar to bell hooks: “Yeah, it’s easy to give up an identity, when you got one.” Identity politics are still relevant, and voices still need to be heard.

And the perfect forum to cultivate this voice, after the heyday of postmodern and posthuman critiques of the subject, is in the English classroom: a forum that would not exist without individuals thinking, speaking, and writing for themselves.

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