What Should We Do With Writing Formulas and Rules? An Interview with Jennifer Fletcher on Teaching Writing Rhetorically

I was initially hoping to release my first-ever videos this week, but it turns out that video production has a bit of a learning curve and video uploading takes a VERY long time. The videos are nearly ready though, so look for them early next week!

Instead, I wanted to share something really special with you: an interview that I have been saving for just the right occasion with Jennifer Fletcher. For those who don’t know Jennifer Fletcher, she is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. Jennifer is also the author of Teaching Arguments, Teaching Literature Rhetorically, and Writing Rhetorically, and when I think of my pantheon of educators, Jennifer is right at the top. Given the challenges that we will undoubtedly face this year, I know that Jennifer will be someone who I will look to early and often as the year unfolds. 

Also, while I have mentioned it before, I can’t recommend her amazing new book Writing Rhetorically enough. It is one of the most practical, thoughtful, and well-researched pedagogy books that I have ever read, and it, more than any other book this summer, has helped me a great deal in getting ready for the upcoming year.

The interview below is lightly edited for clarity and concision; I hope it helps you as much as it helped me.  


MJ: Thank you so much for being here, Jennifer! This is a real honor and treat for me. Let’s start with the fact that you have three wonderful books with the word “rhetorical” in the title. For those not familiar with your work, can you explain what teaching literature or writing rhetorically is and how it is different from how teaching literature or writing is often done?

JF: Thanks for talking with me! Rhetorical thinking is about situational awareness and responsiveness. When we teach literature or arguments rhetorically, we think about how things like audience, purpose, genre, and occasion shape how we understand and produce texts.

In a rhetorical approach, we’re not teaching decontextualized rules or one-size-fits-all formulas. We’re instead helping students to become adaptive, independent problem solvers who communicate with self and others in mind.

MJ: You mentioned decontextualized rules and formulas, so I feel like that is a good place to start. There has long been discussion in the writing teacher community about the role that rules and formulas should play in writing instruction, with the classic debate being whether we should teach the five paragraph essay or not. I found your discussion of prescriptivism to really help me to come to a better understanding of how to approach prescriptive rules and formulas. With that in mind, would you be willing to talk about your view of prescriptivism and how you think teachers should handle it?  

JF: One of my biggest takeaways from the research on transfer of learning is that novices do things differently from experts, and that’s natural and to be expected. We can’t help being novices when we’re learning something new. But we don’t need to teach students to act like novices or prolong the time they spend in that beginner stage.

Novice writers tend to do things like substitute easier tasks for more complex ones, for example, simply identifying rhetorical appeals rather than analyzing and applying them. And they also tend to rely on step-by-step instructions and mimicry. Researchers on transfer talk about the “mimicry stage” as a survival strategy used by novices. This is where we fake it till we make without really understanding what we’re trying to make.

We see this with developing writers who will often imitate the form of a text without fully understanding or enacting the intellectual processes that produce that form in authentic contexts. So when we just use prescriptive rules and formulas to teach writing, we’re teaching students to act as perpetual novices, and this kind of fake writing doesn’t help students make it on their own in new situations where there isn’t someone to tell them exactly what to do.

MJ: I know exactly what you are talking about, but at the same time, we want to help our students through the mimicry stage, which is where these rules and formulas come from. The irony is that relying too heavily on these scaffolds can keep students in that stage forever, like caterpillars that never transform into soaring butterflies. You mention the problem of scaffolds acting as roadblocks instead of onramps in Writing Rhetorically when you say “I’ve seen whole-essay templates that were little more than Mad Libs.” And I totally agree, but, if those aren’t the ideal, what can teachers do instead to scaffold student understanding in a way that facilitates and accelerates student learning instead of slowing and obstructing it?

JF: I think we can teach toward transfer and expertise by scaffolding the process instead of the product. I still use templates and sentence frames with my students. I’m not anti-scaffolding, but I do want students to see beyond the task they’re completing to the larger value of what they’re learning. I want those scaffolds to be pathways to independence. So I try to help students see the underlying communication principles or rhetorical practices behind the scaffolds.

For example, if we are using sentence templates, we can also talk about genre awareness and analysis, community-based language conventions and how they change, and the value of learning from mentor texts.

The goal is to scaffold the development of students’ expertise as writers. Anytime we help them explore where a way of thinking, communicating, or working comes from, we’re scaffolding for transfer and agency.

MJ: One of the things that I love about your books is that they are highly practical. You have a deep research base, but you also have tons of specific lessons, tools, and materials that practicing teachers can use or adapt. Two of my favorite practical sections in Writing Rhetorically are when you talk about ways to teach reasoning and revision—both really hard to teach skills. Your approach to these skills has forever changed how I teach them, so with this in mind, would you be willing to share a bit about how we can teach our students to reason and revise? 

JF: Like with everything else, I teach reasoning and revision rhetorically. We know reasoning and revision are effective when people can understand each other’s ideas. To get to that deeper principle that it’s ultimately about humans in communication with other humans, we need to go behind the scenes. We can’t just be looking at the surface appearance of, say, a formula for constructing an argument or an easy 3-step process for revising a composition.

So I try to show students what it looks like to really do this work, especially with reasoning and inquiry and how exciting and joyful it can be. I show them Ted Talks that serve as think-alouds of researchers describing their own inquiry process. You see how the researchers were driven by curiosity or passion, how they identify their own question at issue, how they discovered the work that other people have already done, and how they tried to build on those efforts. You can also see what kind of methods of inquiry they used or the research process they had to design in order to answer those questions that they were asking. That creates a kind of solidarity with students where we’re learning to do what working writers and researchers do.

Here again, too, is where some of our scaffolds can get in the way. I think about something like the CER acronym for claim, evidence, and reasoning. Reasoning is a process of finding patterns and evidence; it’s not a sentence type. It can be confusing to see an acronym where the claim comes first and is followed by the evidence and reasoning because that’s not the order of operations in real-world research. When researchers describe their process in those Ted Talks I mentioned, they usually start with some questions or a sense of a problem, some kind of urgent need that needs to be addressed. From there they go into some kind of inquiry process where they have to collect the evidence, and analyze the evidence, and then reason their way toward a conclusion. Researchers talk about how you have to collect the dots before you can connect the dots. Reasoning is dot connecting, and we develop claims as a result of all those connections.

This is to say that some of our scaffolds are shortcuts that don’t lead anywhere. They are snapshots of what finished products look like, but they leave out real examples of people doing this work.

I often see the same issues with revision, too. When I was a new teacher, I learned to teach revision by teaching my students the acronym OSCAR, which stood for Omit, Substitute, Combine, Add, and Rearrange. The students saw this as a linear process where they were supposed to follow each step in the acronym. OSCAR didn’t help students understand how rhetorical concepts such as audience, purpose, and genre help working writers make revision decisions.

Maybe this is a good time for me to confess that I’m not a fan of acronyms in general. With OSCAR, students felt that once they were done with the acronym, they were done revising. When you have deep experiential knowledge of how to revise a composition or develop a line of reasoning, you don’t need an acronym to tell you what to do.

MJ: I’ve been thinking a lot about how damaged our ability to converse was even before the pandemic and how it is even worse now. In Writing Rhetorically you talk a lot about this, so what suggestions do you have for leading productive classroom conversations where students really hear each other because I think that’s gonna be particularly important this year too.

JF: One of the reasons I keep trying to write books is I always feel I haven’t said enough about dialogic communication. I teach a form of argumentation called cooperative argumentation that was developed by my colleagues at Cal State Monterey Bay. This approach uses dialogue and deliberation to address community-based issues. It’s about fostering a culture of care and honoring what matters most to the people for whom the issue most matters. And we get to those understandings and that kind of synthesis and collaboration by really listening, by setting aside our judgments, by acknowledging our personal preferences and who we are and what we bring to these conversations, and by thinking about the assets of the group. 

This is how really deep community and communication can happen. I worry about formulaic approaches to argumentation that don’t go below the surface and that just teach students to create what John Warner calls “fakes designed to pass surface inspection”—the kind of academic work that looks good at a glance but doesn’t stand up to the test under deeper analysis. The skills and habits of mind that are a part of collaborative communication are too important to the well-being of our communities and the lives of our students for us to just be teaching students to go through the motions. There is no shortcut to compassion or effective social action. You can’t learn empathy from an acronym. You have to do the work.

MJ: Thank you so much for making time to talk to me today. This has been wonderful!

JF: Thanks for having me!

If you liked this…

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One response to “What Should We Do With Writing Formulas and Rules? An Interview with Jennifer Fletcher on Teaching Writing Rhetorically”

  1. […] But this summer, while re-reading Jennifer Fletcher’s Writing Rhetorically in preparation for our discussion for this newsletter, I came across another potential problem that arises out of the cacophony of […]

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