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Moe, Peter Wayne. William Coles and “Themewriting” as Epideictic. CCC, Feb. 2018. Posted 03/02/2018.

Moe, Peter Wayne. “Reading Coles Reading Themes: Epideictic Rhetoric and the Teaching of Writing.” College Composition and Communication 69.3 (2018): 433-57. Print.

Peter Wayne Moe presents a reading of The Plural I: The Teaching of Writing by William E. Coles, Jr. Published in 1978, The Plural I narrates a course Coles taught in the fall of 1965-66 at the Case Institute of Technology (434). In Moe’s view, Coles’s course and his representation of it illuminate the relationship between writing pedagogy and epideictic rhetoric.

Moe notes that reviewers of Coles’s book found it counter to “the dominant traditions and pedagogies shaping composition” and thus “hard to read, hard to place, hard to value” (434). Moe hopes to “recover, and find value in” Coles’s contribution to the field (435).

Moe explores scholarly definitions and judgments of epideictic, many of which denigrate this rhetoric as superficial stylistic display that reinforces a community’s received values and therefore stifles critical inquiry (436). Moe contrasts it with “pragmatic” rhetorics that result in actions, like rhetorics of the “courtroom or senate” (435). He cites scholarship arguing that the role of the audience in the epideictic is not to act or “be persuaded; rather, the audience observes” (438). In doing so, an audience participates in epideictic as often defined: as bestowing “praise and blame” (438).

Scholars cited by Moe note that the “display” characterizing epideictic lays out “the shared values of a community”; etymologically, Moe shows, the term means “showing forth”; it is the rhetoric of “making known” (436). Moe argues that in performing these functions, epideictic becomes “the foundation from which a rhetor can praise and blame” (436). He contrasts the view that this showing forth sustains shared values with the contention that, in fact, epideictic can “reshape shared values,” and he argues that this reshaping is what Coles achieves in his use of this form in his writing classroom (437).

Moe cites Dale L. Sullivan to present education as fundamentally epideictic because it works to teach reasoning skills fitting particular contexts and “to instill in the student sentiments or emotions appropriate within the orthodoxy which the teacher represents” (Sullivan, qtd. in Moe 437). However, in Moe’s reading, Coles did not represent orthodoxy but instead pushed against it, using “little more than [the] praise and blame [of] student writing” to generate “sustained inquiry” capable of critically resisting banality and conformity (438).

Moe writes that The Plural I tracks the weekly assignments of a required first-year composition course, Humanities I (434). The chapters consist of these thirty assignments, several student papers mimeographed for discussion (ninety-four in all), and Coles’s account of each week’s classroom discussion (439). There was no textbook. According to Moe, “Coles dramatizes the classroom conversation; he does not transcribe.” Coles insisted that in these narratives nothing was made up (439).

Tracing Coles’s lessons through selected examples, Moe writes that Coles began by assigning an essay asking students to differentiate between amateurism and professionalism. The resulting essays, Coles declaimed, were “[t]riumphs of self-obliteration, . . . put-up jobs everyone of them, and as much of a bore to read as they must have been to write” (qtd. in Moe 440). In Coles’s view, these efforts represented what he called “Themewriting,” in which students displayed their understanding of what a teacher expected them to sound like (440).

Moe argues that this rhetorical choice represents students’ conception of the “shared values of this community, this classroom, and this teacher” (440), in which they draw on familiar patterns and commonplaces, believing that the community honors writing that, in Coles’s words, is “well-organized. It’s Clear, Logical, and Coherent. It’s neat” (qtd. in Moe 441). Coles asks questions that push students to challenge the voice of the Themewritten essays, ultimately creating consensus that “no one talks the way this paper sounds” (441). Moe depicts Cole creating a game of Themewriting in which students discover their ability to convert any set of terms‑for example, “man, black, and TNT” (442)— into a formulaic set of moves that are both “inevitable” and “moralistic” (443).

Coles’s project, Moe contends, is to push students to think about what they are doing with language when they act on these assumptions about “what makes good writing” by undermining their confidence in these apparently sacrosanct shared values (443). Among Coles’s stated intentions is the development of a “common vocabulary” (qtd. in Moe 443) that will provide new ways to characterize writing (443). Developing this vocabulary, Moe argues, “serves an epideictic function, uniting the class in their practice of praise and blame” (443).

As part of this vocabulary production, Coles encourages the adoption of metaphors like “sky-writing” or “mayonnaise” to capture the characteristics the class assigned to Themewriting (444). Among these metaphors are the names such as Steve, or Suzie, a “character who ‘isn’t a character at all’ because she is composed solely of clichés” (Coles, qtd. in Moe 445). Coles finds, however, that students fall back too glibly on these critical terms, using them to avoid grappling with stylistic nuances that suggest deeper struggles with language (446).

As the class nears its end, Moe contends that students discover that “avoiding the rhetoric of cant” is nearly impossible, and that articulating “‘another way of talking’” has been the difficult goal of Coles’s method (Coles, qtd. in Moe 447). Their loss of confidence in Themewriting and the challenges of finding a new understanding of what language can do upset students and left them feeling as if, in Coles’s words, “‘readiness with’ a certain kind of language is the same thing as a ‘loss of words’” (qtd. in Moe 448). However, Moe points out that students begin to notice how they manipulate language to create “a stylistic self” (449):

The “self construable from the way words fall on a page” is integral to Coles’s teaching. He clarifies that such a self is “not a mock or false self. . . .” The assignment sequence in The Plural I seeks to bring students to an awareness of how language constitutes this stylistic self and how one might use language in light of that awareness. (439)

Moe argues that writing teachers read student work as epideictic, reading it against the shared values of a community, not so much to be persuaded by arguments as to respond to the writer’s display of his or her use of language to create a particular stylistic self. He states that “persuasion, if it does occur, is a product of display—how well the student shows forth the various conventions of the discourses he or she hopes to enter” (451). This display is the ground on which persuasion “and other rhetorical acts” can take place (451). He argues that the value in Coles’s pedagogy is that he impels students to understand more precisely what they are doing when they partake in this display. Once they have recognized the shared values of the community, they become capable of “resisting them, rewriting them even, through praise and blame” (452).


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Bastian, Heather. Affect and “Bringing the Funk” to First-Year Writing. CCC, Sept. 2017. Posted 10/05/2017.

Bastian, Heather. “Student Affective Responses to ‘Bringing the Funk’ in the First-Year Writing Classroom.” College Composition and Communication 69.1 (2017): 6-34. Print.

Heather Bastian reports a study of students’ affective responses to innovative assignments in a first-year writing classroom. Building on Adam Banks’s 2015 CCCC Chair’s Address, Bastian explores the challenges instructors may face when doing what Banks called “bring[ing] the funk” (qtd. in Bastian 6) by asking students to work in genres that do not conform to “academic convention” (7).

According to Bastian, the impetus for designing such units and assignments includes the need to “prepare students for uncertain futures within an increasingly technological world” (8). Bastian cites scholarship noting teachers’ inability to forecast exactly what will be demanded of students as they move into professions; this uncertainty, in this view, means that the idea of what constitutes writing must be expanded and students should develop the rhetorical flexibility to adapt to the new genres they may encounter (8).

Moreover, Bastian argues, citing Mary Jo Reiff and Anis Bawarshi, that students’ dependence on familiar academic formulas means that their responses to rhetorical situations can become automatic and unthinking, with the result that they do not question the potential effects of their choices or explore other possible solutions to rhetorical problems. This automatic response limits “their meaning-making possibilities to what academic convention allows and privileges” (8-9)

Bastian contends that students not only fall back on traditional academic genres but also develop “deep attachments” to the forms they find familiar (9). The field, she states, has little data on what these attachments are like or how they guide students’ rhetorical decisions (9, 25).

She sees these attachments as a manifestation of “affect”; she cites Susan McLeod’s definition of affect as “noncognitive phenomena, including emotions but also attitudes, beliefs, moods, motivations, and intuitions” (9). Bastian cites further scholarship that indicates a strong connection between affect and writing as well as emotional states and learning (9-10). In her view, affect is particularly important when teachers design innovative classroom experiences because students’ affective response to such efforts can vary greatly; prior research suggests that as many as half the students in a given situation will resist moving beyond the expected curriculum (10).

Bastian enlisted ten of twenty-two students in a first-year-writing class at a large, public midwestern university in fall 2009 (11). She used “multiple qualitative research methods” to investigate these first-semester students’ reactions to the third unit in a four-unit curriculum intended to meet the program’s goals of “promot[ing] rhetorical flexibility and awareness”; the section under study explored genre from different perspectives (11). The unit introduced “the concept of genre critique,” as defined by the course textbook, Amy J. Devitt et al.’s Scenes of Writing: “questioning and evaluating to determine the strengths and shortcomings of a genre as well as its ideological import” (12).

Bastian designed the unit to “disrupt” students’ expectation of a writing class on the reading level, in that she presented her prompt as a set of “game rules,” and also on the “composing” level, as the unit did not specify what genre the students were to critique nor the form in which they were to do so (12). Students examined a range of genres and genre critiques, “including posters, songs, blogs, . . . artwork, poems, . . . comics, speeches, creative nonfiction. . . .” (13). The class developed a list of the possible forms their critiques might take.

Bastian acted as observer, recording evidence of “the students’ lived experiences” as they negotiated the unit. She attended all class sessions, made notes of “physical reactions” and “verbal reactions” (13). Further data consisted of one-hour individual interviews and a set of twenty-five questions. For this study, she concentrated on questions that asked about students’ levels of comfort with various stages of the unit (13).

Like other researchers, Bastian found that students asked to create innovative projects began with “confusion”; her students also displayed “distrust” (14) in that they were not certain that the assignment actually allowed them to choose their genres (19). All students considered “the essay” the typical genre for writing classes; some found the familiar conventions a source of confidence and comfort, while for others the sense of routine was “boring” (student, qtd. in Bastian 15).

Bastian found that the degree to which students expressed “an aversion” to the constraints of “academic convention” affected their responses to the assignment, particularly the kinds of genres they chose and their levels of comfort with the unusual assignment.

Those who said that they wanted more freedom in classroom writing chose what the students as a whole considered “atypical” genres for their critiques, such as recipes, advertisements, or magazine covers (16-17). Students who felt safer within the conventions preferred more “typical” choices such as PowerPoint presentations and business letters (16, 22). The students who picked atypical genres claimed that they appreciated the opportunity to experience “a lot more chance to express yourself” (student, qtd. in Bastian 22), and possibly discover “hidden talents” (22).

The author found, however, that even students who wanted more freedom did not begin the unit with high levels of comfort. She found that the unusual way the assignment was presented, the “concept of critique,” and the idea that they could pick their own genres concerned even the more adventurous students (18). In Bastian’s view, the “power of academic convention” produced a forceful emotional attachment: students “distrusted the idea that both textual innovation and academic convention is both valid and viable in the classroom” (20).

Extensive exposure to critiques and peer interaction reduced discomfort for all students by the end of the unit (19), but those who felt least safe outside the typical classroom experience reported less comfort (23). One student expressed a need to feel safe, yet, after seeing his classmates’ work, chose an atypical response, encouraging Bastian to suggest that with the right support, “students can be persuaded to take risks” (23).

Bastian draws on research suggesting that what Barry Kroll calls “intelligent confusion” (qtd. in Bastian 26) and “cognitive disequilibrium” can lead to learning if supported by appropriate activities (26). The students reported gains in a number of rhetorical dimensions and specifically cited the value of having to do something that made them uncomfortable (25). Bastian argues that writing teachers should not be surprised to encounter such resistance, and can prepare for it with four steps: ‘openly acknowledge and discuss” the discomfort students might feel; model innovation; design activities that translate confusion into learning; and allow choice (27-28). She urges more empirical research on the nature of students’ affective responses to writing instruction (29).