Grammar and Persuasion: Teaching Ferguson, Missouri

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This blog was originally posted on September 22nd, 2014.

Recently, the students in my teaching basic writing practicum class asked me to teach a lesson that I had presented to students. I chose a lesson in rhetorical grammar, inspired by the work of Martha Kolln, and clarified by Laura Micciche in “Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar,” an article included in chapter 6 of Teaching Developmental Writing 4e. Micciche writes: “This shaping of meaning through writing is intimately connected with a writer’s grammatical choices” (225). In other words, we can understand grammar more critically if we examine a writer’s sentence-level choices, rather than reducing grammar to a basic skill that writers address only at the stages of proofreading and editing. Rhetorical analysis of grammatical choices can foster a deeper comprehension of the writer’s meaning, and can allow the reader to perceive crucial connections between language choices and making meaning.

The sample lesson for my practicum students came from a Stretch class early in the new semester. We were discussing the recent civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown. My purpose in presenting this lesson was twofold: first, to illustrate the significance of teaching difficult subjects that resonate with students as members of a multi-racial and multilingual society; and second, to demonstrate the necessity of approaching grammar beyond basic skills. Grammar in this sense offers more than a series of rigid and unbreakable rules. Instead, rhetorical grammar offers teachers and students in basic writing a process of gleaning the persuasive possibilities of language and its usage.

I began the practicum lesson with my class notes from the Stretch course:

To find details in the language and the words of the text, look carefully at how and why the writer uses parts of speech. This analysis is called rhetorical grammar. The details that you look for in the TEXT also hold importance for YOUR OWN WRITING. Reading and writing are interconnected. When you read, you are also learning important ideas for writing.

This example shows how rhetorical grammar works in a quote by John Dos Passos. Charles P. Pierce begins his recent article, “The Body in the Street,” with this quote by Dos Passos. The article focuses on the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  We can examine the rhetorical use of blank space in the article, and the evocative photograph chosen to accompany the article. However, let us begin here with an analysis concentrated on the most basic parts of speech.

Analyzing the Dos Passos quote for parts of speech demonstrates the significance of nouns and verbs to convey meaning, and how strong verbs convey that significance more directly than forms of the verb “to be.” After highlighting the parts of speech, the students in Stretch noticed the lack of adjective in this paragraph. Additionally, they discussed the contrast between the adjective “pleasant”—and the impact of the majority of the nouns and verbs that convey not only a sense of unpleasantness, but also a description of catastrophe. Describing this sharp contrast helps us cut to the chase.

“How does persuasion work here?” I asked the students in Stretch. “What does Dos Passos want us to do?” “To pay attention,” the students offered, “and to take action.”

In re-teaching this lesson to the students in the practicum, I hoped to advocate for a process of professional development that suggests learning and flexibility at all stages of our careers. Through rhetorical grammar, we can present a system of investigating language and its uses and move beyond grammar as a rigid structure of basic skills. Instead, we can offer our students a means to approaching language that, as the new WPA Outcomes suggest, strengthens the habit of “…composing and reading for inquiry, learning, critical thinking, and communicating in various rhetorical contexts.” We also gain a language for addressing difficult subjects that speak to our students’ concerns as members of a multi-racial and multilingual society. In the wake of the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, attending to such concerns can move us from hopelessness and helplessness toward persuasive possibility and rhetorical action.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.