This week we welcome guest blogger Molly Scanlon. Molly is an Assistant Professor of Writing at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Her research focuses on visual rhetoric through the study of comics collaborations, educational comics, and public/street art. Scanlon will be featured in a forthcoming collection, The Comics of Joe Sacco: Journalism in a Visual World, edited by Daniel Worden.
Issue 6 of Understanding Rhetoric, Rethinking Revision, offers students several ways to think about what the authors call “rhetorical revision” — revising for higher order concerns. Revising on this macro-level involves taking what may seem to be extreme and unusual action to see your work in a new way. In their discussion of radical revision, Liz and Jonathan provide two examples of professional writers and their processes: Jane Austen, who struggled with the ending of Pride and Prejudice and decided the only remedy was a total re-writing of the story’s final events, and Maxine Hong Kingston, who lost her manuscript in a house fire. Like Austen, her revision would re-inform her work, but she had to do more than rewrite a conclusion; she had to start from the beginning. So she incorporated the fire and her loss in the story itself.
The examples of professional writers included in Issue 6 demonstrate relatable scenarios that any writer could encounter. Like Austen, there are moments when we just don’t feel right about our writing, and that instinct is often correct. After walking away, even for a few minutes, it seems we are able to see our argument in a new way.
Like Kingston, we can be forced (or encouraged by a peer or instructor) to start over. Whether work is lost to a hard drive crash or a lack of audience response, at some point, every writer must face the fact that revision is the required next step. But, like Kingston’s experience, this does not mean the previous work is “lost.” Rather, it provides a new way of seeing writing through prior work thereby informing and—more often than not—enriching a new draft. How, I thought to myself, could I help my students to see their writing in new ways? How could I turn the experiences of Austen and Hong Kingston into a class activity that would inspire radical revision?
Taking it to the Classroom
When preparing students to write a rhetorical analysis, I try to keep in mind that students often struggle with writing too much summary before they feel confident in making claims about a speaker’s credibility, purpose, or emotional appeal. How can I help students to see where they need to stop summarizing and start making claims about the speaker’s rhetoric? How can I help students understand that every claim must be supported with evidence from the text or speech? How can I make peer review most helpful to students and get them to think about revising radically?
I recalled an exercise that a colleague had shared in which students highlight summary in one color and analysis in another. This visual approach allows students to see where their writing was out of balance and weighed too heavily on summary. I loved this idea, but I wanted to do something more radical as well: I wanted to ask students to see their work through another’s eyes, as Issue 6 had encouraged.
Inspired by the experience of Maxine Hong Kingston, I concocted a series of radical re-vision exercises that would provide the proverbial cleansing fire, without the trauma of losing an entire manuscript. I wanted to tailor this approach to address balancing summary and analysis as well as supporting analytical claims with evidence. Using formatting features available in most word processing software, I created two exercises that visually transformed student writing in ways they—and I—had never seen before.
Radical Re-Vision Exercise #1: Balancing Summary and Analysis
Using the highlighting feature in a word processor, peer reviewers were asked to highlight a sentence in yellow if it was the speaker’s idea and in blue if it was the student writer’s idea (a claim about how the speaker made her argument). Then students returned to their papers to see their paragraph in a new way:
This was what students had to say about this re-vision exercise:
Students raved about how helpful this exercise was. Seriously. They raved about peer review. After grading the second assignment, I estimate that 90% of students effectively balanced their summaries of the content speaker’s argument with their analysis of the rhetorical strategies evident in the speaker’s argument. For my on-level composition course, that might not be surprising to hear, but for my Basic Writing sections, I was impressed by this growth of sophistication in my students’ writing.
Radical Re-Vision Exercise #2: Evidence to Support Analytical Claims
To complement the first exercise, which aimed to help students balance summary and analysis, I conceived of another re-vision exercise which would then ask students to make sure that their analytical claims had support (a quote or a paraphrase from the speaker). This time, the re-vision would be even more radical; students would re-order the sentences in a paragraph and ask a peer to reassemble it using a template like the one below.
Some students were left with oddly-shaped pieces in the form of sentences that served no purpose; it was neither summary nor analysis, and so it did not fit. This proved helpful for those students who were inclined to evaluate the speaker or insert opinion. The re-vision exercise visually identified where evidence was missing, which then allowed students to identify where their revision needed to begin and showed students that there is no room in rhetorical analysis for their opinion of the speaker or the speech.
Seeing revision in this new light allowed me to develop peer review exercises that helped my students to see their work from new perspectives. The success of these exercises was evident in students’ final drafts, but also in their own reflections:
Because of Understanding Rhetoric’s unique approach to revision, I was able to create peer review exercises that encouraged students to engage in a re-vision of their own writing. The memorable stories of Jane Austen and Maxine Hong Kingston are just two examples of how the visual form of this textbook makes its messages more engaging and memorable for all writers.