Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition by Randy Beach
In composition classrooms in colleges and universities, composition instructors attempt to combine course design, pedagogical approaches and textbook choice to produce an effective writing experience that challenges students’ abilities and preconceived notions of the writing process. Upon deciding on a pedagogical approach and philosophy, a college composition instructor typically designs a course intended to apply that philosophy, and implementation of that philosophy relies on finding the most appropriate course materials possible.
However, composition instructors are bombarded by publishing company reps with reader/rhetoric textbooks that frequently provide only vague indications of how to use them as anything other than a collection of essays, divided according to rhetorical modes or thematic similarities. The fact that most composition reader/rhetorics follow a similar design model should not be an impediment to composition studies. These books can be used creatively in a composition course. Elizabeth Penfield’s rhetoric/readerShort Takes, now in its seventh edition revised and released in 2002, follows the common model for this type of text. Her collection is a sampling of essays that are divided based on their usefulness as examples of rhetorical modes of writing. However, Penfield’s textbook design does contain unique characteristics that an instructor could consider useful and appropriate for composition classes that focus on argument holistically.
A holistic argument class presents writing an argument as a process of discovery that uses different rhetorical modes and assignments meant to help a student explore one topic over the course of the class. Penfield’s text is useful for this kind of class because it provides an explanation of the rhetorical modes with a specific emphasis on how these modes are useful in argumentation, which corresponds to the holistic-course designs emphasis on the modes as tools of argumentative thinking. Although Penfield does not specifically advocate this kind of course, and the book is not a perfect match for a composition course of this design, the book presents multiple viewpoints on argumentative topics and ample explanation of rhetorical modes.
Some course designs for first year, college composition classes vary in their emphasis on the teaching of rhetorical modes while others focus heavily on strategies for constructing strong argumentation. Through personal observation as an instructor of many levels of composition at several community college and four-year university campuses, there seems to be a trend in composition instruction that places emphasis on argument because of its cross-curriculum use. The editors of Dialogues: An Argument Rhetoric and Reader point out that whether an issue is small or large, “everywhere you turn you find yourself called on to make a decision and to exercise a choice” (Goshgarian 3). The level of critical thought and understanding a student can apply to those choices is based in her ability to understand how argument works and how to use it effectively and schools are beginning to see the usefulness of this ability in many disciplines. More traditional classes that focus on argument do so with many different tools and approaches: in-class discussions and debates, explanations of argumentative strategies and fallacies, and writing assignments meant to encourage students to explore various sides of an issue while arguing a clear position or proposal. What I argue for here is a holistic approach to teaching argument as the focus of a first-year writing class and I look at Penfield’s text as a possible text to accompany that approach.
First year students have a limited level of critical thinking ability and they need to understand that thinking is a process just as writing is a process. The holistic approach calls for a sequence of assignments that build upon each other in the same process that a critical thinker would assess an argument and come to a critical decision about an issue. Rhetorical modes of communication are seen as building blocks and tools for critical thinking to be used in analysis rather than skills to be developed for the sake of understanding them in isolation from argument. The modes are tied to argument and instructors should emphasize the role they play in development of argument in the same way that a spoke in a wheel is insignificant if it is not connected to the wheel itself.
Short Takes is a useful text for a class of this kind because of the methodology and principles behind its design that emphasize reading and writing as interrelated processes and the rhetorical modes of communication as “a means, not ends, and as patterns of organization used in combination, not singly” (Penfield xix). Penfield’s design methodology centers around the principle that rhetorical modes build upon each other to give students a complete understanding of how different modes of analysis and thinking add to the decision making process that underlies argumentation. Penfield explains the book’s emphasis and pedagogical approach as she explains the way in which she chose to sequence the chapters in this new edition. She writes, “Description and narration are now followed by definition because it plays such an important role in expository and argumentative writing. Each chapter [which focuses on a different rhetorical mode] builds on the previous one and leads to the one that follows, culminating in argument, but argument with a difference. The chapter on argument is a basic introduction, an extension of the kind of emphasis on thesis and evidence that exists throughout the text” (xx). That she focuses on thesis and evidence throughout the text builds the notion in a reader’s/writer’s mind that the rhetorical modes are made up of the same practices as argument because they are, at their core, the foundations and buttresses of an argument.
In a holistic argument classroom, the first writing assignment requires students to choose a topic that they will explore and write about throughout the entire semester/quarter. In the first assignment, students research the topic they choose and prepare an annotated bibliography with anywhere from eight to 15 entries. The principle behind this exercise reinforces the need to be aware that all issues involve a chorus of similar and distinct voices that offer unique viewpoints and experiences that can inform a student’s awareness of the issue. This is also an opportunity to explain and practice various documentation systems, a skill often included in the curriculum of first year composition classes.
A holistic approach to teaching argument begins with this concept of multiple viewpoints and Penfield’s rhetoric Short Takes is useful because of its inclusion of essays that offer a multiplicity of viewpoints rather than a strict pro-con approach. Gary Goshgarian points out that in traditional combative models of argumentation, and argument classrooms, “writers take opposing stances and attempt to defeat all viewpoints other than their own” (xxiii), which tends to make issues black and white, either-or. Short Takesoffers several essays related to a theme from which students may glean multiple viewpoints. Though this isn’t unique that a reader/rhetoric would clump essays together thematically, thus providing multiple points of view, Penfield’s book contains a “For Further Reading: Pro and Con” section that, unlike the misnomer of the title suggests, presents at least three essays on an issue in order to reinforce the notion that good argument requires a student to explore an issue from many angles before she can make an informed decision or take a solid position. The misleading title, however, can be considered a weakness in the text’s layout in terms of the multiple viewpoint principle and how the pro-con (either-or thinking) mentality can limited students’ understanding of an issue.
Along with the need for multiple viewpoints is the need for students in first-year classes to be exposed to the rhetorical modes of communication, specifically in writing. In Short Takes like most rhetoric/readers, Penfield designs chapters that are based on the rhetorical modes of communication normally associated with first-year composition studies, such as narration, description, division and classification, compare and contrast, etc. Each chapter begins with an introduction to the mode, an explanation of how the concepts of audience and purpose can be applied while communicating in this mode, an explanation of how this mode relates to the key elements of thesis and organization, and an explanation of useful terms associated with the mode with some terms being given expanded treatment. Because of their foci on the rhetorical modes and their uses in argumentation, these chapter beginnings advance a student’s ability to persuade and convince audiences.
These chapter divisions are useful in a holistic approach to teaching argument since they appear as equal partners in the overall goal of argument. An instructor applying a holistic approach can use Penfield’s emphasis on these principles to explain how they relate to argument. For example, in the chapter on Narration, Penfield explains point-of-view as being able to create an “automatic psychological identification…that allows the reader to look through the writer’s eyes” (48). An explanation such as this one focuses on the elements of description, and other modes, that are crucial to argument—here the crucial element being the establishment of an empathetic connection with a reader and audience to facilitate more readily the art of persuasion—and makes this division useful as individual student’s build upon their existing critical thinking skills.
The second assignment in this holistic course design for teaching argument is a historical analysis of the issue chosen by the student. With this assignment, students explore the changes that have occurred regarding their issue over time and, using a compare and contrast rhetorical mode and method of analysis, explore the differences and similarities from today and a specific time period in the past. For example a student writing on drugs may compare the drug war in America today, post 9-11 and in the midst of a “War on Terrorism”, with the drug war in the late 1980s by looking at legislation, public opinion, and effectiveness. An analysis of this type gives a student the background information necessary to later on make an argument or take a position when faced with an argumentative question such as “Should drugs be legalized?” Along with the argumentative strategies that can be discussed and taught in a first-year composition class, this assignment presented in this holistic design, emphasizes the need for awareness of the contexts within which an issue exists in order to construct a strong, persuasive argument that is credible.
A useful textbook for this kind of assignment is a text that includes essays and writings from a variety of time periods and viewpoints. Few readers can be used in this regard as most contain only a scattering of “greatest hits” writings, writings from other time periods that tend to be anthologized with some regularity. Readings such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”, and Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” tend to find their ways into reader/rhetorics often, but the goal and purpose of this assignment usually requires students to research outside of their required texts, certainly not a bad thing considering the research goals of a first-year composition course. Penfield’s Short Takesis not an exception to the general rule that readers tend to follow: Be current! A recent text, A World of Ideas: Essential Readings for College Writers, published by Bedford/St. Martin’s and edited by Lee A Jacobus, could be an exception to this rule and would be particularly useful for this assignment. For example, this reader’s section on Feminism includes excerpts from Mary Woolstonecraft and Virginia Woolf as well as bell hooks.
However, even though A World of Ideas may fit the bill for this assignment, the problems with this collection are what make Penfield’s reader more useful for first-year comp students because of their reading comprehension abilities and the intimidation factor surrounding the “college-level texts”. The essays in A World of Ideas generally are excerpts from larger works and run around 20 pages long. In a community college environment, and to some extent at a four-year university, this level of reading is difficult to assign realistically. Penfield’s reader, aptly titled Short Takes, though it doesn’t provide essays from a variety of time periods, purposefully attempts to avoid “essays of imposing length and complexity . . . that intimidated and overwhelmed many a student” (Penfield xix). The rationale behind this design, according to Penfield, is based in actual classroom expectations. These essays “Should easily lend themselves to scrutiny and emulation, because most of the papers assigned in composition courses fall in the four hundred to one thousand word range. A few of the essays are longer and rely on the kind of research that students may be asked to carry out” (xx). Though essays that reflect opinions from other time periods are not represented in this text, Penfield’s reader serves as a source for contemporary, accessible essays that students feel confident to approach. Also, Penfield, like all editors of reader/rhetoric texts, includes a chapter on the compare and contrast rhetorical mode that provides students with examples of student and professional models as well as an explanation of the goal of the compare/contrast mode of thinking.
The third assignment in this holistic approach to argument is a causal analysis of the student’s topic. A causal analysis essay allows a student to understand those possible explanations for the factors surrounding the issue at hand and prepares them to build a well-defended and supported argument. Understanding and presenting causal relationships are essential to argumentation. Richard Fulkerson notes, “causal reasoning is probably the most complex of the various forms [of argumentation]” (n.p.). This statement helps validate the assignment of an essay that emphasizes the analysis of the causes of a situation since it emphasizes logical reasoning rather than emotional appeals to values and principles, which can often distract students from objective analysis of arguments. Take the drug legalization topic again. By assignment three a student has researched many different viewpoints on drug use and legalization in the annotated bibliography, and she has examined the evolving history of the issue of drug use and/or abuse in assignment two (historical analysis). In a causal analysis a student might examine the many possible causes for drug use or abuse, which would give them a critical understanding of the many viewpoints of those associated with the issue. A student can make a clearer judgment on the legalization question after knowing that drug use may be caused by economic factors, social factors, psychological factors, or any other possible causes she may discover in her research. Now, after a critical awareness of contexts and multiple viewpoints, a student is ready to take a position.
Penfield’s reader is useful for the causal analysis assignment since the text includes a chapter on causal analysis that emphasizes the use of this mode in argumentation. Penfield deals with how to determine the validity of causal relationships, how to determine primary and secondary causes, and how to recognize logical fallacies. As she does in each chapter introduction, Penfield emphasizes elements of audience and purpose as well as thesis and organization, which can be used to remind students that the nature of argumentation relies on a combined use of all rhetorical modes. She also accomplishes this goal by including a list of “Pointers” for using each rhetorical mode at the end of each chapter introduction. These pointers, which are presented in the form of questions, focus on a specific mode while repetitively emphasizing that a writer should consider audience and purpose.
The fourth assignment is the argument. Throughout the course, students have been looking down the road to this assignment and have been reminded how each assignment prior to the argument culminates in this final argumentative position. To restate: the argumentation relies on a variety of rhetorical modes to provide support and analysis of a position. Often students must define their terms in order to support their position, such as a student defining the word “marriage” in an argument support gay civil unions. Or a student may rely on narration and description to tell an effective anecdote or personal experience that introduces an argument in a way that will develop empathy and recognition in the mind of her reader. Also, a student may classify or divide types of television violence in order to prove that some kinds of violence on television have a deleterious effect on young children. The opportunities and uses of the modes in argument are endless.
Unfortunately, Penfield’s text, while useful in a discussion of argument, doesn’t go as far as an ideal text for this kind of course would in terms of an explanation of argument strategies. Penfield’s introduction to argument focuses almost entirely on an explanation of logical fallacies. Though understanding these fallacies are essential to effective argument, a written explanation of strategies of argumentation would be helpful, especially considering how much attention has been paid to an explanation of how the rhetorical modes are the building blocks of argument. The final bridge between the modes and argument strategy has to be made clear by the instructor without the assistance of Penfield’s assessment of argument strategies. However, even with the omission, Penfield’s chapter on argument entices student thought with essays on personal and controversial topics such as gay marriage, art and indecency, and education. Her “Pro and Con” chapter takes several themes and presents a multiplicity of viewpoints on subjects as divers as home schooling and hunting to the cultural impact of the movie The Blair Witch Project. Her choices show an awareness of what interests a majority of students: issues related to media, education and their own sense of compassion and humanity.
The general principles that make Penfield’s reader useful for this holistic approach to teaching argument in a first-year composition classroom can be found in other books as well, so instructors who have become attached to a text may easily adapt this approach to the text they us now. First, a rhetoric/reader for this class should recognize and emphasize that audience and purpose are important to all rhetorical modes because of the role those modes play in argumentation. Each chapter of Penfield is one step towards the argument chapter because her text design emphasizes that argument is a culmination of rhetorical modes of writing and thinking rather than a mode independent and isolated from other strategies of expression. Second, a rhetoric/reader for this class should offer a sampling of writings from today and the past to indicate that issues should be examined in their present contexts as well as past contexts in order to have a fuller understanding of the factors that lie at the issue’s core. Third Penfield’s section on causal analysis works well because it explains the concept of valid causal relationship in a way that makes a student understand how important causal analysis is to a presentation of a supportable argument. Finally, a strong sampling of argumentative essays that examine issues from multiple viewpoints is important to emphasize the importance of critical thinking in argumentation. A text wouldn’t need all of these elements to be useful in a holistic argument class—Penfield’s text doesn’t contain all of them nor does it advocate a holistic approach to teaching argument—but these general principles can be a guide in determining textbook choice should an instructor experiment with designing a course in this manner.
Apart from its usefulness in a class such as the one described, Penfield’s book has many features that make it useful in any traditional or experimental course design. Each chapter on a rhetorical mode gives a clear explanation of the mode along with a glossary of useful terms that help a student take ownership of the mode by understanding its language. She also provides a step-by-step checklist of things to consider when drafting a paper using specific rhetorical modes. Along with a chapter that provides further readings for argumentative evaluation, Penfield includes a chapter on writing prompts that an instructor can co-opt for her own class or assign as homework assignments. She separates them by mode and theme and includes such topical issues as gender, relationships, society, science and technology, and others. For each theme she provides prompts that encourage students to focus on different kinds of audiences, purposes, and expectations. Prompts for the “Personal Essay” allow students to draw on their own experiences while the “Response To Essays” prompts call on students to analyze a topic using the modes of rhetorical thinking and communication outlined and exemplified by writings in each chapter. Finally, the “Research” prompts challenge students to implement research skills and documentation skills required in most first year courses.
Turning to the individual selections Penfield includes in the book, the title of the book shows the editor’s intention of providing shorter, complete essays that will be less intimidating for students, many of whom are coming into college English classrooms for the first time and from a variety of levels of preparation. Each essay is preceded by background information on the author and a brief discussion of a stylistic strategy that student writers may find useful. For example, Penfield prefaces Daniel Slate’s article “But Is It Art?” on the question of art and indecency with an explanation of the importance of balancing pathos and logos in an argument:
Sometimes when you are writing about a subject that you feel strongly about, it’s hard to stay on the main point and not let your feelings overshadow your appeal to reason. One way around that problem is to distance yourself from the topic by putting it within a larger context. That’s exactly what Slate does when he set up the bulleted examples that open and close his essay, a device that you may also find useful. (283)
Questions after the essay are designed to call the reader’s attention to elements of composition that are often considered when a student begins the writing process. Penfield asks questions designed to emphasize the author’s thesis and the way the writing is organized. Questions of technique and style are also asked. These questions call on a student to analyze the effectiveness of the essay and the writer’s choices of rhetorical usage. Finally, “Suggestions for Writing” appear at the end of each selection and provide useful tools to inspire student writing. Journal and essay prompts call on students to think about the world around them and apply some of the ideas found in the essay to their own lives. These suggested writings also encourage a student to focus on writing as a process since some of the suggestions often call on students to “jot down ideas” rather than write complete essays.
Elizabeth Penfield’s reader/rhetoric Short Takes is designed for first-year compositon classes and offers essays of accessible length and difficulty that don’t intimidate students in the way that some traditional readers can. Various elements of the text, including its emphasis on audience and purpose and how those elements of composition dictate a writer’s use of rhetorical modes, make it useful in a traditional composition class. But also Penfield’s text has elements that make it useful for a composition course that focuses on developing a student’s critical thinking and argument skills holistically. Its progressive presentation of the rhetorical modes leading up to a chapter on argument, and the chapter introductions that show how each mode is useful in argument, make it useful for a course in which students are challenged to build their knowledge and understanding of a subject in order to take a position on an issue and support it with conviction.
Fulkerson, Richard. “General Strategies of Argument.” Teaching the Argument in Writing. National Council of Teachers, 1996.
Goshgarian, Gary, Kathleen Krueger, and Janet Barnett Minc, Eds. Dialogues: An Argument Rhetoric and Reader. 3rd ed. New York: Longman, 2000.
Penfield, Elizabeth, Ed. Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition. 7thed. New York: Longman, 2002.