Rhetorics of Meanings in Acts of Writing: Teaching Students Language
Dec 1993
Soon after re-entering public schools following my graduate program, I published an article in NCTE’s English Journal. Copies of it along with my 2021 annotations can be found here. This is the original draft submitted. 

. . . through the Scramble, the Wrangle of the Market Place, the flurries and flare-ups of the Human Barnyard, the Give and Take, the wavering line of pressure and counterpressure, the Logomachy, the onus of ownership, the War of Nerves, the War.

     — Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (23)

Not very long ago the United Methodist Church sought to place the sacred Native American green corn ceremony in its official book of worship.  Among their hopes was a more culturally representational binding of faiths, that we are all one.  Native Americans who belonged to the church were suddenly divided, however.  The Methodist rendering of the ceremony included adding several references to Jesus, dipping corn chips into bowls of syrup, eliminating the use of the sacred tobacco, and changing the name of the ceremony to “A Native American Service for Thanksgiving.”  Lumbee Reverend Sam Wynn found himself in a dilemma.  “I’m caught,” he said.  “I’m concerned that the authentic meaning of the ceremony has been changed, but at least putting it in the book . . . may bring some new awareness of Native Americans.  And if we don’t use this ceremony, then we’d be completely left out of the book” (Crumm 5F).


I talk to my students about this example often.  At its center is not the issue of cultural sensitivity, but the use of language that has helped support the conflicting notions of culture in the first place and here been used to exert power over one of these notions; indeed, it may be that our cultural wrangling turns upon this agon for words, for meaning.


The vitality of language is certainly not in the study of formal grammar but in the issues that have for many classroom teachers already been resolved often in favor of grammar’s study.  Am I setting up a parallel between The Methodist “correction” of Native American ritual and the English teacher’s correction of student language?  


Though it may be an entertaining analogy to explore, I won’t touch it here.  Rather, I would paraphrase Helene Cixous and make this argument:  that the moment English teachers have become “masters” of their field, they risk forgetting they are masters (1251).  The danger is that we may deliver our language traditions to students without the Mystery that so captured us years ago, just as the Methodists repackage the Mystery of ancient rituals yet in so doing order their original potency and vitality out of existence.  The mystical questions of how words work, of how meaning is made, of how performance persuades, can become forgotten in the preformed rituals of Standard English drills, universal themes, and even writing process routines.  Students are left with the same dilemma as Sam Wynn:  they have a need to speak, but may do so only under the rubric that has been defined for them.


My argument is that teachers and students of language must be philosophers of language, that we must re-examine society’s linguistic books of worship with our students, that a language with meaning derived from a particular culture may best be used to critique that culture.

Lumbee Homecoming Celebration


My composition students in past semesters begin by examining differences in language.  What is it that creates our definitions?  I might, for instance, describe a scene using simple words (a house on a hill in the summer), and ask students to draw what I describe.  Then we compare drawings.  How is it that my description creates such a wide variety of impressions, yet also limits the interpretive possibilities students may explore?  Language, I suggest, is slippery.  Audience ultimately creates the meaning, but always within the borders culture dictates.  Meaning is a “transaction between individual and community, between thought and language” (Kutz and Roskelly 211).


Depending on the kinds of students I have, I will compare drawings between groups:  along lines of gender, ethnicity, religion, age, or geography.  Students are often surprised to see how many similar interpretations of my scene fall into various categories.  During one semester, when my composition classes focused on gender issues, most males drew houses that were haunted or abandoned while most females sketched more tranquil or domestic scenes.  (The animal denizens of the homes varied as well:  males drew more spiders, snakes, and insects while females more often added cats, squirrels, and rabbits.)  What follows for my classes at this point is a long plunge into the workings of language.


The medieval conjuror acknowledges the magical fiat power of words, hoping to recreate his world by invocations.  Language, I would suppose, names our perceptions of the world, and we define it (and our realities) by our needs and our passions, not by a dictionary.  By this I do not wish to slip into the arguments that `words mean nothing’ or that `words mean whatever we think they do.’  These despondent faiths are both tenuous, and I do not want to argue the “true” nature of language here.  For now, it is enough for me to realize that when I discuss the Persian Gulf War or Bosnia with my students, they become solemn and nod their heads.  Neil Postman says that “the whole idea of language is to provide a world of intellectual and emotional continuity and predictability” (Paglia and Postman 52).  Words, then, become the emotional embodiments of our reality, and our placing of meaning in them provides stability.


Would that it were so. For as words provide us continuity, their malleability can also separate us.  Here, I think, is the heart of it.  Perhaps long ago recognizing the conflicts in miscommunication, teachers of English have sought common ground.  We will all communicate according to predetermined criteria, thereby eschewing where possible the potential sins of misplaced meaning.  The five paragraph essay and formal grammar become the practiced standards for writing and thought.  This is a simplification, to be sure, yet these lessons are clear enough:  if we don’t follow some guideline, we will not be understood; productive and successful citizens make themselves understood–they are effective communicators.  


Theories of language can be read to support such practice.  Words, we are told, act as metaphors for reality.  Like symbols, they bring together several meanings simultaneously, they open themselves to varied interpretations, and yet their meanings are ever ambiguous (Kertzer 11).  William Covino argues, however, that “any metaphor is one perspective that excludes other perspectives” (184).   Our response is to ask for good, clean, tight prose that delivers an exact, unambiguous message.  The word “ambiguous” is therefore placed in the margins of student papers as condemnation, never as praise for creativity.

“Students start to shape their own semester focus. Faced with the initial problem of words and meaning, they become theorists, philosophers themselves.”

Forming the Question

From my drawing lesson, however, it soon becomes clear to my students that conflicts in language, in meaning, in interpretation, exist.  As we discuss the boundaries of gender, race, and experience that helped shape these differences, we learn about context.  We learn how words are acquired by readers and reshaped; we learn that how they are redefined often depends on where and when we come from, on what we have experienced.  


Soon after the drawing lesson, we go to the dictionary.  I ask students to define a word (usually an abstract term like “love” or “greed”).  It is interesting to discover just how our connotations of words differ from the tight (but still ambiguous) denotations.  As an early paper, I often ask students to survey others on a chosen word and to report the differences in meaning they find, to identify the multivocal nature of words.  Often students classify meanings according to different contextual elements and speculate how these backgrounds might account for the variations in meaning.  More than one student has discovered that males and females often define “marriage” quite differently.  When asked to guess why, they ultimately turn to the media.


What begins to happen here is that my students start to shape their own semester focus.  Faced with the initial problem of words and meaning, they set out to discover the causes and just what can be done about them.  They become theorists, philosophers, themselves.  They haven’t reached the conclusion that the best communication is through the rigid (but metaphorical) “conduit” between writer and reader.  But more on this later; my students are exploring.


Field research continues and often adds media research as well.  At this point I gather students in groups and have them write collaborative papers in a quest for answers:  what causes all this slippage in meaning?  Where do our ideas come from?  Many teams examine commercials and music.  They ask students or adults questions about their beliefs or “ideologies.” (I supplement these quests with vocabulary study tailored to their needs.)  Then they ask their subjects what product brands they buy or what music they listen to.  Papers often begin with analyses of the lyrics in songs or hidden messages in commercials, then search for connections between media encounters and belief systems.  One noteworthy group paper, for instance, analyzed the McDonald’s “You Deserve a Break Today” jingle.  Supposing that its underlying message was that work and school were difficult and undesirable, the group surveyed McDonald’s and Burger King customers to test their feelings about jobs and schoolwork.  Their unscientific findings revealed that more McDonald’s than Burger King customers disliked their work, apparently suggesting that the jingle might influence such resentments.


A host of other analyses often follow.  Students may write papers on children’s fairy tales, literature, political campaigns, or school events as local contextual experiences that help shape our ideologies, our perceptions of the world.  (One recent paper focused on our school’s girls track team posters.  It discussed the effectiveness of the poster, “We’re looking for a few good women,” a play on gender-typing, but questioned the sexual undertones of “The girls track team needs your legs.”)  Of course, a great deal of preparation fills class time before students are ready for such analysis.  I often have students write in their journals about their experiences and struggles with these ideas, and they often write follow-up papers about their writing processes and any personal questions they have about the ideas they discover.  This sort of meta-writing becomes critical for later in the semester as well.

Re-Defining Writing

By now, though, a new problem is revealed:  if it’s true that our culture influences our meaning-making and beliefs (and this is by no means obvious from the results of several papers in every class), are we merely products of society?  Is our thinking nothing more than the meanings society dictates for us?  Can we be held responsible for what we believe?  They are questions that, once uncovered, fit rather well with the ideologies many teenagers held about their world before my class began.  The feelings of powerlessness, of entrapment, of disempowerment, fall too neatly into place.  The new question becomes:  How do we get out?  


To answer this, I lead my students toward a definition of writing itself.  If we know that readers construct meaning from their own contexts (or that it seems largely so), writers must recognize the contexts of their audiences and find ways to communicate effectively based on this understanding.  They must persuade by addressing the ideologies held by their audiences.  They must “communicate themselves” by helping their readers redefine experience in the writer’s eyes.  


The task is by no means simple, and I can’t pretend that my students express it this way.  They do know that in order to be understood they must know where their reader is coming from, and that they must find a way to use the reader’s language, his metaphors and beliefs, to their advantage.


And they find, too, that effective writing requires not just words, but forms.  


One of my first lessons every semester is my “Letter to Grandma.”  Basically, I type a formal letter that “expresses deep regret at the news of acute abdominal distress” she has “recently experienced and that has found her distressingly placed in a local medical facility.”  While it’s fun for students to attack the absurdity of the language I use, I also demand they justify their revisions by offering maxims they have learned about good writing (“Don’t use `I'”; “Write the way you talk”; “Don’t write the way you talk”).  It’s also natural for them to talk about audience here and grandma’s likely response.  I sometimes carry this lesson over several days, bringing back revision after revision until we’ve crafted a magnificent personal letter.  While the language changes, so too does the form.  The formal letter eventually becomes a handwritten note on a card, often more brief and conversational, with neither topic sentences nor paragraphs developed with examples.  


The points from that lesson (often resurrected throughout the semester during discussion when I point to “Angelique’s Theorem” on the wall–“What you say isn’t important if it isn’t said well”–or another student’s maxim) return manifold in the second half of the semester.  James Sosnoski, in his chapter “Postmodern Teachers in Their Postmodern Classrooms:  Socrates Begone!” found in Harkin and Schilb’s Contending With Words, offers some sample writing assignments that I often follow fairly closely at this point, for they address the kind of postmodern thinking that I’ve been introducing to students.  They address the practice of classroom writing itself and work to help students out of the traps of language.


His first assignment is a personal narrative about student writing and the despair of past experiences.  Often such a project laments the correctives students have long accustomed themselves to and raises questions about what the “right way to write” must be.  As one student said with pride, “[Mr. G.] has taught me not to do what I want.”   Another student began her essay this way:


I, [T.], am not a writer.  Writing, to me, is a terrible chore.  Some people have a knack for it, but I obviously don’t.  I think the entire concept of writing essays and research papers is very dumb.


I have found, like Sosnoski, that this exercise reinforces the community of writers in my classroom; they all share similar experiences.  Unlike Sosnoski who recommends this as a semester starter, I wait on this assignment until mid-semester when my students know me and their peers better.  


Immediately afterwards I teach them the formal (formulaic) discourse model, often the five-paragraph essay, complete with all the types of structural corrections.  (I often require that students here write about the same topic as the above narrative to set up the following paper.)  We spend a great deal of time learning which audiences such a form is appropriate for; I also explain the pedagogical history of the formal essay and its evaluation.  “Out of vogue” or not, much of the beginning essayist’s survival in the academic world (or academic culture) may depend on her ability to manipulate formulaic discourse.  We discuss notions of authority and experience, the teacher’s ability to expose students to new possibilities–academic authority is academic authority, after all, but students are here called upon to consider that dynamic when they write.


Sosnoski’s third suggestion is a critique of the previous essay.  Students consider the audience expectations, address what points they wished to make, and even compare and contrast those points with the narrative essay.  “What happens if I have two purposes for writing?  What if I have four major points?  Can I tell a story in my paper or is that just for creative writing?”  Some papers begin to call the infamous maxims into question or here begin to recognize some solid reasons for them:


. . . editing, omitting, active voice, rough drafts #2, #3 and more–revisions in your class!  It’s frustrating, but necessary.  Now I guess this is stage four and I have so much more to learn.  I guess the learning never ends–that sure makes things sound so difficult.


Fortunately, students have become used to this sort of meta-writing from earlier follow-up papers reflecting on their progress.  


Finally, and here I’ve broken Sosnoski’s order, I ask students to find a form between the first two.  I ask them to write to the academic audience, but to negotiate a form between their loose narrative and their rigid formal essay.  Where is the compromise, or is there one?  Ideally, my writers attempt to define their own places, their own roles, within the larger network of competing expectations of meaning.

“I wonder how we can value critical thinking skills in English classes and not apply them to the very forms we teach.”

Masters and Conduits

All writing, like all language and all meaning, I teach them, is a negotiation between writer and audience, between contexts or sub-cultures. (One female student attempts to explain to males, “Women share laughter the way men share a game of football.”)  The mature writer borrows forms and expectations, adopts and adapts them to her needs, in order to create new meaning.  In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write that:


When people who are talking don’t share the same culture, knowledge, values, and assumptions, mutual understanding can be especially difficult.  Such understanding is possible through the negotiation of meaning.  To negotiate meaning with someone, you have to become aware of and respect both the differences in your backgrounds and when these differences are important . . . (231).


Lakoff and Johnson then virtually condemn the illusion of “clear” expository prose as an answer to communication:


When it really counts, meaning is almost never communicated according to the CONDUIT metaphor, that is, where one person transmits a fixed, clear proposition to another by means of expressions in a common language, where both parties have all the relevant common knowledge, assumptions, values, etc.  When the chips are down, meaning is negotiated . . . .


When a society lives by the CONDUIT metaphor on a large scale, misunderstanding, persecution, and much worse are the likely products (231-232).


Michel de Montaigne, inventor of the essay, said that to “essay” a subject is to explore it (in Covino 247), and while my postmodern stance is less optimistic than his, the spirit of Montaigne’s paraphrase of Cicero is worth noting:


If we could view that expanse of countries and ages, boundless in every direction, into which the mind, plunging and spreading itself, travels so far and wide that it can find no limit where it can stop, there would appear in that immensity an infinite capacity to produce innumerable forms. (in Covino 268).


I have, perhaps, launched pell mell into that maelstrom that the master composition teacher so long ago rejected as dangerous for its snares of miscommunication.  Yet I cannot help but wonder how we can value critical thinking skills in English classes and not apply them to the very forms we teach.  Recognizing the keen postmodern awareness of her students, Patricia Harkin calls for a postmodern teaching tactic between rhetoric and motivation, helping students perceive and analyze the unwritten (and often unspoken) rules culture has placed upon them, even while we teach them (“Modern Institutions”), consciously balancing the teacher’s roles of promoter of expression and of “master” authority.  

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Opening Spaces

I try to shed myself of the “answers” of both the theoretical and practitioner master when I read my students’ writing.  As I teach them to work for the writer’s meaning when they read literature, so too do I make every effort to discover their messages as writers.  Their thoughtful participation in the making of meaning creates more tolerant, stronger thinkers (Covino 62), and thinking students soon recognize both the personal and social dimensions of their subjects and themselves (Kutz and Roskelly 112).  It’s not enough to tell them, “I am the teacher.  Do it this way.”  Their discovery of what so amazes us in our own writing practice is far more vital.


This sort of writing, John Clifford says, “can open spaces” for students to actually affect audiences and structures (in Harkin and Schilb 47).  It helps them see cultures and their places in them in new ways.  Gone forever are the cliched abortion and euthanasia papers; these topics take on new life when students address their opponents’ ideological definitions of life and personal freedoms.  New are essays that are boldly conscious of language, of meaning, and students find different voices altogether, voices with power.  A female freshman writer finds possible answers to the resistance she encountered in the martial arts, discovering that, despite assertions that it should be open to all, “it is basically a masculinity war.”  Intrigued by cinema’s steamy love scenes, one student stakes out local elevators and describes the social dynamics of strangers. Another student titles her critique of IQ tests, “Intelligence Is An 87-Year-Old European.”  Two students collaborate on a paper examining child abuse; their field research reveals that much of the problem depends upon family definitions of “discipline.”  A sophomore wonders why so few movies kill off children; her paper begins to uncover the unspoken taboos of fear and horror.  When assigned the topic, “The Changes I Could Make in High School,” one basic writer clarifies his position in his introduction:


I’m sure this could be possible on the physical aspects of the school; as for the emotional aspects, I would find it extremely difficult.  This is why I decided to redefine my topic slightly–to explain the changes I wish I could make in high school.


He follows by noting the changes and considering the entrenched belief systems that he would first have to address before he might be successful.  His examples include the differences between student and teacher language regarding classroom discipline.


Some of the above essays were fairly standard academic forms.    Others varied according to the appropriate audience.  One student packaged her recommendations for change in a summer camp contract in the form of a letter to the camp director.  When I asked a student to rewrite his paper on punk lifestyles and direct it to a “punk” audience, he jotted down some notes on a Denny’s napkin and screamed his remarks at friends–knowing I would want proof of his assignment, he handed me a cassette tape of the incident.  “Most of my friends don’t read very much,” he explained.  One student returned a semester after my class to tell me he was testing his new English teacher audience:  he wrote one paper according to strict five-paragraph guidelines and the second with a freer pen to see which was better received.


By prescribing limited forms, we hide the issues of language from students and so limit their potentials as communicators and thinkers.  Inquiry into language and writing makes learning not only more significant for students, but allows them to make it their own.  “Once that rhetoric begins to form, individuals learn.  Language creates as it communicates, and we become informed masters of that creation, ever-conscious of the balances and limits on our power” (Chisnell 296).  Or, as one of my juniors wrote in his own metaphorical wrangling with language, “Whatever was below him had a lot of electricity in it right now.  So it left him waiting, and thinking.”

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth.  A Rhetoric of Motives.  Berkeley:  University of  California Press, 1969.


Chisnell, Steven R.  The Rhetoric of Systems and Meanings:  A  Demonstration of Contextual Interaction in Writing and Teaching.  Thesis.  Eastern Michigan University, 1992.  Ann Arbor, MI:  UMI, 1993.  1348898.


Cixous, Helene, and Catherine Clement.  “A Woman Mistress.”  The  Rhetorical Tradition.  Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, eds.  Boston:  Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1990.


Covino, William A.  Forms of Wondering.  Portsmouth, NH:  Boynton/Cook  Publishers, 1990.


Crumm, David.  “Indian Rite Undergoes a Painful Conversion.”  Detroit  Free Press  23 Feb. 1992, 1F+.


Harkin, Patricia.  “Modern Institutions/Postmodern Students:  Is There a  Place for Freshman English in a Rhetorically Oriented English Department?”  Colloquium in Rhetorical Theory, University of Toledo.  Toledo, 29 May 1993.


Harkin, Patricia, and John Schilb, eds.  Contending With Words: Composition and Rhetoric in a Postmodern Age.  New York:  The Modern Language Association of America, 1991.


Kertzer, David I.  Ritual, Politics, and Power.  New Haven:  Yale  University Press, 1988.


Kutz, Eleanor, and Hephzibah Roskelly.  An Unquiet Pedagogy.  Portsmouth,  NH:  Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1991.


Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson.  Metaphors We Live By.  Chicago:  The  University of Chicago Press, 1980.


Paglia, Camille, and Neil Postman.  “She Wants Her TV!  He Wants His Book!”  Harper’s  March 1991:  44-53.


Selected Annotations

Covino, William A. 1990.  Forms of Wondering.  Portsmouth, NH:  Boynton.

In the postmodern tradition, Covino demonstrates his argument for writing dialogue in composition classes by writing a “classroom textbook” that breaks from traditional forms.  Look for no table of contents, chapters, indices, or even a singular exposition of theory here.  Covino splinters his thinking into several internal voices, each with its own agenda and paradigms:  Sophist, expediter, epistemologist, writing teacher, TV watcher, radical, administrator, and textbook writer.  As composition teachers (being whole people for the most part) question the rightness of their practices, so too does Covino offer a continuous stream of thought and counter-thought, focusing his attention on the formalist-objective writing paradigm that simplifies knowing and the classically-rooted dialectic paradigm that expands borders and searches for complexities.  A thought-provoking critique of traditional writing with student models and sample exercises that I have used successfully.

Harkin, Patricia, and John Schilb, eds.  1991.  Contending with Words:   Composition and Rhetoric in a Postmodern Age.  New York:  MLA.

Contending with Words is a collection of scholarly essays addressing the postmodern teaching of composition.  Directed towards university-level composition practice and often thick in theory, the essays nevertheless address key pedagogical questions from the use of small group workshops to Bakhtinian efforts to develop student voice.  The essays redefine the role of writer, calling upon the writings of Paulo Freire, Michel Foucault, Ira Shor, Louis Althusser, Helene Cixous, and recent work in neo-Marxism, feminism, and cultural criticism.  The closing essays reassess the book as a whole, examining the issues of teaching cultural messages or valuing texts, whether writing is process or product, and what can be done about composition course design.  Harkin and Schilb see their text as “an attempt at crisis management” (3) in composition theory, but it also works to keep teaching practices in step with the theories that feed them.

Kutz, Eleanor, and Hephzibah Roskelly.  1991.  An Unquiet Pedagogy.   Portsmouth, NH:  Boynton.

Based upon the controversial work of Paulo Freire, Brazil’s radical Secretary of Education, An Unquiet Pedagogy demands that teachers and students alike redirect their attentions to the uncertainties of the classroom experience, re-examining our Eurocentric and often commodified concepts of culture, language, literacy, and pedagogy.  Kutz and Roskelly’s text combines discussions of theory, ethnography from beginning teachers, and practical strategies for turning English classrooms into places of inquiry that develop real literacy.  I frequently found myself yelling at this disturbing text (aloud and in hotly-underlined red ink), which is more than enough to recommend it to any teacher or administrator.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson.  1980.  Metaphors We Live By.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff and Johnson wrestle with the questions of how we come to understand language and experience.  Their approach, while limited to the discussion of cultural metaphors, is a well-argued and disarming look at how simple statements (i.e. “It’s important how you package your ideas”) reveal the underlying structures and ideologies of our conceptual systems. Thick with examples, Lakoff and Johnson lead readers finally to a critique of truth and objectivism in Western traditions.  It’s one of the most readable texts in language theory I’ve encountered, free from linguistic jargon and scholarly rhetoric.  A powerful book for readers in any field.

Sosnoski, James.  1991.  “Postmodern Teachers in Their Postmodern  Classrooms:  Socrates Begone!”  Contending with Words:  Composition and Rhetoric in a Postmodern Age.  Ed. Patricia Harkin and John Schilb.  New York:  MLA.  198-219.

Sosnoski’s essay holds the “final” position in Harkin and Schilb’s text.  He tackles the critical question of how the previous essays could be turned into a pedagogy:  what is the goal of a postmodern composition course, what assignments might it include, and how could those assignments be evaluated?  This transformation is especially difficult when some of the book’s authors argue that disciplinarity is a containment, that postmodern discourse is destroyed the moment in becomes rooted to any structure.  Nevertheless, Sosnoski manages to offer some self-critical suggestions about course design, teacher-student relationships, classroom environments, textbook use, and assignments.  Sosnoski worries about the pain of inarticulateness, “of not being able to find the words for the sense persons have made of their experiences” (217).  This pain burdens our student writers as contemporary cultural experiences become more and more complicated and abstract.  Modernist pedagogies, he implies, are no longer sufficient to educate postmodern students.

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