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Wednesday, November 10, 2004

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Monday, November 08, 2004

Online Writing Instruction in a Post-Derridean World

Although many students would prefer to think of good writing as something innate – or, better, as bad writing as something they have been inoculated against -- the reality is that writing is a skill developed over time.

Writing is not simply a series of talented moves or gestures. To write well requires one to think well. The writer must organize his or her argument and, on a more fundamental level, he or she must be able to simultaneously consider all the factors that go into constructing a good essay, report, article, or paper. Not only does the learner need to be able to analyze and organize facts and figures, he or she must also consider the purpose of the activity.

Some of the questions that should be invoked include the following: What is the ultimate aim? Who is the intended audience, and what characteristics to they have? In addition the writer must envision the writing task from the point of view of the author’s motives, the audience, and social context. Further, in a larger frame, it is important to understand what is often referred to as the “rhetorical situation,” a term first coined by Lloyd Bitzer, a professor of rhetoric whose research interests focused on strategies used in persuasive discourse and the construction of effective arguments. According to Bitzer, a rhetorical situation occurs when an author, audience, and a social context converge to create a rhetorical act, such as an act of writing or speaking.

The rhetorical situation is commonly depicted in the rhetorical triangle. The discourse that is being produced is considered the “medium,” because it is through this that the author, audience, and social context come together, each with a potentially mediating influence. In this case, “mediation” refers to the power it exerts to subtly change or overtly co-opt meaning.

Please keep in mind that the rhetorical triangle changes shape depending upon the kind of discourse being produced. For example, academic writing will be depicted in a different way than advertising.

In the 1970s and 80s, numerous articles were written about the “rhetorical situation,” and it achieved almost mythical status in terms of its efficacy to explain how the dynamics of persuasion work in the phenomenal world. The discussions were expanded with the notions of Jacques Derrida, who, with the concept of “differance,” (discussed in his 1981 essay, “Semiology and Grammatology”) interjects the interplay of psychology and social context, to demonstrate how internalized notions of authority further exert influence on how meaning(s) are generated. Foregrounding the act of interpretation, either conscious or unconscious, Derrida emphasizes that there are numerous factors that bear upon how the idea of the humanistic subject comes into being. That subject becomes deconstructed once its ontological pillars are undermined, and as Derrida points out, there are many ways to collapse those ontological moorings.

With the approach of “differance” in mind, as texts are produced and interpreted, it is useful to look at the activities that take place on the edges of the rhetorical triangle, and how relationships are forged. For example, the notion of identity is destabilized once we realize how it is not an absolute, but it protean, metamorphosing element, which changes in response to dreams or fantasies, social pressure, which can create tensions between the ideal and the real, the flawed original and its perfect simulacra. The subject, which in this case, would be writing and speech, are likewise destabilized by “differance.”

In 2004, with e-mail, the Internet, text-messaging via pdas and cell phones, the model continues to be useful. What tends to add variables are sub-categories of context and author. For example, the context may be synchronous, asynchronous, or a combination of both. What this means is that the realm of academic writing has expanded and that it is more vital than ever for the writer to understand the conventions of the particular genre or occasion, and how they shape reader expectations.

Writing for college is a fairly complex task and the conventions are not always expressed as clearly as one might hope. For that reason, it is vital for a learner to have taken at least one course that focuses exclusively on academic writing. This will form the core for skills, knowledge, and analytical thinking which will be expanded and built upon as the student progresses. Although there is wide latitude in the degree of formality found in writing for college, the boundaries for a particular writing occasion can be very narrowly constrained. This can cause frustration for the learner who has not acquired the conceptual, analytical, or problem-solving skills to able to successfully negotiate the situation.

That said, there is no reason to fear academic writing. The same basic building blocks reappear in many places and are applied in many situations, with modifications made in accordance with the writing occasion.

For example, the basic building block, the paragraph, is used not only in constructing essays and research papers, but is also required in essay exams that require expository writing. The ability to shape an argument: present a clear thesis statement, with supporting evidence requires processing and understanding the system of logic that underpins the argument.

Writing for college may seem a bit daunting at first, but ultimately it is one of the most satisfying experiences one can have. Not only is it a self-esteem builder to be able to structure an argument, it is deeply affirming to be able to communicate with others who have similar goals and interests, that is to say an affinity group.

In addition to writing essays for example and communicating with other learners, it is also important to be able to successfully produce academic essays. There are a number of genres or “modes” to manage. These are either presented as stand-alone essays or they constitute components of a larger work, such as a research paper, thesis, or dissertation. The forms most frequently encountered in academic writing are the following:

Extended Definition: In addition to definitions and descriptions of the thing under consideration, this essay explores how it is that we know. Evidence is critical, as well as clear sentences. Although essays are often “stand-alones,” many times this is section of a larger paper.

Chronological Narrative: While creative non-fiction utilizes this mode in the construction of memoirs or histories, it is also important to be able to write this type of essay. These are used in histories (in history, international relations, political science, sociology), as well as in presenting biographical background and a notion of the provenance and evolution of an idea within a research paper or thesis.

Compare-Contrast Essay: While it is hard to imagine a research paper or thesis centered on comparison-contrast, the ability to write a well-formed essay is important, particularly for essay tests.

Taking a Position: One can argue that all expository writing is a variation of this, or at least incorporates some of the structure. Argumentation and persuasive writing involve careful planning, not only in gathering research, but also in bringing together evidence and constructing the logic that will help support one’s position.

Process: This is an essay which includes how to do something or tell how something happens. It is very important for individuals who will take technical writing courses.

Cause and Effect: Cause and effect essays are widely-found, and they provide an excellent opportunity to look for logical fallacies and inadequate evidence.

Here it is useful to emphasize again that there exists a close connection between writing and thinking. To write well requires one to be able to think flexibly and about the various aspects of the rhetorical triangle. The more cynical writer may dismiss this as a call to generate clichés, and that academic writing merely asks the student to subjugate individual difference in order to conform to a rigid pattern. This is most often presented as an objection when students are asked to submit their writing to automated grading systems such as, or when they are writing for a standardized test such as the SAT that utilizes similar artificial intelligence-fired programs.

However, instead of generating clichés, writing in a mode or genre can be profoundly stimulating, even liberating, inasmuch as it allows self-expression and the construction of possibility, new ways of looking at, perceiving, or conceptualizing the world.

Much, of course, depends on the rhetorical situation. This means considering all the factors mentioned earlier, and more. The following questions resurface, but rephrased in ways that allow conscious deconstruction of the argument, subjectivity, and relationships between the sides of the rhetorical triangle: Why did the author write the piece? What were the conditions under which it was produced? What was the context? What was the goal of the writer vis-à-vis the readers? How was language employed? How is the writing intended to function within the world? What are the assumptions and beliefs of the audience? How does the social context in which it is read and produced influence the production and interpretation of the text?

To appreciate this task, the learner must learn how to conduct what is often referred to as a “close reading” of the text. This does not mean simply capturing the denotative content of the argument, but instead, requires readers to become active interrogators, and to be able to ask questions that begin to reveal the issues surrounding the rhetorical triangle: intended audience, perceived social context, conditions under which one anticipates the text will be read.

At the same time, such questioning will also begin to allow elements to surface, even though they may begin as disguised or submerged. For example, underlying assumptions within the argument that include beliefs, ontological positions with respect to the validity of “evidence,” cultural constructions, notions about how it is that we know (tests of the “real”), and when and how something is considered to have meaning, and/or be meaningful. However abstruse or perversely recondite these concepts seem at first encounter, it is definitely worthwhile to go to the effort to understand them and their implications. Awareness, self-consciousness, an ability to construct effective questions, and highly-evolved analytical skills are as vital for learners in college courses as for instructors, guides, and general inhabitants of the planet.

Recently, literary analysis, close reading, and the writing process have begun to preoccupy themselves with understanding how it is that learners become motivated to write essays. Instead of looking only at form and engaging in a close reading of the text(s), there has been a fervent focus on “situated learning,” and “embodied experience.” First developed by J. Lave in 1998, the concept of “situated learning” suggests that “learning as it normally occurs is a function of the activity, context and culture in which it occurs (i.e. it is situated)” (Lave 192) and “contrasts with traditional classroom learning activities which involve knowledge which is often presented in an abstract form and out of context” (Lave 193).

Thus, to be most effective, it is important to structure activities so that they have a grounding in something that is perceived as ontologically tangible. That can be a person’s experience, current events, current perceptions and beliefs, or a set of activities centered on a community of practice. “Anchored instruction” occurs in a setting when an instructor deliberately “anchors” or “situates” the activity. It follows, then, that college writing learning and teaching activities should be designed around a `anchor' (or situation) which could be some sort of case-study or problem situation. In preparing for the writing activity, the readings, discussion materials, settings to analyze should allow exploration within the essay or text produced.

By establishing a point of contact, the activities are perceived as relevant to one’s life, and also useful in helping explain the world at large. The motivating aspects of this cannot be overstated. Instead of simply checking a box and satisfying a requirement, the students find that their activities help them untangle and understand their world. It invokes Kenneth Burke’s notion that literature (and by extension, writing) is “equipment for living.”

Useful Additional Readings:

Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Trans. and Introduction by Paul Patton. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. The Gulf War was presented like some star wars video game, a simulation of a war. Jean Baudrillard, a French sociologist, wrote an essay that the Gulf War did not happen. Many critics miss the point and assume that he means that it did not literally happen. That was not his point. His real criticism was the way that the conflict was presented. The media was not allowed to really report the war.

Perhaps the American military learned from Vietnam. Vietnam was presented on television many times in an unedited manner to the American public. The American public turned against the war.

Thus to Baudrillard, never was there a true conflict during the Gulf War. America won before the first bullet was shot. The video presentation of the war only demonstrated the constructed nature of the war. War is hell and should never be edited. If it is allowed to be edited, the true lessons are lost. Baudrillard commented that even the idea of peace was a simulation. Saddam Hussein was allowed to stay in power. (Now we return). Having spoken to Gulf War veterans, they emphasize the true horror of that conflict. They are beginning to write about the battles that were not told. – Wayne Stein

---. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994.

Biesecker, Barbara A. "Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from Within the Thematic of Diffé rance." Philosophy and Rhetoric, 22.2 (1989): 110-30.

Bitzer, Lloyd. "The Rhetorical Situation." Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1 (January, 1968), 1-14.

Bransford, J.D. et al. Anchored instruction: Why we need it and how technology can help. In D. Nix & R. Sprio (Eds), Cognition, education and multimedia. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates, 1990.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950.

----. (1945). A Grammar of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1945.

----. (1941). Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1941.

Derrida, Jacques. Glas. Trans. John P. Leavey, Jr. and Richard Rand. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

----. 'Freud and the Scene of Writing," Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978: 195-231.

-----. "Semiology and Grammatology," Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981: 26-33.

Kaufer, David S. "Point of View in Rhetorical Situations: Classical and Romantic Contrasts and Contemporary Implications." Quarterly Journal of Speech 65 (1979): 171-186.

K-B Journal. (Kenneth Burke Journal). Accessed November 7, 2004.

Kenneth Burke Society Homepage. Accessed November 7, 2004.

Lave, J. Cognition in Practice: Mind, mathematics, and culture in everyday life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. Situated Learning: Legitimate Periperal Participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

McLellan, H. Situated Learning Perspectives. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications, 1995.

Miller, Arthur B. "Rhetorical Exigence." Philosophy and Rhetoric 5 (1972): 111-118.

Smith, Craig R., and Scott Lybarger. "Bitzer's Model Reconstructed. Communication Quarterly 44 (1996): 197-213.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Sims, A.I., and Online Writing Instruction

Sea-changes are already occurring in online writing instruction as A.I.-driven programs, video game-based simulations, and customizable avatar-driven chat complement and sometimes even supplant the threaded discussion boards, chat, peer-reviewed papers, file-sharing, asynchronous collaborative learning and assessments of the most popular learning management systems.

Artificial intelligence (AI)-driven programs are being incorporated in the writing curriculum in order the help students become more aware of grammar, spelling, and usage issues, as well as to prepare for standardized tests, such as the new machine-administered and graded essay section of the SAT test. Other AI-based programs include those designed to detect the used of published sources (potential plagiarism and academic honesty issues). These programs can be used in conjunction with conventional LMS-driven online programs, or can be used in hybrid courses that feature some online as well as some face-to-face instruction. Specific programs include automated writing tutors and automated essay scoring such as My Access! by Vantage Learning ( Plagiarism detection programs include ( Intellectual property theft can be detected by i-thenticate (

Integrating Automated Writing Assessment into Writing Instruction

Learners who are having difficulty with grammar, word usage, style, and other mechanics of writing can benefit from automated writing assessment. This is particularly useful for learners for whom English is a second language. Further, when combined with more creative activities, it can allow the instructor to focus on more customized activities. For example, the automated writing activities could be the equivalent of a writing lab, or the kind of language laboratory used in language instruction.

One of the most popular programs is MY Access! by Vantage Learning ( This is how they describe their product:

MY Access! provides more than 100 specific writing assignments and assesses the quality of the writing not just on a grade-level scale, but also in five domains of writing: focus & meaning, content & development, organization, language use & style, and grammar & mechanics. MY Access! gives detailed strategies and lesson plans for each of these specific areas. MY Access! keeps track of the learner’s writing over time to see how he or she is progressing in each area and tracks their improvement.

The drawback is that “canned” prompts (writing assignments) can be boring, and thus fairly demotivating. One way to avoid that is to have students share their experiences on a discussion board. Another way is to make the “canned prompts” relate to the more creative writing assignments to be read by the instructor. This provides scaffolding, and helps continue the trend of “learning by doing.” It also allows some questioning of the automated feedback.

Avatar-Centered Synchronous Group Chat (and Possible Guided Learning Activities)

The next step in valuable learning experiences using sims and AI has been to integrate customizable avatar-centered multi-player “rooms” for live chat, and multi-player video game-based simulations with opportunities for reflection, exchanging news and views with classmates, writing papers that are anchored in the sim or the avatar experience, and participating in peer reviews of papers. ( is an avatar and “world” provider, which allows the subscriber to customize the shape, costumes, hair, and general appearance of their characters. It even allows one to develop costume design, which has led to a cottage industry for a number of participants, who have developed their own clothing lines, then make them available for sale via e-shop and e-auction. In addition, individual players can decorate a dream home. Needless to say, these provide enormously entertaining and productive learning experiences, when situated and framed within a set of tasks and assessment rubrics.

The following screen shots from a “fan site” at demonstrates how players customize their characters, and how the dialogue shows up in the balloons. For the IM (instant messenger) generation, this is a very comfortable way to communicate. The key for the instructor is to make sure that the spaces are refereed and that learning activities are taking place. The instructor becomes the virtual facilitator

“Worlds” are customizable, as well as the characters. This provides opportunities for an instructor to create scenarios, and to facilitate activities that involve role-playing and negotiation. For courses in fields such as social work, psychology, human relations, and communication, such activities can help overcome the negative stereotypes associated with rigid text-and-static image online interactions.

For entrepreneurship and marketing classes, the fact that the designs are for sale is something to consider. For example, one subscriber has developed a line of fashion items which can be found and even purchased at Simlove Designs

Before thinking that this is a perfect place to take care of one’s Christmas list, it is important to take note that these fashions are for the sims, and that one cannot purchase the items with money, but must use “T$”s, which are earned in the simulation, in, and by other aspects of sim-commerce.

Black Dragon Boots: $T3400. is one of the most flexible of the customizable sim worlds, and requires a bit more planning on the part of the instructor than the courses that simply utilize an existing simulation video game.

Utilizing an existing simulation game requires different instructional strategies. For example, one can then require students to form teams and then compete against each other. Or, if they play individually, they can respond to a set of reflective questions on a discussion board, or in a forum in which individuals can share their experiences. For example, Small Ball Baseball is a free sim, downloadable onto a pc via a download site: The game gives players an opportunity to be a manager / owner and build a baseball team that will compete in leagues and tournaments worldwide.

Depending on the interests of the learners and the objectives of the course, free sim games can be utilized in a number of ways. Because the approach is problem-based, there are many aspects that can be analyzed, and the game can potentially be utilized in many types of classes. Perhaps the most universal use would be to apply it to a first-year composition class, where students could write a number of essays, ranging from process, extended definition, taking a position, to a full research paper.

Learning Strategies

How does the use of video-game based simulations, A.I.-based programs, and an integrative sim / learning management system approach accomplish learning goals? Many learning strategies are accommodated in this way that simply cannot be touched in any other way, even in face-to-face instruction.

---More identification takes place when one has a chance to role-play, particularly when they are able to create a persona, and they have choices in developing their virtual identity.

---Mastering semiotic domains gives rise to flexible thinking, and the development of a new “vocabulary” in terms of one’s new affinity group.

---In the virtual space, there is a psycho-social moratorium, that gives individuals the chance to act outside the bounds of their normal groups. Participants can take risks as they role-play, and their real-world limitations are lifted.

---Self-knowledge is enhanced through virtual, interactive role-play, particularly if it is guided by a mentor or facilitator, so that certain learning objectives are met. Learners become aware of their own abilities, tendencies, and patterns to approaching the world, particularly if some of their activities involved self-reflection.

---Situated learning makes connections to embodied experience, and thus connections to real life are maintained, making it a more dynamic and relevant experience.

---Key information is available “on demand” and delivered “just in time,” so that learners gain experience in acquiring information in that way.

---Culture is embodied in the learning experience and the learner gains knowledge and experience in negotiating the group environment.

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