Inquiry-Based Learning

I-Investigate your surroundings, N-Narrow your focus, Q-Ask comparative questions, U-Uncover your prediction, I-Initiate an action plan, R-Research and data collection, E-Examine results and community findings

In my new pedagogical pet project, I am converting many of my classroom lessons into inquiry-based activities. Inquiry-based learning goes by many names: problem-based learning, inductive learning, guided discovery and is often discussed alongside flipped pedagogy and just-in-time teaching. Music professor Kris Schaffer describes how "Inquiry-Based Learning" works in a music theory class.

At the heart of the method is a flip in the order in which information is presented: Traditionally, instructors lecture and then students work on problems at home; or students read about concepts for homework and then apply them in class (a flipped model). Inquiry-based learning puts the problem first and the explanation second--mimicking the way academics address new questions.

With inquiry-based learning, teachers present problems for students to work on before students are taught the key ideas that will help them solve the problems. Learners draw on previous knowledge to deduce the principles at play. They use their own language to describe what’s going on before being given academic terms.

Inquiry-based learning is time consuming because students need time to falter, to be productively frustrated, and to figure it out. It might be difficult to use the method for every lesson in a semester, but there are key places where it can help students in a writing classroom.

1. Turn a list of key terms into an inquiry-based activity.

As an instructor, I have always loved those nice textbook readings and key term lists on topics like rhetorical devices or logical fallacies. The readings give students so much to work with so quickly. But according to my students these key term readings are the least accessible of our course because they cover too many things, making it difficult to grasp any of the ideas well.

For example, I give students a reading on fallacies that teaches them close to 20 new terms at once. My post on rhetorical strategies/fallacies describes how I have amended the teaching of "fallacies," which aren't really formal error at all. This semester, instead of assigning the reading early in the unit, I'm assigning it much later. Instead, I start with a series of inquiry-based learning activities so students become familiar with the concepts first.

At the end of each class period for a few weeks, I take one strategy/fallacy to cover. I choose 3-4 example texts (many come from the examples on my blog) that contain the same rhetorical strategy/fallacy. I give those selections to students and ask them to write about the rhetorical strategies they see in each selection. Next, they determine what they think is a common strategy in all of the selections. After about 10 minutes of writing, we brainstorm a list of their ideas together on the board. At the end I give them the applicable key terms such as ad hominem and character evidence. They come up with really great stuff, and the best part is, it's in their own words.

For example, I gave students the following three selections:
  • I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. (Martin Luther King Jr., preacher and civil rights activist, “I Have A Dream” at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC 8-26-1963) 
  • Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. (George W. Bush, 43rd US President, Address to a Joint Sessions of Congress and the American People 9-20-2001) 
  • If Illinois’ income tax rates decline as scheduled at the end of this year, the resulting revenue collapse will threaten the state’s economic recovery, curtail the ability to support vital investments, and create more uncertainty over how the state will meet its many obligations. (David Lloyd, Report for Fiscal Policy Center at Voices for Illinois Children, 2013-2014) 

And here's how they described the rhetorical strategy that each uses:

  • The authors try to create strong ethical stances. 
  • They want to promote change. 
  • They pressure the reader to do something. 
  • There's shock value and fear. 
  • It's an ultimatum. 
  • If you disagree, you're uncaring. You have to agree to be good 
  • They are not questioning if there is a problem, but stating that there is. It's difficult to disagree. 
  • There is choice, but only two: one is good and one is bad. So really there is no choice. 

Finally I define for them juxtaposition and either-or fallacy. By the end of the few weeks, students have created their own language to understand common rhetorical forms and they’ve come up with guidelines for when these strategies succeed and fail. That's when I finally assign the reading on strategies and fallacies over two nights homework.

2. Teach writing principles through example.

Many composition instructors already use model papers and student examples liberally in class, so here the only tweek is to present those models of thesis statements and topic sentences before describing to students the components of good writing.

The textbook How Writing Works gives students a starting point for discovering the principles of a genre. First, you gather a handful of examples from the same category and then answer 3 overarching questions: 1) What is the genre? 2) Who reads the genre? 3) What is the genre for? (Jack & Pryal)

This order gives you the opportunity to talk about reader's expectations using students' actual responses. Depending on your students' level of academic preparedness, you might not get the answers you "want." But that result is not something to be feared. With this style of teaching, you want to start from students understanding especially when it doesn't match with the instructors.

So, if students say that this thesis statement is weak because it's more than one sentence or it uses "I," you can explain how college writing is different than high school. (See my post on rhetorical pronouns for help on the "I" issue.) You can discuss the context and the rhetorical situation to show students new guidelines that might conflict with old writing truisms.

3. Make grammar exercises a guided discovery.

Composition research has long taught scholars that a list of errors does not improve students writing. Inquiry-based learning can still help students zero in on certain problems, but it also mimics how writers use these skills in proofreading.

For example, if students are having an issue with commas, I could create a lesson in which students look at 5 or 6 sentences all using words in a series--some with correct comma usage and others with incorrect comma usage. Students identify which are correct and then fix the incorrect sentences.

Recently my technical writing students reported that they wanted to work on conciseness. I developed an inquiry-based exercise to help them identify 8 common problems that create wordiness.

4. Present theoretical concepts as problems to be solved.

The most fun day in my composition course each semester is also the day I teach our most advanced theoretical concept: intertextuality. I describe the lesson in my post on intertextuality, but I'll summarize it here. In 1932, Vanity Fair published an experimental story called "Ordeal by Cheque," which included just a list of checks written from the wealthy fictional Exeter family. I ask students to write the narrative they think that the checks depict, to tell the "story" in a bullet point chronology.

We then map our stories on the board, and find a lot of similar assumptions. They interpret flowers and lingerie purchases as an affair. They view a car repair bill and military school tuition as evidence that the spoiled rich kid needs to be straightened out. They say that Toni Spagoni, to whom several large sum checks are written, is a mob boss, bookie, or drug dealer.

Next, I have them write for 10 minutes on this prompt: How did you figure out what happened? Below are the things they came up with last semester. When you start to compile their observations about making meaning, you get a list that looks a lot like the characteristics of intertextuality.

Thinking of Other Narratives
  • “I kept thinking of books and movies like The Great Gatsby.” 
  • “I was relying on my schema, things I’ve seen, like Tony Soprano.” 
  • “A lot comes from the media. When I see flowers and France, I think mistress. I think of seeing that on tv and made connections." 

Recalling Stereotypes
  • “I was basing all my assumptions on things I was familiar with--stereotypes and storylines.” 
  • “I looked at the small details. I saw Daisy’s name and a boy’s school, and thought of a marriage and a spoiled rich boy.” 
  • “A lot of people, when they see rich, affluent areas, they think of corruption. They have stereotypes. 

Putting Ideas in Context
  • “We all made connections. We tried to see if two things are alike. So when I saw a hospital plus baby clothes, I knew a baby was born. A ring + $50K was a wedding.” 
  • “I took 2 or 3 checks together and thought what’s going on between these and filled in the blanks.” 
  • “Context clues and reasonable deduction. Seeing what happened before and after can establish cause & effect and sequencing.” 
  • “I would look forward at future checks and then come back." 

Inquiry-based learning stimulates curiosity and energy in the writing classroom. I'd love to hear more about the lessons you create!

Easy Video Captioning in PowerPoint

As a practitioner of flipped pedagogy, I've been moving more of my short lectures to video format, so that students can view them before class. Then we can jump right into working on texts and problems in class. Screen-capturing a PowerPoint is one way to do this.

To make the videos fully accessible to learners who are deaf and hard of hearing, I am adding closed-captioning. A transcript really can't do the trick because it forces readers to go back and forth between texts.

Captioning can be added to videos after they are complete in Wevideo online editor, in Vimeo, or in PowerPoint, among other options. But I found that for me an even easier way was to add captioning BEFORE I created the video, and then to use the captioning as my script as a I discuss the slides.

Adding Captioning Before Capturing Video

1. On a slide, create a plain text box. Format it's background color to black and the text color to white.

2. Move it to the bottom of the slide, so that you can ensure it doesn't block other visual information.

3. Select and copy that box. Paste it on every slide in which you will be recording your voice.

4. Add your typed text to each box.

5. You'll want about 3 lines of text max on each slide, so if you need more, duplicate the slide and continue with new text. When the video plays, it will seamlessly continue without creating a blip between the two slides that are identical save the captioning text.

6. Begin your screencast (you can use software such as QuickTime on Mac or Screencast-O-Matic online). As you flip through the PowerPoint slides on your screen, you will be able to read the captioning like a script.

Example Video with Text Box Captioning

Alternative Text

Resources on Alt Text

When creating alt text, Bryan Gould of the National Center for Accessible Media suggests asking three questions:
  1. Why is the image there? 
  2. Who is the intended audience? 
  3. If there is no description what will the viewer miss? 
This third question, he points out, does not imply that alt text should include every visual detail, but rather that it should include the most important concepts. The STEM description guidelines he summarizes suggest that alt text be brief and focused on data, not extraneous visual details. 

Obviously, the rhetorical situation dictates the type of description necessary: for an image that will be the subject of class analysis, more detail would be necessary. Moving from general description to specifics in most cases allows readers to choose whether to go further and deeper in the same way a visual reader can. Finally, Gould suggests asking someone who has not seen the image to review the description.

Alt Text Example (with Revisions)

I recently created alternative text for an image that will be included in a forthcoming article. I solicited assistance from colleagues to determine whether the text describes the visual in a clear way. I charted my process of revision as a record for others:

Figure 1: Rhetorical Strategies Can Succeed and Fail.

The image presents 6 individual Venn diagrams, each labeled with a set of rhetorical strategies and rhetorical fallacies. Each Venn diagram consists of two side-by-side circles that overlap, layered on top of one another so that they share a middle space while each circle also retains an individual outer space.

Within the 2 overlapping circles of the Venn diagrams, one is labeled with a rhetorical strategy term and the other is labeled with the corresponding rhetorical fallacy term.

These paired terms include: 1) valid generalization and hasty generalization, 2) strong pathos and faulty emotional appeal, 3) useful common values and ad populum, 4) reasonable series of related claims and slippery slope, 5) stating argument persuasively and straw man, and 6) justifiably unstated assumptions and begging the question.

The images ^circles are in blue with black text.

Click here for corresponding image.

Things I Learned

1. As I revised my alternative text, the more precise/specific my language was, the clearer readers found it. For example, instead of "images" in the final line, I needed to say "circles."

2. It was useful to make the first sentence sum up the image succinctly, and then expound on the finer points in later sentences. Because the article already discusses the venn diagram in depth, it made sense that some readers might hear the first sentence and then want to move on.

3. I considered how my students might discuss this image in class. If they referred to "the blue circles" would students who used screen readers know what others were referring to? People often use this kind of visual short hand in conversation. So, I wanted to include these details about color at the end of the description.  

4. More isn't always better. Sometimes I included adjectives that actually made the text more confusing. My readers suggested I remove "overlapping" and "paired" as shown in the struck-through words in the description. These terms were redundant from my earlier point about how venn diagram circles overlap and seemed confusing on their own.

Rhetorical Pronouns & Naming

I created the following reading for advanced rhetoric classes. It addresses several dimensions of small, seemingly insignificant words like pronouns, including the ways these terms embody ethos, agency, power, and gender identity.

At the end, it also examines the conventions of using pronouns, particularly "I," in academic writing.

Pronouns Defined

Pronouns. Subject Pronouns include I, You, He, She, It, We, You, They. Object Pronouns include: me, you, him, her, it, us, you, them. Possessive Adjectives include: my,you, his, her, its, our, your, their. Possessive pronouns include: mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, yours, theirs.Simple Definition: A word that stands in place of a noun

Oxford English Dictionary: a word that can function by itself as a noun phrase and that refers either to the participants in the discourse (e.g., I, you) or to someone or something mentioned elsewhere in the discourse (e.g., she, it, this).

These simple definitions can lead to more complex rhetorical questions like:
  • Why would an author choose a pronoun to stand in place for a noun?
  • How are specific pronouns chosen?
  • Who is included in pronouns?
  • What identities do pronouns name?

Pronouns Convey Ethos & Agency

Pronouns are keys to ethos (more on ethos in my appeals lesson). Anytime an author uses a first person pronoun (I, we, etc.) they draw attention to their position and persona. By using "I," a person claims an individual stance, while "we" groups people together. This inclusive gesture can form community, as in the common example "We the people." It can also make dissenters resistant, as when women and people of color have suggested that "we the people" historically applied only to white men. Consider common resistant responses such as "What we?" or "Who do you mean we?" These replies suggest that the speaker has overstepped their bounds in describing the views of others.

Sometimes pronouns purposefully distance others to construct the speaker's ethos as different. These moves might be politically or racially motivated, as when one group refers to another group of people as "them" or "those people." Here the pronoun itself becomes a type of stereotype. Disidentifying with these others then tells the audience about the values of the speaker.

Removing "I" can hide responsibility, as in "the test kicked my ass," which removes agency from the student who performed poorly to instead blame the test.

Other times "I" is present, but the order of words still diverts attention from the human actor. Consider Ted Kennedy's "Address to the People of Massachusetts on Chappaquiddick" after he drove a car off a bridge, leading to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. He describes the scene:
"Little over one mile away, the car that I was driving on an unlit road went off a narrow bridge which had no guard rails and was built on a left angle to the road." 

He recognizes he was driving the car--to do otherwise could look evasive--but still he does not say "I drove a car off a bridge." Rather he shifts agency to the car along with the light and bridge, each given significant adjectives: "unlit," "narrow," etc. The headline at right uses the possession form, "Kennedy Car," instead of saying Kennedy drove. Descriptions of the lesser known Kopechne as "Blonde" and "Jersey Girl" stand-in for her actual name, and could make for fruitful class discussions as well.

Pronouns Convey Power

An obvious way that pronouns convey power is through possession and command. Using "my" is a claim to ownership: "my children," "our car." And commands often use the implied you. "Go home;" "Take out the trash."

Getting to choose which pronouns to use is itself a powerful position.  Diann Baecker analyzes the pronouns used in university syllabi, for example. She finds that "you" is the most prominent, but she also suggests instructors tend to mask power by using "we." She cites research by Mühlhäusler and Harré that states, “We spreads the responsibility . . . We is a rhetorical device that allows the speaker(s) to distance themselves from whatever is being said, thus making it appear more palatable because it appears to come from the group as a whole rather than a particular individual” (Baecker 59).

She continues: "The pronoun we is an example of an ambiguous marker of power, which can be used both to indicate solidarity or community and as a means to coerce the audience into behavior that benefits the speaker. . . .there are specific rules for determining who can use the royal we and who must remain with the solitary I.” (Baecker 59).

When you use pronouns for yourself, they can even convey something about your mental state and your level of power. In "Your Use of Pronouns Reveals Your Personality," James Pennebaker describes research that examines "I" as a sign of self-focus. He argues that "Depressed people use the word “I” much more often" as well as "people who are lower in status."

Pronouns Convey Gender Identity

Because there is power in assigning and accepting particular pronouns, it should come as no surprise that they affect the identities they name. Pronouns convey deep assumptions about gender in English. Using "he" as a default pronoun to suggest multiple genders, for example, can alienate many people.

Automatically using "he" can lead to wrong conclusions too. When students analyze texts in my classes, for example, many start out using "he," assuming an author is a man without checking.  The pronoun usage here conveys deep cultural assumptions about who we believe an author to be. I purposefully give students a text written by a woman on our first day so that they make this common mistake, which allows me to reveal this cultural bias.

If we don't know the gender of an author or speaker, the best choice is to go with the singular "they." Students can follow the guidelines for gender-fair language. This website on making language gender neutral also provides useful examples.

Singular they is also the preferred pronoun of many people who are nonbinary, gender fluid, genderqueer and agender. Choosing the gender of our pronouns allows all of us to define our identities in important ways, so it is absolutely crucial to use the pronouns each person designates.

Traditional views about grammar do not supercede people's identities. Language is not static, and these "rules" change. They/them are now accepted singular pronouns grammatically and more importantly important identity-marking terms. There may be even more change in the future--for example, pronouns, such as ze and zir have also been created by LGBTIQA activists. I plan to follow  The Pronoun Project and to learn from individuals telling me their pronouns.

Pronouns in Academic Writing

Academic disciplines have certain conventions for using (or not using) pronouns. Scientists for example avoid "I" more than humanists, instead using passive voice to elide the human actor. (This is not always the case, and looking at many scientific journals shows that the "Don't use I" generalization isn't universal.) In this way, they shift focus from the individual experimenter and onto the scientific process.  By implying that any one who has done what's been done would achieve the same results, scientists reinforce the crucial ideology of their discipline: replicable results. So, even without an "I" statement they embed values and ethos.

Sometimes speakers more generally remove "I" to make opinions seem facts. "Abortion is evil." or "The death penalty is evil." These statements are judgments, and hotly contested ones, but by removing "I believe" from the beginning they seem to carry more weight than just one person's opinion. And, in fact, hearing "I believe" throughout a student essay anytime there was an opinion would weaken the paper.

In another field, one technical writing textbook recommends You-Centered Pronouns because they create "an audience centered-tone" that "foregrounds the reader's needs, preferences, and benefits." They continue: "Because the reader’s interest or benefit is stressed, the writer is more likely to help the reader understand information or act on a request." They focus on the genres of memos and manuals, which need to reach the reader in a particular way that will lead to action. These differing preferences for pronouns demonstrate that purpose in writing and analyzing pronouns is key.

Can I Use "I" in Writing?

Because "I" is often limited in several academic genres, student writers are often surprised to hear that they are "allowed" to use "I" in their papers. Many high-school teachers, in fact, forbid the word. I explain to students that like many skills, they will be deepening their writing practices in college. High-school teachers had good reasons to discourage first-person, but college writers must learn to use it effectively.

Why high-school teachers discourage first-person:

  1. Young writers often use "I" too frequently and repetitively.

  2. Using "I" can limit the scope of a claim: saying "I believe" might lead a student to think they don't need evidence for the claim because they have only stated a personal belief. 

  3. Student writers need to learn to consider their audience, to think outside themselves. Statements like "I believe" draw focus from the audience to place it on the author.

Why college students need to learn how to use first-person effectively:

  1. There is always an "I" in writing. In other words, texts always come from a certain person, perspective, and bias. Avoiding "I" cannot erase that situatedness.

  2. Using "I" can demonstrate your original contribution to a subject. Stating "I argue" is a common way to create a thesis because it explicitly tells the audience what the paper will assert.

  3. Authors can purposefully shift focus to themselves as a persuasive method.

  4. Using "I" can create strong and direct sentence structure (e.g. I analyzed the language of The New York Times.). In contrast, avoiding "I" can sometimes create cumbersome prose (e.g. The language of The New York Times article was analyzed.) 


Bing, Janet. "Killing Us Softly: Ambiguous Markers of Power and Solidarity." Cultural Performances: Proceedings of the Third Berkeley Women and Language Conference. April 1994. 44-49.

Baecker, Diann L. “Uncovering the Rhetoric of the Syllabus: The Case of the Missing I.” College Teaching 46.2 (1998): 58-62.

Fahnestock, Jeanne. "Pronouns." Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 279-91.

Mühlhäusler, Peter and Rom Harré, Pronouns and People: The Linguistic Construction of Social and Personal Identity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

Metaphors for the Mind

In my current composition course on reading metaphors, students identify metaphors and conceptual sets in our culture. In this lesson on metaphors of the mind, we work to historicize these metaphors somewhat as well.

Directions: First, name the metaphor in the following quotes: the mind equals what? Next, analyze and critique the metaphors. What does the metaphor usefully tell us about the mind? What does it problematically imply about the mind?

At the end, consider all the metaphors as a type of set, a conceptual metaphor as George Lakoff calls them. More generally, what two things are compared in all of these examples. What is the A = B for the overall set?

Now, think about these metaphors in their historical context, what do you notice about each individual metaphor and the context in which it was created? In other words, why these particular metaphors at these particular times? Can you make a larger statement or argument about how people create metaphors of the mind?

1. Galen, physician and scientist during Roman Empire, 200 A.D. (quote from  Rebecca Schwarzlose "Modernity, Madness, and the History of Neuroscience")

“pneuma fills the brain cavities called ventricles and circulates through pathways in the brain and nerves in the body just as water flows through a tube”

2. Julien Ofray de La Mettrie, L’Homme Machine, 1747

On the human brain and body: “a machine that winds its own springs—the living image of perpetual motion . . . man is an assemblage of springs that are activated reciprocally by one another”

3. Metaphor popular during the Industrial Revolution, usually dated as approximately 1760-1820; quote from Nicholas Carr The Shallows

There was a “metaphor that represented the brain as a mechanical contraption. Like a steam engine or an electric dynamo, the nervous system was made up of many parts, and each had a specific and set purpose that contributed in some essential way to the successful operation of the whole.”

4. Allen Newell, Herbert A. Simon, and John C. Shaw “Empirical Explorations of the Logic Theory Machine” (352), 1964

They describe a “functional equivalence between brains and computers . . . Our theory is a theory of the information processes involved in problem-solving and not a theory of neural or electronic mechanisms.”

5. Christiane Paul, “Neural Networks vs. Computer-Networked Environments” 2002

The neural network of the brain exhibits the same fundamental structure as that of social or computer networks. The brain can be understood as an assembly of distinct modules, each of them responsible for different tasks, such as speech, language, vision. In neuroscience labs, magnetic resonance imaging techniques — which use radio waves to probe the pattern of blood flow in the brain, revealing how much oxygen its various parts are using at any moment — are used to see these modules in action. This process reflects the level of neural activity.

6. Lisa Feldman Barrett, "How to Become a 'Superager'" The New York Times 2016

The triune brain became (and remains) popular in the media, the business world and certain scientific circles. But experts in brain evolution discredited it decades ago. The human brain didn’t evolve like a piece of sedimentary rock, with layers of increasing cognitive sophistication slowly accruing over time. Rather (in the words of the neuroscientist Georg Striedter), brains evolve like companies do: they reorganize as they expand. Brain areas that Dr. MacLean considered emotional, such as the regions of the “limbic system,” are now known to be major hubs for general communication throughout the brain. They’re important for many functions besides emotion, such as language, stress, regulation of internal organs, and even the coordination of the five senses into a cohesive experience.

Statistics in the Rhetoric Classroom

Students might come to my class thinking that numbers and studies can stand on their own, that they are objective and not argumentative. I try to teach them, though, that raw data must be interpreted and that interpreting always requires a person who is situated, biased, flawed, and emotional.

I want students to learn the critical thinking skills necessary to look at logos, determine how rhetorically valid it is, and to analyze its rhetorical presentation.

We Give Numbers Meaning

Often students assume that argument does not function within fields that strive toward objectivity like math. Each time their worldview is challenged in a way that suggests a more subjective and mediated reality, many invoke the comfort of cold, hard numbers to suggest that there is still factual knowable truth in the world: “1+1 is still 2.” In response, I quote famed statistician Nate Silver who writes in The Signal and the Noise, “The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them. We imbue them with meaning” (9).

I explain that numbers, while "true," have little value until they are brought into the world—until the minus sign means a withdrawal from your checking account, until three equals the number of pizza slices you have for lunch, or until the flu virus spreads exponentially in your city. These are the types of problems that students can evaluate with rhetoric because understanding and using facts requires interpretation.

Culture Affects Numbers

For advanced rhetoric classes, I explain that even with a closed-system like math, the rules are not created in a neutral vacuum. Language changes affect numbers: "regrouping" is now the term for "borrowing" in subtraction, my friends teaching elementary school tell me. The way we interpret numbers also depends on culture. Our base 10 system groups items based on increments of ten—it takes ten ones to push a number over into the tens column and ten groups of ten to overflow into the next column to the left, the hundreds. There are symbols available for 1-9, but after that a single column can contain no more. Students assume this is the only way; doesn’t it “naturally” make sense: grade school children counting on their ten little fingers?

In reality this system of numerical organization is dependent on culture and is not a universal. The Mayans in fourth century AD used a base 20 system (Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World 28); California’s Yuki tribe had base 4 and base 8 numbering systems. Some scholars believe the Mayans counted on their fingers and their toes; the Yuki counted the spaces between the fingers (When Languages Die 173-175). Not to be limited to body digits, ancient Iraq used various systems including base 120 and base 60 (Mathematics Across Cultures 103). Mixing things up even more, the Dozenal Society of America has promoted since World War II the use of a duodecimal system, in other words, learning to count in base 12. Among the benefits: alignment with systems of measurement (12 inches to a foot, 12 donuts in a dozen) and fractional simplicity—1/2, 1/3, and 1/4 of 12 all create nice whole numbers. All of these systems of numbers, from the way we count them up to the way they take on meaning, depend on culture and context, on the rhetorical situation.

I wanted to share the resources I use for the day or two of class focused on statistics because students really enjoy these activities and brain teasers, and I believe it solidifies the rhetorical epistemologies I want them to take away from the class. The examples I incorporated into the group work are popular ones I found on the web.

Homework Reading:

The best reading for teaching statistics in the writing classroom is Joanna Wolfe's "Rhetorical Numbers: A Case for Quantitative Writing in the Composition Classroom" published in CCC (2010). I have condensed this article into a 6.5 page version for students (with pictures) that captures the essence of how numbers are rhetorical with her great examples. Comment if you would like me to send you that abbreviated PDF.

Video to Begin Class:

Pros and Cons of Public Opinion Polls (listed on my Cold Open Videos Post)

Short Lecture:

Individual or Group Work Questions:

While explaining that all statistics are rhetorical and biased, I make sure to note that not all statistics are created equally. Like all rhetorical moves, statistics can be stronger or weaker, and people can employ statistical methods in better or worse ways. In our work, then, we identify some ways that statistics commonly go wrong to help students think critically about numbers.

Comment and I'll send you the answers.

Class Discussion:

At the end of class, we analyze how statistics are rhetorical in "Did You Know?" and "Wealth Inequality in America"


When students incorporate statistics into their final papers, I ask them to create an accompanying footnote which argues for the reliability of the source. They include the education, affiliations, and reputation of the expert to the best they can determine. With a statistic, they include the method of data collection, the sample size, and the margin of error. If no information exists, that's a marker on its own of potential unreliability.

More Resources:

Tim Wise ColorblindThe Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity  (93-96): In this section, Wise compiles analyses of faulty statistics that have been used by racism skeptics. These skeptics claim that the success of Asian Americans in the United States disproves racial inequality. The numbers more accurately suggest that when all other things are equal in education, location, and skills, Asian Americans are paid less than white Americans because of discrimination.

Captain America "Statistics Song"

I'd love to hear how instructors approach statistics and other uses of logos. Please feel free to comment or ask questions below.

Metaphors for the Student

This year, my freshman writing course is organized around the theme of "Reading Metaphors."  In our lesson on the role of the student, I want students to see how metaphors influence public policy. In Texas over the last 5 years, politicians have used metaphors describing the student as a customer to change evaluation procedures for faculty, changes which received national attention. For example, at Texas A&M, student evaluations became more important, and for a while the university awarded money to professors with high ratings (Student Recognition Awards for Teaching Excellence). Now job postings for the A&M system include "The Texas A&M University system requires excellent customer service skills of all applicants."

To discuss the following selections, students answer the questions posted at the end, which ask them to analyze various metaphors, debate the advantages and disadvantages of each, and choose their favorite. Students tend to enjoy discussing these metaphors because they directly affect them, and the lesson gives me a chance to discuss my own views on the role of students. Out of the following metaphors, students tend to have the hardest time getting the dentist one (4), so I have to guide them more deliberately through it.

1. Truma, Mary “Small MBA program in Austin Pioneers‘ Students as Customers'” Approach to Higher Ed” Oct 2011 American Independent.

Founded seven years ago, an intensive MBA program in Austin pioneered the customer satisfaction philosophy that is driving facets of education reform at other Texas public universities today. The Acton School of Business, a nonprofit institution taught by non-academics in the entrepreneurial field, was born from the collective idea of four former University of Texas at Austin professors. Since its inception, the one-year program has rewarded its instructors with financial bonuses based on weekly student evaluation reviews. The questionnaires ask students to rate their professor and course experience on a five-point scale. High professor ratings can lead to a $30,000 bonus, while low ratings nudge professors out at semester’s end. A forced curve system is said to circumvent bias from students based on grades.

“We are very focused on students as customers,” said co-founder Jeff Sandefer, an oil and gas entrepreneur. Ranked by BusinessWeek as one of the top 10 entrepreneurship professors in the country, Sandefer likened the classroom to a free market. “We break the idea that promotes ‘teacher as parent’ and ‘teacher as approver.’ We let classes set their own level which is always further ahead than ours.”

2. Fish, Stanley “Deep in the Heart of Texas June 21, 2010 New York Times.

A number of responses to my column about my high school education rehearsed a story of late-flowering gratitude after an earlier period of frustration and resentment. “I had a college experience like yours,” the poster typically said, “and I hated it and complained all the time about the homework, the demands and the discipline; but now I am so pleased that I stayed the course and acquired skills that have served me well throughout my entire life.”        

Now suppose those who wrote in to me had been asked when they were young if they were satisfied with the instruction they were receiving? Were they getting their money’s worth? Would they recommend the renewal of their teachers’ contracts? I suspect the answers would have been “no,” “no” and “no,” and if their answers had been taken seriously and the curriculum they felt oppressed by had been altered accordingly, they would not have had the rich intellectual lives they now happily report, or acquired some of the skills that have stood them in good stead all these years.

The relationship between present action and the judgment of value is different in other contexts. If a waiter asks me, “Was everything to your taste, sir?”, I am in a position to answer him authoritatively (if I choose to). When I pick up my shirt from the dry cleaner, I immediately know whether the offending spot has been removed. But when, as a student, I exit from a class or even from an entire course, it may be years before I know whether I got my money’s worth, and that goes both ways. A course I absolutely loved may turn out be worthless because the instructor substituted wit and showmanship for an explanation of basic concepts. And a course that left me feeling confused and convinced I had learned very little might turn out to have planted seeds that later grew into mighty trees of understanding. “Deferred judgment” or “judgment in the fullness of time” seems to be appropriate to the evaluation of teaching…

Now an entire state is on the brink of implementing [a “customer satisfaction” style of teaching]. Backed by Texas Governor Rick Perry, the plan calls for college and university teachers to contract with their customers — that is, students — and to be rewarded by as much as $10,000 depending on whether they meet the contract’s terms. The idea is to hold “tenured professors more accountable” (“A&M regents push reforms,” The Eagle, June 13, 2010), and what they will be accountable to are not professional standards but the preferences of their students, who, in advance of being instructed, are presumed to be authorities on how best they should be taught. A corollary proposal is to shift funding to the student-customers by giving them vouchers. One respondent to the June 13 story in The Eagle got it exactly right: “In the recent past, A&M announced that it wanted to be a top ten public university. Now it appears to be announcing it wants to be an investment firm, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, and a car dealership.”

3. Bermudez,  Jose Luis Students are not college customers Sept. 2011 Houston Chronicle
Are students customers? For some, understanding that students are customers is the key to solving ongoing budget problems. For others, even mentioning the words "student" and "customer" in the same sentence is betraying the fundamental principles of higher education. Who is right?

Universities certainly have customers. For us at Texas A&M University, the state of Texas is a customer and we serve it in many ways. We provide a high-quality education to young Texas women and men, enhancing the skills of the work force. Students and faculty work together on research improving the economy and quality of life in Texas. And the university itself is a powerful economic engine for the local community. In some respects our students are obviously part of the customer base. Universities are in the restaurant and hotel business. They are subject to the same constraints and obligations as any other restaurant or hotel. Likewise for athletics facilities and tickets to sporting or artistic events.

Image of a male customer at a store counter. Background sign reads, "The customer is always right." The man and woman behind the counter say, "We've talked it over and we've decided that you must not really be a customer."
But these services are not part of our core mission as a leading research university. Our mission is to create and transmit knowledge. We create knowledge by doing research. And we transmit knowledge by teaching. This is the heart of the issue. Even though we are transmitting knowledge to students, that doesn't make them customers. The real customers are the people on whose behalf we educate our students. This includes the state of Texas; the government agencies, private companies and branches of the armed forces that employ our students; and it includes all those whose lives are enriched by contact with graduates of a great university driven by academic excellence and its own unique spirit.

It is true that students and their families pay for the education that universities provide. But there are things that we pay for without thereby becoming customers. It is better to think of the money students pay for their education as an investment. They are investing both in their own future and in the university to which they have entrusted their education. We can measure the return that students receive on this investment. It takes different forms. One is financial. Texas A&M provides an outstanding "payback ratio" when graduate-earning levels are compared to tuition, fees and living costs. In fact, Texas A&M was recently ranked first in the nation for its payback ratio by Smart Money magazine. There are other, indirect, forms of return on investment. I have met many in Texas and elsewhere who have told me how their lives have been transformed by a single, transformative learning experience — often in an arts or literature course in the College of Liberal Arts.

[The current budgetary climate] will involve discussions with many different groups of stakeholders, customers and investors. But these discussions will only be constructive when we move beyond the idea that students themselves are customers. Universities do have customers. And they educate students on behalf of those customers. But the students themselves are not the customers.

4. Taylor, John S. “Absolutely the Best Dentist” Abbreviated. The School Administrator (2000)

My dentist is great! He sends me reminders so I don't forget checkups. He uses the latest techniques based on research. He never hurts me. And, at 52, I've still got all my teeth. When I ran into him the other day, I was eager to see if he'd heard about the state’s new initiative to help him succeed in his work. I knew he'd think it was great....

"Did you hear about the new state program to measure the effectiveness of dentists with their young patients?" I said. “They will just count the number of cavities each patient has at age 10, 14 and 18 and average that to determine a dentist's rating. Dentists will be rated as Excellent, Good, Average, Below Average and Unsatisfactory. That way parents will know which are the best dentists. It will also encourage the less effective dentists to get better," I said. "Poor dentists who don’t improve could lose their licenses to practice in South Carolina."

"But that's not a fair way to determine who is practicing good dentistry."

"Why not?" I said. "It makes perfect sense to me."

"Well, it's so obvious," he said. "Don't you see that dentists don’t all work with the same clientele? So much depends on things we can’t control.”

"For example," he went on, "I work in a rural area with a high percentage of patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues work in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Many of the parents I work with don’t bring their children to see me until there is some kind of problem and I don't get to do much preventive work.

"Also, many of the parents I serve have allowed their kids to consume way too much candy and soda from an early age, unlike more-educated parents who understand the relationship between sugar and decay.

"To top it all off," he continued, "so many of my clients have well water that is untreated and has no fluoride in it. Do you have any idea how much difference early use of fluoride can make?"

"In a system like this, I will end up being rated average, below average or worse. My more-educated patients who see these ratings may believe this so-called state rating actually is a measure of my ability and proficiency as a dentist. They may leave me, and I’ll be left with only the most needy patients. And my cavity average score will get even worse. On top of that, how will I attract good dental hygienists and other excellent dentists to my practice if it is labeled below average?"

The program still sounded reasonable to me, so I asked, "How else would you measure good dentistry?"

"Come watch me work," he said. "Observe my processes."

"That's too complicated and time consuming," I said. "Cavities are the bottom line, and you can't argue with the bottom line. It's an absolute measure."

"You don't get it," he said. "Doing this would be like grading schools and teachers on an average score on a test of children’s progress without regard to influences outside the school, the home, the community served and stuff like that. Why would they do something so unfair to dentists? No one would ever think of doing that to schools."

5. Pausch, Randy. The Last Lecture (2008)

I don’t fully reject the customer-service model, but I think it’s important to use the right industry metaphor. It’s not retail. I’d compare college tuition to paying for a personal trainer at an athletic club. We professors play the roles of trainers, giving people access to the equipment (books, labs, our expertise) and after that, it’s our job to be demanding. We need to make sure that students are exerting themselves. We need to praise them when they deserve it and to tell them honestly when they have it in them to work harder. Most importantly, we need to let them know how to judge for themselves how they’re coming along. The great thing about working out at a gym is that if you put in effort, you get very obvious results. The same can be true of college. A professor’s job is to teach students how to see their minds growing in the same way they can see their muscles grow when they look in a mirror.

6. Perry, David M. "Faculty Members are Not Cashiers." The Chronicle for Higher Ed 17 March 2014.

For years now, corporate language and thinking has invaded academe....[T]he attempt to shift the world of higher education into the business paradigm seems rational to administrators: Without customers--i.e., students--faculty jobs will be cut, programs shuttered, and staff members 'downsized.'

Meanwhile, students (and their families) are taking on ever-increasing amounts of debt, paying higher tuition, and fearing they will never earn enough to make those costs worthwhile....They've paid their money--or they will over the next 30 years or so--now they want service.

But public discourse has consequences for how we think and act...Students who believe that they are mere customers are selling themselves short, as are the faculty members and administrators who apply business-speak to the classroom. Students are not customers to be served. They are far more important than that...

Perhaps I'm a romantic, but I believe in teaching as a vocation and a craft, not a sale. I believe that it's possible to turn a class into a microcommunity of learners and teachers. Such an approach yields some of the power back to the students and makes us collaborators, all governed by expectations, feedback, evaluations, and conversations.

7. hooks, bell. "Teaching as Prophetic Vocation." Teaching Critical Thinking (2010), page 181.

The more I teach, the more I learn that teaching is a prophetic vocation. It demands of us allegiance to integrity of vision and belief in the face of those who would either seek to silence, censor, or discredit our words. In Jim Wallis's book The Soul of Politics he maintains that the prophetic vocations requires us to be "bold in telling the truth and ready to uphold an alternative vision--one that enables people to imagine new possibilities." The prophetic dimension of teaching is the least recognized in our nation.

Questions for Discussion

1. What metaphors for student and teacher does each author embrace?
2. What metaphors does each author reject?
3. Analyze the implications of these metaphors—think deeply. What are the connotations and associations with each metaphor for the student?
4. What are the benefits of each metaphor? What are the problems? Do you think any of these metaphors are false analogies? Why or why not? Which metaphors seems most appropriate?

More articles on the Topic

Anya Kamenetz, "Student Course Evaluations get an 'F'" NPR Ed 26 Sept. 2014.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, "The Discomfort Zone: Want to teach your students about structural racism? Prepare for a formal reprimand." Slate 3 Dec. 2013.

Michael S. Roth, "How Four Years Can and Should Transform You" New York Times 30 Aug. 2013.