Teacher blog: Developing a discursive
Updated: Aug 1, 2019
The struggle with the discursive mode
The rework of HSC English Module C has been a good one; it gets away from the prepackaged creative about ‘Discovery’ or ‘Journey’ or ‘Belonging’ concepts like a travel adaptor, and got rolled out regardless of the ClipArt stimulus. But Module C’s choice of ‘imaginative, discursive, or persuasive’ modes seems to cause students some angst because it:
a) suggests that discursive and persuasive writing isn’t imaginative and
b) isn’t clear about what ‘discursive’ means.
Teachers in my local area seem to have told students that it means a ‘balanced’ approach – this is in the paper-raincoat realms of helpfulness when the basic problem is that kids rarely discuss anything. It’s a cultural thing: Australia, land of the group-mentality, prizes coherence and agreement. So instead of discussing, kids agree or back out of things.
It’s cheap to say that kids don’t discuss things during ‘family time’ because we’ve replaced family time with devices. While this may be true, it overlooks some deeper features in Australian family life (if you can generalize about that), and that it enables and hinders kids from doing in the English classroom.
Where does it come from?
Often, discussion in English boils down to you telling the kids what something means and hoping someone will disagree. Or throwing open the floor with the usually-unprofitable ‘What do you think about that?’ and trying not to sigh at the grunts and ‘yeah, sounds about right’ from the middle rows.
You can generate a reaction by saying something deliberately controversial (‘Winston Smith deserves to die in 1984’ is usually a good one, as is ‘I think Abigail Williams is awesome in The Crucible’) but this will only get them started. Most faint-hearted souls give up when they can’t develop their original reaction or point.
Here is where we summon the ancients to help.
The progymnasmata and the Topics of Invention
In ancient times, even before I were a yoof, the Progymnasmata was the sequence of exercises through which boys worked as they studied the arts of rhetoric. While there’s not much call for a Cicero in today’s world of SEO-savvy content-churners, several of the exercises and ‘skills’ remain vital for the way we think.
The Topics of Invention refers to types of relationships between ideas – the topoi, or categories, that we can sort ideas into. When an orator was composing a speech, the occasion itself would give him the idea (e.g. Carthage has to be destroyed, or Subject English damages our ability to read), but to develop that idea he could systematically apply topoi to it.
These are some topoi that Aristotle (who never had to go to PD afternoons) recommended:
· Definition – WHAT is this idea and to what family does it belong?
· Comparison – HOW is it similar or different from other things?
· Relationship – WHY is it caused, and what are its effects, or antecedents and consequences?
· Circumstance – WHERE and WHEN is it possible or impossible?
· Experiences – WHO has experienced this before and what have they said about it?
Look at this example from the Sample Advanced paper:
Guard your roving thoughts with a jealous care, for speech is but the dealer of thoughts, and every fool can plainly read in your words what is the hour of your thoughts.
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Use this warning as a stimulus for a piece of persuasive, discursive or imaginative writing that expresses your perspective about a significant concern or idea that you have engaged with in ONE of your prescribed texts from Module A, B or C.
Diligent students will summon up something from the ‘significant concerns’ drawer of their mental filing cabinet. Let’s say they come up with ‘female equality’ by reference to The-Tempest-an’-Hag-Seed, which is popular with Module A. It’s more of a theme than a concern or idea, but that never stopped a would-be Advanced student.
So we have:
1. A warning to keep your thoughts to yourself
2. The notion of female equality
3. The need to discuss your perspective on these things
Sensible students who want to make it to the end of the year will likely resolve a perspective of warm-hearted support for the idea of female equality. But there they are, sitting in the exam believing on the one hand that female equality is a good thing, but having to write more than a slogan about gurrrrl power.
Applying the topoi, they might think through these steps:
1. Which topoi are most relevant? Probably Division, Relationship, and Circumstance.
Division: what is the whole, and what its parts?
The whole idea is about the equality of everyone, and women’s equality is just a part of that equality problem in law, society and culture. We could further sub-divide that into the equality of women with and without children, or women with more or less education.
Relationship: What are the causes and effects of female equality?
The causes might be the recognition of women as humans first, and female humans some way down the track. This would be nice, but it’s more likely to be caused by social need, such as the need for women to take up men’s jobs during World War One. Or because pressure from societies which think differently causes changes, such as the pressure for women’s greater social mobility in Saudi Arabia, caused by social media.
The effects would be legion: more women in work and education, which would result in smaller families and a deceleration in global population growth. Or women having greater presence in male environments, such as contact sports or the building trade.
Circumstance: What makes female equality possible or impossible?
It’s made possible by pressure, by the manifest suffering of others, by the individual’s insistence on their rights, by writing such equality into law. It’s made impossible by ignorance of those things or a decision to reject them.
Already we have the outline of a good discussion of this significant concern. The stimulus hasn’t been integrated, but is easy to do – we simply ask at the beginning and end of the piece ‘What would happen if we were to keep private our belief in women’s equality?’ and thus show that Tennyson, though Poet Laureate, wasn’t right about everything. Or we could invoke the stimulus by reminding readers of what has happened to those who have spoken out about women’s equality and suffered for it.
Either way, the Topics of Invention – which is really no more than a straightforward way of exploring an idea – can profitably be introduced to students who struggle to take their discursive much further than the opening paragraph.