On “The World Without Us”

 When voting for this book, I was excited about the many current issues that it might invite into the classroom.  For example, I thought debates on global warming, technology, nature and disorder, developmental psychology, Darwinism, imperialism, decay, destruction, and reconstruction would be the fruitful result.  It is my goal here to reflect on why these debates did not excite my students; how the structure of the course limited such interaction; and why the rhetoric and style of WWU worked more to distance the freshman writer than excite him or her.  Perhaps it was the assuming nature of Weisman’s rhetoric.  Take, for example, his (what I believe to be) purposeful subjection (or silencing) of any controversial (whether religious, cultural, or scientific) perspectives on evolution or global warming.  In his rhetoric, such dissenting voices are silenced; we see his perspectives on these topics are “facts.”  This phenomenon offers classroom teachers an opportunity for analysis of the rhetorical arguments.  Yet, such a conversation can only occur when students are able to decipher the writer’s language at all.  Perhaps my failure to use WWU as a tool towards needed course knowledge lies in its (at times) indecipherable wording, or wording, rather, that students simply could not understand, let along work with.  For future 102 courses, I will likely use WWU, but as a supplementary text to other articles and explorations of the current issues listed above that are so vital to a discourse-community-driven approach to the paper assignments of the course.

Implementation

What I perceive to be the most successful usage of WWU in my 102 class occurred as a discussion on organization in writing.  I began class by asking students to read a selection from the book where Weisman describes in great detail the Aberdares region on Kenya.  Before class, I created a powerpoint picture slideshow of the many, many native plant and animal species Weisman cites in his description.  No where in the text does he describe these species.  Instead, he names them.  I found this to be an excellent opportunity to guide my students in identifying this as a rhetorical choice by the author.  I asked students to take turns reading the passage aloud as I showed pictures of the species named in the reading on the overhead.  I asked students to consider why Weisman names all of these foreign (well, to us anyways) animal and plant species.

My students guessed that he did so to help us feel more connected to the Aberdares as a place.  This phenomenon led to a discussion of how in the process of naming, we become connected to things (i.e. babies, marriages, the titles of our papers).  They are called ours.  We noticed that Weisman followed his description of the natural setting with a brief history of human conquest in that area.  I asked them, “Why did he organize his chapter in this way?  Why did he choose this particular organizational scheme?”  Students responded that the strategy encourages readers to feel connected to the Aberdares as a place, and then by citing its destruction, evokes pathos regarding human control of the environment.  As a result, the reader better understands human conquest as problematic to nature.

 

On another level, by structuring the class period in this way, I hoped to challenge student to consider the organizational scheme of their own papers.  After analyzing the order of Weisman’s arguments, and how his chosen order affects our mood or tendency to believe his claims, I asked students to sketch or graph the organizational schemes of their own paper 1 drafts.  I borrowed this idea from Patricia Dunn’s book Talking, Sketching, Moving, where she suggests graphs and sketches as methods of reflection on the organization and order a paper’s arguments.  Students responded enthusiastically (so I thought!), drawing not only their current schemes, but also their future plans for improvement (i.e. “this claim will be more likely to persuade my reader if it comes after this other claim”).

I’ve returned to this approach again (just today!) when students brought in their first drafts of paper 2 for a workshop.  To extend the approach, I included Dunn’s idea of not only sketching, but also physically moving their the organization of the draft.  Afterwards, students told me that the activity was limiting because often in writing, writers return to previously-mentioned claims or points.  When this occurred, they were forced to physically return to the place where they originally made that claim.  As a result, they said, the movement made the paper feel disorganized and nonsensical.  I am still considering how this might be resolved.  Perhaps if students had to first draw their schemes and then (immediately after) walk through their schemes?  I think this would allow for more inspiration and confidence regarding structure.  Still, the point seems to be that different methods offer multiple ways of understanding our texts.

About taylo206

I am an Assistant Professor of Composition, Rhetoric and Professional Writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
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