11th Grade ELA : Unit #6 - Thematic Unit: Gender and the Rhetorical Power of Narrative : Lesson #7

Close Reading: Paul Theroux "Being a Man"

Objective: SWBAT recognize how personal experiences can be used as evidence in rhetorical arguments by tracking evidence use in Paul Theroux's essay "Being a Man."
Standards: RI.11-12.1 RI.11-12.2 RI.11-12.3 RI.11-12.4 RI.11-12.5 RI.11-12.6
Subject(s): English / Language Arts
60 minutes
2 Close Reading for Personal Anecdote as Evidence - 70 minutes

Today we will turn our attention for a moment to the male side of the coin (I will focus mostly on women writers during the unit, because the class is two-thirds girls, and because they read and analyze plenty of male-dominated, cannonized literature throughout their high school career) while looking at some other ways personal experience are used as evidence outside of narrative students will read Paul Theroux’s 1985 essay “Being A Man” (pg. 567 of The Language of Composition 2e  textbook). 

While there are moments where he spends a few sentences with one personal experience, he more often alludes to the experiences in more general ways, assuming that the reader understands the allusions (for example:  “At an age when I wanted to meet girls—let’s say the treacherous years of thirteen to sixteen—I was told to take up a sport, get more fresh air, join the Boy Scouts, and I was urged not to read much”).  As you can see in this example with the adjective “treacherous”, he takes on a very strong tone, so we will look at the effect of these kinds of adjectives that carry high appraisal, evaluating how they are used rhetorically, and how effective they are. 

The students’ first task is to read the piece twice—the first time simply to read it and get a sense of the central ideas, and then the second time to ‘track’ the personal experiences as evidence by making a list in their notebooks (by track, I mean to make a list of moments chronologically; ideally I would like to have them do this with a highlighter, but I didn’t have time to make copies!).  My suspicion is that the students will have a rather strong response to this piece in the same way they did with Francine Prose because he has such an acerbic tone (words like “pathetic, pitiful, treacherous, etc., are sprinkled throughout, and he comes across, I think, as rather bitter by the end), so once students have read it twice and tracked personal experiences, we will discuss their general reactions to the piece as a class first, then they will work with a partner to do a pair-share activity in looking at evidence.  I’m choosing to do this so we can get their responses out on the table as a class, and I can re-direct them to the close reading—I think that if I had them work in pairs or groups from the start, they would have a hard time getting to the evidence analysis because of their other responses.  Additionally, when we talk as a group I will ask the students if they think any of his commentary about manhood is in fact true, practicing the skill of recognizing their emotional responses while still being able to analyze the rhetorical devices and strategies objectively.

When students work with their partner, their specific task will be to walk through the piece chronologically and look at the personal experience references, and talk specifically about how they are structurally different than those of Wild, and also how they work rhetorically.  After about fifteen minutes, each group will share one piece of evidence they discussed.  One question I will have of them during this is whether this kind of use of personal experience would work if the writer didn’t take on a particularly strong, derisive tone (the purpose here is to remind them to consider what isn’t in the text as a way of analyzing the effect of what is there, a key new skill of the grade 11-12 CCSS).

Next Steps:  Students will read two pieces from the textbook and write brief reader-response free-writes:  Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “Myth of the Latin Woman,” and Judy Brady’s “I Want a Wife.”  With these two pieces we will continue to explore how personal experiences are used to create arguments.

Simile as Evidence
Adjustments to Practice

As I suspected, the students didn’t care too much for the persona of this writer.  It is really interesting that the students (at least with the two pieces we’ve read with this kind of voice) just don’t care too much for the writers who come on too strong—that almost attack the reader with their negative opinion.  I wonder why that is—maybe because the writer doesn’t really leave a lot of room for the reader to engage or think about the topic; they don’t seem interested in a discussion as much as providing a lecture (and we all know how much students like being lectured to!).   The next time we read a piece like this I will have to ask the students this question to see what I can learn!

Recognizing the use of personal experience as evidence here in a more abstract way was a bit of a challenge at first, though by the fifth paragraph when he talks about his teenage years (the quote used in the narrative of this lesson), the started seeing it.  As we were going through the piece, we talked about the simile he uses when he says “this version of masculinity is a little like having to wear an ill-fitting coat for one’s entire life,” and I realized that he is using simile as evidence, too—something we hadn’t really talked about yet.  We did, though not well, since they were already challenged by his use of personal experience.  However, it is something I will teach more explicitly in the future as another creative way to logically argue a point.